Natural Law and the Will of Men

To speak of nature is inevitably to speak of the natural law, perhaps the west’s greatest contribution to political thought. Yet, we only discussed it in passing during the conference. I regret that omission, though of course we only had two and one half days.

In the Preface to Common Truths: New Perspectives on Natural Law, Edward McLean writes,

Each chapter [of this book] is predicated on the desirability of replacing the dominant school of positive law and its majoritarian legitimating principle with a  commitment to natural law doctrines, which alone are capable of providing the informing principles necessary for a vital, free, and virtuous society.

As is so often the case, even in my own writing, this sentence could be clearer if it contained fewer prepositions and nominalizations. But what it says carries the weight of an age, so we must read it closely.

Modern legal theory roots its legitimacy in majority rule, which effects its rule through something called positive law. We should, McLean suggests, replace positive law with natural law. Only then can we have a “vital, free, and virtuous society.” In other words, modern lawyers, judges, politicians, and rulers look to positive law to maintain order and their own authority, but if we are going to be free and virtuous we need to look to natural law.

Natural law can provide the principles we need to build a society that matters, that moves and lives, that is free, and that is virtuous. There is, McLean suggests, no other source for those principles.

Perhaps you have read the first book of Plato’s Republic. If so, you might remember Thrasymachus, the Sophist who wanted to recruit Glaucon and Adeimantus for his school and to corrupt them into sophistry. When he and Plato argued about the meaning of justice, he posited that it was “the interest of the stronger.” His point was that laws were made by people in power and they made the laws so they could hold onto their power or whatever else was in their interest.

This argument continues today. The sophistic argument now calls itself “Legal Positivism.” There is no “natural law,” they insist. There is simply the law that people make. We turn to the majority for law in our society because the majority has the power to make laws.

Socrates and any other lover of mankind and therefore of freedom finds this notion horrifying. If the positive law (i.e. laws that have been posited) is subordinate to no higher law, then it is only a matter of time before the rulers become tyrants and the people are enslaved.

Furthermore, while human consciousness is always inclined toward freedom, recognizing that freedom is the condition of its realization, the human appetites are always inclined toward immediate satisfaction, which is the sure-footed path to slavery.

Liberty, therefore, arises from natural law and nowhere else.

That being the case, I hereby seek to rectify the failure to adequately present the natural law with a list of books and materials that you can read or study to become reacquainted with what it means to be a free person.

  • Common Truths: New Perspectives on Natural Law, edited by Edward B. McLean and including essays by Ralph McInerny, J. Rufus Fears, Alasdair MacIntyre, Russell Hittinger and others. Highly recommended, published by ISI books.
  • Natural Law. Heinrich Rommen. Maybe the best book on the historical development of the idea of natural law. I think Liberty Fund publishes this book. Somewhere close to essential.
  • The First Grace: Rediscovering the Natural Law in a Post-Christian World, by Russell Hittinger. ISI books. Stimulating and insightful.
  • Natural Law and Human Nature, a lecture series by Father Joseph Poterski of Fordham University from The Teaching Company.
  • Sophocles: Antigone. You can’t be an educated person without reflecting on the matter of this play.
  • Cicero: The Laws.
  • A very fine article from Villanova posted on their website  (great first read – nice and brief).

In summary, let me urge you to make a recovery of freedom possible again by reminding yourself what “the law of nature,” upon which our fathers built this country, is by figuring out how to live it yourself and to see it restored in your communities.

Because remember, the only alternative to the law of nature is the will of men.

And they aren’t known for setting people free.

Clarence Thomas, The Economy, and Natural Law

Archimedes once claimed that if you gave him a fulcrum he could move the whole world. He understood leverage.

In the last 160 years, but beginning even before that, the world has been moved. We do not live or think as people did 200 years ago. This is not an unmixed curse. Life 200 years ago was not ideal and there were no “giants in the land” in 1809. Or maybe there were – and maybe there are now too.

But the world has been moved. People no longer believe in truth, only in opinions (that which is “true for you”). People no longer believe in goodness, only utility  (“good for you”). And certainly, people don’t believe in beauty, only in what is pleasing to the senses, or at least stimulating.

Nothing, therefore, is subject to a standard beyond the isolated individual. Whatever else you can say of this age, it is an age of despair, quite literally. The common person and the intellectual both deny the possibility of truth, goodness, and beauty and therefore, since these are the food of the soul, they deny the possibility of spiritual and psychological growth.

This cannot last. Nothing unnatural can last.

Which raises the question: how did we get to such an unnatural state?

The answer is intriquing, if not ironic. We came to such an unnatural state by denying nature. In other words, we deny, formally as a culture, the concept of nature – we deny that things have a nature that should be honored, respected, and treated as it is due.

That is the fulcrum on which the world was moved.

Consider, The United States is founded, formally, on a doctrine. That doctrine is or at least contains “the laws of nature and of nature’s God.” Christians like to spend a lot of time on the word “God” in the declaration, and I suppose that makes sense. But the battle wasn’t lost over the question of God. It was lost over the question of nature.

Our forefathers declared independence because their rulers had violated the laws of nature. There was simply no other justification for the war. The tea tax was not egregious. The amount wasn’t the point.

The point was that it violated the laws of nature.

Now we have, sitting in the chair of the vice president of our United States, a man who mocked a potential Supreme Court Justice during his confirmation hearings. And what did he mock him for? Believing in “natural law.” Clarence Thomas was confirmed, but not without staggering opposition.

We are a country founded on a doctrine we no longer believe in. The world has moved.

If not nature, then what do we ground our national spirit in? For some, a fairy tale past of devout relgious men who developed our constitution because they were so godly. For others, a “way of life” that revolves around consumption of useless goods. (We are dying of consumption). For others, an abstract idea of freedom drawn from whatever impulse dominates at the moment.

When any people forgets the law of nature, written on our hearts by God, discoverable with ease through daily practice and the most modest of observations, that people has pulled out the pins that uphold their souls and communities.

I do not know how deep our current economic crisis will go, but I do believe it is rooted in a rejection of the natural law and that, if this is the day of reckoning, as president Obama has suggested, it may be much deeper and longer and painful than we are willing to admit.

If you want to see the future of the American economy, I might suggest you look at the American school system. With Wall Street, Hollywood, and Washington, DC, our schools are the fortress of the war on nature.

And the Christian schools, while perhaps not aggressive in their opposition, are too often utterly indifferent to this idea. “If it ain’t in the Bible, I don’t believe the sun rises in the morning.” As thought the Bible is at war with the nature of things.

Nature never loses. That’s just the nature of things.

So please, restore this idea to the forefront of your thinking. Think about nature. Think with the idea of nature. Treat things according to their natures. Live according to nature. Follow the natural law. And teach nature to students in a manner consistent with nature. You cannot succeed any other way.