The Natural Law Philosophy

Table of Contents

Natural law philosophy represents a system of justice universally applicable to all humans, deriving its essence from nature rather than societal regulations or positive law. This philosophical concept has evolved through various perspectives and historical epochs, with a complex tapestry of interpretations shaping its course.

Early Formulations of the Concept

Aristotle’s Nuanced Perspective (384–322 BCE)

Aristotle laid the groundwork for natural law by distinguishing between what was “just by nature” and “just by law.” He envisioned a natural justice prevailing universally, irrespective of societal norms. However, his examples were often drawn from the hierarchical structures of Greek city-states, revealing inherent contradictions.

Stoic Egalitarian Vision

In contrast, Stoics envisioned a truly egalitarian law of nature, aligned with the inherent reason (logos) within the human mind. This perspective challenged the prevailing inequalities observed by Aristotle, fostering the idea of a just and equal natural order.

Influence of St. Augustine and Gratian (354–430 CE)

St. Augustine embraced the notion of natural law, asserting that humans once lived freely under it before succumbing to the bonds of sin and positive law. In the 12th century, Gratian equated natural law with divine law, intertwining it with the teachings of the Old and New Testaments.

St. Thomas Aquinas’ Systematization

St. Thomas Aquinas further systematized natural law, asserting that while the eternal law of divine reason remains unknowable in its perfection, humans comprehend it partly through revelation and reason. The law of nature, according to Aquinas, involves the preservation of one’s good, fulfillment of natural inclinations, and the pursuit of knowledge of God.

Natural Law in the Enlightenment and Modern Era

Diverse Scholastic Perspectives (16th–17th Centuries)

Scholastic thinkers like John Duns Scotus, William of Ockham, and Francisco Suárez emphasized divine will as the source of law, leading to a period of “voluntarism.” This influenced Roman Catholic jurisprudence during the Counter-Reformation. However, Thomistic doctrine experienced a revival, becoming a foundational philosophy for the papal exposition of natural right in the teachings of Pope Leo XIII and successors.

Hugo Grotius’ Revolutionary Claim (1583–1645)

Hugo Grotius challenged conventional beliefs by asserting that nations were subject to natural law. Unlike his contemporaries, Grotius argued for the validity of natural law even in the absence of a belief in God’s existence or involvement in human affairs. This departure marked a significant shift in thought.

Hobbes’ State of Nature and Natural Law

Thomas Hobbes, envisioning a savage “state of nature,” defined the right of nature as the liberty to use one’s power for self-preservation. He introduced the concept of a law of nature, a precept found by reason, forbidding actions destructive to life. Hobbes, along with Grotius, spearheaded the Enlightenment’s “school of natural law.”

Locke’s Departure from Hobbes

John Locke departed from Hobbes by describing the state of nature as a state of society, where free and equal individuals observed natural law. In France, Montesquieu emphasized the presocial nature of natural laws, and Rousseau postulated innate principles guiding individuals before reason.

Decline in Confidence (19th Century)

The confidence in appealing to natural law witnessed in the 17th and 18th centuries diminished in the 19th century. Immanuel Kant’s philosophy and Jeremy Bentham’s utilitarianism contributed to skepticism regarding nature as a source of moral or legal norms.

Revival in the Mid-20th Century

Challenging Unjust Laws

The mid-20th century witnessed a resurgence of interest in natural law, fueled by the belief that the Nazi regime in Germany was fundamentally lawless. This resurgence aimed to challenge unjust state laws, invoking rules of justice and right considered natural rather than merely conventional.

Contemporary Perspectives

Despite this revival, skepticism persisted, and contemporary writers often referred to human rights rather than natural rights. The 19th century’s doubts about nature as a source of moral and legal norms continued to shape discussions, emphasizing human rights as a more tangible and accepted framework.

Natural law philosophy, with its intricate evolution through diverse interpretations and historical periods, remains a compelling subject of philosophical inquiry. From Aristotle’s nuanced observations to the Enlightenment’s attempts at constructing legal frameworks, the concept of natural law has weathered shifts in thought and skepticism. Whether viewed through the lens of divine reason, will, or societal contract, the essence of natural law persists as a complex and evolving force in shaping human ethics and justice.

Share the Post!