“The Spirit of Man has been a stumbling block for all systematic philosophers of science.”
– Louis Bredvold
Louis Bredvold, in his brief and masterful work The Brave New World of the Enlightenment, asks two fundamental questions: “What is Natural Law & what are its alternatives?”. Why does this question matter? Put simply, it addresses whether our lives are guided by a Universal Divine Truth or by the arbitrary laws of man. Bredvold eloquently answers this vital question in three thoughtful steps. First, he defines what Natural Law is. Second, he articulates the arguments made by the greatest Enlightenment thinkers against the concept of the Natural Law. Finally, he presents the sharp and grounded rebuttal to this Enlightenment thought by the eminent Irish thinker and politician, Edmund Burke.
So what, exactly, is Natural Law? As Bredvold describes it, we must start with the notion of the two Laws of Nature: the scientific law and the moral law. The scientific law, it has been argued, is robust in its demonstrability. Gravity, the tides, and weather patterns can be observed. Velocity, acceleration, and force can be demonstrated. The moral laws, likewise, can also be observed and demonstrated. Bredvold articulates,
“When men recognized injustice and judged it as such, they thereby committed themselves to the idea of justice; call it what you will, call it the moral law, the conscience of mankind, the sense of decency, the Law of Nature, we cannot escape it without reducing human beings to mere things. The law for man is different from the law for things; we live in a world of standards and values; every day we live is a day of judgment.”
Aristotle would invoke the “Law of Nature” as acceptable legal doctrine. The Roman orator, Cicero, in De Legibus would reason that the fundamental principles of law rest NOT in the statutes and edicts of empowered men (which are prone to be arbitrary, vulgar, and self-serving). Rather, the fundamental principles of law rest in “Right Reason” which apprehends and conforms itself to eternal moral and spiritual values. It is this Right Reason which guides us towards the true, good, and beautiful and away from the false, evil, and hideous. Bredvold elaborates,
“We must be granted that it is legitimate to inquire whether the justice being actually administered is just. We must therefore search for the origin of law and justice. [Cicero] says, not in the opinions of men, nor in the will of those in position to command, but in Nature. This Nature can be known by the reason of man when it is full-grown and so perfected that it can rightly be called wisdom.”
“The Law of Nature…[continues] to exist in spite of the actuality of bad laws and inequitable decrees because it is Right Reason, understandable by men, but existing in the divine mind as the source of law and justice.”
The concept of “The Law of Nature” would transmit through time and across cultures to find itself informing the Justinian Code (of Roman Law), further developed/revealed by the Church Fathers (and later Augustine and Aquinas), and finally landing with Shakespeare, Coke, the American Founders, and the tenets of international law. As Sir Edward Coke admonished,
“Reason is the life of the Law; nay, the common law is itself nothing but reason.”
While the idea of Natural Law and Right Reason had advanced so far and full, skeptics emerged on the scene, especially in the eighteenth century era of the Enlightenment. Whether Natural Law was dismissed as shackling man to superstition, custom, or prejudice, the ultimate intended message was the same: by eliminating the notion of the Natural Law man is emancipated from weary strictures of tradition, law and its “ethics” are subjective and arbitrary, and man can rethink and reinvent a more “enlightened and liberating” foundation for and system of law.
Unfortunately, the cavalier sundering of law and morality, of rules and Right Reason led to a cold, “scientific” positivism focused on the “is” of law instead of the “oughts”. With no moral or ethical standard to aspire toward, laws are unmoored except for the acknowledgment that if you are in power, you can make the laws. And the legitimacy of the law resides wholly and simply in the fact that you have the power and thus, cannot otherwise be wrong in the law you enact. So too, a successor could erect contrary laws and likewise have complete legitimacy. When power is the standard and morality eliminated, anything goes. Period. No one can ask whether the justice enforced is just. As Bredvold warns,
“Laws become the measure of justice and injustice, not justice the measure of law.”
“Law is law simply because it is the will of the sovereign power.”
And as philosopher Thomas Hobbes declared,
“Nothing the sovereign power can do to a subject, on what pretense soever, can properly be called injustice or injury.”
Seeing the autocratic risks to this, Enlightenment thinkers sought to creatively thread the needle: Deny the presence of a Natural Law with its antiquated, repressive morality and obligations, BUT champion the existence of “Natural Rights” with incontestable entitlements. The paradox is obvious: an absence of obligations and an abundance of rights. A denial of an Eternal Law and an ardent affirmation of an Eternal Right. From this emerges a softer Enlightenment alternative to Hobbes’ draconian Enlightenment state. But, as Bredvold illustrates so well, the effort to pay no heed to a Natural Law and, instead, craft a soft morality to supplant Hobbes’ Leviathan state becomes so strained as to be bordering on the ridiculous.
The stark nature of Hobbes’ power-driven state moved other Enlightenment thinkers to soften up Hobbes’ truths. If Natural Law was to be denied, order would have to emerge from somewhere else lest anarchy followed by oppression would prevail. Enlightenment thinkers believed that order would come from “Science”. Science, which could bring about feats of engineering and manufacturing, wonders of agriculture and medicine, SURELY could do the same with human nature. Couldn’t it? As Hobbes would dream,
“For were the nature of human actions as distinctly known as the nature of quantity in geometrical figures, the strength of avarice and ambition… would presently faint and languish; and mankind should enjoy such an immortal peace, that… there would hardly be left any pretense for war.”
Descartes, Leibnitz, Craig, and Hutcheson promised the literal geometric solution to man’s moral and ethical conundrums. Descartes promised,
“If controversies were to arise there would be no more need of disputation between two philosophers than between two accountants. For it would suffice for them to take their pencils in their hands, to sit down to their slates, and say to each other (with a friend to witness if they liked), ‘Let us calculate!'”
Locke introduced the notion of man as a blank slate written on by the combined forces of experience, education, and environment. If one perfects these influencing forces, one can perfect man. Helvetius introduced man as selfishly looking out for his own interests – to enhance pleasure and eliminate pain. Teachers and lawmakers have only to educate and control this self-interest to achieve man’s perfection. Draw man to virtue and away from vice, Helvetius said, and you perfect society. Rousseau disagreed, claiming man is naturally good – corruptible only by flawed institutions and best served by following his “feelings and instincts” derived from Nature, and not by following his conscience, “Right Reason”, or Natural Law.
Nature, according to the Enlightenment thinkers, is viewed differently from Natural Law. The preeminence of Man’s physiology and pathology, Man’s appetites and instincts, according to these thinkers, justify Man’s revolt against what are deemed “artificial” mores, customs, and norms. By relaxing (or eradicating) these traditional norms, Man is liberated to embrace his “naturally good” self. And if Man needs help achieving (or is found straying from) his “natural goodness”, then Society with the help of Modern Science can mold him. And this can be done through newly considered progressive education, governance, and social engineering. Interestingly, the men who have charged themselves with eliminating the traditional norms and innovating the new system to enhance humanity, are men themselves. They, apparently, are imbued with a keener intelligence and virtue than the flock of men to whom they are attending. Cicero’s notion of an Eternal Standard apprehended by “Right Reason” was replaced by a softly anti-civilizational positivist notion that describes man as he is (his feelings and appetites) devoid of judgment and standards. It was only a matter of time before a new standard – an arbitrary man-made standard – would be erected. And with this new standard would come power. The dreams of the Enlightenment thinkers were to, as Bredvold describes,
“Abolish the artificial man who is formed by customs, institutions, and prejudices, reeducate a generation or two, and the human race will enjoy the universal happiness for which it was intended by Nature. What causes the unfaithfulness of husband and wife? The institution of marriage; abolish marriage and there will be no unfaithfulness. Who wages wars? Kings do; let us abolish monarchy and wars will cease. The evil that humanity suffers from is somehow between men, not within them. It can be traced to the church, or to the government, or to the aristocracy, or to monogamy, or to the schools, or to eating meat, and so forth.”
In the midst of the enthusiasm to abolish traditional norms and standards, the new standard would be erected. And what would the appetite-driven Enlightenment worldview support as its new standard? “Growth” or “progress”. Growth or progress relative to what, away from what, and toward what is grossly unclear, but growth and progress must be achieved nonetheless. Eighteenth century thinker Gotthold Lessing illustrated this satisfaction with progress when he claimed he would choose the eternal search for truth over the eternal possession of truth.
As Enlightenment thinking would be further challenged beyond its aspiration toward growth and progress, it would advocate four pillars of philosophical thought:
1) The absence of a Divine Natural Law apprehended by Right Reason
2) The natural goodness and perfectibility of man corrupted only by flawed institutions, standards, and norms.
3) The need for man to grow and progress by listening to his own appetites.
4) The ability of elite leaders to educate, govern, and reform man and society through the successful application of Science.
It was this intellectual program which led Enlightenment thinkers to believe that dramatic changes to man and society were possible to the point of achieving utopia. Paraphrasing Helvetius, Bredvold said,
“Change the environment in which children grow up and in a generation or two all the evils will wither and blow away. Let but reason prevail. Adopt the new ideas propounded by the scientific moralist, the scientific psychologist, the scientific economist and political philosopher, and man will discover that he has unlimited power to change and direct his destiny – nay, even that his nature may become completely perfected.”
The thinkers argued that man is in no need of exorcism, because he himself is not evil – his environment is. Eradicate the evil in the environment, and you can make man perfect. As Holbach said,
“[The scientific moralists and lawgivers, the educators, the statesmen are all] gardeners who by varying systems of cultivation alter the character of men as they would alter the form of trees.”
The damnation of “corrupting institutions and norms” led the Enlightenment thinkers to greater degrees of antagonism towards civilization as we know it. With the rage toward the institutional villains (religion, aristocracy, monarchy, private property) impeding man’s perfection, and the promise of new institutions ushering man to perfection, the end would justify the means. If need be, violence, oppression, and ruthlessness would be a small price to pay to achieve utopia. Or so it was thought…
The Irish Whig politician, Edmund Burke, would beg to differ. Burke, the brilliant and earnest member of parliament in the British House of Commons, found himself consistently serving as the prized voice in a minority party advocating unpopular causes. He set his eyes and his acerbic tongue against the greatest moral threats of his day: slavery, bigoted anti-Catholicism, a power-drunk governor, a capricious king, and an untethered French mob. While his passionate entreaties changed little in the immediate circumstances, his historical reach has been immeasurable. Edmund Burke found himself arguing in direct opposition to the intellectual zeitgeist of the day. His inspiration? The Natural Law.
To the pillars of Enlightenment philosophical thought, Burke firmly rebutted:
1) There, indeed, IS an eternal Natural Law interpretable by Right Reason.
On the viciousness of Warren Hastings, British East India Company’s Governor-General of India, Burke blisters:
“[Hastings] makes the corrupt practice of mankind the principles of his government; he collects together the vicious examples of all the robbers and plunderers of Asia, forms the mass of their abuses into a code, and calls it the duty of a British governor… I believe so audacious a thing has never before [been] attempted by man. ‘He had arbitrary power!’ My Lords, the East India Company has no arbitrary power to give him. The king has no arbitrary power to give. Neither your Lordships, nor the Commons, nor the whole Legislature, have arbitrary power to give. Arbitrary power is a thing which no man can give. My Lords, no man can govern himself by his own will; much less can he be governed by the will of others. We are all born – high as well as low – governors as well as governed – in subjection to one great, immutable, pre-existing law, a law prior to all our devices and all or conspiracies, paramount to our feelings, by which we are connected in the eternal frame of the universe, and out of which we cannot stir. This great law does not arise from our combinations and compacts; on the contrary, it gives them all the sanction they can have. Every good and perfect gift is of God; all power is of God; and He who has given the power, and from whom alone it originates, will never suffer it to be corrupted.”
2) Man, while good, is NOT perfectible and his traditional institutions are not innately or irredeemably corrupt. Burke said,
“[We need institutions] to fortify the fallible and feeble contrivances of our reason.”
“We, in England, are afraid to put men to live and trade each on his own private stock of reason; because we suspect that this stock in each man is small, and that the individuals would do better to avail themselves of the general bank and capital of nations and ages.”
3) Man’s unharnessed appetites lead not to greater freedom, but to undisciplined disorder and tragedy. Burke again,
“The liberty, the only liberty, I mean is a liberty connected with order: that not only exists with order and virtue, but which cannot exist without them.”
(as Bredvold observes)
“Such a social order [as found in the English Constitution], the condition of a true and manly freedom… [could be brought about] only by the perseverance and effort of many generations, by the concurrence of many men and many tempers and many events, by embodying in institutions the wisdom of a whole people accumulated through many years; but such a social order, Burke lamented, can be demolished in a moment by the rashness and fury of very ordinary man. And the new revolutionary philosophy was tearing up the whole vast fabric of the social inheritance of Europe, and replacing it with untried innovations.”
4) The wisdom of intellectuals and the tools of Science are not infallible. Burke continues,
“Aristotle, the great master of reasoning, cautions, and with great weight and propriety, against this species of delusive geometrical accuracy in moral arguments, as the most fallacious of all sophistry.”
While Edmund Burke gave an impassioned and articulate defense of man against the misguided logicians and philosophers of his day, his voice would go largely unheeded. Burke lost one fight after another. And yet, perhaps the political battles he lost are overshadowed by the robust intellectual war he ultimately won. Burke’s quiet truth has endured. It is up to us to listen.
Louis Bredvold, in the conclusion of The Brave New World of the Enlightenment, makes one last crucial point. It is a point that simply makes sense. If a man is asked what law is, he may simply answer that it is a means by which conflicts are settled in the best interests of society. This could be defines as a “Utilitarian” answer. If he were to agree that the creation of additional laws could define human nature, morals, and metaphysics, he would be giving a “Positivist” answer. But, most importantly, if man finds himself righteously indignant about a “shortcoming of the law”, a law or an application of law that does NOT settle a conflict or provide a definition that is satisfactory… then man has said that law is in adequate. And it is inadequate because it fails to be Just. And Justice is a more perfect standard. We all know what it is like to understand that something may conform with the rules, but that it may simply not “be right or fair”. This extraordinary observation reinforces that the bedrock of Natural Law can be intellectually dismissed in the abstract, but we all hold it firm and fast in our everyday lives. It is real because we feel it deep in our bones.
To Louis Bredvold’s original questions, “What is Natural Law and what are its alternatives?”. Natural Law is an eternal, unchanging Truth. It’s alternatives are not. It is as simple as that.