Wednesday, February 12, 2020

The Natural Law

From his Gifford Lectures two years ago, N. T. Wright offered:

To be an image-bearer is more than just behavior; otherwise we put the knowledge of good and evil before the knowledge of God.

Why begin a post on Rommen’s book with a quote from N. T. Wright?  Forgive the length of the following, from the Translator’s Preface (Thomas R. Hanley) to Rommen’s book:

An extensive treatment of moral problems from the standpoint of the natural law or rational ethics often leaves the impression that ethics, as a branch of philosophy, is quite sufficient to lead a man to perfection and happiness, individual and social.  From such a viewpoint the supernatural order, with its elevation of man, divine revelation, and divine grace, all too often takes on the appearance of something artificial or unnatural, something unnecessary and superfluous.  Mature reflection, however, will show that such an impression is quite unwarranted.  Neither as a science nor as an art is ethics, or the doctrine of the natural moral law in its concrete applications, able of itself to lead man as he actually is to his individual and social good.

Both Wright and Hanley seem to be offering that the Four Natural Virtues (Prudence or Wisdom, Courage, Temperance, and Justice) are insufficient to lead a man to his telos of happiness – beatitudo.  It also requires the Three Theological Virtues (Faith, Hope and Love).

However, this does not preclude for non-believers the discovery and understanding of the natural law:

Rational ethics, founded on the natural moral law, preserves, therefore, its independence and value like any other branch of philosophy.  In this way it performs the valuable functions of serving as a basis of understanding and agreement between Catholics and all those who fail or refuse, for one reason or another, to recognize consciously their actual and inescapable incorporation into the supernatural order and their call to actual, full, and living membership in the authentic Church of Christ.

Please, no fighting about the dig at non-Catholic Christians….

Now, on to Rommen.  He begins with a history of pre-Scholastic thought – as he describes it, The Legacy of Greece and Rome.  The idea of natural law is as old as philosophy.  Even primitive law held that such laws were unchangeable by human ordinance, and it has the same force always and everywhere within a given cultural environment.

In Western culture, this philosophical concept of natural law first made its appearance through the Greeks.  There was a distinction even then – a distinction that continues to this day:

One is the idea of a revolutionary and individualistic natural law, essentially bound up with the basic doctrine of the state of nature…

This incorporates the idea of the state as a social unit, resting on free contract.

The other is the idea of a natural law grounded in metaphysics that does not exist in a mythical state of nature before the “laws”…

The idea of God is wrapped up in the latter.

C. Jay Engel has recently written extensively on this mythical idea of man coming out of a state of nature.  Human history just isn’t so.  Man is born into a family and a community, with all of the rights and obligations that this entails.  As regarding the broader society, it is from such beginnings that one must work if one is to build a proper narrative of man in relation to his fellow man; it is only within such a framework that any possibility of meaning and fulfillment in life will be found.

Rommen examines the Sophists, noting that it is not easy to judge them fairly.  Their writings have come to us in fragments, and chiefly through Plato’s dialogues.  Rommen offers three ideas that came out of their thinking:

·         Existing laws are artificial constructs that serve class interests
·         There is a natural-law freedom and equality of all mankind – hence a world community that is superior to the city-state
·         Finally, that the state or polis is nonessential; it owes its origin to human decision of free contract.  Prior to this, mankind must have lived in a state where pure natural law was in force.

To summarize, they were critical of positive laws, yet per Rommen they juggled ideas and paradoxes which threatened to dissolve the notions of goodness and morality.

Epicurus, who had no room for metaphysics, would counter, doubting that anything can be objectively and naturally right.   Utility and pleasure were the sole principles of ethics for him.  All justice was to be found in positive laws.  We have seen the same debate ebb and flow ever since.

Socrates would show that there was a knowable objective world of goodness and justice.  Plato and Aristotle would follow, with order – not freedom – as their chief concern.  This explains their pre-occupation with the best form of state government.  Yet to achieve order, an ethical basis for law must be discovered – they held that there was a distinction between what is naturally just and what is legally just.

The metaphysical natural law of Plato as well as the more realistic one of Aristotle formed the high-water mark of moral and natural-law philosophy in Greek civilization.

We know that Plato established the ideas of the forms – the perfect forms; Aristotle embodied these, place the forms in the entity or being.  Plato’s archetype was the pure idea; Aristotle’s was to be found in human artistic activity: for example, the architect or sculptor who brings to life the idea in his mind.

And it is here where we will find that some actions correspond to nature and are naturally good; others are repugnant to nature, and therefore naturally bad.  From this, Aristotle would identify that which is naturally just and naturally unjust.

Neither Aristotle or Plato would have much to say about the content of natural law; the Sophists, more concerned about the individual, would have more to say on this. 

The ideas of natural law would find their way into Roman law, still with little distinction between law and morality.  Concepts like “worship must be paid to God” and “live honourably” were to be found in the law.  This was driven by the view from even Plato and Aristotle that the sole moral fulfillment of man was to lie in citizenship:

The virtuous life is the goal of man.  But he can achieve this goal only as a citizen of the polis and in obedience to its laws.

Despite this, Rommen finds in Roman law the finest legal system yet developed in the West – albeit he recognizes that English common law also carries many features of this same natural law.  Roman law further passed this idea of natural law to the new Christian era and to the scholastic philosophers – a “true philosophia perennis,” basic philosophical truths that are perennial, enduring, abiding, permanent, eternal. 

The Stoics were individualist just like the Sophists, yet not militantly opposed to the polis.  They built upon the work of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle: correct knowledge is the basis of ethics; the unity of knowledge and conduct forms the ideal of the sage.  This ideal would repeat in the Christian ideal of the saint.

The Stoics would pave the way for Christian natural law; they gave a terminology through which this natural law could flow.  Cicero was its greatest popularizer, and it was mainly through his writings that these ideas would come to the medieval world.

Cicero would write (along with other similar notions):

If the principles of Justice were founded on decrees of peoples, the edicts of princes, or the decisions of judges, then Justice would sanction robbery and adultery and forgery of wills, in case these acts were approved by the votes or decrees of the populace.

Regarding the philosophy of Aristotle and Aquinas, Rommen cites from An Introduction to Philosophy, translated by E. I. Watkin:

“It is also the evidential philosophy, based on the double evidence of the data perceived by our senses and our intellectual apprehension of first principles….”

This recalls C. S. Lewis, from The Abolition of Man:

This thing which I have called for convenience the Tao, and which others may call Natural Law or Traditional Morality or the First Principles of Practical Reason or the First Platitudes, is not one among a series of possible systems of value.  It is the sole source of all value judgements.  If it is rejected, all value is rejected.   If any value is retained, it is retained.


Returning to Rommen, he offers a hint of hope for our time when natural law (and, not coincidentally, a life of fulfillment and meaning) seems furthest from the minds of man:

Scholastic philosophy has been the place of sanctuary for the natural law when arid positivism has driven the latter out of secular jurisprudence.  Yet it has always come back into jurisprudence whenever the human mind, weary of the unsatisfying hunt for mere facts, has again turned to metaphysics, queen of the sciences.

This introduction sets the stage for the Scholastics.  This will come next.


  1. “The virtuous life is the goal of man.  But he can achieve this goal only as a citizen of the polis and in obedience to its laws.”

    What if the laws are not ‘virtuous’? What if the laws condone or encourage criminal behavior? How can a man achieve virtue if the laws he is expected to obey are immoral in nature? Obeying the laws of Nazi Germany may have elevated a man’s status in the eyes of Adolf Hitler, but it did not make him good.

    I see at least three competing systems at work.

    1. Social Contract—the belief that only by giving up some (much, all) of our liberty to an absolute authority, chosen from among us, can we expect to live in peace with our neighbors. Only by submitting to and obeying the laws of the society we live in, can we expect to advance in any meaningful fashion. In such a scenario, the State, the 'polis', becomes that absolute authority, demanding fealty without question. Society as a whole is more important than any of its individual members, therefore everyone must conform in order that society might prosper. Society is God. The State, at the pinnacle of society, is the highest god of all. Every conceivable form of collectivism will rally to this banner.

    2. Libertarianism—the belief that collective society is only made up of individuals and, in order to make society free, all its members must be free. The NAP is what really counts in human relations and, as such, is the highest law of the land. Peace comes about because individuals leave each other alone, to live as they see fit. The Individual inevitably becomes the absolute authority, answerable to no one, so long as he adheres to the ‘supreme law’. Whatever he does is right and just, no one else has anything to say about it. Individual Man is God. Pure individualism will not tolerate anything less.

    3. Christianity—the belief that both individual man AND collective society are subject to the highest Absolute Authority. Individual man is sovereign (free will?) over his own life, but always answerable and accountable to the law of love, especially as is shown in his relations with his neighbors, the society he lives in. Men are virtuous, not because they obey the laws of the ‘polis’, but because they adhere to the moral Law which transcends all other laws. A society largely made up of people who voluntarily follow this “philosophy” will find that peace is common. Jesus Christ is God. “Of the increase of His government AND OF PEACE, there shall be no end.” (Isaiah 9:7)

    These beliefs are not mutually exclusive and overlap between them is inevitable. However, the common thread of all is that someone or something is in charge, holding absolute authority, declaring the rules we must live by and punishing (in some way) those who flout the rules.

    No man is an island. All must submit. All are accountable. To whom we will submit is the question which must be answered.

    1. “What if the laws are not ‘virtuous’?”

      I suspect that they would say that the laws must be changed. But until then…Aristotle would see the role of the judge as filling in the gaps – a principle of equity that took into account the circumstances of the specific case; equity meaning coming closer to the underlying natural law.

      But, ultimately, virtue was to be found in being a good citizen, which meant conforming to the laws. Perhaps this is why Plato viewed that the best kings would be philosopher-kings.

      To your three competing systems, I will suggest a fourth – or maybe it is an integration of your three? C.J. Engel has been writing much recently on the historical reality that man is born into a social / religious / economic system into which he must conform if he is to survive. There is no state of nature; there is no social contract (not in the sense of two adults voluntarily agreeing to community).

      How do you see this fitting in to your three examples, or is it a fourth?

      “No man is an island. All must submit. All are accountable. To whom we will submit is the question which must be answered.”

      It is when I came to fully realize this that my path in writing really came to me. We all must conform unless we choose the hermit’s life in the desert or mountaintop (though even the hermit must conform to the system that nature presents to him). Once this reality is grasped, then the only question is: which system of “conformance” offers me the possibility to maximize my liberty? And the answer to this question will always require trade-offs between conforming and liberty.

      I want to maximize liberty, and this will be maximized if I full conform to a system that gives the best possibility for me to maximize my liberty. What is that system? The answer to this question is found in the dialogue we all have been having here. I should say “to be found,” as the search continues…

    2. I should modify: I want to maximize liberty, and this will be maximized if I full conform to a *sustainable* system that gives the best possibility for me to maximize my liberty.

    3. “How do you see this fitting in to your three examples, or is it a fourth?”--Bionic Mosquito

      In response to your question, I don’t know and can’t say right now. I’ve only glanced at C. Jay Engel’s work once or twice and don’t have a good understanding of it. I will take a hard look, though, and get back to you as soon as I can.

      I did spend a few minutes tonight at Bastion Magazine ( and found this from Ben Lewis, commenting on Edmund Burke’s idea of “eternal contract”.

      “In this view, society is not something to be tinkered with or flippantly disregarded, but is something to be accepted as a gift from previous generations, preserved and improved upon, and passed on as a gift to subsequent generations. This duty of stewardship is why Russell Kirk considered the primary task of conservatism to be “[r]eawakening men's minds to the eternal contract of society, which affirms that we do not simply live for ourselves, in the fleeting moment, but instead live to justify the faith and labor of our ancestors, and to transmit life and justice to our posterity."

      This is a description of society that I have never seen before and I will not forget it. A gift from previous generations, preserved and improved on by the present one, and given to those yet to come.
      We do not live for ourselves, but in such a way that our ancestors are honored and our children are blessed. Thinking about it this way changes everything.

      I am very late, very late to this understanding. I hope that I live long enough to see something good come out of it.

    4. Ben Lewis is a very good writer.

      These are the same struggles that I have been working through for quite some time:

    5. Bionic,

      See this in response to your question as to how C. Jay Engel’s viewpoint fits into my examples.

      Perhaps I should have labeled Point #1 as Collectivism, instead of Social Contract. Point #2 could have been Individualism, instead of Libertarianism. Point #3 will stay Christianity. It should be pointed out that many, probably most, Christians swing toward collectivism as a means of addressing society’s problems. It’s a lot easier (and more convenient) to point a single mother with a drug addiction toward government programs than it is to take her into your own home because you have a spare bedroom and the means to take care of her. It’s easy to love a down-and-outer if you are using someone else’s money.

      Engel blends all three of my examples into one which I think holds some promise for the future.

      “...traditionalist conservative: decentralize as much as possible, but recognize that absolutes in political difficulties is a recipe for social disaster.”

      “...the onus of decision making is on local boundaries of social order, on communities, not individuals. Complex social problems belong to the realm, though this realm be local, not the individual. And each locality can solve their own problems uniquely; not all uniformly. This is traditionalist conservatism.”

      Society should not be a gigantic construct of uniformity, a.k.a., collectivism. Neither should it be one of anarchic selfishness, a.k.a., individualism. Rather it should attempt to subdue destructive individual actions within the local community so that the community can thrive to the utmost potential. Conversely, the community must allow the individual the freedom to reach for his own individual potential. This is the way I understand it, but I could be mistaken. Comments are always welcome.

      As far as I am concerned, the wheel has nearly swung full circle. From being born into a traditionalist conservative family (community) and raging against that most of my life in favor of myself, I am slowly realizing that all I have accomplished is nothing of any significant value. Engel’s argument is compelling and I am aware that the model he proposes will probably loom larger and larger in the remaining years of my life.

      How that will play out is unknown. The theory is good, the mechanics will take some work.

    6. "It’s a lot easier (and more convenient) to point a single mother with a drug addiction toward government programs..."

      Yes. It is the lazy way of showing good works.

      It has grown clear to me that we all must conform to the society around us. The best we can hope for is to be born into or find a society in which we have the most freedom to develop our potential - in accord with the proper telos for human beings. I cannot think of a better definition of liberty than this.

      Properly construed, it will be found in something along the lines that you (and Bastion) outline.

    7. Well, we don't have any choice about the society we are born into and for years afterward don't have a lot of leeway in finding a different one. As we gain maturity, knowledge, experience, and wisdom, however, we are increasingly able to move to a society which accords us more freedom to develop our potential.

      This can be, but doesn't have to be, a physical move. It might be a simple change in the people we associate with, leaving behind those who drag us down or try to keep us in check, and moving toward those who will positively influence us. This, as you say, is liberty.

      We have to live in the society around us. We have to cooperate with it. We should seek to change it for the better, even as we seek to change ourselves. We should be on our guard, though, in how we conform to it, because some societies are not worthy of conformance, but ought to be abandoned.

      It has been good discussing this with you. Thank you.

  2. “The only way toward recovery, if it still is possible (and I have my serious doubts), is to start first with oneself, not the social structure at large.” --C. Jay Engel (

    I have begun seriously reading Bastion Magazine ( There are three observations I wish to make right off the bat.

    1. This material is worth the time I will spend reading it.

    2. I do not have enough time to give it the attention it deserves.

    3. If I did spend the time there which I would like to, I would starve to death in short order.

    I am in agreement with Engel as to the first place to start in the attempt to make anything better—myself. The only way I am going to make anything better socially (family, work, church, government, etc.) is to become better myself. This requires, first and foremost, that I recognize and admit that I am flawed, imperfect, sinful and that I cannot change myself for the better without help. The first step to realizing social perfection is to admit that I am spiritually imperfect. This admission no longer galls me.

    Engel admits to reservations about ‘recovery’. “...if it still is possible (and I have my serious doubts),”. My answer to this is that it doesn’t matter whether it is possible or not, we still have to try. All of our work may be destroyed in time and on Earth, but we have to keep our hope focused on eternity and Heaven, Jesus said, “If you can? All things are possible to him who believes.” And we have to exclaim along with the boy’s father, “I believe, help my unbelief.” (Mark 9:22-24)

    It is important to understand that the changes we want to make in society may not (probably will not) happen during our lifetimes. We have to accept that we may never see the “fruits” of our labor within the general society. It is quite likely that we will see some effect locally, and the closer to home, the more we will experience. To know this and to accept it as part of life requires faith and hope in something beyond ourselves, that God is good and that His purpose, in the form of Jesus the Christ, will ultimately prevail.

    I embrace this. It is the only thing which makes complete sense.

    1. Roger

      Regarding having enough time at Bastion, I will suggest that this general trend in their writing occurred just in the last couple of months.

      C. Jay first started a site: Reformed Libertarian, then created Austro-Libertarian. In both cases, while his cultural bent was Christian / conservative, the primary focus of the content was straight libertarian.

      They have only recently put the cultural / historical / sociological focus in the position of higher importance. So you can pick it up now and not miss much history, or go back a couple of months at the most.

      On the statement he made "if it is still possible (and I have my doubts)..." I exchanged with him on this. There is no reason for him to invest so much time and money if he didn't think there was value in the future - as you say, it may be many futures beyond when you and I walk this earth in these bodies....

      But I - and obviously C. Jay - care about what I do in the meantime and what I leave behind. Otherwise beer and television would be sufficient.