Why we should study the natural law tradition

In the opening lesson of his course at the Family and Life Academy, Dr Joseph Shaw explored the origins of the natural law tradition — from ancient Athens in the fifth century BC to Roman North Africa in the fourth century AD. In under an hour, Dr Shaw brought together eight centuries of key figures and ideas from diverse schools of thought, starting with Socrates and ending with the great doctor of the Latin Church, St Augustine of Hippo. He also covered Aristotle’s understanding of ergon (“function” or “characteristic behaviour”) in some depth and, without breaking stride, advanced halfway to St Thomas Aquinas’s definitive formulation of natural law in the thirteenth century.

This week, Dr Shaw has begun to build on this foundation in lesson two, with no-less-diverse materials. He explained how the augustinian tradition, Roman legal theory and the rediscovery of Aristotle in the West would impact the thinking of St Thomas Aquinas and shape the whole of the scholastic approach to natural law. He has made a second pass over the key aristotelian principles, this time from the eagle’s-eye view of Christian Revelation, continuing to expand the perspective on the natural world, on human nature in particular, and on the supernatural destiny to which humanity is called. What is more, he has made it look easy — and with four lessons still to go.

The whole purpose of the Academy is to provide authentic Catholic formation for the defence of life and the family today. This requires us to build on rock, and some initial digging is therefore to be expected; how far down depends on the layers of intervening earthly wisdom which lie between us and the bedrock of Catholic tradition. Delving into a topic as monumental as natural law, from a historical perspective, might run the risk of becoming an excavation of antiquated ideas. Dr Shaw, however, with the ease and lucidity more typical of a traditional storyteller than an average academic, gives a dynamic account of the principal characters in development of the tradition, along with their motivations, whilst keeping a firm grasp of the essence of the ideas themselves, their cause and consequence in the history he is elucidating, and their legacy in wider the history of ideas, even to the present day.

Dr Shaw kickstarted the course at the genesis of western thought itself:

“The discipline of philosophy might be said to have been established by the group of thinkers known as the “pre-socratics”, although Socrates was in fact contemporary with some of them. The pre-socratics were interested in the natural world — Aristotle called them the phusikoi (literally “physicists”). Their work encompassed what we would call the philosophy of science and metaphysics, and speculations about the origin and fundamental components of the natural world.

“The tools of debate developed by the pre-socratics were applied to ethics and politics by the sophists. These took their name from sophia, the Greek for “wisdom”. They were, in their own estimation, the practitioners and purveyors of wisdom. They gave display speeches for paying audiences, represented their home cities as diplomats, wrote speeches for clients for use in court cases, and trained young men who wanted to enter politics. Above all, they taught rhetoric, but as Socrates pointed out in some of the debates between him and sophists — recorded or imagined by Plato — the art of persuasion depends on the deployment of some plausible understanding of what is good and bad.”

In Plato’s dialectical dramas, we find Socrates wielding his method against the sophists. If their arguments are not familiar to modern audiences, their attitude is nonetheless reminiscent of worldlings in every epoch: for the sophists, might is right, and the constraints of conventional morality are obstacles to be overcome by those with the avidity and appetite to flout them. By the dialectical procedure which will forever bear his name, Socrates gives his interlocutors a glimpse of an idea of goodness which is in harmony with nature, conforming to the common-sense criteria of the qualities and behaviours that we naturally admire in others, such as kindness, temperance and courage. Conversely, the criteria of wickedness are those vices which naturally arouse indignation and contempt — like meanness, gluttony and cowardliness. Thus the evaluative concepts of “good and bad, noble and base, beautiful and ugly” take shape in what could be considered basic human instinct for natural law.

“The notion of the admirable brings a value-judgment back in to the picture, but it is one which is very hard to argue with. Conventional morality, stopping us breaking promises or stealing from temples, might seem to get in the way of us achieving our life goals, but the life goals worth achieving are the ones we value, the ones which make us admirable, at least in our own eyes.”

From here, Dr Shaw traced Socrates’ influence on Plato’s and Aristotle’s ideas of what makes us characteristically human and what is most desirable to our nature — not merely the indulgence of our animal appetites or the amassing of wealth and power, but “the exercise of human qualities which we think are excellent … a life characterised by noble acts of courage, prudence, temperance, generosity, and the other virtues.”

Then, leaving Plato aside, Dr Shaw focused on Aristotle’s more analytical considerations of the natural world and principles of behaviour, which will form the framework of the natural law approach to the purposes or ends of things.

“Aristotle’s theory, brought nature back into morality, through the idea that … the nature of humans or of animals, plants or inanimate objects gives rise to a particular function or characteristic activity, in Greek, an ergon. Everything in the universe, has a nature; that nature gives it an ergon; and the doing of this activity is, to that thing, its goal or good.”

Pursuing this idea further, Dr Shaw went on to consider the nature of specific things; that is, how flames, chairs, pruning knives and birds each have, in Aristotle’s understanding, their ergon — characteristic activity or function. He then returned to the more mysterious question (to which even the pagan thinkers of antiquity were far from insensitive) of human nature, considering what can be gleaned of our own purpose from a purely natural point of view:

“Happiness would seem to be a good candidate for what the human ergon might be, because everyone seems to claim to be seeking happiness. Happiness seems, therefore, to be the goal of all human actions. Humans differ from other substances, however, in that they are aware of their goals — they can recognise them. They also have much greater opportunities to misunderstand them, and to make mistakes about the best path to them.”

Taking into account our unique faculties of understanding and free will, Aristotle identified our natural desire for happiness with our natural admiration to virtuous behaviour. This, Dr Shaw explained, is the basis of Aristotle’s evaluative (virtue-based) approach to morality, called virtue ethics. The particular advantages and limitations of this approach are covered by Dr Shaw in lesson two, making clear the need for — and intimidatingly tricky task of — a synthesis with a certain deontological (duty or rule-based) approach, drawn from another ancient and venerable tradition.

The stoic school of thought, also originating in ancient Greece, would have an enormous influence on Roman legal theory and go on to be the strongest non-Christian influence on St Augustine of Hippo. The stoic tradition would have an even-further-reaching impact on the moral theology of the Church, thanks in large part to Roman authors such as Cicero, whose work was known to St Gregory the Great at the beginning of the seventh century, representing part of the Church’s Greek heritage which was passed on long after the Greek language itself had been forgotten in the West. Nor would the stoic tradition cease to be relevant after the rediscovery of Aristotle; the “Franciscan” school, championed by Bonaventure, with its basis in a purer augustinianism, thrived concurrently with the thomistic school; and Cicero’s casuistry would later inform the work of St Alphonsus Ligori, who, in the eighteenth century, would become to moral theology what St Thomas Aquinas is to dogmatic theology.

Deftly covering the remaining distance to the aristotelian revival, Dr Shaw introduces us to the most important characters in the natural law tradition.

“Aquinas’ teacher, St Albert the Great, or Albertus Magnus, was at the forefront of the recovery of Aristotle, and Aquinas went on to be a particular champion of Aristotle’s ethical treatises, and his Politics. Aquinas was not only influenced by Aristotle, but became recognised as a major interpreter of him, writing influential commentaries on Aristotle’s major works. Aquinas has the distinction of opposing some peculiar interpretations of Aristotle inspired by Islamic sources, and also recognising that one particular work attributed to Aristotle, the De Causis, was not genuine. 

“Aristotle’s focus on the virtues, on the importance of moral education, and on the general direction of human nature towards the Good, which are so striking to modern readers, did not contrast so much with Aquinas’ other sources, from the Augustinian tradition, though Aristotle’s arguments clarified many issues for Aquinas.”

Next week, in lesson three, Dr Shaw will discuss the second great synthesis in the history of the natural law tradition, which enabled St Thomas to consider moral questions from the point of virtue — both natural and supernatural — as well as in reference to the prescriptions of eternal, ecclesiastical and human law. In achieving this synthesis, St Thomas reconciled evaluative and deontological theories which modern ethicists often consider to be diametrically opposed.

This brings us back to the reason why we should study natural law, and why it has been chosen as the foundation of a programme designed to help the faithful defend themselves against contemporary attacks against life and the family. The Church teaches us that when human reason appears to contradict faith — the supernatural virtue which enables us to hold as certain the truths revealed by God, who can neither deceive nor be deceived — then either the contradiction is only apparent, or else it is the result of an error in human reasoning.

By retracing the sequence of steps — or missteps — in the more recent history of ideas, we eventually regain the solid ground that had to be abandoned by the human element of the Church in order for it to join society’s procession into the quagmire of catastrophic error into which it is still advancing. The return to the solid rock, on which the bride of Christ stands spotless above the mire, is a march that necessarily meets with terrible resistance — exteriorly, from the enemies of the Church and of her children — but also interiorly, from the formation which comes of our proximity to the world, the flesh and the devil. This is why we must see and live, not through the apparent contradiction of the challenges we face, but from the unchanging perspective of Catholic principles, based on natural and divine law. While this may not be sufficient preparation for the trials ahead, it is certainly a necessary one, as we can only see clearly by the light of faith and right reason.

It is not too late to enrol on the course, Natural law by Joseph Shaw. Catch up with lesson one and two on the Family and Life Academy website, and join us live for lesson 3 on Tuesday 25 November at 18:00 (UK time).