Tradition and the Natural Law

May 24, 2011

Allen: That’s quite a lovely Jackson Pollock, isn’t it?
Woman: Yes, it is.
Allen: What does it say to you?
Woman: It restates the negativeness of the universe. The hideous lonely emptiness of existence. Nothingness. The predicament of man forced to live in a barren, godless eternity like a tiny flame flickering in an immense void with nothing but waste, horror, and degradation, forming a useless, bleak straitjacket in a black, absurd cosmos.
Allen: What are you doing Saturday night?
Woman: Committing suicide.
Allen: What about Friday night?
Woody Allen, Play It Again Sam (1972)

No U.S. Supreme Court dictum in decades has faced such vilification as has poor Justice Kennedy’s 28 words in Planned Parenthood vs Casey 505 US 833 (1992):

“At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, of the mystery of human life.”

Interestingly enough, Kennedy’s words aren’t even original. Rather they reflect the dictum of another Supreme Court majority opinion written almost 50 years earlier, in which Justice Felix Frankfurter included his own “mystery” passage:

“Certainly the affirmative pursuit of one’s convictions about the ultimate mystery of the universe and man’s relation to it is placed beyond the reach of law.”

That case, Minersville v. Gobitis, (1940) was a decision by the Supreme Court of the United States involving the religious rights of public school students under the First Amendment to the United States Constitution.

The Court ruled that public schools could compel students — in this case, Jehovah’s Witnesses — to salute the American Flag and recite the Pledge of Allegiance despite the students’ religious objections to these practices. Happily they overthrew it three years later but then Justice Kennedy dusted it off for the feminists in the Casey decision. The point of all this being that when some issue is at stake there is a segment of the population (either left or right) who will say the law shouldn’t apply, that FREEDOM and our right to choose what that means, trumps all. Viva Guns, Abortion and Woody Allen’s girlfriend above.

Needless to say they are all wrong — in a secular blindness the court chose again to propound a universal moral right not to recognize the universal moral laws on which all rights depend.  As J. Budziszewski notes “Such liberty has infinite length but zero depth. A right is a power to make a moral claim upon me. If I could “define” your claims into nonexistence — as the Court said I could “define” the unborn child’s — that power would be destroyed.

What the Supreme Court tells us is that we need to have an understanding of nature as being designed according to its teleological purposes. The key definition concerning freedom (“a process of growing into the habits (i.e., virtues) that allow us to fulfill our end as human beings without the impediments of vice”) implies that we know what the end of human being to be. Saint Thomas has written that the “nature” of any particular thing is “a purpose, implanted by the Divine Art, that it be moved to a determinate end”. Provided that we haven’t been taught not to, this is the way we tend to think of things anyway. Part of the despair of modernity is that we have lost the will to distinguish not only what our purpose in life is, but the very notion that things (even us) possess an essential nature:

An acorn is not essentially something small with a point at one end and a cap at the other; it is something aimed at being an oak. A boy in my neighborhood is not essentially something with baggy pants and a foul mouth; he is something aimed at being a man. In this way of thinking, everything in Creation is a wannabe. We just have to recognize what it naturally wants to be. Natural law turns out to be the developmental spec sheet, the guide for getting there. For the acorn, nature isn’t law in the strictest sense, because law must be addressed to an intelligent being capable of choice. For the boy, though, it is. The acorn can’t be in conflict with itself. He can.

But there is something missing here. According to the old tradition of natural law, the human arrow is unlike all others because it is directed to a goal which its natural powers cannot reach. We have one natural longing that nothing in nature can satisfy. That boy on the corner is something that by nature wants to be a Man, and being a Man is hard enough. But a Man is something that by nature wants to be in friendship with God, and that, short of grace, is impossible.

God is not only the author of human nature, but the direction in which it faces and the power on which it depends, its greatest good. He isn’t just the most important good for me because of my faith commitments; He is the most important simply. Revealed religion concurs: “For [even] the Gentiles seek all these things; and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things shall be yours as well.”
J. Budziszewski, What We Can’t Not Know

We appear to be running smack into what the detractors of Natural Law accuse it of being – a cover for divine law and a theocratic state. “Some natural lawyers assure us that the natural law would make perfect sense even if there were no God at all — forgetting that if there were no God there would be no nature either. On the other hand, some believers say that since we have the Bible to tell us what to do, we don’t need a natural law.”

Even though the elementary principles of the moral law are known by nature, they are elicited, elucidated, and elaborated by tradition. “Nature dependent on tradition” may sound inconsistent but it shouldn’t. Sound tradition works like a talented sculptor with a piece of marble: the artist liberates the object which is imprisoned in the block. In the same way, tradition gives voice to what in some sense we already know, but inarticulately. When tradition is silenced or forgotten, people are left to work out all these things out for themselves – a hit-or-miss undertaking at best. What is evident to the isolated tradition-less self is the repeatable human error sealed with the words “self-evident.”

Moreover, in tradition, intellect and moral character work together. As J. Budziszewski points out, if the mind is like the eyes, then the virtues are like the lenses which focus them. The classical Natural Law thinkers held that although there are broad moral truths which cannot be blotted out of the heart of man, there are others, more remote from first principles, which can all too easily be blotted out, usually by bad living.

The goods of fidelity, are plain and concrete to the man who has not strayed, but they are faint, like mathematical abstractions, to the one who is addicted to other men’s wives (think Arnold). The assistance of “second nature” is needed for nature to come into its own; the natural is brought to bear by the habitual. This is the source of all Eastern artistic teachings, copying the works of the masters over and over and over again. Americans are the bane of any Japanese art – they’re ready to fly and explore their inner selves after they think they’ve got the basics. Indispensable, then, is a living tradition that transmits not only teachings, but disciplines. How many American Catholics do you know who think of their faith as a discipline?

So when we require the assistance of tradition here, we are speaking of the assistance of a particular kind of tradition. Understand that clear vision of the moral law can be crushing. Because the first thing that an honest man sees with this clear vision is a debt which exceeds anything he can pay. Apart from an assurance that the debt can somehow be forgiven, such honesty is too much for us — it can kill with a deadly realization of our complete unworthiness. The sinners first reaction is what forgiveness, what salvation can there be?

Without a special revelation from the Author of the law, it is impossible to know whether the possibility of forgiveness is real. Therefore we look away; unable to accept the truth about ourselves, we may keep the law in the corner of our eye, but we cannot gaze upon it steadily. We are simply unworthy, our damnation more than reasonable.

Without a faith and salvation that is greater than our Natural Law tradition, one that settles the matter of forgiveness once and for all, our highest ethics would be littered with evasions and suicides. Although Natural Law was named by the pagans and is in some dim fashion known apart from the Bible, reflection about it has never gone far except within biblical revelation.

J. Budziszewski borrows a metaphor used by C. S. Lewis in another context, namely that our particular traditions are like the different rooms of a great house, and the public square is like the entrance parlor. The parlor is indispensable room; it is where everyone meets and goes in and out. But we learn even our parlor manners in the family rooms, the family rooms are where people actually live, and one of the chief topics of parlor conversation is — surprise! — our families.

Members of different traditions cannot always speak together, but sometimes they can, and in ways that tradition less people never can. The greatest insights into Natural Law coincided with the period during which they were intensely and simultaneously engaged with the pagan thought of Aristotle, the Jewish thought of Maimonides, and the Muslim thought of Averroes. A great leavening of all these traditions has occurred and all that is required of us is to cultivate the art of listening to each other to learn what the Natural Law teaches us.

The greater difficulty lies in speaking with people (relativists, atheists, et. al.)who have no traditions of unfolding the Natural Law, only “traditions” of evading or obscuring it. Budziszewski cautions us that although this kind of conversation is not impossible, it presents special difficulties: we can better teach speech to the mute if we have learned it among people who speak. So seek out the philosophical and the traditions on the issues of faith in the public square. Learn the vocabulary, understand the traditions of the Natural Law.

It is only in God and in light of God that we rightly know any man. Any “self-knowledge” that restricts man to the empirical and tangible fails to engage with man’s true depth. Man knows himself only when he learns to understand himself in light of God, and he knows others only when he sees the mystery of God in them.
Jesus of Nazareth – Joseph Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI)

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  1. [...] Tradition and the Natural Law [...]

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