Friday, May 26, 2006


Thomas Aquinas on Eternal Law

Thomas Aquinas wrote:

Whether the eternal law is the supreme pattern of all things existing in the mind of God
Just as the pattern of something made by an artist pre-exists in the artist's mind, so in the mind of any governor there pre-exists a pattern of the things to be done by his subjects. Moreover, just as the pattern of things to be made through art is called the art or exemplar, so the governors pattern for the activity of his subjects takes on the nature of law provided that the other above-mentioned characteristics of law are also present.

God, through his wisdom, is creator of all things and related to them as artist to work of art. He is also governor of all actions and activities found in individual creatures. Thus, just as the divine wisdom, insofar as all things were created by it, has the character of art, exemplar or idea, so also divine wisdom as moving all things to their proper end has the character of law. Accordingly the eternal law is nothing other than the pattern of divine wisdom according to which it directs all acts and motions.

Whether the eternal law is known to all
A thing can be known in two ways: First, in itself; second, in its effect, in which some likeness of it is found, just as someone who does not see the sun in its substance may at least know it by its rays. Thus it must be said that only God and the blessed who see God in his essence can know the eternal law as it is in itself; yet every creature knows it according to some of its greater or lesser radiations.

Every knowledge of truth is a certain radiation of and participation in the eternal law, which is the unchangeable truth, as Augustine says. Everyone knows the truth to some extent, since at least the common principles of natural law are available to him. As for the rest, people know it in greater or lesser degree and thus know more or less of the eternal law.

Whether all law is derived from the eternal law
Law is a certain plan directing acts to their end. Wherever movers are ordered to one another, the power of the second mover must be derived from that of the first, since the second mover operates only insofar as it is moved by the first. We see the same thing in all governors. The plan of government is derived by the secondary governors from the primary governor, just as the plan of what is to be done in a state derives from the king through his command to lesser administrators. It is the same in construction, where building plans descend from the architect to the lesser craftsmen who work with their hands.

Therefore, since the eternal law is a plan of government in the supreme governor, all plans of government in lesser governors must be derived from eternal law. All laws besides the eternal law are plans of this sort devised by inferior governors. Thus all laws are derived from eternal law insofar as they participate in right reason. That is why Augustine says that "in temporal law nothing is just and legitimate which men have not derived from eternal law."

Whether the contingent acts of nature are subject to the eternal law
Certain distinctions should be made between human law and eternal law, which is the law of God. Human law extends only to rational creatures subject to man. the reason for this is that law governs the actions of those who are subject to the government of someone. Thus no one, properly speaking, imposes a law on his own acts. Whatever is done regarding the use of irrational things subject to man is done by man himself moving these things, since these irrational creatures do not move themselves but are moved by others. consequently man cannot impose law on irrational creatures, no matter how thoroughly these creatures may be subjected to him. He can impose law on rational creatures who are subject to him, however, insofar as by his precept or command he impresses on their minds a rule which becomes a principle of action.

Just as man, by such precepts, impresses a kind of inward principle of actions on whoever is subject to him, so God imprints on the whole of nature the principles of his own proper actions, and thus he is said to command all of nature. As the psalmist says, "He has made a decree which will not pass away" (Ps. 148:6). For this reason all the movements and activities of nature are subject to eternal law. Thus irrational creatures are subject to eternal law inasmuch as they are moved by divine providence, though not by understanding of divine commandment as in the case of rational creatures.

Whether all human affairs are subject to eternal law
A thing can be subject to eternal law in two ways: First, insofar as it participates in the divine law by way of knowledge; second, through acting and being acted upon, insofar as it participates in the divine law as an interior motive principle. Irrational creatures are subject to eternal law in this second way, as was said above.

Since a rational creature, in addition to what it shares in common with all creatures, has some special characteristics precisely because it is rational, it is subject to the eternal law in both ways. It has some knowledge of the eternal law, yet at the same time there is implanted in every rational creature a natural inclination to that which is consonant with eternal law. As Aristotle says, "We are naturally adapted to receive the virtues."

Each manner of participating in the eternal law is imperfect and corrupted in the wicked, for in them the natural inclination to virtue is corrupted by vicious habits and the natural knowledge of good is overshadowed by passions and sinful habits. Each manner is found in a more perfect condition in the good, for in them natural understanding of the good is supplemented by knowledge through faith and wisdom, while natural inclination toward good is supplemented by the inner power of grace and virtue.

Thus the good are perfectly subject to eternal law in the sense that they always act according to it. The evil are also subject to eternal law. They are imperfectly subject to it as far as their own actions are concerned, since they know the good imperfectly are imperfectly inclined to it. Nevertheless, this deficiency in their action is made up by the way they are acted upon, for they suffer the penalty decreed by the eternal law for those who do not fulfill its commandments.

I accept that there is an underlying order to things and we live rightly when we live according to that order.


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