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  • What Price "Natural Law"?
  • Gerhart Niemeyer

"Natural" and "law" form a particular symbol pertaining to one mode of discovering the order of goodness, this mode invented by the classical Greek philosophers. They relied on a number of basic experiences and symbolic concepts: (a) the nous (mind, reason); something divine in man participating in the mind of divinity; (b) the distinction between "being" as the immanent order of "things" and "being" as the divine transcendence; (c) the realization that man, possessing language and moral discernment, has an order not merely as a "thing" but also as a participating partner of the transcendence.

In modern times these concepts and underlying experiences have been lost. "Mind" and "rationality" to us mean the opposite of what they meant to the Greek philosophers. We have no longer a concept of "man" resembling theirs; the concept of "soul" [End Page 126] has disappeared; all values are completely relativized. We cannot, therefore, bring back "natural law" simply by reading the classical texts. The awareness of the order of goodness must be regained, but we have to pay a price for that. It probably requires the kind of deeply shaking experiences that came to members of Soviet labor camps as described by Solzhenitsyn and his friends. It also would include jettisoning our Enlightenment concept of history. Short of such sacrifices we would do well to use the concept "natural law" reluctantly, if at all.

There is an order of goodness in the universe, and human knowledge can attain to it. The proposition is made here as an assertion and an affirmation. In the context of the question raised by this paper it comes as a premise which, if we did not have it, would leave us without anything to talk about. The statement avoids not only the terms "ethical," and "moral," but also "law," and "nature,"—all of these being words containing opinions where and how the order of goodness may be discovered, which is the question to be explored in this paper. That question, in our time, is raised for us politically. The frequent and urgent demand that we "return" to natural law, to which sometimes is added "and to classical philosophy," is felt in the context of politics and cultural crisis. The word "return," I take it, is not meant as "return to something that has passed out of reality," but rather, "return to the lost knowledge of an undoubted and continuing reality." At issue, then, is above all knowability, and that concerning the order of goodness, by way of "natural law."

"Natural law" and "the order of goodness in the universe" are not to be taken as synonyms. "Natural law," or, in Aristotle's words, physei dikaion, is a symbolic form of human consciousness which came with classical Greek philosophy. One cannot assume that "before philosophy" people knew nothing about the order of goodness in the universe. At least Aristotle assumes that they did when he observed that philosophy is rooted in men's "wondering,"1 the root of philosophy, but conceded that a "lover of myth" was also in a sense a "lover of wisdom," for "the myth is (also) composed of wonders." Thus the knowledge of goodness through the symbol [End Page 127] of physis (nature) has a specific character, a historical setting, and is attended by certain attitudes.

How can one describe these specifics of "natural law"? First, as Aristotle's remark manifests, philosophy, and with it, the symbol of "nature," are historically related to the myth, a complex relationship which includes both a rejection of the myth as mere "opinion" and an attraction to the myth as evidenced by both Plato and Aristotle, the latter being reported to have said, "the older I grow the more I love the myth." At any rate, Eric Voegelin can say without fear of being refuted that both philosophy and myth began with "the primary experience" of the cosmos as a whole, an experience in which the cosmos with the things in it appear to the eye all at once and hence as a whole, which led Xenophanes to exclaim, "the One is God."2 The distinctive character of the symbol "nature," which does play...


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