Greek and Roman Natural Law – a brief survey


A Survey of Greek and Roman Natural Law

Members of The Edmund Burke Society met at the RACV Bistro for a seminar on Greek and Roman ideas of Natural Law. We had a long list of talking points which were on sheets handed to each participant to follow in the discussion. The discussion was broken at points by the serving of drinks and food. It worked exceedingly well. It was a relaxed enjoyable atmosphere and those present look forward to the next meeting on 7 March. Go here for the list of discussion points: Discussion points Natural Law seminar

The basic ideas of natural law is that there is an order in the universe, and that right action is behaviour in harmony with that order. Coupled with or implicit in this belief is that the objects of the universe have a character and a purpose. The integrity of the object is achieved through honouring that character and pursuing that purpose in both the physical and moral world.

Below are some key passages which one will hear echoed in Edmund Burke’s thought. The first formulation of the natural law came in Sophocles play Antigone. The heroine Antigone wished to bury her dead brother against the wishes of the king Creon. Antigone asserts a distinction between the laws of men and an enduring universal law. The passage is admired for its beauty as well as its philosophy:

For me it was not Zeus who made that order.
Nor did that Justice who lives with the gods below
mark out such laws to hold among mankind.
Nor did I think your orders so strong
that you, a mortal man, could over-run
the gods’ unwritten and unfailing laws.
Not now, nor yesterday’s, they always live,
and no one knows their origin in time.
So not through fear of any man’s proud spirit
would I be likely to neglect these laws,
draw on myself the gods’ sure punishment.
Antigone, II.450-9

In the following passage, Aristotle makes the same distinction between particular and general laws:

Let us now classify just and unjust actions generally, starting from what follows. Justice and injustice have been defined in reference to laws and persons in two ways. Now there are two kinds of laws, particular and general. By particular laws I mean those established by each people in reference to themselves, which again are divided into written and unwritten; by general laws I mean those based upon nature. In fact, there is a general idea of just and unjust in accordance with nature, as all men in a manner divine, even if there is neither communication nor agreement between them. This is what Antigone in Sophocles evidently means, when she declares that it is just, though forbidden, to bury Polynices, as being naturally just: “For neither to-day nor yesterday, but from all eternity, theses statutes live and no man knoweth whence they came…
Nicomachean Ethics

Cicero was the first to offer a comprehensive theory of Natural Law. The following are classic expressions of the Natural Law:

There is a true law, right reason in accord with nature; it is of universal application, unchanging and everlasting. … It is wrong to abrogate this law and it cannot be annulled. . . . There is one law, eternal and unchangeable, binding at all times upon all peoples; and there will be, as it were, one common master and ruler of men, God, who is the author of this law, its interpreter and its sponsor.
De Republica, Book III, chapter 22

Law is the highest reason implanted in nature, which commands what ought to be done and forbids the opposite.
Laws, Bk. 1, 6

Compare the following quotations from Burke’s Tracts on the Popery Laws

It would be hard to point out any error more truly subversive of all the order and beauty, of all the peace and happiness, of human society, than the position that any body of men have a right to make what laws they please; or that laws can derive any authority from their institution merely and independent of the quality of their subject-matter. No arguments of policy, reason of state, or preservation of the constitution, can be pleaded in favour of such a practice. They may, indeed, impeach the frame of that constitution; but can never touch this immovable principle. This seems to be, indeed, the principle which Hobbes broached in the last century, and which was so ably refuted. Cicero exclaims with the utmost contempt against such a notion…
Tracts on Popery Laws  (1761)

In reality there are two, and only two, foundations of law; and they are both of them conditions without which nothing can give it any force; I mean equity and utility. With respect to the former, it grows out of the great rule of equality, which is grounded upon our common nature, and which Philo, with propriety and beauty, calls the Mother of Justice. All human laws are, properly speaking, only declaratory; they may alter the mode and application, but have no power over the substance of original justice. The other foundation of law, which is utility, must be understood, not of partial or limited, but of general and public, utility, connected in the same manner with, and derived directly from, our rational nature…
Tracts on Popery Laws  (1761)

[The moral law is] the will of Him, who gave us our nature, and in giving impressed an invariable law on it.
Tracts on the Popery Laws (1761)