The concept of “Natural Law” is older than civilization. Classical Greece gave us the foundation of science and method of gaining knowledge we call natural law. They had two very different views of Natural Law, which we attribute to Plato and Aristotle.
Though Plato never used the exact words natural law, his Republic is filled with the concept. Plato’s concept of natural law is that we live in an orderly universe. This orderly universe is made up of forms. The most important form is what he called the “Form of the Good.” Plato believed that we are responsible to support the state in shaping or making the Form of the Good in everyone in the state. So to understand Plato’s concept of natural law, we must understand Plato’s concept of the state, which he lays out with the most detail and greatest clarity in his work, the Republic. Plato’s Republic has, according to Socrates, three pillars. “The conception of a higher State, in which ‘no man calls anything his own,’ and in which there is neither ‘marrying nor giving in marriage,’ and ‘kings are philosophers’ and ‘philosophers are kings;’ and there is another and higher education, intellectual as well as moral and religious, of science as well as of art, and not of youth only but of the whole of life.” These are comments by Republic translator Benjamin Jowett. The actual words of Socrates as quoted by Plato follow. “None of them (citizens of the Republic) will have anything specially his or her own.” “…Their legislator, having selected the men, will now select the women and give them to them [the legislator gives selected women to men they the legislator select]…they must live in common houses and meet at common meals…they will be together…And so they will be drawn by a necessity of their natures to have intercourse with each other…” “ until philosophers are kings, or the kings and princes … have the spirit and power of philosophy, and political greatness and wisdom meet in one … cities will never have rest from their evils.”
The philosopher/king, according to Socrates, was to lay these foundational ideas through education. Though he did not use the phrase “establishment of religion,” Plato clearly advocated and established government religion. It was to be put in place by a philosopher/king, enforced by a class he called guardians, based on a state where “no man calls anything his own: and where there is neither “marrying nor giving in marriage.” Though this education would begin with children, it would continue throughout a person’s entire life.
Aristotle, unlike Plato, uses the phrase “natural law.” Aristotle’s views are much more in line with the modern concept of natural law, or as Aristotle called it natural justice. By natural, Aristotle meant universal. By law, Aristotle meant custom or human made law. The very concept of universal laws or customs accepted by everyone was a contradiction to Aristotle. He believed that there was a common law according to or in line with nature.
This idea of a universal law which governed everyone and everything is further developed by the Romans, especially Cicero the Stoics and Marcus Aurelius. Though fraught with many problems, they developed a legal system based on natural law which permitted the Pax Romana.
The philosophical foundations of natural law were formed by many scholastics, the most notable being Thomas Aquinas. Thomas Aquinas used the Augustine’s works on Divine Law and claimed that God put His law into the creation of the material world. To Thomas Aquinas, Natural Law was the part of Divine Law which governed the material universe. English common law is based on this theory of Natural Law.
Isaac Newton accepted this concept of Natural Law and emphasized the rational and physical aspects. Newton viewed natural law as including the laws of gravity and inertia.
John Locke with his view of the social contract continued on Newton, Aquinas, England and Rome’s foundations to make natural or common law the foundation of nations, such as England, France and America. Voltaire took Locke’s views of Natural Law and removed God. “Human law must in every case be based on natural law.” This is a very good statement; however, Voltaire and the rest of the French philosophers around the time of the French Revolution, used the same words, natural law, but changed their meaning. They believed that natural law meant some type of primitive pure precivilization state. They claimed that natural law needed an elite such as themselves to interpret what was true, pure, natural law and what was tainted by the corruption of civilization.
The modern materialist follows the lead of Voltaire and others of the French Revolution in making natural law completely materialist. Once that is done, he now believes, like Socrates in the Republic, that his views of natural law must be forced on those who do not believe.
“It is essential for evolution to become the central core of any educational system, because it is evolution, in the broad sense, that links inorganic nature with life, and the stars with the earth, and matter with mind, and animals with man.” Julian Huxley “Human history is a continuation of biological evolution in a different form.”
Image credit:Detail of The School of Athens by Raffaello Sanzio, 1509, showing Plato (left) and Aristotle (right) Stanza della Segnatura, Palazzi Pontifici, Vatican Wikimedia Commons