Why We Can’t Do Without the Natural Law

Contrary to what modernists would have us believe, the modern worldview is not the result of a sudden and complete repudiation of the classical view upheld by medieval thinkers.

This book is for big picture readers, those who seek to view things in a long term perspective. 

Its thesis is that the moral values that underpin the legal and political systems of Western countries are being seriously eroded by the ongoing conflict between what is generally referred to as the “classical worldview” and the “modern worldview”. More specifically, John Lawrence Hill argues that as the former worldview, which began with Plato and Aristotle and reached its climax with Thomas Aquinas’ grand synthesis of Christian theology and Aristotelian philosophy, is being gradually replaced by the “modern worldview” introduced by philosophers such as Descartes, Locke and Hobbes, the natural law tradition that gave rise to our moral and political values – freedom, human rights, equality, personal responsibility and human dignity – suffers gravely or is being abandoned altogether. 

The book consists of two parts, the first focusing on the emergence and development of the classical worldview, and the second on the moral and political consequences of its being supplanted by the modern worldview. It ends with a chapter titled “Why God Matters.”

In describing the classical worldview, the author emphasizes the central role it accords to teleology – the idea that the universe we live in is an ordered, purposeful and intelligible place. In support of this idea, he quotes Plato who, four hundred years before Christ, described the world as being “the product of a Mind which sets everything in order and produces each individual thing in the way that is best for it.” Plato’s student, Aristotle, also viewed the world as ordered and purposeful, while rooting his master’s transcendent Forms in the world of material things. Although different, the philosophies of Plato and Aristotle are both teleological (from the Greek telos), which means that they assume that the universe is ordered and purposeful and that its order and purpose can be understood by reason. 

Hill notes that for Greek and pre-modern thinkers, “to know a thing’s end is to know its specific form of perfection, which, in turn, is to understand what that thing really is”. Consequently, in the classical worldview there can be no radical separation between the world of facts and the world of value: “The Good of each thing is the unfolding of its essence, and this essence is a fact. To understand a thing’s purpose in the world is to understand what the thing is. To put it more poetically, teleology means that the what of each thing cannot be separated from its why.’” 

The teleological nature of the classical worldview prepared the way for the eventual flowering of what came to be known as the natural law tradition. This tradition assumes that the world is based on a certain physical and moral order and that the only way to live a happy life is to live according to what we know of that order. It says that there are objective moral truths built into the fabric of reality and that things are designed with a specific purpose. It also presupposes Aristotle’s hylomorphic understanding of nature, which says that things are made up of two principles – form and matter – which cannot exist apart from one another. 

The most perfect expression of the natural law theory is found in the 13th century work of Thomas Aquinas, whose writings represent “the theological, philosophical, and moral completion of the classical worldview”. Readers seeking to get a glimpse into the traditional understanding of human nature will be particularly interested in chapter 4, which sets out the classical conception of the person, the relationship between the soul and the body, free will, and the ethical integration of human character. 

It did not take long for the classical worldview to come under attack. Within half a century after Aquinas’ death, Christian thinkers such as William of Ockham and other anti-teleological scholars began to criticize Plato’s universals and Aristotle’s essences. They set the stage for the gradual disintegration of Aquinas’ great philosophical-theological synthesis. The author’s description of that process is particularly enlightening, at least for those who (like this reviewer) have never been able to find much intellectual satisfaction with modern philosophy: 

In Ockham’s wake early modern thinkers, including Descartes, Locke, and Hume, slowly distilled form from matter, the soul from the body, the moral law from the physical law, and God from the world. What Aquinas recognized as an integrated whole was slowly sundered into halves, one eternal and one material. Descartes’ dualism in the seventeenth century was the high-water mark of the early modern attempt to preserve both halves of the earlier whole, but Cartesian dualism was ultimately philosophically unsustainable. By the eighteenth century what had been cleaved from matter was abandoned altogether as the terrestrial half of the older dualism became the new whole. The soul became the mind, and the mind became matter in motion. Christianity withered into deism, and deism into atheism. Natural law disintegrated into utilitarianism and Kantianism, each of which isolated and then distorted parts of Aquinas’ older ethical theory until these, too, decomposed into sundry forms of moral relativism. 

One interesting point about this book is that it traces the origins of the modern worldview, not to Descartes, as is commonly assumed, but rather to William of Ockham, a 14th century English Franciscan who challenged the Aristotelian system on which Aquinas based his natural law theory. More precisely, Ockham reduced Aristotle’s ten categories of Being (the ten kind of things that can be said to exist) to two: individual things (this dog or this car) and qualities (strength, size, etc.). The upshot of this theory is that nothing exists outside of individual things that can be signified with a name (a subject or a predicate) and that there are no such things as “universals” – the notion that defines all particular dogs or cars. This doctrine according to which there exist only individual things and qualities is known as nominalism and is now considered a basic tenet of modern philosophy. 

The upshot is that, contrary to what modernists would have us believe, the modern worldview is not the result of a sudden and complete repudiation of the classical view upheld by medieval thinkers. Rather the modern worldview has its deepest roots in the writings of 14th century clerical scholars. In other words, modernity is the outgrowth of a particular intellectual current that arose out of the medieval world. 

In analyzing the decline of the classical worldview, the author shows how, through the writings of John Locke, David Hume and the whole empiricist tradition, the substance of the person – the spiritual soul – was gradually dissolved into the “secular self”, which in the last century was further dissolved into nothing more than bio-chemical actions and reactions in the brain. Today, even the claim of 19th century materialist philosophers (John Stuart Mill, Thomas Huxley) that the mind is reducible to shadowy mental states floating above the surface of the brain has been superseded by a more radical kind of materialism, known as eliminative materialism, according to which feelings, thoughts, beliefs, and even pain simply no longer exist. (This might seem far-fetched, but what the heck! Why shouldn’t a secularized society have its own secularized version of Christian Science?) 

The great merit of this book is to expose clearly how developments in modern philosophy have gradually undermined the natural law and resulted in a situation where a majority of people no longer believe in “moral objectivity”, i.e. the notion that morality, far from being a mere human construct, is based on reality. 

The author’s conclusion is that, as modern and sophisticated as we may think we are, we now find ourselves in a situation that resembles that which existed at the dawn of Greek philosophy: 

We have come full circle – back to Athens of the fifth century B.C. Our moral and political debates echo eerily and revealingly the exchanges between Socrates and Protagoras. Whether there is a moral order, whether we can have objective knowledge, whether the world is an expression of the Divine Mind or simply the ephemeral polyphony of atoms in the void – the questions cannot be bracketed. Our moral and political order will deeply and inevitably reflect the answers we give to them. 

This book is highly recommended to anyone interested in understanding how the Western world fell into its current cultural predicament. It is elegantly written and devoid of the heavy academic scholarship that plagues so many writings in philosophy. 

After the Natural Law: How the Classical Worldview Supports Our Modern Moral and Political Values
by John Lawrence Hill
Ignatius, Sans Francisco, 2016
Paperback, 306 pages

• Related on CWR:
 “The History, Enemies, and Importance of Natural Law” (May 10, 2016): An interview with Dr. John Lawrence Hill

If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!

Click here for more information on donating to CWR. Click here to sign up for our newsletter.

About Richard Bastien 3 Articles
Richard Bastien is Vice-President of Justin Press and the director of the Catholic Civil Rights League for the Ottawa area.