The Disfigured Face: Traditional Natural Law and Its Encounter with Modernity

The Disfigured Face: Traditional Natural Law and Its Encounter with Modernity

Copyright Date: 2008
Published by: Fordham University Press
Pages: 144
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  • Book Info
    The Disfigured Face: Traditional Natural Law and Its Encounter with Modernity
    Book Description:

    The central argument of this book is that the traditional notion of Natural Law has almost disappeared from the ethical and moral discourse of our time. For Thomas Aquinas, the author whose conception of Natural Law forms the foundation for the book, the ontological and ethical orders are not autonomous but inseparable-in effect, his ethical system is an ontological morality.For Thomas, the ethical (practical wisdom) must be understood as an extension of the metaphysical (speculative wisdom). Most modern philosophers, by contrast, consider these two orders to be entirely separate. Here Luis Cortest shows how traditional Natural Law (the form Thomas Aquinas developed from classical and medieval sources) was transformed by thinkers like John Locke and Kant into a doctrine compatible with early modern and modern notions of nature and morality. In early Modern Europe one of the first of the great debates about moral philosophy took place in sixteenth-century Spain, as a philosophical dispute concerning the humanity of the Native Americans. This foreshadowed debates in later centuries, which the author reevaluates in light of these earlier sources. The book also includes a close examination of the recent work of scholars like John Finnis and Brian Tierney, who argue that traditional Natural Law theorists were defenders of a doctrine of positive rights. Rather than attempt to make the traditional doctrine compatible with modern rights theory, however, the author argues that traditional Natural Law must be understood as a form of pre-Enlightenment ontological morality that has survived the onslaught of modernity.

    eISBN: 978-0-8232-4772-1
    Subjects: Philosophy

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Introduction
    (pp. ix-xx)

    On May 5, 1888, Pope Leo XIII issued one of his lesser-known encyclicals,In Plurimis.¹ This document, written in part to express the Roman pontiff’s personal joy on hearing of the legal abolition of slavery in Brazil, includes a memorable description of how slavery as a human institution had long been defended in principle and in practice by non-Christians:

    Even those who were wisest in the pagan world, illustrious philosophers and learned jurisconsults, outraging the common feeling of mankind, succeeded in persuading themselves and others that slavery was simply a necessary condition of nature. Nor did they hesitate to assert...

    (pp. 1-13)

    Before we can begin to examine Thomistic moral philosophy and its relationship to modern ethical systems, it is imperative that we understand the distinguishing feature of Thomas’s moral thought, its ontological foundation. Ontology, in simple terms, is the science of being. Thomas considered “being” the first and most fundamental object known by reason. Thomas’s ontology was based, to a large extent, on an Aristotelian model. Although Aristotle did not call his science “ontology,” his metaphysics takes us to the heart of the matter.

    Aristotle described metaphysics as “a science which investigates being as being and the attributes which belong to...

    (pp. 14-29)

    Thomas Aquinas strongly defended the notion that morality is grounded in nature and being. Thomas’s position is that moral action must be understood in terms of the rational nature of human beings. In this sense, nature itself is the model for moral understanding. That is to say, nature provides the principles for how things work. Although he was not, like Aristotle, a natural scientist, Aquinas did embrace a teleological view that was clearly based on the Aristotelian model. Ernest L. Fortin has described this system as follows:

    The heart of the Aristotelian enterprise is the well-known and now almost universally...

    (pp. 30-49)

    Thomistic ontological morality has a long history. The battles waged over moral questions during the Middle Ages served as basic training for the wars that would be waged centuries later. If one can speak of moral debates in military terms, it might be said that the first of the great wars took place in sixteenth-century Spain. It was in Spain, after all, that the first great philosophical dispute concerning the humanity of non-Western peoples took place. In order to understand the context of these debates, however, we must first understand the philosophical ideas that were then most influential.

    In recent...

  7. Chapter Four THE MODERN WAY
    (pp. 50-64)

    The last half of the seventeenth century in Europe represents a time of great change in the history of positive human rights. Many of the most fundamental ideas that characterize modern human rights doctrine were either first formulated during this period or evolved from the great debates that began then. This is especially true with regard to religious rights. When one examines his Letter on Tolerance (Epistola de Tolerantia), drafted in Amsterdam in late 1685, it becomes clear that John Locke stresses the role of the individual in matters of religious freedom perhaps more than any thinker writing before his...

    (pp. 65-76)

    Although it would be wrong to imagine that there were not many philosophical currents vying for ascendancy in the first decades of the nineteenth century, it is clear from the previous chapter that empiricism, Kantianism, and Hegelianism were among the leading competitors. These three schools had by that time become so dominant that no philosophy within Catholic tradition could stand against them as a viable alternative. While some thinkers in Catholic circles rejected all philosophical thought that challenged the truth of revealed religion or the magisterium of the Church, others tried to incorporate the ideas of the leading “secular” philosophers...

    (pp. 77-102)

    One of those teachers selected by Pope Leo “to implant the doctrine of Thomas Aquinas in the minds of students” was a Belgian priest named Desiré Joseph Mercier. Mercier was only twenty-eight years old whenAeterni Patrisappeared in 1879, yet the encyclical seems to have left a lifelong impression on the young priest. Mercier, who had been ordained in 1874, would help to establish a chair in Thomistic philosophy at the University of Louvain.¹ A few years later, the Institut Supérieur de Philosophie was also founded at Louvain. In 1894, Mercier was named president of the Institut.² Clearly, Pope...

  10. Notes
    (pp. 103-122)
  11. Bibliography
    (pp. 123-130)
  12. Index
    (pp. 131-136)