Aquinas studies – Can there be a conflict between natural and divine law?

On one level, no there can be no conflict between natural and divine law. However, there may be conflict between the two in how they are embodied on an individual or cultural level. There may also be the appearance of conflict if we don’t properly distinguish the principles from the proper conclusions.

For an excellent introductory guide to Aquinas follow this link.

Human beings, in having a natural inclination to “the fitting act and end”– which is ultimately “eternal reason” — exhibit in our rational and creaturely existence, a participatory relationship between natural law and divine law (Thomas Aquinas: Selected Writings, Penguin Books., London 1998, p. 620). The rational recognition and obedience to natural law is the means by which we participate in the divine law (p. 620). Our rational natures, our desire and ability to contemplate about things beyond the merely material, and to concern ourselves with things not merely limited to material well-being, should provide us with a hint that the “fitting act and end” exceeds our material or natural capacities. For this reason, God gives us divine law. Thomas gives four reasons for God revealing to us his divine law. First, as our ultimate end exceeds our natural capacity in being directed towards “eternal happiness” we need divine direction in order to attain our ultimate end. Second, we are not accurately able to judge on “contingent and particular things” and so we require certitude of judgement which can only come from God. Thirdly, as our “fitting act and end” involves our interior intellectual lives, natural law is not adequate to govern or “restrain interior acts.” Fourth, in order for there to be final clarity and justice in the mixture of practical and particular judgements, all things will ultimately be judged according to divine law (p. 623).

In none of these things is there a conflict between natural and divine law. The one serves as a floor upon which we may, by the light of faith, break through the ceiling of our materiality and apprehend and participate in divine law. And as God is simple/holy and infinitely Good, it is not possible for the principles originating in him and sustained by him to be in conflict. “God through his wisdom is the maker of the universe of things… the notion of divine wisdom moving all things to their fitting end takes on the note of law… the eternal law is nothing other than the idea of divine wisdom insofar as it is directive of all acts and movements” (p. 633).

However, in terms of how human beings exhibit this participatory relationship between natural law and divine law, there is conflict. While human affairs are subject ultimately to eternal law, in both our knowledge and our actions we are in varying degrees “imperfect” and “corrupt” (p. 640). Insofar as our knowledge of eternal law and natural knowledge are obscured by “passions and the habit of sin” a holy/perfect participatory relationship between natural law and divine law is “defective” (p. 640-641). The conflict is in proportion to how “bad” one is. On the other hand, “the good are perfectly subject to the eternal law, as always fulfilling it” (p 641). Also, there may be failure in this regard in terms of “rectitude” (there may be an impediment in nature (e.g., are psychopaths born that way?) and knowledge (if one’s reason has been “depraved” by bad customs, or a “bad cast of nature”). This is to say that there may be a general culture which depraves or malforms us in relation to specific moral principles (p. 649). Finally, a conflict may arise as a consequence of prolonged damage to the human heart. This may be a result of “bad persuasion” regarding speculative matters, depraved customs, or corrupt habits. Such things may result in the natural law being “erased from the hearts of men” (p. 652).

Finally, there may be the appearance of conflict if we don’t distinguish between the common principles and the proper conclusions (i.e., secondary precepts or particular applications). Whereas there is “the same truth or rectitude for all “in reference to “common principles of reason” (e.g., “one cannot simultaneously affirm and deny something” p. 644) this does not mean that everyone knows matters pertaining to “proper conclusions” of speculative reason to the same degree (e.g., the outworking of speculative reason resulting in specific of geometrical definitions not known to all). Neither do the common principles work themselves out in a uniformed way, as the “proper conclusions” of practical reason will vary depending upon the specific circumstances (p. 648). Also, relating to the reality of circumstantial and cultural change, whereas the “common principles of reason” are immutable, the natural law may change by way of addition or subtraction in reference to particular contexts or situations (p. 650). This addition or subtraction will, if proper and good, leave the common principles uncorrupted, but effect the proper conclusions in a generally applicable way for a particular culture. For example, the principle of “everyone should act according to reason” results in the proper conclusion regarding terms of borrowing goods and returning them to the rightful owner. However, there may be culturally or regionally unique circumstances that may make the terms of borrowing (and the rectitude of returning them) different (p. 648). For example, in peacetime, a scythe has simpler associations than during a time of war. It may be right not to return such a tool during wartime if it threatens the safety of the owner or others. If we don’t keep the difference between the common principles and the proper conclusions clear, we may think there is a conflict between natural law and divine law, when in fact there is only a difference in the outworking of natural and divine law in a local or individual context.

Social Contract and Divine Law

Question: In terms of Crito and Apology in a society formed by social contract, is it possible to oppose any given law as unjust without appeal to divine law?

1) In Crito Socrates draws a link between an obvious understanding of what is best for physical training (natural training) and what is best for training in the virtues (intellectual or spiritual training). This leads me to think that if one is willing and able to consider the matters humbly and honestly, the way forward towards increased justice will be as self-evident as the way forward in physical training. Both will enable one to live a good life, though the life of the soul is of far more importance than the life of the body.

Continue reading “Social Contract and Divine Law”

Sertillanges and the news

“As to newspapers, defend yourself against them with the energy that the continuity and the indiscretion of their assault make indispensable. You must know what the papers contain, but they contain so little, and it would be easy to learn it all without settling down to interminable lazy sittings.”

(The Intellectual Life, pg. 148-149).

Patrick Leigh Fermor on the Efficacy of Prayer (particularly monastic prayer)

“After the first postulate of belief, without which the life of a monk would be farcical and intolerable, the dominating factor of monastic existence is a belief in the necessity and efficacy of prayer; and it is only by attempting to grasp the importance of this principle–a principle so utterly remote from every tendency of modern secular thought–to the monks who practice it, that one can hope to understand the basis of monasticism. This is especially true of the contemplative orders, like the Benedictines, Carthusians, Carmelites, Cistercians, Camaldulese, and Sylvestrines; for the others–like the Franciscans, Dominicans or the Jesuits–are brotherhoods organized for action. They travel, teach, preach, convert, organise, plan, heal and nurse; and the material results they achieve make them, if not automatically admirable, at least comprehensible to the Time-Spirit. They get results; they deliver the goods. But what (the Time-Spirit asks) what good do the rest do, immured in monasteries far from all contact with the world? The answer is–if the truth of the Christian religion and the efficacy of prayer are both dismissed as baseless–no more than any other human beings who lead a good life, make (for they support themselves) no economic demands on the community, harm no one and respect their neighbours. But, should the two principles be admitted–particularly, for the purposes of this particular theme, the latter–their power for good is incalculable.”

Fermor, Patrick Leigh. A Time to Keep Silence. New York: New York Review Books, 2007. p 26-27

Outline of “A History of Philosophy, Volume 1: Greece and Rome” by Frederick Copleston, S.J.

Copleston History of Philosophy, Volume 1: Greece and Rome

To purchase this classic book follow this link.

Outline (This is an attempt to present the outline which Copleston gives within this work – feel free to request Word doc version of this outline). The autonumbering is messed up, and I’m not sure how I can fix it without destroying my soul… Here is a link to a PDF copy without the auto number confusion… Copleston, HoP, Vol 1 – Outline

You can use this for whatever purpose you like, though a thank you is always appreciated. I did this for my own sake while reading it, first of all, and share it for whatever benefit anyone may derive for any purpose whatsoever.


Chapter I – Introduction

1)          Why Study the History of Philosophy?

i) Knowledge of history is necessary for ‘education’ – Philosophers are key contributors to European thought and culture.

ii) Knowledge of the History of Philosophy will help us avoid the mistakes of our predecessors

iii)         Studying the history of philosophy will enable us to be attentive to developments within it.

2)          Nature of the History of Philosophy

i) No philosophy can be understood unless it is seen in its historical setting and in light of its connection with other systems.

ii) Observation of logical sequence in development.

iii) Progression points ‘beyond itself’ to Truth.

iv) Copleston adheres to the conviction that there is a philosophia perennis.

3)          How to Study the History of Philosophy

i) See any philosophical system in its historical setting and connections.

ii) Study philosophers ‘sympathetically’.

iii)         Understand words, phrases and shades of meaning.

4)          Ancient Philosophy (this volume)

PART I – PRE-SOCRATIC PHILOSOPHY Continue reading “Outline of “A History of Philosophy, Volume 1: Greece and Rome” by Frederick Copleston, S.J.”

Josef Pieper – The meaning of life, according to Plato

To purchase this excellent and thoughtful little book click this link.

“I wish to sum up Plato’s stance [regarding the meaning of human existence] in three brief statements:

The First Statement: To perceive, as much as possible, all things as they really are and to live and act according to this truth (truth, indeed, not as something abstract and “floating in thin air” but as the unveiling of reality)–in this consists the good of man; in this consists a meaningful human existence.

The Second Statement: All men are nurtured, first and foremost, by the truth, not only those who search for knowledge–the scientists and the philosophers. Everybody who yearns to live as a true human being depends on this nourishment. Even society as such is sustained by the truth publicly proclaimed and upheld.

The Third Statement: The natural habitat of truth is found in interpersonal communication. Truth lives in dialogue, in discussion, in conversation–it resides, therefore, in language, in the word. Consequently, the well-ordered human existence, including especially its social dimension, is essentially based on the well-ordered language employed. A well-ordered language here does not primarily mean its formal perfection, even though I tend to agree with Karl Kraus when he says that every correctly placed comma is decisive. No, a language is well ordered when its words express reality with as little distortion and as little omission as possible.”

Pieper, Josef. Abuse of Language, Abuse of Power. San Francisco, CA: Ignatius, 1992. 35-26. Print.

Sophistry, propaganda, and the drowning out of Truth and Reality

“It is entirely possible that the true and authentic reality is being drowned out by the countless superficial information bits noisily and breathlessly presented in propaganda fashion. Consequently, one may be entirely knowledgeable about a thousand details and nevertheless, because of ignorance regarding the core of the matter, remain without basic insight. This is a phenomenon in itself already quite astonishing and disturbing. Arnold Gehlen labeled it “a fundament ignorance, created by technology and nourished by information”. But, I wanted to say, something for more discouraging is readily conceivable as well: the place of authentic reality is taken over by a fictitious reality; my perception is indeed still directed toward an object, but now it is a pseudoreality, deceptively appearing as being real, so much so that it becomes almost impossible any more to discern the truth.”

Pieper, Josef. Abuse of Language, Abuse of Power. San Francisco, CA: Ignatius, 1992. 33-34. Print.

What is Holiness?

“You shall be holy to me, for I the Lord am holy and have separated you from the peoples, that you should be mine.” Leviticus 20.26

 [I genuinely wish that great minds from the past were alive now to consider these things. I believe the Church needs an Aquinas, Kierkegaard, Augustine or even a CS Lewis or Chesterton, to think and write about all of this… In the meantime, I want to try and get my mind around some things, so far as I am able, for my own benefit, and for those to whom and with whom I minister…]

Holiness is a vast and well-explored topic, yet often it seems to be misunderstood. What ought to be a glorious and beautiful reality is often mired in preconceived notions of mere religious observance and legalism. To be holy is often confused with ‘living in accordance with Christian values’, or merely ‘doing good things’. A basic definition of holiness is needed for the purpose of this site. It will also put into clearer focus as to why I’m bothering to consider holiness in relation to New Media.

Holiness, simply understood, is the setting aside or devoting of things and actions for some purpose (whether that purpose is oriented towards some deity, or is of local cultural or community importance). For the human being this has involved many forms of worship in all sorts of different religions, and non-theistic worldviews, down through the millennia.[i]

For the Christian, however, holiness is understood primarily in terms of ‘being’. Ontology is the technical word for it, and it is something that Christian theology, philosophy, and any proper understanding of holiness needs to regard as a starting point.

We are commanded to ‘be holy’ because God ‘isholy’. There is a Greek philosopher named Christos Yannaras who has written much about this from an eastern Christian perspective. If we think ‘holiness’ is about conduct that favourably measures up to certain ideals established within a particular religion, this may actually be an evasion of the truth of who we are and how we are to be in the world.[ii] First of all, we need to consider who God is, and then what sort of being we are, as created in his image. Once we have some idea regarding the first two considerations we can think about conduct. However, the initial considerations open up upon vistas of their own. In asking what sort of being a human is, we must ask why we exist at all? What sort of dignity was bestowed upon us in the first place? Is this dignity a gift unrevoked? Is the dignity an ultimate expectation? How did we bring ruin upon ourselves? How does that ruin affect us individually and as a species? What did the Lord do for us in order to restore to us our dignity? These questions about our own being lead us inevitably to questions about ultimate reality, and the source of being. From whom is this gift and mystery of being derived? How does creation relate to God? Who is this God to whom the whole of creation is oriented, ourselves included? What is the final purpose of humanity and creation? An understanding of what holiness is must include these questions.

Continue reading “What is Holiness?”

David Bentley Hart on Heidegger and the ‘evasion of the mystery of being’ in the west

“Martin Heidegger (1889-1976) –a morally problematic figure, admittedly, but not to be dismissed–was largely correct in thinking that the modern West excels at evading the mystery of being precisely because its governing myth is one of practical mastery. Ours is, he thought, the age of technology, in which ontological questions have been vigorously expelled from cultural consideration, replaced by questions of mere mechanistic force; for us, nature is now something “enframed” and defined by a particular disposition of the will, the drive toward dominion that reduces the world to a morally neutral “standing reserve” of resources entirely subject to our manipulation, exploitation, and ambition. Anything that does not fit within the frame of that picture is simply invisible to us. When the world is seen this way, even organic life–even where consciousness is present–must come to be regarded as just another kind of technology. This vision of things can accommodate the prospect of large areas of ignorance yet to be vanquished (every empire longs to discover new worlds to conquer), but no realm of ultimate mystery. Late modernity is thus a condition of willful spiritual deafness. Enframed, racked, reduced to machinery, nature cannot speak unless spoken to, and then her answers must be only yes, no, or obedient silence. She cannot address us in her own voice. And we certainly cannot hear whatever voice might attempt to speak to us through her” (David Bentley Hart, The Experience of God, pp. 311-312).

Stranger Things and the difference between virtual and physical RPGs

I have been watching Stranger Things on Netflix, and thus far I love the show (for a few reasons I won’t get into here – I will only add that I’ve been successfully able to watch it occasionally rather than clothing myself in athletic gear, and watching the whole thing in one night). One thing about the show got me thinking. There is a scene at the beginning of the first episode in which the young boys are playing a Role Playing Game (Dungeons and Dragons, I believe). I played the same game (RPG) for a little while in grade 7. I stopped playing in part because I noticed even then that the game had become an obsession for me (for whatever reason I think I may tend towards obsessing about things that interest me, rather than being able to moderate my participation and enjoyment). Even so, the obsession I had with playing an RPG in grade 7 was moderated by a few things.

As a kid I had to work hard at feeding my obsession with RPGs because of the basic creaturely constraints of space and time. In Stranger Things we see how the mother of one of the characters operates as a moderating influence. She has an eye on the clock. She intervenes. When they physically disperse, the game stops. They go to their homes (or not). They eat. They go to school. They need to plan to play again. The planning itself takes time for preparation. Physical RPGs involve real-world interaction between individuals who are immersed in a narrative by way of a story teller. The games are themselves tactile, with dice and paper at least, along with your own ‘I don’t want to shower today mom’ grime and smell.


There is a vast array of RPGs in New Media and some of them are massive (they are actually called MMORPGs – or for the uninitiated Massively Multi-player Online Role Playing Games). The online form of these games means the basic creaturely constraints of space and time are negated or absent entirely. Physical community is unnecessary in order for the game to work. Our primal biological and typical way of gathering as a community of human beings for entertainment has been short-circuited by instant access to the internet wherever we are, and at any time. As a teacher at an inner-city high school in London, I could notice how World of Warcraft (for example) was having a detrimental effect on some of my students. The obsession of the game could be indulged almost seamlessly around mealtime, bedtime and home-work (if that happened). My guess is that some of the young people exerted influence on the family dynamics in order to play more, taking supper into their rooms, and spending more and more time closed away from the other members of their family. Admittedly for some of them the game was a relief from certain harsh realities.

I think it is worth thinking about space and time in general as we consider New Media. How can we  engage with New Media in, at least, a benign way if not a positive way? It has been my observation that immersion into such games comes at the expense of looking after your body and letting your mind rest. It has a detrimental impact on all other areas of your life. I think for those people who can play MMORPGs for a little while (say 3 hours once per week) there is much enjoyment to be had. It would be not so different than watching a movie. However, I think that many of these games are intentional about making it difficult to detach and do other things. Without the basic creaturely constraints, our minds are at risk of being altered and artificially stimulated to obsess in a way that does not necessarily involve the other aspects of our lives (physical interaction with other humans, the feeling of warm sunlight on our skin, showering, eating, sleeping…). Something of primal importance for us is being lost, or at least marginalized, namely story-telling and community, not to mention actual physical adventures in the forest on our bikes.

Continue reading “Stranger Things and the difference between virtual and physical RPGs”