Angilbert (fl. ca. 840/50), On the Battle Which was Fought at Fontenoy

The Law of Christians is broken,
Blood by the hands of hell profusely shed like rain,
And the throat of Cerberus bellows songs of joy.

Angelbertus, Versus de Bella que fuit acta Fontaneto

Fracta est lex christianorum
Sanguinis proluvio, unde manus inferorum,
gaudet gula Cerberi.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Jacques Maritain and Natural Law: Natural Law, Gnoseologically Speaking

THE SECOND ELEMENT OF NATURAL LAW identified by Maritain is the gnoseological* (or epistemological) element. How do we know the natural law? How is it that we know it?

Natural law cannot be looked up in a book; it is not a law "all girded up in sheaves." It is an unwritten law, and so unfound in a library's dusty shelves. It is not a thing of man's making.

How then is it to be known? Like all human knowledge, it has been gained in fits and starts, and gained only with struggle and with intellectual effort.

Men know [the natural law] with greater or less difficulty, and in different degrees, running the risk of error here as elsewhere. . . . That every sort of error and deviation is possible in the determination of these things merely proves that our sight is weak, our nature coarse, and that innumerable accidents can corrupt our judgment.

Maritain, 32. It is a false view to believe that morality or religion take less work than training for a marathon, learning to sculpt or paint, learning integral calculus, or exploring the human genome. Morality, like all human endeavors, is subject to some effort, some development, but a development that does not suggest a change in principles, but rather a growth, a deepening, of the understanding of those principles through the application of reason and experience. The natural law, moreover, though fundamentally unalterable does, like all law, must also be adapted to changing historical, social, cultural, and other circumstantial contingencies that arise as part of human freedom. Sometimes the adaptation to contingencies is misread as the natural law itself.

There is, however, a kernel of the natural law, what Maritain calls natural law's "preamble and . . . principle," that is given whole to men, and so seems to be the germ or central core of all further development. "The only practical knowledge all men have," Maritain observes, "naturally and infallibly in common . . . is that we must do good and avoid evil." Maritain, 32. This principle is within us "as a self-evident principle, intellectually perceived by virtue of the concepts involved." Maritain, 32. It is to moral or practical reasoning what the principle of non-contradiction, of identity, or of excluded middle is to speculative reasoning.**

This kernel, preamble, or principle of natural law is not, however, the law itself. Natural law extends beyond this foundational principle. "Natural law is the ensemble of things to do and not to do which follow" from that kernel, preamble, or principle, "in a necessary fashion." Maritain, 32. Once one wanders from the self-evident principle, however, there are myriad examples that may be given of errors, deviations, rejections of the demands that follow necessarily from that self-evident principle. Thus, it may be that there are, as Montaigne noted in his Essays, that incest and stealing (or even pedophilia) have been (or even are) considered virtuous acts, not only by individuals or groups, but even by entire cultures.*** Errors by men, and even by whole cultures, do not impugn the reality of the natural law, any more than a mistake in addition impugns mathematics, or the belief that the sky is a canopy and the stars but holes in it impugns astronomy, or the belief of flat-earthers makes the world something other than spheroid.

The unwritten character of natural law suggests that it can continue to be "read" throughout a man's life, and throughout his history. In other words, knowledge of that law "has increased little by little as man's moral conscience has developed." Maritain, 32. There is therefore an increasing patrimony of moral knowledge among men, just as there is an increasing patrimony of philosophical, or scientific, or medical knowledge among men. Moral knowledge can enjoy increase just like capital or wealth, or like culture. Since our moral knowledge, and hence moral conscience which can be formed by knowledge, has developed in the past, it stands to reason to expect it to develop in the future. "Only when the Gospel has penetrated to the very depth of human substance will natural law appear in its flower and its perfection." Maritain, 33. Maritain thus seems to imply that out knowledge of the natural law is increasing and is asymptotically reaching the limit of the revealed law of the Gospel.****

Teilhard de Chardin's Drawing: Man Evolving to "Omega Point"
Is Maritain Guilty of Such Thinking?

That the law is and what it is, however, is something entirely different from whether that law is known. Nevertheless, knowledge of the law is fundamental to law, since law's promulgation is essential for it to be considered binding among men. In the court of conscience, though perhaps not in the courts of human law, ignorance--if invincible--excuses. "The gnoseological element is therefore fundamental in natural law," for it both binds and excuses. Maritain, 33. How, then, is it that the natural law, and its content, is known?

Here, Maritain again addresses the notion that the natural law is not discovered through the application of conceptual, discursive knowledge. Rather the natural law is discovered through a particular kind of knowledge that he calls knowledge by inclination or connaturality, what in prior postings we have called a sort of intellectual feltness. St. Thomas's teaching that the natural law is discovered through "the guidance of the inclinations of human nature," and Maritain insists that this "should . . . be understood in a much deeper and precise fashion" than which it ordinarily is understood. Maritain, 33. According to Maritain, St. Thomas is suggesting an entirely different way of knowing.
Knowledge by inclination or by connaturality is a kind of knowledge that is not clear, like that obtained through concepts and conceptual judgments. It is obscure, unsystematic, vital knowledge, by means of instinct or sympathy, and in which the intellect, or order to make its judgments, consults the inner leanings of the subject--the experience that he has of himself--and listens to the melody produced by the vibration of deep-rooted tendencies made present in the subject. All this leads to a judgment--not to a judgment based upon concepts, but to a judgment which expresses simply the conformity of reason to tendencies to which it is inclined.
Maritain, 34-35. It is this knowledge by inclination or connaturality (elsewhere Maritain also calls it knowledge by congeniality) that we have called knowledge by intellectual feltness.

This view of the matter--that knowledge of the natural law is principally derived from inclination or connaturality--together with a "historical approach and a philosophical enforcement of the idea of development that the Middle Ages were not equipped to carry out" allows one "to have a completely comprehensive concept of Natural Law." Maritain, 35.

It is unclear to what Maritain refers by "philosophical enforcement of the idea of development that the Middle Ages were not equipped to carry out." What new manner of "philosophical enforcement" is he talking about? Maritain withholds his answers, at least in this text.

Maritain then continues his treatment of the natural law by combining the two fibers of the natural law he earlier distinguished--the ontological (metaphysical) and the gnoseological (epistemological)--into one bound thread. We shall review this effort in our next blog posting.

*From the Greek γνῶσις (gnosis), a word for "knowledge," gnoseology is a now dated term for that branch of philosophy focusing on solving problems about the nature and possibility of knowledge or that part of philosophy concerned with achieving the knowledge of ultimate reality, especially that knowledge that extends beyond sense-experience, that is, that knowledge that is considered metaphysical. The term gnoseology has been superseded in the former sense by "epistemology" and in the latter sense by "metaphysics". In this context, Maritain is using it in its former sense.
**The principles of identity, of excluded middle, and of non-contradiction are the basis of all thinking. They are self-evident principles of speculative reasoning, without which reasoning is virtually impossible. They are impossible to prove, although it can be shown that not accepting them leads to absurdity. The law of identity states that an object is the same as itself: A ≡ A. The principle of contradiction is that contradictory statements cannot both at the same time be true, so that the two propositions A is B and A is not B are mutually exclusive, and cannot both be true. Related to that is the principle of excluded middle, which provides that for any proposition, A, either that proposition is true (A is true), or its negation is (A is untrue). In other words, A cannot both be true and untrue, it must be one or the other.
***Reference is to Montaigne's Essays, specifically, the "Apology for Raymond Sebond," 2:12. The classic reference of stealing as virtuous is to Julius Caesar's The Gallic Wars, where he reports that among the German tribes theft was not considered wrong. The reference to pedophilia is mine, and neither Maritain's or Montaigne's, and is a reference to Islamic practice of marrying child brides based upon the 52-year-old Muhammad's betrothal to 'A'isha, when she was six, and consummation of the marriage when she was nine. Some Muslims find this behavior perfectly acceptable based upon the example of Muhammad, and yet it seems offensive to fundamental moral principles. How can a nine-year-old girl, much less a six-year-old, consent to marriage and to sexual relations? Muhammad, it may be noted, also trespassed the prohibition against incest, when he married his adopted son Said's wife and his cousin (daughter of one his father's sisters), Zainab, after Said divorced her.
****Again, Maritain seems incorrigibly optimistic, as if mankind is morally moving upwards and onwards to some Teilhardian "Omega Point" of morality. Just like knowledge--indeed any moral, intellectual, or material capital--can be gained and can enjoy increase, so also it can be lost. Progress is not ineluctably forward. Maritain seems completely oblivious to the possibility of a retrogression in morals. But perhaps (though the context suggests otherwise) Maritain is referring to the knowledge of the natural law within the Church and not society at large. It would seem then that the Church's increasing patrimony of knowledge of the natural law would not reverse and be lost, protected as the Church is by God's promise of infallibility and indefectibility, even though such teaching may be rejected among men at large, removed from or not enforced by, its laws, and so "lost" within civil society. Thus in confronting various developments of modernity, the Church's teachings on social and economic issues, capital punishment, or on the reasoning behind the prohibition on artificial contraception, for example, have deepened and developed our understanding of the natural law over the last several centuries. Indeed, some of these teachings, in particular those relating to the right use of sexual faculties and such deviations as artificial contraception, homosexuality, and abortion, have become more certain raised from ordinary teaching status to de fide status. Though society at large rejects these teachings, and seems to be moving backwards in respect to them, that has not changed the fact that the Church's patrimony has been visibly enriched by the development. While there must be some development in moral doctrine, as there is in doctrine generally, one walks a very thin line between "development" of an unchanging law (which is legitimate) and "corruption" or "change" of that law (which is illegitimate). Maritain admits that his notion of "development" was not accessible to Medieval thought, but relies (presumably) on modern concepts. (". . . when, moreover, one has realized that St. Thomas's view on the matter call for an historical approach and a philosophical enforcement of the idea of development that the Middle Ages were not equipped to carry into effect . . . ." Maritain, 35). Where did this "idea of development that the Middle Ages were not equipped to carry into effect" come from? What is it that gives us moderns the equipment to carry development into effect which the medievals (or for that matter, the fathers or the apostles) apparently didn't have? This sort of language is disconcerting and seems possibly a bit tainted by presentism, modernism, or perhaps simply modern hubris or a foolish optimism derived from a cheery attitude. (I do not know enough of Maritain's thought to judge competently on this particular issue; hence, I abstain from hasty judgment.) While Maritain has heretofore been critical of Enlightenment thinkers, he subsequently eagerly adopts their notions of human rights, though effort is made to discipline them by tying them to classical natural law theory.

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