“The Cambridge Companion to Natural Law Jurisprudence” (Duke & George eds.)

Natural law jurisprudence, which spans back more than a thousand years, is one of the Natural Lawcentral philosophical/jurisprudential traditions. This new volume from Cambridge, edited by Professors George Duke and Robert George (one of the preeminent exponents of the so-called “new” natural law), treats many important subjects, including the foundations of natural law; practical reason, normativity, and ethics; and law and politics. The contributors are a virtual who’s who of leading thinkers about natural law. A very helpful contribution for the law student who is interested in learning about this important jurisprudential school. Here is the description.

This collection provides an intellectually rigorous and accessible overview of key topics in contemporary natural law jurisprudence, an influential yet frequently misunderstood branch of legal philosophy. It fills a gap in the existing literature by bringing together leading international experts on natural law theory to provide perspectives on some of the most pressing issues pertaining to the nature and moral foundations of law. Themes covered include the history of the natural law tradition, the natural law account of practical reason, normativity and ethics, natural law approaches to legal obligation and authority and constitutional law. Creating a dialogue between leading figures in natural law thought, the Companion is an ideal introduction to the main commitments of natural law jurisprudence, whilst also offering a concise summary of developments in current scholarship for more advanced readers.

Dyer & Watson, “C. S. Lewis on Politics and the Natural Law”

C.S. Lewis was neither a legal theorist or a political philosopher. But his works often touch on law and politics. He famously argued for distinguishing between Christian and civil marriage, for example. And natural law was a recurrent theme in his work, especially his concept of “the Tao,” a term he borrowed from Asian religion, which for him signified the objective values that all human cultures share. Lewis explains the Tao most thoroughly in The Abolition of Man, but he alludes to it in other works as well, including Mere Christianity and even the Space Trilogy.

Next month, Cambridge releases a new study of Lewis’s views on these questions, C. S. Lewis on Politics and the Natural Law, by Justin Buckley Dyer (University of Missouri-Columbia) and Micah J. Watson (Calvin College). Here is the publisher’s description:

9781107518971Conventional wisdom holds that C. S. Lewis was uninterested in politics and public affairs. The conventional wisdom is wrong. As Justin Buckley Dyer and Micah J. Watson show in this groundbreaking work, Lewis was deeply interested in the fundamental truths and falsehoods about human nature and how these conceptions manifest themselves in the contested and turbulent public square. Ranging from the depths of Lewis’ philosophical treatments of epistemology and moral pedagogy to practical considerations of morals legislation and responsible citizenship, this book explores the contours of Lewis’ multi-faceted Christian engagement with political philosophy generally and the natural-law tradition in particular. Drawing from the full range of Lewis’ corpus and situating his thought in relationship to both ancient and modern seminal thinkers, C. S. Lewis on Politics and the Natural Law offers an unprecedented look at politics and political thought from the perspective of one of the twentieth century’s most influential writers.

Conference: “What are Natural Rights?” (New York, Apr. 1)

On April 1, The Thomistic Institute, jointly with the University of Notre Dame will host a conference titled “What are Natural Rights: Are There Any?” at the Catholic Center at NYU. A brief description of the conference follows:

What are natural right.pngA conference featuring Fr. Dominic Legge, OP (The Pontifical Faculty of the Immaculate Conception), Prof. Charles Kesler (Claremont McKenna College), and Prof. Nigel Biggar (Oxford University) and a panel consisting of Sherif Girgis (author of  What Is Marriage? Man and Woman: A Defense), Adrian Vermeule (Harvard University), Chad Pecknold (Catholic University of America) and Vincent Phillip Munoz (Notre Dame University).

More information on the event can be found here.

Saccenti, “Debating Medieval Natural Law”

In October, the University of Notre Dame Press will release Debating Medieval Natural Law: A Survey by Riccardo Saccenti (University of Bologna). The publisher’s description follows:

debating-medieval-natural-lawIn Debating Medieval Natural Law: A Survey, Riccardo Saccenti examines and evaluates the major lines of interpretation of the medieval concepts of natural rights and natural law within the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries and explains how the major historiographical interpretations of ius naturale and lex naturalis have changed. His bibliographical survey analyzes not only the chronological evolution of various interpretations of natural law but also how they differ, in an effort to shed light on the historical debate and on the medieval roots of modern human rights theories.

Saccenti critically examines the historical analyses of the major historians of medieval political and legal thought while addressing how to further research on the subject. His perspective interlaces different disciplinary points of view: history of philosophy, as well as history of canon and civil law and history of theology. By focusing on a variety of disciplines, Saccenti creates an opportunity to evaluate each interpretation of medieval lex naturalis in terms of the area it enlightens and within specific cultural contexts. His survey is a basis for future studies concerning this topic and will be of interest to scholars of the history of law and, more generally, of the history of ideas in the twentieth century.

Lloyd, “Black Natural Law”

Next month, Oxford University Press will release “Black Natural Law” by Vincent W. Lloyd (Villanova University). The publisher’s description follows:

Black Natural Law offers a new way of understanding the African American political tradition. Iconoclastically attacking left (including James Baldwin and Audre Lorde), right (including Clarence Thomas and Ben Carson), and center (Barack Obama), Vincent William Lloyd charges that many Black leaders today embrace secular, white modes of political engagement, abandoning the deep connections between religious, philosophical, and political ideas that once animated Black politics. By telling the stories of Frederick Douglass, Anna Julia Cooper, W. E. B. Du Bois, and Martin Luther King, Jr., Lloyd shows how appeals to a higher law, or God’s law, have long fueled Black political engagement. Such appeals do not seek to implement divine directives on earth; rather, they pose a challenge to the wisdom of the world, and they mobilize communities for collective action. Black natural law is deeply democratic: while charismatic leaders may provide the occasion for reflection and mobilization, all are capable of discerning the higher law using our human capacities for reason and emotion.

At a time when continuing racial injustice poses a deep moral challenge, the most powerful intellectual resources in the struggle for justice have been abandoned. Black Natural Law recovers a rich tradition, and it examines just how this tradition was forgotten. A Black intellectual class emerged that was disconnected from social movement organizing and beholden to white interests. Appeals to higher law became politically impotent: overly rational or overly sentimental. Recovering the Black natural law tradition provides a powerful resource for confronting police violence, mass incarceration, and today’s gross racial inequities.

Black Natural Law will change the way we understand natural law, a topic central to the Western ethical and political tradition. While drawing particularly on African American resources, Black Natural Law speaks to all who seek politics animated by justice.


St. John’s Colloquium in Law and Religion Hosts Professor Robert George


We were delighted to welcome Princeton University’s Robert P. George yesterday at our law and religion colloquium. Professor George, who serves as chairman of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, presented his paper, “Religious Liberty and the Human Good,” a very interesting philosophical exploration of the meaning of religion.

Summer Fridays With Pascal: On the Nature of Law

Many law students know the rough outlines of the distinction between naturalLaw law and legal positivism. Both are theories about the nature of law–about what is distinctive about law as a concept. There are many difficulties and nuances here, but as a rough and ready statement, one could say that legal positivism holds that in order for something to be “law,” we must look to its provenance or pedigree in this social world, and only in this social world. It follows that for legal positivists, there is an unbridgeable conceptual gap between what the law is and what the law ought to be–between something’s being law and something’s being a just or moral law. The natural law conception of law is quite different. It holds that “law” includes as its fundamental or “core” example just law–morally correct law. This does not mean that the natural lawyer refuses to believe that there can be unjust laws. Surely there can be. What the natural lawyer believes is that a law’s justice, or its morality, is an integral part of what makes law truly, or fully, or in its core case, law.

It is interesting to see Pascal weighing very much in on the side of legal positivism. He is coming, of course, not from the perspective of what one typically associates with contemporary legal positivism (a late nineteenth/twentieth century phenomenon) but from the Jansenist perspective of the fallenness of postlapsarian humanity. His view is that though natural justice exists (i.e., Pascal is not a relativist), humanity simply cannot know what it is in its depraved state. Whatever laws exist are law simply because bodies vested with proper authority have issued them. Note also that this view of law and justice greatly reduces the issue of compliance against conscience with what one deems an unjust law. What do you expect in this world, with these fallen creatures, after all, but unjust law? Here is Pascal:

On what shall man found the order of the world which he would govern? Shall it be on the caprice of each individual? What confusion! Shall it be on justice? Man is ignorant of it.

Certainly had he known it, he would not have established this maxim, the most general of all that obtain among men, that each should follow the custom of his own country. The glory of true equity would have brought all nations under subjection, and legislators would not have taken as their model the fancies and caprice of Persians and Germans instead of this unchanging justice. We would have seen it set up in all the States on earth and in all times; whereas we see neither justice nor injustice which does not change its nature with change in climate. Three degrees of latitude reverse all jurisprudence; a meridian decides the truth. Fundamental laws change after a few years of possession; right has its epochs; the entry of Saturn into the Lion marks to us the origin of such and such a crime. A strange justice that is bounded by a river! Truth on this side of the Pyrenees, error on the other side.

Men admit that justice does not consist in these customs, but that it resides in natural laws, common to every country. They would certainly maintain it obstinately, if reckless chance which has distributed human laws had encountered even one which was universal; but the farce is that the caprice of men has so many vagaries that there is no such law.

Theft, incest, infanticide, parricide, have all had a place among virtuous actions. Can anything be more ridiculous that a man should have the right to kill me because he lives on the other side of the water, and because his ruler has a quarrel with mine, though I have none with him?

Doubtless there are natural laws; but good reason once corrupted has corrupted all. Nihil amplius nostrum est; quod nostrum dicimus, artis est. Ex senatus–consultis et plebiscitis crimina exercentur. Ut olim vitiis, sic nunc legibus laboramus. [My translation: Nothing more than this is ours; what is ours is what we say, our art. Crimes are mandated to us by the senate, the consuls, and the people. Once we suffered from our vices, now we suffer from our laws.]

The result of this confusion is that one affirms the essence of justice to be the authority of the legislator; another, the interest of the sovereign; another, present custom, and this is the most sure. Nothing, according to reason alone, is just in itself; all changes with time. Custom creates the whole of equity, for the simple reason that it is accepted. It is the mystical foundation of its authority; whoever carries it back to first principles destroys it. Nothing is so faulty as those laws which correct faults. He who obeys them because they are just, obeys a justice which is imaginary, and not the essence of law; it is quite self-contained, it is law and nothing more….

From Fragment 294 of Pensées.

Jensen, “Knowing the Natural Law”

Last month, the Catholic University of America Press released Knowing the NaturalJensen final sketch.indd Law: From Precepts and Inclinations to Deriving Oughts, by Steven Jensen (University of St. Thomas, Houston). The publisher’s description follows:

Recent discussions of Thomas Aquinas’s treatment of natural law have focused upon the “self-evident” character of the first principles, but few attempts have been made to determine in what manner they are self-evident. On some accounts, a self-evident precept must have, at most, a tenuous connection with speculative reason, especially our knowledge of God, and it must be untainted by the stain of “deriving” an ought from an is. Yet Aquinas himself had a robust account of the good, rooted in human nature. He saw no fundamental dierence between is-statements and ought-statements, both of which he considered to be descriptive

Knowing the Natural Law traces the thought of Aquinas from an understanding of human nature to a knowledge of the human good, from there to an account of ought-statements, and finally to choice, which issues in human actions. The much discussed article on the precepts of the natural law (I-II, 94, 2) provides the framework for a natural law rooted in human nature and in speculative knowledge. Practical knowledge is itself threefold: potentially practical knowledge, virtually practical knowledge, and fully practical knowledge.

This distinction within practical knowledge, typically overlooked or underutilized, reveals the steps by which the mind moves from speculative knowledge all the way to fully practical knowledge. The most significant sections of Knowing the Natural Law examine the nature of ought-statements, the imperative force of moral precepts, the special character of per se nota propositions as found within the natural law, and the final movement from knowledge to action.

Helmholz, “Natural Law in Court: A History of Legal Theory in Practice”

Whatever little I know about the ius commune–continental Europe’s set of Helmholzperennial legal principles (derived in part from Roman and Canon law) existing in a code-based system of law–I learned from the work of the distinguished medieval legal historian Professor R.H. Helmholz (Chicago). And because it is the 800th anniversary year of King John’s acceptance of the terms of Magna Carta, may I also recommend this podcast wherein Professor Helmholz gives a talk on Magna Carta “from a European perspective” (he begins to speak at just after the 5 minute mark and speaks for about 15 minutes).

Professor Helmholz’s very interesting latest book, Natural Law in Court: A History of Legal Theory in Practice, is being published next month by Harvard University Press. The publisher’s description follows.

The theory of natural law grounds human laws in the universal truths of God’s creation. Until very recently, lawyers in the Western tradition studied natural law as part of their training, and the task of the judicial system was to put its tenets into concrete form, building an edifice of positive law on natural law’s foundations. Although much has been written about natural law in theory, surprisingly little has been said about how it has shaped legal practice. Natural Law in Court asks how lawyers and judges made and interpreted natural law arguments in England, Europe, and the United States, from the beginning of the sixteenth century to the American Civil War.

R. H. Helmholz sees a remarkable consistency in how English, Continental, and early American jurisprudence understood and applied natural law in cases ranging from family law and inheritance to criminal and commercial law. Despite differences in their judicial systems, natural law was treated across the board as the source of positive law, not its rival. The idea that no person should be condemned without a day in court, or that penalties should be proportional to the crime committed, or that self-preservation confers the right to protect oneself against attacks are valuable legal rules that originate in natural law. From a historical perspective, Helmholz concludes, natural law has advanced the cause of justice.

Brett, “Changes of State”

This month, Princeton University Press releases Changes of State: Nature and the Limits of the City in Early Modern Natural Law, by Annabel S. Brett (Cambridge). The publisher’s description follows:

This is a book about the theory of the city or commonwealth, what would come to be called the state, in early modern natural law discourse. Annabel Brett takes a fresh approach by looking at this political entity from the perspective of its boundaries and those who crossed them. She begins with a classic debate from the Spanish sixteenth century over the political treatment of mendicants, showing how cosmopolitan ideals of porous boundaries could simultaneously justify the freedoms of itinerant beggars and the activities of European colonists in the Indies. She goes on to examine the boundaries of the state in multiple senses, including the fundamental barrier between human beings and animals and the limits of the state in the face of the natural lives of its subjects, as well as territorial frontiers. Drawing on a wide range of authors, Brett reveals how early modern political space was constructed from a complex dynamic of inclusion and exclusion. Throughout, she shows that early modern debates about political boundaries displayed unheralded creativity and virtuosity but were nevertheless vulnerable to innumerable paradoxes, contradictions, and loose ends. Changes of State is a major work of intellectual history that resonates with modern debates about globalization and the transformation of the nation-state.

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