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.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Natural Law: Ecstasis and Telos

ETIAMSI DAREMUS . . . NON ESSE DEUM. These temerarious but still tenuously introduced words in the introduction (Prolegomena) of Hugo Grotius's treatise De iure belli ac pacis (1625) symbolize a historical phenomenon of which anyone who studies the Natural Law must be aware. In this treatise on international relations, Grotius (1583-1645), commonly called the "Father of International Law" (although the title could equally be claimed by the Spaniard and Catholic Vittoria), relied on the doctrine of the Natural Law. Though the Dutch Grotius was himself a Christian [of Protestant bent, he wrote an apologetic of Christianity in Dutch, Vewisjs van den waren Godsdienst (1622) which was translated into Latin as De veritate religionis Christianae (1627)], he argued that the Natural Law would bind us etiamsi daremus . . . non esse Deum, even if "we dare to say there is no God." It is true that the Natural Law binds all men, including the Atheist, and if understood in this manner, there is no controversy to what was said. But Grotius's etiamsi is indicative of something in the air a little more subtle, and a little more ominous. It is perhaps the first shoot, the first flowering of a Natural Law theory wholly unmoored from the notion of God, if such a theory is even tenable. It was the maturation of trend of turning away from God being the measure of all things to a Protagorean man is the measure of all things. In his classic The Natural Law: A Study in Legal and Social History (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1988), the historian of Natural Law, Henrich Rommen, identifies Grotius as the "turning point." The "turn," however, started much earlier than Grotius.

In his excellent book Biblical Natural Law (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), Matthew Levering, an Associate Professor of Theology at Ave Maria University, discusses this "turn" from a theocentric notion of Natural Law to an anthropocentric notion of Natural Law. According to Matthew Levering, two things are required for a wholesome (and also Biblical, i.e., consistent with Revelation) theory of Natural Law. The first he calls ecstasis. The second he calls teleology.

What do these words mean? Ecstasis is the transliteration of a Greek word ekstasis or ἔκστασις. It means to "extend outwards" to "stretch out." It is the word from which we derive the English word ecstasy. It is used here for the desire of union with the Divine. This ecstasis need not be religious in origin, though it most often is. For example, the neo-Platonic philosopher Plotinus, no Christian himself, in his Enneads speaks of his ecstasis, his virtual experience of union, with his philosophic notion of God which was based upon a natural theology. The term ecstasis was readily adopted by Christians to describe the union with the Trinity. Levering's point is that the Natural Law must recognize ecstasis, a desire for union with God, which means that our lives on earth are ordered to God.

The second requirement that Levering argues is required for an adequate theory of Natural Law is a teleology of nature. The word teleology is a technical word derived from a combination of two Greek words: telos (τέλος), which means "end", "purpose", or "goal," and logos (λόγος), a word which means "reason" or "word." For example, in the Gospel of Christ Christ is referred to as the Logos of God, the Word or Reason (logos) of God. John 1:1. In St. Paul's letter to the Romans, Christ is also referred to the end (telos) of the Law. Rom. 10:4. As applied to Nature, a teleological view would include the concept that God created nature, including the nature of man, and that He did so with a plan, a purpose, an end, a reason in view.

In short, requiring a theory of Natural Law to possess a notion of ecstasis and a notion of teleological nature means that God is both the origin and the end of things, including man. God is the alpha (A), He is the omega (Ω), the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet, and the first and last letters of the Natural Law. Put another way, the requirement that a theory of Natural Law include notions of ecstasis and notions of teleology in nature mean that a theory of Natural Law must presuppose Eternal Law.

The traditional or classical notion of Natural Law includes both notions of ecstasis and teleology in nature. This notion of Natural Law found its most mature expression among the Stoics, e.g., Cicero, and was advocated in modified form by the Church, e.g., in St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas, as consonant with, and in fact revealed in, Scripture and Tradition. Many modern theories of the Natural Law shun notions of ecstasis. They turn not outward to God (ecstasis), but wholly inward (in what may be called an entasis) to man. Though a turning inward to man is not fatal to a theory of the Natural Law (in fact it would be part of our discovery of our nature), it is when this turning inward is exclusive or in opposition to the turning outward to God that it becomes a problematic to a theory of Natural Law.

The story of how the Natural Law came to be progressively emancipated from its theological roots is a long one, and there are many controversial points about it, for example who initiated the process, and whether the arguments made to justify such emancipation are valid or not. Regardless, Levering calls this disassociation from of the Natural Law from its original theological roots the "Anthropocentric Turn" or "Anthropocentric Shift." He wrests out eight individuals from history to make his point. And for the next series of reflection we will rely on his choices: Renè Descartes, Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, David Hume, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Immanuel Kant, George W. F. Hegel, and Friederich Nietzsche. There are many others Levering could have chosen (e.g., Ockham, Scotus, Machiavelli, or Luther). Though these may (or may not) have been believers in various shades, the "natural law" of Messrs. Hobbes, Hume, Locke, Rousseau, Kant, and Hegel is not the Natural Law. These gentlemen's ideas are already on the way out of the Porch (Stoa) or the Church (Ekklesia) , and in some instances completely out of the Porch or the Church into the Wilderness.

To a greater or lesser degree, each of these men rejected the notion of ecstasis and teleology in nature. In some cases, there was no apparent rejection, but some of their presuppositions would lead to or implied such rejection. Each played a part in the Western world's turning from God as the measure of all things, including Law, to Man as the measure of all things, in particular Law. Some of their notions have prevailed and are assumed in modern culture, and we have to be aware of them in order to understand better the Natural Law, to reject these ideas, or to respond to them.


  1. Thanks! We each help one another discern a sort of "Unifying Theory" for how Natural Law has been dissipated.

    My "added" insight to Levering's is this: Hobbes, Rousseau, Locke et al "became" cynical, because of bona fide abuses from "Catholic" peasants and Kings, who also betrayed God. Even today, observing everyday Catholics and Protestants, one can readily encounter "mob behavior" even in the most devout groups, which would turn any affected Christian into an Atheist. Our Catechism On Sin teaches: "Sin leads others to sin".

    Since none of us are exempt from Original Sin, and since God Himself warned of abuses of Kings since Saul and David (think of Henry VIII as a more contemporary "wishful" ape of David), the Beginnings of our fall away from Natural Law are already manifest when our Elder Brothers in Faith insisted upon a King, under pressure of their dessert foes.

    It took us this long, and WWI, to finally dispell the Myth of Divine Right of Kings. Along the way, it was inevitable that we'd have our Hobbes, Locke, Machiavelli's and Rousseau's. In a way, we have no standing to scapegoat them, once we realize...

    we are co-responsible. How can we, for instance, restore Communion with God, when we still abuse His gifted Artists, for instance. This abuse existed long before Locke's "market theory". In Hindu culture, the Artist is the second lowest caste.

    There is something in our mob nature, which tends to crucify the gifted ones, and the Passion of Christ reveals this hidden truth.

    The answer lies in ourselves.

  2. (I refer for instance, to Piracy, and gross abuses alleged by many of my professional & gifted "genius" colleagues in liturgical and devotional music.

    I also speak on behalf of all artists wanting to serve, but who are neglected of needed commissions. We all tend to buy Ikea or Wal-Mart furniture now, never commissioning anything hand-made; and and look the other way while our kinsmen pirate away people's livelihoods.

    It's on the same level as looking the other way when people abort. In fact, the behaviors listed are all related.

    If I were Chaucer or Boccacio, I would parody modern atheists and Christians together, doing the same things, which of course, is a picture of reality. But on a positive note, I would conclude my 'Decameron' with a useful way out, that is, to atone, with links so we can each renumerate Christ's "least ones" what we stole from them.)