Last night at dinner our family enjoyed an unusually rich conversation prompted by a question that had arisen during my wife’s homeschooling history lesson with our seventh-grade son. In recent days these two have been working through the major thinkers of the Enlightenment using an excellent history textbook written from a Catholic perspective. As my wife and son have been reading and discussing the material, the question has arisen: what is the chief difference between the natural law theories of the Enlightenment and the Thomistic natural law theory that forms the natural backbone of the Catholic Church’s moral theology?
As soon as she heard the question, my daughter, a junior at our local diocesan high school, chimed in: “I just took a test on that today!” And so, together, we did our best to answer the question. Along the way I offered a distinction I’ll share with you.
On the older, medieval conception of human nature, there was a difference, as Alasdair MacIntyre has put it, between man as he happens to be (untutored human nature), and man as he could be if he realized his telos (fully perfected human nature). Human nature, in other words, was understood as ordered, prior to our choices, to a hierarchy of common goods (life, society, truth, God) in the pursuit of which virtue is both required and perfected. On this scheme, the whole point of moral formation is to undergo the rigors that transform our untutored nature into a nature enjoying the full flowering of its capabilities in virtuous action.
The Enlightenment, in a word, jettisoned this scheme. It threw out the whole notion of man as he could be if he realized his telos, but held onto, and attempted to cobble together, the remaining ideas of man as he happens to be and of a natural law governing human affairs. The first of these remainders became glorified in various conceptions of the “state of nature.” The second of these remainders, the theory of natural law, was transformed into a set of rules protecting the autonomy of untutored human nature. Actually, this is the Lockean view; Hobbes and Rousseau were much more incoherent in their views of natural law.
The result, as theologian Servias Pinckaers has argued in his magisterial The Sources of Christian Ethics, was a conception of freedom (or autonomy) understood as a freedom of “indifference,” the raw ability to choose this over that, as opposed to a freedom for “excellence” or virtue. Modern natural law simply sets down various strictures against interfering with an individual’s autonomous choices, so that the individual remains free to choose however he deems fit. The state comes into existence as a free contract among individuals, the ultimate means by which the autonomy of individual self-interest is preserved.
Okay, I didn’t go into all of this at the dinner table last evening. But we did talk over the substance of this distinction, which made for a delectable feast of reason and flow of soul.
And I didn’t neglect telling my kids that when it comes to two of the Enlightenment’s most impressive artifacts, the United States Declaration of Independence and Constitution, we have much for which to be grateful. They are, to be sure, flawed documents from the point of view of philosophy, and those theoretical flaws have had real negative practical effects. Still, these documents enshrine certain rights that dovetail adequately enough with the older scheme of natural law, and at times enhance our understanding of the potentialities of that older scheme (I’m thinking of the right to free religious exercise), thus giving us every reason to stand vigilant in defending our constitutional order against the exertions of those who would seek to undermine it.
Books mentioned in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.