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What Is The Natural Law? What Are Its Principles? How Does It Relate To Positive Laws?

1992 words - 8 pages

In order to understand the concept of natural law and its principles it is important to understand what Aquinas sought to achieve with his political philosophies. Prior to Aquinas, the mainstream of Christian political thought had been rooted in faith. Faith, by its very definition is the belief in something for which there is no logical or rational justification for. Since the very concept of religion was based on faith, reason was thought to be inimical to faith. Aquinas sought to marry faith and reason and arrive at a political theory that forged a union between the faith of Christian principles and the reason of Greek philosophy.

In the process he rejected one of the central notions ...view middle of the document...

He had no wish to see priests as secular princes, or the Pope as the political emperor of Christendom. Since the fellowship of the Church was universal and Aquinas followed Aristotle's thinking that a State was something that was limited to size and number. Hence, there should be one church and many states; it is these concessions which reveal Aquinas as a man of the modern world, a world in which the old Christian ideal of a universal holy empire had perished in face of the reality of ever more vigorously independent nation states.

Aquinas was in no sense a mere reviver of Aristotle. He improved on Aristotle's notion of the state as a natural institution by incorporating an idea which though not Christian in origin, had become a crucial notion in Christian thinking, that of Natural Law. Since he believed it natural for men to live under governments and that governments cannot conform to nature unless they are just: and the criteria by which such a justness can be judged is something that is laid down by the Creator and visible to the eye of reason in all men. In other words, the positive law of states must conform to those fundamental moral principles traditionally known as Natural Law. The attraction to such a notion of Natural law to a Christian political philosopher is obvious; since Natural Law can be understood as the law of God, it is the Church and not the State which can speak on the subject with authority; and once the Church is recognized as the ultimate arbiter as to what is just and unjust, its superiority over the state, and its authority to criticize the state if needed are logically entailed.

Although it is true that Aquinas articulated a more elaborate theory of Natural Law than any of his predecessors, it is still nevertheless filled with ambiguity.

Firstly, there is the seeming conflict with law and virtue. When expounding the traits of virtue, Aquinas states: "Virtue, which is an operative habit, is a good habit productive of good works." Aquinas's understanding of virtue therefore, presupposes the voluntariness of the acts that proceed from virtue. Good works are human acts and human acts are voluntary. Human acts are good to the extent that they conform to what reason judges to be suitable to the ultimate human good of the agent. Therefore, virtuous and human acts stem from intrinsic principles. Extrinsic coercion is opposed to human acts since such acts are characterized by the fact that they proceed from intrinsic principles. It seems that law, to the extent that is employs and binds people against their wills, cannot lead to virtue. For example, a prisoner in handcuffs by the very fact of being restrained, cannot be learning the virtue of controlling his anger. The fact that he is not hitting his arresting officer is not attributable to the intrinsic principles of his reason and will, but to the exterior restraint of handcuffs and the law which imposes them on him.

However, Aquinas still claims that...

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