The Capacity of the Human Mind to Know Natural Law

By Waldstein, Wolfgang | Ave Maria Law Review, Fall 2012 | Go to article overview

The Capacity of the Human Mind to Know Natural Law


Waldstein, Wolfgang, Ave Maria Law Review


The dominating opinion of science academics today is that the methods of the natural sciences are the only scientific methods. Pope John Paul II calls this scientism in his encyclical Fides et Ratio, a "threat to be reckoned with." (1) He then explains: "This is the philosophical notion which refuses to admit the validity of forms of knowledge other than those of the positive sciences; and it relegates religious, theological, ethical and aesthetic knowledge to the realm of mere fantasy." (2) This is equally true of legal science insofar as it does not only deal with positive law, but with questions of justice, human rights, and especially with natural law.

Many recent methodological works have shown that a concept of science limiting its scope to natural sciences is not only insufficient, but inadequate and simply arbitrary. (3) Long ago, Aristotle was able to recognize the reason for errors of former philosophers in the fact "that although they studied the truth about reality, they supposed that reality is confined to sensible things (thus their statements, though plausible, are not true....)" (4)

The human capacity of knowing truth has been affirmed by the greatest philosophers, from Socrates to Plato, Aristotle, and the Stoics, in such a way that today one is able to grasp the truth of the relevant findings. Aristotle not only says that "philosophy is rightly called a knowledge of Truth[,]" (5) but he also shows with compelling logic that skeptical and relativistic ideas are self-contradictory and untenable. (6)

They have many times since been refuted convincingly. (7) Innumerable philosophers have taken up true findings which are contained in true philosophy. It is naturally impossible to even mention them all. The most famous are St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas. Pope John Paul II mentions in his encyclical Fides et Ratio not only these names, but many others, including John Henry Newman, Antonio Rosmini, and Edith Stein. (8) I would like to add to these names Dietrich von Hildebrand, whose philosophy is very close to the Lublin School promoted by Karol Wojtyla. (9) Pope John Paul II himself refutes the errors of skepticism, relativism, positivism, scientism, and others, especially in his Encyclicals Evangelium Vitae (10) and Fides et Ratio. (11) In spite of the fact that these theories have been proven to be untenable, they are today widespread and dominant. They form part of the main obstacles for the knowledge of natural law. Therefore, it seems to me necessary first to discuss some of the main arguments against natural law in order to show that they are erroneous and therefore not at all valid arguments.

Second, I will, as far as possible, try to show how natural law has been known since antiquity. It was not only known in a theoretical way, but it was recognized as an existing and knowable reality, which everyone is obliged to know in order to be able to be just. (12) Through the work of Roman jurisprudence, it formed the legal order that governed all of Europe until the so-called codifications of natural law in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. (13) In Austria, this codification from 1811 is still valid though many parts of it were changed for various and partly political reasons. But two paragraphs which refer expressly to natural law are still in force. I will come back to one of them later.

I. SOME OF THE MAIN ARGUMENTS AGAINST NATURAL LAW

A. Skepticism and Agnosticism

Natural law is necessarily denied by every form of skepticism and agnosticism as for instance developed by Christian Thomasius (1655-1728). He started as one of the natural law specialists of the enlightenment, but he wanted to detach the natural law from any theological dependence and to establish it on autonomous human reason. (14) As Stefan Buchholz has shown in a masterly analysis, the autonomized human reason ends up in its self-destruction. (15) The fundamental premise: "voluntas semper movet intellectum" (the will always moves the intellect) turns in its consequence the "animal rationale" into a "servus passionum suarum" (slave of one's passions).

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