Why Should Christians Read the Pagan Classics? – Reason 5: Natural Law

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REASON #5: Natural Law

What did the first Continental Congress mean when it appealed to “the immutable laws of nature,” or Thomas Jefferson when he referred to the “Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God and the unalienable rights of man”? Natural law. The principle of natural law is embedded in Western civilization, the Declaration of Independence, and our whole history as a nation.

The concept of natural law was first articulated by Aristotle in Rhetoric, where Aristotle notes that, aside from the “particular” laws that each people has set up for itself, there is a “common” law that is according to nature, and is thus universal and binding on all men. Natural law is contrasted with the positive law, which is man-made law of a given political community. Natural law thus serves as a standard by which to critique positive law. Aristotle gives the example of Antigone in Sophocles’ play who defied King Creon when he forbade her to bury her brother Polyneices because he was a traitor. She appealed instead to a higher law that required her to bury her brother. This higher law, she says, “does not belong to today or tomorrow. It lives eternally: No one knows how it arose.”

Cicero is the great exponent of natural law as he explains the practical problem of how Rome can rule so many nations with so many different customs and laws. The Romans allow each nation to enact their own positive laws that are a reflection of their own customs, while Rome would rule in accordance with the natural law that was universal for all peoples. Here is his eloquent statement of natural law in On the Republic:

There will not be one law at Rome, another at Athens, one now, another later, but one law both everlasting and unchangeable will encompass all nations and for all time. And one god will be in common as though he were a teacher and general of all people. He will be the author, umpire, and provider of this law.

To the Christians, the world was created through the Logos, a Greek word that refers to the rational order behind the universe. To Christian thinkers, the natural law was the moral aspect of this rational order. Paul appeals to this “law above the law” articulated by Cicero in the Epistle to the Romans: “For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do the things contained in the law, these, although not having the law, are a law unto themselves, their conscience also bearing witness.”

In the 4th century, Church father Athanasius calls it the “impress of Wisdom [that] has been created in us and in all his works.” In the 13th century, Thomas Aquinas, perhaps the most famous of the Christian advocates of the natural law, saw it as the “participation in the eternal law.” The eternal law governs other aspects of the universe too. But man is the only creature who freely wills to follow it.

And in our own times, C. S. Lewis, in his book The Abolition of Man, called the Natural Law the Tao: “It is the doctrine of objective value, the belief that certain attitudes are really true, and others really false, to the kind of thing the universe is and the kind of things we are.”

Natural law has been invoked many times in America’s history by Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Clarence Thomas in his Supreme Court hearings (to the horror of many senators in the confirmation hearings). In modern times, critics of the natural law tradition, like Machiavelli, Voltaire, David Hume, and even U.S. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, defend the modern theory of legal positivism which claims that the law of the state must change with changing needs, customs, and values of the people, and that even if there is a higher, universal law, it is irrelevant and can have no bearing on the law of the state.

You see how reading the pagan classics can help you understand the modern world. Natural Law, like principles of classical architecture, education, and metaphysics, is still true. These principles have not been proven wrong, but they have been proven inconvenient.

It is the thing “which others may call Natural Law or Traditional Morality or the First Principles of Practical Reason,” says Lewis. “It is the sole source of all value judgments. If it is rejected, all value is rejected. If any value is retained, it is retained.”



Originally published in The Classical Teacher Summer 2013 edition.

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