Moral Philosophy

Chapter IX. Of the Sanction of the Natural Law.

Section I. -- Of a Twofold Sanction, Natural and Divine.

1. THE sanction of a law is the punishment for breaking it. The punishment for final, persistent breach of the natural law is failure to attain the perfect state and last end of the human soul, which is happiness. If existence be prolonged under this failure, it must be in the contrary state of misery, This failure and misery is at once a natural result and a divine infliction. It is the natural result of repeated flagrant acts of moral evil, whereby a man has made his nature hideous, corrupted and overthrown it. (c. VI., s. i., nn. 4, 5, p. 111.) For an end is gained by taking the means, and lost by neglect of the means thereto. Now, as we have seen, happiness is an intellectual act, the perfection of an intellectual or rational nature (c. II., s. ii., p. 6); and the means to it are living rationally: for a reasonable being, to do well and fare well, must live by that reason, which is the form of his being. (c. VI., s. i., n. 4, p. 111.) Whoever therefore goes about contradicting the reason that is within him (c. V., s. iii., n. 3, P. 74) is not in the way to attain to happiness. Happiness, the end of man, the creature of all others the most complex, is not to be stumbled upon by chance. You may make two stones lean upright one against the other by chance, but otherwise than by a methodical application of means to the end you could not support the spire of Salisbury Cathedral.

2. Man's is a progressive nature (c. vi., s. i., nn. 2, 3, p. 109), himself being the director of his own progress. Other progressive natures may be spoilt by their requirements being denied, and contrary things done to them. Man has his requirements. It depends mainly on himself whether he acts up to, them or against them. If he acts against them, he so far spoils himself; and once he is thoroughly spoilt by his own doing, the final perfection of humanity is gone from him for ever. It is the natural result.

3. I have spoken (n. i) of repeated flagrant acts: not that I would ignore the evil set of the will that results from one gross and deliberate evil deed (see c. ix., s. ii., n. 6, p. 168): but because the case is clearer where the acts have been multiplied. However we must not omit to observe, that it is not any vice, or evil habit, that formally unfits a man for his final happiness, but an actual evil set of the will, coming of actual sin unrepented of, which set is more decided, when that uncancelled sin is the last of many such, and the outcome of a habit. But supposing an habitual sinner to have repented, and his repentance to have been ratified by God, and that he dies, not actually in sin, but before the habit of sin has been eradicated (c. v., s. ii., n. i, p. 9) we may say of him, that his "foot is set in the right way," that is, his will is actually right, and the obstacle to happiness is removed. The evil habit in him is not an actual adhesion of his will to evil, but a proneness to relapse into that state. It is only remotely and potentially evil. It is a seed of evil, which however will not germinate in the good and blissful surroundings to which the soul has been transplanted, but remain for ever sterile, or rather, will speedily decay.

4. If we leave God out of morality, and take account only of the Philosophical aspect of sin (c. vi., s. ii., n. 6, p. 119), we have nothing further to say of the sanction than this, which has been said: 'Act against nature, and you will end by ruining your nature, and fail of your final perfection and happiness.' But now God comes in, the giver of the law of nature; and the failure, already a natural result, must henceforth be viewed also as a Divine chastisement. There is no law without a sanction. There is no law, the giver of which can allow it to be broken with impunity. A legislator who dispensed with all sanction, would rightly be taken by young and old not to be in earnest in his command. If then God must give a law to man whom He has created (c. vi., s. ii., n. 9, p. 120), He must attach a sanction to that law; and if the law is according to the exigency of human nature (c. vi., s. ii., n. ii, p. 122), so will the sanction also be the natural outcome of that exigency set at naught and that law broken.

5. Our position gains by the consideration, that the object, in the contemplation of which man's soul is to be finally and perfectly blessed in the natural order, is the Creator seen through the veils of His works. (c. ii., s. iv., p. 21.) This mediate vision of God, albeit it is to be the work of a future existence, needs practice and preparation in this life. God will not be discerned by the man who has not been accustomed to look for Him. He will not be seen by the swine, who with head to earth has eaten his fill of sensual pleasures, and has cared for nothing better. He will not be seen by the covetous man and the oppressor, who never identified His image hidden away under the labour-stained dress of the poor. He will not be seen by the man, who never looked up into His face in prayer here below. He will not be seen by the earth-laden spirit, that cared nothing at all for God, that hated the mention of His name, that proclaimed Him, or at least wished him, not to be at all.

6. It will be said that this argumentation supposes the habits of vice, contracted on earth, to remain in the soul after departure: but there is no proof of that: nay of some vices -- those that have more to do with the body, as drunkenness -- the habits cannot possibly remain, seeing that the appetite wherein they were resident has perished with the body. First, as regards the instance cited, I reply that we may consider drunkenness in two ways, on the one hand as a turning to the creature, on the other as a turning away from reason and the Creator. The craving for liquor cannot remain in the soul after death exactly as it was before, though it probably continues in some analogous form, as a thirst for wild and irregular excitement: but the loathing and horror of the ways of reason and of God, engendered by frequent voluntary intoxication, still continues in the soul. And from this observation we draw the general answer, that whereas in every sin, whether sensual or spiritual, the most important part is played by the will, and the will is a spiritual, not an organic faculty, a faculty which is a main element of the soul whether in or out of the body, -- therefore the evil bent and inclination of the will, which sin involves, must remain even in the departed spirit. Lastly, we may ask: To what purpose is our free-will given us, if all souls, good and bad alike, users and abusers of the liberty they had on earth, enter into their long home all of one uniform and spotless hue?

7. Thus then it comes to be, by order of nature and good consequence, that the man who has abandoned God, goes without God; and he who has shunned his last end and final good, arrives not unto it; and he who would not go, when invited, to the feast, eats not of the same: and whoso has withdrawn from God, from him God withdraws. "A curse he loved, and it shall come upon him; and he would not have a blessing, and it shall be far from him. He put on the curse like a garment, and it has gone in like water into his entrails, and like oil into his bones, -- like a garment which covereth him, and like a girdle wherewith he is girded continually." (Psalm cviii. 18, 19.)

8. Conversely, we might argue the final happiness which attaches to the observance of the law of nature. (c. ii., s. v., p. 26.)

Readings. -- St. Thos., Cont. Gent., iii., cc. 140, 141, 143, 145

Section II. -- Of the Finality of the aforesaid Sanction.

1. By a final, as distinguished from an eternal state, is here meant the last state of existence in a creature, whether that state go on for ever, in which case it is final and eternal, or whether it terminate in the cessation of that creature's being, which is a case of a state final, but not eternal. Whether the unhappy souls of men, who have incurred the last sentence of the natural law, shall exist for eternity, is not a question for philosophy to decide with certainty. The philosopher rules everything a priori, showing what must he, if something else is. Of the action of God in the world, he can only foretell that amount which is thus hypothetically necessary. Some divine action there is, of which the congruity only, not the necessity, is apparent to human eyes: there the philosopher can tell with probability, but not with certainty, what God will do. Other actions of God are wholly beyond our estimate of the reasons of them: we call them simply and entirely free. In that sphere philosophy has no information to render of her own; she must wait to hear from revelation what God has done, or means to do. Philosophers have given reasons of congruence, as they call them, for the reprobate sinner not being annihilated, and therefore for his final punishment being eternal. Those reasons go to evince the probability of eternal punishment, a probability which is deepened into certainty by revelation. We shall not enter into them here, but shall be content to argue that a term is set to the career of the transgressor, arrived at which he must leave hope behind of ever winning his way to happiness, or ever leading any other existence than one of misery.

2. The Previous question has shown that some punishment must attend upon violation of the natural law. Suppose a transgressor has suffered accordingly for a certain time after death, what shall be done with him in the end? If he does not continue to suffer as long as he continues to be, then one of three things: he must either pass into happiness, or into a new state of probation, or his very punishment must be a probation wherein if he believes well, he shall be rewarded with happiness at last, or if ill, he shall continue in misery until he amend. All this speculation, be it understood, lies apart from revelation. If then the sufferer passed out of this world, substantially and in the main a good man, it is not unreasonable that, after a period of expiatory suffering for minor delinquencies, he should reach that happiness which is the just reward of his substantial righteousness. But what of him who closed his career in wickedness exceeding great? Mere suffering will never make of him a good man, or a fit subject for happiness. But the suffering may be probationary, and he may amend himself under the trial. Against that hypothesis, philosophers have brought a priori arguments to show that the period of probation must end with the separation of the soul from the body. But waiving all such arguments, let us suppose that there might be probation after probation even in the world to come. But some human souls would continue obstinately and unrepentingly set in wickedness, age after age, and probation after probation: for the possible malice of the will is vastly great. What is to become of such obstinate characters? It seems against the idea of probation, that periods of trial should succeed one another in an endless series. It would be a reasonable rule in a university, that an undergraduate who had been plucked twenty-five times, should become ineligible for his degree. Coming after so many failures, neither would the degree be any ornament to him, nor he to the university. A soul cannot look for seasons without end of possible grace and pardon to shine upon it. The series of probations must end somewhere. And then? We are come round to where we began. When all the probation is over, the soul is found either in conformity with the natural law, which means ultimate happiness, or at variance with the law, and becomes miserable with a misery that shall never terminate, unless the soul itself ceases to be.

3. It may be asked, how much conformity to the natural law is requisite and sufficient, to exempt a person at the end of his trial from a final doom of misery, or to ensure his lasting happiness? The question resolves itself into three: -- how do sins differ in point of gravity? is grave sin ever forgiven? is the final award to be given upon the person's whole life, a balance being struck between his good and evil deeds, or is it to be simply upon his moral state at the last moment of his career of trial?

4. It was a paradox of the Stoics, that all offences are equal, the treading down of your neighbour's cabbage as heinous a crime as sacrilege. (Horace, Satires, i., 3, 115-119.) But it is obvious that there is a vast difference, as well objectively in the matter of the offence, e.g., in the instance just quoted from Horace, as also subjectively in the degree of knowledge, advertence, and will, wherewith the offender threw himself into the sin. Thus offences come to be distinguished as grave and light. the latter being such as with a human master would involve a reprimand, the former, instant dismissal. Final misery is not incurred except by grave offending.

5. The second question, whether grave sin is ever forgiven, cannot be answered by philosophy. Of course the sinner may see by the light of reason his folly and his error, and thereby conceive some sort of sorrow for it, and retract, and to some extent withdraw his will from it on natural grounds. This amendment of sin on its moral and philosophical side may deserve and earn pardon at human hands. But the offence against God remains to be reckoned for with God. Now God is not bound to forgive without receiving satisfaction; and He never can receive due satisfaction from man for the contempt that a deliberate, grave, and flagrant violation of the moral law puts upon the Infinite Majesty of the Lawgiver. The first thing that revelation has to teach us is whether, and on what terms, God is ready to pardon grievous sin.

6. The balance between deeds good and evil is not struck merely at the instant of death. It is being struck continually; and man's final destiny turns on how that balance stands at the close of his time of probation. So long as he keeps the substance of the moral law, the balance is in his favour. But one downright wilful and grievous transgression outweighs with God all his former good deeds. It is a defiance of the Deity, a greater insult than all his previous life was a service and homage. It is as though a loyal regiment had mutinied, or a hitherto decent and orderly citizen were taken red-handed in murder. If however God deigns to draw the offender to repentance, and to pardon him, the balance is restored. Thus everything finally depends on man being free from guilt of grievous transgression at the instant of death, or at the end of his period of probation, whenever and wherever that end may come.

Reading. -- Lessius, De perfectionibus divinis, 1. xiii., c. xxvi., nn. 183, seq.

Section III. -- Of Punishment Retrospective and Retributive.

1. The doctrine of the last section might stand even in the mind of one who held that all punishment is probational, and destined for the amendment of him who undergoes it, to humble him, to awaken his sense of guilt, and to make him fear to transgress again. On this theory of punishment, the man who in his last probational suffering refuses to amend, must be let drop out of existence as incorrigible, and so clearly his final state is one of misery. The theory is not inconsistent with final punishment, but with eternal punishment, unless indeed we can suppose a creature for all eternity to refuse, and that under stress of torment, a standing, invitation to repentance. It is however a peculiar theory, and opposite to the common tradition of mankind, which has ever been to put gross offenders to death, not as incorrigible, not simply as refuse to be got rid of, but that their fate may be a deterrent to others. Punishment, in this view, is medicinal to the individual, and deterrent to the community. Eternal punishment has been defended on the score of its deterrent force. Both these functions of punishment, the medicinal and the deterrent function, are prospective. But there is asserted a third function, which is retrospective: punishment is said to be retributive. It is on this ground that the justification of eternal punishment mainly rests. We are however here concerned, not with that eternity, but in an endeavour to give a full and adequate view of punishment in all its functions.

2. If punishment is never retributive, the human race in all countries and ages has been the sport of a strange illusion. Everyone knows what vengeance means. It is a desire to punish some one, or to see him punished, not prospectively and with an eye to the future, for his improvement, or as a warning to others, but retrospectively and looking to the past, that he may suffer for what he has done. Is then the idea of vengeance nothing but an unclean phantom? Is there no such thing as vengeance to a right-minded man? Then is there an evil element, an element essentially and positively evil, in human nature. No one will deny that the idea, and to some extent the desire, of vengeance, of retaliation, of retrospective infliction of suffering in retribution for evil done, of what we learn to call in the nursery tit for tat, is natural to mankind. It is found in all men. We all respond to the sentiment:

[AEschylus, Choephori, 3i6, seq. These lines embody the idea on which the dramas of the Shakespeare of Greece are principally founded. But when was a work of the highest art based upon an idea unsound, irrational and vicious?]

Nor must we be led away by Mill (Utilitarianism, c. v.) into confounding retaliation, or vengeance, with self-defence. Self-defence is a natural idea also, but not the same as retaliation. We defend ourselves against a mad dog, we do not retaliate on him. Hence we must not argue that, because self-defence is prospective, therefore so is vengeance.

3. A thing is essentially evil, when there is no possible use of it which is not an abuse. Not far different is the conception of a thing positively evil, evil, that is, not by reason of any deficiency, or by what it is not, but evil by what it is in itself. Such an essential, positive evil in human nature would vengeance be, a natural thing for which there was no natural use, unless punishment may in some measure be retributive. We cannot admit such a flaw in nature. All healthy philosophy goes on the principle, that what is natural is so far forth good. Otherwise we lapse into Manicheism, pessimism, scepticism, abysses beyond the reach of argument. Vengeance undoubtedly prompts to many crimes, but so does the passion of love. Both are natural impulses. It would scarcely be an exaggeration to set down one third of human transgressions to love, and another third to revenge: yet it is the abuse in each case, not the use, that leads to sin. If the matrimonial union were wicked and detestable, as the Manicheans taught, then would the passion of love be an abomination connatural to man. Such another enormity would be the affection of vengeance, if punishment could never rightly be retributive.

4. Aristotle, Rhetoric, I., x., 17, distinguishes two functions of punishment thus: "Chastisement is for the benefit of him that suffers it, but vengeance is for him that wreaks it, that he may have satisfaction." Add to this the warning given to the commonwealth by the example that is made of the offender, and we have the three functions of punishment, medicinal, deterrent, and retributive. As it is medicinal, it serves the offender: as it is deterrent, it serves the commonwealth: as it is retributive, it serves the offended party, being a reparation offered to him. Now, who is the offended party in any evil deed? So far as it is a sin against Justice, an infringement of any man's right, he is the offended party. He is offended, however, not simply and precisely by your violation of the moral law, but by your having, in violation of that law, taken away something that belonged to him. Consequently, when you make restitution and give him back what you took away, with compensation for the temporal deprival of it, he is satisfied, and the offence against him is repaired. If you have maliciously burnt his house down, you bring him the price of the house and furniture together with further payment for the fright and for the inconvenience of being, for the present, houseless. You may do all that, and yet the moral guilt of the conflagration may remain upon your soul. But that is no affair of his: he is not the custodian of the moral law: he is not offended by your sin, formally viewed as sin: nor has he any function of punishing you, taking vengeance upon you, or exacting from you retribution for that. But what if his wife and children have perished, and you meant them so to perish, in the fire? Your debt of restitution still lies in the matter which you took away. Of course it is a debt that cannot be paid. You cannot give back his "pretty chickens and their dam" whole and alive again. Still your inability to pay one debt does not make you liable to that creditor for another debt, which is part of a wholly different account. He is not offended by, nor are you answerable to him for, your sin in this case any more than in the former.

5. We may do an injury to an individual, commit a crime against the State, and sin against God. The injury to the individual is repaired by restitution, not by punishment, and therefore not by vengeance, which is a function of punishment. There is no such thing as vengeance for a private wrong, and. therefore we have the precept to forgive our enemies, and not to avenge ourselves, in which phrase the emphasis falls on the word ourselves. The clear idea and strong desire of vengeance, which nature affords, shows that there is such a thing as vengeance to be taken by some one: it does not warrant every form of vengeance, or allow it to be taken by each man for himself. It consecrates the principle of retribution, not every application of the principle. It is a point of synderesis, not of particular conduct. The reader should recall what was said of the vengeance of Hannibal at Himera. (c. viii., s. ii., p. 144).

6. It belongs to the State to punish Political sin, or crime and to God to punish theological sin, which is sin properly so called, a breach of the Eternal Law. The man who has burnt his neighbour's house down, though he has compensated the individual owner, may yet be punished by the State. The owner, acting in his, capacity as citizens even when he has been compensated as an individual, may still hand him over to the State for punishment. The arson was a violation, not only of commutative but of legal justice (c. v., s. ix., nn, 3, 6, pp. 103, 106), a disturbance of the public peace and social order, an outrage upon the majesty of the law. For this he may be punished by the State, which is the guardian of all these things, and which has jurisdiction over him to make laws for him, and to enforce their sanction against him. Civil punishment, besides being deterrent, is retributive for the breach of social order. It is the vengeance of the commonwealth upon the disturber of tile public peace. Whether the State can punish on pure grounds of retribution, away from all hope or need of deterring possible imitators of the crime, is a question irrelevant to our present enquiry. Probably a negative answer should be returned.

7. We come now to the punishment of sin by God, the Living Reasonableness, the Head of the Commonwealth of Creation, the Legislator of the Eternal Law, the Fountain of all jurisdiction, Him in whose hands rests the plenitude of the power to punish. An evil deed may be no wrong to any individual man, no crime against the State, but it must ever be an offence against God. It is a departure from the order of man's progress as a reasonable being (c. v., s. iii., n. 3, p, 74: c. vi., s. i., nn. 1-5, p. 109), which is founded on the nature of God Himself (c. vi., s. i., n. 7, p. 113), of which order God is the official guardian (c. vi., s. ii., nn. 8-10, p. 119), and which is enjoined by God's Eternal Law. (c. vii., n. 3, p. 129.) This law extends to all creation, rational and irrational, animate and inanimate. It bids every creature work according to his or its own nature and circumstances. Given to irrational beings, the law is simply irresistible and unfailing: such are the physical laws of nature, so many various emanations of the one Eternal Law. Given to rational creatures, the law may be resisted and broken: sin is the one thing in the universe that does break it. (c. vii., nn. 5-7, p. 130.) A man may act in disregard of the Eternal Law on one or other of its physical sides, and so much the worse for him, though he has not broken the law, but merely ignored its operation, as when one eats what is unwholesome. Much more shall he suffer for having broken the law, in the only possible way that it can be broken, by sin. This peculiar violation draws after it a peculiar consequence of suffering, penal and retributive. If a man gets typhoid fever in his house, we sometimes say it is a punishment on him for neglecting his drains, even when the neglect was a mere piece of ignorance or inadvertence. It is an evil consequence certainly, -- the law, which he thought not of, working itself out in the form of disease. But it is not properly punishment: no natural law has been really broken: there has been no guilt, and the suffering is not retributive and compensatory. It does not go to restore the balance of the neglect. It is a lamentable consequence, not a repayment. As, when man wrongs his fellow-man, he makes with him an involuntary contract (c. v., s. ix., n. 6, p. 106), to restore what he takes away: so in sinning against God, man makes another involuntary contract, to pay back in suffering against his will what he unduly takes in doing his own will against the will of the Legislator. As St. Augustine says of Judas (Serm. 125, n. 5): "He did what he liked, but he suffered what he liked not. In his doing what he liked, his sin is found: in his suffering what he liked not, God's ordinance is praised." Thus it is impossible for the Eternal Law, which bears down all so irresistibly in irrational nature, finally to fail of its effect even upon the most headstrong and contumacious of rational creatures; but, as St. Thomas says (1a 2ae, q. 93, art. 6, in corp.), "The defect of doing is made up by suffering, inasmuch as they suffer what the Eternal Law prescribes for them to the extent to which they fail to do what accords with the Eternal Law." And St. Anselm (Cur Deus homo, nn. 14, 15): "God cannot possibly lose His honour: for either the sinner spontaneously pays what he owes, or God exacts it of him against his will. Thus if a man chooses to fly from under the will of God commanding, he falls under the same will punishing." Punishment is called by Hegel, "the other half of sin." Lastly, they are God's own spoken words (Deut. xxxii. 35): "Vengeance is Mine, I will repay."

Readings. -- St. Thos., Cont. Gent., iii. 140, n. 5, Amplius; ib., iii., 144, nn. 8, Per hoc, and 9, Est autem.

For Plato's views on punishment see Protag. 324 A, B; Gorgias, 525; Rep. 380 B, 615; Phaedo, 113 E; Laws, 854 D; 862 D, E; 934 A; 957 E. Plato recognizes only the medicinal and the deterrent functions of punishment, and ignores the retributive. This is not to be wondered at in one who wrote: "No one is wicked voluntarily; but it is an evil habit of body and a faulty education that is the cause of every case of wickedness " (Timaeus, 86 E; cf. Laws, 731 C, D), which error receives a masterly confutation in Aristotle, Ethics, III. v.

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