The first supernatural light upon nature is the light of precept: God commands or forbids something that the mind itself can recognize as right or wrong. Telling us what we already know or could have known may seem superfluous. Yet, as equatorial sunlight prickles the skin, so revelation prickles the mind and wakes it up, and it does this in several different ways.
Precept confronts us because certain matters of right and wrong are so obvious that at some level everyone already knows them. According to Thomas Aquinas, these include all of the things covered by the Decalogue, such as the wrong of adultery and the wrong of theft. If we already know them, then why is confrontation necessary? Because the matter is more subtle than it appears. In one sense, it is impossible to be mistaken about the moral fundamentals; they are right before the eye of the mind. Thus Saint Thomas declares in one place that “the natural reason of every man, of its own accord and at once, judges [these things] to be done or not to be done.” In another sense, however, it is quite possible to be mistaken about the moral fundamentals, for the eye can be averted. Thus he remarks a few pages later, “and yet they need to be promulgated, because human judgment, in a few instances, happens to be led astray concerning them.”
Attention to this subtlety clears up one of his examples. As Saint Thomas famously remarks in another passage, “[T]heft, although it is expressly contrary to the natural law, was not considered wrong among the Germans.” Many readers think he meant that human reason can be totally ignorant even of precepts so basic as “Thou shalt not steal.” On the contrary, not only was theft a punishable offense among the Germans, but, considering the source that Saint Thomas cites (the sixth book of Julius Caesar’s commentaries on the Gallic War), he would have been well aware of the fact. Caesar does not mention the routine Germanic penalties for theft, such as compensation. On the other hand, he says that the Germans considered such offenses so detestable that to propitiate their gods they sought out thieves and robbers to be burned alive. Has Saint Thomas overlooked the passage? There is no need to think so. When he says that theft “was not considered wrong among the Germans,” what he doubtless has in mind is a later passage where Caesar explains that the Germans approved stealing from tribes other than their own.
The manner in which the judgment of these barbarians was “led astray,” then, is not that they were ignorant of the wrong of taking what properly belongs to one’s neighbor, but that they refused to recognize the members of the other tribes as neighbors. They didn’t justify theft as such -- just some theft. They told themselves that they weren’t really thieves. This is very much like the way a philandering man invents excuses for his affairs. Perhaps he tells himself that he isn’t really unfaithful to his wife, because he’ll lie to make sure she isn’t hurt. Or perhaps (especially if he has studied ethics) he tells himself that the “question” of faithfulness is “complicated,” because the other woman is more truly his “wife” than his actual wife is. This is why confrontation is so important; the divine reminder of what we already know has a tendency to cleanse the mind. Such cleansing can operate not only at the level of an individual but at the level of an entire culture; with our favorite evasions burned away, we think more clearly. About what? Geometry? No, but certainly about things like theft and adultery.
Precept also corrects us. Here I am not speaking of the foundational matters, of the principles of right and wrong that we “can’t not know,” but of their more or less remote implications. A great many points of morality that lie within the mind’s capacity of discovery, and that, after reflection, wise people consider obligatory, nevertheless have to be explained to persons who lack wisdom. In fact, even the knowledgeable may make mistakes. “In order, therefore, that man may know without any doubt what he ought to do and what he ought to avoid,” Saint Thomas remarks, “it was necessary for man to be directed in his proper acts by a law given by God, for it is certain that such a law cannot err.” Consider adultery again. As we saw above, though we may need confrontation about it, strictly speaking we don’t need correction about it; the good of marriage is just too obvious for us to pretend that we don’t get it about adultery. Granted, it is not so obvious to the adulterer; habitual duplicity dims the powers of judgment. The good of chastity in all of its dimensions, on the other hand, is not so obvious even in the first place. To most people it seems rather a stretch. They may consider it admirable -- a remote, ideal beauty -- but it is unlikely to strike them as obligatory. Consequently, concerning lines of conduct like divorce, fornication, perversion, “polyamory,” and even prostitution, they do need correction.
The difference between these two spheres of moral knowledge should not be overstated. Are people completely ignorant of the moral character of unchastity? Probably not. Even today, most people involved in sexual sin recognize its impurity more clearly than they let on. But do they see the depth of the problem? That is most unlikely. We need only listen to the way that they speak: “I’m not a tramp. I only sleep with men I like.” Even so, an element of honest ignorance mingles with the element of denial, and so we are right to say that revealed precept does more than admonish us, “You know better.” Concerning the remote implications of the natural law it actually corrects the error, stays the wandering judgment, and imparts certainty where confusion reigned before.
Correction about one vice has consequences for other vices, and ultimately for our grasp of natural law. We have been speaking about the good of chastity, but in order to be deceived about that good, a man must also be deceived about a whole range of other goods. The truest friendship is partnership in a good life; in that respect his friendship is impaired. Justice requires acute perception of what is really due to the other person; in that sense his justice is impaired. Courage requires not mere fearlessness but a right estimate of what things are worth fighting for; in that sense his courage is impaired. Unfaithfulness requires constant deception; in that sense his frankness is impaired. Deceived in so many ways, his wisdom is askew. Insofar as wisdom regulates all of the moral virtues, the pattern of his life is askew. Lacking the stability and discipline necessary for clear and honest thought, constantly tempted to rationalize, his thinking about natural law is askew. If sexual purity were a recognized prerequisite for those who pursue such studies, matters would be different, but as it is, philosophers need corrective precepts about purity just as much as everyone else.
Finally, revealed precepts illuminate the natural realities by invitation. Pondering the structures of creation, we can discern reasons why the revealed precepts are so fitting; this is part of what the Scriptures call Wisdom, who speaks personified in Proverbs:
The LORD created me at the beginning of his work, the first of his acts of old. Ages ago I was set up, at the fi rst, before the beginning of the earth .... [T]hen I was beside him, like a master workman; and I was daily his delight, rejoicing before him always, rejoicing in his inhabited world and delighting in the sons of men. And now, my sons, listen to me: happy are those who keep my ways. Hear instruction and be wise, and do not neglect it .... For he who finds me finds life and obtains favor from the LORD; but he who misses me injures himself; all who hate me love death.
Reflection on the reasons for God’s commandments was one of the great projects of rabbinical Judaism. Rabbi Saadia Gaon declares that if all relied on theft instead of work for livelihood, “even stealing would become impossible, because, with the disappearance of all property, there would be absolutely nothing in existence that might be stolen.” In similar fashion, Maimonides says that the eating of flesh torn from living animals -- a violation of the Noahide commandments -- “would make one acquire the habit of cruelty,” and Rabbi Hanina explains about the commandment to administer justice that “were it not for the fear of it a man would swallow his neighbor alive.” Such arguments might seem to presuppose what they are trying to prove, but the circle is not vicious, because the longer we reflect, the deeper we are able to go. Consider, for example, Rabbi Saadia Gaon’s remark. Why would the disappearance of property leave nothing that might be stolen? Merely in the formal sense that stealing is taking what another person owns? No, in another sense too. No one takes care of what might be gone tomorrow; without personal care and responsibility the common good suffers. If property is rightly conceived as a form of stewardship -- for “every beast of the forest is [God’s], the cattle on a thousand hills” -- then property is far better training even in charity than those alternative institutional arrangements in which no one owns anything, in which “everyone” owns everything, or in which each one owns something but tells the others to go to hell.
The same is true of the precepts of chastity that we were considering before. Without revelation, just through reflection on the created realities, we may or may not have arrived at them. But once they are revealed and the revelation is accepted, they are known, and once they are known, the mind goes on to ask what makes them true. In other words, we ask what it is about our constitution that makes sexual purity so crucial and impurity so catastrophic. Why ask at all? Does God require consent in order to command us? No, but He made us in His image and delights to see it reflected back to Him. He might have ruled us as He rules the animals, but instead He makes us finite participants in His wisdom. Not only does He provide for us, but He has endowed us with the ability to understand in some measure the principles of His providence, and to care for each other in imitation of His loving care for us.
By the way, it is for this reason alone that human enacted law is possible. God could have arranged matters so that we never had to deliberate about what is to be done, never had to labor in order to grasp how the general principles of the natural law should be applied to the particular circumstances of our earthly communities. Such is not His way with us. We may ask, “Why didn’t you make it easier?” That is really like asking, “What is man that Thou art mindful of him, and the son of man that Thou dost care for him?” -- but in the mode of a complaint. The psalmist replies that He has made us little lower than the angels, and has crowned us with glory and honor.
Sundays are reserved for lighter fare and Mondays for student letters, but this string continues on Tuesday