The Scholastics

The Natural Law: A Study in Legal and Social History and Philosophy, by Heinrich A. Rommen

Rommen’s book is divided in two sections.  The first covers the history of the idea of natural law, the second covers its philosophy and content.  Here we will continue with the history, looking at natural law during the time of the scholastics.

The Fathers of the early Church made use of the Stoic natural law, finding in its principles “seeds of the word”…

From the earliest, Christians would argue that natural law was inscribed in the hearts of men.  The Apostle Paul would write as much in Romans; St. John Chrysostom (d. 407) would argue that Christians would use not only Scripture, but reason in their arguments – and reason dictates that there are laws implanted by God in nature.

But it was not until St. Augustine that a thorough theoretical treatment of questions of moral and legal philosophy would be developed by a Christian scholar – taking ideas from ancient philosophy and working these into a Christian mentality.

For Augustine the substantial ideas, which Plato had conceived of as dwelling in a heavenly abode, became thoughts of God.  The impersonal world reason of the Stoics became the personal, all-wise and all-powerful God.

Aristotle’s deistic Nous became the Creator-God who transcends the world and sustains it.  God’s reason is order, ruling the order of being, essences and values.  The order is connatural to Him, and is unchanging as He is. The Natural Law: A Stu... Heinrich A. Rommen Best Price: $7.00 Buy New $8.00 (as of 01:18 UTC - Details)

The eternal law dwells as blind necessity in irrational nature.  As oughtness, as norm of free moral activity, it is inscribed in the heart of man, a rational and free being. …Bad acts are not qualified as such by force of law, but because they are such in themselves: because they constitute a disturbance of the natural order.

Rommen attributes not to St. Anselm of Canterbury where scholasticism first began to concern itself seriously with the natural law, but to Alexander of Hales.  Of course, the focal point would soon become St. Thomas Aquinas.  The law was based on reason, not will; free will distinguished man from every other earthly creature; the doctrine of teleology, of ends or final causes, would enter the scene.

Man must (i.e., ought to) thus both will and achieve the perfecting or fulfillment of the potentialities of his being which God has put in his nature, as he perceives them in virtue of his reason and becomes conscious of them.

Furthermore, this natural moral law is alone law in the proper sense: a norm which ought to be obeyed, not one that must be blindly obeyed. …Act in conformity with your rational nature.

Through the free realization of his rational nature, one becomes a man in the fullest sense – a free being.  There is a blending of inclination, ought, and free will that is difficult for me, and perhaps for many children of liberalism and libertarianism to grasp.  But there it is.  We have free will to fulfill our nature…something like this.

To fulfill one’s essential nature is good, and good is to be done.  In other words, that which is also ought to be: our nature “is,” and to fulfill our nature is what we ought to do.

We might then define the object of St. Thomas’ moral science as ‘what conduct ought to be in virtue of what man really is, the right ordering of life to life’s true goal.’ (Rommen citing Gustafson)

It is in the second table of the Decalogue where one is to find the essential norms given the nature of man: norms regarding family and parental authority, human life, the husband and wife, property and honor, the forbidding of covetousness and wrongful appropriation.  Hans Hoppe similarly pointed to the benefit of these when considering liberty a couple of years ago.

As one moves from the Decalogue to specific positive laws for specific applications, one begins to lose certainty.  St. Thomas views the necessities of such laws – still grounded in reason and man’s nature.  On this, Duns Scotus and William of Occam would disagree.

For Duns Scotus morality depends on the will of God.  a thing is good not because it corresponds to the nature of God or, analogically, to the nature of man, but because God so wills it.

Just because God willed something at one time doesn’t mean that he can’t will the opposite the next time.  For Scotus, even the laws of the second table of the Decalogue were not cast in stone, so to speak.  The will is the nobler ability, with the intellect assigned to merely carrying out whatever is willed.

Occam held similar views.  An act is not good because it accords with man’s nature, but only because God wills it.  God could will one thing or the opposite – either would be good.  There are only individual phenomena, not a teleological orientation.

One finds in this thinking the foundation under Machiavelli’s Prince and the Leviathan of Hobbes.  This thinking split scholastic doctrine of natural law at its core.

Those like Occam and Scotus could point to many Biblical passages where God “willed” wanton destruction or what we would see as evil.  Rommen notes that from the earliest, Christian philosophers grappled with these issues.  Rommen does not expand here on these examinations.

Suffice it to say, Occamism wrought havoc in the view of Catholic theology, as well as in metaphysics and ethics.

It was the late scholastics that continued the natural law tradition of St. Thomas:

The outstanding figures in this field were, to mention but a few of the many important scholars, the Spaniards Vittoria (d. 1546), Suarez (1548 – 1617) and Vasquez (d. 1604), and the Italian St. Robert Bellarmine (1542 – 1621).

What did they offer in order to overcome Scotus and Occam?

The natural law is grounded in essence and reason, not in mere absolute will, in God’s absolute power.  God’s omnipotence is subordinated, humanly speaking of course, to the decrees of His wisdom.  Like these, therefore, the essences of things are also unchangeable.

I know that this is and has been a controversial topic, widely debated.  It seems to me reasonable to suggest that God is so wise that He created that which need not be changed.

There were those who would argue that natural law would have force even if there were no God.  Hugo Grotius would famously write:

“What we have been saying would have a degree of validity even if we should concede that which cannot be conceded without the utmost wickedness, that there is no God, or that the affairs of men are of no concern to Him.”

It is thought by A.H. Chroust that this statement by Grotius was made in rebuke of Occam’s and Hobbes’s positivism – that something is valid merely because it is willed.  Grotius was a rationalist, believing it possible to derive strictly by logic a suitable system of rational law sufficient to bind the will.

Grotius was straddling two worlds: behind him, Christendom and the idea of natural law that was built on intellect, not will – first of God, then of man.  Ahead of him, the age of reason and individualism – the Enlightenment, where human will was sufficient for law.  Grotius stood in between, suggesting that God was not necessary for natural law but we can still enjoy its liberties.


Grotius, it seems, was wrong – certainly history has worked out this way.  As Friedrich Nietzsche would write, in Twilight of the Idols (PDF):

When one gives up the Christian faith, one pulls the right to Christian morality out from under one’s feet. This morality is by no means self-evident: this point has to be exhibited again and again, despite the English flatheads. Christianity is a system, a whole view of things thought out together. By breaking one main concept out of it, the faith in God, one breaks the whole: nothing necessary remains in one’s hands.

Reprinted with permission from Bionic Mosquito.