Monday, June 24, 2019

The Search for Liberty; Chapter Seven: Four Laws

Understanding Thomas Aquinas and Natural Law is not simple task, and even by the time I get through this effort I will have only scratched the surface.  Until now I have utilized two sources – a video overview and an extensive encyclopedia article.  I introduce here a third:

Aquinas’s Natural Law Theory, chapter 4 of the book Ethics for A-Level: For AQA Philosophy and OCR Religious Studies, by Mark Dimmock and Andrew Fisher

I do not intend to integrate into previous chapters what I find of importance in this one; I will, instead, only review concepts that I have not yet examined in any meaningful sense or clarify concepts which I may have previously misunderstood.  As I have a couple of other sources for Thomas and Natural Law after this one, I will continue in this same method.

Is something right because God commands it, or does God command it because it is right?  Thomas addresses this question:

For [Thomas], God’s commands are there to help us to come to see what, as a matter of fact, is right and wrong rather than determine what is right and wrong.

But then if it is not God’s commands that make something right or wrong, what does?  His answer is Natural Law Theory.

Aquinas’s Natural Law Theory contains four different types of law: Eternal Law, Natural Law, Human Law and Divine Law.

Eternal Law means God’s rational purpose and plan for all things.  As it is part of God’s mind, it always existed and will always exist – He did not have to write it or command it; it just is.  For Aquinas, just as with Aristotle, everything has a purpose, goal, or true end – a telos.  To the extents something fulfills the plan for it, it is good.

One can see this easily for an acorn, which has as its end an oak tree; or an eye, which has as its end sight.  It grows more difficult when it comes to humans – and more controversial when it comes to some actions that humans are capable of taking.

What is the good for humans?  For Thomas, the answer is reason, and to the extent humans act according to reason they are partaking in the Natural Law.  We will recall that Jesus is referred to as reason, when in John 1:1 He is referred to as “the Word”; in Greek, logos, which translates to “reason” or “plan.”  Thomas sees reason, it seems, only through God, with Jesus as the physical manifestation of God.  Reason without God as its anchor is meaningless.

After Eternal Law comes Natural Law.  Natural Law does not come to us in a set of written rules; it generates rules that any rational agent can come to recognize.  Thomas identifies four such rules, or precepts, that are primary:

·         Protect and preserve human life.
·         Reproduce and educate one’s offspring.
·         Know and worship God.
·         Live in a society.

These precepts are primary because they are true for all people in all instances and are consistent with Natural Law.

Next is Human Law, which gives rise to Secondary Precepts:

Secondary precepts are not generated by our reason but rather they are imposed by governments, groups, clubs, societies etc.

Such precepts are morally acceptable if they are not inconsistent with the Natural Law.  These secondary precepts – unlike primary precepts – need not be the same for all people everywhere, for example on which side of the street one must drive.

Finally, Divine Law:

The Divine Law, which is discovered through revelation, should be thought of as the Divine equivalent of the Human Law (those discovered through rational reflection and created by people).

An example is given of the Ten Commandments – specifically regarding adultery.  It is wrong because God says it is wrong – He has deemed this so through His rational reflection.  Or through the command to forgive others – again, revealed to us through God’s rational reflection.

On this I am a bit confused, as I can come to these conclusions even through the Primary Precepts: for example, it will be difficult to educate one’s children while dealing with the consequences of adultery; it will be difficult to live in society without the ability to forgive.

In any case…Thomas recognized that life often presented cases that were not so black and white, and for this he introduced the “Doctrine of Double Effect.”

One example: while one is obliged to preserve and protect life, there are circumstances where one is justified to take life – in self-defense.  Any such act that on the surface violates Natural Law must be measured against the following principles:

·         The first principle is that the act must be a good one.
·         The second principle is that the act must come about before the consequences.
·         The third is that the intention must be good.
·         The fourth, it must be for serious reasons.

One can measure the act of self-defense against these principles in order to determine the good of the act.

The authors point to potential flaws in Thomas’s Natural law Theory: if God doesn’t exist, the whole system comes crashing down.  However, the authors offer charity toward Thomas here as they have a more fundamental potential objection for both Thomas and Aristotle:

Namely, [Thomas and Aristotle] think that everything has a goal (telos).

We can easily recognize the goal, end or purpose for an acorn or an eye, but a human?  There are those who suggest not:

There are certainly some philosophers — such as the existentialists, for example Simone de Beauvoir (1908–1986) — who think that there is no such thing as human nature and no such thing as a human function or goal.

It is a difficult concept to understand or accept: all things in the known universe have an end or purpose except for the most complicated thing known – humans.  This most complicated and sophisticated being is also the only being that has no purpose.  What a cruel joke to play on these sophisticated beings – if true, certain to lead to a life of meaninglessness and despair. 

In other words, the answer to the question “why are we here” is “for absolutely no reason whatsoever; you have no reason to exist.”  Difficult for me to buy. 

Which does raise the question: who, or what, installed this purpose in humans?  Which kind of gets back to the objection regarding God’s non-existence.

Friday, June 21, 2019

The Search for Liberty; Chapter Six: Thomas and Natural Law

Thomas offers two descriptions of Natural Law – as summarized by the authors:

What is natural law? One description of it is: the peculiarly human participation in the eternal law, in providence. All creatures are ordered to an end, have natures whose fulfillment is what it is because of those natures.

This is true not only of humans, but of all things.  However, other things are ordered to ends of which they are not conscious.  Only humans are aware of the good and freely direct themselves toward it – more precisely, one is free to direct himself, or not, toward his true end.

We can very much see Aristotle here, as everything has an end or a purpose, inherent in it due to its material and form – its nature, if you will.

A second description of natural law is: the first principles or starting points of practical reasoning.

What is this starting point?  Our first conception is of being: we call “mama” or “dada” or “hot.”  It “is a specification or an instance of that which is, being.”  So too regarding first judgment: “You took my mitt.”  “No, I did not.” While they certainly disagree on this point, they both agree that one did not both take the mitt and not take the mitt at the same time.

It is on an analogy with these starting points of thinking as such that Thomas develops what he means by natural law. In the practical order there is a first concept analogous to being in the theoretical order and it is the good. The good means what is sought as fulfilling of the seeker. The first practical judgment is: the good should be done and pursued and evil avoided. Any other practical judgment is a specification of this one and thus includes it.

So there is being and there is judgment, and these are the starting points of practical reasoning.  These are aimed at the good – the ends to which humans are ordered.  And the manifestation of this good is Jesus.

These will be fashioned with reference to constituents of our complete good—existence, food, drink, sex and family, society, desire to know. We have natural inclinations to such goods. Natural law precepts concerning them refer the objects of natural inclinations to our overall or integral good, which they specify.

Does this suggest that there is only one possible set of means by which to achieve the ends for which humans are aimed?  Not at all. 

…there are innumerable ways in which human beings lead their lives in keeping with the ultimate end. … So the lives of human beings will show a great deal of variation in the ways they pursue the human end in accord with these general principles.

We have liberty in the means, but nature (if you will) gives us the ends. 

The authors offer a comment on Thomas, and following Aristotle, in claiming that man is a social or political animal.  “[H]e does not mean that each of us has a tendency to enter into social contracts or the like.”

The natural in this sense is what is not chosen, but given, and what is given about human life is that we are in the first place born into the community of the family, are dependent on it for years in order to survive, and that we flourish as human beings within various larger social and political communities.

We don’t enter into social contracts; we are born into a social condition and we are dependent on the stability of this social condition for our survival.  I am reminded of something from Murray Rothbard:

Contemporary libertarians often assume, mistakenly, that individuals are bound to each other only by the nexus of market exchange. They forget that everyone is necessarily born into a family, a language, and a culture.

It seems to me that any political theory – certainly one focused on liberty – should take this reality  and necessity into account.

The moral consists in behaving well in these given settings.


The implications for liberty are significant, but it is too early in this study to dive into this – I still have other sources through which I want to understand Aquinas, let alone dive into the implications.

However, what strikes me is the following: say it’s true – Plato’s Form of the Good; this Form found in being as per Aristotle; Jesus is the perfect example made manifest for humans; we aim at good as outlined by Aquinas; from all of this we can derive Natural Law.

So say this is so.  It is all in us – just as these philosophers suggest.  It is natural for us to want to act on such a basis and in such a manner.  It makes one wonder: if this is how we are intended to act, can you imagine the tension in us and in society when we purposely act otherwise – when we set our own ends, in defiance of our nature?

Sure, it might sound like liberty.  But this seems quite superficial, and a superficial definition of liberty.  It is also unsustainable – what being can constantly and continuously go against its natural ends or purposes and survive as the being it was intended to be?

I am reminded here of C.S. Lewis, from The Abolition of Man:

They are not men at all.  Stepping outside the Tao, they have stepped into the void.  Nor are their subjects necessarily unhappy men.  They are not men at all: they are artefacts.  Man’s final conquest has proved to be the abolition of Man.

Many libertarians base their libertarianism on selective natural law; it is not a natural law grounded in Aristotle and Thomas; it is not a natural law that respects the entire man, thus ensuring his abolition.  I don’t believe liberty will be found down this road.


Thomas's teaching came under attack, largely by Franciscans, immediately after his death.

This would begin to change in 1879, when Pope Leo XIII called for the revival of the study of Thomas.  This was not for the purposes of choosing one school over the other; he was looking for a defense against the modern thought that came into being since Descartes.  The response to Leo’s call was global.

This came to an end with Vatican II in the early-to-mid-1960s.  The timing was fortuitous – just at the same time that cultural Marxism and deconstruction into nothingness took root.

Now with the vogue of the notion that modernity has failed and the Enlightenment Project come a cropper, many, Catholics and non-Catholics alike, are turning to Thomas as a spur or foil for their thinking.


Wednesday, June 19, 2019

The Search for Liberty; Chapter Five: Thomistic Metaphysics

[Thomas’s] question is Aristotle's: is there any science beyond natural science and mathematics? If to be and to be material are identical, then the science of being as being will be identical with the science of material being.

We will recall that Aristotle rejects this notion:

…Aristotle’s description does not involve two things— (1) a study and (2) a subject matter (being qua being)—for he did not think that there is any such subject matter as ‘being qua being’. Rather, his description involves three things: (1) a study, (2) a subject matter (being), and (3) a manner in which the subject matter is studied (qua being).

Returning to the encyclopedia:

If the activity of intellect provides a basis for saying that, while the human soul is the substantial form of the body, it can exist apart from the body, that is, survive death, it is an immaterial existent.

The rubber existed before the ball was formed; it will exist after the ball no longer exists.  The human soul – one thing that makes humans distinct from all other animals on earth – existed before the body was formed and will exist after the body no longer exists.

It is in the course of doing natural philosophy that one gains certain knowledge that not everything that is is material.

This is first offered in Aristotle’s Prime Mover – the first, unmoved mover, which had to be inherently immaterial.

What follows is a long discussion regarding Thomas’s proof of God, his well-known Five Ways.  This, of course, makes an interesting study on its own, but is tangential to my purposes in the present. 

In explaining Thomas’s moral doctrine, the authors offer:

Thomas argues that there is one single end for all human beings, and that it is happiness.

Well, this is quite a curve ball.

The activity that sets the human agent apart from all others is rational activity. The human agent acts knowingly-willingly. If this is the human function, the human being who performs it well will be a good person and be happy.

Rational activity sets the human agent apart from all others.  We will recall that rationality is found in the Logos, and we know from John 1 that the Logos is Christ – who was there in the beginning, with God and He was God.  I don’t recall that Christ’s focus was “happiness,” not as we currently understand the word.  There must be more.

…There is one single ultimate human good that provides an ordering of all other human goods as partial in relation to it, namely, happiness or better in the Latin beatitudo.

It is better in the Latin.  Happiness is really a poor translation.  Let’s try to do better:

Beatitudo: supreme happiness, blessedness, a blessed condition, beatitude

Better, but not yet enough.  From the Four Levels of Happiness, level three on the list:

Beatitudo: (Beatitudo = happiness or blessedness). The happiness that comes from seeing the good in others and doing the good for others. It is, in essence, other-regarding action.

It kind of throws a wrench into any modern concept of happiness, or the idea that the modern concept of happiness is the objective that humans are meant to strive for.  As an aside, the modern concept of happiness is captured in level one on the list:

laetus: Happiness in a thing. Thus, "I see the linguini, I eat the linguini, it makes me feel good, I am happy."

We know of the passage in the Bible commonly referred to as the Beatitudes: blessed are the poor in spirit, the meek, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, etc.  Keeping in mind that this is Jesus talking – the earthly manifestation of the Form of the Good that is God – perhaps it is worth considering even a higher level of happiness than Beatitudo as our end or purpose; the fourth of the four levels:

Sublime Beatitudo: (sublime = "to lift up or elevate"). This category, the most difficult to describe, encompasses a reach for fullness and perfection of happiness. The fullness, therefore, of goodness, beauty, truth and love. So we recognize in this category, those things that are, in a sense, beyond what we are capable of doing purely on our own.

Now we have something; as close to the Form of the Good we might be able to comprehend.  It seems to me that this sublime beatitudo captures Plato’s Form of the Good for humans; through the life of Jesus, we have been given the perfect example, one that humans can see, touch, and hear – just as Aristotle required.  It is a category “beyond what we are capable of doing purely on our own,” yet we can approach beatitudo.  In this (and not linguini), we find happiness.

So, when Thomas offers “that there is one single end for all human beings, and that it is happiness,” it seems to me that this is what he is after.  The authors of the encyclopedia do not quite conclude this:

However, that is a formal description of the end, leaving open the material specification of just what that happiness is for a human being.

The specification is to be found in Jesus.  The authors suggest that this specification is only available through revelation – it is not clear to me where this leaves Jesus in their eyes.  Natural theology attempts to find God, hence Jesus, through means that exclude revelation.  A good series of talks on this matter is offered by N.T. Wright.

Which brings us to Thomas’s views on human acts: an act “which proceeds from and is under the control of reason and will.”

Since the human act by definition is the pursuit of a known good, the question arises as to the relationship between the objects of the myriad acts that humans perform. Is there some over-all good sought by human agents? Is there an ultimate end of human action?

Could it be the happiness that linguini offers, or is there something more?

Any action aims at some good. A particular good by definition shares in and is not identical with goodness itself. What binds together all the acts that humans perform is the overarching goodness they seek in this, that, and the other thing. That overarching goodness, what Thomas calls the ratio bonitatis, is the ultimate end.  It follows that anything a human agent does is done for the sake of the ultimate end.

Wait a minute.  Not everything that is done is done for the sake of the ultimate end as I understand it – if Jesus represents the Form of the Good made manifest.  Everyone has their own view on “good.”  Can each of these visions of “good” withstand scrutiny?

For this, Thomas introduces virtues, but his virtues represent a broader field than those offered by Aristotle.  Thomas sees the imperfect virtue we can achieve as humans; he also sees the perfect beatitudo of the next life – which seems to me to be something approaching the sublime beatitude.

The cardinal natural virtues are Prudence, Justice, Courage, and Temperance. … The theological virtues are Faith, Hope, and Love.

But we see all of these in the life of Christ.  Even non-Christians will say of Jesus that he was a wise, good, and moral man.  We need not look elsewhere for the perfect example of “good.”

That Thomas makes a distinction between “infused natural virtues” (theological, and instilled by God’s grace but can be improved by human effort) and “acquired natural virtues” (cardinal, and can be acquired by human effort alone) does not alter the fact that all are visible to us in Jesus.

This brings us to the examination of Thomistic Natural Law by the authors of this encyclopedia.  But I will save this for the next chapter.