Mondays are for letters from students.  This one is a doctoral candidate in Dallas.


Since discovering your online writings and lectures I have read and listened to a fair bit of your work and talks.  I’m writing to ask about the difference between St. Thomas Aquinas’s and Francisco Suarez’s views of natural law.  St. Thomas has a clear understanding of natural law and much to contribute.  But if Suarez is right about what law is, then it strikes me that the St. Thomas’s ethics and politics are not natural law theory simply, but something more like Aristotelian virtue ethics.  In the De Legibus, Book 5 and Book 6 , Suarez argues that Natural Law isn’t divine law by virtue of its having been promulgated by a lawgiver; rather it comes from God as efficient cause.  This seems a rather radical disagreement. 

I gather from other writers that Suarez is more nearly the father of the early modern views of natural law.  That implies that there must be two streams or traditions of natural law theory, one which views God as a lawgiver and one which does not.  Could you point me in a direction that would explain your thinking on this?


Right:  Though Suarez holds natural law in great esteem, he argues that it is not literally law, except insofar as God verbally commands it – something which does not happen except through revelation.  One might then say that the natural law is produced by God -- since He is the First Cause of everything -- but not promulgated by God.  Many of the Enlightenment thinkers took a view something like this too.  For them the natural laws were not laws in the sense of commands; they were more like the empirical generalizations of the sciences.  So, just as you suggest, there was a split in the natural law tradition in the early modern era.  The classical tradition epitomized by St. Thomas continued to develop, and is experiencing a modest renaissance in our own times.  But the revisionist tradition turned out to be a dead end – or so I would argue (long story).

St. Thomas agrees with Suarez that law must be promulgated to be law.  Yet he disagrees with Suarez too, because he thinks natural law is promulgated.  Natural law is the finite manner in which the eternal law, the Wisdom of God’s own mind, is reflected in the mind of the rational creature.

One might expect St. Thomas to say that natural law does not have to be promulgated verbally, because it is promulgated through the structure of creation.  And he could have said that, for as he points out, sometimes we use the term "word" in a figurative sense, not for the word itself, but for that which the word means or brings about.  For example, we say "The word of the king is that such and such be done."  This way of speaking collapses the Suarezian distinction between what God produces and what He promulgates.  So St. Thomas might have argued that just by being an effect of God as First Cause, the natural law is figuratively spoken to us.

But what he actually says is more intriguing.  Natural law is promulgated verbally -- and not in a figurative sense, but literally.  In saying this, St. Thomas is not referring to sounds made by the mouth (or for that matter characters formed of ink).  He argued that the expression "word" has three proper senses.  The most fundamental sense is "the interior concept of the mind," because a vocal sound is not a word unless it signifies this interior concept.  In natural law, our minds receive an impression of the idea in the mind of God.  We receive this impression through the natural disposition of the mind called synderesis, deep conscience, which is put to work by conscientia, conscience in action.

So St. Paul’s remark in the letter to the Romans that the law is “written on our hearts” turns out to be precisely true.  As St. Thomas points out in his commentary on the letter, “conscience does not dictate something to be done or avoided, unless it believes that it is against or in accordance with the law of God.  For the law is applied to our actions only by means of our conscience.”  In other words, when we enter the court of conscience and listen closely, the voice we are trying to hear is the voice of God – whether or not we fully realize that we are trying to do so.

If you want to follow up, take a look especially at Summa Theologiae, I-II, Q. 90Q. 91, Art. 1, ad 2; Q. 94, Art. 1, ad 2 ; and Q. 94, Art. 6.  I discuss all of these texts in detail in my Commentary on St. Thomas’s Treatise on LawMy quotation from the Commentary on the Letter to the Romans is from the Fabian Larcher translation, Chap. 4, Lect. 2, Sec. 1120, which I also take up there.

Tomorrow:  The Prolongation of Adolescence