I’m reading a book about the Natural Law philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas. In 50 Questions on the Natural Law, Charles E. Rice (Ignatius Press 1999) of Notre Dame Law School answers the most frequent Natural Law questions from his students.
Recognition that all things have an inherent nature goes back to ancient times. From Socrates to Cicero, St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, various Enlightenment philosophers, our Founders, Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, to Clarence Thomas, all recognized a higher law over manmade statutes. Given the natural law interests of this long line of famous men who shaped western civilization, it is baffling to me why there is so little public recognition of natural law.
I used the term ‘recognition’ rather than ‘acceptance’ because it isn’t a matter of belief, any more than one can disbelieve a stone will sink in water. Lest the reader still scoff, recall that leading Nazis were prosecuted not for statutory felonies, but for various war crimes and crimes against humanity. Precedents established at Nuremberg were adapted and were soon found in various international laws.
Examples abound. Rosa Parks violated a municipal ordinance, but upon arresting her, the police violated natural law. Racial segregation laws infringe the natural law equality of all human beings, and are therefore morally void.
Of this higher law, Rice writes: “Morality is governed by a law built into the nature of man and knowable by reason.” Reason informs us what is in accord with our nature and therefore what is good. But every law must have a lawgiver, and natural law cannot make ultimate sense without God as its author. Natural law is a set of manufacturer’s directions written into our nature so that we can discover through reason how we ought to act.
Yet man is also inherently weak and prone to error. In addition to our God-given reason, the law of nature, God provided revelation to enable us to know with certainty how we should act. Rice: “The Ten Commandments are the first charter of human rights. They are a specific promulgation to the wavering human conscience of the natural moral law itself.” Imagine how much better off our society and nation would be if God’s Ten Commandments were on prominent display for all to see on a regular basis.
Our American Revolution rested upon the “Laws of Nature and Nature’s God.” No revolution is legal, yet I’m not aware of a revolution anywhere that wasn’t in response to gross violations of natural law, the law of reason. The statesmen of the Declaration didn’t make their appeal to the earthly lawgiver King George III, but rather submitted themselves to the “Supreme Judge of the World for the rectitude” of their intentions.
St. Thomas Aquinas was certainly among the philosophers who paved the intellectual way for our Declaration and subsequent Constitution.