The categories of self-identification are exploding. For instance, there are now apparently more than 50 gender designations. The form I was asked to fill out to receive a COVID vaccine shot asked six questions regarding sex and gender. There is nothing as simple as checking the box – male or female – anymore. New government policies infesting the U.S. military and even U.S. foreign-policy are validating men pretending to be women, and women imagining themselves to be men, to the point of providing taxpayer support for their chemically induced metamorphoses and their surgical mutilations to achieve grotesque simulations of real men or real women. This is insane.
What supports this insanity? The answer is: a metaphysics of the will that justifies any self-assertion, any self-identification. How did this happen? The answer can only be understood against the background of the preceding metaphysics of reason – the loss of which has led us to the current madness.
Through reason, said Socrates, man can know “what is.” Aristotle held that “what is” operates according to the laws of nature. He taught that the essence or nature of a thing is what makes it what it is, and why it is not, and cannot be, something else. In the Politics, he said that “the ‘nature’ of things consists in their end or consummation; for what each thing is when its growth is completed we call the nature of that thing, whether it be a man or a horse or a family.” For example, as an acorn develops into an oak tree, there is no point along its trajectory of growth that it will turn into something other than an oak. That is because it has the “nature” of an oak tree and not of anything else. It is inwardly directed to be an oak tree. Hence, by nature or natural law, Aristotle meant the principle of development which makes any living thing what it is and, given the proper conditions, what it will become when it reaches its fulfillment.
This end state is its telos, the reason for which it is. The telos of the acorn is a fully mature oak tree. As Msgr. Robert Sokolowski said, “The end of a thing is its perfection; the nature is what is perfected. The nature and end of a thing are normative for that thing; the end, in particular, is how the thing should be.” The natural law for each thing is what allows us to know what it “ought” to be from what it is.
What is “good” for a thing are those things or actions that assist it in reaching its perfection. For example, the right kind of soil and moisture are “good” for the acorn in reaching its perfection as an oak tree. Likewise, those things that inhibit or prevent something from reaching its end are “bad” for it, as drought or poisoned soil would be “bad” for an acorn. In each case, Aristotle would refer to the good things for the growth of the oak tree as natural to it, and the bad things for its growth as unnatural to it. What is good or natural for something is, therefore, intrinsic to that thing, internal to and inseparable from it. It is not imposed from the outside, nor can it be altered.
What is the standard we should use to measure things regarding man’s nature and end, and how do we discern what is in accord with it or against it? Aristotle states that, “in order to find what is natural we must look among those things which according to nature are in a sound condition, not among those that are corrupt.” In the Politics, he says, “Thus the human being to be studied is one whose state is best, both in body and soul – in him this is clear.” Thus, because we know what a human being is in the fullest, we can understand what a privation is, including for each part of him. For example, let’s say for the sake of argument, that 20/20 vison is the best for the eye and blindness the worst. With 20/20 vison, the eye has reached its complete actuality. It is perfect as an eye. It possesses no potential to see better than it does. In each case of imperfection, there is something missing that ought to be there. For instance, a limb ought to be able to move in its full strength, the ear ought to be able to hear, and the eye to see. The further a thing is from its perfection, the more defective or “corrupt” it is – just as blindness is the furthest defect of an eye. A privation of the good cannot itself be good. In fact, as St. Augustine said, evil is a privation of the good.
Man alone has the ability to choose between those acts or things which are conducive to his end and those things which are not. Animals, plants, or rocks cannot do this. Only man can act in defiance of his nature, which is what defines “evil” for him. Since man freely chooses his behavior, he is the only one for whom the natural law is moral. This is why Aristotle said, “The moral activities are human par excellence.” Therefore, references to natural law in regard to man mean not so much the physical laws or instinct to which he is subject like the lower orders of being, but the moral law, which applies exclusively to him. Man does not get to fabricate his end or telos. Human nature is a given. Its meaning is not located in man’s will or desires, but in pre-existing reality – in what is. Consequently, while man can know what is good or evil, he does not have the prerogative to determine what is good or evil. “Oughtness” is already in the given nature of things. Therefore, man is morally obliged to choose the good that will bring about what “ought” to be. Otherwise, he will become less than fully human and what he “ought” not to be – perhaps even something worse than a beast, as Aristotle warned.
Thus it was, thanks to Greek philosophy, that reason became normative. It is through reason that man can discern what is just from what is unjust, what is good from what is evil, what is myth from what is reality. Behaving reasonably or doing what accords with reason becomes the standard of moral behavior and, therefore, the standard of law. To do what is unreasonable is wrong. As Aquinas, reflecting Aristotle, would later say, the essential character of sin or vice is its irrationality.
All of this changed in the late Middle Ages with William of Ockham, who challenged the Thomist teaching that God’s will proceeds from his Divine Intellect. This is the core issue of that time and our own. Aquinas argued that, since God is Logos or Reason itself, his “will follows upon intellect.” Reason rules; will follows. The Word precedes action. This was not a new teaching in Christianity. Going back to the third century, Hippolytus said of God: “He thought of it (the cosmos), willed it, spoke the word and so made it.” Hippolytus placed God’s thought before his will, which then carried out God’s thoughts. The primacy of intellect is clear. The intellect directs the will. The will then acts in accord with reason.
Ockham flipped the relationship between intellect and will. God’s will now becomes primary, and his intellect subordinate to it as a mere instrument. This changes everything. It is no longer God’s knowledge that constitutes being; it is his will that does so. In fact, God knows because he wills; will precedes knowledge. It is the act that produces knowledge, not knowledge that produces the act. Will becomes the ontological principle. Let’s be clear. Either reason rules and will follows, or will rules and reason follows. In the latter case reason simply becomes a tool for the will to use in however it wishes to accomplish what it wills.
This was a revolutionary change with seismic consequences. Unless the divine intellect is precedent to the divine will, logos cannot be imprinted in creation as its essential aspect. Spanish scholar J. A. Fernandez-Santamaria wrote, “Occam has done away with the Logos … and all that is left in God is will, a will that cannot be bound or limited by the reason-inspired actions or assumptions of man.” French philosopher Etienne Gilson said, “Having expelled from the mind of God the intelligible world of Plato, Occam was satisfied that no intelligibility could be found in any of God’s works. How could there be order in nature, when there is no nature.” Creation is not imprinted with reason. It cannot reflect what is not there. As a result, there is no rational order invested in the universe upon which one can rely, only the second-to-second manifestation of God’s will, which he can change for no reason.
Philosopher Edward Feser pithily states the devastating consequences: “As Servais Pinckaers has put it, in place of the ‘freedom for excellence’ emphasized by Aquinas – that is, freedom for the pursuit of the ends set for us by nature – Ockham put a ‘freedom of indifference’ – indifference to the good or indeed to any particular ends at all…For the modern liberal autonomous self is something like Ockham’s God writ small – a little bundle of sheer willfulness, unrestricted by the demands of reason or of an objective moral order, and forever asserting his ‘rights’ to the objects of his appetites, as if the mere assertion sufficed all by itself to generate said rights.”
Without an inherent human end by which to judge the goodness or evil of his actions as taking him toward or away from the perfection of his nature, man is adrift. He has no natural good to guide him in reality. This loss of intelligibility provided the foundation for David Hume’s famous is/ought distinction, made in the eighteenth century, or what later came to be called the fact/value distinction, which continues to afflict us today. This asserts that there can be no moral guidance from what exists or what “is”, to what “ought” to be. One cannot derive an “ought” from an “is” or a value from a fact. This is the consequence of claiming that nature cannot be normative because there are no ends in it – no telos to guide things to become what they should be in their fullest according to their essences. In short, there is no foundation in reality for what “ought” to be. Once one is rid of essences, there is not an “ought” in sight. We are simply left with what “is”. It is no surprise that Hume concluded that, “Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.”
As a consequence, one gets to make up one’s own “values.” Truth is relocated to the will. As God is pure will, so too does will predominate in man – self-will without reference to anything outside itself. This becomes a very dangerous teaching when it is politicized. If law is no longer reason, what is it? Man’s law becomes its own standard, based only on the will of the ruler (whether one or many), predisposed to nothing but itself. As Bertrand de Jouvenel warned, “The man who finds in God before all else will and power, will be disposed to the same view of human government.” Benedict XVI warned: “When natural law and the responsibility it entails are denied, this dramatically paves the way to ethical relativism at the individual level and to totalitarianism of the State at the political level.”
The denial of natural law has led us to a period of moral and cultural self-asphyxiation. If we don’t know what we are or who we are, we can self-identify as anything. This self-identification is not the result of knowing oneself but of willing oneself. If what one wills is the principal constituent of reality, there is no standard by which one act of the will can be differentiated from any other act of the will. Therefore, “I have no right to judge your values and you cannot judge mine.” The common good is the casualty. Thus, a man can self-identify as a woman. However, why can’t I self-identify as someone who finds that utterly absurd? Why can’t I call a privation of the good evil, instead of being obliged to call it good – if I don’t want to be cancelled?
But we can get an “ought” from an “is,” but only if we recover natural law. It is also what is required if we are to restore our country to “the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God,” on which it was founded. Failing this, we lose everything.
(Editor’s note: Parts of this essay have been adapted from the author’s book America on Trial: A Defense of the Founding.)
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