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Natural Law: Roots of Legal Chaos

July 9, 2010 5 comments

Men are always disagreeing with one another.  While many unthinking pacifists would like to abolish this, disagreement in itself is not necessarily an evil, for through reason, men may come to resolve the discord in a way more satisfactory, with more understanding for all involved parties.  Yet because men are not always reasonable, laws are established, so that there might be adherence to right action even when comprehension is utterly lacking.

Unfortunately, while the need for law is, with rare exception, universally recognized, the basis for and the purpose of law–not to mention the particulars in which it is manifested–are themselves a topic of not infrequent social discord.  Those commonly called progressive view law as a fluctuating, mutable establishment of the will of the people (sometimes but far from always the majority of the people), while those called conservative perceive it as the particular embodiment of the natural law.

The appeal to natural law has been the backbone of conservative social and political defense for centuries; and yet the advocation of perversions permeates Western society more thoroughly every year.  Upright and moral men of the early third millennium simply shake their heads in disappointment and disgust as federal judges rule in favor of homosexual “marriage” while the federal legislature slides stultifying, stupefying egalitarian employment quotas into financial regulation bills.  How has it come to this–not merely that the people can blindly elect an illegitimate government–illegitimate by reason of its unreason–but that any government could be so unreasonable?  How is it that arguments for natural law have not been trumped, or thwarted, or discarded, and yet they are seemingly disregarded nonetheless?

It is easy, and in one sense correct, to say that progressives (to use the term for convenience’s sake) invariably wear blinders and see only what they would like to see; that no matter how often the truth is put before them, they avert their eyes; quite true, in fact.  Yet at the same time, to hold those with whom one disagrees as fully culpable for the disagreement in any situation is a sure way to perpetuate adherence to falsehood; it is to despair of the efficacy of the good and the true, to despair of every man’s innate desire for God.

So it is that the question, “what is the natural law?” begs re-examination.  Progressives are decreasingly dismayed by the use of the term natural law, in part because of its overuse, but more devastatingly because of the lack of significance in its use.  Prayers are used repetitiously, and yet, understood, investigated, inquired into, they become ever more meaningful; each repetition becomes a reinvigoration. That all too often conservative argumentation for the preservation of some objective, universal truth should not bear the same pattern is absurd.

To get at the true root of the problem, it must be traced from its fruits.  Why is the concept of the natural law perceived as decreasingly opprobrious to progressives?  On a superficial level of semantics, a law derived from or based upon nature will, in the eyes of the progressive, atheistic materialist, be one that is derived from the strictly physical components of beings; having a wholly distinct immaterial and objective reality to which it corresponds requires a leap that most are not willing to make and that, from a standpoint of strict reason, they cannot be faulted for not making.  The natural law, according to the principles they accept, therefore perdures and binds only insofar as nature itself perdures and gives grounds for binding–something which, by all appearances, it does not do.  Strictly material being is always, as Heraclitus noted, becoming something else; the material being of every being is perpetually inchoate.

Alternatively, one may interpret the natural law in an entirely contrary manner, one which bears great resemblance to Manichaeism.  This interpretation perceives the natural law as existing outside of nature, or as something almost superadded to it externally by which it is limited and governed; as that which exist incorporeally, be it in the mind of God or something unknown.  It requires therefore not merely a leap from the material to the immaterial, but a conception of the person as always at least somewhat–intellectually–independent of corporeality.  Moral order becomes a merely mental concept, superimposed on physical behavior.

In either interpretation, however efficacious they may have been at one time or another, there is an inconsistency with the lived human life of the 21st century.  In the former sense, the natural law is as fixed as material being itself; meaning that whatever can be moved may be moved, the natural law no less malleable than a blade of grass.  In the incorporeal interpretation, natural law appears as an arbitrary power attempting to enforce conformity in the actions of particular beings.  Consequently, nature itself seems to be in revolt against the natural law, as when animals act homosexually, or people feel perverse urges; in the materialistic-derivative interpretation, nature endorses perversion.  To the eyes of the average progressive, then, natural law is then either based upon a principle which is itself rightly rejected (a principle of purely negative and metaphysically incoherent, Manichean morality) or an endorsement of material manipulation.

These two common ostensibly contrary but equally impotent interpretations have only served the progressive agenda.  The strictly materialist interpretation (that being what it devolves into for someone metaphysically disinclined) of a derivative natural law undermines not only the conception of rights, but all positive laws based thereon.  That which is immoral is only immoral because it is as it is–and if it may be made other than as it is, it might no longer be immoral.  If promiscuity, adultery, homosexuality, gluttony, and sloth are sinful they must seem sinful to the materialist only because of their diversion of the course of physical nature; if science, technology, and human ingenuity can enable their enaction without diverting nature’s physical course, then they must seem no longer immoral.

The semi-Manichean interpretation does even greater harm; for whereas the materialist interpretation defines morality through ability, through that which can be done and that which can be averted, the semi-Manichean defines morality through the will.  If the intellect is treated as a separate, incorporeal faculty of man and yet he does not encounter with it God, or the ideas of God, or anything physically insubstantial but the ideas of his own and the ideas of other men–if material being is merely a disorganized, chaotic mess of accidental composition–then what is morality, what is law, what is nature but the successful exertion of the will to power?

To be continued.

Logos [7-1-2010]

July 1, 2010 Leave a comment

Liberty, nature’s most exalted gift, the endowment of intellectual and rational beings only, confers on man the dignity of abiding “in the hand of his counsel,” of having power over his own actions.  But the manner in which this dignity is exercised is of the greatest moment, inasmuch as on the use made of liberty the highest good and the greatest evil alike depend.  Man, indeed, is free to obey his reason, to seek moral good, and to strive unswervingly after his last end.  Yet he is free also to turn aside to all other things, and, in pursuing the empty semblance of good, to disturb rightful order and to fall headlong into the destruction which he has voluntarily chosen.

The Redeemer of mankind, Jesus Christ, after restoring and exalting the original dignity of nature, vouchsafed special assistance to the will of man.  By the gifts of His grace here, and the promise of heavenly bliss hereafter, He raised it to a nobler state.  In like manner this great gift of nature has ever been, and always will be, deservingly cherished by the Catholic Church; for to her alone has been committed the charge of handing down to all ages the benefits purchased for us by Jesus Christ.  Yet there are many who imagine that the Church is hostile to human liberty.  With a false and absurd notion as to what liberty is, they either pervert the very idea of freedom, or they extend it at their pleasure to many things in respect of which man cannot rightly be regarded as free.

On other occasions, and especially in Our Encyclical Letter Immortale Dei, while treating of the so-called modern liberties, we distinguished between their good and evil elements.  We have shown that whatsoever is good in those liberties is as ancient as truth itself, and that the Church has always most willingly approved and practised that good.  But whatsoever has been added as new is, to tell the plain truth, of a vitiated nature, the fruit of the disorders of the age and of an insatiate longing after novelties.  Seeing, however, that many cling so obstinately to their own opinion in this matter as to imagine these modern liberties, cankered as they are, to be the greatest glory of our age and the very basis of civil life, without which no perfect government can be conceived, We feel it a pressing duty, for the sake of the common good, to treat separately of this subject.

It is with moral liberty, whether in individuals or in communities that We proceed at once to deal.  But, first of all, it will be well to speak briefly of natural liberty: for, though distinct and separate from moral liberty, natural freedom is the fountain-head from which liberty of whatsoever kind flows, by its own force and of its own accord.  The unanimous consent and judgement of men, which is the trusty voice of nature, recognizes this natural liberty in those only who are endowed with intelligence or reason; and by his use of this, man is rightly regarded as responsible for his actions.  For, while other animate creatures follow their senses, seeking good and avoiding evil only by instinct, man has his reason to guide him in each and every act of his life.  Reason sees that whatever things are held to be good upon earth, may exist or may not.  Discerning that none of them are of necessity for us, it leaves the will free to choose what it pleases.  But man can judge of this contingency, as we say, only because he has a soul that is simple, spiritual, and intellectual–a soul, therefore, which is not produced by matter, and does not depend on matter for its existence; but which is created immediately by God.  Far surpassing the condition of things material, it has a life and action of its own, so that, knowing the unchangeable and necessary reasons of what is true and good, it sees that no particular kind of good is necessary to us.  When, therefore, it is established that man’s soul is immortal and endowed with reason and not bound up with things material, the foundation of natural liberty is at once most firmly laid.

[From Libertas Humana promulgated 20 June 1888 by His Holiness Pope Leo XIII]

*As an aside, the final paragraph could be interpreted in a way that seems out of keeping with the Thomistic-Aristotelian tradition.  Consequently, as a caveat, it should be kept in mind that particular material things are unnecessary, but, barring Divine Intervention of an incomprehensible sort, material reality itself is necessary for man–hence man being created as a being that is unified in body and spirit, their division being an unnatural consequence of original sin.