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.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Lex Aeterna: τὸ γνωστὸν του νόμου

IN OUR EARLIER POSTINGS, we had discussed how the Eternal Law, like God, is empirically hidden from us. It is not detectable by any our five senses, and so knowledge of its existence must be obtained in a way other than relying purely on the senses. Knowledge of the existence of the Eternal Law and what it encompasses be gained in two ways. First, these may be accepted by Faith as a result of having been revealed by God. Secondly, they may be gleaned, as the Pagans managed, by extrapolating what is learned from the visible creation. "No theistic and teleological system of philosophy that acknowledges an intelligent supreme Being can omit the concept of a supreme and eternal law." (Hans Meyer, The Philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas quoted in Heinrich A. Rommen, The Natural Law (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1998), 158 n. 7. ) The Greek and Roman philosophers with theistic and teleological systems of philosophies therefore managed to grasp the truth of the Eternal Law. It follows that, to the extent our political philosophies and philosophies of law or jurisprudences omit mention of the existence of a supreme and eternal law, they are neither theistic nor teleogical, i.e., they are practically atheistic and have no meaning or end. The political philosophy or jurisprudence that does not recognize a notion of an Eternal Law is therefore untrue, or at least seriously limited and defective, if for no other reason than because it does not recognize that man and his nature has any meaningful end or purpose (what is called entelechy).

(photo from of Violet Oakley's Divine Law, see

Whether accepted by Revelation or gained through Reason, our notions of the Eternal Law are dark and limited, and, when based on Reason alone without Revelation's aid, prone to error as a result of vice, poor education, cultural inheritances, or simple weakness of mind. Even the most naturally virtuous, dispassionate, honest, and sincere seeker, the Aristotelian σπουδαῖος (spoudaios = a very diligent, earnest, zealous and naturally good person), is wooing and is wooed by an unfathomable Mystery, an Other. And if the Eternal Law is in fact God, as St. Thomas teaches, it follows that, with our finite minds, even the best and brightest of us can never comprehend it on this earth. Si comprehenderis non est Lex Aeterna. If you understand it, it is not the Eternal Law. You simply will never get the arms of your mind about it.

Though the Eternal Law is one respect hidden, and therefore cannot be wholly known, it does not follow that it is entirely hidden. The existence of the Eternal Law and what it comprehends can be known in part. Likewise, it does it follow that we cannot know what it is not. By reasoning from created things, we are able to grasp heavenly realities. The law we know is part of God's creation. Nathanael Culverwell (whom we mentioned in our prior posting) explains:

Now as God himself shews somewhat of his face in the glasse [i.e, mirror] of creatures, so the beauty of this [Eternal] Law gives some representations of it self in those pure derivations of inferiour Lawes that stream from it. And as we ascend to the first and supreme being, by steps of second causes; so we may climb up to a sight of this eternal Law, by those fruitful branches of secondary Lawes, which seem to have their root in earth, when as indeed it is in heaven; and that I may vary a little that of the Apostle to the Romanes, The invisible Law of God long before the creation of the world, is now clearly seen being understood by those Lawes which do appear, so that τὸ γνωστὸν του νόμου [the knowledge of the law] is manifested in them, God having shown it to them.

Culverwell, 36 (citing Rom. 1:20).

In Culverwell's words, God is mirrored in his creatures, including the human law we are familiar with, so we may "climb up" from our knowledge of human legislators and human laws to gain a "sight" of the Eternal Law. We must not think that the human lawgiver and human laws are rooted in the earth only, as the human lawgiver and and the institution of human law in fact owe their existence to the Eternal Law or God. Knowledge of the existence of the Eternal Law and its content--what Culverwell rather ungainfully calls τὸγ νωστὸν του νόμου (to gnoston tou nomou)--may thus be gained by extrapolating from the lawgiver and the law that we do know through a process called the analogy of being (analogia entis).

This principle is well described by St. Bonaventure:

All created things of this sensible world lead the soul of the contemplative and wise man toward the eternal God, and this because He is the first, most powerful, wise, and best principle, the eternal origin, light, and fullness, the efficient, exemplary, and ordering art of which they are the shadows, resonances, and pictures. They are vestiges, likenesses, and images divinely given to us as first premises to lead the mind to God. They are exemplars to be used by minds still rude and sensory, so that through such sensible signs, which they see, they may be transferred to the intelligible which they do not see, as through signs to the thing signified.

Omnes creaturae istius sensibilis mundi animum contemplantis et sapientis ducunt in Deum aeternum, pro eo quod illius primi principii potentissimi, sapientissimi et optimi, illius aeternae originis, lucis et plenitudinis, illius, inquam, artis efficientis, exemplantis et ordinantis sunt umbrae, resonantiae et picturae, vestigia, simulacra et spectacula nobis ad contuendum Deum proposita et signa divinitus data; quae, inquam, sunt exemplaria vel potius exemplata, proposita mentibus adhuc rudibus et sensibilibus, ut per sensibilia, quae vident, transferantur ad intelligibilia, quae non vident, tanquam per signa ad signata.

St. Bonaventure, Itinerarium mentis ad Deum (The Mind's Road to God), 2.11.

Applied to the Eternal Law, the principle works as follows. God is the Creator of the cosmos, a world which He brought forth from nothing (ex nihilo) as if a divine artisan, and so God must share some quality with the artisan that we do see. God also is the Ruler of that world, though He rules it in a manner that we do not physically see. But, in ruling the universe, He must share in the qualities of the earthly ruler that we do see, though He does so eminently. Lastly, the Eternal Law we do not see, though we see its effects; but it must share some analogy with the natural moral law we do have some knowledge of, or the human law which we clearly see.

The principle is well-handled by Timothy McDermott in his Summa Theologiae: A Concise Translation (Westminster: Christian Classics, 1989), who is his paraphrase/translation of St. Thomas has the following:

No one but God and those blessed with the vision of God can know the eternal law in itself. But all knowledge of truth is a light radiating from the eternal law, and everyone knows some truth, if only the general principles of the law that we have in us by nature. Those who know more than others know the eternal law better. We can know the hidden things of God by looking at the things that he has made, but no one fully comprehends the eternal law because its effects do not fully reveal it.

(p. 284)

It is from this basis that St. Thomas begins his philosophical analysis of the Eternal Law. St. Thomas handles his discussion of the Eternal Law in Question 93 of the second part of the first part (Prima Secundae) of his Summa Theologica by analogizing what he knows about an earthly artisan and an earthly ruler. St. Thomas observes that an artisan must have an archetype or plan (in Latin, a ratio) of the things he intends to make prior to making them. Similarly, a ruler must have an archetype or ordering idea, a blueprint (ratio ordinis) that guides him in governing those subject to him. That ordering idea (ratio ordinis), which is based upon reason, has the nature of law if it is aimed at the common good, and promulgated by the one who has care of the community. ST IaIIae, Q. 93, art.1, resp. Since God is both Creator and Governor of the world--which includes non-rational and rational creatures--it follows that the idea or archetype of the created world that is found in the Divine Wisdom (ratio divinae sapientiae) has the character of law (obtinet rationem legis). The Eternal Law is nothing else but the plan or archetype of the Divine Wisdom--the ratio or the logos--that is made manifest in His creation. Id.

In his work The Philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas, Etienne Gilson summarizes Aquinas's teaching regarding the Eternal Law thus:

The first and vastest of all [communities] is the Universe. The entirety of beings created by God and maintained in existence by His will, can be considered as an immense society of which we are citizens; and not only we, but also all animals and things. There is not a single creature, animate or inanimate, which does not act in conformity with certain rules and in view of certain ends. Animals and things follow these rules and tend towards these ends without knowing them; man, on the contrary, is conscious of them and his moral justice consists in accepting them voluntarily. All laws of nature, all the laws of morality and of society must therefore be considered as so many particular instances of one and the same law, viz., the divine law. But the law by which God wills the universe to be governed is necessarily eternal as God is Himself; eternal law is, therefore, the name given to this first law, which is the source of all other laws.

(Etienne Gilson, The Philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas (New York: Dorset Press) (Edward Bullough, trans.), 327.)

Our next post will address the issue of whether God is bound by or subject to the Eternal Law, and the relationship between the divine Will and the divine Reason.

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