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, April 27, 2011

Natural Law's Modern Cousin Germain: Nature, Reason, God, Part 1

WE ARE NEARING THE END OF our review of John Finnis's magisterial presentation of the natural law in his book Natural Law and Natural Rights. This theory is not strictly speaking classical or traditional; it departs from the classical or traditional Thomist theory by minimizing the role of "nature," by bracketing ontological (metaphysical) questions, by accepting the Humean is/ought critique, and by stressing a "pure reason" more akin to Kant than "nature in reason" akin to Aristotle or St. Thomas. Finnis's theory of natural law is within that species of theories of natural law generally called "new" or "integration" theories of natural law. It is, however, to be regarded as allied with the classical theories, and some of its insights are very valuable.

The last chapter of John Finnis's book Natural Law and Natural Rights, entitled "Nature, Reason, God," addresses the issue of whether reason is all there is, or whether there is a faculty beyond reason which we must acknowledge. Granted, reason affords us the notion of basic self-evident human values, which, in Finnis's taxonomy, are life, knowledge, play, aesthetic experience, sociability, practical reasonableness, and religion.* The application of practical reasonableness in the pursuit of these basic goods in one's individual life is the basis of morality. And, when practical reasonableness reaches forth in the ordering of the life of a community, it is the basis of moral, right, just law. Practical reasonableness is explanatory of both the scope and limits of authority, of positive law, of rights, justice, and obligation. Reason obviously yields us much, albeit only with as much detail as the subject matter allows. For a large part of our questions, there will not be ready black-and-white, binary answers, but a sort of range of possibilities of right ways to instantiate the basic human goods, all of which consider the historical, cultural, and other practical contingencies under which man operates hinc et nunc, here and now.

But does reason provide us all answers? What does reason say to the necessary limits of the basic human values? What does reason say about the fact that life, for any individual, ends sometimes after long bouts with difficult neurological diseases, painful cancers, or the tragedy of accidents or war? How does reason respond to the fact that knowledge fades, that the most erudite genius sometimes lapses into the babbling nonsense of senility? All the knowledge in that brain of Pasteur, Einstein, Beethoven, Da Vinci, vanished with their death. Does reason have a response of why both play and art, as satisfying as they are, do not fully satisfy, but leave a wistful yearning that there must be something else? Friendships among men--even the most paradigmatic--are ended by death. Empires, nations, ideas, families, ruling cadres all come and go: there is a rise and a fall to all things. Nothing lasts. The reality of decay abounds. Vanity of vanities, all is vanity." Vanitas vanitatum dixit Ecclesiastes vanitas vanitatum omnia vanitas. (Eccl. 1:2) All these basic goods are like the beauty that Gerard Manley Hopkins speaks of in his poem, "The Leaden Echo":
How to keep — is there any any, is there none such, nowhere known some, bow or brooch or braid or brace, lace, latch or catch or key to keep
Back beauty, keep it, beauty, beauty, . . . from vanishing away?
. . . .
No there’s none, there’s none, O no there’s none,
. . . .
So be beginning, be beginning to despair.
O there’s none; no no no there’s none:
Be beginning to despair, to despair,
Despair, despair, despair, despair.
Reason leads us to the Finis Gloriae Mundi and the In Ictu Oculi of Juan de Valdés Leal. But there it hesitates. Reason is stopped, checked, flummoxed by the awareness that all things are subject to corruption, to decay, to death. Reason is stayed by the memento mori. "Remember, man, that thou art dust and to dust thou shalt return," we hear at the beginning of the Lenten season. "Memento, homo, quia pulvis es, et in pulverem reverteris." Reason may rationalize (which is not really reason, but an escape from reason, an ersatz reason) seek to ignore the question, and then it is not unlike the woman in her boudoir in C. Allan Gilbert's All is Vanity (1892). Looking into the mirror, reason sees itself as fully alive: it explains the here-and-now, but if it looks at the greater picture, does not the ephemerality of youth, of life, of beauty, of all things temporal held so dear show everything to be vanity? Is not the specter of death, and its radical limitation upon all our projects, everywhere, in everything? How does reason take us out all-is-vanity despair? How does reason answer the question, "What, in the long run, is the point of it all?" Does the vanity not lead one to "despair, despair, despair, despair"?

C. Allan Gilbert's "All is Vanity"

In view of these questions, can morality--and by extension--law rest content through a studied, calculated disregard, by simply wearing blinders or remaining oblivious to, and in feigned ignorance of, the great questions of life's meaning, and remain, like Gilbert's woman in her boudoir? Can we bracket law from these questions? No. Decay, corruption, death are realities that demand an answer.

Reasoning about law, like reasoning about anything, ultimately leads us to the fundamental question about the basis of reality itself. The entire construct of law begins with the awareness that man has a certain ensemble of inclinations, essential to his makeup, to his nature. And from this we must recognize a sort of design, an ordering, one which is a "given." And so we must as a given, but by whom?

The fact that human beings have a certain range of urges, drives, or inclinations; and the fact that these have a certain correspondence, parallelism, or 'fit' with the states of affairs that anyone intelligent would consider [to] constitute human flourishing; and the fact that without reasonable direction the inclinations will bring about individual and communal ruin ('natural sanctions'); and the fact that certain psychological, biological, climatic, physical, mechanical, and other like principles, laws, states of affairs, or conditions affect the realization of human well-being in discoverable ways--all these are facts in an order, external to our own understanding, which our understanding can only discover [not make]. This order is often called the order of nature. . . . . The remarkable fact that there is an order of nature which . . . is amenable to human understanding calls for some explanation.

NLNR, 380-81. And yet amongst this undeniable order, there is another reality which must also be acknowledged, a reality which is the opposite of order.

But, as there is order, so there is lack of order in the world, in terms of all four orders: waste in physical nature, error in reasonings, breakdown in culture, unreasonableness in human attitudes and actions.

NLNR, 381. There is, then, an order and disorder, good and evil, yin and yang, an ambiguity in the world. How explain both the order and the disorder, the good and evil, the ambiguity in both man and in the cosmos? So it would seem that "direct speculative questions about the significance, implications, or source of the orderliness of things yield, by themselves, no clear or certain answers." NLNR, 382. The moment that the orderliness of the world would lead you to infer God, in from stage left comes disorderliness, a disorderliness which seems to contradict the inference of a Providential God. What things are raises questions, but perhaps not definitive answers.

And yet if what things are does not provide the basis for any clear conclusions, what of the fact that things are? What of the fact of being, of "sheer existence"? Is there an answer to the question, "Why things are?"

We will address Finnis's view of the matter in the next post.
*The basic good of knowledge is treated in the blog posting Natural Law's Modern Cousin Germain: To Know is Good. The other basic values are generally treated in the posting Natural Law's Modern Cousin German: The Seven Basic Values.

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