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Natural Law—which in its most basic sense involves universal, objective, and moral concepts that shape proper personal and political associations— originated in ancient Greece and Rome and continued to evolve through the history of Western civilization as an alternative to other theories about human behavior.
Generally speaking, the Natural Law comprises universal, objective, and necessary moral truths, which define proper personal conduct or the fundamentals of political association. By necessity, this statement is an oversimplification because the meaning and import of the Natural Law has evolved throughout the history of Western civilization—from its genesis in ancient Greece and Rome to its modern, postmodern, and relativist twentieth-century forms. The Natural Law pervades the Western philosophical tradition as an alternative to subjectivist, cynical, or skeptical theories about human behavior and political association.
Natural Law in Ancient Greece and Rome
Although numerous cultures had recognized the basic dichotomy between law as an artifact and law existing outside and independent of human society, ancient Greek culture was the first to raise this distinction as a purely philosophical question. The issue of how to achieve happiness and well-being (eudaimonia—from daimon, the divinity that presides over the happiness or misery of a human being, and eu, meaning “well”) fascinated the ancient Greeks. The philosophy of Natural Law concluded that eudaimonia, which the Stoics would later call the “good life,” involved “living in agreement with nature.” Before Natural Law was explicitly defined in philosophical terms, it was largely implicit in Greek culture, as revealed in Sophocles’ fifth-century-BCE tragic drama Oedipus the King (by reflecting on the nature, sources, and consequences of Oedipus’s fate) and in the pre-Socratic metaphysical debates concerning the static or mutable nature of the universe. It was also implicit in Aristotle’s (384–324 BCE) distinction between natural and legal justice. Throughout, the Greeks repeatedly contrasted universal truths grounded in an objective and unchanging reality with subjective beliefs based in mutable facts or on contingent social customs.
In the Hellenistic Era (323–31 BCE), Zeno of Citium (334–262 BCE) explicitly conceived of Natural Law as a central concept of his Stoic school of philosophy. The Stoics maintained that the universe was structured and organized according to rational laws, which were knowable via the one human faculty that shares in this universal reason—the rational mind. These universal, absolute, unchanging laws constituted the Natural Law, and living in agreement with nature (as structured by the Natural Law) was the good life.
Although the Stoics gave birth to the formal concept (and phrase) “Natural Law,” they are not responsible for the long-standing impact that it would have on moral and political philosophy over the next two millennia. The reason is that the original Stoics were determinists. Thus, they believed that living in agreement with nature was solely an issue of aligning one’s internal mental states with the events of the external world that were necessarily determined by Natural Law. The Stoic ideal was the happy tranquility (apatheia) of the person who simply accepts the world for what it is and has to be. There was no role for social or political philosophy in this worldview.
The Romans were heavily influenced by Stoicism, and some of the most prominent Stoic philosophers in the Western canon are Romans, such as Seneca (3 BCE–65 CE), Epictetus (55– c.135 CE), and Marcus Aurelius (161–180 CE). The most prominent Roman Stoic is the lawyer and philosopher Marcus Tullius Cicero (106–43 BCE).
As a lawyer, Cicero rejected Stoic determinism but found the Stoic concept of Natural Law vitally important for practical morality and politics. As the Natural Law comprised what Cicero called “right reason,” it was applicable to (and was accessible by) all people in all places at all times. Thus, it became key to grounding political theory in a moral theory based on a universal human attribute: the human mind or, more precisely, the human capacity for reason.
This conception of Natural Law soon found a role in the unique and revolutionary tripartite division of socio-political rules developed by the Romans. In political and legal practice, the Romans had already conceptualized two types of law: the law of nations (jus gentium), an embryonic version of international law, and the civil law (jus civile), the particular laws of each sovereign empire or kingdom. Cicero’s conception of Natural Law (jus naturale) was incorporated into this structure, serving as a universal, absolute moral foundation for both the law of nations and the civil law. For the first time in Western thought, a universal and absolute moral law was applied to all political institutions and laws.
Modern Theory of Natural Law
Early Church Fathers, such as St. Ambrose of Milan (c. 340–397 CE), utilized Cicero’s version of Natural Law to justify the emerging Christian Roman Empire. The concept largely disappeared, though, from philosophical—and what became theological—work for much of the Medieval Era, and was replaced by the Christian conception of Divine Law. Natural Law would reemerge after the turn of the first millennium in the work of Master Gratian (c. twelfth century), and, most importantly, in the work of Saint Thomas Aquinas (c. 1225–1274). Thomas Aquinas synthesized Christian theology with rediscovered antiquarian texts, including those of the Stoics and Roman jurists. The result was the explicit reintroduction of Natural Law into Western philosophy, but in a way that accommodated the now-dominant moral conception of the Divine Law.
Thomas Aquinas redefined the ultimate universal law as the Eternal Law, from which derived both the Divine Law and the Natural Law. Bifurcating Divine Law and Natural Law would have profound implications for the development of modern political theory. On the one hand, the Divine Law was the universal moral foundation for personal salvation, as guided by the rules set forth in the Decalogue and in the commandments of the New Testament. The Divine Law applied to human-made law, according to Thomas Aquinas, but only insofar as political and legal rules affected a person’s ability to ascend to heaven. In this way, there was some overlap in the content of the Natural Law and the Divine Law.
On the other hand, Natural Law comprised abstract moral principles necessarily intrinsic in the temporal world and ascertainable by reason, and from these rational principles, people deduced proper socio-political rules. Natural Law was the universal moral foundation for human-made law. As Thomas Aquinas declared, quoting St. Augustine (354–430), “An unjust law is no law at all.”
This distinction between Divine Law and Natural Law matured in the seventeenth century in the work of Hugo Grotius (1583–1645), Samuel Pufendorf (1632–1694), and John Locke (1632–1704). It was now possible to provide reasoned analyses of the normative requirements of political systems and laws without reliance on particular, and most likely disputed, religious doctrine. Grotius, recognized as the “father of modern rights,” argued that Natural Law required respecting each individual’s life and liberty (suum) and property (dominion), which were identified as “Natural Rights.”
Pufendorf systematized Grotius’s arguments, producing an original and intricate Natural Law/Natural Rights philosophy. His magnum opus, On the Law of Nature and of Nations, explained how Natural Rights justified civil society and its myriad legal rules; this text would serve as the principal legal treatise in Europe and would be often cited by English and American judges up through the late nineteenth century.
Finally, Locke’s Second Treatise on Civil Government established Natural Law/Natural Rights theory as a normative foundation for limited, democratic government and the rule of law. Locke’s political philosophy was the fountainhead for the Founding Fathers’ creation of the United States of America.
Nineteenth and Twentieth Century Challenges
In the nineteenth century, Natural Law philosophy waned with the rise of utilitarianism and related positivist doctrines. Jeremy Bentham (1748–1832) famously declared that Natural Rights were “nonsense on stilts.” Legal positivism in particular directly challenged the central premise of Natural Law—the necessary connection between moral rules and sociopolitical rules. For legal positivists, such as John Austin (1790–1869 CE), legal rules can be analyzed and assessed without reference to, or reliance on, moral principles. The only law is human-made law, which is conceptually distinct from moral theory.
This raised questions about whether it was possible to form universal moral judgments about differing political systems or rules, which became a particularly salient concern with the rise of totalitarian regimes in the twentieth century. Following World War II, the Natural Law was called upon to condemn Nazi atrocities. Thus, in the second half of the twentieth century, there was a revival of scholarly interest in the Natural Law. Ronald Dworkin advanced the proposition of the inescapability of moral theory in legal decision making. John M. Finnis developed a version of Natural Law more closely aligned with the moral dictates of the Catholic Church, but other contemporary Natural Law scholars dispute his views on these matters. As it has since the time of Cicero, Natural Law continues to offer universal, absolute moral rules for evaluating political institutions and human-made laws.
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