Natural Law

I was taught, like most everyone, that natural law was the law of natures, with “natural” meaning whatever was ordered to the flourishing of the thing, e.g. flourishing trees have big, lush leaves and no rot. When we turn to Thomas, however, supposedly the supreme authority on natural law, and find him insisting: 

It is therefore evident that the natural law is nothing else than the rational creature’s participation of the eternal law.

The rational creature? Weren’t all natures supposed to be the rule of their action? What does reason have to do with anything? 

There are times when it seems Thomas suggests the “law of natures” reading, like when he says 

Wherefore, since all things subject to Divine providence are ruled and measured by the eternal law, as was stated above (Article 1); it is evident that all things partake somewhat of the eternal law, insofar as, namely, from its being imprinted on them, they derive their respective inclinations to their proper acts and ends.

But the quotation is taken out of context and is speaking about providence and not the natural law.  Though Thomas says that natures “participate” in the eternal law and that natural law is a participation, irrational beings participate by having ends impressed on them as opposed to having them as ends. While the end is a principle of all natural agents, it only perfects the agent when it has the end as pre-possessed, which requires the end be known. The plant is perfected by water only as possessed or consumed, the beast has its sensible powers perfected by seeing water but not in such a way to make it a dominus of its acts of drinking, but only a person has his principles of practical action perfected by pre-possessed end putting him in control of his drinking. 

What I was taught as natural law is providence or the eternal law. Natural law is, as Thomas says, is  providence within providence, or an agent knowingly acting for an end within a cosmos of things unknowingly acting for ends in virtue of someone else’s knowledge. 

Natural law is thus a theory of law primarily interested in seeing the person as dominus of his actions within the context of a providential order. Trying to abstract natural law from the providential order by replacing it with a set of brute given basic goods or a scientific insight into a purely natural order where “nature” is understood as not inherently providential is no longer to talk about what Thomas is talking about, and the critique of natural law as “biologism” or “naturalism” or running afoul of the fact-value problem strikes home against a natural law that sees itself as entirely abstracted from providence. Why so? Because if our acting for an end opposes us to nature rather than being the moment when natural beings recognize the teleology and cognition behind the universe then rationality the reason loses its character as participated law and become either the only law or no law at all. 

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