The Ralph McInerny Center for Thomistic Studies will offer a three-year program in philosophical studies that will provide a wide-ranging introduction to classical philosophy. This program will consist of six courses over three years (during the fall and spring semesters), each course consisting of 6 or 7 two-hour sessions, including lectures and time for discussion.

This program is intended for generally educated citizens who wish to develop a deeper grounding in philosophy. No previous formal study in philosophy is required. Our goal is to provide people with sound philosophical “tools” that will help them to evaluate and form judgments about problems and issues facing them and their fellow citizens, drawing especially on the ethics and metaphysics of Thomas Aquinas.

OUR FIRST COURSE will be an introduction to ancient Greek philosophy. We will begin September 27, 2006 (Wednesday) from 7 to 9 p.m., at the McInerny Center office at 616 E Street, NW, Suite 1214. Short recommended readings will be provided online, along with suggestions for further reading. OUR SECOND COURSE will briefly survey the main periods in the history of philosophy, from Medieval to Early Modern until contemporary philosophy. And it will focus particularly on two absolutely uniquely great figures like Augustine and Thomas Aquinas. OUR THIRD COURSE will deal with the basic principles in natural philosophy and logic as the needed background for the study more advanced areas, like metaphysics, in the FOURTH COURSE, and ethics and political theory in the FIFTH COURSE. Finally, in the SIXTH COURSE, we will end the program by addressing the public square and the current issue.

Classes will be taught by Fulvio Di Blasi (University of Palermo), Joshua Hochschild (Mt. St. Mary’s College), Ralph McInerny (University of Notre Dame), Dr. Michael Pakaluk (Clark University), Christopher Wolfe (Marquette University) and other Visiting Professors.

Cost of enrolling: $ 100.00 per course ($ 50.00 for students). Some tuition grants are available. To register, contact

Sunday, November 2, 2008


Prof. C. Wolfe

Moral and Political Philosophy
Class Three: Natural Law

I. Brief Background: Natural Law in the History of Philosophy

-Classical Greek philosophy spoke more about what is “right by nature” or natural right than it did of “the law of nature” or natural law (though Aristotle uses the term in his Rhetoric)
-the Stoics had an idea of an eternal law and lawgiver, and therefore an idea of natural law
-natural law plays a significant role in some of Cicero’s writing; there is disagreement about the extent to which those characters who articulate a natural law position represent Cicero’s own views or not
-St. Augustine uses the term “eternal law” rather than “natural law”; the distinctions between Reason and Revelation, and philosophy and theology, are less sharp in his thought (and there is debate about whether this is good or bad)
-classical natural law teaching, which is what I will be describing, finds its greatest representative in Thomas Aquinas, in the 13th century
-Aquinas’ views were very influential, though controversial, in his own lifetime, and there have been revivals of his thought at various times since then (especially in 16th century Spain and after Leo XIII), but the dominant trends in philosophy quickly went in different directions, with the shift to nominalism in Ockham (14th century), and then the Renaissance and Reformation and Englightenment
-much confusion is engendered by the fact that Enlightenment thinkers like Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau extensively use the term “law of nature” and are often thought of as “natural law” thinkers, though their conception of natural law is profoundly different from Aquinas’
-in the last part of the twentieth century, in addition to the neo-scholastic revival and its emphasis on natural law, in scholars such as Jacques Maritain, Etienne Gilson, Yves Simon, and Ralph McInerny, there was also the birth of a “new natural law” formulated in terms more compatible with analytic philosophy, by scholars such as Germain Grisez, John Finnis, Joseph Boyle, William May, and Robby George; the new natural law claimed strong roots in Aquinas, but claimed to develop his thought in important respects and depart from it in others

II. Aquinas on Natural Law

The Immediate Context of Natural Law: the Kinds of Law

Aquinas gives a basic definition of law in the Treatise on Law in I-II, Q. 90-114 of the Summa Theologiae. This definition (Q. 90) has four elements: law is 1) an ordinance of reason 2) for the common good 3) made by him who has charge of the common good and 4) promulgated.
Thomas describes four kinds of law (Q. 91). The first is the broadest, overarching law, which includes all of God’s providential plan for the entire universe and for all time, is God’s eternal law.
Second is natural law, which is man’s participation in God’s eternal law. In the case of minerals, plants, and animals, God’s providence, imprinted in their being, is achieved by their spontaneous natural activity, without their cooperation. But in the case of human beings God wanted his aims to be achieved with their free cooperation, and so men, in a sense, share in God’s Providence. Men have a share in the Eternal Reason, whereby they have a natural inclination to their proper act and end, and this participation in the eternal law of the rational creature is called natural law.
Third, there is human law, which is the positive, enacted law of human societies. By human law, men try to carry out and apply the natural law in various ways. Aquinas describes human laws as conclusions drawn from the general and indemonstrable precepts of the natural law. (Discussion elsewhere indicates that some human laws directly enforce natural law, e.g. laws against murder, other laws try to achieve goals given by the natural law with ways and means human beings devise, based on knowledge of many varying circumstances of human life, e.g., various economic policies designed to ensure that everyone has access to the resources they need to live a good life, and other laws specify particular guidelines that are necessary to achieve natural law principles, e.g., laws that set maximum highway speed limits and establish rules for right of way, in order to protect human life.)
Finally, besides eternal law, the natural law written in our being, and human laws, God has also directly intervened in human history and given us divine positive law: God’s direct commands. This was necessary for various reasons: because our supernatural end requires supernatural law, because of the uncertainty of human judgment (especially regarding contingent and particular matters), because man is competent to make laws regarding exterior acts, but not those regarding the interior movements hidden from him, and because human law, due to its limitations, can forbid only some evil deeds, and others must be forbidden by divine law. (Some divine laws confirm what reason can, in principle, know; for example, “do not kill,” “do not commit adultery,” and “do not steal.” Other divine commands are known only through revelation; for example, “keep holy the sabbath,” the ceremonial precepts of the Old Testament, and the Beatitudes of the New Testament.)

The Larger Context

One brief note about context: what I have discussed so far focuses on the immediate context, namely, the discussion of the definition and kinds of law. It would be good to remind ourselves too, however, that there is a broader context. In the first part of the Summa, Aquinas discusses God, creation, angels, man, and divine government. In the first part of the second part, he discusses human acts and the passions, and then turns to the “intrinsic principles of human acts” (habits, virtues, vices, sin) and finally “the extrinsic principles of human acts” (law and grace). In the second part of the second part, he discusses the theological virtues (faith, hope, and charity), the moral virtues (prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance), and virtues relating to certain sorts of people (those with special graces, certain vocations, and particular states of life). The third part deals with the mystery of the Incarnation.
My point here is a simple reminder: that natural law is not the totality of Aquinas’s discussion of human action and morality. In fact, while it is essential, it is still only a very limited part of a much larger whole.

The Content of Natural Law

What is the actual content of “natural law”?
First or General or Common Principle or Precept(s): The first principle of speculative reason is based on the notion of “being” and it is the self-evident principle of non-contradiction. Likewise, the first principle of practical reason is based on the notion of “good” and it is the self-evident principle that good is to be done and pursued, and evil is to be avoided. All other precepts of the natural law are based upon this; so that “whatever the practical reason naturally apprehends as man’s good (or evil) belongs to the precepts of the natural law as something to be done or avoided.”
Also at this most general level are “Act according to reason” and “do harm to no man” and perhaps (it is a bit unclear whether this rests only on reason) “Love God and neighbor.” The general precepts also seem to include the principles of the Decalogue, at least as to the essence of justice they contain.
The first principles or common precepts are known to all. With regard to the Decalogue principles, however, while they are known in themselves, men may fail in applying them to particulars (e.g., whether this or that be murder, adultery, or theft).
Moving From Common Precepts to Conclusions: Since the idea of something “good” is that it is desirable – we want it, as an end – “all those things to which man has a natural inclination, are naturally apprehended by reason as being good, and consequently as objects of pursuit. . .” So the order of the precepts of natural law follows the order of our natural inclinations.
[Just a note to avoid one misunderstanding: our “natural inclinations” are not equivalent to impulses “typical human impulses” the specific things that many human beings actually desire – which are often disordered, due to original sin; the natural inclinations to which Aquinas is referring are the goods that fulfill our nature as God created it before the first sin, such as knowledge, marriage and family life, work well-done, friendship.]
There are various inclinations in man’s nature. First, like all substances, we seek the preservation of our own being, according to its nature, so that whatever preserves human life belongs to the natural law. Second, because of the elements of our nature that we share with animals, things “which nature has taught to all animals, such as sexual intercourse, education of offspring and so forth” belong to the natural law. Third, according to man’s own nature, man has “an inclination to the good, according to the nature of his reason” which includes a natural inclination “to know the truth about God and to live in society,” so that the natural law includes things like shunning ignorance, and not offending those among whom one has to live. Note that the general principle that man ought to act according to reason means that all three of these sets of inclinations involve men doing things according to reason, since even those things we have in common with other substances and with animals ought to be done according to reason.
Aquinas says that the first, general principles of natural law are self-evident to all, but the conclusions drawn from these general principles vary in both their rectitude and knowability. As we get more specific about moral principles and consider their application to concrete circumstances, they are more difficult to know and the directives for action are less likely to be universal (that is, they are less likely to be “absolute” or exceptionless). For example, in general, borrowed goods should be returned to their owners, but not if we have borrowed a gun from someone who asks for it back when he is clearly furious and wants to go use it on someone. Nonetheless, there are still some exceptionless moral norms, e.g., do not murder (specifying this as “directly kill innocent human beings”), do not torture people, do not commit adultery, do not steal, do not lie. (Evaluating the latter – what exactly is a theft, for example – may require prudence, however: just as not all killing is murder, not all taking of other’s property is theft).
Because of the diversity of human goods and the ways of achieving goods (not all of which can be pursued at the same time), universal moral commands regarding particular acts are most often formulated in negative terms. That is, we can more often state in universal terms what human beings specifically ought not to do than what they ought to do, though there are some examples of the latter in more general terms, e.g., “worship God,” “honor your parents.” Another reason why positive goods are not commanded is that there is such a great diversity of goods, and different people will pursue the good in different ways.

No comments: