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.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Lex Aeterna: In Church, Scripture, and the Pagan

WHEN HE STATED in his compilation of the Saxon laws that "God is himself law" (see prior post), Eike von Repgow was referring to the notion of Eternal Law. The Eternal Law is the belief that God, the Creator and Ruler of the Universe, has a master plan or ratio that is found in His Creation and is enforced in His Providence. The existence of the Eternal Law is part of that assurance that there is a Reason behind God's Creation and its continued sustaining through His Providence. This plan or ratio goes beyond the material world. It includes the rational creation, and in particular mankind, for whom God has great solicitude. This solicitude, this love that God has for mankind, extends itself, in what has been called the "scandal of particularity," to reach each man and every woman, even every sparrow's fall. It is the firm hope that human life, my and my loved ones' lives, my neighbor's life, even my enemy's life, by God's design, has a purpose or end. Life is not, as Macbeth would have it,

. . . but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon a stage,
And then is heard no more

It is not, a

. . . tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing
(Shakespeare, Macbeth, Act V, sc. v.)

Embracing the reality of the Eternal Law encompasses a rejection of metaphysical pessimism. The doctrine insists that there is a purpose, plan, archetype, or design under which Creation and Providence are governed. This is what is called the Eternal Law.

We must start with this notion of the Eternal Law to understand the classical and traditional doctrine of the Natural Law, in both its Graeco-Roman and Christian roots. The notion of an Eternal Law is a truth that modernly has been disbelieved, discarded, and forgotten, and it must be relearned. In his book Creative Fidelity, the Catholic philosopher Gabriel Marcel speaks of the duty of the believer to become aware of the non-believer that is within him. This is also true with respect to our life in common. We have a duty to try to recognize where our society disbelieves, and where it ambles without guidance in the sloughs of practical atheism. Both individually and as a civil society, we are to have the same attitude as the man in the Gospels: Credo, Domine; adjuva incredulitatem meam! "Lord, I believe, help Thou my unbelief!" (Mark 9:24). This should be our approach, our earnest prayer, in engaging with the doctrine of Eternal Law. For many--to accept it in its full implications--it will require a conversion of the mind and the heart.

In Article 1 to Question 91 of the first part of the second part (Prima Secundae Partis) of his Summa Theologica, St. Thomas Aquinas asks whether there is an Eternal Law, a question he answers affirmatively. In answering the question he has posed, St. Thomas refers back to his definition of law as a "dictate of practical reason emanating from the ruler who governs a perfect community." ST IaIIae Q. 91, art.1, resp.; see also ST IaIIae Q. 90, art.4, resp. If God's existence and role as Creator and divine Provider are granted (and Thomas had treated those matters in a prior part of his Summa), St. Thomas observes that it follows, "the whole community of the universe is governed by Divine Reason." This governance by God "has the nature of a law," and since God's Reason is eternal, it is evident that this law must likewise be eternal. ST IaIIae Q. 91, art.1, resp. (As an aside, it may be observed that the Declaration of Independence, invokes a "firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence," which implicitly invokes the notion of an Eternal Law. So it is we that ought to look incredulously at the professorate of our law schools mentioned in our earlier post.)

In trying to understand the Eternal Law, however, man suffers from an intrinsic limitation. We have no direct knowledge of the Eternal Law. It is not seen in written form like a human statute; it is not announced in the public square; it is not obviously enforced by a league of visible policemen and judges. There are no angels handing out tickets or pursuing indictments. But this is not a cause for despair, nor, as the skeptics would have it, a matter for ridicule (one thinks of Jeremy Bentham in this regard). For the believer, it is a truth revealed in Scripture and propounded by the Teaching Church that there is an Eternal Law. It is a truth that is graspable through reason, though through a glass darkly. Therefore, it is a belief that may be found among the best of the pagans. It is a belief which may be shared with men and women of good will.

In Dignitatis Humanae (No. 3), for example, the Second Vatican Council points out that the

supreme rule of life is the divine law itself, the eternal, objective and universal law by which God out of his wisdom and love arranges, directs and governs the whole world and the paths of the human community. God has enabled man to share in this divine law, and hence man is able under the gentle guidance of God's providence increasingly to recognize the unchanging truth.

The Church's teaching rests soundly upon Scripture and Tradition, in particular, St. Augustine's and St. Thomas's classic teaching of the Eternal Law.

In his 1993 encyclical Veritatis Splendor, Pope John Paul II quoted this specific part of Dignitatis Humanae, and then commented (Nos. 43-44):

The Council refers back to the classic teaching on God's eternal law. Saint Augustine defines this as "the reason or the will of God, who commands us to respect the natural order and forbids us to disturb it." Saint Thomas identifies it with "the type of the divine wisdom as moving all things to their due end." And God's wisdom is providence, a love which cares. God himself loves and cares, in the most literal and basic sense, for all creation (cf. Wis 7:22; 8:11). But God provides for man differently from the way in which he provides for beings which are not persons. He cares for man not "from without," through the laws of physical nature, but "from within," through reason, which, by its natural knowledge of God's eternal law, is consequently able to show man the right direction to take in his free actions. In this way God calls man to participate in his own providence, since he desires to guide the world--not only the world of nature but also the world of human persons--through man himself, through man's reasonable and responsible care. The natural law enters here as the human expression of God's eternal law. Saint Thomas writes: "Among all others, the rational creature is subject to divine providence in the most excellent way, insofar as it partakes of a share of providence, being provident both for itself and for others. Thus it has a share of the Eternal Reason, whereby it has a natural inclination to its proper act and end. This participation of the eternal law in the rational creature is called natural law."

The Church has often made reference to the Thomistic doctrine of natural law, including it in her own teaching on morality. Thus my Venerable Predecessor Leo XIII emphasized the essential subordination of reason and human law to the Wisdom of God and to his law. After stating that "the natural law is written and engraved in the heart of each and every man, since it is none other than human reason itself which commands us to do good and counsels us not to sin," Leo XIII appealed to the "higher reason" of the divine Lawgiver: "But this prescription of human reason could not have the force of law unless it were the voice and the interpreter of some higher reason to which our spirit and our freedom must be subject." Indeed, the force of law consists in its authority to impose duties, to confer rights and to sanction certain behaviour: "Now all of this, clearly, could not exist in man if, as his own supreme legislator, he gave himself the rule of his own actions." And he concluded: "It follows that the natural law is itself the eternal law, implanted in beings endowed with reason, and inclining them towards their right action and end, it is none other than the eternal reason of the Creator and Ruler of the universe."

(Pope John Paul II, Veritatis Splendor, Nos. 43-44 (citations omitted) (The encylical quoted by John Paul II is Leo XIII's Libertas Praestantissimum of June 20, 1888)).

The Scriptural references to the Eternal Law are legion. It is usually referred to under the personification of Divine Wisdom. Suffice us to point out Proverbs 8:15-16, and Proverbs 8:23-36.

By me kings reign, and lawgivers decree just things,
By me princes rule, and the mighty decree justice
I was set up from eternity, and of old before the earth was made.
The depths were not as yet, and I was already conceived. neither had the fountains of waters as yet sprung out:
The mountains with their huge bulk had not as yet been established: before the hills I was brought forth:
He had not yet made the earth, nor the rivers, nor the poles of
the world.
When he prepared the heavens, I was present: when with a certain law
and compass he enclosed the depths:
When he established the sky above, and poised the fountains of waters:
When he compassed the sea with its bounds, and set a law to the waters that they should not pass their limits:
When he balanced the foundations of the earth; I was with him forming all things: and was delighted every day, playing before him at all times;
Playing in the world: and my delights were to be with the children of men.
Now therefore, ye children, hear me: Blessed are they that keep my ways.
Hear instruction and be wise, and refuse it not.
Blessed is the man that heareth me, and that watcheth daily at my
gates, and waiteth at the posts of my doors.
He that shall find me, shall find life, and shall have salvation from the Lord:
But he that shall sin against me, shall hurt his own soul.
All that hate me love death.

The existence of an Eternal Law is not only a religious or revealed truth. There is a basis in reason for believing in the Eternal Law, and consequently one can find an understanding of the Eternal Law in the leading lights of Greece and Rome, such as the philosopher Plato or the Roman statesman Cicero. For example, in writing his book on the Natural Law, the English Protestant divine Nathanael Culverwell (1619-1651), generally associated with the Cambridge Platonists, relied on the Jesuit Francisco Suárez and the Dominican Thomas Aquinas. But he also accessed the writings of the pagans Plato and Cicero to show how even the pagans had a notion of a Law above all law, a law that governed the cosmos, and that was the archetype or model, of what human laws should be. Aggregating references to Plato's dialogues, including Cratylus and Laws, and Plotinus's Enneads , Culverwell summarizes:

This the Platonists would call ἰδέαντωννόμων [the ideal of laws], and would willingly heap such honourable titles as these upon it, ὁνόμοςἀρχηγὸς, πρωτουργὸς, αὐτοδίκαιος, αὐτόκαλος, αὐτοάγαθος, ὁὄντωςνόμος, ὁνόμοςσπερματικός [the archetypal law, primary, intrinsically just, beautiful and good, the essential law, the seminal law]. And the greatest happinesse the other Lawes can arrive unto, is this, that they be Νόμοιδουλεύοντες, καὶὑπηρετουντες, ministring and subservient Lawes; waiting upon this their Royal Law. Σκιαὶνόμων; Or as they would choose to stile them, Νομοειδεις, some shadows & appearances of this bright and glorious Law, or at the best, they would be esteemed by them but Νόμοιἔκγονοι, the noble off-spring and progeny of Lawes; blessing this womb that bare them, and this breast that gave them suck.

Culverwell also draws from Cicero's book De Legibus II.4.8 to show that this notion was carried over and adopted by the Romans. As he freely translated it:

Wise men did ever look upon a Law, not as on a spark struck from human intellectuals, not blown up or kindled with popular breath, but they thought it an eternal light shining from God himself irradiating, guiding, and ruling the whole Universe; most sweetly and powerfully discovering what wayes were to be chosen, and what to be refused. And the minde of God himself is the centre of Lawes, from which they were drawn, and into which they must return.

(NathanielCulverwell, An Elegant and Learned Discourse of the Light of Nature (Robert A. Greene and Hugh MacCallum, eds.) (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2001), 36-37.)

The notion of the Eternal Law is thus part of our cultural and religious heritage. In our next post, we will address in a little greater detail St. Thomas Aquinas's teachings about the Eternal Law, a teaching which the Church has adopted as her own.

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