Monday, April 29, 2013

Discerning the thoughts and intents of Hart

David Bentley Hart’s recent reply to me (to which I responded here) was not his only rejoinder to his critics.  In the Letters section of the May issue of First Things, he makes a number of other remarks intended to clarify and defend what he said in his original article on natural law (which I had criticized here).  The section is behind a paywall, but I will quote what I think are the most significant comments.  Unfortunately, they do nothing to make Hart’s position more plausible, nor even much clearer.

Hume is where the Hart is

One of the most surprising things about Hart’s original piece was that it seemed to concede the Humean thesis that one cannot derive an “ought” from an “is,” or “value” from “fact” -- a thesis that does not sit well with the classical tradition in metaphysics that Hart sympathizes with.  It is worthwhile quoting the relevant passage at some length, to give context:

[T]he natural law theorist insists that the moral meaning of nature should be perfectly evident to any properly reasoning mind, regardless of religious belief or cultural formation. 

Thus, allegedly, the testimony of nature should inform any rightly attentive intellect that abortion is murder, that lying is wrong, that marriage should be monogamous, that we should value charity above personal profit, and that it is wicked (as well as extremely discourteous) to eat members of that tribe that lives over in the next valley. “Nature,” however, tells us nothing of the sort, at least not in the form of clear commands; neither does it supply us with hypotaxes of moral obligation. In neither an absolute nor a dependent sense—neither as categorical nor as hypothetical imperatives, to use the Kantian terms—can our common knowledge of our nature or of the nature of the universe at large instruct us clearly in the content of true morality.

For one thing, as far as any categorical morality is concerned, Hume’s bluntly stated assertion that one cannot logically derive an “ought” from an “is” happens to be formally correct. Even if one could exhaustively describe the elements of our nature, the additional claim that we are morally obliged to act in accord with them, or to prefer natural uses to unnatural, would still be adventitious to the whole ensemble of facts that this description would comprise. 

The assumption that the natural and moral orders are connected to one another in any but a purely pragmatic way must be logically antecedent to our interpretation of the world; it is a belief about nature, but not a natural belief as such; it is a supernatural judgment that renders natural reality intelligible in a particular way. I know of many a stout defender of natural law who is quick to dismiss Hume’s argument, but who—when pressed to explain why—can do no better than to resort to a purely conditional argument: If one is (for instance) to live a fully human life, then one must . . . (etc.). But, in supplementing a dubious “is” with a negotiable “if,” one certainly cannot arrive at a categorical “ought.”

In abstraction from specific religious or metaphysical traditions, there really is very little that natural law theory can meaningfully say about the relative worthiness of the employments of the will.

End quote.  Now, in the Letters section of the May First Things, Hart responds to critics of these remarks as follows:

I said only that Hume’s argument is “formally correct,” which is philosophical parlance for “given its premises, its conclusions follow.”  I was not advocating Hume’s premises.


[A]t no point in my column did I say that moral truths absolutely cannot be deduced from nature… I said only that such truths cannot be deduced from the understanding of nature that modernity presumes, and hence natural law arguments cannot be made from a position that has already conceded the legitimacy of that understanding…

End quote.  Now, the first thing to say is that that is in fact not quite what Hart originally said (even if it is what he meant), and his critics were within their exegetical rights in interpreting him as they did.  For as the passage quoted above clearly shows, what Hart wrote was that “in neither an absolute nor a dependent sense,” even if we “exhaustively describe the elements of our nature,” the “facts that this description would comprise” would entail no “moral meaning,” would never tell us what we are “morally obliged” to do.  Such moral conclusions are, he wrote, “additional” and “adventitious” to the “facts” about nature, are indeed “supernatural” -- where he speaks throughout simply of “nature” or the “natural” (not of “modernity’s understanding of nature”), which gives the impression that he thinks that the natural as such cannot give us moral conclusions, that such conclusions can only come from outside the natural as such. 

Moreover, Hart went on in his original article to say that we “find a great many practices abhorrent and a great many others commendable not because the former transparently offend against our nature while the latter clearly correspond to it” but rather because of “uncanny voices that seemed to emanate from outside the totality of the perceptible natural order.”  And he says that it would be merely “an exercise in suasive rhetoric (and perhaps something of a pia fraus)” to pretend that these moral judgments reflected an awareness of “natural” truths rather than something “supernatural.”  Indeed, he even says that it is only in light of the “apocalyptic” and the “miraculous” that we can see nature as having moral implications.

All of this clearly implies that “Hume’s premises” are correct, that the “facts” about what “is” the case where nature as such is concerned can never in principle tell us what we “ought” to do -- the difference between Hume and Hart being that Hart thinks there is something beyond nature that can tell us this, while Hume does not.  If this is not what Hart meant, I am glad to hear it, but he cannot blame his critics for reading him as they did, given what he actually wrote.  If they misunderstood him, that is only because he expressed himself in a very misleading way.

In fairness to Hart, he does also indicate at a couple of places in his original piece that whether we see nature as having moral implications depends on our “metaphysical” convictions, and at the end of the article says that an appeal to nature is not going to have force “in an age that has been shaped by a mechanistic understanding of the physical world, a neo-Darwinian view of life, and a voluntarist understanding of the self.”  In isolation such remarks might be read as leaving it open that given a different, non-mechanistic metaphysics, nature might have moral implications even apart from the “supernatural,” the “apocalyptic,” or the “miraculous.”  But in the context of the article as a whole, and especially in the context of the remarks quoted above, the reader can certainly be forgiven for reading Hart as endorsing the Humean thesis that nature as such as no moral implications -- especially given that while at one point Hart seems to distinguish the “supernatural” from the “metaphysical,” in the rest of the article he seems to assimilate them.

Moreover, what he gives us with one hand in the May First Things Letters section, he soon takes back with the other.  For having initially said that he was “not advocating Hume’s premises,” nor “say[ing] that moral truths absolutely cannot be deduced from nature,” he then goes on to write:

[S]ince there seems to be some question as to my own view of natural law theory, as such, I may as well be forthcoming on the matter (and confirm my critics’ worst suspicions).  My view is that natural law as a moral concept makes sense only if one starts from the presupposition that nature is a supernatural dispensation…

Nature loves to hide, and left to herself she is too capricious and protean to provide us any sort of moral grammar that is truly binding upon us…

However rich the tradition of moral and metaphysical reflection there is behind the language of natural law, I believe that most of the arguments it produces are formally incorrect (that is, even if both their premises and their conclusions should happen to be true, the latter do not actually follow directly from the former, and so some adventitious mediation -- such as the synthesizing action of a supernaturally illuminated conscience, where the law is “written on the heart” -- is required to bring them together).

End quote.  This makes it sound like Hart does after all think that moral conclusions (or “most” of them) cannot validly be derived from premises about nature alone, even given the proper “metaphysical reflection,” but require something “supernatural” or beyond nature.  And that (minus the reference to the supernatural) sounds pretty close to the Humean view, or perhaps something even stronger than the Humean view (since a Humean might allow that an “ought” could follow from an “is” given a metaphysics sufficiently different from anything Humeans would find plausible).  So Hart’s purportedly clarifying remarks in fact clarify little.

A second problem with Hart’s remarks about Hume in the Letters section is that it is simply too glib to assert matter-of-factly that the Humean position follows even given a non-classical metaphysics.  For as it happens, Hume’s position is controversial even among philosophers who do not endorse classical (e.g. Platonic, Aristotelian, or Scholastic) metaphysics.  For instance, John Searle and Hilary Putnam are two major contemporary non-classical, analytic philosophers who have criticized the Humean position.  Philippa Foot and Michael Thompson, while embracing a kind of neo-Aristotelian ethics, do not do so in a way that tries to challenge a broadly naturalistic metaphysics.  Other examples could be cited.  That does not mean that Hart is wrong to think that a purely naturalistic, mechanistic conception of nature is not at the end of the day going to give you objective morality; indeed, I think he is right about that much.  The point, though, is that he is just wrong if he thinks that contemporary philosophy has gotten so far away from the classical tradition that there is no longer significant common ground by reference to which the classical natural law theorist might engage the other side.

This brings us to a third problem with Hart’s remarks about Hume, which is that if all Hart was saying in his original piece is that “given [modernity’s metaphysical] premises, [Humean, anti-natural law] conclusions follow,” then his point was either completely banal or utterly question-begging.  It is completely banal if his piece was directed at the classical or “old” natural law theory, for (as I noted in my earlier replies to Hart) “old” natural law theorists are all well aware that their position works only given classical metaphysics, that they need therefore to defend classical metaphysics if they are going to derive moral conclusions from premises about nature, and that doing so in the contemporary intellectual context is a tall order.  On the other hand, Hart’s point is utterly question-begging if directed at the “new” natural law theory, since part of the very point of that theory is to show that natural law arguments can be defended even given a non-classical metaphysics and Hume’s strictures about “is” and “ought.”  Hart says absolutely nothing to show that the “new natural lawyers” are wrong to think this; he simply assumes that they are.

Hume or Aquinas, John Finnis and Ralph McInerny

That brings us to a second problem with Hart’s articles overall, which is (as I also noted in my earlier replies to him) that he never makes it clear whether it is the “new” natural law theory, or the “old” natural law theory, or both, that he has in his sights.  His remarks in the Letters section of the May First Things may initially seem to clarify the matter at last.  For he writes:

I said only that [moral] truths cannot be deduced from the understanding of nature that modernity presumes, and hence natural law arguments cannot be made from a position that has already conceded the legitimacy of that understanding (by trying to change natural law theory into either a form of Kantian categorical imperative or some sort of utilitarian calculus).


My column concerned those who make no appeal to [the] desire [of the heart for God], and who consent to secular reason’s decision to bracket the supernatural out of public consideration, and who think that natural law can be demonstrated in a purely naturalistic key…

Hart had claimed in his original piece that “names are not important,” and in the May Letters section he says:

[T]he names I withhold are specifically those of thinkers who do not practice classical natural law theory at all.


[C]lassical natural law theory… was not the topic I addressed.


I underestimated the degree to which what I thought a simple distinction between classical natural law theory and “natural law theory” reconfigured as a form of modern practical reason would prove difficult to grasp.


[It is those thinkers] armed with natural law arguments of an oddly metaphysically denatured kind… [arguing] on the basis of a kind of Kantian appeal to categorical imperatives, scaffolded within a consequentialist account of natural goods… who were the subject of my column.

End quote.  All of that seems to imply very strongly that it is the “new” natural law theory alone that he had in his sights.  But there are two problems with this interpretation.  First, why in that case did Hart go on at such length in his two articles about final causes, Humean strictures about “is” and “ought,” and the like?  For again, “new” natural law theorists accept the Humean position and deny that one need appeal to a metaphysics of final causes in order to practice natural law theory.  So to insist that Hume’s position makes their approach impossible and that their approach requires premises about final causes to which they are not entitled quite blatantly begs the question against them; indeed, it misses the whole point of the “new natural law,” which is to reconstruct natural law in post-Aristotelian, Humean-friendly terms.  (I hasten to emphasize that, as an unreconstructed classical or “old” natural law theorist, I share Hart’s disagreement with the “new natural law” approach.  The trouble is that his critique has no force against it whatsoever.)

Second, despite Hart’s apparently clear-as-day insistence that it was only non-classical natural law theorists he had in mind, he goes on at the end of his remarks in the May Letters section to write:

[F]rankly, the whole “What alternative do we have?” question strikes me as one corrupted by fantasy.  It is not as if natural law theory, classical or modern, is some sort of effective dialectical strategy that has had any success in the secular realm, or that ever will have such success.  Natural law theory is a practice confined to the circles of natural law theorists, because it requires enclosed, conservatory conditions to flourish; in the open air, it quickly withers…

I am in the end quite happy for believers in natural law theory to continue plying their oars, rowing against the current (so long as they do so in keeping with classical metaphysics), but I do not think they are going to get where they are heading; so I shall just watch from the bank for a while and then wander off to the hills (to look for saints and angels).

And to Howard P. Kainz, who asks what “other approach” one should take to “modern moral life,” Hart answers:

I encourage Mr. Kainz to pursue classical natural law theory (which was not the topic I addressed), if he likes.  The Great Commission also comes to mind.  (Do what you think best.)

End quote.  All of this makes it sound as if Hart thinks that classical natural law theory is, after all, not much better than the “new” version, even given its “classical metaphysics.”  Moreover, the comments about “saints and angels” and “the Great Commission,” in addition to being smug, seem to imply that classical natural law theory, no less than the “new” version, has little or no force outside of a “supernatural” context.  In which case Hart’s remarks in his two articles do seem intended to apply to the “old” natural law theory as well as to the “new.”

It would seem, then, that it is not just nature that likes to hide.  Hart’s position on natural law is opaque, and remains opaque even after two attempts at clarification.  I hasten to emphasize that this judgment is in no way meant to detract from the admiration and appreciation we owe the author of Atheist Delusions. 


Joe K. said...

First of all, I always love your photoshopping skills. Second of all, I can never quite tell if Hart is trying to argue that it is philosophically impossible to make a natural law (whether new Or old) argument (that the position just doesn't work out), or if he's trying to argue that it's just futile or impractical to make one because the modern world isn't listening.

I Think it's Mostly the latter, based on what I've read, but sometimes I feel like he tries to sneak in the former too. I mean, I can buy the latter to a point, but it seems like a really unremarkable claim if that's all he's doing. It's also not always true. I know plenty of people who are convinced by natural law arguments once they spend a couple weeks with them. These same people are almost Never convinced by religion or religious convictions by themselves.

I also find it wholly uninteresting for a person to say "You have to have all this background in place before the argument even makes sense!" Okay? This is the same for Anything else in the world. And are we at the point where human beings can only be persuaded by political bumper stickers and youtube videos? And if so, are we just Okay with this?

P.S. Huff said...

Hart has reasons which reason knows not of.

Andrew said...

A friend of mine has some good suggestions as to what actually makes Hart tick on these things:

CJ Wolfe said...

With regard to Hart's "names are not important" bit, I have found that many of my friends who don't know the distinction between New Natural Law thinkers such as Finnis and Old Natural Law/virtue ethics thinkers such as Anscombe clump them together because they both use the terminology and methodologies of analytic philosophy.

I have found that the real motivation at work in these friends of mine is that they are averse to analytic philosophy. They therefore denounce current natural law and virtue ethics thinkers across the board by setting up a strawman who combines the weak parts of all these theories (mainly the weak parts from New Natural Law, though).

I wouldn't be surprised at all if David Hart had a similar strategy in mind when writing what he did, even if he had a different primary motivation (which are hard for me to guess at this point)

Josh said...

It would seem, then, that it is not just nature that likes to hide. Hart’s position on natural law is opaque, and remains opaque even after two attempts at clarification. I hasten to emphasize that this judgment is in no way meant to detract from the admiration and appreciation we owe the author of Atheist Delusions.

Maybe so, and I'd be willing to give that book a read, but geez, his words just make him sound like a boring sort of fideist when it comes to Natural Law. I hope he'll soon make good on his promise to "wander off to the hills," leaving all us morons who have seen the power of classical natural law arguments change the lives/minds of people who would otherwise have nothing to do with God.

rank sophist said...

Even I'm confused by this latest post of his. It seems inconsistent with his last two articles and his philosophy generally. Maybe I just need to see the full context, but who knows.

Anonymous said...


That was the most bizarre piece that I've ever read on Hart -- one that could not be farther from the truth.

Framing Hart's positions in relation to Catholic doctrine and then dubbing him a 19th century Romantic given his relation to it ignores the whole of his scholarship and the tradition of his Church. Hart is Eastern Orthodox and a sort-of-Platonist who endorses classical Christian metaphysics. To suggest that is a Romantic is to take a couple of paragraphs out of the context of his work and impose a rather foreign framework on him.

Anonymous said...

I still say that Feser and Hart are talking past one another and that the best thing that could happen is for them to get together and have a beer.

Anyway, Feser's preference for clear distinctions and Hart's ambiguity remind me of the old joke: A continental philosopher and an analytic one are in a bar. The analytic points toward the continental and declares, "Sir, I've read your works and they are insufficiently clear." The continental then responds without hesitation, "Yes, and you are insufficiently." I think that there's a bit of truth to both of these views.

Debilis said...

I like Hart very much, and he often has good points to make.

However, I also find him a bit fatalistic at times. It would be in keeping with what I've read from him in the past to suppose that his position is this:

1. The new natural law theory is untenable

2. The arguments of the old natural law theory are so alien to the modern mind as to be unhelpful in persuasion.

Though I can't claim to speak for Hart, this would make sense out of his comments for me.

Of course, I agree that he hasn't made a strong logical case against either the old or new natural lawyers.

I'm not entirely sure if this was even his intent. Hart often strikes me as writing something I'd take to be stream of consciousness if the prose weren't so thoroughly elegant. But, I suppose this is hardly a point in his favor.

Anonymous said...

Just in case folks think that philosophically knowledgeable Catholics don't typically agree with Hart on this topic, here's a nice article by Tracey Rowland.

BenYachov said...

@RS my Brother

>Even I'm confused by this latest post of his. It seems inconsistent with his last two articles and his philosophy generally. Maybe I just need to see the full context, but who knows.

Even Aquinas who was both a Saint & a mega-genius got the Immaculate Conception wrong.

I'm waiting for Dr. Feser to get something wrong.:-)

(Or more accuracy I am waiting for someone just as smart to come along and convince me he is wrong on some particular issue philosophical or Theological.)

Hey only Jesus is perfect by Nature and Mary by Extraordinary Grace.

Just saying.....

melster said...

G.K. Chesterton:

" The main point of Christianity was this: that Nature is not our mother: Nature is our sister. We can be proud of her beauty, since we have the same father; but she has no authority over us; we have to admire, but not to imitate. This gives to the typically Christian pleasure in this earth a strange touch of lightness that is almost frivolity. Nature was a solemn mother to the worshipers of Isis and Cybele. Nature was a solemn mother to Wordsworth or to Emerson. But Nature is not solemn to Francis of Assisi or to George Herbert. To St. Francis, Nature is a sister, and even a younger sister: a little, dancing sister, to be laughed at as well as loved." - Orthodoxy, pg. 168-169

Glenn said...

1. Ben's 'just saying' may help to explain why, after sitting on the bank gazing out at the rowers for a while, and not seeing an example of what he'd consider to be a saint or an angel, one might not simply amble down to the water's edge and peer in to see a reflection of what he hopes to find, but, instead, would deem it necessary to take his perquisition to the hills. ("Surely, they must be somewhere...")

2. In addition to the humble nature of Hart's willingness to publicly indulge in a bit of nuanced self-deprecation, what stands out about his oar-plying metaphor is that it shows promise as one example of a certain, well-known and oft-applied strategy (which can be every bit as effective as its title is cumbersome): The Slip-Stream Approach To Acquiring, Accumulating And Otherwise Adding Acolytes, Adherents And Anyone Else Who Might Help To Swell The Ranks. ("Take a gander over there. Do you see any saints or angels? Neither do I. Sigh. Well, I'm going in search of some.")

3. Amongst the several things listed by Aquinas as belonging to the natural law are the following: a) seeking the preservation of one's life; b) warding off obstacles to its continuation; c) educating offspring; d) living in society; and, e) overcoming ignorance. ST IIa q94 a2

If it be true that the natural law is alien and untenable to moderns (as well as both intractably abstruse and conceptually inexplicable to them (not to mention neither naturally nor non-consciously followed by them in any non-insignificant manner)), then it would seem that one could expect to find that many if not most moderns are: a) dismayed and alarmed by the creeping increase in life expectance; b) adamantly against healthcare of most kinds (if not also any kind); c) insistent that their children not be educated; d) likewise heading off into the hills (though for the more practical purpose of living in isolation); and, e) actively involved in helping others become both knowledgeable and enlightened regarding the importance of remaining ignorant.

However, it is to be noted that few of the (implicitly) so-called Moderns Against Natural Law seem to be in favor of such things as make up the second list. And it is to be further noted that 'tis indubitably naught but an anomalous coincidence that such things (as make up the second list) are themselves arguably against the natural law.

Josh said...

Ah, a misappropriated Chesterton quote. If Hart thinks of Classical Natural Law as part of the set presented in the sentences immediately preceding that quote:

"The essence of all pantheism, evolutionism and modern cosmic religion is really in this proposition: that Nature is our mother. Unfortunately, if you regard Nature as a mother, you discover that she is a step-mother."

...then, so much the worse for him, yet again. Better would be Chesterton's exposition from The Dumb Ox:

"[Aquinas'] argument for Revelation is not in the least an argument against Reason. On the contrary, he seems inclined to admit that truth could be reached by a rational process, if only it were rational enough; and also long enough. Indeed, something in his character, which I have called elsewhere optimism, and for which I know no other approximate term, led him rather to exaggerate the extent to which all men would ultimately listen to reason. In his controversies, he always assumes that they will listen to reason. That is, he does emphatically believe that men can be convinced by argument; when they reach the end of the argument. Only his common sense also told him that the argument never ends. I might convince a man that matter as the origin of Mind is quite meaningless, if he and I were very fond of each other and fought each other every night for forty years. But long before he was convinced on his deathbed, a thousand other materialists could have been born, and nobody can explain everything to everybody. St. Thomas takes the view that the souls of all the ordinary hard-working and simple-minded people are quite as important as the souls of thinkers and truth-seekers; and he asks how all these people are possibly to find time for the amount of reasoning that is needed to find truth. The whole tone of the passage shows both a respect for scientific enquiry and a strong sympathy with the average man. His argument for Revelation is not an argument against Reason; but it is an argument for Revelation. The conclusion he draws from it is that men must receive the highest moral truths in a miraculous manner; or most men would not receive them at all. His arguments are rational and natural; but his own deduction is all for the supernatural; and, as is common in the case of his argument, it is not easy to find any deduction except his own deduction."

David B Marshall said...

Maybe I'm lost in the abstractions. But personally, I am not sure Hart and Feser are arguing about anything real, at the moment. Whether God speaks through our nature, or from outside our nature, may lie on the dividing line that the Dao deliniates most clearly when it makes no mark. Maybe there is no difference between those acts, to a divine Logos that sees end from beginning. Or maybe in the tangle of works, the pressing issue in dispute here has eluded me.

Glenn said...

Maybe I'm lost in the abstractions.

Doesn't sound to me like you are.

But there are, or seem to be, various stages which people go through.

And when different folks in different stages bump shoulders, the result can be somewhat less than frictionless, and perhaps a tad bit tumultuous and cacophonous.

"At fifteen, I had my mind bent on learning.

"At thirty, I stood firm.
"At forty, I had no doubts.
"At fifty, I knew the decrees of Heaven.
"At sixty, my ear was an obedient organ for the reception of truth.

"At seventy, I could follow what my heart desired, without transgressing what was right."

Edward Feser said...

It ain't that hard. Can reason alone, apart from special divine revelation, give us any substantive moral knowledge? I say Yes; Hart seems to be saying No.

David B Marshall said...

But when is reason really alone? On Christian premises, never.

Michele Arpaia said...

I second Feser. Natural Law is discoverable by reason alone and gives us a substantial amount of moral knowledge.
Acting on that is a different matter. In other words Grace perfects (i.e. fulfills) our nature by making us able to achieve those ends inscribed in our nature (plus others, eg faith.

Tony said...

Glenn, I have been waiting to say that for a while now: whatever men might say they accept, they actually work in the midst of the natural law all day long: the law that gives them desires for the ordinary goods of human life, the good of family and knowledge and love, for example. A man doesn't become subject to the law of gravity by knowing about the law of gravity. And a man who argues to you against the law of non-contradiction is a man who is actually using the law in spite of his claims.

Also, if natural law is so inaccessible to modern man, why is it that there are numerous natural law supporters now alive? Somehow, in some unimaginable fashion, these modern people managed to grasp it even though they are modern. Maybe, just possibly, people can sometimes rise above the implicit errors of their culture and realize a timeless truth that their culture doesn't recognize. Like the early Christians converting to Christ in the face of paganism or (false) Judaism.

James said...

In my dreams, at least, the next article in this series will be entitled “Here I sit, broken Hart-ed …”

Michele Arpaia said...

@David M.,
which Christian premises you're referring to?

Scott said...


"Just in case folks think that philosophically knowledgeable Catholics don't typically agree with Hart on this topic, here's a nice article by Tracey Rowland."

On my first pass through the article, it seemed to me that her point pretty much is that philosophically knowledgeable Catholics don't typically agree with Hart on this topic even though she thinks they should.

Either way, though, the view/practice she's arguing against isn't Feser's. He's stated his clearly enough.

Scott said...

@David B Marshall:

"But when is reason really alone?"

I'll quote Feser with the relevant bit emphasized: "Can reason alone, apart from special divine revelation, give us any substantive moral knowledge? I say Yes; Hart seems to be saying No."

If you think you can know that 2 + 2 = 4 without relying on special revelation, then you already understand the sense of "alone" that's intended here. It doesn't mean "existing in splendid isolation with no commerce of any kind with anything outside itself."

Anonymous said...

But it ain't that simple because the dispute, as Hart would have it, is not whether "reason" along can discover such things, but about what "reason" precisely is.

Anonymous said...

But doesn't reason show that Christianity is true?

This whole discussion is confusing to me.

rank sophist said...

Hart probably would dismiss the distinction between special and general revelation as a difference in degree rather than in kind. EO Christians, and particularly those with a strong grounding in the Church Fathers, have a tendency of thinking this way. Grace and special revelation are matters of increasing participation--they aren't simply a new kind of participation added "on top" of our existing, natural kind. If I remember correctly, the idea that grace is something totally new (rather than something that is initially outside of us and then within us) stems from Augustine's more pessimistic, predestinational view of salvation.

David B Marshall said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Tony said...

But it ain't that simple because the dispute, as Hart would have it, is not whether "reason" along can discover such things, but about what "reason" precisely is.

Anon, if that's the real dispute, Hart did a terrible job discussing it. If "what reason is, precisely" is the issue, there is very little call for an extensive look at natural law.

For Feser's next post, I a hoping he will tackle the attempt by mystics who go around denigrating discursive reasoning for not being the be-all and end-all of intelligent creatures. And who do so basing their "arguments", if you can call it that, not on a discursive presentation of ideas in any kind of logical development but in a quasi-mystical smorgasbord of ideas that might (if only you saw the mind of God) be all connected in ways that mere humans cannot perceive unaided. To me, flouting rational argument for not being more than it is designed to be, and doing it in terms that only a mystic could follow, is not cricket.

Tony said...

But the word "special" in the phrase "special divine revelation" seems to beg the question. If, as you concede, there is "some sort of commerce" in every case -- and one must suppose that means from God to us, not the other way around -- then we are only quibbling about what is "special" and what is the norm, even if for God, the "norm" might be all kinds of things

If there is no real basis for distinguishing between the natural and the special, then there is no basis for thinking that the prophets who foretold the future and performed miracles did something special, and therefore there was no special reason to pay attention to them and therefore there is no special reason for Israel to have followed Moses or David or write down the words of Isaiah, because everything they did was "normal" only a bit more so.

No, if God wanted there to be a Scripture that first attested to the coming of the Messiah, and then proved the Messiah was who He said by His fulfilling the prophecies, then prophets had to be capable of proving their divine bona fides by miracles, and we have to be able to distinguish those miracles by something different in kind from the natural capacity of man. The very order of grace established by Christ in the New Covenant requires an standard understanding of the natural from which his teaching and actions could stand out as divine in a special way. If there is no fundamental distinction between nature and grace, then Christ died in vain.

David B Marshall said...

Scott: But the word "special" in the phrase "special divine revelation" seems to beg the question. If, as you concede, there is "some sort of commerce" in every case -- and one must suppose that means from God to us, not the other way around -- then we are only quibbling about what is "special" and what is the norm, even if for God, the "norm" might be all kinds of things, subtle as well as overt, with straight line causation tracing past the Big Bang to a bubble in a former universe, or the hand of God reaching into time and space at this moment. So yes, apart from God -- in one way or the other, and why again quibble about which way? -- on no conceivable Christian premises (Michele), can one say "2 + 2 = 4," unless the Spirit moves. The rest still looks to me like detail: important detail, I concede, but detail that it is in not obviously easy to pin down (witness Plantinga's concerns about the trustworthiness of naturalistic reason).

rank sophist said...


Your post at 8:45 PM is incredibly hyperbolic. Unless we affirm the most extreme Augustinian notions of salvation, then Christ died in vain? Maybe you should try telling that to the EO Christians--see what they think.

David B Marshall said...

Sorry, Tony, I edited myself while you were at work. But no, I didn't say there was no basis for distinguishing. We are in agreement on that point. Are you sure Hart is not? Here, from The Last Superstition, page 154:

"Does belief in such a revelation go beyond reason? Is that where faith comes in? The answer, again, is no . . . or at least, not necessarily. For the claim that a divine revelation has occurred is something for which the monotheistic religions typically claim there is evidence, and that evidence takes the form of a miracle, a suspension of the natural order that cannot be explained in any other way than divine intervention in the normal course of events."

Hart then refers readers to William Lane Craig and Richard Swinburne for evidence in the particular case of the Resurrection.

Anonymous said...


And, ironically enough, his dismissal of "mystics" would mean that he would have to dismiss Augustine -- not to mention most of the Eastern Fathers, Bonaventure, even Aquinas himself.

The more I read the posts here, the more Hart seems correct. Early Christians did not separate "reason" from "mysticism" -- rather, following Plato and Plotinus, they appreciated the limits of discursive reason and understood that true reason can only come from cultivating the eye of the soul. That this is so easily dismissed without any engagement -- although being fundamental to early Christian thought -- seems to betray a certain captivity to cultural constructs.

And on this point, I even have to indict Professor Feser. Hart has criticized "two-tier" neo-scholasticism as a recent aberration. He has instead advanced an approach to reason that he argues is more in line with historical Christianity. No one, including Feser, has addressed either the historical aspect of this argument or acknowledged that Hart is disputing the meaning of reason itself.

Edward Feser said...


The (true) claim that:

(1) God upholds everything in being

does not entail the (false) claim that:

(2) The proposition that God upholds everything in being must be a premise in any argument in ethics, mathematics, etc.

To think otherwise is like inferring from the (true) proposition that:

(3) We couldn't reason about ethics, mathematics, etc. unless there was oxygen for us to breathe.

to the (false) conclusion that:

(4) The proposition that we need oxygen to breathe must be a premise in every argument in ethics, mathematics, etc.

Just as you can inquire about ethics and mathematics without presupposing anything about oxygen, so too can you inquire about mathematics and (at least a big chunk of) ethics without presupposing anything about the existence of God.

Anonymous said...

This should perhaps shine some light on Hart's position:

[i][The] theology of the Eastern Church distinguishes in God the three hypostases, the nature or essence, and the energies. The Son and the Holy Spirit are, so to say, personal processions, the energies, natural processions. The energies are inseparable from the nature, and the nature is inseparable from the three Persons. These distinctions are of great importance for the Eastern Church’s conception of mystical life: . . .

3) The distinction between the essence and the energies, which is fundamental for the Orthodox doctrine of grace, makes it possible to preserve the real meaning of Saint Peter’s words “partakers of the divine nature” [2 Peter 1:4]. The union to which we are called is neither hypostatic—as in the case of the human nature of Christ—nor substantial, as in that of the three divine Persons: it is union with God in His energies, or union by grace making us participate in the divine nature, without our essence becoming thereby the essence of God. In deification [theosis] we are by grace (that is to say, in the divine energies), all that God is by nature, save only identity of nature . . . according to the teaching of Saint Maximus. We remain creatures while becoming God by grace, as Christ remained God in becoming man by the Incarnation. . . .

Eastern tradition knows no such supernatural order between God and the created world, adding, as it were, to the latter a new creation. It recognizes no distinction, or rather division, save that between the created and the uncreated. For [the] eastern tradition the created supernatural has no existence. That which western theology calls by the name of the supernatural signifies for the East the uncreated—the divine energies ineffably distinct from the essence of God. . . . The act of creation established a relationship between the divine energies and that which is not God. . . . [However,] the divine energies in themselves are not the relationship of God to created being, but they do enter into relationship with that which is not God [i.e., His creation], and draw the world into existence by the will of God.[/i]

Vladimir Lossky, The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church

Anonymous said...

P. S. Huff --

Groan :-)

Aquinas3000 said...

Rowland's article is a load of nonsense in claiming natural law can't be understood apart from Christ and his spousal relationship with the Church. Rowland is also on record as saying the first principles of reason (non contradiction etc) are not self evident. A lot of us here in Australia are beginning to realise she is a raving lunatic of a "theologian." You can read a refutation of her article here:

Another friend of mine is producing a lot of (so far unpublished) works rebutting her main books. It's like shooting ducks in a barrel.

MarcAnthony said...

"No one, including Feser, has addressed either the historical aspect of this argument or acknowledged that Hart is disputing the meaning of reason itself."

If Hart is disputing the very MEANING of reason it's no wonder both sides are talking past each other!

Michele Arpaia said...

Hi Aquinas3000,
I am very interested in the work you guys are producing.
Please contact me at michele.arpaia[at]
Michele (Sydney)

David Marshall said...

Edward: While I am, in practice, a "natural theologian" of some sort myself, and therefore probably more on your side than on Hart's, I suspect you both exagerate the difference. Consider your analogy:

"Just as you can inquire about ethics and mathematics without presupposing anything about oxygen, so too can you inquire about mathematics and (at least a big chunk of) ethics without presupposing anything about the existence of God."

But oxygen is a mindless element. God is the rational being that gives us reason: the analogy is therefore weak, to say the least.

Again, Plantinga maintains that on materialistic grounds, we cannot even maintain that our thought processes have anything to say about what is "true." If he is right, then while cognitive capabilities may be detached from the premise "God is" for practical purposes, that premise is still needed in hidden form. Even if he is wrong -- and I have disputed his Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism -- the relationship between God's thoughts and ours, is of a very different kind from that between oxygen and reasoning. For one thing, it is simply not true that we cannot reason without oxygen -- which will also pass away. But also, reason giving birth to reason, is an essentially different kind of "cause" than the material elements than allow our physical brains to process data. And I suspect when that difference is taken into full account, the dispute between the two of you may appear less stark than you take it to be. But admittedly, I could still be missing something.

Brandon said...

Plantinga maintains that on materialistic grounds, we cannot even maintain that our thought processes have anything to say about what is "true." If he is right, then while cognitive capabilities may be detached from the premise "God is" for practical purposes, that premise is still needed in hidden form.

Whether something is a premise, hidden or not, depends solely on its function in the context of an argument; thus it does not follow that if an account involving God is the only viable explanation of human reasoning capabilities that it is any part of the premise-set of any argument. Trying to make it so conflates the order of knowing and the order of being. Not all that is most known by us is explanatorily fundamental; we can know these things without any part of their explanations functioning as any part of the underlying premises. The reason we know X and what explains X are not one and the same.

The line of argument you are suggesting would require that we conclude to massive skepticism. There will always be part important parts of a total explanation that will elude us because they could only be known to omniscience; if something's being the correct explanation for our premises required that it be part of our premises, all arguments (even circular ones drawing the conclusion p from the premise p!) would be enthymematic, and since we can only tell whether arguments are valid on the assumption that we have taken into account all of their premises, we could never tell whether reasoning was genuinely valid -- we could never rule out that apparently valid arguments were assuming some explanation that, when used as premises, made it impossible to draw the conclusion from the premises without contradiction. We could likewise never know anything on the basis of our senses, because the senses don't yield the total explanations of their objects, and our reason, being limited, could never work out the total explanation on its own. Thus Plantinga's argument does not serve as a foundation for the conclusion you are trying to draw: it would have be something very special about God's role in all particular kinds of reasoning, not something general about whether we can explain our reasoning adequately without appeal to God. (Further, Plantinga's argument does not rule out there might be nontheistic nonmaterialistic explanations that would not do just as well as theism on this particular point; it's much more limited than that, being an argument that materialism is self-defeating combined with an argument that theism avoids being self-defeating in this way.)

CAPTCHA word: seeketh

Anonymous said...

Rank Sophist was getting at something important in the other thread. I don't know whether he's reading Hart correctly (if such a thing is possible), but the argument he advanced raises the following point, in the form of a dialogue:

Karen: "Natural law can be known by reason alone, so we should employ NL arguments in secular discussions."

Lisa: "So what? Classical theism can be known by reason alone. How's that working out for you?"

--Patrick CF

Josh said...

So what? Classical theism can be known by reason alone. How's that working out for you?

Really well. Got some people to drop their anthropomorphic notions of God and, correspondingly, their facile arguments against His existence. Yep, working out pretty well.

Dianelos Georgoudis said...

I’ve started reading Hart’s “The Beauty of the Infinite” where in the very first pages he writes of “beauty […] as a measure of what theology may call true” and of the “triumph of (in classical terms) rhetoric over dialectic”. I think Hart is basically right there – religious conviction is not a matter of “reason alone”. We are moved to Christianity by the beauty of Christ’s teaching in the Gospels or by the beauty of the life and tradition of the Church – which are of course embodiments of divine revelation. Thus (if I understand him correctly) he criticizes natural law proponents’ intent to discuss ethics on reason alone in the secular public square. He thinks that’s certainly not the way to go, and probably a hopeless project.

On the other hand I do sympathize with Feser’s position, which I take it is this: We all, including naturalists, exist in a theistic reality. The way we experience life and the way we reason is by nature ordered towards the good. Thus a dialectic is possible in which without any recourse to God or to revelation some substantive moral knowledge is attainable. And the best epistemic vehicle for that is natural law philosophy.

I don’t see any major disagreement between Hart’s and Feser’s position. Perhaps Hart underestimates the viability of reason alone (in the sense of reasoning without using any kind of special revelation). But perhaps Feser overestimates the power of reason alone to change minds.

Anonymous said...

Very glad to hear the anecdote but the aggregate trends are in the opposite direction. Which suggests that these arguments have limited currency in the broader culture, and that our task may be bigger than simply arguing the world out of its error.

rank sophist said...


There a sentence from that book that I think sums up much of the dispute here. From page 132:

[T]he truth of being is "poetic" before it is "rational"--indeed is rational precisely as a result of its supreme poetic coherence and richness of detail--and cannot be truly known if this order is reversed.

Jon Hizmi said...

Speaking of "Beauty of the Infinite" are there any reading guides out there?

I've read it once, and the first 100 pages or so I was completely out of my depth...and then at various points in the book I was completely lost, even though Hart is usually good for a few sentences which are extremely clear and poignant and sum up all of the poetic fluff (and I don't use "fluff" in a derogatory sense).

It's like you need a summary of every major western philosopher's position...and a dictionary.

Josh said...

Very glad to hear the anecdote but the aggregate trends are in the opposite direction. Which suggests that these arguments have limited currency in the broader culture, and that our task may be bigger than simply arguing the world out of its error.

I'm reminded of a line from the 1986 film The Mission: "With an orchestra, the Jesuits could have subdued the entire continent."

Feser's not a rationalist, and he's not seeking to sunder the heart from mind. Rhetoric goes hand in hand with Logic. Faith goes hand in hand with Reason. People seem to forget: Hart fired the first shot here, and his subsequent "clarifications" haven't really helped things. As Feser noted above, you don't have to make explicit reference to God's existence in any random argument about X, even though it's implicit because of God's nature that X wouldn't be possible without Him.

rank sophist said...


My method for getting through The Beauty of the Infinite was the same as my method for getting through Real Essentialism: just keep reading. A few pages a day is all you need. If you immerse yourself in the language long enough, and pay close enough attention to Hart's sentences, it starts to make sense. Passages that were previously impenetrable become clear. Of course, I would also recommend doing some studying on the side. If you don't have at least a slight grasp of Nietzsche, Derrida and (most of all) Heidegger, a lot of what Hart says is going to be very difficult to understand. However, I went into that book as a continental philosophy newbie who didn't know his Dasein from his ressentiment--so it's certainly possible.

Anonymous said...

...Just as you can inquire about ethics and mathematics without presupposing anything about oxygen, so too can you inquire about mathematics and (at least a big chunk of) ethics without presupposing anything about the existence of God...

Maybe it would help those skeptical of this statement when applied to ethics to be shown an example of a good natural law argument (without any presuppositions of God, an Uncaused Cause, or the like) against polygamy or torture or premarital sex.

Anonymous said...

If you don't have at least a slight grasp of Nietzsche, Derrida and (most of all) Heidegger,

It seems to me this is a problem for Hart: he has taken mistaken certain superficial likenesses between modern continental philosophy and the mystical and platonic aspects of Patristic and Eastern Orthodox Christianity for real affinities.

The views of these figures on reason are quite different to the Fathers and the Eastern and Platonic traditions. For modern continental philosophy reason is sort of an echo chamber of empty concepts linked together through context and situation. For early the Christian and Platonic traditions, and, though less obviously, Aristotelian and Thomism, the source and light of reason is Nous, that Unitive knowledge, which binds the knower and what is known, and from which descend all other forms, more restricted, narrow, and separative forms of knowledge knowledge, from the Higher Imagination (just a step below pure Noetic vision) to discursive reason and the senses themselves.

Nietzsche and Heidegger are probably the most insightful of modern philosophers. They sometimes ask important questions and they begin to look towards more fundamental issues. But still, they tend to give wrong answers, and their pivots towards the truth are far from complete. It seems to me more and more that modern philosophy(defined in terms of content and approach and not simply chronologically) has precious little to contribute to true wisdom. It consists of, as a wise man once said, questions wrongly put. Those of a more traditional bent would do better to break entirely with modern philosophy and separate themselves from it. Whether it is metaphysics, ethics, or even political and social philosophy, from Hart to Roger Scruton, I have never found that substantial reliance on a modern philosopher (again defined not in terms of chronology, but in method and content) is a positive contribution to a more traditionally minded writer's thought.

Even the superlative, though sadly neglected, philosopher Coleridge gained little positive from Kant, or any other modern philosopher, to add the wealth he drew from Pythagorean-Platonic and Christian sources - a wealth that, in my opinion, when he had sifted it and arranged it and added his own touches of genius, make his thought some of the most insightful of these last few centuries.

Tony said...

Karen: "Natural law can be known by reason alone, so we should employ NL arguments in secular discussions."

Lisa: "So what? Classical theism can be known by reason alone. How's that working out for you?"

Anonymous, that may be a very good distillation of what Hart is doing in these articles.

Part of what is so very good about it, though, is that Karen's statement is so very, very much not like what most NL lawyers are saying that putting it that way cannot but be a straw man presentation.

First and foremost, the PRINCIPLE reason natural lawyers argue the truth of natural law is because it is true, not because they are convinced arguing that will persuade the most people. Just as the principle reason Christian evangelists tell people about Christ is because they are convinced Christ is the Truth, not because they are convinced the telling is what is going to convince most people. Historically, most non-Christian people have rejected the Gospel when hearing it preached to them, and that includes the people that the Apostles preached to. It is enough that natural law be TRUE to justify teaching it, convincing most others is a different category.

Jon Hizmi said...


I appreciate the advice.

I had some familiarity with Derrida, Focault, Lyotard, and Nietzsche, but Heidegger and Deleuze were new to me. That made things difficult to say the least.

This whole back-and-forth between Hart and Feser has inspired me to give it another go. I will try out your strategy...

Brandon said...

Maybe it would help those skeptical of this statement when applied to ethics to be shown an example of a good natural law argument (without any presuppositions of God, an Uncaused Cause, or the like) against polygamy or torture or premarital sex.

It wouldn't, at least if they are rational; what would be needed to establish the statement they are supposedly skeptical of is to show that you can have fairly easy and well-defined ethical arguments that don't make such presuppositions. The problem with the route you are suggesting, and the reason why it wouldn't address the question, is that none of these are simple and basic ethical questions: torture runs into vagueness issues and both polygamy and premarital sex, like all sexual questions, are complicated, not simple, because there are so many circumstances that can be relevant (because they affect common good) and so many variations that have to be considered. You can have simple arguments, but defending the premises of such arguments require considerable analysis. But the statement that the people in question are, ex hypothesi, skeptical of is simply that lots of ethical arguments can be made without presupposing anything about the existence of God. Addressing this particular point logically requires being able to show that you've reasonably taken all the presuppositions in an ethical argument into account, which means in practice that the ethical topics in question not be complicated by either vagueness or a lot of variations that would require subtle analysis. It's simple and uncontroversial questions that would make the point. There are lots of such arguments, though, arguments so simple and uncontroversial as almost to be trivial, which don't seem to require us to say that when atheists make them they are logically contradicting themselves: e.g., "You should not eat your children because that is bad parenting and not good for the children or for the coherence of society" or "You should not try to destroy the human race, because that ultimately benefits nobody." Both of these are good natural law arguments, despite the obviousness of the conclusions, in that they give genuine common-good reasons why something is a bad idea. Where do either of these arguments require the presupposition of God's existence, though? It's not in any of the explicit premises, nor is it enthymematically required as an implicit premise.

Brandon said...

I should add that an additional problem I have with the route suggested by Anonymous at May 1, 2013 at 6:05 PM is that it clearly puts the cart before the horse. This ties in with my reaction to a lot of the comments that have been made in this discussion. Natural law theory does not exist to give you arguments for your political positions. It obviously and necessarily does have political ramifications, but the whole point is that the source is considerably upstream. If it doesn't give an argument against same-sex marriage (or whatever your bete-noir may be) that you consider to be sufficiently simple, or definite, or persuasive for your purposes, the only thing you can seriously expect anyone to say to that complaint is "Tough" or "Oh, well."

(1) It's not the point of the theory in the first place.

(2) Very few natural law theorists think that ethics can be done on natural law alone -- the claim is that ethical reasoning depends on natural law as its primary principles, not that everything of ethical importance is directly covered. (Indeed, historically natural law theory has been the foundation for two fields that are ethically important despite going beyond what natural law strictly requires, namely, positive law and casuistics, and has also usually been itself part of a larger ethical approach that does not reduce to natural law, namely, virtue ethics.) Maybe you're just looking in the wrong place for what you want, and are complaining that the bedroom doesn't have room for parking your car.

(3) Natural law theory doesn't promise that there won't be controversial issues; as is always pointed out, and is always ignored, a large portion of what natural law theorists actually do is try to diagnose precisely why certain topics are controversial. Aquinas spends nearly half his discussion of natural law in ST talking about the causal factors that contribute to ethical disagreement and controversy. If you are going to natural law theory for something to magically make controversial topics uncontroversial, you won't find it: nothing of the sort exists, and natural law theory will be just as likely to tell you why the controversy is probably unavoidable, given the circumstances. It's a way of sorting out good and bad reasoning; but it doesn't magically make the sorting of good and bad reasoning obvious or simple, because sometimes it won't be, nor does it magically overcome prejudices.

(4) There is no specific kind of argument that is a 'natural law argument'. (There are reasonable uses of the phrase; but they are merely uses of convenience. If natural law theory is actually correct, all good practical arguments are in some way natural law arguments, in the same sense that if logic is correct, all good theoretical arguments are in some way logical arguments.)

Arguments that appeal to natural law aren't magically turned into good arguments; what makes an argument good in natural law theory is not the mention of natural law but its conformity to basic principles. There are lots of ethical arguments that don't mention natural law that natural law theory recognizes as perfectly good; there are lots of ethical arguments that mention it that nonetheless are inconsistent with the actual principles of natural law; it is as stupid to expect that merely mentioning natural law in an argument makes it a good argument as to expect that mentioning logic in your argument will make it a reasonable argument. Natural law, and natural law theory, are not talismans; they don't exist in order to be invoked in incantations. Natural law theory gives you the means to do better ethical evaluation and judgment; it doesn't magically do it for you.

That was a bit ranty, but it seems from all the discussion like there are more than a few people even among those sympathetic to natural law theory who needed to be ranted at in this way.

Eduardo said...

The wrath of Brandon ò_Ó!!!!

Christian said...

Hey Dr. Feser,

I was wondering if you or anyone of your readers could point me in the direction of some good resources on the Aristotelian-Thomistic approach to sense cognition. I was also wondering what your opinion is on Etienne Gilson's book: "Thomist Realism and the Critique of Knowledge"? Thanks.

Tony said...

[T]he truth of being is "poetic" before it is "rational"--indeed is rational precisely as a result of its supreme poetic coherence and richness of detail--and cannot be truly known if this order is reversed.

It would be just as valid to say "The beauty of being is "true" before it is beautiful, indeed it is beautiful precisely as a result of its supreme truth."

Truth, beauty, and goodness are co-equal as transcendentals, all "being" as received under different modes. That Hart is capable of saying one trumps another is discouraging re his credentials.

rank sophist said...


Rationality and truth are not the same thing. Truth is an objective transcendental that we see intuitively, and it's convertible with beauty, goodness and being. It can't be comprehended in itself: it's experienced as poetry, in Hart's words. If something is rational, on the other hand, then it's open to dialectical parsing, categorization and so forth. The transcendentals are fundamentally outside of that. Hart is basically affirming the Thomistic doctrine that all rational phenomena presuppose esse, which cannot be grasped discursively. Questioning someone's credentials based on a single sentence taken out of its original context is a little bit ridiculous, to say the least.

Glenn said...

The statement immediately following the above quoted statement ("[T]he truth of being…") reads, "Beauty is the beginning and end of all true knowledge[.]"

What is 'beauty'?

Hart addresses in his introduction some of the terms employed in his "long, elliptical essay" (p. 1), and the term 'beauty' is one of the terms addressed.

Before he gets to the term 'beauty', however, he addresses the term 'metaphysics'.

He writes of the term 'metaphysics' that it is "a word to which neither any stable, nor any very useful, meaning can be assigned" (p. 8)

When he finally gets to addressing the term 'beauty', he states that it is "still more elusive of definition" (p. 15).

One implication of this seems to be that that which is the beginning and end--and this bears repeating: the beginning and end--of all true knowledge is not just elusive of definition, but even more elusive of definition than that regarding which no stable or (very) useful definition can be given.

Nonetheless, the term 'beauty' is "obviously most central to this text" (p. 15)

Dianelos Georgoudis said...


Some of the clearest notions we have are also the most difficult to define. For example try giving a non-circular definition of “consciousness”, or even of “blue”. There are so many things that can only be understood if one actually embodies them.

I too am perplexed by Hart’s “definitions” at the beginning of his book, for it looks that rather than trying to clarify the words he wants to confuse one’s understanding by demonstrating how variable their use is in the philosophical discourse.

Anonymous said...

Stratford Caldecott, in his Beauty in the Word: Rethinking the Foundations of Education and , seems to make similar points to Hart. Caldecott, by not following Hart's perplexing detour into modern continental philosophy, also is more clear in his thought and readable in his writing.

Anonymous said...

- that should have been and Beauty for Truth's Sake: On the Re-enchantment of Education

DavidM said...

Brandon wrote: "It's a way of sorting out good and bad reasoning; but it doesn't magically make the sorting of good and bad reasoning obvious or simple, because sometimes it won't be, nor does it magically overcome prejudices."

Correct. It does, however, persistently challenge prejudices. So why don't Hart and fans like it? I guess they either prefer a purely magical solution, or simply have an antipathy towards truth. (And no, you can't separate truth and rationality - our ordinary means of coming to intuitively see the truth is in virtue of the exercise of our rationality. 'Poetry' is as open (or as closed - it depends on the person 'experiencing' it) to "dialectical parsing, categorization and so forth" as rationality is.)

Anonymous said...

Does anyone know of any good work that addresses issues about substantial form/essence and evolution? I would like to read some intermediary work as a prologomena to Oderberg's Real Essentialism. Any suggestions would be greatly appreciated.

My sympathies with Thomism have recently been challenged regarding the compatibility of evolution and Aristotelian-Thomistic essence, and the books which I currently own do not adquately address this. Sorry to threadjack!

Glenn said...


1. There are so many things that can only be understood if one actually embodies them.

This is a good point.

I'd like to refine it, however (and if I may), by saying that there are quite many things which can be understood without being 'embodied', but to be truly understood must be 'embodied'.

In saying this, I am not saying anything new. Aquinas was on to it, as was Aristotle before him.

o [Aristotle] states first that a sign of the previous assertion (1194), that prudence is concerned not only with universals but also particulars, is that youths become geometricians and scientists, i.e., learned in the speculative sciences and in mathematics; they are erudite in studies of this kind, and attain perfection in these sciences. However, it does not seem that a youth can become prudent. The reason is that prudence deals with particulars which are made known to us by experience. But a lad does not have experience because much time is needed to get experience... As to wisdom, [Aristotle] adds that youths do not believe, i.e., grasp, although they mouth, things pertaining to wisdom or metaphysics. But the nature of mathematics is not obscure to them because mathematical proofs concern sensibly conceivable objects while things pertaining to wisdom are purely rational. Youths can easily understand whatever falls under imagination, but they do not grasp things exceeding sense and imagination; for their minds are not trained to such considerations both because of the shortness of their lives and the many physical changes they are undergoing. (See at 1208 & 1210 here.)

2. I too am perplexed by Hart’s “definitions” at the beginning of his book, for it looks that rather than trying to clarify the words he wants to confuse one’s understanding by demonstrating how variable their use is in the philosophical discourse.

Yes, it does seem to make for a somewhat perplexing start to a book whose subtitle is The Aesthetics of Christian Truth.

rank sophist said...

Anon at 9:47 AM,

Oderberg deals with pretty much every objection from evolution out there. If you've already kind-of-grasped substantial form and prime matter, substance and accident, essence and existence and the rest, then you shouldn't have too much trouble with Real Essentialism. Even if you haven't grasped them, Oderberg's opaque walls of text eventually start to make sense if you beat your head against them long enough.

Anonymous said...

Rank Sophist,

Thanks a lot for that. I think I have got my head around much of Thomas' metaphysics and philosophy of nature. Perhaps I was lacking the required perseverance - I was slightly intimidated by Oderberg's opening chapter on possible worlds and thought that I might need to work up to reading the rest of the book. I'll try and stick with it although any recommendations for supplementary reading on this specific issue would be appreciated as well. Thanks again for the encouragement!

Edward Ray said...

This has been an interesting topic for me, and I appreciate Dr. Feser's as well as others thoughts on the debate. From what I can discern, David Bentley Hart takes much of his thought from Hans Urs von Balthasar. A Google search of both their names reveals some synergy.

There is an article "Natural Law: From Neo-Thomism to Nuptial Mysticism" by Tracey Rowland who argues that the Dominican Servais Pinckaers, OP may offer a bridge between the two schools of thought (in this case Hart and Feser; in the article Balthasar and neo-Thomistic thought). Neo-Thomists like Feser have a tendency to mute the theological dimensions of the doctrine of natural law, whereas Pinckaers emphasizes that Catholic ethics transforms Aristotle.

From Pinckaer's book, "Morality: A Catholic View"

"the advent of divine revelation has occasioned a profound transformation in the doctrine of virtue according to which the first source of moral excellence is located in God through Christ."

This article is available for free, and I think has positive things to say about both Hart's and Feser's school of thought. As someone mentioned previously, it seems to me that they are both talking past each other.

Scott said...

@Edward Ray:

"There is an article 'Natural Law: From Neo-Thomism to Nuptial Mysticism' by Tracey Rowland . . . "

It was mentioned earlier in the thread along with a URL. In response Aquinas3000 posted the URL of what appears to be a very thorough takedown.

rank sophist said...


You're correct that Hart is a follower of Balthasar. He's said that The Beauty of the Infinite could be "read as a kind of extended marginalium on some page of Balthasar's work".

Edward Ray said...


This argument (or difference of opinion) seems to come down to old argument between nature and grace, neo-scholastic Thomism vs. "nouvelle theologie"

Hart is Eastern Orthodox; thus his view is more in line with Balthasar's reading of Thomas Aquinas. Feser adheres to more of the traditional reading of Thomistic philosophy through the lens of Cajetan and others in the medieval scholastic tradition.

Either approach could be valid IMO, although I am not a big fan of Hume's thought (and neither was Balthasar as far as I know). I would not call the article referenced by Aquinas3000 as a smackdown. Just a different approach, more in line with the "Garrigou-Lagrange" Thomism that held sway prior to Vatican II. IMO it was unfortunate that neo-scholastic Thomism was relgated to the dustbin after Vatican II. That form of Thomism has great apologetic merit, and it is nice to see it resurrected by the likes of Feser, Feingold and Long.

Edward Ray said...

Just read through the paper mentioned by Aquinas3000. It is mostly a hit piece on Tracey Rowland and the communio/nouvelle theologie Thomism of Henri de Lubac/Hans Urs von Balthasar.

I have no desire to go back to the exclusive "sawdust" Thomism of pre-Vatican II days. I think it is good to have different schools of interpreting Thomas Aquinas, as long as both as done within faith and minimize polemicism.

Aquinas3000 said...

Sorry Ed but that doesn't cut it. Yes this is a polemical piece - there is another unpublished reply to it by a friend of mine that is less polemical in tone. Polemic can be used in some cases as Feser does himself. Rowland has certainly used it against Neo Thomists in various of her writings. As far as I see she does nothave "positive" things to say about so called neo thomism. You must not be familiar with her wider remarks in other works. What you say about "saw dust" Thomism simply begs the question. No school of thought is subject to more caricature these days I think. The problem isn't "different schools of interpretation" - which however implies Aquinas was not saying some definite thing when he spoke. There is also such a thing as interpreting someone wrongly. The problem is the truth of things as they have themselves which was always Aquinas' principal concern (as he says in his commentary on the de Caelo). Rowland claims natural law cannot be understood apart from supernatural revelation. That claim is just false and utterly absurd. Sure you can have a greater understanding by means of revelation but she makes what is naturally knowable subject to the requirement of having faith. Pinckaers at least never made such ridiculous claims. Where the real problem lies in preconciliar scholasticism that people such as him were reacting against - and rightly - is the Saurezian influence. It is Saurez who is primarily responsible for the sawdust.

To understand Rowland you need to realise she is also an adherent (unlike other nouvelle theologie types) of Radical Orthodoxy which teaches no field of inquiry can make sense outside of supernatural theology.

Your other comment that people such as Feser "mute" the theological aspects is also off the mark. Have a look at his chapter on natural law in Aquinas. The reason this claim comes up is because by "theology" Rowland et al mean supernatural theology. She has almost no conception of a natural theology. That's what the article points out. It is "neo thomists" such as Fulvio di Blasi in his "God and the Natural Law" that are taking the new natural lawyers to task for muting God in the discussion of natural law. But that would make no sense from the point of view of the typical caricatured position of where neo thomists stand.

For the record I've never seen someone such as de Lubac et al say the kind of bizarre things Rowland does. The Radical Orthodoxy has messed her around.

Aquinas3000 said...

Looking the posting times Ray I'm not sure how you could possibly have read 90 pages worth properly in such a short amount of time. It does explain why your reply does not seem to "get" it to be honest. Sometimes its not just a case of all holding hands and agreeing and getting along. Sometimes there are disagreements with positions taken such that both cannot be right. That doesn't mean the two sides can't work together and learn form each other which I've always believed but there are other times when disagreement is just that and both can't be "valid" in particulars (which is what both articles deal with) even if overall approaches can be complementary.

rank sophist said...


What you say about "saw dust" Thomism simply begs the question. No school of thought is subject to more caricature these days I think.

I'll just say that the pre-VII Thomists were shockingly wrong about Aquinas's views on free will, divine causality, analogy and the natural desire for God, among other things. Plus, they had essentially detached themselves from the Christian tradition that Aquinas was summarizing. (And yes, I do say summarizing: most of Aquinas's views were not original.) They were legalists, and their system of thought had been tainted by modernism through-and-through. Ressourcement and the destruction of modern Thomism were probably the two greatest achievements of Western theology in the last hundred years. Both events have allowed us to see Aquinas clearly for the first time in centuries.

Edward Ray said...

@ Aquinas3000

While most of the 90 pages is devoted to criticism of Rowland, De Lubac is brought up more than once. Reference p. 75 where Ratzinger,Cajetan, Aquinas, and Garrigou-Lagrange are mentioned as being on the same side against de Lubac on the question of nature and grace. The author could not be more wrong. Both Ratzinger and de Lubac are more Augustinian Thomist in their appraoch to nature and grace. Cajetan and Garrigou-Lagrange is more Aristoelian Thomist.

Frank Calneggia (author of 90 page article) needs to get his facts straight.

It was also unfair of de Lubac in his time to bash Cajetan's view of nature and grace, even though I happen to agree with de Lubac's AND Ratzinger's view). Each appraoch has its merits and drawbacks, depending on the audience.

Aquinas3000 said...

Ed, just to be clear I'm more focused on the main point vis a vis the natural law issue of Rowland's paper. I'd agree with you about your comment as who is on what side regarding that other issue.

Edward Ray said...


Agreed. Was off-topic on the nature-grace stuff, although that was what much of the Calneggia paper discussed.

Whether Rowland's approach to natural law is right or wrong is a matter of debate. But she is right about one thing. The old arguments fall on deaf ears in the post-modern world. Maritain is a awesome philosopher, and I like his approach to natural law. But Rowland is right that it just doesn't reach the post-modern mind (who is heterosexual in the morning, homosexual after lunch and bisexual in the evening). Rowland is correct in that the natural law is now more often presented in the context of an explicitly trinitarian and largely christocentric anthropology and the moral thelogy that flows from it.

Matthew Levering has two books "Scripture and Metaphysics" and "Biblical Natural Law" which provide a much more coherent view in light of Catholic rediscovery of scripture (Scripture largely unread by Catholic laeity in pre-Vatican II days).

Dianelos Georgoudis said...


What I think we all should agree is that God can only be understood to the degree that God is embodied by us. Which I suppose is cultivated by prayer, is represented by the Eucharist, is realized by following Christ’s commands, and is completed in theosis.

The path to truth is clearly a path to be taken, not to be thought. At best, philosophy shows the right way, or opens the doors of reason. But there are limits to philosophy, and philosophers should be clear about that. Theology, as rhetoric or as a work of beauty (the way Hart may put it), has its limits too. If one wants truth there is no substitute to actually becoming like Him who is the truth.

Probably that’s Hart’s concern. He speaks of Christ as the true form of human existence. I quote from the first pages of his book: “Only if the form of Christ can be lived out in the community of the church is the confession of the church true; only if Christ can be practiced is Jesus Lord”. “Christian theology has no stake in the myth of disinterested rationality: the church has no arguments for its faith more convincing than the form of Christ”. What Hart is perhaps trying to say is that the deepest truth which grounds all other truths, not only does not require justification but by nature admits of no justification.

Aquinas3000 said...

Yes but Ed Rowland claims not merely that natural law falls on deaf ears but that it can't be understood apart from supernatural theology "Christ and his spousal relationship with the Church." St Paul said that the natural law condemns the pagans who should have known better by natural law. You don't need revelation for it to be intelligible. She isn't merely saying it now presented in such a context but must be.

Edward Ray said...


You have just hit on the heart of the theological debate in the middle of the 20th century (and apparently here in the early 21st): Can man have a natural end, or completion, outside of supernatual grace? Most Thomists say yes, at least speculatively. Philosophy deals with natural man. Theology deals with man in the order of grace. Henri de Lubac argued that man has only one final completion of his nature, and it is supernatural.

Which position is correct? I side more with Henri de Lubac (and possibly Rowland) that there is no such thing as "natural man." I think that some knowledge of Christ is necessary to appreciate natural law, however anonymously (I hate that word: Rahner used it to his detriment)it might be. The so-called pagan Greeks (i.e. Plato, Aristotle) argued for a single monotheistic God; it may help to explain why many were open to Paul during his evangelization tours in the mid-1st century.

Glenn said...


What I think we all should agree is that God can only be understood to the degree that God is embodied by us. Which I suppose is cultivated by prayer, is represented by the Eucharist, is realized by following Christ’s commands, and is completed in theosis.

If, in effect, it's being said, "To know God is to love God; and to love God is to know God," then I agree.

At the same time, I don't think it unreasonable to suggest that knowledge of God precedes love of God--for how can there be a love of if there is no knowledge of (that for which one has love)? One must, at the barest minimum, have knowledge of God as Existing before one may freely love Him.

Glenn said...

s/b One must, at the barest minimum (according to the suggestion), have...

Anonymous said...

@Edward Ray

Not only were the ancients driven by reason to posit a single God, and a metaphysics which in its basic features appears to be correct, but also Christ’s ethical principle of “return no evil” - which is to be found in Plato’s writing five hundred years before the Gospels.

Now, pace Hart, I think there is a clear difference between the natural and the supernatural, even though the dividing line may be unclear, unknowable, and perhaps non-existent. Who, for example, can say to what degree biological evolution is a natural (mechanical and ordinary) and not a supernatural (divinely guided and extraordinary) process? The structure of physical law is such that it may be the case that there are no physical events which are completely mechanical and not to some degree purposefully guided by God. Perhaps the natural versus supernatural distinction represents a continuum, as does the associated general versus special providence distinction.

On the other hand divine revelation, and grace in general, should not be associated with the supernatural alone. It seems clear enough that by nature we are ordered towards the good, and that he who seriously takes up the task of knowing himself (the “gnothi seauton” dictum of the ancients) can go some way towards his end.

Johannes said...

Although off-topic to Feser's article, those interested in the issue of nature-grace relationship might want to read a doctoral dissertation by Fr Matthew Bernard Mulcahy on the subject, available here:

I found Fr Mulcahy's treatment of the issue more useful and relevant than Feingold's, as the latter focuses mainly on whether Aquinas' commentators were faithful to Aquinas, while the former takes a broader view including the position of Church Fathers on the topic and the spiritual implications of the extrinsicist vs the Lubacian position.

The above comparison is certainly not meant to detract the extremely high quality of Feingold's work, but I see it as relevant mostly for the already committed neoscholastic thomist.

Johannes said...

Back to the topic of the post, IMV there is a critical issue of terminology. Simply put, Feser (and thomists in general) and Hart do not mean the same thing when they speak of "nature" and the "supernatural".

Hart uses "nature" as meaning "observable nature", "biological and physical nature". This is clear in the first quoted passage from his original piece, and even clearer in his second piece, where the title of the second conceptual obstacle to natural law is "Dame Nature, serial murderess."

Accordingly, Hart uses the term "supernatural", particularly referring to knowledge, for anything above the level of empirically-derived scientific knowlege. Thus for Hart "supernatural" includes both metaphysical knowledge arrived to by means of philosophical reflection and knowlege revealed directly by God.

In fact, Feser himself acknowledges this issue when he says:

"given that while at one point Hart seems to distinguish the “supernatural” from the “metaphysical,” in the rest of the article he seems to assimilate them."

With this issue in mind, let's focus on this statement by Hart in the first quote from his original piece:

"In abstraction from specific religious or metaphysical traditions, there really is very little that natural law theory can meaningfully say about the relative worthiness of the employments of the will."

Making a minor correction for the sake of accuracy, from "religious or metaphysical traditions" to "religious traditions or metaphysical reflection", clearly thomists would agree to the above statement, because classical natural law theory IS based on metaphysical reflection.

But since we saw that, in Hart's terminology:

revealed (or religious) + metaphysical = supernatural,

he could just as well have replaced "religious or metaphysical traditions" in the quoted statement with an expression like "supernatural convictions", whereby now thomists would strongly disagree to the statement. The point is that for Hart both versions of his statement, the actual and the hypothetical, would be saying the same.

Johannes said...

Now, while the concept itself of natural law cannot be disputed, what can be disputed is its current practical usefulness. Because the concept of natural law pressuposes the metaphysical framework of anthropocentric theism, by which I mean the following set of notions:

1. God, meaning the Esse Subsistens of classical theism, actually exists.

2. We humans are important for God. Specifically, He created the universe for us.

3. The relationship with God is important for us. Specifically, our spiritual soul subsists after death, and its state after death will depend on the quality of our relationship with God on earth.

4. Our behaviour is important for the quality of our relationship with God. Specifically, for a good relationship with Him we must do his will.

5. God's will is essentially the greater good of EACH and ALL of human beings EQUALLY. Since each person clearly is a free and intelligent agent of his own good and that of his neighbour, and defining "to love a (human) person" as "to desire and procure the good of a (human) person", then the will of God is essentially that each person loves himself and his neighbour, ANY neighbour, as himself. (please forgive my non-inclusive language).

Unless this metaphysical framework is firmly in place first, there is no moral, as opposed to practical, reason why humans should not deal with competing humans in the same way as chimpanzees deal with competing (or even potentially competing) chimpanzees, as shown in the following studies (WARNING; not for the faint of heart):

This observation is in line with a much commented statement by then Cardinal Ratzinger in his 2004 dialogue with Habermas:

"The natural law has remained (especially in the Catholic Church) the key issue in dialogues with the secular society and with other communities of faith in order to appeal to the reason we share in common and to seek the basis for consensus about the ethical principles of law in a secular, pluralistic society. Unfortunately, this instrument has become blunt. Accordingly I do not intend to appeal to it for support in this conversation. The idea of the natural law presupposed a concept of nature in which nature and reason overlap, since nature itself is rational. With the victory of the theory of evolution, this view of nature has capsized: nowadays, we think that nature as such is not rational, even if there is rational behavior in nature."

Johannes said...

Finally, I will mention two messages from Benedict XVI in his last months in office that relate to this subject.

The first, dealing with perhaps the currently most critical issue for which natural law is being invoked: human life, was the message to the "Court of the Gentiles" in Portugal in November 2012.

Starting with a quote from John Paul II:

"“Even in the midst of difficulties and uncertainties, every person sincerely open to truth and goodness can, by the light of reason and the hidden action of grace, come to recognize in the natural law written in the heart (cf. Rom 2:14-15) the sacred value of human life from its very beginning until its end” (Encyclical Evangelium Vitae, n. 2). We are not a random product of evolution, but each one of us is the fruit of God’s thought: we are loved by him.

Yet, if reason can grasp the value of life, why call on God?"

At this point a straightforward answer can be given: because God is needed in order for human life, or anything else for that matter, to be sacred. Continuing with the quote:

"The first position (that of love) is defendable only if every person is loved by an infinite Power; and this is the reason why it was necessary to call upon God. ... Now, this is the certainty that the Church proclaims: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (Jn 3:16). Yes! God loves each person who, therefore, is unconditionally worthy of life.
In fact, the value of life becomes evident only if God exists. Therefore, it would be nice if nonbelievers were to live “as though God existed”. Even if they do not have the strength to believe, they should live on the basis of this hypothesis; otherwise, the world cannot work."

The second, dealing with the issue of peace, was to the diplomatic corps accredited to the Holy See.

"It is precisely man’s forgetfulness of God, and his failure to give him glory, which gives rise to violence. Indeed, once we no longer make reference to an objective and transcendent truth, how is it possible to achieve an authentic dialogue? In this case, is it not inevitable that violence, open or veiled, becomes the ultimate rule in human relationships? Indeed, without openness to the transcendent, human beings easily become prey to relativism and find it difficult to act justly and to work for peace."

rank sophist said...


Nice posts. I feel the need to respond to Mulcahy's thesis, which you linked in your first. The following observations were written as I was reading the thesis.

I have to agree with de Lubac that Cajetan did nothing good for Thomism, although I wasn't aware that he was responsible for "pure nature" as well as the broken doctrine of analogy. I think he's wrong that this caused secularism, though.

Pius XII's reading of Aquinas was clearly corrupted by modernist interpretations. To suggest that Aquinas didn't see God as the final cause of man is to reject the First Way, which is the belief that God is the final cause of all things, which draws them to motion. If man isn't drawn by a desire for God's perfection, then he can't move. Even Aristotle believed this, although he was resigned to the impossibility of seeing the Unmoved Mover. (Also, Aquinas states that it's impossible for God to direct anything to an end other than himself in DV q22 a1--so the Fifth Way concurs with the First in man's supernatural end.)

Mulcahy's arguments from scipture on pages 36-37 are ludicrous and pretty awful. Nothing he quotes supports his conclusion that "if God had not given Israel the Law then the demands of physis would be paramount". In fact, the uses of "physis" in the passages he cites are equivocations that do not present any cohesive viewpoint. For example: "all people who were ignorant of God were foolish by nature" and "water forgot its fire-quenching nature" clearly mean different things. The former uses "by nature" not to discuss a unique substantial form, but to describe the tendencies of individuals of a species. In his further arguments from Paul, he's reading advanced scholastic terminology about nature and natural law into people who could never have anticipated it. If anything, Paul is talking about the precepts of law that have been embedded in every human by God: he is not talking about purely natural dictates, which would have been incoherent to any Hellenistic pagan. Even Aristotle didn't rely on nature alone, since he argued that all "natural" actions were supernaturally elicited by the Unmoved Mover. Mulcahy is clearly grasping at straws already.

Regarding "we were by nature children of wrath", Paul is obviously not talking about "the regular order of things without divine intervention": he's talking about the aftermath of the Fall, a supernatural event in which man rejected God and stained his nature. Mulcahy's statement that this reading is "problematic" is backed up by a reference to Schnackenburg, whose own defense makes a mistake that I attacked above regarding humans being "foolish by nature". Not convincing. Mulcahy's further non sequitur that "the fact remains that the category of the natural is complete and intelligible in this text without any reference to the supernatural" is totally unjustified. To buy this reading is to say that Paul believed man's fallen nature to be complete in itself, rather than a distortion of the proper order.

rank sophist said...

His argument from predestination is bad for the simple reason that there was no agreement among the Church Fathers as to what, exactly, predestination is. Augustine's reading was controversial to say the least. The most fatalistic conceptions of grace stem of Augustine's account. However, in none of the Church Fathers (to my knowledge) do we see a strong separation between natural and supernatural ends. The traditional view is that God calls all to a supernatural end (Tim 2:4), but that some fail to receive the grace that allows this to occur. This was Aquinas's position, as was entailed by the First and Fifth Ways. How exactly grace fails to be received was a matter of dispute, but Augustine's position was not in the majority, and it remains unconvincing to nearly all Eastern Orthodox Christians. In every case, though, grace fulfills something intrinsic to human nature, which is the call to salvation. The only separation between "nature" and "supernature" is that some fail to achieve the supernatural end to which all are called--which is a separation between success and failure, rather than one between two complete ends. Mulcahy's further arguments from Paul miss this same point: Paul is not talking about two different levels of existence, but of the failure, decrepitude and blindness of fallen nature, and its inability to achieve the salvation to which all are called.

When Mulcahy uses Augustine's differentiation of "cities" to argue for a difference in natural ends, he's clearly reading biases into him that would have been incomprehensible to Augustine. What Augustine is saying is that the Greek philosophers had no conception of salvation, and so the "earthly cities" built on their teachings seek an earthly peace. This does not entail that Greeks are not called to salvation by nature. The fact that Augustine does not speak with disgust about unsaved pagans tells us nothing about the natural end of those pagans. Augustine's view, to my knowledge, is the same as that of the rest of the Church Fathers: some are raised up by grace to fulfill the end of their nature as the image of God; others are not. (Also, that Aquinas read Augustine's Rule every week is not interesting: Aquinas read John Cassian, who might perhaps be called the anti-Augustine on grace and predestination, on a daily basis.) It is in no way compelling for Mulcahy's argument that ancient Christians had words for that which is outside of religion if those words entail no ontological difference. Mulcahy's failure to address this problem eats a hole in his entire argument: it remains obvious that ancient Christians saw man as being made in the image of God and as being universally called to God by nature.

Mulcahy's dichotomy between corrupted-but-intact nature and total depravity is a false one. Traditionally, nature was not considered good simply because it was not fully corrupted, but because total depravity is an incoherent, Manichean concept. If anything exists, it is a reflection of God--because evil does not exist. Creation is simply a worse reflection of God than it was in its original state. The image of God in man is less perfect than it was in the first place. This is the traditional view found in the Church Fathers, whether or not Aquinas agreed with it. Also, Gnostic hatred for the flesh in the patristic tradition was, by and large, Augustine's. He never fully escaped his Manichean tendencies. Aquinas did nothing original when he defended the body. Gregory of Nyssa, for example, referred to the mind as a "mirror" of God and to the body as "a mirror of the mirror" in On the Making of Man. The Christological debates further cemented this position. I blame Chesterton's The Dumb Ox (an interesting book despite its faults) for propagating the error that Aquinas was innovative in his affirmation of the body.

rank sophist said...

Regarding Aquinas's position on death being natural, what he's saying here should be obvious. Death is alien to us in the capacity of the soul (which is our form and nature), but matter, which became corruptible after the Fall, is disposed to death. This isn't in any interesting way different from the position of the Bible and the Church Fathers. Mulcahy delivers a red herring when he encounters this problem, by which he changes the subject to the "whole human"--which Aquinas was not discussing. Aquinas clearly believes that immortality is natural to the human soul, which is human nature. Contra Mulcahy's reading, Aquinas's innovation in this doctrine is that he believed in animal and plant death before the Fall, which, in my opinion, is a heterodox position that cannot be reconciled with the Bible or with the patristic tradition. Death was, for both of those sources, a wholly alien intrusion into the proper order. Aquinas, however, essentially believes that God created death, so he doesn't have to believe that matter itself was changed in the Fall--only that humans became corruptible. This view seems to have fallen into doctrines of "pure nature" in later writers, but it is not evidence that Aquinas believed in nature-as-such. It is only evidence that Aquinas made a mistake, which eventually snowballed.

Mulcahy appears to be ignorant of Aristotle's and Aquinas's belief that the Unmoved Mover is the final cause of all motion as the goal toward which all moving things reach. He also does not seem to know DV q22 a1, which I referenced above. His further discussion about man's supernatural end is therefore invalidated. His argument based on ST IIa q62 a1 is easily refuted by a cursory glance at ST IIa q1-5, SCG ch. 80.3 or DV q22 a1-2, among others. ST IIa q2 a8 is particularly damning. Selective reading of Aquinas of the kind Mulcahy is doing results in a false interpretation every time. Honestly, Aquinas's position is very straightforward: all men are called to supernatural beatitude; none can reach it except through grace.

I have no interest in reading the entire thesis (it's very, very long), but the above should suffice to show the massive problems with Mulcahy's account.

Brandon said...


(A) To say that Hart and Feser mean different things by natural is just to say that Hart's criticism fails; Hart is not proposing general ruminations on the subject of nature but specifically addressing the concept of nature in natural law.

(B) Your 1-5 cannot be necessary conditions for natural law because none of them apply to Cicero (to name just one example).

Dianelos Georgoudis said...


"To know God is to love God; and to love God is to know God,"

Right, but “to know” and “to love” should not be understood passively. Listen to John 15:12-14, which strikes me as the passage on which the entire Gospel turns:

This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you.

I think the emphasis is in not just loving but in loving as He has loved us, in laying down one’s life for love. And that Christians are not those who just love Christ, but who follow Christ by doing His commands. Religion is not mainly a body of knowledge, nor an emotional state, but a way of living.

To know, to love, and to follow – are deeply related concepts.

One must, at the barest minimum, have knowledge of God as Existing before one may freely love Him.

Yes, in order to love X we must in some way experience X, and in this sense know it exists. But we don’t have to know what X is.

I was thinking that there is a continuum of knowing, a continuum in which we can identify three main ways. Incidentally, I offer this idea not as an argument but as a description of the human condition. So, first, we can know X intellectually, by having a mental and sometimes well articulated image of X, its properties, how it relates to the rest of reality, etc. Secondly, we can know X experientially, by actually directly experiencing X. That distinction is I think well-known and is used, for example, when discussing Franck Jackson’s knowledge argument. The first way is knowledge about something, the second knowledge of something. The one does not entail the other – so one can have a lot of knowledge about X without having ever experienced X, and the other way around. The third way is less discussed but in many ways the most important. I refer to the fact that experiential knowledge subtly but sometimes radically transforms one’s being. Now X stops being an object of knowledge, but becomes part of the subject who knows. In this way one unites with the object of one’s knowledge.

The clearest example is that of knowing persons. It’s one think to have knowledge about some person, another to meet and interact with that person, and another yet to live together and be transformed by that person. But the distinction works with all kinds of knowledge. So it’s one thing to know about fishes in the abstract, another to taste fish, another to be a fisherman. It’s one thing to know that the sea exists, another to see it and thus know of its existence beyond any possible doubt, and another to live by the sea or from the sea. Or consider mathematical knowledge. It is one thing to believe in the Pythagoras theorem as a rule, another to “see” it, i.e. know why it is true, and another to creatively use it and come to experience the world mathematically.

The natural philosopher may well know God in the first way, but may not actually experience the goodness or the presence of God. A simpleminded person may have very little or even no knowledge in the first way, but experience God powerfully. Perhaps not even intellectually knowing that it is God she is experiencing.


Dianelos Georgoudis said...

The third way is the true fruit of knowledge. This way of knowing God is what Christianity is really all about, and what we in general should understand by “knowing God”. In the original tradition (which is common to all the current ones and I suppose valid for them) one is called to actually follow Christ, to be like Christ, from being a mere image to become the likeness of Christ. The power of Christianity is the power of transformation – from this world to the Kingdom. When Christ speaks of Himself as the “path”, asks people to “follow” Him, calls his followers to be “as perfect as God in heaven” - He certainly means this third way. As when He admonishes those of “little faith”. For certainly there was none around Jesus who did not believe in the existence of God. He did not refer to peoples’ intellectual knowledge, not even to peoples’ experience of God (trivially they were all experiencing God), but to the state of their being.

Finally, let us consider the condition of the non-Christian, or the non-theist, or the non-religious person. Since God is the ground of all things, God’s goodness can be experienced by all, and can be experienced with a strength that illuminates their life. Can an atheist, i.e. somebody who does not know about God in the intellect, actually experience God? I don’t see why not. On the contrary it strikes me as quite obvious that God would not actively deny God’s goodness from all except those who have a sufficiently precise intellectual image of God. As it rains on all, and sunshine warms all, so certainly does God. And can this atheist, inspired and fortified by her experience of the goodness of God, love others like Christ loved us? Can she love Christ, without knowing that it is Christ she is loving? Can she ultimately follow Christ into the Kingdom, without knowing that it is Christ she is following? I don’t see why not. On the contrary it seems that a loving Christ would call to Himself even those who don’t know about Him, and nevertheless trust in Him and do His commands.

Johannes said...

Regarding Cicero on the foundations of natural law, an anaware contemporary reader of his most often quoted passage on the subject would probably think that its author is a classical theist. I refer to De Re Publica, book III, xxii, where Laelius dixit, according to the Project Gutenberg translation:

"True law is right reason conformable to nature, universal, unchangeable, eternal, whose commands urge us to duty, and whose prohibitions restrain us from evil. Whether it enjoins or forbids, the good respect its injunctions, and the wicked treat them with indifference. This law cannot be contradicted by any other law, and is not liable either to derogation or abrogation. Neither the senate nor the people can give us any dispensation for not obeying this universal law of justice. It needs no other expositor and interpreter than our own conscience. It is not one thing at Rome, and another at Athens; one thing to-day, and another to-morrow; but in all times and nations this universal law must forever reign, eternal and imperishable. It is the sovereign master and emperor of all beings. God himself is its author, its promulgator, its enforcer. And he who does not obey it flies from himself, and does violence to the very nature of man. And by so doing he will endure the severest penalties even if he avoid the other evils which are usually accounted punishments."

Also relevant are, from De Legibus, book I, vii-viii and book II, iv-v, online as pp. 407-409 and 431-432 of

Of course Cicero was not a classical theist, but he held, at least for the purpose of writing De Re Publica and De Legibus [1], Stoic pantheism [2]. Therefore, if the objection was that the classical (mono)theistic metaphysical framework is not strictly needed as foundation for natural law, the objection is correct, as a suitable alternative framework like Stoic pantheism or, currently, Sikh-style panentheism could also serve that purpose. However, when I stated in a previous comment that the metaphysical framework of anthropocentric classical theism was a necessary presupposition for natural law, it was not in opposition to those suitable (for that purpose) alternative frameworks, however practically irrelevant they may currently be in Western society. Rather, my point was the requirement of a rational theistic framework in which man is important in the cosmic design and man's actions are important for his destiny.

To frame the point in terms of perhaps the most pressing issue for which natural law is currently being invoked, that of abortion, if one wants to refute Peter Singer's view by appealing to the sanctity or sacredness of human life, a deity acting as "author, promulgator, and enforcer" of natural law is clearly needed for human life, or anything else, to be sacred.




Paragraphs starting "It is customary to call the theology" and "The primaeval deity is conceived of".

Johannes said...

After easening the necessary condition for the concept of natural law from just classical theism, I now see that the last paragraph of my previous comment can be understood in the sense of too much easening. Therefore I feel the need to point out that the deity mentioned in that last paragraph, if not the Esse Subsistens of classical theism, must then at the very least be, besides of course unique: rational (to be the author of the law), the creator of the universe, either ex nihilo or by emanation (to be the promulgator of the law), all-benevolent to all human beings (for the law to be for our greater good and universal), and all-just, omniscient and omnipotent (to be the enforcer of the law).

Brandon said...

Well, that would handle the Cicero issue, but natural law is known by its self-evident first principles.

I'm inclined to think you're making the mistake a number of other people have made in this discussion: In order to know natural law one just has to be a rational creature, regardless of one's metaphysics, religion, or worldview. How much one has to accept, in metaphysical and religious terms in order to have a theory correctly accounting for natural law is a different question; likewise, consistently and accurately reasoning on the basis of the first principles may in many cases require, as a practical matter, certain metaphysical or religious views. But both of these already presuppose some knowledge of natural law that does not depend on these metaphysical views. It is in fact possible to reason in exactly the opposite direction: in order to have an adequate account of just ordinary human law, one must posit a higher law intrinsic to reason; in order to explain this adequately, one must hold that God exists, etc. That reason appears to obligate is just a common feature of human experience; and on the basis of it one can conclude to God as one can from any other feature of human experience. In such a course of reasoning, the concept of natural law is prior to any conclusion that God exists, although still connected to it.

So if by 'necessary condition for the concept of natural law' one means literally that we need a particular kind of theism in order to have the concept of natural law, or to recognize the principles of natural law, this is clearly false. If, however, we mean merely that in order to have a complete account of natural law we need this kind of theism, this can be true (and is, I think).

Aquinas tells us over and over again that the first principles of practical reason are the first precepts of natural law (at least insofar as they concern common good), and that these are self-evident. Anyone who reasons practically or morally at all is already assuming the precepts of natural law whether they recognize it or not. But recognition of it does not seem to require all the elaborate metaphysical account you are suggesting, however much it makes it easier to recognize it, and however much it might be necessary for a complete account of natural law. One does not need natural law theory to reason according to natural law, any more than one needs an account of what logic is in order to reason logically; and one does not need to have a complete or adequate natural law theory in order to have a natural law theory that is OK as far as it goes, and that is still useful for reasoning through the implications of the first precepts of natural law.

Johannes said...

It may be useful to see what the Magisterium of the Church teaches on this issue.

First, the CCC does support your point when dealing with the "Ways of Coming to Know God":

31 ... These "ways" of approaching God from creation have a twofold point of departure: the physical world, and the human person.

32 The world:
... (Aquinas' Five Ways)

33 The human person: with ..., his sense of moral goodness, his freedom and the voice of his conscience, with his longings for the infinite and for happiness, man questions himself about God's existence. In all this he discerns signs of his spiritual soul. the soul, the "seed of eternity we bear in ourselves, irreducible to the merely material", can have its origin only in God.

So, the chain of reasoning in relation to natural law is:

1. We have a sense of moral goodness and a moral conscience.

2. From 1, we must have a spiritual soul.

3. From 2, there must be a spiritual Creator of everything, including us.

4. From 1 and 3, the Creator must be rational, just and benevolent to all human beings (since our moral sense tells us that every human being is "another self").

Thus, our knowledge of natural law complements Aquinas' Five Ways to lead us to the natural knowledge of God.

Johannes said...

If people go through the whole sequence 1 to 4, everything's great. But what happens if people have not (yet) arrived to the knowledge of God? Is the knowledge of natural law affected in any way for that? To answer this question, I posit that we must distinguish between knowing the prescriptions of natural law and knowing that those prescriptions have force of law. And to support this position, I will cite from Leo XIII's encyclical Libertas a passage that includes that cited in CCC #1954 within the section dealing precisely with natural law.

In other words, the reason prescribes to the will what it should seek after or shun, in order to the eventual attainment of man's last end, for the sake of which all his actions ought to be performed. This ordination of reason is called law.
Foremost in this office comes the natural law, which is written and engraved in the mind of every man; and this is nothing but our reason, commanding us to do right and forbidding sin. Nevertheless, all prescriptions of human reason can have force of law only inasmuch as they are the voice and the interpreters of some higher power on which our reason and liberty necessarily depend. For, since the force of law consists in the imposing of obligations and the granting of rights, authority is the one and only foundation of all law - the power, that is, of fixing duties and defining rights, as also of assigning the necessary sanctions of reward and chastisement to each and all of its commands. But all this, clearly, cannot be found in man, if, as his own supreme legislator, he is to be the rule of his own actions. It follows, therefore, that the law of nature is the same thing as the eternal law, implanted in rational creatures, and inclining them to their right action and end; and can be nothing else but the eternal reason of God, the Creator and Ruler of all the world.

I grant that the above passage can, in a first approach, be interpreted in both directions, i.e. top-down "knowledge of God is needed for knowing that the prescriptions of natural law have force of law" or bottom-up "we know that the prescriptions of natural law have force of law, therefore we come to know that there is Creator and Ruler of the universe that implanted that law in our minds". IMV, the top-down interpretation is more natural, and, more importantly, the CCC seems to support it in the next point:

1955 The "divine and natural" law shows man the way to follow so as to practice the good and attain his end. (*) The natural law states the first and essential precepts which govern the moral life. It hinges upon the desire for God and submission to him, who is the source and judge of all that is good, as well as upon the sense that the other is one's equal.

It may be useful to quote the emphasized statement in Latin, to clear any possible doubt:

Tamquam fundamentum habet appetitionem Dei et submissionem Ei, qui fons est et iudex omnis boni, atque etiam sensum alterius tamquam aequalis sibimet ipsi.

(*) If we don't have natural knowledge of God, we don't know man's natural end: everlasting natural happiness or natural beatitude. Note that I am being (and actually am) fully extrinsicist here regarding the nature-grace controversy.

Johannes said...

In addition, knowledge of God may also be a necessary condition for knowing certain key prescriptions of natural law, e.g. the respect for the life of the unborn or newly born. I say this in view of the fact that some moral philosophers - or rather misosophers - like Peter Singer and the now-being-posthumously-published (which I learned from your blog) Jeremy Bantham do not regard the unborn or newly born as persons worthy of being looked upon as "another self".

Glenn said...


1. Listen to John 15:12-14, which strikes me as the passage on which the entire Gospel turns:

It doesn't seem to me that in John 15:12-14 Jesus is saying (in effect), "Love, and then you will know what My commandment is." Rather, it seems more as if He is first imparting a knowledge of what that commandment is, and then going on to say (again, in effect), "If you do what I have made known to you, then you will be My friend."

Also, mightn't it be said that, concomitant with the commandment in John 15:12-14, the Gospel turns on the first and great commandment in Matthew 22:36-38?

2. To know, to love, and to follow – are deeply related concepts.

Two quotations from Aquinas' commentary on the Gospel of St. John,

o Christ is within us in two ways: in our intellect through faith, so far as it is faith; and in our affections through love, which informs or gives life to our faith.

o It very often happens that contemplatives, because they are docile, are the first to become acquainted with a knowledge of the mysteries of Christ--but they do not enter, for sometimes there is knowledge, but little or no love follows.

A third quotation from the same,

o Some people are lamps only as to their office or rank, but they are snuffed out in their affections: for as a lamp cannot give light unless there is a fire blazing within it, so a spiritual lamp does not give any light unless it is first set ablaze and burns with the fire of love. Therefore, to be ablaze comes first, and the giving of light depends on it, because knowledge of the truth is given due to the blazing of love.


Glenn said...

3. Finally, let us consider the condition of the non-Christian, or the non-theist, or the non-religious person. Since God is the ground of all things, God’s goodness can be experienced by all, and can be experienced with a strength that illuminates their life. Can an atheist, i.e. somebody who does not know about God in the intellect, actually experience God? I don’t see why not... And can this atheist, inspired and fortified by her experience of the goodness of God, love others like Christ loved us? Can she love Christ, without knowing that it is Christ she is loving? Can she ultimately follow Christ into the Kingdom, without knowing that it is Christ she is following? I don’t see why not.

The generic question involved here came up last July in the comments section of The road from atheism. Included in what was mentioned/discussed there is the following:

- - - - -
"Outside the Church there is no salvation"

846 How are we to understand this affirmation, often repeated by the Church Fathers? Re-formulated positively, it means that all salvation comes from Christ the Head through the Church which is his Body[.]


847 This affirmation [of "Outside the Church there is no salvation"] is not aimed at those who, through no fault of their own, do not know Christ and his Church:

Those who, through no fault of their own, do not know the Gospel of Christ or his Church, but who nevertheless seek God with a sincere heart, and, moved by grace, try in their actions to do his will as they know it through the dictates of their conscience--those too may achieve eternal salvation.

[Also,] Dogmatic Constitution On The Church, LUMEN GENTIUM, Solemnly Promulgated By His Holiness Pope Paul VI On November 21, 1964

16. ...Those also can attain to salvation who through no fault of their own do not know the Gospel of Christ or His Church, yet sincerely seek God and moved by grace strive by their deeds to do His will as it is known to them through the dictates of conscience. Nor does Divine Providence deny the helps necessary for salvation to those who, without blame on their part, have not yet arrived at an explicit knowledge of God and with His grace strive to live a good life. Whatever good or truth is found amongst them is looked upon by the Church as a preparation for the Gospel. She knows that it is given by Him who enlightens all men so that they may finally have life...
- - - - -

Dianelos Georgoudis said...


“Also, mightn't it be said that, concomitant with the commandment in John 15:12-14, the Gospel turns on the first and great commandment in Matthew 22:36-38?”

I wonder if it is metaphysically possible to love God and not love that what God loves. If it isn’t there is really no difference between the first and second of the great commandments. One may even suggest that the two commandments represent the bridge than connects the Old and New testaments.

“It very often happens that contemplatives, because they are docile, are the first to become acquainted with a knowledge of the mysteries of Christ--but they do not enter, for sometimes there is knowledge, but little or no love follows.”

Yes, interesting. I suppose that would knowledge in the first of the three ways I was discussing. The lesser intellectual knowledge, which is not what Christ asks of us, and is not what salvation is about.

“because knowledge of the truth is given due to the blazing of love”

As a matter of fact about the human condition, I don’t think that true love (the “blazing of love”) brings intellectual knowledge of God. On the other hand, to truly love is by itself to know God in the second way (for God is love), and brings knowledge of God of the third way (i.e. self-transcendence and atonement/salvation).

Thanks very much for pointing me to the Lumen Gentium. I so much wish the Christian churches would find the love to embrace each other and learn from each other.

Glenn said...


I wonder if it is metaphysically possible to love God and not love that what God loves. If it isn’t there is really no difference between the first and second of the great commandments.

That Tuesday necessarily follows Monday necessarily means that Monday precedes Tuesday. But who would claim that there really is no difference between Monday and Tuesday? If I reject God's love for me, how can I love others as I have been loved? Obviously, I must first accept God's love for me. But accepting God's love for me is loving God. So, loving God indeed comes first.

Having said this, I'm now going to agree with something you haven't said (but which I consider likely you would want to say after reading the above): our manner of loving others is a measure of our love of God (i.e., a measure of the extent to which we have accepted God's love for us).

Dianelos Georgoudis said...


I agree that the first commandment is the greatest. My argument is that the second commandment is the first one restated, for it seems it is impossible to love God and not love what God loves. It’s less clear, but I think the same holds the other way around: it is not possible to love what God loves and not love God.

To my knowledge there is little written about the ontology of love, but I think it is clear that loving is not a feeling but a participation. All love is God’s, and if one partakes in love one partakes in God’s love. And I notice that in this way the expression “accepting God’s love” starts to make sense.

Norm said...

Hart's position seemed clear to me:

1. Hart likes coherent Old Natural Law Theory, but finds it unconvincing because of its dependence upon metaphysical assumptions no longer granted by the modern world.

2. Hart thinks New Natural Law Theory is intellectually incoherent because, by endorsing the modern conception of Nature, it falls subject to critiques like Hume's.