On the Origin, Essence and Purpose of Law

Saint Thomas Aquinas, The Angelic Doctor

Saint Thomas Aquinas, The Angelic Doctor

The grammar of existence is bound up in the Law and it is and always has been for us to read reality rightly, to hear rightly, to speak rightly, and with human reason to discover the law by which we are to live if we are to live out our intended purpose.

There is no conversation more necessary in the present age than the dialogue on the meaning of law. It is in man’s nature to bind himself to principles in the form of rules that guide human action. These rules are the laws by which men choose to live by election and political imposition.

Contrary to man’s nature, the modern age is witness to generations of men battling fiercely for a kind of freedom seeking a liberation from law, a law of lawlessness. Men bind themselves to the idea that being bound to nothing is true freedom when it is really a slavery to a false notion of freedom. In trying to liberate himself from the law, man has become a law unto himself and the proper end of that choice is the descent into the twilight of civilization. Before the descent becomes irreversible, we ought to attempt to recover a sense of the nature and order of law.

Language and Law are gifts from the Creator and they both have their origins in what lies beyond time and space. Words are intended to name things, real things, which are intended to point us to the created order of real things and therefore to the Creator who made them. Law is a vitally important concept that has its roots bound up in the eternal mercy and justice of the Creator Himself. At its deepest roots, the Law is unfathomable. Yet we must still ask, what is law? We can find some of its etymological roots in the Old English “lagu,” meaning ordinance, rule or regulation. In the Old Norse, “lag” denoted law, layer, measure, stroke, literally something laid down or fixed. These definitions make perfect temporal sense as we consider the necessary rules and regulations for society, but perhaps a deeper look at the Latin and Greek origins of the word law will take us closer to its roots in the transcendent.

There is an etymological relationship between the Latin “lex” and the Greek “lex” which combines the notions of law with the necessity of literacy. Our word “legal” comes from Latin through the French and is related to words having to do with gathering and in Latin  is related to “legere,” to read and the Greek “legein” which means to speak to someone else. The word law in Italian is “legge” and “leggere” is to read and “leggenda” is, amongst other things, the legend on a map signifying that necessary relationship between rules that bind us to a proper reading of a map. There is implicit in the deepest meanings of the word law a distinct element of literacy, that literacy denoted by the Greek word “grammiticos” as true literacy bound up in the rules of reading things rightly. The grammar of existence is bound up in the Law and it is and always has been for us to read reality rightly, to hear rightly, to speak rightly, and with human reason to discover the law by which we are to live if we are to live out our intended purpose.

It is worth considering that the concept of the law is deeply complex even beyond its etymological roots and holds out for us serious implications concerning our divine ends. In a discussion grounded in reason intended to resuscitate the notion of law, it will be helpful to turn to the Angelic Doctor. With unparalleled common sense, St. Thomas Aquinas helps us to identify the different types of law that govern the heavens and the earth, and thereby, we will be armed with understanding that may help us choose wisely to bind ourselves to the light of truth and eternity instead of the falsity of this age.

God, not Man, is the Lawgiver

In Question 90 of the Summa Theologiæ, Aquinas explains that a “law is a rule and measure of acts, whereby man is induced to act or is restrained from acting.” That we live by rules and the concept of law seems a basic fact easy to comprehend. Aquinas goes on to explain that according to Aristotle, the concept of law “belongs to reason to direct to the end, which is the first principle in all matters of action.” He concludes that “law is something pertaining to reason.” And since we are rational beings, it follows that upon the discovery of certain governing principles we bind ourselves to certain actions in accord with the reasonable ends those principles predict. Our question then becomes, what is the source of the rules we discover and to which we choose to bind ourselves? Unfortunately, too often man sees himself as the arbiter of truth and therefore the lawgiver. St. Thomas Aquinas would advise us to identify God as the true source of all laws as he explains the nature of the four laws.

The Four Laws

In Question 91 of the Summa, St. Thomas elucidates the Eternal Law, Divine Law, Natural Law and human law. The overarching and all-encompassing law is the Eternal Law. To discover the Eternal Law requires an investigation into the very nature of God Himself. It stands to reason that the creator of a thing has the authority to promulgate the rules which govern it. God is the Creator and it is rational to understand that from His very essence and existence flow the governing principles of all that exists and all we can know. Aquinas explains that it is evident that the world is ruled by Divine Providence and that the whole community of the universe is governed by Divine Reason. Therefore, God’s ruling of the universe has the nature of law and by His Divine Reason, His conceptions of things are outside of time and space and therefore eternal. Being outside of time and space, the Eternal Law is the Divine Source of all laws.

The Divine Law is the Eternal Law revealed to us, of which the most complete revelation is by the incarnation of the Eternal Law in our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. The Eternal Law is also revealed by the Old and New Testaments, the Magisterium and Church Tradition. Divine Law is the divinely bestowed exposition of the perfect Eternal Law and as Psalm 118 reminds us, “It is better to take refuge in the Lord than to put confidence in man.” The Divine law is further praised in Psalm 19 when the psalmist proclaims that “the law of the LORD is perfect, converting the soul: the testimony of the Lord is faithful, giving wisdom to little ones” The Divine Law allows “no foulness of sin because it directs not only exterior acts, but also interior acts.” The Divine Law directs man “to an end supernatural and Divine” by both internal and external principles.

Aquinas explains that the Divine Law is necessary to direct human conduct for four reasons.

  • It is by law that man is directed in his actions properly in light of his final end in eternal beatitude.
  • Because of the uncertainty of human judgment evidenced by the variances of human law, Divine Law is necessary so man may know without a doubt what to do, while human law errs, Divine Law does not.
  • Man can judge in certain matters, but he is not competent to judge the hearts of other men, and therefore cannot see all the ends to particular human actions. Human law cannot sufficiently direct interior acts.
  • Human law cannot forbid or punish all evil deeds, and by trying to do so it would have to eliminate many goods while trying to get rid of evil, thus hindering the common good.

The Natural Law is man’s participation in the Eternal Law and Aquinas explains that a person can participate in this Law in two ways. Man can abide the law from without and follow the rule and measure by external practice and a man can follow the Law from within by moral discipline. “All things are subject to Divine providence” and as such they are all measured by and subjected to the rule of the Eternal Law. All things participate in some form with the Eternal Law by virtue of the fact that the Creator has imprinted His law in them. All things “derive their respective inclination to their proper acts and ends” by His imprint. The Psalmist says “the light of Thy countenance, O Lord, is signed upon us,” and St. Thomas points out that this implies that “the light of natural reason, whereby we discern what is good and what is evil, which is the function of the natural law, is nothing else than an imprint on us of the Divine light.” The Common Doctor concludes that “the natural law is nothing else than the rational creature’s participation of the eternal law.”

Finally, Aquinas describes the Human Law as “a dictate of practical reason.” Human laws proceed from principles to conclusions which we draw from “naturally known indemonstrable principles.” We draw particular conclusions which are not gifted to us by nature, but are acquired by the exercise of reason. What men draw from general and indemonstrable principles by natural and divine law, then becomes more specific determinations on certain particular matters. Where Natural and Divine Law are embodied by general principled truths, the human law is made up of explicit determinations, devised by human reason.” Cicero said in his Rhetoric that “justice has its source in nature; thence certain things came into custom by reason of their utility; afterwards these things which emanated from nature and were approved by custom, were sanctioned by fear and reverence for the law.”

Eternal law is unchanging Truth, Divine law is its exposition by revelation, Natural Law is man’s participation in the Eternal Law written on our hearts and human law is particularly what we draw out of the laws as “an ordinance of reason promulgated by the proper authority for the common good” made and enforced by a ruler or government. Aquinas leaves us with the warning that we are not bound to obey laws made by humans which conflict with natural law.

We have forgotten that literacy rightly understood is truly about hearing with the human heart what is written upon it. The Eternal Law inscribed on our hearts by God is the natural imprint we are called to read and know if we are to live as we were divinely intended.

In a proper examination of the law, we must return to the ancient understanding that language has its roots in the Eternal Law and therefore we must never fancy ourselves capable of plumbing its depths to its exhaustive end. The final depths of the word law itself spring from the ineffable and unfathomable Eternal God and its branches and shoots extend from the imperceptible roots of eternal truth to the guides, rules, measures and scales meant to be passed on in good faith by the generations. This reading of the law is meant to be read aloud in an echo of the voice of authority carried by the breath of the Holy Spirit across the chasm of what divides all human souls from one another. The law is expressed that it may be heard by those with the “ears to hear.” We have forgotten that literacy rightly understood is truly about hearing with the human heart what is written upon it. The Eternal Law inscribed on our hearts by God is the natural imprint we are called to read and know if we are to live as we were divinely intended. May God grant us all the humility to rightly read the Law and pass it on to our children and neighbors that we might end face to face with God in eternal beatitude which is the very end of the Eternal Law.

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