Friday, May 21, 2021

Natural Law Tidbits


This will be a little choppy….

The Incarnation

Romans 2: 14 (Indeed, when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law. 15 They show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts sometimes accusing them and at other times even defending them.)

God has written the (natural) law on men’s hearts, whether they believe in God or not.  C.S. Lewis develops this in the Appendix of The Abolition of Man.  And some version of the Golden Rule is found in every major religion.  Let the non-believers believe whatever they want about why this is so.  We know it is because God made man in His image and breathed into man, giving him a soul.

If this is so, that God has written the law on men’s hearts, why was pre-Christian Rome so ethically degenerate – believing, all-the-while, that their behavior was quite moral? As I have noted before, Rome was a cruel society, albeit the Romans did not believe it to be.  They practiced their ethic, finding their behaviors to be quite moral.

What was some of that Roman morality?  Thousands of slaves crucified at a time; executions in the central amphitheater, cheered on by thousands of onlookers; slavery, necessary and beneficial; women, kept in the quiet rooms of the house; infanticide. 

It wasn’t that these actions were done but frowned upon; these were done openly and considered moral.  Other societies around the world at that time held similar moral views.  So where was this law written by God on men’s hearts?  Why were there no pangs of guilt or remorse at such behavior?

This began to change with Christianity, almost immediately.  While slavery continued, with Constantine the slaves were no longer to be the sex toys of their masters; women held a respected role with the growth of the Church; infants were made in God’s image, just as much as their parents. 

Not to say civilization immediately resolved all of these moral issues – we still work on these today (sadly, going backwards on many).  But the change wasn’t a natural evolution from pre-Christian Greco-Roman morality.

Did it take the Incarnation to change this?  Clearly, God just giving man the Law was not sufficient (the Hebrews couldn’t even get out of the desert due to their failures).  Various ancient cultures had some version of the Ten Commandments and the Golden Rule.  But they all took as moral many behaviors that violated many of these same commandments. 

Was there something necessary about seeing the Law fulfilled in one Man, in the flesh, incarnate?  Correlation is not causation, and sometimes coincidence is nothing more than coincidence.  But sometimes correlation is due to causation, and coincidence is not merely coincidence.

Did it take the Incarnation of Jesus to open up man’s eyes and enable his reason to discover the natural law?  I will have to give this more thought, and welcome any thoughts you have.


The Search for Meaning

The foundation of, and objective for, natural law ethics is to be found in man’s purpose.  Man’s purpose is beatitudo.  Normally translated as happiness, but not the superficial meaning as we know the term today.  Better translated as fulfillment through other-regarding action: love.  Jesus said the same thing, when answering the question about the greatest commandment: love. 

A non-believer wouldn’t put it this way, yet he still is brought to tears when Tony Stark snaps his fingers in Endgame.  Why?  As noted in the passage from Romans, above: God has written it on men’s hearts. 

There has been plenty of discussion in the last few years about what has been labeled the meaning crisis in the West.  I find that resolving this meaning crisis and moving toward liberty are both addressable by the same thing (and only this one thing): how is one to live?  The answer is easy: according to man’s purpose.  A second question: how do I find meaning?  That answer is easy: by living according to man’s purpose.  What is man’s purpose?  Beatitudo: Love. 

A lion in a zoo has plenty of food without the struggle of the hunt, access to free healthcare, and is protected in every physical way.  Is he living a meaningful life?  To ask the question is to answer it.  His life has meaning if he lives according to his purpose – and that purpose isn’t going to be found in a zoo.

This is why the search for meaning must incorporate the importance of a natural law ethic.  It is the ethic that conforms to man’s purpose, and a life lived according to man’s purpose is a life of meaning. 


  1. I apologize in advance for the rambling wall of text...

    As a nonbeliever myself, and one really annoyed at the modern propensity to give every wretch on Earth a victim card, I'll take a shot at answering "how did the Romans think their cruelty to be virtuous?"

    Today in the West, the thinking encouraged towards all sorts of destructive behavior, especially from members of designated victim groups, seems to be to blame something or someone else.

    That obviously doesn't work. I expect the pagan Romans were no dunces, and probably understood (better than us) how important virtue was. And while mercy wasn't totally unknown to them, they saw it as weakness... rationally, because a sinner or an enemy is likely to take advantage of mercy in ways that a virtuous people may regret.

    We know that someone who committed a sin isn't sure to commit it again... but it does mean that he is far more likely to do so than someone who never has. So why take the chance - especially when the sinner is some nobody who can be turned into a useful example for others? Even today, many felons released from jail go on to continue their life of crime, and a lack of forceful response to riots is surely behind their popularity.

    The pater familia's power of life and death over his household... well, it does help with decentralizing power, and avoiding inter-family conflict, when the most basic social unit has the autonomy to mete out punishment to wrongdoers with no one else interfering. Again, we're living in the opposite world - a parent can lose custody over his child if he attempts to use even mild physical force to impose discipline. How well is that working out?

    Women - sexual morality, especially women's, is a powerful force for good or ill. A male-dominated society that seeks to uphold virtue, such as the Romans, has reason to take female chastity very seriously. Add to that the fact that females are physically weaker (a substantial point in a society that emphasizes martial virtue), AND more prone to mercy and kindness (which Romans saw as weakness), and the relegation of women to seclusion "makes sense".

    Infanticide, especially of girls... I'm at a loss on that one. Women are, well, the bottleneck in human reproduction. So if a society wants to grow their numbers - as a virtuous one would? - they want to make sure baby girls grow into adulthood, not that they're killed right out of the womb! My best guess is that the Romans focused on the prestige and income that only males could attain... and since they didn't have an inherent reverence for life, they might also have been afflicted by an issue we have today - raising children is an awful lot of work, and if your goal in life is fame and fortune, and/or ease and comfort, you probably want to cut back on the number of kids. Not very virtuous... except perhaps to a Stoic who regards life as something to be endured rather than celebrated?

    So yes, I suppose it is quite possible to be rationally as cruel as the Romans. The way I see it, elevating love of others - even enemies and sinners and unborn/newborns - to the status of a virtue... does seem to require something more.

    1. cosmic, you have done good work.

      Rationality is built on an underlying ethic; the issue is the underlying ethic. And to the Romans, their behavior was quite rational given the underlying ethic - as your reasoned speculations point out.

  2. I think that part of the answer to your question is that the conscience isn't fool proof. It involves "their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts sometimes accusing them and at other times even defending them", meaning the sinful soul of the man is involved. The conscience can be corrupted through false teaching, harmful culture, and experience. Those things can numb the conscience or even misinform it. The conscience doesn't go against everything that the person thinks consciously. That means it can be mislead.

    But at the core the conscience is exactly what you say, "the requirements of the law are written on their hearts." Just don't scrub it with an eraser and write a bunch of other values on top. The underlying writing never goes away completely but it can be blurred.

  3. The search for meaning. Ecclesiastes pretty much has that answered, and was written perhaps 3000 years ago. Here is a great series on the book and search for meaning:

  4. As to your question, "Did it take the Incarnation of Jesus to open up man’s eyes and enable his reason to discover the natural law? I will have to give this more thought, and welcome any thoughts you have."

    I can't help but think it was this along with the introduction of the Holy Spirit after His ascension that further enlightened man's reason to not only discover, but more fully develop/implement natural law in ways previously not seen.