Thomistic Natural Law and its influence on Edmund Burke

The Edmund Burke Society’s second seminar on the Natural Law took place at the RACV Club Melbourne on Tuesday 7 March. The focus was on St Thomas Aquinas’s writings on law in his Summa Theologica. The seminar was again most enjoyable lasting three hours incorporating the reading of talking points and wide-ranging discussion, between the serving and partaking of food and drink in the RACV’s Bistro.

Of course, we could only cover the surface of Thomas’s explanation and arguments as they appear in Summa Theologica, but that was enough to keep us going. The subject of the classical realist metaphysics that lay behind the treatise on law would remain for another time.

See here for the readings and talking points: Presentation Natural Law seminar2

The talking points and discussions brought us to an appreciation of Thomas’s masterly synthesis of the work of the preceding philosophers of Natural Law. There was also the crucial demonstration that unaided reason could arrive at moral and political conclusions and determinations, though those conclusions and determinations were confirmed in divine law, that is, in the Scriptures.

An important point that arose from the discussions was how uncannily similar were Edmund Burke’s ideas on the operation of prudence to the approach of St Thomas to the detail of the concrete circumstances of a given moral or political issue. Paul Sigmund in one of the books referred in our discussion noted that ‘even with knowledge of the natural law it is [sometimes] difficult to arrive at “particular determinations” because they involve a conflict between applicable moral principles.’ Thomas, he said, was ‘also aware that the complexities of human life make it impossible to set down a hard and fast rule for every situation.’ Burke dealt with the ‘perpetually variable circumstances’ of political problems by applying his notion of prudence. See the quotations below.

Sigmund provides an excellent summary of St Thomas’s theory of law in his book St Thomas Aquinas on Politics and Ethics.

‘Aquinas used Aristotelian teleology to develop an integrated theory of ethics, law, and government. The famous Treatise on Law in the Summa Theologiae (1-11, qu. 90-97) is an example. The fourfold structure of the Eternal Law (God’s plan for the universe). Natural Law (Man’s participation in the eternal law by the use of his reason). Human Law (the application to specific societies of natural law by way of “conclusions” and “determinations”), and Divine Law (divine revelation in the Old and New Testaments which guides and extends the human understanding of legal and moral principles) draws on and synthesizes neo-Platonic ideas of hierarchy and participation, Roman law conceptions of legislation, feudal beliefs in the community origin of law and government, and the Stoic vision of a rational and moral order in the universe.

‘But what ties it all together is a fundamental belief in the ability of the human mind to understand the purposive order of nature intended by God. Thus for Aquinas the natural law deals with the fulfillment of “natural inclinations” towards self-preservation, food, sex and family life, knowledge, and worship—divinely-implanted human needs and potentialities that provide the subject matter of natural law. Not all inclinations, of course, are “natural” but only those that form a rational set of purposes of nature in man.

‘They are related to natural law not by rational deduction but derivation from a conception of an integrated and socially responsible human personality oriented towards the fulfillment of potentialities intended by a beneficent and purposive God.’

Edmund Burke and the Operation of Prudence (see also previous list)

Toleration being a part of moral and political prudence, ought to be tender and large… A tolerant government ought not to be too scrupulous in its investigations; but may bear without blame, not only very ill-grounded doctrines, but even many things that are positively vices, where they are adulta et praevalida (grown/mature and very powerful). The good of the commonwealth is the rule which rides over the rest; and to this every other must completely submit.
Letter to Hercules Langrishe (1792).

It is not worth our while to discuss, like sophisters, whether, in no case, some evil, for the sake of some benefit is to be tolerated. Nothing universal can be rationally affirmed on any moral, or any political subject. Pure metaphysical abstraction does not belong to these matters. The lines of morality are not like the ideal lines of mathematics. They are broad and deep as well as long. They admit of exceptions; they demand modifications. These exceptions and modifications are not made by the process of logic, but by the rules of prudence. Prudence is not only the first in rank of the virtues political and moral, but she is the director, the regulator, the standard of them all. Metaphysics cannot live without definition; but prudence is cautious how she defines.
An Appeal from the New to the Old Whigs (1791)

‘No lines can be laid down for civil or political wisdom. They are a matter incapable of exact definition. But, though no man can draw a stroke between the confines of day and night, yet light and darkness are upon the whole tolerably distinguishable. Nor will it be impossible for a prince to find such a mode of government, and such persons to administer it, as will give a great degree of content to his people; without any curious and anxious research for that abstract, universal, perfect harmony, which while he is seeking, he abandons those means of ordinary tranquillity which are in his power without any research at all.’
Thoughts on the Cause of the Present Discontents (1770)


Circumstances perpetually variable, directing a moral prudence and discretion, the general principles of which never vary, must alone prescribe a conduct fitting on such occasions.
Remarks on the Policy of the Allies (1793)

Prudence aims at ‘combining the principles of original justice with the infinite variety of human concerns.’ Reflections

Gerard Wilson