Moral Philosophy

Chapter VII: Of the Eternal Law.

1. A LAW is defined to be: A precept just and abiding, given for promulgation to a perfect community. A law is primarily a rule of action. The first attribute of a law is that it be just: just to the subject on whom it is imposed, as being no harmful abridgment of his rights: just also to other men, as not moving him to injustice against them. An unjust law is no law at all, for it is not a rule of action. Still, we may sometimes be bound, when only our own rights are infringed, to submit to such an imposition, not as a law, for it is none, but on the score of prudence, to escape direr evils. A law is no fleeting, occasional rule of conduct, suited to meet some passing emergency or superficial disturbance. The reason of a law lies deep down, lasting and widespread in the nature of the governed. A law, then, has these two further attributes of permanence in duration and amplitude in area. Every law is made for all time, and lives on with the life of the community for whom it is enacted, for ever, unless it be either expressly or implicitly repealed. A law in a community is like a habit in an individual, an accretion to nature, which abides as part of the natural being, and guides henceforth the course of natural action. This analog holds especially of those laws, which are not enacted all of a sudden -- and such are rarely the best laws -- but grow upon the people with gradual growth unmarked, like a habit by the repetition of acts, in the way of immemorial custom. I have said that a law is for a community, that it requires amplitude and large area. A law is not laid down for an individual, except so far as his action is of importance to the community. The private concerns of one man do not afford scope and room enough for a law. Neither do the domestic affairs of one family. A father is not a legislator. A law aims at a deep, far-reaching, primary good. But the private good of an individual, and the domestic good of a family, are not primary goods, inasmuch as the individual and the family are not primary but subordinate beings: not complete and independent, but dependent and partial; not wholes but parts. The individual is part of the family, and the family is part of a higher community. It is only when we are come to some community which is not part of any higher, that we have found the being, the good of which is primary good, the aim of law. Such a community, not being part of any further community in the same order, is in its own order a perfect community. Thus, in the temporal order, the individual is part of the State. The State is a perfect community; and the good of the State is of more consequence than the temporal well-being of any individual citizen. The temporal good of the individual, then, is matter of law, in so far as it is lent to the good of the State. We have, then, to hold that a law is given to the members of a perfect community for the good of the whole. Not every precept, therefore, is a law: nor every superior a lawgiver: for it is not every superior that has charge of the good of a perfect community. Many a precept is given to an individual, either for his private good, as when a father commands his child, or for the private good of him that issues the precept, as when a master commands a servant. But every law is a precept: for a law is an imperative rule of action, in view of a good that is necessary, at least with the necessity of convenience. To every law there are counsels attached. A law may be said to be a nucleus of precept, having an envelope of counsel. Every law has also a pendent called punishment for those who break it: this is called the sanction of the law. A law is also for promulgation, as a birch rod for application. The promulgation, or application, brings the law home to the subject, but is not part of the law itself. So much for the definition of Law.

2. We have to learn to look upon the whole created universe, and the fulness thereof, angels, men, earth, sun, planets, fixed stars, all things visible and invisible, as one great and perfect community, whose King and Lawgiver is God. He is King, because He is Creator and Lord. But lordship and kingship are different things, even in God. It is one thing to be lord and master, owner and proprietor of a chattel, property and domain: it is another thing to be king and governor, lawgiver and judge of political subjects. The former is called power of dominion, or right of ownership, the latter is power of jurisdiction. Power of dominion is for the good of him who wields it: but power of jurisdiction is for the good of the governed. As God is Lord of the universe, He directs all its operations to His own glory. As He is King, He governs as a king should govern, for the good of His subjects. In intellectual creatures, whose will is not set in opposition to God, the subject's good and the glory of the Lord finally coincide. God's power of dominion is the concern of theologians: the moralist is taken up with His power of jurisdiction, from whence emanates the moral law.

3. In the last chapter (s. ii., nn. 9, 10, p. 120,121), we stated the moral law in these terms, that God wills to bind His creatures to certain lines of action, not arbitrary lines, as we saw, but the natural lines of each creature's being. The law thus stated takes in manifestly a wider field than that of moral action. There is in fact no action of created things that is not comprehended under this statement. It comprises the laws of physical nature and the action of physical causes, no less than the moral law and human acts. It is the one primeval law of the universe, antecedent to all actual creation, and co-eternal with God. And yet not necessary as God: for had God not decreed from all eternity to create -- and He need not have decreed it -- neither would He have passed in His own Divine Mind this second decree, necessarily consequent as it is upon the decree of creation, namely, that every creature should act in the mode of action proper of its kind This decree, supervening from eternity upon the creative decree, is called the Eternal Law.

4. This law does not govern the acts of God Himself. God ever does what is wise and good, not because He binds Himself by the decree of His own will so to act, but because of His all-perfect nature. His own decrees have not for Him the force of a precept: that is impossible in any case: yet He cannot act against them, as His nature allows not of irresolution, change of mind, and inconsistency.

5. Emanating from the will of God, and resting upon the nature of the creature, it would seem that the Eternal Law must be irresistible. " Who resisteth His will?" asks the Apostle. (Rom. ix. 19.) " The streams of sacred rivers are flowing upwards, and justice and the universal order is wrenched back." (Euripides, Medea, 499.) It is only the perversion spoken of by the poet, that can anywise supply the instance asked for by the Apostle. The thing is impossible in the physical order. The rivers cannot flow upwards, under the conditions under which rivers usually flow: but justice and purity, truth and religion may be wrenched back, in violation of nature and of the law eternal. The one thing that breaks this law is sin. Sin alone is properly unnatural. The world is full of physical evils, pain, famine, blindness, disease, decay and death. But herein is nothing against nature: the several agents act up to their nature, so far as it goes: it is the defect of nature that makes the evil. But sin is no mere shortcoming: it is a turning round and going against nature, as though the July sun should freeze a man, or the summer air suffocate him. Physical evil comes by the defect of nature, and by permission of the Eternal Law. But the moral evil of sin is a breach of that law.

6. A great point with modern thinkers is the inviolability of the laws of physical nature, e.g., of gravitation or of electrical induction. If these laws are represented, as J. S. Mill said they should be, as tendencies only, they are truly inviolable. The law of gravitation is equally fulfilled in a falling body, in a body suspended by a string, and in a body borne up by the ministry of an angel. There is no law of nature to the effect that a supernatural force shall never intervene. Even if, as may be done perhaps in the greatest miracles, God suspends His concurrence, so that the creature acts not at all, even that would be no violation of the physical law of the creature's action: for all that such a law provides is, that the creature, if it acts at all, shall act in a certain way, not that God shall always give the concurrence which is the necessary condition of its acting at all. The laws of physical nature then are, strictly speaking, never violated, although the course of nature is occasionally altered by supernatural interference, and continually by free human volition. But the laws of physical nature, in the highest generality, are identified with the moral law. The one Eternal Law embraces all the laws of creation. It has a physical and a moral side. On the former it effects, on the latter it obliges, but on both sides it is imperative; and though in moral matters it be temporarily defeated by sin, still the moral behest must in the end be fulfilled as surely as the physical behest. The defeat of the law must be made good, the sin must be punished. of the Eternal Law working itself out in the form of punishment, we shall speak presently.

7. It is important to hold this conception of the Eternal Law as embracing physical nature along with rational agents. To confine the law, as modern writers do, to rational agents alone, is sadly to abridge the view of its binding force. The rigid application of physical laws is brought home to us daily by science and by experience: it is a point gained, to come to understand that the moral law being intimately one with those physical laws, is no less absolute and indefeasible, though in a different manner, than they.

It is hard for us to conceive of laws being given to senseless things. We cannot ourselves prescribe to iron or to sulphur the manner of its action. As Bacon says (Novum Organum, i., Aphorism 4) "Man can only put natural bodies together or asunder; nature does the rest within." That is, man cannot make the laws of nature: he can only arrange collocations of materials so as to avail himself of those laws. But God makes the law, issuing His command, the warrant without which no creature could do anything, that every creature, rational and irrational, shall act each according to its kind or nature. Such is the Eternal Law.

Readings. -- Suarez, De Legibus, I., xii.; St. Thos., 1a 2ae, q. 90, art. 2-4; ib., q. 91, art. 1, in corp., ad ii; ib., q. 93, art. 1, in corp.; ib., q. 93, art. 4, in corp.; ib., q. 93, art. 5, in corp.; ib., q. 93, art. 6, in corp. Suarez, De Legibus, II., vi.; Cicero, De Legibus, II., iv. id., De De Republica, 22.

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