Monday, April 29, 2019

It’s Natural

Lewis closes this short book with an Appendix: Illustrations of the Tao.  He offers numerous illustrations of Natural Law to be found in history and in many cultures: ancient Egyptian, Jewish, Chinese, Old Norse, Babylonian, Roman, Hindu, Christian, Anglo-Saxon, Greek, Australian Aborigines.  In some cases, specific authors are noted: Confucius, Locke, Cicero, Plato, and authors of various Epistles from the New Testament.

He formats his review in sections (the summaries are mine):

The Law of General Beneficence: there is the negative (various versions of “Thou shalt not…”) – presenting a list longer than one that would be consistent with punishment under libertarian theory; and the positive (various versions and extensions of the Golden Rule).

The Law of Special Beneficence: drawing out the special relationships of humans with humans – beginning with immediate family, extending to a broader “kin,” and eventually to one’s community and native land.

Duties to Parents, Elders, and Ancestors: demonstrate respect toward father and mother and their traditions, extending even to deceased ancestors.

Duties to Children and Posterity: educate them well, show proper care.

The Law of Justice: three subsets are presented.  Sexual Justice: do not commit adultery; Honesty: do not steal, make shameful gain, do not do mischief unless it is done to you first; Justice in Court, etc.: do not take bribes, bear false witness.

The Law of Good Faith and Veracity: Do not lie; do not make a false oath; keep your promises.

The Law of Mercy: feed the hungry, make intercession for the weak, never strike a woman, do not desert the sick, leave a sheaf from the harvest for the poor.

The Law of Magnanimity: it is injustice to fail to prevent another from injury, show courage and do not leave the battle, death is better than life with shame, put on immortality in your thoughts, the soul should conduct the body, he who loves his life will lose it.

As noted, these are to be found in numerous cultures around the world and throughout history.  God has placed these things in men’s hearts – all men’s hearts.  Yet the fruits – turning Natural Law or the Tao into action – have varied from place to place and time to time.

This brings me back to the development of law, custom, tradition and culture in medieval Europe.  It did develop here, and it did last for centuries.  Why?  Did the Germanic ethic best capture the honor and justice that is called for?  Was this Natural Law best captured in the Christian tradition?  Christians would respond, “yes, obviously!”  As it was the Creator of this Natural Law that was also the foundation for Christianity, what else could be expected?

Further, if these are “Natural Laws,” can a society long survive in significant violation of these?  What might this mean for how to think about the non-aggression principle in such a context?

Finally, what is not drawn out by Lewis – at least in this short book – is the “why?”  Why any of these “Laws” as opposed to others?  What makes this list “Natural”?

For this, it seems to me that the answer is to be found in Aristotle.


  1. First, The Law of Justice: "Do not do mischief unless it is done to you first."

    What is meant by this? Taken at face value, it sounds like retaliation and vengeance, neither of which is compatible with Christianity. "Do not return evil for evil..." and "Vengeance is mine, says the Lord..."

    In Fiddler on the Roof, as the Jews of Anatevka are discussing their notice of eviction, one of them shouts, "An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.", to which Tevye responds, "Soon the whole world will be blind and toothless."

    Doing mischief to someone else in response to mischief done to us does not sound like justice to me. Even if it is done to you first.

    Second, The Law of Magnanimity: "It is injustice to fail to prevent another from injury."

    There are times when it is simply impossible to prevent injury to others. See abortion, for instance. I would say that it is injustice to fail to TRY, in some way, to prevent the injury. Failure itself is not wrong or unjust. We all fail at times, but it is the effort or attempt made to prevent the injury that counts. Refusing to make any effort when you know that injury is being done might well be seen as condoning it, which is as unjust as doing the deed itself.

    1. Regarding the eye for an eye thing...I wrote something recently about this history. It was a vast improvement over the previous practice of 1000 eyes for an eye!

    2. I'm curious now. Can we see it?


    4. Finally got a chance to read the article. Thanks.

  2. Would you please explain your comment about lex talionis (an eye for an eye) being an improvement over the "previous practice of 1000 eyes for an eye!"

    I did read your linked article concerning slavery and found one small paragraph concerning lex talionis in the middle of a discourse on slavery.

    1. I understand that slavery, heinous as it is, MAY have been better than eternal war and the possibility of being eaten by your captors, but what is the connection between this and lex talionis, which is an affair of justice?

    2. What do you refer to when you say that lex talionis was an improvement over 1000 eyes for one eye? I'm assuming it was something similar to the time of the Nazi regime, when the killing of a German soldier would bring about the cold-blooded execution of ten (20?) civilians--young, old, male, female, pregnant, priestly, etc. It didn't matter. The assassination of an officer would result in a higher cost. Can you describe another time in history where something of this nature, only more excessive, occurred? And, was it on a regular scale so that lex talionis actually improved the lot of the common man? Lex talionis being the idea or concept that the punishment should fit the crime.

    Sorry about all this, but I'm really trying to make sense of it all.

    1. The connection to slavery is in the title of the post: we look backwards from our current ethical position and cry about the horrors of slavery - but compared to what happened to defeated armies in years past, slavery was a vast improvement.

      Same with an eye for an eye. According to Casey's book, this was an improvement from the prior "affair of justice" - a thousand eyes for one eye.

      We look through the wrong end of the telescope when judging such things.