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.

Saturday, July 31, 2010

Cardinal Mercier and the Natural Law: Part 7: Moral Good and Moral Evil

MAN HAS FREE WILL. That means he moves about in a moral world with a moral order, a moral order that the conformity with which is good, the nonconformity with which is evil. In what exactly does the distinction between good and evil consist? Upon what is that distinction founded?

Mercier insists that there is a real, intrinsic distinction between moral good and evil. It is not merely something in the eye of the beholder, something subjective, a taste, an individual, particular matter-of-choice. Whether something is morally good or morally evil is not defined by our choice; it exists regardless of our choice; it pre-exists or is antecedent to our choice; it survives our choice and remains the same consequent to our choice; it is absolutely unaffected by our choice. We have no power over the moral order; it is entirely a "given" to us. In short, our choice is judged by conformity to the moral order which is objective.

We are aware of this objective, real, intrinsic distinction between good and evil in three ways. First, it is felt by our conscience. Second, it is confirmed inductively. Third, it can be established deductively.

There is an internal witness to moral good and evil: our conscience. We may quote here the beautiful words of Cardinal Newman:
My nature feels towards the voice of conscience as towards a person. When I obey it, I feel a satisfaction; when I disobey, a soreness-just like that which I feel in pleasing or offending some revered friend.
John Henry Newman, Callista (London 1910), 314-315. Certain things present themselves to our conscience as good and right. Other things present themselves as the opposite: wrong and evil. To take the position that there is not a faculty in us that feels shame, that feels guilt, that judges some things to be good and right and others evil and wrong is, by the common testimony of mankind, untenable.

The fact that we have this internal sense, this internal compass and internal judge, suggests an external, objective moral order which it perceives. The external reality of this order contains the "notes of necessity, universality, and persistence." [229(30)] This external, objective order subjectively sensed by human conscience as one of necessity, universality, and persistence, is the moral order. It presents itself as something over and above-and-beyond the passions and mere self-interest. It is another sort of voice from the urging pleas of our passion, or from the argument of self-interest. It is the echo from another place in the mind's mountains. "An echo implies a voice; a voice a speaker. That speaker I love and I fear." (Newman) Inductively, the most fitting explanation for this is the existence of a moral order "anterior to every code of merely human origin and independent of all contingent circumstances." [229(30)]
Hence, short of denying the natural capacity of human reason to know the truth, and of thus logically professing skepticism, we must admit that the distinction between moral good and evil is founded on the very nature of things.

The third argument is more distant, less personal, but steely and irrefutable. It is deductive. It hits us in the face, though maybe not in the heart, with the logic of syllogism. Something that hits the face like a cold wind is not less true than something which hits us within, like the subtle softness of a man who yields to love. A man's heart can be full of love, but he will die of exposure, just like a man whose heart is full of hate or bitterness, if he persists to go out without a overcoat in a blizzard. Reason is reason to the heart of gold as to the heart of iron.

"The good or right is by definition that which leads to the end of man's rational nature; conversely, we call wrong whatever is in opposition to the end of human nature."
"Now there must be some objective suitable and others suitable to human nature."
Conclusion"Therefore between moral good and evil there must be a distinction which is founded on the nature of things."

[230(30)] Informed by the voice of conscience and inductive and deductive arguments, we can be assured that there is such a thing as a moral order which is founded upon the very nature of things. It is an antecedent given. There is nothing we can do to change it (we are not gods). And even if we were gods, we could not change it. We cannot change the nature of things, and so it follows we cannot change moral good and moral evil.

Our perception of the reality of the moral order is not the result positive or merely extrinsic influences. Someone didn't posit it, suggest it, will it into existence, even God did not arbitrarily posit it. It is so intrinsic, so fundamental that it cannot be changed, even by God, for the moral order, based as it is on the eternal law, is the expression of God himself. And God, who is Eternal Law, does not change. Deus immutabilis est. "The distinction between goodness and badness of human actions is not explained in its ultimate analysis by any extrinsic or positive influence, whether human or divine." [230(31)] (emphasis added).
Nor is the moral order a result of "traditional preposssessions, social conventions or laws." It is not, as Montaigne maintained, the result of educational prejudice. It is not, as Hobbes and Rousseau maintained, the result of the civil law, which, to them was the foundation of all morality. It is not what Puffendorf or Descartes suggest, the result of God's untrammeled will which decides willy nilly what is good and what is evil. The moral order is not even based upon an "absolutely free decree of God," as William of Ockham or John Calvin maintained. [230(31)] Mercier explains.
The opinion that makes the distinction between good and evil depend on the [absolute, untrammeled] free will of God leads to inadmissible consequences: (a) God might then make blasphemy, perjury, violation of contracts and the like obligatory upon us. (b) Whatever is morally good would be obligatory, and even heroism would be a duty forced upon us. (c) If all moral law owed its origin to a free act of the sovereign will of God, a positive revelation would be necessary for us to discern the difference between good and evil [because all good and evil would be based upon an arbitrary edict of God]. Such conclusions as these condemn the principle from which they logically follow.
[230-31(31)] Mercier thus reasonably rejects the notion of a potentia Dei absoluta, and opts for a potentia Dei ordinata.

Since nature is created by God, and moral right and moral wrong is found in the nature of things, it follows that moral right and moral wrong is something that is God's bailiwick, not ours. But even God is limited by who he is, and he cannot make good evil by decree, for that is equivalent to saying that he can change himself. God, who is goodness itself, cannot make a good thing evil or an evil thing good. His power is not absolute in the sense that he can contradict himself or deny himself. Those who want to wrest from God the power to define good and evil are wannabe deicides, wannabe legicides. But just as one cannot squelch the reality of nature, of an objective wrong and right built upon nature, one cannot kill God.

Depiction of Parable of Dives and Lazarus, Codex Aureus Epternacensis (ca. 1040)

It is true that a man can poison his own heart and the heart of his fellows against God, just like he persuade others to sin against the natural law, and to maintain irrationally that there is no natural law. But to claim to be a deicide or a legicide is the most foolish and vain and quixotic of boasts. It is the feigned blindness of one that can see. It is the feigned sight of one who is blind. To claim to be beyond the moral law, to be a creator of it, an Übermensch, is rank idiocy and hubris. These are the raves and rantings of an unbalanced lunatic, of ungoverned, ungovernable modern man. A man in rebellion against the natural order and in rebellion against God.

Friederich Nietzsche

Hear me Nietzsche if you are able! Why did you kick against the goads? Are you there with Dives? Have you learned the foolishness of your utterly blasphemous boast, "Gott is tot"? You, who claimed to arrogate to yourself not only God's potentia ordinata but claimed even a power he did not have, a potentia absoluta? What has become of you? You remain, your boasts notwithstanding, subject to the power of God. You, like Dives, have heard God's voice, the voice of the very God that you claimed to have killed, call you, Stulte! "You Fool!" How much that in your vituperative madness you wrote would you retract! No, Nietzsche. No, no, no, no! let's away to truth!

The "Mouth of Hell" Where Unrepentant Deniers of God and His Law Live

We shall be content to be Lazarus, to be counted among the anawim and not the Übermenschen whose bodies, despite their boasts, get sick, grow old, and die like ours. We trust our inner sense, and we trust our reason: We believe in God, in created nature, and in the moral order that is therein inscribed. And we shall sing with the Saints, not of our own power, but of the one and only God, the sovereign Lord of nature's might, the Magnae potentiae Deus:

Plasmator hominis, Deus,
qui cuncta solus ordinans,
humum iubes producere
reptantis et ferae genus:
Maker of man, who from from Thy throne dost order all things, God alone; by whose decree the teeming earth to reptile and to beast gave birth:
Qui magna rerum corpora,
dictu iubentis vivida,
ut serviant per ordinem
subdens dedisti homini:
The mighty forms that fill the land, instinct with life at Thy command, are given subdued to humankind
for service in their rank assigned.
Repelle a servis tuis,
quicquid per immunditiam,
aut moribus se suggerit,
aut actibus se interserit.
From all Thy servants drive away whate'er of thought impure to-day hath been with open action blent,
or mingled with the heart's intent
Da gaudiorum praemia,
da gratiarum munera:
dissolve litis vincula,
astringe pacis foedera.
In heaven Thine endless joys bestow, and grant Thy gifts of grace below; from chains of strife our souls release, bind fast the gentle bands of peace.
Praesta, Pater piissime,
Patrique compar Unice,
cum Spiritu Paraclito
regnans per omne saeculum.
Grant this, O Father, ever One with Christ, Thy sole-begotten Son, Whom, with the Spirit we adore,
one God, both now and evermore.

(The hymn above, Plasmator hominis Deus, is one of a series of six hymns attributed to Pope St. Gregory the Great each emphasizing one day of the six days of creation. The other hymns are Lucis creator optime, Immensi caeli conditor, Telluris ingens conditor, Caeli Deus sanctissime, and Magnae potentiae Deus.)

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