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, July 6, 2010

The Capture of Natural Law by Idealogues

BELIEF IN THE EXISTENCE OF NATURAL LAW is, from a historical standpoint, the majority view of Western history, though its influence is presently extremely attenuated. This is to be expected since the West, historically, was the beneficiary of the Graeco-Roman thought and the principal recipient of the Christian Gospel, both of which, by a remarkable coincidence of Providential design, advanced philosophical and theological notions of natural law that were by and large compatible. Two truths, or rather one truth determined philosophically and the same truth determined theologically, combined in the synthesis of the natural law doctrine which has been at the heart of the expression of Catholic Christian moral teaching just like it is in the heart of man to whom the Church preaches the Good News. Belloc's expression the "The Faith is Europe and Europe is the Faith" vividly captures this reality. Though the Gospel has insinuated itself into other nations and other cultures, in none has it had such massive historical, cultural, and institutional influence. Except for Europe (and I include Byzantium and Holy Mother Russia in Europe) there has been no other part of the world where there has been a Christendom.

The language of the natural law has therefore suffered the vicissitudes of history in the West, and has been subject to its accidents and contingencies. Anyone who studies the natural law must be sensitive to the fact that there are times in Western history that work for or against the philosophical doctrine of the natural law. He must be aware that at times the natural law rides the crest of history, sometimes it wallows in the trough. Sometimes it supports established powers; sometimes it is used against them. Sometimes it is used by both sides of a historical struggle between nations, between peoples within nations, or between different interests between citizens within nations. What is true in history is true in the present. There is always danger when the natural law is recruited by those who have temporal gain in an argument.

We therefore have to be sensitive to the possible capture of the philosophy of the natural law by persons who wish to instrumentalize it, to use it as ideology to advance their own peculiar agendas, who are not willing to be governed by it, but who wish to manhandle it and to capitalize on the weight of its claim to objectivity. Not every reformer's or every upholder of the existing order's use of the word "natural right" or "natural law" is to be accepted at face value. In his The Tradition of Natural Law, the philosopher Yves Simon talks about the interaction between history and dialectic and the use (and abuse) of the term "natural law" or its equivalents:
[The] historical situation may work either for a theory of natural law or against it. The very notion of natural law--the meaning of the words "natural law"--is modified by historical and doctrinal contexts. Aristotle, the Stoics, Thomas Aquinas, Grotius, Tom Paine, and Adam Smith, for instance, had used and expounded the notion of natural law. But in their diverse systems of reference natural law has diverse, though not unrelated, meanings. When natural law is associated with individualistic attitudes and economic preoccupations, we can expect the words to mean something different from the "natural just" (or adequate), τὸ δίκαιον, of Aristotle (Ethics 5.7.1134b18) or ius naturale of Aquinas.
Simon, 10. In short, we have to be aware of the distinction between "natural law" as a philosophical or theological concept, and "natural law" as an ideological concept. Indeed, that the natural law has been captured by ideologues has been a criticism hurled against it. We might, for example, take the especially vivid complaints of the Danish jurist Alf Ross (1899-1979), a leading proponent of legal realism and opponent of the natural law:
Like a harlot, natural law is at the disposal of everyone. The ideology does not exist that cannot be defended by an appeal to the law of nature. And, indeed, how can it be otherwise, since the ultimate basis for every natural right lies in a private direct insight, an evidence contemplation, an intuition. Cannot my intuition be just as good as yours? . . . . The historical variability of natural law supports the interpretation that metaphysical postulates are merely constructions to buttress emotional attitudes and the fulfillment of certain needs.
Alf Ross, On Law and Justice (Clark, N.J.: The Lawbook Exchange, 2004), 261 (translation of his Om Ret og Retfærdighed). (One wonders how much of this is a Danish cultural inheritance of Luther's description as reason as a whore.) Ross's argument is not convincing: the abuse of something does not argue against its use. Abusus non tollit usum.

Yet how to distinguish between the use of natural law doctrine and the abuse of natural law doctrine? How do we distinguish between the real natural law and the natural law as captured by ideologues? Yves Simon recognizes the problem: "Now the theory of natural law may assume the character of philosophy or that of ideology, or may combine philosophic and ideological features in various proportions . . . ." Simon, 16.

Natural law is based upon reality, fact, on essences. Ideology, on the other hand, "is a system of propositions which, though undistinguishable so far as expression goes from statements about facts and essences, actually refers not so much to any real state of affairs as to the aspirations of a society at a certain time in its evolution. These three components [aspiration, society, time] distinguish an ideology from philosophy." Simon, 16-17. An ideology, as distinguished from philosophy, is utilitarian, sociological, and evolutionistic (as distinguished from fixed, eternal, or timeless). Simon, 17. Thus we should look toward the possible self interest, parochialism, and timeliness that may be behind the advocate, even one that is sincere.
When what is actually an expression of aspirations assumes the form of statements about things, when these aspirations are those of a definite group, and when that group expresses its timely aspirations in the language of everlasting truth--then, without doubt, it is an ideology that we are dealing with.
Simon, 17. As an example of the capture of natural law by ideology, Simon points to John C. Calhoun's defense of the chattel slavery of Negroes as a natural institution on the part of the South. Here, at least from our current vantage point, the palpable self-interest of the Southern slave owners in defending the "peculiar institution," makes it rather apparent that an ideology is at work here. Unfortunately, not all captures of the natural law are as readily apparent. Additionally, the indicia that Simon points to as signs that there may have been an ideological capture of the natural law doctrine (self-interest, parochialism, and timeliness) are not always infallible. There are times when the natural law may, in fact, be supportive of a truth that may also be advanced ideologically. Every now and then a jingoist, or a rich man, or a secularist, or a materialist communist may spout a natural law truth even though it is to his narrow self-interest.

Yves Simon distinguishes between the objective weight of a system of propositions on the one hand, and the sociological or psychological weight of a system of propositions on the other hand. He identifies an ideology as a system of propositions which have the appearance of objectivity, and that carry heavy sociological weight. Ideology thus apes philosophy. In some cases, the weight of the ideology acts against the weight of an objective system of propositions. At other times, the ideology may act in concert with the objective system, and the apparent weight and objective weight therefore act together. When ideology and objectivity act in concert, the ideology is not deceitful, but "any truth entrusted to an ideology is exposed to all sorts of dangers." Simon, 20.

Simon distinguishes further between what he calls myth, which deals with predictive fact, and so mimics prophecy, where ideology mimics philosophy. Utopia is a vision worked out in ignorance of the contingencies of history. Implied is that neither myth nor utopia nor ideology have anything to do with philosophy, and natural law in the strict sense, and not when accidentally captured by ideology, is part of philosophical, not ideological, thinking.
In contrast with ideology, the law of philosophy is altogether one of objectivity. The object of an aspiration [one of the components of ideology] is not a pure object; it is an object and it is something else, viz., an end. . . . . The object of an ideology is, in spite of appearances without which the ideology would not work, an object of desire. The object of philosophy is pure object.
Simon, 21. Thus, ultimately, passion, and always dangerously the chance of disordered passion (concupiscence), and not reason is what drives ideology.

It is unquestionably difficult to distill philosophy from all ideology. Ideology based upon convention seems always to creep into philosophy in practice. Yet the difficulty in separating the two is not for all that to be given up as in vain.
A philosophy unaffected by any ideological feature would involve a degree of perfection that human affairs does not admit of. All that can be said is that some philosophies succeed better than others in preserving their law of objectivity against the ideological influences of societies where they are conceived. . . . Keeping philosophy "pure" is especially difficult in moral matters, and more particularly in subjects that concern directly and vitally the whole of societies. A treatise on natural law which would be purely philosophic and in no way influenced by the ideological needs of the time is, in fact, almost impossible.
Simon, 22-23.

Ideology is not just a temptation of those in power. It is sometimes a temptation of those who are oppressed. Thus it is that Yves Simon warns against the ideological capture of the natural law by those who have the desire to battle the relativistic, existential, and evolutionistic ethos of the day, all of which, in various ways and for various reasons, deny an objective, universal nature in man. In their zeal to engage in battle, however, the advocates of natural law run the risk of infecting the philosophy of natural law with ideology. The advocate of natural law calls "for a supplement of wisdom on [their] part." Simon, 24.

It is therefore an imperative that anyone who makes an assessment of the history of ideas on natural law be open to the question of "whether or how far they are genuinely philosophical, or whether and how far they are merely ideological." Simon, 27.


  1. On John C. Calhoun's letter, I did not read where he states that the Natural Law defends slavery. I did not find that there. Slavery is a Natural Institution, does not mean it is part of the Natural Law.

    Righteousness and the caste system is part of the Natural Law that makes up the Natural Order. Christendom had a serf system! It is only a matter of degree between chattel slavery and serfdom. John C. Calhoun is NOT an Ideologue but a defender of the Old Order!

    Yves Simon is probably too "politically correct". Philosophy defends and uphold the Old Order. It is Ideologues that crash the system. Slavery is part and parcel of the Old Order.

  2. We could probably debate all day about how close serfdom is to slavedom, and the various degrees of slavery, from extreme chattel slavery, or sexual slavery, to more benign forms seen in some ancient societies such as Greece. There are, in fact, modern forms of more subtle slavery; it's just not called that. Is it a difference of degree or a difference of kind? That's a good question. I'd have to think about it. I think the excerpt I found quoted on the blog did not directly reference the natural instituion aspect of it, but I believe I've read it elsewhere in his work. Calhoun was a brilliant statesman and political, despite this particular flaw. And who doesn't have them? How many of us can see past ourselves to our own evil? That's why prophets are hated.

  3. W Lindsay WheelerJuly 8, 2010 at 8:02 AM

    The anti-slavery movement in America has its roots in New England, the home of the Puritans. The anti-slavery movement began in the most heretical of the Protestant sects, the Unitarians and the Quakers. Methodists also were a key group. That a "truth" can come out of heresy in really abnormal.

    Thomas Bertonneau, writing at "The Brussels Journal", has a series of articles on Eric Voeglin's thesis that modernity is Gnosticism. In his article "Further Remarks on Eric Voegelin and Gnosticism", Mr. Bertonneau displays Voegelin's idea that Puritanism is really Gnosticism. The anti-slavery movement really comes out of Gnosticism. It is about "immantizing the eschaton". Hardly, natural law.

    The article is here

  4. I think you're right about the American abolitionist movement and its inspiration. But there was a Catholic response to chattel slavery, one which is seen in the likes of St. Thomas and the development or extension of his thought in the likes of Las Casas and the School of Salamanca. Its been some time since I've read Voegelin, but I agree in his assessment that much of modern thought, including rights talk, could be considered gnostic. Naturally, immanentizing the eschaton is not what natural law is about. But sometimes you can get to the same conclusion in two or more different ways. Sometimes you accidentally end up where you wanted to be even though you were on the wrong road (e.g., Mormons do not believe in contraception, but for reasons different from Catholics). But it's important to be headed to the right goal and to be on the right way.

  5. Thank you for the article. Yves Simon is now on my reading list. Perhaps he addresses this point, but since the moral law comes to us a priori, how can we know that we are not begging the question by assuming it is *not* utilitarian in nature? If we begin our moral reasoning by rejecting utilitarianism, then naturally we will object to anything utilitarian as being opposed to the moral law. A mere glance at our culture, however, reveals that there are more than a few people who seem to assume that utilitarianism is a self-evident truth.

    --Frank Hermann