Fired for the Natural Law, Part II: Toward a Marriage of NaturesBy James Matthew Wilson for FRONT PORCH REPUBLIC
You may read Part I here.
Mecosta, MI. Even in the mother’s folksy verbal inversion one can hear a critique of the frequent modern understanding of nature and the “laws of nature” as simply that which has previously existed. To know what is natural, we have also to know what ought to exist, to know what a thing ought to be in order to perfect itself. Dupré does not leave us to hash out the inadequacies of modern conceptions of nature relative to Aristotle’s. He fleshes them out incisively:
Aristotle’s concept of nature includes three distinctive strands of meaning: (1) a potential for development, the energeia for growth to perfection (as in Metaphysics 4.4, 1015a7); (2) the essence of the developing thing (as in Met. 3.4, 1030a3); (3) the goal or perfection of the thing once it attains the end of its development (as in Politics 1, 2, 1252b). Later generations elaborated these meanings without preserving their original coherence. The idea of nature as perfective norm came to dominate Stoic philosophy and, through that channel, the Scholastic theory of natural law. Modern thought from the Renaissance through the nineteenth century developed the idea of nature as potential into an ideology of progress unrestricted by such limits as Aristotle had set to any natural potency. Nature as essence emerged in isolated form, detached from its normative meaning, in the eighteenth-century theory of natural rights. Taken together, the three characteristics of Aristotle’s concept of nature constituted a teleological conception that none of the later developments of each of them taken singularly ever attained. Only by being simultaneously potential and norm is nature able to achieve the goals it pursues.
All three of these definitions smash through the cyclotron of contemporary culture with a hyperactivity that never achieves coherence. Dupré rightly indicts modern thought for severing the concept of nature as “potential for development” from the others, and thereby making it possible for us to envision nature as all the crude matter “outside” of us, meaning alienated from our active intellects, and therefore subject to our domination. Nature simply is what is, inert and meaningless until we impress upon it the forms of our imagination by the power of our art. In this conception, there could be no natural law much less any natural morality, for nature means precisely that which precedes the level of made or actualized meaning as a zone of pure potential. We have seen the consequences of this view throughout the modern age: the maniacal delusion that human beings are self-fashioning (they may make and remake their “selves” like so much putty) and that human communities can be artificially created and formed according to the imperatives of human will.
If one were to introduce any moral theory to this “pure potency” conception of nature, it would have to be in what Howell dubs “utilitarian” terms. That is, we can only ask questions about the methods of our making and doing relative to the subject-articulated judgments about the intended outcomes or consequences of those methods. When moderns say “that wasn’t supposed to happen,” they do not mean something has gone against nature, for nature does not do anything on this scheme. Nature is that to which things are done, it is the patient on which things “happen” according to our will. Utopian liberals imbibe this notion wholesale, and dream of a day in which no person shall exist who has not been formed on the social planning of their rationalistic geniuses. Neoconservatives merely caution against an o’erhastey marriage of social planning and human matter with their “law of unintended consequences.” But let us return to “nature” and her laws.
Notice how Dupré traces a genealogy from the misinterpretation of Aristotle by the Stoics to the rise of Scholastic natural law theory—a theory most richly expressed by St. Thomas Aquinas, but persisting in thinned and pruned ways in later thinkers, including Suarez and John Locke. The Stoic conception of nature in some ways resembles the utilitarian “pure potentiality” definition of nature just discussed; indeed, it is the Stoic conception that wrestles with the utilitarian one in the case of Darwin mentioned above and, I fear, in the case of Howell’s discussion as well.
In brief, Stoic thought presumes a perfect and achieved rationality in all things as they already exist. Nature is not a place of growth and change but of stasis and order. To say this does not mean things are “good” or “evil,” but that they are as they are meant to be in perfect conformity to the logos, the law of reality ordained by God. In regard to the condition of things, this view is absolutely deterministic: things are as they are because they always and already are as they are intended to be. Even dissolution and death inhere in this perfection, and Marcus Aurelius, the Stoic emperor, wrote:
if there is no harm to the elements themselves in each continually changing into another, why should a man have any apprehension about the change and dissolution of all the elements? For it is according to nature, and nothing is evil which is according to nature.
In regard to the human being, this passage hints, things are slightly less determined. Human reason can discern the laws that govern reality; it can know the truth, and it either does or does not know it not as a matter of freedom but of ignorance. Freedom enters only in the human faculty of the will. The Stoics teach us that man, in full knowledge of the perfect state of things, may either accept or refuse to accept his already determined condition. If the will refuses, the will is perverse and evil; if it accepts its condition, even in the worst events of suffering and pain, then the will is ordered rightly and is good. For Darwin to accept the state of nature as he described it and to say, “though I may find it grotesque, I accept it as true and perfect,” would be for him to manifest the Stoic position. His sensibility protests, “this isn’t supposed to happen,” but his knowledge corrects him: “S–t happens.”
Stoic thought has been assimilated into Christianity in multiple ways and in multiple times—in the early Christian centuries as well as during the Renaissance, and again in the late Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries. One most readily detects this in Christian accounts of evil that say, as Alexander Pope once said in his Essay on Man, that “the first Almighty Cause / Acts not by partial, but by gen’ral laws.” He concludes:
All Nature is but Art, unknown to thee;
All Chance, Direction, which thou canst not see;
All Discord, Harmony not understood;
All partial Evil, universal Good:
And, spite of Pride, in erring Reason’s spite,
One truth is clear, WHATEVER IS, IS RIGHT.
“What appears to us as evil is only so because we have but a “partial” vision and not a “universal” one?,” we ask. No one accepts this claim as Pope asserts it, even though we may accept it in a substantially modified form, such as that of St. Augustine at his best; he does not deny the reality of evil, the reality of discord, active in the realm of creation. St. Augustine was sufficiently influenced by the Stoics himself to accept that, absolutely speaking, Pope’s maxims might in some sense be right, simply because God’s agency in history ultimately brings good from evil.
But he, with orthodox Christianity, affirms rather than denies the real negation-of-being that constitutes evil, and so does not reduce human agency to an attitude of will. Our actions can be good or evil in themselves and they can function for good or ill ends. Indeed, many things that happen must be understood as evil—whether natural or moral, as St. Thomas Aquinas explains: an earthquake is an instance of natural evil, adultery one of moral evil. Later in his poem, Pope condemns the Stoics (for thinking that the perfect ordering of the will is the purpose of human life and the definition of happiness). Such is the intricate history of Stoicism’s interaction with Christian thought that Pope is typical precisely in this respect. Christians often absorb and reject Stoicism like a half-brother in King Lear.
The Stoics presume, therefore, an already perfected order in the universe; and so, whatever is already must be right, and moral goodness consists of an absolute submission of the will and conformity to that determined order. Dupré observes that it was this static conception of the rational order of things that most directly led to the development of natural law theory in the Scholastic period. And it is the Christian Stoic conception of natural law that most frequently gets presented in contemporary moral debates. This occurs precisely because, as I said above, the Stoic conception of nature as a static order curiously resembles the modern “utilitarian” vision of nature as a realm of pure potency awaiting our exploitation. On the surface, no two ideas could seem more antipathetic, but what both of them decisively lack is Aristotle’s primary definition of nature—that of teleology. Neither accepts arguments about the purpose of things, the final cause toward which everything is directed in its particular way and for which everything exists. Both assume that arguments must be about “facts,” that is, already existent and static data of reality (facts are “made” according to the theory of potency, hence the origin of the word “fact” in facere, and they are “found” according to the Stoic). In both these schemes, any discussion of purpose seems only to cloud the inert clarity of matters of fact.
Thus, in a development of the Stoic tradition, Robert P. George and Hadley Arkes, have mounted powerful arguments against abortion and homosexual “unions” that meet the criteria of “public reason” in liberal society on its own terms, arguing in terms of a priori natural laws (matters of subjective rights, such as the right to life, for instance) and in terms of a posteriori consequences (the social utility of traditional marriage and the family). They present a series of immanent facts and draw swift conclusions without the introduction of broader questions about the meaning and purpose of human life. That our liberal masters refuse these arguments has nothing to do with a weakness in George or Arkes’ cogency; the arguments, again, meet the criteria of public, secular reason that liberal society establishes, and such arguments time and again lead to the equivocation of our liberal masters, who twist uncomfortably and lie until they can squirrel themselves away from honest argument.
To my lights, Howell has done much the same thing. He evidently saw that his students, having been reared in a liberal culture and educated according to standards of utilitarian pleasure-maximization, will struggle to think beyond the modern conception of nature-as-potential. It was indeed an act of charity for him to give them at least a glimpse of the Christian Stoic natural law conception of nature-as-normative-perfection. Such was his expressed intent in his email to the students:
Natural Moral Theory says that if we are to have healthy sexual lives, we must return to a connection between procreation and sex. Why? Because that is what is REAL. It is based on human sexual anatomy and physiology. Human sexuality is inherently unitive and procreative. If we encourage sexual relations that violate this basic meaning, we will end up denying something essential about our humanity, about our feminine and masculine nature.
I know this doesn’t answer all the questions in many of your minds. All I ask as your teacher is that you approach these questions as a thinking adult. That implies questioning what you have heard around you. Unless you have done extensive research into homosexuality and are cognizant of the history of moral thought, you are not ready to make judgments about moral truth in this matter. All I encourage is to make informed decisions. As a final note, a perceptive reader will have noticed that none of what I have said here or in class depends upon religion. Catholics don’t arrive at their moral conclusions based on their religion. They do so based on a thorough understanding of natural reality.
That this message should have excited the rage of students and been deemed justification for dismissal from the University reveals much about the libidinous relativism of our culture and the bankruptcy of both our conceptions of education and the institutions that pretend to purvey it. It sounds as if Howell sought to meet the supposedly paramount criterion of liberal society—informed consent—in his argument. He was trying to explain an argument so that the students could agree or disagree with it from a position of knowledge rather than ignorance. But, of course, contemporary universities in practice generally conspire to keep students as ignorant, docile, and hedonistic as possible—even though they pay lip service to expired Enlightenment conceptions of open-minded tolerance and cosmopolitan knowledge.
And yet, I do not think it out of place to insist that a Christian Stoic conception of natural law is not, ultimately, an orthodox Christian conception of natural law. In consequence, Howell’s argument remains incomplete and risks allowing the most doggedly perverse and intolerantly relativist students in his classroom to rest complacent in their dereliction. To Howell’s correct claim that the facts of nature show man and woman as a priori complementary and homosexual acts as injurious in multiple ways, might not a Stoic homosexualist reply, “If homosexual acts were wrong, then God would not have allowed them to exist in nature”? Unless one can show that homosexual desires occur nowhere in the natural order but only in the human will, Stoic moral theory will struggle on this point.
Thus, the thin Stoic understanding of nature leads to intractable arguments over which already-existent “facts” are most morally compelling, precisely because it does not allow the essential criterion of telos, of final purpose, to enter as judge. A more robust conception of nature alone, one that can offer a description of a perfection and happiness not yet achieved but ultimately achievable, is required. I propose that, as a matter of charity, Howell’s students deserve not just the truth they are prepared to handle, but the whole truth.
And the whole truth instructs us that orthodox Christianity relies with singular integrity upon natural reason as it does on the revelation by God’s grace. As St. Thomas Aquinas writes, “grace does not destroy nature, but perfects it” (Summa Theologica I, 1, 8). In that crucial word, “perfects,” Aquinas indicates that his vision of nature is Aristotle’s and not that of the Stoics, however much his discussions of natural law elsewhere in the Summa may draw upon them. Like Aristotle, Aquinas sees that things are created with determinate essences or natures, and like Aristotle he presumes the fundamental characteristic of created reality is that of change—its composite status between non-being and being, between potency and actuality, between past and future. As such, ours is a dynamic world created according to intelligible laws, but it is also an incomplete world whose laws are not always and already fulfilled; they are, however, always on a path to their final end, to their perfection. He contends, along with the Philosopher, that nature must sometimes be imitated and sometimes completed; it has already determined our course, but human beings, endowed with free will, must actively work to find the means of making themselves into the persons they are intended to become. So, Aquinas writes,
For everything is called good according to its perfection. Now perfection of a thing is three-fold: first, according to the constitution of its own being; secondly, in respect of any accidents being added as necessary for its perfect operation; thirdly, perfection consists in the attained to something else as the end. (Summa Theologica I, 6, 3)
A watchmaker makes a watch; he puts a battery in it to make it tick; he sets the time and watches it mark the passing seconds perfectly. A human being is conceived; he soon acquires the “accidental” capacity to laugh and cry; he becomes a pious Catholic, a faithful husband, a good provider, and devoted father of five. He is living an almost perfect life, one that will be completed and perfected absolutely upon his final and eternal intellectual union with the Father in Heaven. The purpose of a watch is instrumental: it serves man. The purpose of a human life also lies beyond itself, but not in an instrumental fashion, for the eternal end that summons us is to happiness in truth and love. To say so does not reduce the Aristotelian and Thomist accounts of nature to a “utilitarian” one, but it acknowledges something that utilitarianism gets not right but more right than the Stoics: individual actions must also be judged according to a purpose that lies beyond them. Conversely, the Stoics are right to observe that those actions and ends are part of a rational and intelligible order and so have an absolute significance. But our age, and human beings in every age, requires more.
No doubt, in the course as a whole, Howell provided his students with a fuller description of that expansive call, the summons to happiness-in-perfection of the Catholic faith. No doubt, he did so circumspectly, and in his effort to meet many students in their benighted condition, he gave them a less compelling argument than he might have. And even for this, this small gift of knowledge and respect for the intellectual and moral potential of his students, he has already paid a great price.