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.

Friday, February 26, 2010

The Golden Mouth of Natural Law: St. John Chrysostom on the Natural Law, Homily XIII on Statues

ST. JOHN CHRYSOSTOM RE-ADDRESSED THE ISSUE OF NATURAL LAW in his Homily XIII on the Statues. In the midst of a great rebellion between the Antiochian populace and the forces of Emperor Theodosius, and in the midst of the people's Lenten preparations, St. John sought it fitting remind the people not once, but twice, on the Church's doctrine of the natural moral law and its meaning in their lives.

There is a natural law in man that allows him to discern the good and discern what is evil. In his homily, Chrysostom seeks to prove its existence. He begins his discussion of it by focusing on man's creation, which is appropriate because the font of the natural moral law is the design incorporated into our nature by the God who fashioned it in his image, the God who designed it with an end or purpose in view. The ability to distinguish evil from good is an easily evident faculty in man, and has been with him from time immemorial, even from his creation: "For that God from the beginning, when He formed man, made him capable of discriminating both these, all men make evident." XIII.7.

Icon of St. John Chrysostom

One of the evidences of the natural law is the sense of shame that arises when the natural law is violated. Even in the presence of social inferiors we are ashamed when we are caught in flagrante delicto. A master surprised on his way to a brothel reddens with shame when caught by one of his reliable servants. Another evidence of the natural moral law is the offense we take when falsely accused of a wrong or vice. Hence it is that the law of defamation allows us to "drag those who have done the wrong to the public tribunal." XIII.7. As a result of the shame that arises when violating some internal rule, and the affront that is felt when wrongly accused of violating a rule, it is clear that we have an internal knowledge, an internal compass or governor, that allows us to distinguish between virtue and vice, good and evil. "Thus we can understand what vice is and what virtue is." XIII.7

Christ himself recognized the existence of this natural compass, this natural moral law. When Jesus revealed to us his Beatitudes, Christ taught that he was not introducing a strange, alien law; rather, his moral teachings presupposed and encouraged the natural faculty that man had since his creation, a faculty, really a natural moral law, found in his conscience. "Hoc quippe ipsum et Christus declarans, et demonstrans se nihil novum, aut nostram trascendens naturam sancire . . . . ὅτι οὐδὲν ξένον οὐδὲ ὑπερβαῖνον ἡμῶν τὴν φύσιν νομοθετεῖ . . . . For that reason, at the end of his teaching on the Beatitudes, Christ states: "All things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them." (Matt. 7:12).
"Many words," says He, are not necessary, nor laws of great length, nor a diversity of instruction. Let your own will be the law. [Non opus est multis sermonibus, inquit, neque prolixis legibus, nec varia doctrina: voluntas tua sit lex. Οὐ χρεία πολλῶν λόγων, φησὶν, οὐδὲ μακροτέρων νόμων, οὐδὲ διδασκαλίας ποικίλης· τὸ θέλημά σου γενέσθω νόμος.] Do you wish to receive kindness? Be kind to another. Do you wish to receive mercy? Show mercy to your neighbor. Do you wish to be applauded? Applaud another. Do you wish to be beloved? Exercise love. Do you wish to enjoy the first rank? First concede that place to another. Become yourself the judge, yourself the lawgiver of your own life. And again; "Do not to another what you hate." Tobit 4:16 By the latter precept, he would induce to a departure from iniquity; by the former, to the exercise of virtue. "Do not thou to another," he says, "what you hate." Do you hate to be insulted? Do not insult another. Do you hate to be envied? Envy not another. Do you hate to be deceived? Do not deceive another. And, in a word, in all things, if we hold fast these two precepts, we shall not need any other instruction. For the knowledge of virtue He has implanted in our nature; but the practice of it and the correction He has entrusted to our moral choice.
XIII.7, PG, 49.139-40. The Golden Rule is the fundamental expression of the natural moral law. In a striking statement, not unlike St. Augustine's "love God and do what you will," diliges et quod vis fac [In epist. Ioannis ad Parthos, tract. vii], Chrysostom observes that, in a sense, since the natural law is so much inscribed in our nature, the natural law is our own will. We will that to be law that which we will be done to us. We will not that to be law, which we will not be done to us. Voluntas tua sit lex. Τὸ θέλημά σου γενέσθω νόμος. We thus judge what is right and wrong by one, central standard. We ought not to do to others what we would not want them to do to us. Or we should do unto others what we would want them to do to us. Whether phrased negatively or affirmatively, in Christ's formulation or in Tobit's, this Golden Rule is internalized in man's nature and is the ultimate source of the knowledge of right and wrong. Voluntas tua sit lex! Τὸ θέλημά σου γενέσθω νόμος!

St. John Chrysostom stresses the internal, intrinsic nature of this natural moral law. Though imposed ad extra by the act of creation, we find it promulgated not like some sort of external decree, but like an internal one. In his earlier homily, St. John had described this law as "self-taught," per se discibilem, αὐτοδίδακτον. In a manner of speaking, we are the source of our own law, though this is not to be understood in the sense of a Protagorean "man is the measure of things." We discover the law within ourselves, but we do not create the law within our selves. We are servants to the law within ourselves, recipients of that law, subjects of that internal law; we are not its masters, its framers, its promulgators. We are not legislators, but executors of a law already made. So this law shows itself in common, in shared standards regarding fundamental moral concepts: in our recognizing, say, the value of temperance, or the evil of adultery and the breach of fidelity that comes with it:
In order to know that it is a good thing to exercise temperance, we need no words, nor instruction; for we ourselves have the knowledge of it in our nature, and there is no necessity for labor or fatigue in going about and inquiring whether temperance is good and profitable; but we all acknowledge this with one consent, and no man is in doubt as to this virtue. So also we account adultery to be an evil thing, and neither is there here any need of trouble or learning, that the wickedness of this sin may be known; but we are all self-taught in such judgments; and we applaud virtue, though we do not follow it; as, on the other hand, we hate vice, though we practice it. And this has been an exceeding good work of God; that He has made our conscience, and our power of choice already, and before the action, claim kindred with virtue, and be at enmity with wickedness.
XIII.8 Chrysostom insists that though the natural law is part of our nature, we do not, like the brute animals, act as automatons. Unlike the law of nature, the natural moral law presupposes and guides man's choice, his free will. It is, therefore, a governor of man's free will, and not a deterministic recipe outside of which we cannot act, or outside of which guidance we may not depart.
I said then, the knowledge of each of these things resides within the conscience of all men, and we require no teacher to instruct us in these things; but the regulation of our conduct is left to our choice, and earnestness, and efforts.

Sicut igitur dixi, horum quidem amborum cognitio omnium hominum conscientiae insita est, nec ullo indigemus praeceptore ad haec discenda; emendatio ver laboribus, voluntati et studio data est.

Ὥσπερ οὖν ἔφην, ἡ μὲν γνῶσις ἑκατέρων τούτων ἔγκειται τῷ συνειδότι πάντων ἀνθρώπων, καὶ οὐ δεόμεθα διδασκάλου τινὸς πρὸς τὸ ταῦτα μαθεῖν· ἡ δὲ διόρθωσις λοιπὸν προαιρέσει καὶ σπουδῇ καὶ πόνοις ἐγκεχείρισται.
XIII.9; PG, 49.140. We are not therefore only the natural moral law's executors, we must also be its willing subjects. The reason behind this voluntary aspect of the natural moral law is God's provision for desert, for reward. (Though the provision for reward, as we shall see, also implies the provision for punishment.)
[If] He [God] had made everything to be of nature, we should have departed uncrowned and destitute of reward; and even as the brutes, who receive no reward nor praise for those advantages which they have naturally, so neither should we enjoy any of these things; for natural advantages are not the praise and commendation of those who have them, but of the Giver. For this reason, then, He did not commit all to nature; and again, He did not suffer our will to undertake the whole burden of knowledge, and of right regulation; lest it should despair at the labor of virtue. But conscience suggests to it what ought to be done; and it contributes its own exertions for the accomplishment.
XIII.9. Chrysostom here distinguishes between the faculty of knowing the natural moral law and the faculty or ability to follow it. It is much more difficult, he observes, to follow the natural moral law than it is to know what the natural moral law requires. Therefore, there is a distinction between the facility with which we know that temperance is good for us, and the difficulty which we confront in trying to bridle our intemperate nature. Thus the nature that provides us with the law is different from the nature that resists its application or enforcement. But it is not as if this other side of our nature is entirely recalcitrant, entirely ungovernable and unmanageable. There is in man also a natural tendency or disposition that fits with the natural moral law, that frequently accords with the natural moral law and facilitates its expression. Thus, men feel a natural indignation at being contemptuously treated; they feel a dislike of the insolent even when unaffected personally by their insolence. Men also feel sympathy at seeing others assisted or protected. It is also evidence that we feel solidarity with others of our kind, when we are overcome by those who face calamity, when we experience feelings of tenderness toward each other. "And to this effect a certain wise man speaks significantly: 'Every animal loves his like, and man his neighbor.'" XIII.9.

Though this law is "self-taught," in the sense that we find its expression in conscience, that is not to exclude external sources of that law. God has made provision for proper instruction regarding that law, even outside the internal resource of conscience.
God has provided many other instructors for us besides conscience; viz., fathers for children, masters for servants, husbands for wives, teachers for pupils, law-givers and judges for those who are to be governed, and friends for friends. And frequently too we gain no less from enemies than friends; for when the former reproach us with our offenses, they stir us up, even against our will, to the amendment of them. So many teachers has He set over us, in order that the discovery of what is profitable, and the regulation of our conduct, might be easy to us, the multitude of those things which urge us on toward it not permitting us to fall away from what is expedient for us. For although we should despise parents, yet while we fear magistrates, we shall in any case be more submissive than otherwise. And though we may set them at naught when we sin, we can never escape the rebuke of conscience: and if we dishonor and repel this, yet while fearing the opinion of the many, we shall be the better for it. And though we are destitute of shame with regard to this, the fear of the laws will press on us so as to restrain us, however reluctantly.
XIII.10. There is therefore unquestionably a social or communal aspect to the natural moral law. Despite the fundamental "self-taught" nature of the natural moral law, we are not dealing here with selflaw: each man with a law of his own making. We are not here dealing with the self-making of the radical existentialists, men who claim to make, to define themselves, to define their own nature. The natural moral law is shared in solidarity with all other men, and so all men have a part in our moral lives. It is intended that there be certain social, relational, even authoritarian "walls which environ our race on all sides," multi unidque generi nostro muri sunt, πολλὰ πανταχόθεν ἡμῶν τῷ γένει τὰ τειχία, and like the Heraclitean "city walls," they protect us from evil.
Thus fathers and teachers take the young in hand, and bring them into order; and lawgivers and magistrates, those who are grown up. And servants, as being more inclined to listlessness, in addition to what has been previously mentioned, have their masters to constrain them to temperance; and wives have their husbands. And many are the walls which environ our race on all sides, lest it should too easily slide away, and fall into wickedness. Beside all these too; sicknesses and calamities instruct us. For poverty restrains, and losses sober us, and danger subdues us, and there are many other things of this sort. Does neither father, nor teacher, nor prince, nor lawgiver, nor judge make you fear? Does no friend move you to shame, nor enemy sting you? Does no master chastise? Does no husband instruct? Does no conscience correct you? Still, when bodily sickness comes, it often sets all right; and a loss has made the audacious man to become gentle. And what is more than this, heavy misfortunes, which befall not only ourselves but others too, are often of great advantage to us; and we who ourselves suffered nothing, yet beholding others enduring punishment, have been no less sobered by it than they.
XIII.11. But others do not only serve as negative correctors. Others also sometimes serve as exemplars. "And with respect to right deeds," Chrysostom also adds, "any one may see that this happens; for as when the bad are punished others become better, so whenever the good achieve any thing right, many are urged onward to a similar zeal." XIII.12.

Detail of Icon of St. John Chrysostom

The natural moral law is one that requires constant striving. We are not, Chrysostom notes, like a pitcher or other silver vessel that, once manufactured by the silversmith, retains its order and shape in permanency. We are not hewn out of stone, or hammered of brass. Our souls are rather impermanent in the area of good, in the area of virtue. For the law to govern us requires constant work. We are a work that requires constant maintenance, constant direction, constant instruction, constant reproof. The artisan is always at work on the raw material. which in the area of the natural moral law is the soul. St. John Chrysostom urges his flock not to strive to better themselves:
[F]or we have not lifeless vessels to forge, but reasonable souls. Therefore we do not find you such as we leave you, but when we have taken you, and with manifold labor molded, reformed you and increased your ardor on your departing from this place, the urgency of business, besetting you on every side, again perverts you, and causes us increased difficulty. Therefore, I supplicate and beseech you to put your own hand to the work; and when you depart hence, to show the same earnest regard for your own safety, that I have here shown for your amendment.
XIII.13. There is a sense of urgency in the moral life in addition to the fact that, as reasonable souls, it requires constant monitoring. We must not forget the fact that the natural moral law, and our effort at implementing it, are matters subject to final judgment.

[F]or to every man will He [God] render according to his own works. Wherefore as a mother, when she beholds her son in a fever, while she witnesses his sufferings from choking and inflammation, frequently bewails him, and says to him, "O my son, would that I could sustain your fever, and draw off its flame upon myself!" so now I say, Oh! That by laboring as your substitute, I could do good works for you all! But no, this is not to be done. But of his own doings must each man give the account, and one cannot see one person suffer punishment in the room of another. For this reason I am pained and mourn, that on That Day, when you are called to judgment, I shall not be able to assist you, since, to say the truth, no such confidence of speech with God belongs to me. But even if I had much confidence, I am not holier than Moses, or more righteous than Samuel; of whom it is said, that though they had attained to so great virtue, they could not in any way avail to assist the Jews; inasmuch as that people had given themselves over to excessive negligence. (Jer. 15:1) Since, then, from our own works we shall be punished or saved; let us endeavor, I beseech you, in conjunction with all the other precepts, to fulfill this one; that, finally departing this life with a favorable hope, we may obtain those good things which are promised, through the grace and loving kindness of our Lord Jesus Christ, through Whom and with Whom, to the Father, with the Holy Ghost, be glory both now and ever, world without end. Amen.

Mosaic of St. John Chrysostom in the Hagia Sophia


  1. In this post, I am baffled and dismayed by this sentence you wrote: "Unlike the law of nature, the natural moral law presupposes and guides man's choice, his free will."

    This is a common sentiment amongst all Catholics that write on the Natural law: (1) That there is this underlying distinction between the "Laws of Nature" and the "Natural Law"; (2) That the Laws of Nature imply abnormal, stupid, evil, things.

    Where and what is this distinction? Is there a distinction? Or are Catholics really ignorant of the Natural Law? Is not "Natural Law" mean also the "Laws of Nature"? Is that not synonymous? And how pray tell can one approach The Good without the knowledge of Righteousness and the Golden Mean which are the Laws of Nature? Are not the Laws of Nature the product of the Logos? Or is the Logos only for the Natural Law and the Laws of Nature are from the Devil?

    My second point, is that I notice a problem. How can you write "We are not therefore only the natural moral law's executors, we must also be its willing subjects."

    How do you square the circle? How does one have "Free Will" but then is a "willing subject" to the Natural law? Is that not an oxymoron? And if I engage my "Free Will" to NOT follow the Natural Law, and Death is the result---how is that "Free Will"?

    I notice a conundrum. What is this difficulty between the "Laws of Nature" and the "Natural Law"? Now, I looked at Questia the Online Library and didn't really find anything solid on the "Laws of Nature". What document writes of the "laws of Nature" where the Catholics can point to and say this is evil and wrong and against the Natural Law. Where is Righteousness? Where is the Golden mean? Where is Harmony? Where is the "Combinatorial System" or "the combination of different but related parts"?

    It seems there is massive confusion somewhere in the line. "Houston, we have a problem.

  2. I think we are confronting difficulty in terms. There is not always precision in the use of "law of nature" and the "natural law." Though I have tried to consistently refer to physical laws (e.g., of gravity) or those relating to strictly bodily functions (e.g., digestion) as "laws of nature," and the law of reason or moral law as the "natural law" or "natural moral law," I have sometimes been inconsistent. Obviously, viewed from a purely semantic view or denotatively the "law of nature" is identical to "natural law." But viewed conceptually or connotatively, there is a marked difference between "law of nature" and "natural law," the former being without moral significance, the latter being entirely moral in significance. Moderns try to use the term "natural moral law" to try to alleviate some of the lack of clarity which appears to be causing your woes.

    It's true from my view that both the "law of nature" and the "natural law," that is both physical creation and moral creation, are products of the Logos, and have their end in accord with his design. Ultimately, all law, finds its source in the eternal law, only in different ways.

    As to my "square circle" problem, I am always free to subject myself to law, and I do not see how freedom and subjection to law are inconsistent. Like love and marriage, freedom and law co-exist when things are working well. Can't I freely love my wife, though I bind myself to a promise, that is subject myself to an obligation to love her? The subjection to the law of our own nature is, I think, somewhat similar. Do we lose our free will because we subject ourselves to Christ? I don't think so: we actually broaden it when we submit to the Lord.

    I hope this helps take away some of the static between the communications.

    Thanks for your comments.