by Joseph Milne

A question which I am sure has arisen for all of us over the last few years is: How may action be grounded in what is true and sacred? We see in world affairs a rootless jumping from one urgent concern to another, yet no sound basis from which to address so many concerns, even though there may be plenty of good will. This rootlessness shows itself most obviously in the ethical realm. But it also shows itself in the religious realm. We are living in a time when it is difficult to find any real relationships between the spiritual and the material realms, or between the inner and the outer.

I am speaking generally here, so let me give an example from my professional experience. Over the last twenty years I have been teaching postgraduates about the Eastern and Western mystical traditions, especially the Christian mystics of the Middle Ages and Hinduism. Over these years it has become more and more difficult for these students to connect with these traditions, or indeed to connect with any feeling for history or sense of the magnitude of culture. The 'world' that the modern mind inhabits has gradually become smaller and smaller, and now encompasses less than it did in the Middle Ages or in ancient Greece. This is the case with students generally, not just those studying mysticism or religion.

Owing to this lack of connection, these students all assume that the mystics of the religious traditions were always 'outsiders' or rebels who opposed the 'institutions' of their traditions.

Of course, that idea appeals because students like to think they are rebels against all institutions! The fact that the great mystics were not rebels is not so appealing to them! My point in saying this is that, we have here an example of the split between the individual and tradition, between the individual and the institutions of civilisation, between the person and the world. And this split, regardless of the form it takes, is where the rift lies between the inner and the outer, or between the individual and society, or between the spiritual and the material.

So strong and so pervasive is this rift that we now take it for granted that people's religion and morals are their private affair, while only their material activity and concerns are public. This means that our modern society is compelled to be secular outwardly and religious only privately, if at all. As a number of theologians and philosophers have observed, religion and ethics have been privatised.

Split in this way it becomes enormously difficult to make any real connection between these two realms, and consequently it becomes almost impossible to gain any clear understanding of the nature of Justice. Most people desire justice, or at least do not like injustice, but few can contemplate the nature of justice itself.

I shall shortly be exploring how justice was understood by the Greek philosophers and the Christian theologians of the middle ages. But before doing so I would like to emphasise how relevant, or even urgent, this question of the nature of justice is at this time. How are we to respond to the problem of global warming, the problem of political oppression, or the problem of mass poverty if we cannot clearly conceive the nature of justice? It seems to me, if I might say so, that none of these urgent problems can be addressed within the prevailing framework of secular thinking. To put that another way, these problems exist because our age does not conceive the world religiously. That is to say, the spiritual is both within and without, personal and universal. As the great mystics observed, the spirit alone is everywhere, the one thing that may be found in the essence of all things. So, from the religious point of view, everything is sacred or holy. There is no division between spiritual and material, inner and outer, individual and universal.

For the ancient philosophers the cosmos was conceived as a lawful harmony of parts, all of which sought the 'good' as their end. Everything, by its own nature, tended towards the good. For Aristotle, for example, the good of everything lay in it attaining its fullest flowering of its being, and that the fullness of each being contributed to the fullness of cosmic being. Each being has a contribution to make to the whole, and it becomes most itself through harmony with the whole and the good of the whole.

Understood in this way, nature is endowed with an economy of justice, and in this sense justice is the first law of being. Justice is the right proportion between each being. Justice grants to every being its due place in the cosmic order.

This also means for Aristotle that Nature is not fixed and static but rather is always underway, always in motion towards the fullness of being, towards the full flowering of every part within the whole. This idea of nature as purposeful is quite foreign to modern thought generally. And the main reason for this is that we have los the ancient understanding of Nature as intelligent, as grounded divine reason, and ordered towards perfection.

It was from this understanding of Nature that the tradition of Natural Law arose. Natural Law is the understanding of all things having a true end which they are naturally inclined to fulfil. This law within the very nature of things is to be found in ancient Judaism, Egyptian religion, Greek philosophy, and in the great Indian traditions of Hinduism and Buddhism. One might say that the very essence of all religion is to unite together the human and the cosmic destiny, and thus for humanity to act in accordance with the ultimate or divine purpose of the whole universe. Thus we may say that the essence of all ethics, insofar as it springs from Natural Law, is to honour the truth of things. That, essentially, is the nature of justice. These are rather grand assertions and may well seem too idealistic to be practical. To help us gain a feel for this way of understanding let me quote a passage from Thomas Aquinas. This passage shows how Aquinas has absorbed the Greek and Roman understanding of Natural Law and brought it into harmony with Christian revelation.

By nature parts of the body will risk themselves in order to defend the whole: without thinking, the hand wards off the blow that will harm the whole body. And in society virtue imitates nature, so that the good citizen risks death for the common good; if he were a part of society by nature it would be a natural tendency. Now by nature every creature by being himself belongs to God; so that natural love of angels and men is first and foremost for God and then for themselves. If it were not so, their natural love would be perverse and would have to be destroyed rather than fulfilled by the love of charity. One naturally loves oneself more than something else of equal rank because one is more united to oneself, but if the other thing is the entire ground of one's own existence and goodness then by nature one loves it more than oneself: by nature parts love the whole more than themselves, and individuals the good of the species more than their individual good. God however is not only the good of a species but good as such and for all; and so by nature everything loves God in its own way more than itself. Since God is everything's good and naturally loved by all, no one can see him for what he is and not love him. But when we do not see him and know him only through some effect or other which displeases us, we may hate God in that respect; though even then as the good of all we still by nature love him more than ourselves.

(Thomas Aquinas Samna 1. 60.5)

Here Aquinas brings together the natural instinct of self-preservation with the impulse of Nature to preserve the greater unity rather than the part. Indeed, the instinct of self-preservation derives from the greater whole to which the part belongs, as the hand instinctively acts to preserve the whole body, not merely itself. This same principle of Nature manifests on the human level through the natural social order. For Aquinas, as for Plato, Aristotle and also the ancient Stoics, man is essentially a social being and cannot flourish outside society. So society is also part of Nature. The social order in turn preserves itself for the preservation of the human species. Finally all creatures are united in a common seeking of the Good itself, and their origin in God, who is the Good in Itself. In this way the realms of Nature and of Grace are fully harmonised. In particular, there is no conflict between the personal desire for good and the desire for universal good, because the good that all beings seek is the Good in Itself, the good from whence being arises and for the sake of which it desires to exist.

In this understanding Aquinas has brought the ancient philosophical understanding of Nature into harmony with the Christian understanding of the creation as essentially good, as described in Genesis. But also, and this is important, he has brought even the instinctual impulses of or all living things into harmony with the good as the end that all desires are ultimately oriented towards. There is no conflict between the different levels of the hierarchy of created beings. All seek the good according to their own natural tendencies and appetites.

Yet Aquinas goes further. He understands the 'lower orders' of nature as 'imitating' the 'rational orders' above them. The lower strives to be like the higher. It is this which makes Nature intelligible, since at every level it is inclined towards the rational. And it is this inclination towards the rational that provides the correlation between the human mind and Nature. In the human intelligence Nature looks into the mirror of itself, becomes self-reflective. This also means that the Good Itself becomes an object of conscious reflection in the rational constitution of human nature. And because the Good may be apprehended by man as the end to which all things by nature tend, man is the being who may freely assent to the Good through understanding. And this assent to the Good through understanding is what makes man an ethical being.

This ethical nature of man has several aspects. In one sense it arises through the transformation of the biological instincts for life and preservation into the intellectual reflection on the Good, as we just observed. In another sense the instincts for life which shape human society are transformed into inclinations towards higher forms of unity. In this way human society does not so much transcend the animal biological nature of the species as give birth to its higher potential. This higher potential manifests through the traditions and institutions of human society, and in particular through the understanding of justice which informs all such institutions.

But also — and this is most important — human society as the transformation of the instinctual striving towards the Good has a special correlation with the order of Nature it reflects upon. In its striving towards the rational order, the creation seeks not only fullness of being, but also to be known. In the Platonic cosmology all created things come into being from being known in the mind of God or the One. Aquinas takes up this theme and understands the divine creative act as an act of knowing, so that all things are known into being. The divine act of knowing creatures is their essential existence. They exist by virtue of God knowing them, and by that knowledge they come forth as beings emanating from the mind of God. Since they come forth into being from this divine knowledge, all things seek unity with their origin. In this, humanity has a special place. For it is through the human act of knowing things that they become united with their origin in God. This is why the human desire for knowledge is at once the desire to know the creation and the Creator.

Thus there is a link between the human desire for knowledge, and the creature's desire to be known. All things seek to be known, are therefore oriented towards the human mind. This is the connection, in the very nature of things, between man and the rest of the universe. There is an exact correlation between the human mind and the orientation of all things towards being known. This is the basis of the intelligibility of things.

From this correspondence between human intelligence and the nature of things is born what once was called the intellectual virtues. The first justice to things is to be truthful towards them, to acknowledge their existence truthfully as they are in themselves, and spiritually as they are in the mind of God. Thus the first intellectual virtue is reverence to all things. It is a granting of things to themselves. It is knowing them according to their true ends within the created order. Knowledge, in this sense, is an obedience to reality. It is only in such obedience to things that they may disclose their nature and truth and purpose.

It hardly needs to be said that this reverent stance towards Nature is very far from the prevailing modern stance which seeks to subject Nature to human mastery, or which reduces Nature to mere blind mechanisms. Nevertheless, the ancient view seems to me to be more inclusive and capable of greater knowledge. But here perhaps the more important concern is that it opens up a far deeper view of human nature and the nature of society.

There would seem to be a law that there is always a correlation between how a society conceives the universe and how it conceives itself. If it conceives the universe as rational, then it will conceive society as rational. If it conceives the universe as purposeless, then it will conceive society as purposeless. If it sees Nature as a mere resource to plunder for profit, then it will likewise see human society. If it conceives of Nature as intelligent, ordered, harmonious and lawful, so it will conceive human society. So, in a profound sense, the cosmology of an age is a key to how everything else is understood.

There is plainly a disparity between the present conception of the universe, largely expressed through the material sciences, and the view we have just been considering. Yet there is nothing in the actual observations of the modern natural sciences which cannot be accommodated in the ancient view. It is not that our age knows Nature to be different, but rather that it brings a pre-interpretation to Nature through which it interprets empirical observation. This is not the time to go into this difficult problem. Suffice it to say that the present method of the empirical sciences cannot take into account any metaphysical dimension of what they observe. That is to say, from the account of things rendered by scientific method, nothing metaphysical can be extrapolated. A thermometer can indicate the temperature, but it cannot indicate any meaning from that temperature. The only real problem with modern science is that we ask it to address questions it cannot address.

But if we ask: what are the things that a society may naturally know as a society, the things which belong to all to know, then the way we look upon things is wholly different to that of the empirical sciences. Clearly the things a society ought to know, and which belong to every human being to know, are in the realm of justice, right action, the common good, the ideals to which all may dedicate themselves, the proper way to live in accord with the laws of Nature. This kind of knowledge does not require scientific specialists or expensive equipment. It is the kind of knowledge that belongs to man as a rational social being. Indeed, we may say it is the realm of responsible knowledge. It is precisely this natural knowledge, if we may call it so, that Cicero calls upon in his Republic. In Book 3 the question is asked about the nature of Law, and here we find Cicero's famous formulation of Natural Law:

There exists one true law, one right reason — conformable to nature, universal, immutable, eternal — whose commands enjoin virtue, and whose prohibitions banish evil. Whatever she orders, whatever she forbids, her words are neither impotent among good men, nor are they potent among the wicked. This law cannot be contradicted by any other law properly so called, nor be violated in any part, nor be abrogated altogether. Neither the senate nor the people can deliver us from obedience to this law. She has no need of new interpreters, or new instruments. She is not one thing at Rome, another at Athens — she is not one thing today, and another tomorrow; but in all nations, and in all times, this law must reign always self—consistent, immortal, and imperishable. The Sovereign of the Universe, the King of all creatures, God himself, has given birth, sanction, and publicity to this illimitable law, which man cannot transgress without being a fugitive from himself and rebelling against his own nature; and by this alone, without subjecting himself to the severest expiations, can always avoid the usual misfortunes of the present life. (Cicero, Republic Book 3) These words of Cicero have echoed down the ages and it is only in recent times that they have lost there resonance because our age no longer perceives Nature as offering any guide for human conduct or virtue or justice. Yet in the twelfth-century we find these words in an anonymous canon lawyer: The natural law precedes others in dignity, as it precedes them in time: with respect to time, because it began with human nature; with respect to dignity, because while other laws may be changed, it remains immutable. Hence justice also is defined as a constant and perpetual will rendering to each one his right. Furthermore, reasons of state can set aside the civil laws, but not so, the natural law." (The Cologne Summa, excerpted in Loti, 106, from Nature as Reason, Jean Porter, p. 2, Eerdmans, 2005)

Two things strike us in these expressions of Natural Law: that justice belongs to the rational and immutable order of Nature, and that human nature itself conforms to this Natural Law. And so to contradict the Law of Nature is to contradict human nature. For Cicero the foundation of knowledge of the Natural Law lies in the correlation between the laws of Nature and human nature. Aquinas accepts this classical view, but adds two Christian elements. First, that the creation as God has made it is good, second that man is made in the image of God. But whether we follow Cicero or Aquinas, the connection between Nature and human nature is fundamental. And man is the being who reflects upon Nature and human nature and their correlation, and this is the realm of knowledge that belongs to every human being simply through human nature as such. The great philosophers and masters of jurisprudence may well elaborate the Natural Law in the most illuminating and beautiful ways, nevertheless it remains the realm of knowledge that belongs to humanity by birthright.

I would like to draw out some of the implications of this view of law and Nature. The first is that Justice is the law that connects each of us ethically with society and with all other things. It is a granting or rendering to persons and to things what is due to them. It is not, therefore, an arbitrary moral rule or transitory code of conduct. It is not concerned with rewards and punishments. It is, rather, the action of a truthful relation with reality. It upholds the integrity of both the world and the individual. It is right participation in reality. In Nature it is the conformation of all things to the universal good, and in man the assent to that universal good.

There is a peculiar feature to justice which since ancient times has prompted deep reflection. On the one hand justice may be measured entirely in the just deed. For example it is clear that to steal is to perform an unjust act. On the other hand justice is one of the cardinal virtues and therefore it is a quality of being. Clearly it is possible to perform just deeds merely because they are formal obligations, and yet remain indifferent to the persons one renders justice to. This is something often felt by people when they receive impersonal bureaucratic dues. Justice is rendered but somehow with no assent of the will. On the other hand, when justice is given with the full assent of the will and the intelligence it has a life-giving quality about it. The word for this quality, which seems to have lost its meaning in modern thought, is piety. It is to act justly for the love of justice and the good it springs from. The act is still that of rendering what is due, but now with the total assent of being. It is thus that it becomes a virtue.

There is a still deeper aspect to this. It lies in the realisation that man has received his existence from Nature and from God and is thus wholly in debt to them. But this debt to Nature and to God can never be rendered since the individual does not have a resource equal to the debt owed. It is from this realisation that piety is born, and from that piety the resolve to act in service towards the common good. Rendering such service to the common good involves a submission of the human will to the universal good, an obedience to the truth of things and to their ultimate purpose. Such submission of the will to the good does not pay the debt owed to Nature or to God, but rather it aligns itself with Nature and God in drawing all things to the fullness of being. There is an even deeper aspect to this. As we observed earlier, all things ultimately seek the Good Itself, which is God. It is this attraction to the Good Itself that moves all things in their own natures to the fullness of their being. They become themselves through striving beyond themselves, and this is where we may discern the sacred element in Nature, and for human action the mystical element. There is a passage in Aquinas where he speaks of the soul rising up to God through love, and Aquinas says that when the soul finally arrives at God through love of God, that love of God is immediately transformed into God's infinite love for all creatures. Thus the soul, in mystical union with God, participates in the divine work of the Creator. In finding the Good, it now acts from the Good.

We may be tempted to think this mystical element supersedes justice. In a way it does, but it comes about only through justice. It is not practical to jump, as it were, from injustice to love or charity, because love or charity cannot be understood without first understanding justice. This is because justice is the form which right action takes. It is a granting to the other what belongs to the other. Without action being disciplined by this rule of what belongs to the other, love has no anchor and can easily attempt to give what does not belong to the other. Justice demands of us an understanding of what is truly due, and this may be quite different to what we may wish to offer. Indeed, offering out of feelings or sentimentality what is not due to another may diminish them. That kind of giving is founded on a false relation to the other, while the first requirement of justice is that of a truthful relation to the other. Having made this reservation about the mystical element of justice, I think we may agree that it is this highest order of the meaning of justice that informs us intuitively that justice is essentially grounded in the Good. A purely secular notion of justice has no real ground because it does not go far enough in seeking to understand the Good Itself, the universal Good, the Good that envelopes the entire universe, not merely a social ideology.

I was at a conference last year on philosophy and politics, and practically every scholar there was an atheist, and one said to me that the sense of 'common humanity' was enough to build a just society. I would agree it is a start, but it is not enough. It is a limited view and, unlike the tradition of Natural Law, does not take any account of justice towards reality or the universe as a whole. Let me close with a few final remarks. The approach we have taken here in looking at the tradition of Natural Law and the meaning of justice and the Good lends itself to three kinds of exploration: theological, philosophical and social. This is especially the case with the question of justice. But the question of justice cannot be reduced to the merely legal level, or imposed in the name of some ideology. Justice is a quality inherent in all things, in the natural order of Nature, and foundational to the human race as a social species. It is therefore, as Cicero and Aquinas observe, not a mere convention but eternal and applicable in all times and places. Conventions according to time and place are not denied. There is no demand for uniformity of traditions, but all traditions will best flourish when informed by an understanding of Natural Law and the universal quality of justice.

It is an extraordinary thing that the modern social sciences, which claim to study society empirically and objectively, do not look upon human society as a natural phenomenon. The reason for this is that the method of study cannot take account of the Good towards which all things naturally tend. But the omission of this accounting for the Good only inadvertently lets in some kind of ideology in the name of objectivity. And this means the philosophical dimension of the study of society is not properly reflected upon. Without an understanding of justice of some kind, the principle which makes man social must remain invisible, and consequently falsely accounted for. It is therefore the proper calling of the philosopher to contemplate the implicit order of nature and of human society and articulate this for the common understanding.

From this it seems a small step to contemplate the Good Itself towards which all things tend and which every human being desires. It therefore ought to be no problem for the theologian to connect the eternal and immutable Good with the ordinary lives of people in society, and so transform the things that society desires. The absolute Good as it exists in God, or as God, is also the key to every form of Good which manifests in the created order. Thus the Good reconciles naturally and easily the created and the uncreated, the eternal and the temporal, the universal and the particular. Such reconciliation is of the essence of religion, which discerns the unity within the diversity of things.

Joseph Milne teaches on the MA course entitled 'The Study of Mysticism and Religious Experience' at the University of Kent. He is author of Metaphysics and the Cosmic Order.