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.



  1. "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?"

    Along these lines, I also suggest that unnatural being and living, at all levels, matters greatly if humanity is to find liberty and keep it.
    How can a man realize and cultivate his innate natural goodness if he lives unnaturally in all sorts of ways regarding his physical health? Does not the state of his mind reflect the state of his body? Can his peaceful and creative higher character be realized and sustained if his body is constantly at war with all manner of toxins, pollutants, artificial anti-nutritious food & drink consumed daily? If he lives with insane amounts of stress, tension and worry? If he's vaccinated, medicated, therapized, poisoned, saturated with EMFs and blasted with hyperstimulating media at every turn?
    Would we expect a Zebra to find and cultivate its higher zebraness, or even just be a normal natural zebra, if we fed it commercial dog food, expected it to live in a large concrete city, subjected it to loud obnoxious noise and assaulted it with jarring visual content throughout the day? Giving it regular vaccinations, daily antidepressants, frequent doses of stimulants, sedatives, and other mind-altering drugs? The chances of that zebra being basically healthy, much less elevating its consciousness? I suspect it’d be deranged, psychotic, suicidal and probably dead within a year or two.
    Man's innate biological adaptations, his structure and function determine his ideal requirements for health and well-being. If he does not live in harmony with his natural health proclivities, his mind, heart and soul cannot function normally. Every animal in nature lives by its instincts, eats what it is meant to eat, exercises and sleeps as it is meant to do so, etc. Human beings, being blessed with capabilities higher than all other animals, nevertheless will only fare well if their natural human instincts for biological health are recognized and fulfilled. Through optimal biological health can we find optimal mental, emotional and spiritual health. It all fits together. Sustained liberty demands it.

  2. I just read a brief article at comparing Mises and B. Sanders view of Natural Rights. It concludes with the author (Bob Wenzel) rejecting natural rights and utilitarianism in favor of a Private Property Society based in subjectivist individualism.

    I commented that a political theory that requires such a base would likely be rejected by any conservative religious person.

    If the Bible is true, then I'm beginning to think that a pure NAP or PPS society/world will be impossible, given the Bible's clear indication that we humans will have disparate philosophies and religion until Armageddon. Muslims will not tolerate Randians that refuse the Caliphate. Christians will not tolerate the Caliphate. Both will regard the other as evil, morally justifying violent responses.

    I poorly worded this, but I hope the message comes across.

    1. Whether the Bible is true or not (all here know my view), such a society is impossible in any case. Once the farmer shoots a child as punishment for stealing an apple, see how "liberty" develops.

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

    The question of the 'means' is the question isn't it, at least among those of us, libertarian or not, who believe in an enduring or unchanging moral order (and thus agree on the natural ends of man). Surely 'by any means necessary' is the quintessential totalitarian creed, and as such it should be rejected, but what is the exact opposite of this? I think it's the NAP.

    In keeping with your theme of liberty residing somewhere in the intersection of Natural Law, the NAP, and Christianity, then perhaps we can say that the Natural Law guides us toward our proper ends; the NAP guides us toward our proper means (or more specifically, helps steer us clear of the improper means) to achieve those ends; and the Christian faith gives each of us (God willing) the personal moral fortitude to stay the course.

    Bastiat had something interesting to say about the means and ends of man, the different paths we may choose to attempt to get there, and the consequences of such choices.

    "Society has for its element man, who is a free agent; and since man is free, he may choose—since he may choose, he may be mistaken—since he may be mistaken, he may suffer. I go further. I say he must be mistaken and suffer—for he begins his journey in ignorance, and for ignorance there are endless and unknown roads, all of which, except one, lead to error. Now, every Error engenders suffering; but either suffering reacts upon the man who errs, and then it brings Responsibility into play—or, if it affects others who are free from error, it sets in motion the marvelous reactionary machinery of Solidarity. The action of these laws, combined with the faculty that has been vouchsafed to us of connecting effects with their causes, must bring us back, by means of this very suffering, into the way of what is good and true." - Frederic Bastiat, To the Youth of France

    But perhaps, and this thought of mine originates from you, we need to add a fourth dimension to this Triune of Liberty. It seems that Natural Law, the NAP, and Christianity, as necessary and true as they all are, are too universal to be the whole story.

    What about the particular? For liberty to be achieved we need the particular answered and spoken for. We need a particular custom or culture. We need the particulars of property defined like the boundaries of initial acquisition. We need the limits of proportionality defined in regards defense against aggression, enforcement of rights, and restitution for crimes committed. We need the particulars regarding the age of transition to adulthood.

    Maybe what I'm looking for is not an exact statement such as 'Texas culture is the only culture of liberty' but rather a place holder for the recognition that custom is required to define the particulars of liberty.

    1. ATL, you have offered some points that are helping to crystallize some thoughts in my head. So consider this my attempt to put some of these thoughts to word.

      There are libertarians who offer the slogan "anything peaceful." This may be sufficient when it comes to considering formal, physical punishment, but "anything peaceful" as the means toward ends that are contrary to - or not consistent with - natural law will ultimately destroy liberty.

      Your fourth dimension does need to be incorporated. It is interesting - what you have raised here is where I began this journey: the whole proper-punishment-for-stealing-an-apple thing.

      The NAP doesn't define words like aggression or punishment or property or anything else really necessary for it to be a functional guide. Custom and tradition - always weighed against...Natural Law, Christian ethics, and the NAP - must offer a generally accepted and acceptable means by which to turn such concepts (defining aggression, etc.) into concrete realities.

    2. Hey I just have to say that I'm loving the book so far. I feel like it's the culmination of a lot of intense study and reflection over the course of many years. I'm finding myself out of my depth on a lot of the philosophical foundations of your search, but I can tell it's the story of a path cut straight toward the truth of liberty without regard to libertarian dogma - or any other dogma for that matter, that draws upon the work not of some obscure authors forgotten by history, but of those generally accepted as the setting stones of Western thought. I think it's a message (if I can guess where you're going with it) that anyone interested in liberty needs to hear. Great job so far! Even if you (and we) don't arrive at the truth, it's an intrepid attempt to reach it anyway, and that in itself is extremely valuable.

      "but "anything peaceful" as the means toward ends that are contrary to - or not consistent with - natural law will ultimately destroy liberty."

      Maybe so, but I still believe in the principle of proportionality. If we cannot defeat social attacks with social means of defense (or counter attack!), then haven't we lost the argument? Haven't we then resorted to the Law of the Jungle, rejecting our heritage from God to reason?

      In today's world, where the attacks on Natural Law and Christianity (and common decency) aren't merely social, but political as well, we should be open to the means violent defense to protect them - but always keeping in mind proportionality and justice in our response (and the possibility of success - no need to get everyone killed on principle).

      I like your last paragraph.

      In analyzing my statements in my initial comment, I would say that Natural Law speaks to the means as well as the ends of liberty (and life!), and Christianity has a lot to do with both the means and the ends as well, so we can't cleanly compartmentalize these concepts like I attempted above. Maybe the NAP is the only one in which we can say that it exclusively deals with the means of achieving our ends, and not the ends themselves.

    3. Thank you very much, ATL. I should be clear: nothing I have come to thus far has caused me to rethink the proper use of force. I cannot imagine ever advocating force as the way to deal with non-violent actions. If this is where I end up, I will probably quit writing before I even write such words, and thereafter take up golf.

      I very much liked the work of Edward Feser on this broad topic...until he came to the point of advocating for laws (and therefore punishment) when considering non-violent violations of natural law.

      This is why I remain focused on the value of the NAP on the issue of when violations of natural law are deserving of physical punishment.