Friday, February 4, 2022

Natural Law and the Meaning Crisis


Taken from Jonathan Pageau’s January Q&A:

Question: Is there much difference in the Platonic forms and the patterns you talk about in your videos?

Pageau: There is definitely a relationship between the two.  I think that the more ancient cosmologies are closer to what I am talking about than the Platonic forms, although I do think that Plato is super-helpful, and that Neo-Platonism is super-helpful to help us integrate all of this together. 

But I am really older world than that.  It’s like hierarchies of acting principalities is what the world is mostly made of.  That is, these forms are not just abstract concepts or abstract ideas.  That the ideas are active, that they are purposive. 

That’s why I think St. Maximus the confessor gets it so much better because he joins the notion of forms with the notion of purpose.  He joins the notion of forms with the notion of Aristotle’s final causes.  That there is an active aspect, there is something that is pushing and pulling, which is bringing things into being through teleology. 

So, I think that that might be the difference.

What does this have to do with natural law and the meaning crisis?  Pageau describes patterns, and these patterns can lift us up or tear us down.  To what do we aim our purposive behavior?  What is the end, the telos, at which we aim?  The answer to this question will aim us higher or aim us lower.

The highest purpose is love – love God, love our neighbor.  The manifestation of this is Jesus Christ.  Jesus is Aristotle’s manifest form of the perfect abstract form described by Plato – God.  It appears, although I am no expert, that this is what Maximus was describing. 

Jesus is the ultimate, the highest, archetype.  The form of the Good made manifest.  This is the pattern, and He offers that at which we would aim.  And from this, one can deduce all of the natural law.

I explain my thoughts further on this here.


Paul VanderKlay is commenting on the Joe Rogan – Jordan Peterson discussion.  After Peterson introduces the foundational value of the Bible to Western Culture, VanderKlay offers:

“And he’s right.  He’s exactly right.  That’s the Bible.  It’s not just the Bible.  It’s the Bible and all of the mechanisms, all of the culture that has brought the Bible out into the world and have facilitated the Bible’s coding of our world.”

To which I commented:

Paul, it’s called natural law.  I don't think I have mentioned this before.... 🙂

Obviously, I have, dozens of times.  PVK is inching closer but still isn’t going there or just hasn’t grasped it.  I have written before (scroll down here) about the struggle that many Protestants and all Orthodox Christians (let alone academic philosophers) have with accepting the idea of the natural law ethic (or, at least, saying the words), although the entire conversation that involves Peterson, VanderKlay, Pageau and Vervaeke is aimed directly at it and is searching for it. 

Abandoning natural law is at the root of the meaning crisis, solutions for which these four and others are grasping.

Continuing with my comment:

That culture is found in and through many that have influenced and shaped the West and have been the sources through which we have been able to understand the natural law ethic that has its foundational requirements found in Scripture.  These influences would include (in addition to Biblical authors) Aristotle (the Apostle Paul understood that the Greeks were in search of God when he spoke at the Areopagus) and Aquinas, among others.


I have traced this out more extensively here.  But to summarize: man is created with a purpose; that purpose is exemplified in the life of Christ – the form of Plato’s Good made manifest as Aristotle (and, apparently, Maximus) would have it.

Pageau and VanderKlay are describing exactly this and this is precisely what they have been in search of.  Protestant nominalism and Orthodox angst about Scholasticism prevents or otherwise disallows these two from embracing the possibility that the answer to the meaning crisis is to be found in Aristotelian-Thomistic natural law. 

It doesn’t help that when either of these two have had conversations with Catholic theologians, clergy, or lay people, the Catholics don’t even bring it up.

Protestants need not accept the Catholic faith to find value in natural law; the Orthodox need not accept every word in the Summa to do the same.  Overcoming these, or whatever, obstacles, would go a long way toward aiming this conversation toward a fruitful end.


  1. "To which I commented:

    Paul, it’s called natural law. I don't think I have mentioned this before.... 🙂"


    Perhaps you should invite PVK to do an in-depth critique of Summa Theologica.

  2. I just witnessed James Lindsay implode on Twitter around people calling for a society and government based on natural law. Calling those advocating for natural law fascists and theocrats.

    Lindsay grew up Catholic but rejected all faith. Now he is a liberal exposing the dangers of Critical Theory. He has done an excellent job explaining what Critical Theory is and the history of how it gained power over our society.

    This highlights the difficulty around discussing natural law and its importance. It is seen as a Catholic doctrine used to repress and oppress society. He wants the US to be classically left liberal. I think I better understand Rothbard's Ethics of Liberty Chapter 1 where he argues that natural law is neither a rejection of God or adherence to religion as it can be gained through reason. I see similar arguments coming from you Bionic, and understand you better too I think.

    However, I can't get on board totally with the Thomistic idea that "right" reason can illuminate natural law, in believer or non-believer. He bases his right reason idea on Romans 2:14 "For when Gentiles who do not have the Law do instinctively the things of the Law, these, not having the Law, are a law to themselves." Paul says Gentiles do this instinctually or according to nature. It refers to innate conscience not reasoning ability.

    Regardless, it does show that all humans have a sense of right and wrong. But conscience isn't can be warped and numbed by violating it and ignoring it. That points me back to thinking there has to be a religious element to natural law.

    At best I think believers and non-believers can discuss natural law and approximate what it is. To be more accurate believers would need to lead non-believers in the exercise and place "right" constraints on reason through biblical principle. But this is exactly what Lindsay is rebelling against. Kicking at the goads if you will.

    But I think there is still value in trying to find what we can agree on. I see this possibility in libertarian ideology. But there still won't be total agreement. There will still be factions and battles over exactly what is natural law. For instance there would still be an argument over abortion and LGBT stuff, and I am not sure who would win the argument. If atheistic liberals win the argument we will be stuck in much the same mess as today.

    1. One of the confusions on this topic of natural law is in the name itself. It is really an ethic, not a law as we today understand the term. It gets confused with natural rights, which only speak to our life (self-defense / protection) and our property (defense from theft, etc.). These are the only places for proper law (as we understand that word today).

      I cannot comment if Aquinas limited the discovery to man's reason alone - I may have even written on this in the past, but I don't recall. I believe one can get much of natural law even without revelation and God, but not all the way. But enough that a society made up of believers and non-believers can function in relative peace.

      As to abortion, LGBT, etc., natural law answers these questions. Male and female are made with a purpose. This ("purpose") also applies to their respective reproductive capacities.

      To say more will be triggering...not for you and many here. But I believe the ramifications of my statement can be easily deduced.

      Having said all of this, many leftists will not accept conclusions based on natural law ethics. But we also see that many who would describe themselves as left-liberal (Peterson, VanderKlay, Vervaeke) likely would. They just don't want to say the words.

      And, yes. As societies evolve and as technology changes, new question will arise that will need to be addressed based on deductions from a natural law ethic. As long as a society generally accepts this ethic, things will get properly sorted out.

      Finally, there is one way that natural law is very much a law - but one not defended by the state. Violate it long enough, and society will crumble, if not disappear. For example, a society based on abortion and LGBT does not have much of a future.

      A natural law ethic will either be respected by society, or that society will consume itself. This is the battle being waged, and this is the discussion being had by those mentioned in my post.

    2. I think in a traditional culture there could enough overlap between believer and nonbeliever to build a natural law consensus. I am not so sure anymore.

      At this point the Marxists would have to reverse their long march through the culture. Maybe after society crumbles. Maybe I am too pessimistic.

    3. No, there is no consensus today. Therefore, society will crumble.

      Thereafter, those willing to live and work together under a natural law ethic, AND will to defend themselves and each other in accord with natural rights will be the ones who form a new society.

  3. There are Orthodox mentions of natural law here and there.

    -Abba Dorotheos calls conscience natural law (quoted in volume 1 of St Ignatius Brianchaninov’s complete works in English).

    -St Maximus the Confessor calls man’s natural will, that given him by God which naturally desires and moves towards God, logos, which one could call a form of natural law:

    The tropos is man’s personal free will that can act contrary to the logos/natural law.

    -Fr Dumitru Staniloae has some very, very interesting passages based on St Gregory of Nyssa’s writings about the Holy Prophet Moses reaching the state of unknowing and then receiving the plans for the Tablernacle, which Fr Dumitru interprets as meaning that there are spiritual forms/structures [that is, a form of natural law] that we become aware of in God as we unite with Him.—Orthodox Spirituality, ‘The Divine Light I & II’, St Tikhon’s, 2003, pgs. 347-358.

    -Additionally there is the book Christ the Eternal Tao by one of Fr Seraphim Rose’s disciples that addresses issues like universal principles and patterns and the interconnection of things by Logos [i.e., natural law]. A talk about it may be heard here (talk 1 and the final q&a are the most relevant to the topic at hand):

    More directly is this talk by Fr Michael Butler:

    St Justin Popovich’s intensely Christo-centric view also hints strongly at natural law – Christ, the Logos/Law behind and within and between everything:

    ‘All the truths of Orthodoxy emerge from one truth and converge on one truth, infinite and eternal. That truth is the God-man Christ. If you experience any truth of Orthodoxy to its limit, you will inevitably discover that its kernel is the God-man Christ. In fact, all the truths of Orthodoxy are nothing other than different aspects of the one Truth--the God-man Christ.

    ‘Orthodoxy is Orthodoxy by reason of the God-man, and not by reason of anything else or anyone else. Hence another name for Orthodoxy is God-manhood. In it nothing exists through man or by man, but everything comes from the God-man and exists through the God-man. This means that man experiences and finds out about the fundamental eternal truth of life and the world only with the help of the God-man, in the God-man. And it means something else: man learns the complete truth about man, about the purpose and meaning of his existence only through the God-man. Outside of Him a man turns into an apparition, into a scarecrow, into nonsense. Instead of a man you find the dregs of a man, the fragments of a man, the scraps of a man. Therefore, true manhood lies only in God-manhood; and no other manhood exists under heaven.

    ‘Why is the God-man the fundamental truth of Orthodoxy? Because He answered all the questions that torture and torment the human spirit: the question of life and death, the question of good and evil, the question of earth and heaven, the question of truth and falsehood, the question of love and hate, the question of justice and injustice. In brief: the question of man and God.

    ‘Why is the God-man the fundamental truth of Orthodoxy? Because He proved in the most obvious way by His own earthly life that He is the incarnate, humanized, and personified eternal Truth, eternal Justice, eternal Love, eternal Joy, eternal Power: Total-Truth, Total-Justice, Total-Love, Total-Joy, Total-Power.’

    The rest is here:

    1. Walt, thank you for the links. I will start with the talk by Butler and see where this leads.

      My comments regarding Orthodox Christians and natural law...I have found a clear disdain for scholasticism, which lumps together Occam and Aquinas, even though the two held quite different metaphysical worldviews.

      Then, dumping Aquinas, due to his codifying much, the baby of natural law is thrown out with the bathwater (I am writing this from the Orthodox view as I have come to understand it).

      Other than Christ, there is no one who has walked this earth in perfection. If we ignore everything written by every individual with whom we have some disagreement on some of his writings, we would end up with nothing but canonized Scripture. Protestants might like this. I know Orthodox and Catholics would not.

      Hence, Aquinas and his development of natural law. This should be understood and preserved - by all Christians who see their task as establishing God's kingdom on earth (paradise) - and not merely someday when I die.

    2. Walt, the Butler talk was excellent. One of the better presentations I have heard on the topic - even more than that offered by many Catholic Dominicans.

      I will write something on it.

  4. Acceptance of the concept of Natural Law presupposes an acceptance of the concept of nature as an intelligible phenomenon. Leo Strauss opined that before philosophy could be practiced, "nature" had to be discovered. Before nature was discovered, tradition, custom, convention were the ways that the world around human beings was explained/described. Better put, for pre-philosophical societies, there is no distinction between convention (things brought about by will) in the human sphere and in the wider, cosmic, sphere.
    Some religions are more open to the notion of nature than others. For instance, in the 1960's, according to one of my colleagues, Orthodox Jews and Catholics had joint protests against abortion. The Jews could not understand why the Catholics opposed abortion on the basis of Natural Law. They argued, if God prohibits something, why bring in nature as a reason for opposing that something? Clearly the Catholics were not invoking Natural Law simply as a way of building a wider anti-abortion coalition. Minimally, it does not work: Orthodox Jews would not be on board, or, for that matter, orthodox Calvinists.
    The medieval Moslem thinker Al Ghazali had a similar perspective. I light a stick from a fire, and then light a piece of paper from the stick's flame. The fire caused the stick to burn, and the stick's flame caused the paper to blaze. No, says Ghazali: the fire, the burning stick, and the blazing paper are all the result of the will of Allah: no natural causality because, for Ghazali, there is no intelligible, subsistent realm called "nature". For Ghazali, then, there can exist a political theology, but no political philosophy.
    Does the contemporary Catholic intellectual community have a place for "nature" or for political philosophy, or has political theology replaced "nature' and Natural Law? I recently reviewed for possible publication a manuscript analyzing Rev.Norris Clarke, S.J. on the human person. Fr. Clarke is an example of modern Thomism, whether it is termed neo=Thomism, or transcendental Thomism, or existential Thomism. These Thomists substantially have substituted Kant's epistemology for Aristotle's ontology in their rethinking of Aquinas. Why they still call themselves Thomists is a mystery to me, being in the same leagues as an imagined self styled Marxist who disavows dialectical materialism and class analysis. Fr. Clarke bases his notion of human personhood (note: not human nature) on revelation (the Trinity) rather than Aristotelian, experienced based philosophical anthropology. Good luck in getting such Thomistic revisionists on board with Natural Law.
    The difficulties of convincing the presently uncommitted bystander, whether secular or religious, of the validity of a Natural Law ethic does challenge the truth of that ethic, no more than difficulty of espousing liberty in a society of mask wearers undermine the value of liberty or hope for the final vindication of the principles of a free society. One reason I favor the classical liberal society is that it
    permits me to raise questions in an open fashion about subjects that do not appear of immediate usefulness (such as the historical position of the Byzantine Orthodox Church on issues of political philosophy). But, as the domain of publicly permissible thinking shrinks, I cannot escape the question of what is to be done politically. Yet both reason (Aristotle) and revelation (the Lord Jesus on Martha and Mary) agree on the superiority of contemplation to action.
    Thanks for raising provocative questions.

    1. Patrick, thank you for this comment.

      Regarding those, whether Christian (of any stripe), Muslim, Jew, etc., who see all only through the lens of God's will, I often wonder: why do they believe that God would create a universe that followed no law, no reason, no pattern?

      For every unexplainable earthquake (e.g. Lisbon 1755), there are a thousand examples a day of a reasoned, ordered, world.

      Yes, God's will is all: Through His will, he created an ordered universe.

    2. Minor quibble: self-styled Marxists who sideline or outright ignore dialectic materialism are by far the more common sort nowadays. Yet they are very much Marxists in the sense that they criticize and destroy the real world without having the faintest clue of how to build something better.

      Also, is it really an indictment of natural law ethics that it's so difficult to convince people to respect it? As far as I know, natural law does allow for the fact that people are capable of breaking or even denying it.

      What I find beautiful and elegant about natural law is that it's essentially common sense and long-term concerns applied to the intersection between reality and the human condition. As long as those latter 2 things remain unchanged, it doesn't really matter if every person on Earth suddenly becomes a Communist faithful - they're simply wrong. Every last one. And material reality will be sure to demonstrate it.

  5. Footnote: Fr. Georges Florovsky had a decided preference for Aristotelian ontology/anthropology over Plato. I wish the literature dealing with Byzantine medieval thought was as extensive as that focused on Western Christian, Arab, and Jewish thinking.

    1. I have a book waiting for me on the 1000 years of Byzantium. I don't know how much light it will shed on this topic, but I consider it my start of understanding this part of Christian history and culture better.

  6. Thankfully, modern Protestant ignorance of natural law does reflect the Reformers. Confessionally-Reformed denominations are a tiny minority in the US, but our scholastics is filled with appreciation of natural law.

  7. Gentlemen, I'm astonished to see that my old lecture on Orthodoxy and Natural Law has found a new hearing and a welcome reception. Thank you, Walt Garlington, for your kind words and for a few more references that I didn't know about...

    Alas, the burden of full-time parish ministry hasn't left me with much time to keep up with the current cultural debates, even those I'm really interested in. But this discussion is fascinating to me, and, once Great Lent begins, I'll make some time to catch up on The Meaning Crisis and see what else The Bionic Mosquito and the rest of you are saying nowadays.

    I'm glad to have been of service. If I can be of further service, I'm happy to do what I can.

    May Paradise consume us.


    1. Fr. Michael, to the extent you have time and interest, your voice would be very welcome here.

      It really has struck me, since the beginning of this discussion of a Meaning Crisis, that the reason it exists is because we live in a society that does not accept that man has a nature. To live contrary to one's nature inherently means a life without meaning.