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.


  1. So if God creates the 4 Laws don't God's commands really determine good and evil? Or is Aquinas saying God is not really creative or sovereign but merely an omniscient discoverer of truth?

    If the latter, I can't agree with his ideas. It supposes a an eternal reality outside of the Godhood. No where does the Bible support such a statement. It also contradicts the idea of God creating the world as it is out of nothing. The Natural Laws that govern our universe were created when matter was created, those laws are things we know about the inherent properties of different types of matter and energy.

    Also "logos" is very broad in meaning. It can mean reason and logic, it can mean a spoken word, or it can mean knowledge or a body of knowledge; like zoology is the study of animals. Logos in John can mean a central principle of life or it can be a reference to Jesus being with the Father when creation was spoken into existence. This doesn't mean Jesus is not associated with human reason, but the John's use seems aimed at a different target.

    I like how Aristotle and Aquinas are using logic to explain purpose, I am just not sure how authoritative their logic is. I could simply say the same thing about humans having an ultimate purpose because God created us to have one. He as creator gave us a job to do on the earth. I would arrive at the same place as Aquinas more or less using that path I think.

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    2. RMB, admittedly this idea was a little confusing to me. I could offer significant speculation, but I don't know that this will be helpful to any dialogue.

      Perhaps someone who understands Aquinas better than I do - which is not a high hurdle - might shed some light on this. I do not want to draw meaningful conclusions from my summary of someone else's summary of Aquinas.

      As to the work of Aristotle and Aquinas...I am debating writing something about how this journey I am on has affected my faith - it would be a post completely outside of my ground-rule of staying out of theological conversation here, as I have no other purpose to write it other than to address the impact on my faith.

      Let’s just say that this journey has both strengthened my faith and also strengthened my view that Christians overcomplicate things, resulting in 10,485,394 denominations – all of which, for the most part, are divided based on trivialities. Call it man’s vanity and corruption and envy.

      Which comes back to why I dissuade others from getting into theological debates here…which is why I am very hesitant to write such a post.

    3. Whether God is sovereign or whether He is subject to some underlying code of existence is of no importance to me and my faith.

      Wondering whether God has a God is the type of fractal thinking that will ultimately undermine faith, truth (the kind that matters to us), and liberty.

      Maybe God made the world the way He did not because He was bound by constraints imposed on Him by some Ultimate Authority, but that He was bound by the internal logic of His own creation or rather the need for internal consistency and coherence between all the laws of physics, biology, chemistry, geometry, economics, morality, etc. constraining His creation.

    4. Yes. I agree with your last paragraph/sentence.

      I think it does matter which it is though because it determines what the actual nature of God is and His relationship to nature.

    5. Sorry to belabor the point, but I was thinking about this discussion while driving in the car yesterday and today.

      My conclusion is that to believe that there is underlying reality beyond God contradicts John 1:1-3. If the Logos is reason or the central principle of being, goodness, existence, etc. Then that principle exists within the Godhead in the person of Jesus Christ.

      Believing in some reality or principle outside of God does not sound Biblical.

  2. Mr. M –

    In the past, you’ve said,

    “Which took me through the Renaissance, Reformation and Enlightenment – which brought me to the view that our liberty was lost through these, not found.”

    “For my purposes: The Reformation brought about the split in the Church, making Christianity impotent to stand up to the king and eliminating the primary institution that ensured decentralized governance. These are factual, political statements – wholly separate from the theological dispute or other reasons for the split.”

    Rothbard blamed the Protestants as well.

    My question is in your reading on this subject, have you run across an alternate explanation for the rise of the State or an argument that it would have happened anyway, and/or is unrelated to post-Reformation events and theology? You obviously would disagree with an alternate explanation based on what you’ve stated, but I’m just wondering if there is anything like that out there.

    Here’s the reason I’m asking. 2 Corinthians 3:17 says, “where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty.” (NASB)

    As I think I’ve mentioned before, I reject Catholic theology. (I’m a Protestant, but not a Calvinist, just to be clear.) But my thinking is that post-Reformation, with more people indwelt by The Holy Spirit, there will be more liberty, not less. While the meaning of that verse would primarily mean spiritual liberty (freedom from the law) as opposed to physical liberty, I think (hope) the argument can be made that any culture or society with a large group of real Christians will be more likely to have liberty, prosperity, etc. than a society of pseudo-Christians or non-Christians (Buddhists, Muslims, atheists, whatever.) This doesn’t mean that Protestants are inherently an-caps or anything like that – they need to be educated on politics and economics as much as the next guy. But they certainly don’t have the Borg mentality of Catholics.

    I was thinking maybe someone like Francis Schaeffer had written something along those lines. Have you run across a perspective like that even if you rejected it?

    1. Mister Spock

      You ask a hard question. First, I would like to clarify some things:

      “Rothbard blamed the Protestants as well.”

      I am not sure that my position is one of blaming Protestants. I have offered enough blame to go around. Luther had many legitimate gripes. Had the official Church been more open to Luther’s criticisms (and those of others before Luther), the path would have inherently been different, with a Universal Church still able to play a role in providing a check on the king.

      This is not to say that there would be no theological differences; however, people are more accepting of “the rules” if they feel that their grievances are given fair hearing – people are willing to accept less than perfect if they are treated respectfully in the discussion. It seems Luther really got his dander up after he felt that his grievances were improperly dismissed.

      “But they certainly don’t have the Borg mentality of Catholics.”

      There was a time I thought like this – not only about Catholic tradition, but also Orthodox. Since then I have come to see that there is something very worshipful in these traditions – humbling in a way that is completely non-existent in most Protestant communities. In such services (Catholic / Orthodox), it is difficult to forget the object of the worship and the place of those doing the worshipping. In many Protestant services, it isn’t clear to me who – or what – is the object of worship.

      “…post-Reformation, with more people indwelt by The Holy Spirit…”

      This is so complicated, and also not static, and also…is it even knowable to us?

      “…any culture or society with a large group of real Christians will be more likely to have liberty, prosperity, etc. than a society of pseudo-Christians…”

      I agree with this, but the Reformation opened the door to our coming up with 10,485,394 definitions of “real Christians.” We have millions of “real Christians” worshipping war and the state. And which also comes back to my reply to RMB immediately above. I have really had to rethink the requirements to be considered a real Christian, and the implications of these requirements.

      Now, to your hard question:

      “You obviously would disagree with an alternate explanation based on what you’ve stated, but I’m just wondering if there is anything like that out there.

      I don’t know that I would. I have not come across anything as compelling. I should be clearer: until I came to walk along this path, I was of the view that our liberties have increased – not decreased – since and due to the events of the Renaissance, Reformation, and Enlightenment.

      So, I went from being compelled to believe that Enlightenment brought us freedom to almost the exact opposite. At my age, this seems a big enough pill to swallow. But if there is another pill out there waiting for me, I won’t run away.

      One possibility that I have given some thought to: It seems to me that as technology has shrunk distances and eliminated borders (borders in the broadest sense) – and this would have happened with or without the killing of God in the Enlightenment – there would inherently be more demand for common governance to develop. How this would play out…I don’t know.

    2. "But they certainly don’t have the Borg mentality of Catholics."

      Being more or less a Catholic in spirit, I heartily disagree that Catholics are borg-like. I can think of many more Catholics that are anarcho-capitalist than I can Protestants (though I do know of a few). Catholics opposed the original leftist and virulently statist movement of the French Revolution, and the rise of its 20th Century children: Nazism and Communism. Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn was convinced that it was no accident that both anarchists and Catholics in Europe wore the color black and that Catholic regions produced the majority of anarchists. Was J.R.R. Tolkien's mind borg-like? How about G.K. Chesterton? Christopher Dawson? Lord Acton? Alexis de Tocqueville? Hardly men of the Borg.

      I'm not happy with the direction of the Catholic Church as it exists today, but it is still an institution and a tradition worth defending, even if many of those at the helm right now are progressive, socialist and homosexual infiltrators and apostates. Take a look at what the Catechism has to say about liberty. I think it would be pretty hard to reconcile that with the Borg mindset.

      Now I'm not saying one must be a Catholic to be a defender of liberty and a good Christian... but it helps.

      Actually I think of myself more as simply a member of the Church, which I believe encompasses all the 5 original Patriarchates (Rome, Constantinople, Antioch, Jerusalem, and Alexandria) and their theological descendants. I agree with the Orthodox that there is room for mystery in Christianity, I agree with Catholics that reason and faith are harmonious, and I agree with Protestants that the Catholic Church was and is still too damn corrupt and materialistic.

    3. Mr. Spock,

      "but I’m just wondering if there is [an alternate explanation for the rise of the state] out there"

      Lord Acton (Borg member that he was) provided an alternate explanation in his "History of Freedom in Christianity" address given to the Bridgnorth Institute in 1877.

      "The issue of ancient politics was an absolute state planted on slavery. The political produce of the middle ages was a system of states in which authority was restricted by the representation of powerful classes, by privileged associations, and by the acknowledgment of duties superior to those which are imposed by man."

      "How did the sixteenth century husband the treasure which the Middle Ages had stored up? The most visible sign of the times was the decline of the religious influence that had reigned so long. Sixty years passed after the invention of printing, and 30,000 books had issued from European presses, before anybody undertook to print the Greek Testament. In the days when every state made the unity of faith its first care, it came to be thought that the rights of men, and the duties of neighbours and of rulers towards them varied according to their religion; and society did not acknowledge the same obligations to a Turk or a Jew, a pagan or a heretic, or a devil worshipper, as to an orthodox Christian. As the ascendency of religion grew weaker, this privilege of treating its enemies on exceptional principles was claimed by the state for its own benefit; and the idea that the ends of government justify the means employed, was worked into system by Machiavelli."

      "Strong kings were able to bring the spirituality under subjection in France and Spain, in Sicily and in England. The absolute monarchy of France was built up in the two following centuries by twelve political cardinals. The Kings of Spain obtained the same effect almost at a single stroke, by reviving and appropriating to their own use the tribunal of the Inquisition, which had been growing obsolete, but now served to arm them with terrors which effectually made them despotic. One generation beheld the change all over Europe, from the anarchy of the days of the Roses to the passionate submission, the gratified acquiescence in tyranny that marks the reign of Henry VIII and the kings of his time."

      "The tide was running fast when the Reformation began at Wittenberg"

      "The direct political influence of the Reformation effected less than has been supposed. Most states were strong enough to control it. Some, by intense exertion, shut out the pouring flood. Others, with consummate skill, diverted it to their own uses. The Polish government alone at that time, left it to its course. Scotland was the only kingdom in which the Reformation triumphed over the resistance of the state; and Ireland was the only instance where it failed, in spite of government support. But in almost every other case, both the princes that spread their canvas to the gale, and those that faced it, employed the zeal, the alarm, the passions it aroused as instruments for the increase of power. Nations eagerly invested their rulers with every prerogative needed to preserve their faith, and all the care to keep Church and State asunder, and to prevent the confusion of their powers, which had been the work of ages, was renounced in the intensity of the crisis. Atrocious deeds were done, in which religious passion was often the instrument, but policy was the motive."

    4. If I may be so bold as to summarize, according to Acton, the state was well on its way before the Reformation occurred thanks to Machiavellian ideas like the ends justify the means and a different morality applies to the ruler than does the ruled.

      Read also Hans Hoppe's "From Aristocracy to Monarchy to Democracy" for the sociological progression of the State. Fritz Kern, in his "Kingship and Law in the Middle Ages" saw that it was the combination of the idea of Divine Right of Kings and Christian passive obedience mixed with a revival of the pagan Roman notions of irrevocable popular sovereignty invested in the head of state that contributed most heavily toward the irresponsibility of kings in the later middle ages. Martin van Creveld has a book on this idea that Bionic has reviewed.

      I would say that the rise of the state was primarily due to a concentration of political power thanks to man's natural corruptibility aided by wars, crime, and poverty and to a general turning away of people from Christianity thanks to corruption of the Catholic Church.

      The Reformation may have been an attempt to reverse these trends, but like the French Revolution, it may have unleashed more demons that it arrested.

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    6. Sherlock,

      I can identify with Luther's complaints about the Catholic Church but not much else about him (I'm finding out). I think there is plenty of room for respectful disagreement on the interpretations of the Gospels within a confederated Church (regional cultures and faiths tied together by a common conscience rooted in the love of Christ). I understand the desire to 'iron down' the faith into a strict dogma (as most theologies do), but I don't think that is particularly necessary for everyone (though maybe for some).

      The bible was written and compiled by fallible men (like all other men), so it most likely was not transcribed from the mouth of God or His angels with perfect fidelity. God must have wanted it done this way for a reason (probably to teach us lessons in humility and charity).

      He could have just carved out the scriptures on a giant flat rock in the desert Himself in every language that we'd ever know on this earth in such excruciating detail so as to avoid any chance of misinterpretation. But He didn't do that. He left it up to us to write down His words, knowing that we would eventually distrust each other and fight over who was right about God. I believe God didn't reveal Himself in such a way as to make our lives easy or comfortable, He did it to teach us and to test us - in order that we should grow both personally and collectively.

      There is the question of who was indwelt with the Holy Spirit when they wrote X or did Y, but I think this question is unanswerable, except by faith.

      I agree with your last sentence! All Christians are fundamentally monarchists, but to the libertarian Christian, there is only one true King.

  3. " 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." - BM

    Maybe Bastiat's formulation below is a bit too absolute, but there is much that rings true to me in this statement, and I believe it resonates with yours above too.

    "And as we can form no idea of responsibility apart from liberty; as acts that are not voluntary can afford neither instruction nor available experience; as beings capable of being improved or deteriorated by the exclusive action of external causes without the participation of choice, reflection, or free will (although this happens in the case of unconscious organized matter), could not be called perfectible, in the moral acceptation of the word, we must
    conclude that liberty is the very essence of progress. To impair man’s liberty is not only to hurt and degrade him; it is to change his nature; it is (in the measure and proportion in which such oppression is exercised) to render him incapable of improvement; it is to despoil him of his resemblance to the Creator; it is to dim and deaden in his noble nature that vital spark that glowed there from the beginning." - Frederic Bastiat, Harmonies of Political Economy

    The true end of man must in the very least be liberty. But what else? Eudaimonia? Beatitude? I certainly can't think of anything better to add to liberty than the Christian virtues (which include those of the Philosopher)

    Is there a word that describes liberty and beatitude? Not really but we can employ the Greek word for liberty found in the bible:

    Eleutheria. ελευθερια

    Not that a word will solve the problem of finding liberty, justice, virtue, and faith in this world, but if it is possible that one can contribute towards this end, if only through disambiguation, then this is the one I'd choose.

  4. It is egocentric to believe that humans must have a higher purpose, verses all other live.
    Lives main purpose is to survive and reproduce, period.
    Human are not inherently good. What makes humans "good" is the need to collaborate; because collaboration increases our chance of survival.