October 26, 2006
The orator, lawyer, politician, and philosopher Cicero lived at the time of the decline and fall of the Roman Republic. He is considered to be one of Rome’s greatest statesmen. The Romans conquered Greece. But, Athens tutored Rome in the ways of philosophy. Roman intellectuals like Cicero learned from the store of Greek knowledge. One such lesson was the natural law.
The Greeks were concerned with the difference between nature and custom. What custom dictated from one place to another could vary. But what nature commanded was universal. It was the Stoics who perfected this concept of the natural law. They taught that the world is governed by reason. Therefore, there is purpose in the world. There is order and design, harmony and beauty.
With the use of his reason, man can discover the purpose and order of the world. He can choose to follow it in order to find happiness. Thus, natural law forms the basis in creation for our intuitions of right and wrong The Stoics’ famous maxim, "Live according to nature, "summarizes their teaching that men should conform themselves to nature which is rational.
Cicero took over this teaching of the Stoics and applied it to the politics of his day. He wrote: “True law is right reason in agreement with Nature...it is of universal application, unchanging and everlasting... we need not look outside ourselves for an expounder or interpreter of it. And there will not be different laws at Rome and at Athens, or different laws now and in the future, but one eternal and unchangeable law will be valid for all nations and for all times, and there will be one master and one ruler, that is, God, over us all, for He is the author of this law, its promulgator, and its enforcing judge. Whoever is disobedient is fleeing from himself and denying his human nature, and by reason of this very fact he will suffer the worst penalties, even if he escapes what is commonly considered punishment” (
De Re Publica, III, xxii.33).
During the 18
th century Enlightenment, the ideas of Greek philosophy were revived in Europe and transported to America. The Stoic ideas of the world governed by reason, rational man’s ability to uncover the design and purpose of creation and his ability to recognize the right ordering of himself within that design are clearly part of our Declaration of Independence. That founding document of our country is framed on the truths that God is the author of nature and the human race; that he establishes the law for his creation, and there is a system of human rights based on this law.
Dignitatis Humanae, the Church tackled the thorny problem of the right to freedom of religion. In affirming this right, the Second Vatican Council appealed to the natural law. “God orders, directs, and governs the entire universe and all the ways of the human community according to a plan conceived in his wisdom and love...God has enabled man to participate in this law of his so that…man may be able to arrive at a deeper and deeper knowledge of unchanging truth." (
Dignitatis Humanae, 3) When the Constitution of the United States protected the free exercise of religion in this country, it, likewise, acknowledged the natural law.
According to St. Thomas, the natural law is "nothing else than the rational creature's participation in the eternal law" (
Summa Theologiae, I-II, Q. xciv). Everything that God creates has a purpose or end. In animals, instinct determines the creature’s direction to its end. Not so with man. We have a God-given purpose or destiny. Since we are gifted with intelligence, we must make choices based on that end or purpose. The choices we make that lead us to the purpose of our existence are morally good. Those that do not are immoral. For example, eating is good when it nourishes our life. But, overindulgence that causes our body harm is wrong.
The most fundamental inclination of man’s rational nature is to do good and avoid evil. From this basic principle of rational practicality flow the primary precepts of the natural law, e.g. preserving your own life, not harming others, protecting the life of others, honoring your parents, and living together in harmony with others. Since these precepts are inherent in every person, they are universal.
Individuals who claim that morality cannot be legislated miss the underlying truth. Law confronts us with moral choices. And antecedent to any law a government makes is the natural law that teaches what is right and good. This law—to do good and avoid evil, to respect the dignity of the human person, to preserve life and not to kill—is universal. It is the basis for right decisions in choosing our leaders.
Courts may hand down decisions such as Roe v. Wade, legalizing abortion and the killing of the innocent child. But courts cannot change the natural law. What is morally wrong and evil remains so, no matter what a judge or a political party may hold. The natural law applies to all of us by virtue of our human nature. The natural law is valid today in San Francisco or New York as it was in the time of Cicero or Aquinas. It binds all individuals whether Republicans, Democrats, or Independents. The natural law challenges every one of us to make morally good choices beyond partisan politics.