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Project Topic: Thomas Aquinas’ Theory of Natural Law: A Standard for Human Positive Law



The concept of natural law occupied a central position in the moral theory of Thomas Aquinas. Thomas Aquinas’ treatise on natural law is contained in the first part of the second part of his “Summa Theologica” where he treated law. The Ethics of Thomas Aquinas closely followed the eudamonological ethics of Aristotle; Aquinas built upon Aristotle’s theory. Just like Aristotle, Thomas saw morality as a quest for happiness. According to him, happiness is closely connected with a person’s end or purpose. He further argued that human nature has both its source and ultimate end in God. For Thomas, God who created man provided him with the means of arriving at his end. This means through which man arrived at his end, is what Thomas called Natural Law.

Thomas Aquinas understood natural law as that which the ultimate efficient cause (GOD) infused in man, commanding him to do good and avoid evil in order that he (man) may attain his end. Natural law appealed to reason that naturally has the capacity of discovering it. Natural law, Thomas maintained, is based on the rationality of human nature. Thomas held that the natural law has such properties as: knowability, universality, immutability, indelibility and indispensability.

However, inspite of these properties of the natural law, it still lacks coercion, that is, the physical force of law. As a result, it is not always obeyed by all. To these effects, natural law needed to be supplemented by human positive law. This is due to the differences inherent in human nature. Consequently, human positive law is needed to ensure an ordered society. Human law lucidly defined and coercively guided social  interactions among  men. Hence, it greatly contributed to the achievement of common good.

It is an indubitable fact that every law should seek to protect the common good of the people. It is also a well-established truth that morality has to do with the good of the people. Consequently, law and morality are always seen as two sides of a coin. Unfortunately, certain human laws are not based on moral standards. That is to say that there are some human laws that do not consider the common good. For instance, certain governments enact tyrannical law. Some others enact laws that are immoral. In this kind of situation, the purpose of law, which is to ensure common good and happiness, is not realized.

It is in the  light of the above  that this work will examine  the  nature  and  properties  of Aquinas’ natural  law as well as the  nature  of human positive  law. This will lead us into seeing the natural law as the standard through which human positive law is measured. In presenting  the  natural  law as  the standard  for human  positive  law, this work  discussed  issues  as just and  unjust  human positive  laws, the  justification of civil  disobedience, distinction between morality  and  legality  of law. This is to know to what extent the natural law in Aquinas’ is the standard of all human positive laws.

  1. A Brief profile of Thomas Aquinas

Thomas Aquinas was born in the castle of Roccasecca near Naples at the end of 1224 or the beginning of 1225, his father being the count of Aquino. When he was  five, he  was  placed by his  parent  in the  Benedictine  Abbey  of  Monte cassino as  an  oblate. He  stayed  in the monastery  from  1230 to  1239  when  the Emperor  Frederick  II expelled  the monks. Thomas returned  to his  family  and  stayed  for  some  months  and later  went  to the  University of Naples  in the  autumn  of the  same  year. Later Thomas was  attracted  to the  life of  Dominican  friars  that made  him  enter  the  Order in the  course  of 1244. His  joining  the  Dominican  friar  was not  acceptable  to his  family , instead they wished him to enter  the  abbey  of  Monte  Cassino, as a  step to ecclesiastical  preferment, and  it may  be as  a result  of his  family opposition that the Dominican General decided to take  Thomas  with him to  Bologna, where he  himself  was  going for a General  Chapter from where  he would  send  him to the University of Paris. Thomas was  however  kidnapped  by his  brothers and was  put  in prison at  Aquino  for  about  a year. Due  to  his  determination  to remain steadfast  to this  order, he later made  his  way to Paris in the autumn  of  1245.

Thomas  was  probably  at  Paris  from 1245 until the summer of 1248, when he  accompanied St Albert the Great to Cologne, where  the later was  to find  a house  of  studies (Studium generale) for the  Dominican  Order, remaining there until  1252. In 1252 Thomas returned from Cologne to Paris and  went  on with  his  studies, lecturing in  Scriptures as  Baccalaureus Biblicus (1252-4) and  in sentences of Peter Lombard as  Baccalaurus Sententaurius (1254-6), at the conclusion of which he  received  his  Licentiate , the  license  or  permission to teach in the  faculty of  theology.

In 1268, Thomas returned to Paris and  taught there until 1272, engaging  in  controversy with the  Averroists, and  also those  who  renewed  the  attack on the  religious  Orders. In 1272, he was sent  to  Naples to erect a Dominican stadium  generale, and he  continued  his  professional activity there until  1274, when pope  Gregory x  invited  him to  Lyons  to participate  in the  council. Unfortunately, Thomas could not complete the journey he started as he died on the way on March 7th, 1274 at the Cistercian monastery of Fossanuova, between Naples and Rome. He was forty years old when he died. His life was devoted to study and teaching

  1. Purpose of the study:

Many philosophers of different epochs have philosophized on law and its applicability to the human society. Correspondingly, some of them dealt with the law of nature or the law of reason, which Thomas Aquinas referred to as Natural law. Some of such philosophers include Plato, Aristotle, the Stoics, and St Augustine etc.

However, the purpose of this study is to expose and analyze St. Thomas Aquinas’ natural law theory. This will take us into viewing natural law as the basis as well as the standard with which human positive law is measured

  1. Statement of the problem:

Law is no doubt viewed in relation with morality. Again every society has one system of law or the other. Yet  our  society today is witnessing some  legal and  moral  disorder; some  laws  that are in  existence  today have  no bearing  on morality any longer. This made one to question the link between law and morality. What made morality to be? Is it the law? If it is the law, then there is nothing wrong. As it were, Aquinas dealt with many philosophical issues, among which is his concept of law. However, this work is not to deal with his concept of law in general but fundamentally on his natural law theory.

This work is to particularize the natural law as a way of providing a yardstick with which human law is measured. This is geared   towards finding a panacea for the promulgation of unjust laws, which is caused by deviations of human laws from the principles of the natural law.

  1. Scope of work:

Morality has to do with good living and good living is the objective of law. Unfortunately, certain laws seem to deviate from the purpose of law. For  Aquinas, every  law  must necessarily  derive  from the  natural  law for  it to be  just . And for Augustine, any law that deviated from natural law is no law. As it were, Aquinas dealt with many philosophical issues, among which is his concept of law. However, this work is not to deal with his concept  of law in general but  fundamentally  on  his  natural law theory.

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