Nature as Reason: A Thomistic Theory of the Natural Law

Nature as Reason: A Thomistic Theory of the Natural Law

Nature as Reason: A Thomistic Theory of the Natural Law

Nature as Reason: A Thomistic Theory of the Natural Law


This noteworthy book develops a new theory of the natural law that takes its orientation from the account of the natural law developed by Thomas Aquinas, as interpreted and supplemented in the context of scholastic theology in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries.

Though this history might seem irrelevant to twenty-first-century life, Jean Porter shows that the scholastic approach to the natural law still has much to contribute to the contemporary discussion of Christian ethics. Aquinas and his interlocutors provide a way of thinking about the natural law that is distinctively theological while at the same time remaining open to other intellectual perspectives, including those of science.

In the course of her work, Porter examines the scholastics' assumptions and beliefs about nature, Aquinas's account of happiness, and the overarching claim that reason can generate moral norms. Ultimately, Porter argues that a Thomistic theory of the natural law is well suited to provide a starting point fordeveloping,a more nuanced account of the relationship between specific beliefs and practices. While Aquinas's approach to the natural law may not provide a system of ethical norms that is both universally compelling and detailed enough to be practical, it does offer something that is arguably more valuable -- namely, a way of reflecting theologically on the phenomenon of human morality.


About five years ago, I completed a study of the scholastic concept of the natural law, as developed by canon lawyers and theologians in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. I concluded by observing that this concept is still fundamentally sound and theologically promising, and expressing a hope that others might take it up as a resource for contemporary theological ethics. Of course, I hoped to make an attempt to do so myself, and this book is the result. More specifically, in this book I develop a constructive theory of the natural law, taking the scholastic concept as my starting point. As I explain in the first chapter, I rely especially on the thought of Thomas Aquinas, seen however in its scholastic context. In order to do so, I follow the time-honored method of reflective interpretation, taking Aquinas and his interlocutors as conversation partners, and trying to think through central issues with them. I do not claim that the resulting theory is Aquinas's theory, or much less that of the scholastics more generally; but I do claim that it is Thomistic, in the sense that it takes his theory of the natural law as a starting point and develops in a way that is, I hope, faithful to his overall intent.

In what follows I presuppose, rather than attempting to defend, the interpretations of scholastic thought generally and of Aquinas's theory in particular set out in the earlier book. I provide references to that book for those who are interested in seeing a fuller defense of these interpretations, or who would like more extensive references than I can provide here. By the same token I do not attempt the kind of systematic textual study of Aquinas, or any other medieval author, that would be necessary to defend the readings I presuppose. With respect to Aquinas, I focus mostly on the Summa theologiae, which is cited in the text; I cite passages from other works when these seem to me to provide a fuller or clearer insight on a given point, and these are mostly . . .

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