On Natural Law, a theological vs. ontological approach


Tommaso d’Aquino, also known as Saint Thomas Aquinas, was born to a family of minor nobility in southern Italy. Aquinas lived in 13th century Italy when it was part of the Holy Roman Empire. This period saw an ongoing struggle for control of the city between the emperor and the pope. As a result, Aquinas faced the dilemma of either supporting the emperor’s court or the papal court, and in the end, choosing the latter. This choice set out a path for Aquinas to pursue Christian theological studies which saw him produce an extensive number of works during his lifetime. One of his longer works is the two-part Summa Theologica, whereby part one deals with God, and part two with man and doubles as a treatise on moral and political philosophy. In his intellectual pursuit, Aquinas made a bold decision to build his philosophical and theological ideas from the works of Aristotle. This bold decision established Aquinas’ central thesis on political philosophy as being ‘the common good of political society’.[1]

This essay is focused on Aquinas’ natural law and its application within our current and future political ideology. As Aquinas obtained his theological and philosophical basis in the 13th century, this was a period which had arguably not achieved the level of intellectual progress and educational attainment that we have in today’s society. For Summa Theologica, Aquinas looked to merge theological understanding with the principles of Aristotle. However, with the advent of the Internet in the recent two decades, the distribution of intellect and education has been accelerated to a pace unprecedented. While a nation’s political ideology is set to change over time, similar to how Aquinas indicates that law will naturally promulgate, the Internet will play an increasingly dominant role in this development which the State will look to control. As a result, this essay looks to show that current ideology is more diverse in nature and concludes that the ideology of Aquinas, while impressive in the 13th century, should not be considered too relevant as it has little application toward our state of causa-sui rather than actus purus.

Natural Law: A Developmental Ideology

The notion of natural law has been tackled by the Greeks, Stoics, Christians, and is dealt with in the legal system today. For the Greeks, the work of Aristotle on Nicomachean Ethics is recognized as being an influential piece of work by which Aquinas developed his notion of natural law. For the Stoics, Marcus Cicero addressed the notion that a natural law must exist since ‘however we may define man, a single definition will apply to all.’[2] This implies Cicero saw an importance in making the distinction between what Aquinas defines as the eternal, natural and human law. In fact, Cicero sought to present a ‘standard against which the civil law should be measured’[3], thereby setting out the ‘concept of the ideal statesman and to the legal norms that ought to govern institutional life.’[4] From this, Christian Theologians have developed further the quest to define natural law; however, this quest will continue as there will remain a fundamental difference in their ideology when defining natural law. For Aquinas, natural law is:

Wherefore it has a share of the Eternal Reason, whereby it has a natural inclination to its proper act and end: and this participation of the eternal law in the rational creature is called the natural law. [Such that,] “the light of natural reason, whereby we discern what is good and what is evil, which is the function of the natural law, is nothing else than an imprint on us of the Divine light. It is therefore evident that the natural law is nothing else than the rational creature’s participation of the eternal law.[5]

It is important to note how John Whitehead stated that ‘The concept of natural law is one of the most confused ideas in the history of Western thought.’[6] If this is the case, the confusion stems from Aquinas’ notion that law can be eternal. Thus, the quest to define a permissible natural law will arguably become more difficult over time, especially as Aquinas identified the eternal law as not being subject to time but is simply eternal in principle. Without further inquiry on the subject of time, Aquinas arguably did not make the necessary thought to justify how the ‘Divine Reason’s conception of things’ is eternal.

In today’s 21st century society, human understanding has been enhanced by the development of science and technology, specifically in areas which Aquinas could not have fully understood to the extent of today’s understanding. Therefore, to accept, at face value, that some ‘thing’ is eternal without justification is difficult with the level and diversity of intellect and understanding today. For example, the concept of time remains hardly understood in terms of academia and science, specifically in the fields of neurology and theoretical physics. Thus, for Aquinas to base his definition of eternal law, from which his definition of natural law is dependent, on a subject or notion which he could not have fully understood is not a criticism of his intellectual work but is a question of whether his work can be applied to current political ideology. It should be assumed that the procedure in defining natural law is beyond empirical proof and that observations are simply self-evident.

Political ideas should be based on conceptual thinking that is within this world, similar to how natural law has been left to what is self-evident. Further, as we are dealing with how the state should govern its citizens within a community, rather than how God governs the world, it is hard to justify the merit in applying Aquinas’ natural law to socio- and geo-political issues today. While there is a similarity between Aquinas’ concept of law being ‘nothing else but a dictate of practical reason emanating from the ruler who governs a perfect community’[7], this idealistic view of a ‘perfect community’ is specifically addressed by Stephen Fry who exhibits his preference for the Twelve Olympians as being more within this world, rather than the ideology of having only one God which Aquinas stands by.[8] Although this is a contrast which Fry refers to as a difference in belief between the Greek gods and a God, there has been an increasing presence of atheist-like positions on Aquinas’ idea of ‘participation’. Ernest Becker stated that, ‘Neurosis, like sin, is an attempt to force nature, to present that the causa-sui project really suffices.[9] Becker is referring to the causa-sui project as the manner by which Christian ideology suffices as having a ‘religious solution’ to ‘his refusal to recognize his cosmic dependence’, i.e. the issue of mortality of our current species. In response to this, Jarvis Streeter addressed Becker in support of Aquinas’ position by questioning Becker:

First, while this attempt may reasonably satisfy one’s Eros motive, it fails utterly to address one’s Agape motive, including especially the need for transference onto some greater power source.  Secondly, this solution fails to deal with the human need for guilt-exploitation, for, Becker notes, one cannot finally turn to oneself for atonement and have it really satisfy one’s need. If expiation of one’s guilt is to be effective, it must come from outside the self – and ideally from a far greater power source than any mere human.[10]

The ideology of Streeter is not dissimilar to that of Aquinas in thinking of our species as a ‘mere human’. However, while an ideological difference between Streeter and Becker exists, both recognize a need for a belief of ‘transference’, which sees Becker referring to Christian atonement as being an essential participation of the causa-sui project. Thus, the two ideologies will have fundamental differences so long as they represent their promulgated beliefs, thereby their basis for providing a definition of the natural law will be different on the finer points.

Niccolo Machiavelli famously stated that “the end may justify him,” as he reasons that ‘it is necessary for a prince who wishes to maintain his position to learn how not to be good’.[11], This points to a fundamental ideological difference between Becker and Streeter which uniquely points to whether the means justify the ends with respect to our current political ideas. For example, Christian thought brings about a ‘perfect community’ by which its citizens are easily governed by law as Aquinas defined. This form of control is supported by both Becker and Streeter, as Streeter points out that Becker appreciated how Christian perspectives represented an ideal form and that it stood as one of the best religious views in the world. In fact, this is not dissimilar in nature to how Max Weber refers to the conception of the state as being ‘the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory’; such that, a ‘perfect community’ would yield the legitimate use of physical force through Christian worship (within Christianity) in what Streeter admits as the need for atonement. Therefore, atonement represents two important factors, similar to that of the state, which wields a monopoly of power over its citizens. First, worship results in what Becker refers to as staying in ‘a glorified private inner world’, thereby any anxiety about external factors (e.g. our cosmic dependence), beyond human control, that may bring them harm is mediated through worship in the near-term. Secondly, the citizens of a ‘perfect community’ represent an ever-evolving set of cognition and behaviour, such that providing citizens with the necessary ‘reinforcement’ through worship allows the State to entrust that their citizens will follow a ‘Divine Providence’, or commonly known today as the ‘rule of law’. This points to the ‘man-made’ aspect, or how Aquinas refers to laws being promulgated, of how a ‘rule of law’ is to be followed in order to maintain, in theory, a just society and authoritative state.

Natural Law: Current Political Ideology

The current laissez-faire, trickle-down ideology of developed nations has been the key to justifying certain policy decisions to its citizens which are supposedly allowing the capitalist system to develop without intervention of the state, thereby providing a ‘trickle-down’ between those in kratos and the demos. Academic support, from professors of leading educational institutions, have been key in supporting and purporting this form of ideology held by policy makers. While the role of lobbyists and elite interests similarly play an important role, the role of academics is more similar to that of Aquinas. Prominent academics such as Joseph Stiglitz have criticized the ideological flaw by which organizations, such as the International Monetary Fund, dictate conditional-lending terms to developing nations which borrow at the expense of their economic and political autonomy.[12]

This is a branch of geopolitical strategy that stands in stark contrast those beliefs held by Aquinas, as it could not possibly be considered part of natural law that politicians aid their own corporations (domiciled in tax-haven jurisdictions) to obtain contracts for infrastructure and development spending in borrower nations at the expense of the development of incumbent industries. While this ideology may not have been touched upon by Aquinas, it is reflective in Book II of The Republic where Plato states that, ‘Then we must enlarge our borders; for the original healthy State is no longer sufficient. Now will the city have to fill and swell with a multitude of callings which are not required by any natural want’.[13] This means that politically, a nation will reach a point whereby its own self-sufficiency is not obtainable within its own geographic region. This ideology can be tied to the aspect of natural law which Aquinas defines as being ‘a natural inclination to its proper act and end’. If we apply this concept to geopolitical strategy of China today, the nation’s establishment of a multilateral development banking institution, the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, could be considered within the nation’s ‘natural inclination’. However, when you consider the public scrutiny by journalists such as John Pilger, it is thought-provoking to wonder whether Aquinas would refine his concept of natural law in light of how Pilger views current geopolitical strategy:

Beneath the gloss, it is the globalisation of poverty, a world where most human beings never make a phone call and live on less than two dollars a day, where 6,000 children die every day from diarrhoea because most have no access to clean water. In this world, unseen by most of us in the global north, a sophisticated system of plunder has forced more than ninety countries into ‘structural adjustment’ programmes since the [nineteen-]eighties, widening the divide between rich and poor as never before. This is known as ‘nation building’ and ‘good governance’ by the ‘quad’… Their power derives largely from an unrepayable debt that forces the poorest countries to pay $100 million to western creditors every day. The result is a world where an elite of fewer than a billion people controls 80 per cent of humanity’s wealth.[14]

In light of Pilger’s work, it cannot be ‘natural’ for a nation to establish its own political ideology, separate from those held by other nations, and then proceed to implement their own ideology (e.g. democracy) in the chosen leaders of underdeveloped and developing nations. Pilger refers to this ideological intervention as the failed ‘Model Pupil’, such that the liberty of their education was removed and replaced with one that the World Bank saw fit. In contrast, the Christian Theology of Aquinas’ natural law infers that a citizen is either a Christian (who follows the eternal law) or is not. This implies that if you were not a Christian, you would not be subject to ‘violence’ in becoming a Christian, a stark contrast to the example which Pilger highlights. Therefore, the sovereignty of a nation’s political ideology should be maintained, similar to the manner by which Aquinas had the opportunity to choose between serving the emperor’s court or the papal court. However, this is a subject Aquinas took for granted and does not touch upon whether one should be given the sovereignty to make their own ideological choice as he defines natural law on a principal (eternal law) that can only be considered as self-evident.

It appears that if Aquinas’ natural law stands true in today’s society, it is ‘an inconvenient truth’ of whether our ‘Divine providence’ is in fact divine. To address this hypothesis, a conceptual idea of how a ‘perfect’ community would exist today that is in-line with Aquinas’ ideology. First, Aquinas defines law as belonging to reason, such that it stands as the first principle of human acts that ‘the will of the ruler has the force of law; otherwise, the ruler’s will savor of lawlessness rather than of law’.[15] In light of this principle, does today’s political ideology suffer from what Lord Acton referred to as ‘power tends to corrupt and absolute power tends to corrupt absolutely’? It appears so, and in fact, this should expand Weber’s definition of the state as being a monopoly of violence within a given territory and abroad. Second, there appears to be a fundamental difference between Aquinas’ notion of law, being the relationship to universal happiness, and the recognition by Streeter that human’s need atonement. This fundamental difference could be explained by Slavoy Zizek who states:

In a strict Lacanian sense of the term, we should thus posit that “happiness” relies on the subject’s inability or unreadiness fully to confront the consequences of its desire: the price of happiness is that the subject remains stuck in the inconsistency of its desire. In our daily lives, we (pretend to) desire things which we do not really desire, so that ultimately, the worst thing that can happen is for us to get what we “officially” desire. Happiness is thus inherently hypocritical: it is the happiness of dreaming about things we do not really want.[16]

Thus, one should question whether Aquinas was correct in answering that ‘the law must needs regard properly the relationship to universal happiness’[17], as he sought out a notion of natural law to cure his ambivalence on theological tensions and questions. While setting out to join Aristotelian thought to Christian revelation was noble towards defending Christian Theology, to allow Aquinas’ natural law to have been self-evident leaves his notion impenetrable. Furthermore, the ‘inherently hypocritical’ nature of happiness which Zizek points out questions our political ideology establishing what it is that we truly want, rather than stating “officially” our desires (e.g. promises made during elections) in order to inevitably justify an act that results in another end (e.g. aligning with elites and interest groups). Thus, as Aquinas’ states that to natural law ‘belongs everything to which a man is inclined according to his nature’[18], a distinction between what man ‘officially’ desires and ‘truly’ desires is as important as Aquinas’ notion of an apparent good. This distinction between a real and apparent good is important in defining political ideology.

The Kaldor-Hicks criterion, an improvement on Pareto optimality for policy-making, could be applied to better assess whether the political ideology of a nation is its desire to suffice the apparent good (to maintain legitimacy), or whether real goods need to be satisfied. The political ideology of today is arguably much more complex as a framework which exists within this world, such that choices and public appearance are scrutinized by shareholders and stakeholders; whereas for Aquinas, he stood free to evaluate and propose any form of instructional guide to theological students he wished. While as a species, we have developed from the bicameral mentality only recently in human development, it would be discourteous to imply that our current intellectual understanding has reached any form of late stage development. This idea of development is not dissimilar to how Summa Theologica was intended by Aquinas as an instructional guide. Therefore, if Aquinas’ Summa Theologica is considered as a guide to the Christian state or ‘perfect community’, it stands as a noble effort similar to the importance of how Plato’s The Republic proposed the ideal state for individuals.

While similarities between Aquinas’ Christian theological work and Plato’s political philosophy can be drawn, the greatest flaw in Aquinas’ natural law and its application to geopolitical ideology is the assumption of an eternal law. While Aquinas implies that natural law can be changed by way of addition and subtraction, he concludes that the natural law is ‘altogether unchangeable’ and remains based on the eternal law. This presents an interesting question of how Aquinas’ natural law and current political ideology will be tackled when ‘The promulgation that takes place now extends to future time by reason of the durability of written characters, by which means it is continually promulgated’.[19] This durability of written characters in establishing today’s political economy is well understood by Ralph Elliott, who said that:

No truth meets more general acceptance than that the universe is ruled by law. Without law it is self-evident there would be chaos, and where chaos is, nothing is. Navigation, chemistry, aeronautics, architecture, radio transmission, surgery, music – the gamut, indeed, of art and science – all work, in dealing with things animate and things inanimate, under law because nature herself works in this way. Man is no less a natural object than the sun or the moon, and his actions, too, in their metrical occurrence, are subject to analysis. Human activities, while amazing in character, if approached from the rhythmical bias, contains a precise and natural answer to some of our most perplexing problems.[20]

Conclusion: Natural Law in future time

Accepting the existence of a natural law will allow the gamut of art and science to better approach the ‘rhythmical bias’ which contains ‘a precise and natural answer’ to our intellectual desires. For Aquinas, promulgation is important, by reason, on the various ideologies of Christians, thereby directly imposing on the notion of natural law for Christian Theologians of tomorrow? As William Einwechter explains:

Thus, the attempt to reconcile the Greek concept of natural law with the biblical concept of natural revelation is an attempt to reconcile human autonomy with God’s sovereignty. Therefore, Christians must not be fooled by the apparent agreement between pagan theories of natural law and the biblical concept of natural revelation and be drawn into a natural law perspective on social and political ethics, even it if purports to be Christian… When the preacher concludes that the whole duty of man is to “fear God, and keep his commandments” (Ecc.12:13), he is calling all men in all nations and in all relation to obey biblical law; natural law is not based in the fear of God and has no “commandments.[21]

While Einwechter comes from a more evangelical than theological position, he makes an important distinction that natural law should not be within the current ideology of Christian thinking, especially as Christians are taught to ‘fear God, and keep his commandments’. Thus, there is a growing divergence in the various ideologies of Christianity such that the religious political cleavage in the US has played a dominant but declining role in US presidential nominations,[22] and that the ideology of Christianity which Aquinas describes in forming a ‘perfect community’ is growing distant. While this growing divergence is occurring, John Mills finely points out about the ideology of Christianity as:

The only case in which the higher ground has been taken on principle and maintained with consistency, by any but an individual here and there, is that of religious belief: a case instructive in many ways, and not least so as forming a striking instance of the fallibility of what is called the moral sense; for the odium theologicum, in a sincere bigot, is one of the most unequivocal cases of moral feeling.[23]

While Mill’s utilitarian position was established in the 18th century, the notion that law extends to future time should have been tackled by current academic scholars, especially Christian Theologians. Furthermore, in the realm of art and science, it is now within the capabilities of theoretical physicists to address such notions of eternal and natural law. As depicted in Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar film, Kip Thorne published the science behind how science-fiction, backed by theoretical physics, meets the ontological premise that our future human race is able to transcend the space-time continuum and directly intervene with our choices that lead to their future existence.[24] This implies that will come a period in our future whereby the fields of science will meet the various strands of philosophy. Thus, as Aquinas understood that ‘law’ transcends over time, only time will tell as to whether our current intellectual thinkers can further our understanding of ever-evolving perplexing problems.

Works Cited

Becker, E. (1997). The Denial of Death. New York: Free Press.

Brooks, J. M. (July 1997). The Religious Factor in U.S. Presidential Elections, 1960-1992. American Journal of Sociology, 38-81.

Byrne, G. (2015, July 17). The Meaning of Life with Gay Byrne: Stephen Fry. Retrieved from RTE One: http://www.rte.ie/tv/meaningoflife/stephenfry.html

Cahn, S. (2014). Political Philosophy (3rd Edition). New York: Oxford University Press.

Colish, M. (1990). The Stoic Tradition from Antiquity to the Early Middle Ages: Stoicism in Classical Latin Literature. Brill Academic Publishing.

Einwechter, W. (2015, July 16). Natural Law: A Summary and Critique. Retrieved from Darash Press: http://darashpress.com/articles/natural-law-summary-and-critique

Pilger, J. (2003). The New Rulers of the World. New York: Verso Books.

Prechter, R. (1990). The Major Works of R. N. Elliott. Georgia: New Classics Library.

Stiglitz, J. (2003). Globalization and Its Discontents. New york: W. W. Norton & Company.

Streeter, J. (2008). Human Nature, Human Evil, and Religion: Ernest Becker and Christian Theology. Maryland: UPA.

Thorne, K. (2014). The Science of Interstellar. New York: W. W. Norton & Company.

Whitehead, J. (2004). The Second American Revolution. New York: TRI Press.

Zizek, S. (2002). Welcome to the Desert of the Real. New York: Verso Books.


[1] Paul Weithman’s Introduction on Thomas Aquinas in Cahn, Political Philosophy; The Essential Texts, 3rd. Ed. (New York: Oxford University Press), page 254.

[2] Cicero. On the Laws in Cahn, page 236.

[3] Marcia Colish, The Stoic Tradition from Antiquity to the Early Middle Ages: Stoicism in Classical Latin Literature (Leiden: Brill Publishers, 1985), page 95-96.

[4] Cicero. On the Laws in Cahn, page 253.

[5] Thomas Aquinas. Summa Theologica in Cahn, page 260.

[6] John W. Whitehead, The Second American Revolution (Illinois: Crossway Books, 1982), page 181.

[7] Thomas Aquinas. Summa Theologica in Cahn, page 259.

[8] Fry’s comments can be found in an interview by Gay Bryne on The Meaning of Life, televised by RTE Television: http://www.rte.ie/tv/meaningoflife/stephenfry.html

[9] The Denial of Death by Ernest Becker, 1st edition (London: The Free Press, 1997), page 196.

[10] Human Nature, Human Evil, and Religion by Jarvis Streeter (University Press of America, 2008), page 159.

[11] Niccolo Machiavelli. The Prince in Cahn, page 283.

[12] Reference to the International Monetary Fund is made in the book Globalization and Its Discontents by Joseph Stiglitz (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2003).

[13] Plato. The Republic in Cahn, page 63.

[14] The New Rulers of the World by John Pilger (New York: Verso Books, 2003), pages 45-53.

[15] Thomas Aquinas. Summa Theologica in Cahn, page 257.

[16] Welcome to the Desert of the Real! by Slavoy Zizek (New York: Verso Books, 200) pages 59-60.

[17] Thomas Aquinas. Summa Theologica in Cahn, page 257.

[18] Ibid., page 264.

[19] Ibid., page 259.

[20] Robert Prechter, The Major Works of R.N. Elliott (New York: New Classics Library, 1990), pages 152-153.

[21] Please see William Einwechter’s website: http://darashpress.com/articles/natural-law-summary-and-critique

[22] Jeff Manza and Clem Brooks, The Religious Factor in U.S. Presidential Elections, 1960-1992, American Journal of Sociology (Volume 103 Number 1: July 1997), page 34.

[23] John Stuart Mill. On Liberty in Cahn, page 751.

[24] For further information: Kip Thorne, The Science of Interstellar (New York: W. W. Norton & Co, 2014).

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