Veritatis splendor – goods of human flourishing as the basis for natural law

In the Republic Plato shows Socrates at work educating two young men about the nature of justice. Glaucon and Adiemantus wished for Socrates to prove to them that justice is preferable to injustice and they make the case against justice as heard from the sophists. Socrates admires them for making the case so challenging. But to answer the question, he says, we must first know what justice is; and to know justice in the soul, it would be easier to approach the question of justice in the city. For the city is “the soul writ large.”

I think the Socratic approach to the soul through the city may help us to understand the principles of natural law. For Pope John Paul II reminds us that according to Aquinas natural law involves a “participation” in the wisdom of God. “In this way God calls man to participate in his own providence, since he desires to guide the world — not only the world of nature but also the world of human persons — through man himself, through man’s reasonable and responsible care. The natural law enters here as the human expression of God’s eternal law. Saint Thomas writes: ‘Among all others, the rational creature is subject to divine providence in the most excellent way, insofar as it partakes of a share of providence, being provident both for itself and for others. Thus it has a share of the Eternal Reason, whereby it has a natural inclination to its proper act and end. This participation of the eternal law in the rational creature is called natural law’.”

The natural law rests upon a fundamental judgment called “synderesis” or practical wisdom concerning good and evil. A Greek etymology says the term derives from a variation of “guarding over” or watching the camp. To do good and to avoid evil requires vigilance at the core of our being. To quote Solzhenitsyn again, “the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either, but right through every human heart, and through all human hearts. This line shifts. Inside us, it oscillates with the years. Even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained; and even in the best of all hearts, there remains a small corner of evil.” How do we come to know what is good and what is evil?

Pope John Paul uses a variation of the approach of St Thomas Aquinas. The goods of human flourishing are derived through reflection upon the inclinations of human beings towards various goods. Thomas lists the inclinations towards preservation of life, the procreation of life, sociability, truth, and religion. (See Summa I-II 94.2) Pope John Paul says the following: “Inasmuch as it is inscribed in the rational nature of the person, it makes itself felt to all beings endowed with reason and living in history. In order to perfect himself in his specific order, the person must do good and avoid evil, be concerned for the transmission and preservation of life, refine and develop the riches of the material world, cultivate social life, seek truth, practice good and contemplate beauty.” §51

The understanding of the communicability and inexhaustibility of the good behind each inclination constitutes the foundation for moral wisdom. Life is an instinctive good for me and I understand that it is a good for all human flourishing. Sex is a visceral good which importunes throughout life, but we appreciate how the procreative act issues ultimately in a new life and thus serves a more profound good and acts as a continual source of hope and affirmation for the human community. I call to mind a Vietnamese couple I knew who escaped to the jungle forests of South Vietnam after the fall of 1975; they survived alone for two years before escaping to Malaysia and settling in Kansas. As lonely fugitives in that forest they conceived and bore a child whom they named “Phoenix.” Each item on that list of inclinations and goods signifies some aspect of the full or integral human good. Communion with others, political structure, enrichment of mind, habits of good living, the fashioning of beauty, and worship of God are also essential to a full human life for which we find tokens and rules strewn throughout all cultures. Promote the full human good, and avoid the evil of its destruction and undoing — such is the deep principle of conscience.

But for many it is hard to see how these become a matter of law or binding moral norms. Perhaps with case of respect for life and prohibition of murder the connection is fairly clear.

But to resort to the Socratic strategy — prior to prodding ones own conscience about how to live in accord with the full good of human nature, consider first the good of the social order. Is it not fitting that any founder of a city, or a concerned citizen such as you or I, would expect to see as a matter of course the following institutions in a good city: a hospital with doctors and nurses for the preservation of life; stable families for the procreation and education of children, the future generation; schools for the education of hands, hearts, and minds; many associations for fellowship and communion, including an ordered way for the use and transfer of political power; temples and Churches for worship of the transcendent being; and monuments and galleries for sacred memory and splendid beauty.

It would be hard to honestly strike down or eliminate any one of these institutions from the fabric of human life for they minister to human flourishing. It would be a great evil to see the collapse of any of these institutions or the elimination of the people and the purposes which make them up. This is the discovery of practical wisdom, the careful watching over the foundation of a good human life.

There is natural law “writ large” in our city. How should it be reflected in our own soul?.

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