Brief Outline of the Four Laws
Eternal Law – A type of the Divine Wisdom of God that moves all things to their end.
Divine Law – The historical laws of Scripture given to man through God’s self-revelation.
The Old Law – Extrinsic focus, fear, and earthly rewards – foreshadows the NT The New Law – Intrinsic focus, love, and heavenly rewards – Perfects the OT
Natural Law – The Eternal Law of God imprinted on all things, from which “they derive their respective inclinations to their proper acts and ends.”
Human Law – Laws of governments that are dictates of practical reason from the general precepts of Natural Law.
1. What is Natural Law?
“It is therefore evident that the natural law is nothing else than the rational creature’s participation of the eternal law.”1 Eternal Law is the type of Divine Wisdom that moves all things toward their end. Similar to how the carpenter’s idea of a chair is then imprinted onto the wood, so too is Eternal law imprinted upon all things. The imprint of Eternal Law on man is Natural Law. It is the general moral precepts imprinted on the hearts of humanity; however, individual persons participate in Natural Law via their reasoning. Aquinas believes all persons may know Natural Law through their reason, but not all persons reason equally. Aquinas does not posit an egalitarian view of reason. Some persons will understand more and some less. Notice too this is a very concrete notion of participation that is available to all humanity. While participation is an abused word in philosophical and theological circles, Aquinas presents a brilliant notion of participation in the Eternal through the Natural Law.2
2. What is the first indemonstrable principle?
What is meant by the term “first indemonstrable principle”? It is called indemonstrable because it is not deduced from any other truth. If I say Socrates is a man. All men are mortal. Socrates is mortal. The last statement is a deduction from the first two. An indemonstrable principle is not deduced. It is simply known. Aquinas gives the following examples:
Hence it is that, as Boethius says… certain axioms or propositions are universally self-evident to all; and such are those propositions whose terms are known to all, as, “Every whole is greater than its part,” and, “Things equal to one and the same are equal to one another.” But some propositions are self-evident only to the wise, who understand the meaning of the terms of such propositions: thus to one who understands that an angel is not a body, it is self-evident that an angel is not circumscriptively in a place: but this is not evident to the unlearned, for they cannot grasp it.
What is the first indemonstrable principle? Aquinas calls this particular indemonstrable principle first because it is the basis for all other principles. The Angelic Doctor states:
Wherefore the first indemonstrable principle is that “the same thing cannot be affirmed and denied at the same time,” which is based on the notion of “being” and “not-being”: and on this principle all others are based, as is stated in Metaph. iv, text. 9.
The first indemonstrable principle of our apprehension is being. This exists. This does not exist. It is in a person’s apprehension, simply; however, since man is a rational animal, what is the first thing a person apprehends via reason? Following Aristotle, Aquinas teaches:
Now as “being” is the first thing that falls under the apprehension simply, so “good” is the first thing that falls under the apprehension of the practical reason, which is directed to action: since every agent acts for an end under the aspect of good. Consequently the first principle of practical reason is one founded on the notion of good, viz. that “good is that which all things seek after.”
The first principle of practical reason is “the aspect of good.” All men seek what is good. The concept can seem lofty, but a more mundane example is happiness. Aquinas posits that all men seek happiness as well. While most do not associate happiness with the law, the concept of happiness is an excellent starting point for discussing natural law. In general, there is a logical movement from understanding that all men seek happiness, to the fuller understanding that all men seek what is good, to a discussion of what is the good that all men seek. Starting the conversation with all men seek happiness is generally more palatable to modern man than all men seek the good, God.
3. What is the first precept of law?
In short, the first indemonstrable principle of apprehension, simply, is being. The first indemonstrable principle of practical reason is good. And if all men are rational animals then all men seek what is good. Aquinas applies this rationale to the law:
Hence this is the first precept of law, that “good is to be done and pursued, and evil is to be avoided.” All other precepts of the natural law are based upon this: so that whatever the practical reason naturally apprehends as man’s good (or evil) belongs to the precepts of the natural law as something to be done or avoided.
Aquinas arrives at the first precept of law: “good is to be done and pursued, and evil is to be avoided.” It is upon this precept all other precepts flow. Keep in mind Aquinas’ definition of law as well. A law is “an ordinance of reason for the common good, made by him who has care of the community, and promulgated.”3
4. Is there an order to the moral precepts?
The first precept of law - that good is to be done and pursued and evil is to be avoided - is the foundation to the general moral precepts of natural law. Before going into detail about these precepts, Aquinas explains how the precepts will be ordered. He teaches that precepts of natural law will be ordered according to the natural inclinations in man.
Since, however, good has the nature of an end, and evil, the nature of a contrary, hence it is that all those things to which man has a natural inclination, are naturally apprehended by reason as being good, and consequently as objects of pursuit, and their contraries as evil, and objects of avoidance. Wherefore according to the order of natural inclinations, is the order of the precepts of the natural law.
Discussed further below, Aquinas will order the precepts of natural law according to man’s inclinations - with the lower inclinations being ordered by the higher inclinations, i.e., that inclination man shares with all things that live will be the lowest, while the inclination that is unique to man as the only rational animal will be highest.
Note, however, that Aquinas speaks of inclinations and not instinct. Typically, an instinct is determined toward an end, while an inclination tends towards an end - but is ultimately indeterminate. Humanity is not born participating in Natural Law, but persons are born with the inclinations toward the precepts of Natural Law. Man participates in those inclinations by reason; thus, the wicked, for example, do not participate in Natural Law for they are recalcitrant to their inclinations toward the precepts of Natural Law.
It should be noted that this discussion is paramount to understanding Aquinas’ treatment of virtue and vice. For a man who acts repeatedly on those inclinations toward the good forms a habit. Habits that create a disposition toward the good are called virtues. Habits that reject those inclinations and dispose persons toward evil are called vices. It also rests on the neglected truth that sin is always and forever irrational.
5. What are the precepts of Natural Law?
According to Aquinas, there are three precepts that should be considered when discussing Natural Law. The Angelic Doctor states:
Because in man there is first of all an inclination to good in accordance with the nature which he has in common with all substances: inasmuch as every substance seeks the preservation of its own being, according to its nature: and by reason of this inclination, whatever is a means of preserving human life, and of warding off its obstacles, belongs to the natural law.
Secondly, there is in man an inclination to things that pertain to him more specially, according to that nature which he has in common with other animals: and in virtue of this inclination, those things are said to belong to the natural law, “which nature has taught to all animals” [Pandect. Just. I, tit. i], such as sexual intercourse, education of offspring and so forth.
Thirdly, there is in man an inclination to good, according to the nature of his reason, which nature is proper to him: thus man has a natural inclination to know the truth about God, and to live in society: and in this respect, whatever pertains to this inclination belongs to the natural law; for instance, to shun ignorance, to avoid offending those among whom one has to live, and other such things regarding the above inclination.
To wit, the three precepts are (1) self-preservation (2) procreation & education of offspring and (3) natural inclination toward the good, God; however, how do these precepts relate to one another? Are they all equal? Do they compete against one another? To the contrary, Aquinas holds to the general truth that a higher principle orders the lower. For example, the first and second precepts are those we share with both plants and animals. All things seek self-preservation. The second precept is shared with animals, because irrational animals procreate and educate their offspring; however, it is the third precept, the highest precept, that is predicated upon man as man, i.e., the rational animal. It is specifically man’s inclination toward the good, the truth, God, that should order the other two precepts.
For example, among the irrational animals, it appears the first precept of self-preservation is not always true. Nature is full of examples of mothers who would die to protect their young or males that die in order to procreate. In these examples, the lower precept of self-preservation is ordered and governed by the higher precept of procreating and educating offspring. In the rational animal, man, the third precept of seeking God should order self-preservation and the manner in which humanity procreates and educates. The operative word is should, because man is not forced to hold to the precepts of Natural Law - but only chooses to via reason. The wicked, for example, will not hold to these precepts nor will they order them correctly.
6. How does Aquinas differ from Modernist views?
Broadly speaking, nature may be spoken of in three ways: a Thomistic nature, a reductionist nature, and a mechanistic nature. The Thomistic nature is characterized by the belief that (1) the general moral precepts of Natural Law are available to all men in some degree, (2) man participates in these general moral precepts via his reason, and (3) the moral precepts exist in a hierarchical order.
Arguably, a reductionist theory reverses the teachings of Aquinas. In Aquinas, the higher orders the lower, while a reductionist view advocates that the lower orders the higher. If humanity has a moral question, it should look to the animals or the environment. For example, man’s sexuality is understood by looking at the sexual life of animals. Is homosexual activity permissible for man? Well, homosexuality does periodically occur among animals species; thus, it is permissible and not contrary to natural law. To wit, the rational animals uses his rationality to conclude that which is permissible for the irrational animals is permissible for man.
The reductionist view is often times associated with a Hobbesian view of nature. Thomas Hobbes taught that nature is a constant state of war. Nature is a violent chaos. Nature is the red tooth and claw. In more evolutionary terms, natural law is simply the survival of the fittest. The first precept of self-preservation dominates all others. Here man looks to nature and discards it as a moral standard. Instead of viewing reason as the principle by which the lower precepts of nature are ordered, man sees his reason as the instrument that overcomes nature. Nature becomes something to vex and dominate, not follow. Man views himself as something liberated from nature and free to create social and moral constructs free from any natural external standard.
Mechanistic theories are based off strict necessity. Mechanistic views hold that man is governed under a biological illusion, i.e., free will is actually determined by nature. While the Thomistic approach holds that nature is not governed by a strict necessity, it does not exclude biology playing a role in the decision making of human beings. For example, a full moon’s gravitational pull affects both the oceans and the human body. While the Thomistic view acknowledges influences, it does not believe man is forced or biologically determined to certain ends. Reason and free will remain. One key issue with the mechanistic view of nature is that it flattens nature into equal parts, i.e., both rational and irrational animals are equitable under the force of nature. In contrast, the Thomistic view holds a certain gradation or hierarchy to nature, with man, the rational animal, being the higher creature - the creature that has the natural precept to seek the good, God.
SPL on Aquinas’ Treatment of Law - Summa Theologica Reference
- Law and the Common Good: 9 Introductory Catholic Questions - I-II.90
- Think Like a Catholic: 7 Questions on the Four Laws - I-II.91
- 4 Reasons God Gave Us Scripture (Divine Law) by Aquinas - I-II.91.4
- Does the Law Exist to Make Men Virtuous? 6 Thoughts from Aquinas - I-II.92.1
- 4 Other Questions on Virtue and Law - I-II.92.1