Man cannot possibly be good unless he stands in the right relation to the common good,

Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica

May 10, 2013

Justice and the Good

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The Purpose of this Website

The Natural Law Tradition represents a major strand of Western philosophy that once permeated political, social and religious understanding. Since the Enlightenment, however, it has fallen by the wayside, or become misunderstood. This is reflected in the profound changes in the conception of Nature and the cosmos that characterise modernity, and separate it from ancient and medieval thought. The scientific view of nature has replaced the ancient providential view of Nature.

The purpose of this website is to seek ways of reconnecting with the Natural Law tradition. This may be done through the presentation of classical texts on Natural Law, reflections on them, or through relating Natural Law to the contemporary world.

This is undertaken in the understanding that the ancient insights into Natural Law apply to all times and all circumstances. Natural Law conceives political society to have a nature which is connected with the cosmos as a whole, and that society or civilisation has a part to play within Nature as a whole.

Natural Law views the cosmos as intelligent and purposeful, and therefore opens the way to a rich understanding of evolution, the environment, and the relation of human nature to the whole of Nature.

Natural Law approaches the universe as essentially good and oriented towards perfection. The Good that all things strive by nature towards is the key to the unity of the universe. It is also the key to human goodness, to ethics and the virtues, and to justice and harmony in society.

Natural Law assumes that so long as all things conform to their own real natures they will flourish, each thing in itself and each in harmony with all. This principle relates human nature to reality as a whole, and it reveals how society suffers when it deviates from its own true nature. This principle also indicates that true knowledge of the nature of things corresponds with the understanding of universal justice, and that knowledge and ethics cannot be separated without harmful consequences. The Good and the True belong together and are two aspects of one reality.

We hope that this website will be a useful resource for the study of Natural Law and encourage renewed reflection on it in philosophy, ethics, economics, religion and the arts.

May 8, 2013

The Universe

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Zeno says:

“That which exercises reason is more excellent than that which does not exercise reason; there is nothing more excellent than the universe, therefore the universe exercises reason”. In the same way it may be proved that the universe is wise, blessed, and eternal, for all objects that possess these qualities are more excellent than those which do not possess them, and there is nothing of greater excellence than the universe. By this means it will be proved that the universe is divine. He has also the following: “No part can be sentient where the whole is not sentient; parts of the universe are sentient, therefore the universe is sentient”. He goes further and urges his point in more precise terms. “Nothing,” he says, “that is inanimate and without reason can produce from itself a being that is animate and possessed of reason; the universe produces beings that are animate and possessed of reason, therefore the universe is animate and possessed of reason.” He also, as his habit frequently was, stated the argument in the form of a comparison, which was to this effect: “If melodiously piping flutes sprang from the olive, would you doubt that a knowledge of flute-playing resided in the olive? And what if plane trees bore harps which gave forth rhythmical sounds? Clearly you would think in the same way that the art of music was possessed by plane trees. Why, then, seeing that the universe gives birth to beings that are animate and wise, should it not be considered animate and wise itself?” (The Nature of the Gods, Book 2, VIII)

May 5, 2013

The Universe

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Cicero says:

There is, then, an element which holds together and maintains the entire universe, an element, moreover, which is not without sensation and reason. For it is necessary that every element which is not isolated or simple, but which is joined and linked with something else, should have in itself some ruling principle, as, for instance, mind in the case of man, and in the case of animals something similar to mind, which prompts their desires. In trees, and in things which spring from the earth, the ruling principle is supposed to be placed in their roots. By ruling principle I mean the principle which the Greeks call ἡγεμονικόν, which cannot but hold, and which ought to hold, the highest place in each genus. Consequently the thing in which the ruling principle of the whole of nature is contained, must in the same way be the most perfect of all, and the most worthy of power and dominion over all existence. Now we see that in parts of the universe (for there is nothing in the entire universe which is not a part of the whole), sensation and reason exist. These qualities must therefore exist, and exist more vividly and to a greater extent, in that part in which the ruling principle of the universe resides. Consequently the universe must be intelligent, and the element which holds all things in its embrace must excel in perfection of reason; the universe, therefore, must be divine, and so must the element by which the whole strength of the universe is held together. This fiery glow which the universe possesses is also far purer, clearer, and nimbler, and on that account better fitted to arouse sensation, than this heat of ours, by which the objects known to us are preserved and made strong. Since, then, men and animals are maintained by this heat, and through it possess motion and sensation, it is absurd to say that the universe is without sensation, when it is maintained by a burning heat which is unmixed, and free, and pure, and at the same time in the highest degree vivid and nimble, especially considering that the heat which belongs to the universe is moved by itself and its own action, and is not stirred by anything distinct from itself, or by impact from outside. For what can be mightier than the universe, so as to act upon and set in motion the heat by which the universe is to be held together? (The Nature of the Gods, Book 2, XI)


Let us hear Plato on this question, Plato, the god of philosophers, as he may be called. He holds that there are two kinds of motion, one self-imparted and the other derived, and that a thing which is self-moved by its own action is more divine than that which is set in motion by impact from something else. The former kind of motion he declares to exist in soul alone, and he is of opinion that it was from soul that the first principle of motion was derived. Consequently since all motion arises from the heat possessed by the universe, and since that heat is moved by its own action, and not by impact from anything else, it must of necessity be soul, by which means it is proved that the universe is possessed of soul. It may also be understood that intelligence exists in the universe, from the fact that the universe is undeniably of greater excellence than any form of being. For just as there is no part of our body which is not less important than ourselves, so the whole universe must be more important than a part of the universe. If that is so, the universe must be intelligent, for if it were not, man, who is a part of the universe, would, as participating in reason, necessarily be of more importance than the entire universe. If, again, we wish to trace the advance from the first and rudimentary stages of being to the final and perfect, it is to a divine nature that we must come. For we observe that the first things maintained by nature are those which spring from the earth, to which nature has assigned nothing more than protection by means of nurture and development. To animals she has given sensation, movement, an impulse, combined with a certain desire, towards what is beneficial, and an avoidance of what is hurtful. To man she has given more in having added reason, which was meant to regulate the desires of the mind, at one time allowing them their way, and at another holding them in check.


The fourth and highest stage consists of beings who are created naturally good and wise, in whom right reason in an unchanging form is innate from the beginning, that reason which must be regarded as more than human, and must be assigned to what is divine, that is, to the universe, in which this complete and perfect reason must needs exist. For it cannot be said that in any order of things there is not something final and perfect. Just as in the case of vines or cattle, we see that, unless some force interposes, nature arrives by a way of her own at perfection, and just as a certain attainment of consummate workmanship exists in painting and architecture and the other arts, so it is inevitable that in collective nature there should much more be a progress towards completion and perfection. Many external influences can prevent the other kinds of being from reaching perfection, but nothing can stand in the way of universal nature, because it itself limits and contains all kinds of being. That, therefore, must be the fourth and highest stage, which no force can come near. Now it is in that stage that universal nature has its place, and since it is the characteristic of that nature that all things should be inferior to it, and nothing able to stand in its way, it necessarily follows that the universe is intelligent, and more than that wise. Besides, what is more foolish than that the nature which embraces all things should not be declared supremely excellent, or that, being supremely excellent, it should not be in the first place animate, in the second possessed of reason and forethought, and lastly wise? In what other way can it be supremely excellent? For if it resembled plants, or even animals, it would not deserve to be considered of the highest degree of excellence, but rather of the lowest, while if it participated in reason, and yet were not wise from the beginning, the condition of the universe as compared with that of man would be the lower of the two. For man can become wise, but if the universe during the limitless course of past time has been destitute of wisdom, it will assuredly never acquire it, and will therefore be lower than man. Since that is absurd, the universe must be regarded as wise from the beginning, and as divine.


It was, indeed, an ingenious remark of Chrysippus that just as the cover was created for the shield, and the sheath for the sword, so all other things with the exception of the universe were created for the sake of something else, the crops and fruits, for instance, which the earth produces, for the sake of animals, and animals for the sake of men, as the horse for carrying, the ox for ploughing, and the dog for hunting and keeping watch. As for man himself, he was born in order to observe and imitate the universe, being in no wise perfect, but a particle, so to speak, of that which is, for it is only the universe to which nothing is wanting, and which is knit together on every side, and is perfect and complete in all its numbers and parts. Now since the universe embraces all things, and there is nothing that is not contained within it, it is perfect at every point. How, then, can that which is of most excellence be lacking to it? There is nothing more excellent than mind and reason, so it is impossible that these should be lacking to the universe. Chrysippus, therefore, is again right when he declares, adding instances, that in what is matured and perfect everything is of higher excellence, in a horse, for example, than in a colt, in a dog than in a whelp, in a man than in a boy, and in like manner that whatever is best in the whole world, must reside in something that is perfect and complete. As there is nothing more perfect than the universe, and nothing more excellent than virtue, it follows that virtue is an attribute of the universe. Human nature is not indeed perfect, yet virtue is attained in man, so how much more easily in the universe! Virtue, then, does exist in the universe, which is therefore wise, and consequently divine. ((The Nature of the Gods, Book 2)

May 1, 2013

Nature and Freedom

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—Well then,—A commonwealth is a constitution of the entire people.—The people, however, is not every association of men, however congregated, but the association of the entire number, bound together by the compact of justice, and the communication of utility. The first cause of this association is not so much the weakness of man, as the spirit of association which naturally belongs to him—For the human race, is not a race of isolated individuals, wandering and solitary; but it is so constituted for sociality, that even in the affluence of all things, and without any need of reciprocal assistance, it spontaneously seeks society.  (Teatise on Commonwealth)

March 19, 2013

The Common Good

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“Distributive justice regards the allotment of certain things to the individual, insofar as the property of the community also belongs to each member.” This means: the “allotment” consists of the individual’s share in the bonum commune (the common good).

At this point we ought to attempt a clearer description of the bonum commune. A preliminary approach may suggest the following definition: the bonum commune is the sum total of society’s production, the whole of its output. The correct nature of this statement is based on the fact that all social groups and professions, and in rather unstructured, unsystematic ways the individuals as well, function together, thus making available for the people, for the society as a whole, food, clothing, shelter, transportation, communication, health care, training and schools, also the manifold means of pleasure and entertainment. The strict interpretation of iustitia distributiva (distributive justice) would require that all these goods and services be distributed and “allotted” evenly among all the members of society. This conception, however, is inadequate.

Such a definition springs from the mentality of a technical mind set that believes that everything can be “made”. Because of these roots, such a definition incurs the risk of neglecting the truth that the bonum commune extends beyond the realm of the merely material and usable goods of production. There exist contributions to the common good that are neither “usable” nor “makable” but that nevertheless are quite real and indispensable to boot. This is the meaning of the statement, for example, that it is necessary for the perfection of a commonwealth that there be persons dedicated to contemplation. This states, really, that the life even of society as such is nourished by the public presence of truth and that the life of nations becomes all the richer the more they attain a sense and awareness of the depths of reality.

We should notice here, incidentally, a primary characteristic of the absolute labor State: there the principle prevails of identifying the common good with the “common usefulness”, and the plans by which the bonum commune allegedly is pursued are all utilitarian in nature.

The second objection to the definition of the bonum commune as society’s output focuses on a more essential, deeper-rooted deficiency.

The original literal and inherent meaning of bonum commune concerns “the good”, the essence of all the different goods that together form a community’s reason for existing and that a commonwealth would have to achieve and obtain before it could be deemed to have realized its full potential. It appears to me, though, to be definitely not possible to define the bonum commune, in this sense, with any comprehensiveness and finality. For this would presuppose that it is possible to describe, accurately and definitively, the full potential of a community and therefore its “essence”. It is as impossible to formulate this as it is to define the “essence” of the human person—and so nobody is able to state ultimately what constitutes the good of the human person, either—that good, namely, which provides the reason for human existence and which would have to be achieved in life before any human person could be deemed to have realized his full potential. No other meaning than this attaches to Socrates’ stubbornly propounded contention that he did not know what “human virtue” was and that he had not yet met anybody who could teach him.

If the bonum commune is to be conceived in this way, what, then, does it mean to “render each and all their due”? What does it mean, then, to exercise “distributive justice”? It means: to make sure that the individual members of the population are given the opportunity to add their contribution to the realization of the bonum commune that is neither specifically nor comprehensively defined. This participation according to each person’s dignitas or capacity and ability—this is precisely each person’s rightful “due”. And this participation may not be prevented by the administrator of the bonum commune if the iustitia distributiva, the justice of power, is not to be violated. This points to a further aspect: the “good of a commonwealth” includes the inborn human talents, qualities and potentials, and part of the iustitia distributiva is the obligation to protect, preserve and foster these capacities.

After all this we are able to identify once again an essential element of totalitarian regimes. There the political powers claim the right to define in complete detail the specifics of the bonum commune. The fateful and destructive nature of those five-year plans does not come from their attempt to increase industrial output or to gear production and demand toward each other. What is so ruinous here is the fact that the “plan” becomes the exclusive standard that dictates not only the production of material goods but equally the pursuits of universities, the creations of artists, even the leisure activities of the individual—so that anything not totally conforming to this standard is suppressed as “socially unimportant” and “undesirable”. (Josef Pieper, An Anthology, Ignatius Press, 1989)

March 10, 2012

Justice and the Good

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Joseph Milne

Talk given to the Henry George Foundation 25th November 2011

At the beginning of Progress and Poverty Henry George quotes Marcus Aurelius. Part of that quotation says:

For nothing is so productive of elevation of mind as to be able to examine methodically and truly every object which is presented to thee in life, and always to look at things so as to see at the same time what kind of universe this is, and what kind of use everything performs in it, and what value everything has with reference to the whole, and what with reference to man, who is a citizen of the highest city, of which all other cities are like families.

Henry George quotes this passage from Marcus Aurelius to call the reader’s full intelligence to the task of examining the nature and laws of economics, and to see how human society is part of the greater order of the universe as a whole. This is not only a very apt quotation with which to begin Progress and Poverty, it is also highly significant that George should invoke the great Stoic philosopher and exponent of Natural Law. In the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius we have the only record that has come down to us of practical Stoic exercises. In the quotation George gives us we are given a description of the Stoic exercise called judgement, which is to see things as they are in themselves and in relation to the whole universe, so that any action taken may be in accord with the truth of things, with the proper purpose of things, and for the good of mankind. For the Stoic philosopher, the final test of any action is whether it is for the good of mankind and therefore in accord with universal providence. Only such actions are truly virtuous, free and lead to human happiness.

Progress and Poverty may be seen as a similar intellectual exercise, enabling the mind to move from right perception to right judgement, and from right judgement to action for the common good or justice, and from justice to the fulfilment of human nature and happiness. This sequence involves right perception, right judgement, and right action, and we might call it a “virtuous circle” since it moves from truth to goodness, or from the intellectual to the ethical. Put very simply, it is perception, thought and action ruled by justice, where we understand justice as action in accordance with the truth of things.

It is evident that this “virtuous circle” from perception to justice is for Henry George the most natural thing, the proper use of our human faculties, and in conformity with the proper end of life. In speaking of the law of human progress he writes:

The law of human progress, what is it but the moral law? Just as social adjustments produce justice, just as they acknowledge the equality of right between man and man, just as they insure to each the perfect liberty which is bounded only by the equal liberty of every other, must civilisation advance. (Progress and Poverty, p. 526)

To assert that the law of human progress is a moral law is the same as to say that only the just society can flourish or, more radically, that only the just society is genuinely a society and may properly be called a society. This clearly suggests that ethics, or “the moral law” as George calls it, lies at the heart of society and civilisation, and that human society is firstly and essentially an ethical body.

This is the view that I wish to explore in this talk, and I shall be calling upon the ancient philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle to elaborate it. Before I launch into this properly I think it would be well to remind ourselves that this view is not the current view, especially when it comes to the understanding of economics. The prevailing way of understanding economics through mathematical models and as mere mechanism wholly precludes any account of the ethical meaning of the production and exchange of wealth. Indeed, many economists assert that the workings of the market are morally neutral or amoral, and the modern way in which the working of the economy is analysed supports this view. With the current crisis there appears to be an inevitable conflict between so-called market forces and ethics, almost as if the market worked entirely by itself without any human participation.

This disconnection between the economy and the ethical sphere is a feature of the mode of thinking of our times, but its roots go back to the rationalists of the 17th century who attempted to view the world and human society merely as unconscious mechanisms. The consequence of this was to relegate ethics to the private sphere of the individual, despite the claims of universal human rights and human equality. This in turn has led to the prevailing culture of moral relativism. For relativism all “values” are held to be culturally conditioned and without any grounding in truth or reality, while truth itself is also only relative or conditional or provisional. These views are defended in the name of freedom, on the grounds that nobody or no institution has the right to impose its values on the morally self-determining individual. But what use is the claim of universal moral freedom in a world where all moral values cancel each other out as merely relative or private?

I would like to emphasise that this disconnection between economics and ethics derives from confusion within the sphere of ethics itself. This confusion is crippling the attempts of economists and governments to remedy the current financial crisis. It seems almost impossible to think economically and ethically at the same time. This is because economics cannot now be seen as inherently ethical, as primarily ethical. The pursuit of wealth and the pursuit of virtue appear to be at odds with one another.

From this it is clear that Henry George’s claim that the law of progress is a moral law cannot be easily grasped at this time, and that even we who study George can easily forget that his primary concern is justice and the perception of justice in the natural order of society. Our modern inability to see the ethical nature of things seems to me to be related to a fundamental law of civilisation. Over that last four years I have been tracing the history of the understanding of natural law, from Plato to the present, and through all the variations and changes in thinking one sees over this long period of time, one law that emerges clearly into light is that a society flourishes to the degree that it is able to reflect upon its own real nature. Whenever there is a flowering of culture, as in Classical Greece, or in the 9th, 12th or 15th centuries in Europe to give obvious examples, this is always accompanied by a rich articulation of the nature of society, of human nature, and the place of these within the cosmos. This capacity to reflect on human nature and its part within the greater whole, or the All as the Stoics called it, inevitably comes accompanied by the consideration of the nature of the Good. For Plato and Aristotle, and also the great Christian theologians, to reflect upon the truth of things ultimately comes to the same thing as reflecting on the Good. The True and the Good cannot be understood separately from one another. To illustrate this, here are a few short quotations from Aquinas which he has distilled from the philosophy and theology that has come down to him:

Every creature participates in goodness in the same degree as it participates in being.

Everything that is, and in whatever way it is, is good in so far as it exists.

Being itself is like goodness. Good and Being are convertible ideas.

Good and true and being are one and the same thing in reality, but in the mind they are distinguished from each other.

Good and the inclination to good follow from the very nature of a being; hence, so long as the nature remains, the inclination to good cannot be removed, not even from the damned.

The rational, intellectual nature is related to good and evil in a way that distinguishes it above all other beings. For every other creature is naturally ordered to some particular, partial good. On the other hand, only the intellectual nature apprehends the universal idea of the good itself through its intellectual knowledge, and is moved by the desire of the will to the good in its universality. (The Human Wisdom of St. Thomas, 37 – 41, 70)

There are a number of important things to notice about what Aquinas says here. First, each observation relates the universal and the particular. Thus, although he speaks of universal being or good or the true, he relates these to particular beings, goods or truths.

Second, that everything that exists is inclined to the good, and this inclination springs from the essence of each being. This inclination towards the good which is manifest in every part of Nature, either through the natural motion of things or instinct, is the inclination towards the perfection of being. That is to say, each thing is inclined to the perfection of its own nature within the overall order of Nature or the universe.

Third, the inclination to the perfection of being or the good manifests at the intellectual or human level as ethical reflection. The human intelligence has a capacity to grasp the universal order of Nature and see how each kind of creature is inclined to its particular good, and how that particular good forms part of the overall inclination towards the perfection of the whole universe. And because human intelligence has this capacity to reflect upon the total scheme of things, it is placed in a unique position in relation to the whole. Because of this unique place of reflection in the total order of Nature, human nature “is moved by the desire of the will to the good in its universality” as Aquinas puts it.

In terms of modern ethics this looks rather strange and abstract. As we noted earlier, the modern relativist view of morality asserts the independent autonomy of the individual over all values, and this evades or cancels out the question of any universal good. Not only that, whole spheres of life are regarded as amoral, for example the market economy, the arts, physics, or even education. But for Aquinas, as for Aristotle and Plato, there are no amoral spheres either in Nature or in human activity. This is because the true, the good, and being cannot be separated from one another. “Good and true and being are one and the same thing in reality, but in the mind they are distinguished from each other”, as Aquinas says.

Again, we can trace the seeds of this separation back to William of Ockham and the rise of Nominalism in the 14th century, which asserts that only individual entities have real existence and that universals exist in name only. This is reinforced by the 17th century rationalism where the universe is reduced to unconscious mechanism and “knowledge” becomes conceived as wholly detached from any type of participation in, or responsibility towards, the things known. Truth itself is reduced to mere measurement and impartial representation of things. Truth is no longer a universal that belongs to things in themselves, but becomes a human construct imposed upon things from outside. Such a conception of knowledge and truth cannot be related to the metaphysical universals of being or the good, and so they appear now as completely separate or independent realities. This unnatural separation has enormous ethical consequences which appear to have no resolution. For example we are confronted with such problems as whether the human genome can be patented or not, or species of plants privately owned, or if life is owned by the individual. The notion that all knowledge is morally neutral creates startling ethical difficulties and injustices.

I would like to suggest that the way any age conceives the relation between truth and goodness will both reflect and determine its whole culture, its politics, its system of law and its relation to Nature as a whole. So while it may seem impractical to discuss obscure metaphysics while we could be campaigning for change, at the end of the day it will be the kind of answers given to the highest metaphysical questions that will determine the destiny of a society. This is the insight of Plato and Aristotle, who saw man as the being who reflects on the truth of things. Once there is a creature in Nature who reflects on Nature, we have the emergence of the ethical sphere, for the being who can reflect on Nature gains a responsibility to the truth of Nature that no other creature has. The human realm is the ethical realm. This is why at the beginning of his Politics Aristotle calls man the political being, because man has the power of language, and the “citizen” is the being with the gift of foresight and the capacity to make laws. The emergence of man as the reflective ethical sphere of Nature has been very richly shown in the works of Teilhard de Chardin, who writes:

From man onwards, the cosmos is constructed of moral magnitudes. Consequently spiritual action, so despised by science, is now effortlessly placed at the head of material energies, so far the only ones considered by physicists. . . . We are now correlatively to fuse into a common dimension two apparently opposite characteristics of experience. We are no longer surrounded by a physical realm and a moral realm. There is only the physico-moral. (Teilhard de Chardin, Human Energy, London, 1969, p. 71 – 22)

Although Teilhard is giving us a new insight in scientific, evolutionary terms, this is an old and essential insight in Platonic and Christian terms. The physical sphere is not seen in its real aspect if separated from the ethical, or in its truth if separated from the good. But the convergence of the physical and the ethical manifests at the human level, where truth, being and the good emerge together in reflective consciousness or thought. This is man’s place in Nature, and consequently the human sphere, society, shows itself as the responsible reflection on the truth of things. Once we glimpse how this is the human place in Nature, then all human activity takes on a fuller meaning. Society is no longer closed in upon itself, or serving only itself, but is part of a larger scheme in which the fullness of being is seen to be the orientation of the whole of reality. Thus Teilhard writes in another essay, “The more an individual, as a consequence of his metaphysical convictions, recognizes that he is an element of a universe in which he finds his fulfilment, the more closely he feels that he is bound from within himself to the duty of conforming to the laws of the universe..” (Toward the Future, London, 1975, p. 131 – 132)

The implication of what Teilhard says here is that human nature cannot realize or fulfil itself if it regards itself as separate from Nature as a whole, and that through conforming itself to the laws of the universe it conforms to its own nature from within itself.

Again, this may sound metaphysically very grand, but curiously it brings us to a moral question at the heart of our modern confusions about morality: the question of human freedom? It is surely true to say that the highest aspiration of modern democracies is the attainment of freedom. It is the quest for freedom that inspired the various charters and declarations of human rights since the 18th century, and that human rights express the conscience of our age.

There is, however, a serious flaw in the modern conception of freedom which takes us back once again to the rise of Nominalism of the 14th century. As we noted a moment ago, the Nominalist view holds that only particular entities exist, and that each entity is autonomous and closed in on itself. This conception was applied both to God and to all created things, including the human person, and since the essence of each being now becomes its autonomy, the “will” becomes the first principle of being, or even precedes being. The consequence of this conception of the essence of things was that “free will” becomes the decisive characteristic of human nature. Free will came to mean the absolute autonomy of will over things, regardless of their nature. That is to say, free will becomes an end in itself, indifferent to reality external to itself. This Nominalist view lingers on in the existentialism which claims existence precedes essence, for example in the famous novel of Camus, The Outsider.

Given this conception of free will, based on a metaphysical notion of reality composed of separate entities, the philosophers and political economists of the 17th century looked at the framing of society and its laws as essentially protecting the freedom of each individual from either the power of the state or from all other individuals. Thus the conception of the modern liberal society was founded in the notion of the essential competition of each against all, and so laws were made not for the sake of the common good, or for conformation to Nature, but for the protection of the individual against all other individuals and the power of the state. And the power of the state itself, and its laws, were seen as arising from the will of the ruler.

It was from this conception of society that the modern ideals of human rights arose. Human rights were conceived in terms of the good of each private individual, not in terms of the common good, or the good of the whole, or the natural order. Through the agency of human rights the individual asserts his will over all other individuals and institutions.

This conception of human freedom is profoundly different from that of the ancient philosophers, and so it is illuminating to contrast them. For Plato and Aristotle, freedom means the capacity for excellence. That is to say, the capacity for education, for virtue, justice and to fully participate in the universal good.

This conception of freedom arises from an entirely different conception of human nature and the nature of things. It is founded in the understanding that all things are by nature oriented towards the Good, each in its own nature and as a part of the greater whole. For human nature this means that the natural inclinations and instincts are oriented towards the good and perfection. Thus the natural state is a harmony between human nature and Nature generally, and between all human individuals.

Understood in this way, “free will” cannot be the mere assertion of autonomy. On the contrary, free will now becomes the capacity to discern the true and the good and act from that ground. Thus for Aquinas, the free will arises from the act of discerning the true with the intellect, and the good with the will, and free will arises as the decision for excellence. The act of free will is in fact the capacity to make decisions in the light of the good and the true. To put that another way, as we often find in the Stoics, it is the ability to conform to the providential laws of the universe. The classical understanding of free will presupposes a receptivity to, and a participation in, the universal truth and good. It is essentially ethical. It is the capacity to assent to the true and the good through reflection.

By contrast with this, the Nominalist idea of free will as the absolute autonomy of the individual has no ethical basis. It is merely the assertion of absolute autonomy and is as such amoral. It is precisely because of this notion of free will as autonomy that modern theories of ethics are conceived in terms of limiting the scope of free will, as rules, obligations and duties that are imposed on the individual from outside. If human nature is not inherently ethical, then ethics can only be conceived in this way, as imposed from outside. It follows that law can only be conceived in this way too, and so the traditional understanding of Natural Law can have no place.

It is extremely unfortunate that this notion of free will as autonomy, originating with William of Ockham, overcame the earlier understanding of free will as decision for excellence as richly elaborated by Aquinas, and reduced all ethical thinking to the imposition of obligations. It is also unfortunate that this conception of free will serves as the foundation of the modern formulations of human rights. These rights, which are said to spring from human nature as such, are actually formulations of claims upon other persons and obligations imposed on them. They are assertions of will, not formulations grounded in the common good or universal justice. They arise from the Nominalist notion of human nature, in which metaphysics and ethics are separated. Simone Weil claimed that the declarations of human rights reduce human beings to mere legal entities and are wholly contrary to the Christian understanding of man made in the image of God. She wrote in her essay Human Personality:

The notion of rights is linked with the notion of sharing out, of exchange, of measured quantity. It has a commercial flavour, essentially evocative of legal claims and arguments. Rights are always asserted in a tone of contention; and when this tone is adopted, it must rely upon force in the background, or else it will be laughed at. (Simone Weil, An Anthology, London, 2005, p. 81)

These are radical assertions, as we would expect from Simone Weil, but they have the advantage of pushing us to find higher ground for a real foundation for ethics. This higher ground must raise the question of free will to the very highest level. For Aquinas it resides in the understanding of man created in the image of God. The good, true and being have their ultimate ground or origin in God, and the human faculties and their natural inclinations towards the true and good are finally oriented towards mystical union. From this high perspective, the desire for mystical union, which is the essence of the free will, not only brings human nature to God, it also brings it wholly to itself and into harmony with the truth of all created things. From the Christian perspective, this transforms the virtue of justice, which epitomizes the genuine action of free will, into the virtue of charity – and charity means participation in the divine love God has for all beings. Henry George likewise makes this connection between the moral law of human progress and the spiritual desire of man:

Political economy and social science cannot teach any lessons that are not embraced in the simple truths of that were taught to poor fishermen and Jewish peasants by One who eighteen hundred years ago was crucified – the simple truths which, . . . seem to underlie every religion that has ever striven to formulate the spiritual yearnings of man. (Progress and Poverty, p. 526)

To sum up, it is through ethics that the human being and society are brought into their true and natural relationship with Nature. This is true, however, only so long as ethics is understood to arise from the natural inclinations of human nature, which are oriented towards truth and goodness. The human sphere is the ethical sphere, because human nature has the power to reflect on the nature of things, as well as human nature itself. As the reflective being it surely must follow that all human action is at any time a manifestation of the degree to which the true and the good are understood. So where there is economic injustice or poverty, there is ignorance of the laws of Nature and the proper role of human society within Nature. Or, to put that more gently, so long as society is not established as first and primarily ethical, it will fail to fulfil its own proper ends. This is especially the case with the understanding of economics, because the creation and exchange of goods can either liberate human nature or enslave it. This, I believe, is the central truth that Henry George perceived and which inspired his enquiry into the laws of political economy.

Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, translated by Joe Sachs, Focus Publishing, 2002
Aristotle, The Politics and The Constitution of Athens, translated by Stephen Everson, Cambridge, 1996
Thomas Aquinas, On Law, Morality, and Politics, translated by Richard Regan, Hackett, 2002
Brendan Francis Brown, The Natural Law Reader, Literary Licensing, 1960
Teilhard de Chardin, Toward the Future, translated by René Hague, Collins, 1975
Teilhard de Chardin, Human Energy, translated by J. M. Cohen, Collins, 1969
Pierre Hadot, The Inner Citadel: The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, Harvard, 1998
Josef Pieper, The Human Wisdom of St. Thomas, Ignatius Press, 2002
Servais Pinckaers, The Sources of Christian Ethics. T&T Clark, 1995
Servais Pinckaers, The Pinckaers Reader, translated by John Berkman & Craig Steven Titus, Catholic University Press, 2005
Simone Weil, An Anthology, Penguin Books, London, 2005

January 5, 2012

The Stoics

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Cicero on Duty

The primary duty is that the creature should maintain itself in its natural constitution; next, that it should cleave to all that is in harmony with nature and spurn all that is not; and when once this principle of choice and rejection has been arrived at, the next stage is choice, conditioned by inchoate duty; next such a choice is exercised continuously; finally, it is rendered unwavering and in thorough agreement with nature; and at that stage the conception of what good really is begins to dawn within us and be understood. Man’s earliest attraction is to those things which are conformable to nature, but as soon as he has laid hold of general ideas or notions and has seen the regular order and harmony of conduct, he then values that harmony far higher than all the objects for which he felt the earliest affection and he is led to the reasoned conclusion that herein consists the supreme human good. In this harmony consists the good, which is the standard of action; from which it follows that all moral action, nay morality itself, which alone is good, though of later origin in time, has the inherent value and worth to make it the sole object of choice, for none of the objects to which earlier inpulses are directed is choiceworthy in and of itself. (De Finibus, III, 20-21)

September 10, 2011

Justice and the Good

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Whatever the Gods ordain, is full of wise providence. What we ascribe to fortune, happens not without a presiding nature, nor without a connexion and intertexture with the things ordered by providence. Thence all things flow. Consider, too, the necessity of these events; and their utility to that whole universe of which you are a part. In every regular structure, that must always be good to a part, which the nature of the whole requires, and which tends to preserve it. Now, the universe is preserved, as, by the changes of the Elements, so, by the changes of the complex forms. Let these thoughts suffise; let them be your maxims, laying aside that thirst after multitudes of books; that you may die without repining, meek, and well satisfied, and sincerely grateful to the Gods.

September 8, 2011


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[1] Created things are made like unto God by the fact that they attain to divine goodness. If then, all things tend toward God as an ultimate end, so that they may attain His goodness, it follows that the ultimate end of things is to become like God.

[2] Again, the agent is said to be the end of the effect because the effect tends to become like the agent; hence, “the form of the generator is the end of the generating action.” But God is the end of things in such a way that He is also their first agent. Therefore, all things tend to become like God as to their ultimate end.

[3] Besides, it is quite evident that things “naturally desire to be,” and if they can be corrupted by anything they naturally resist corrupting agents and tend toward a place where they may be preserved, as fire inclines upward and earth downward. Now, all things get their being from the fact that they are made like unto God, Who is subsisting being itself, for all things exist merely as participants in existing being. Therefore, all things desire as their ultimate end to be made like unto God.

[4] Moreover, all created things are, in a sense, images of the first agent, that is, of God, “for the agent makes a product to his own likeness”. Now, the function of a perfect image is to represent its prototype by likeness to it; this is why an image is made. Therefore, all things exist in order to attain to the divine likeness, as to their ultimate end.

[5] Furthermore, everything tends through its motion or action toward a good, as its end, which we showed above. Now, a thing participates in the good precisely to the same extent that it becomes like the first goodness, which is God. So, all things tend through their movements and actions toward the divine likeness, as toward their ultimate end. (Aquinas, Summa Contra Gentiles, Chapter 19)

September 8, 2011

Justice and the Good

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Paper given to the Henry George Foundation February 2010
Joseph Milne

May I begin by saying that the question of the relation of Natural Law and ecology raises a host of difficult questions. What I shall present today is only a beginning in facing these difficult questions, but my hope is that with some general pointers we can gain some sense of where to look, and what to set aside.

The first difficulty that confronts us is that our modern conception of Nature is not that of the Greeks or Romans who thought so deeply about Natural Law. This means that the world as described by our modern ecologists and environmentalists is not the world of Natural Law. Even the great Gaia Theory of James Lovelock, which sees the earth as an integrated single system, does not unite all the elements of Nature in the way that Plato, Aristotle or Aquinas did. Two main elements are missing, the end towards which Nature tends, and the ethical dimension. I am not suggesting that Lovelock is wrong, only that his account of Nature is incomplete.

Our modern conception of Nature, or of the cosmos, is rooted in the mechanistic rationalism of the Enlightenment, where there was the attempt to strip Nature of any purpose or teleology and study it solely from the point of view of its mechanisms. By this means general observations may be made of the mechanisms of Nature which can then be refined into theories through which the processes of Nature may be predicted, for example the laws of motion or of gravity. These scientific conceptions of Nature have come to so dominate modern thought that we have become generally convinced that the scientific method is the only way of properly understanding the laws of Nature.

This, in turn, has changed the meaning of the concept of “law”. The modern notion of law means the general principles which determine things from outside themselves. Even in jurisprudence positive law is conceived in this way, as a rule imposed upon persons or institutions. Thus, for example, it has become fashionable to see the human individual as shaped by a mixture of genetic predispositions and environmental factors, and so the “person” is merely the result of these shaping factors. Or on the social scale society is viewed as the historical product of statistical mechanisms, or arbitrary rituals, conventions and ethical codes. In the social sciences society has no actual “nature” which belongs to it or purpose which it serves within the larger sphere of Nature or the cosmos.

The ancient conception of Law is quite different from this. It means the “essence” or “nature” of a thing. Thus the law of anything is its mode of being and its manner of participating among the many beings of the cosmos and in being as such. It also means the perfect actualisation towards which all things tend, the law of full development for each being and for the cosmos as a whole. This tendency of everything towards perfection is not a blind struggle for existence, but a nisus or effort of Nature to manifest its potential. It means that the perfect form of every being is inherent in its nature or essence, and that all processes of growth or change or transformation are governed by this essential form of each being, or of all things. It also means that Nature as a whole has an essence which strives towards actualisation or manifestation. For Plato and Aristotle this effort of all things towards perfection arises from the self-motion of each being or all things together.

The salient features of such a view of Nature is that it is a unity, acting as a whole, that it is self-moving, acting out of its essence, and that it is constantly striving to bring into being its ideal form. For Plato and Aristotle this striving towards perfection extends beyond things themselves towards the Good in Itself, or the One. Plato and Aristotle also call this striving Love or Eros. The perfection which all things seek is ultimately a non-material or transcendent perfection which can only be approximately attained in the material or temporal manifestation. Yet it is this striving towards the fullest approximation to perfection which is the origin of all motion – all motion is a seeking of rest in fullness or unity. Love or Eros is the desire in all things to actualise themselves in the Ideal Forms which is their essence, while the Ideal Forms themselves come from the One or the Good in Itself.

It is worth pointing out here that the order of Nature as conceived by Plato and Aristotle and subsequently in the Middle Ages does not present the world as designed from outside itself, but rather as ordered through its striving towards perfection, through Eros. For Aristotle this perfection towards which all Nature strives is the perfect knowledge of all things in the mind of God. That is to say, what attracts all things to perfection is God’s own self-knowledge, which is also the knowledge of each being’s essence.

Thus the order of Nature is not imposed upon it from outside , but rather through it being granted existence it strives towards the perfection of its origin in the One or the Good. It seeks to “imitate” so far as this is possible the eternal perfection, or the wholly actual, from which it originated. The motion is an autonomous striving towards perfection, rather than an impulse from perfection. The modern idea of Intelligent Design fails, by comparison with the Greek understanding, to grant Nature the dignity of yearning out of its own essence for the Good, the True or the Beautiful. In other words, the Intelligent Design theory denies the autonomy of the cosmos. We can see how the theory of Intelligent Design arises from the modern conception of Law, as a rule or power imposed upon things from outside themselves. For Plato and Aristotle the Law of Nature is Eros, the desire or yearning for perfection.

This desire for perfection in Nature is taken up later by the Stoics and again in the cosmology and metaphysics of Aquinas. It is the striving towards transcendent perfection that gives the inner order to the cosmos. Let me quote to you an early Christianised understanding of this cosmic order. This is from Maximus the Confessor writing in the early 7th century:

The cosmos is a unity and is not divided up along with its parts; rather, precisely through its tendency to rise towards its own single and undivided being, it puts limits on the differences of its natural division into parts. So it proves that the parts are always the same as itself, even in their unconfused differentiation; that every whole dwells within every other whole; that all of them fill up the one whole as its parts and are in turn made one and are completely filled in themselves because of the integrity of the whole. In fact, the whole intellectual world appears as mystery, expressed in meaningful forms through the whole sensible world, to those who are privileged to see it; and the whole sensible world dwells within the whole intellectual world, reduced through the Spirit of wisdom to its basic intelligible meaning. The material, that is, dwells in the intellectual in the mode of intelligible meaning, and the intellectual dwells in the material in the mode of images; but the result of both is a single world.

In this passage we see how Maximus saw a mutual reciprocity between the intellectual and sensible realms, and how the principle of unity is the key to the nature of the cosmos which brings together all its parts and all its levels. The cosmos is, for him, all these things taken together, the invisible dwelling in the visible, and the visible in the invisible.

The second element in our modern conception of Nature which differs from the ancient conception concerns the ethical dimension. How we conceive ethics determines how we conceive the nature of Law as such, so it is vitally important. The modern mechanistic conception of Nature has no ethical element, and this even includes the more recent theory of altruism attributed to certain species.

How, then, does an ethical dimension enter our understanding of Nature? Aquinas explains it this way. Since all things are by nature inclined towards perfection, and are therefore purposive, they express this according to their different modes of being. He says:

All natures bring with them natural tendencies or appetites or loves. Wherever there is the nature of mind there is natural tendency in the will; wherever there is sense awareness, a natural tendency to sense-stimulated appetite; where there is no awareness there is an orientation of nature itself to things. (ST. 60. 1)

In this passage it is clear that orientations, appetites and loves are three distinct orders or levels of inclination towards perfection or the Good, manifest in three distinct modes of beings. From what we have already said about Nature in general the tendencies and appetites have already been explained. It is the step from the sense awareness of the animals to the act of will of mind in human nature, “the natural tendency of the will”, which calls for special attention here.

It is obvious, first of all, that the human being contains all three levels – the autonomous activity of the organism, the appetitive activity in relation to desires, and the acts of will according to reason. It is at this third level that inclinations and desires come into reflective consciousness, and with this comes the realm of elective will or the capacity to set goals. This, clearly, is a new level of autonomy, and with this new level of autonomy comes a new level of relation to all other beings.

This means there can be a new level of unity between the human mind and Nature, from which can arise action that is truthful to both human nature and to Nature universally. To put that more strongly, the integrity of human autonomy is bound up with acting according to the universal integrity of Nature. This kind of action is what the Stoics called “acting in agreement with nature”, which means to act according to the truth and integrity of Nature. According to the Stoics, the human being can only attain its own perfection, or actualise its own nature, through truthful conscious relation with Nature, for it is only through acting in accordance with the truth of things that the proper realm of human activity and being opens up.

It hardly needs to be said that this is the natural ground for ethics and for the virtues, as well as for the study of Law. For Man, authentic being means authentic participation in the order of Nature as a whole. Mind, consciousness or intelligence brings with it the double power of inner contemplation and outer apprehension, and for the ancient philosophers these two directions of the human gaze belong with one another. Restrict one, and the other is diminished. Thus Plato says in the Timaeus “God invented and gave us sight to the end that we might behold the courses of intelligence in the heaven, and apply them to the courses of our own intelligence which are akin to them”.

Because the prevailing modern notion of the cosmos and Nature denies any natural purpose or teleology, the ancient understanding of the relation between the human inclination towards the Good and the world at large has been broken. Thus the Good, or the moral sphere, has been relegated to the private conscience of each individual human subject, on the presupposition that in the public sphere each individual acts solely for their own particular good. In the most extreme example of mechanistic thinking the neo-Darwinian theory of the struggle for survival has been projected onto society and onto all economic activity, as shown in some schools of sociology and psychological evolution. From this arises the common belief that legislation and law in general is required to place a restraint upon selfish inclinations. But this is law for the sake of mitigating the effects of the so-called natural order, of curbing the tendencies of human nature. I would suggest that it is because law is now generally conceived in terms of mitigation of unwanted consequences that there has been great expenditure of effort in formulating human rights.

Let us grant that the quest for human rights springs from the desire for justice and the Good, even though ambiguously. The difficulty is that justice is being sought within a conception of Nature and the universe which is totally indifferent to justice. How can there be justice within an amoral universe?

This brings us directly to the question of Natural Law and ecology. How do we look at this challenge from the perspective of Natural Law? If, as we have seen, all things incline towards perfection, both in themselves and in unity with the whole, and this is the foundation of the meaning of Natural Law, then it follows that if human society acts in any way contrary to the natural inclination of the natural order, then society is also acting contrary to its own nature, and contrary to human nature. We said a moment ago that for mankind authentic being means authentic participation in the order of Nature. According to that principle human society is part of the ecology of the earth and the universe. It therefore must follow that if mankind acts contrary to the natural order, this will produce human suffering and failure, because nothing can thrive contrary to its own nature or essence.

It is unfortunate that very little attention is given to the question of human nature in the ecological and environmental literature. Out of concern for the flourishing of the biosphere in general this literature sometimes even gives the impression that humanity is not part of Nature, or that Nature would thrive all the better without mankind. But this separation of humanity and society from Nature is part of the Enlightenment inheritance we observed earlier, in which Nature is reduced to mere mechanisms, and human society regarded as artificial and therefore outside Nature. This notion is reinforced by the evolutionary claim that intelligent life itself is an accident or mere chance occurrence in the universe. It follows from this way of thinking that human society not only has no nature of its own to accord with, it also has no unique part to play in the greater scheme of the earth or the universe.

Given this diminished conception of humanity it is no wonder that there is general confusion about how to respond to the present environmental problems. The biosphere and the thinking sphere have no connection with one another, and therefore no inherent ethical connection either, which is the basis of Natural Law. If there is a remedy to this split, then, according to Natural Law, it can only be through bringing human nature into accordance with itself, and therefore in accordance with the earth and the universe as a whole. This means opening up human nature to its full potential and therefore to greater participation in Nature.

I appreciate that this way of looking at the environmental question strikes a path rather different from the prevailing environmental thinking. In general, this argues for imposing physical solutions on the environment and society without taking account of human nature, or the ultimate place of human society within Nature. Approaching the question from the human side, however, is grounded in the understanding that all things in Nature seek the universal Good, and that the natural inclinations and desires and ultimate aspirations of human nature are likewise oriented towards the universal Good. The question of how that Good is to be attained has several levels and several ways of being addressed. Here we are trying to address it in terms of the nature of society and the nature of economics. Addressed in this way, the question that is raised is: What is the nature of human work? What is the task of mankind?

So long as we see work as warding off want and live in fear of poverty the real meaning of work becomes obscured. And yet, so long as we remain ignorant of the real meaning of human work we remain in poverty! Our human poverty and the harming of the earth are the same poverty, or they reinforce one another.

Considered in this way the first thing that strikes us is that the work appropriate for mankind must correspond with human nature and with Nature as a whole. This means that human nature flourishes through work just as the rest of Nature flourishes through its natural activity and inclinations. As the social and political being, work calls forth the latent talents and potentialities of human nature, bringing the faculties to full development. Yet this flourishing of human nature must correspond with the laws of Nature as a whole. So long as human society lives closely off the abundance given freely by Nature, this correspondence happens naturally. But once human work rises above the task of subsistence, then a new order of relation with Nature arises which calls upon reflection. It is at this point that what we broadly call “civilisation” arises, in which collective reflection produces works that embody human understanding as the end of work. This work manifests as the arts and religion and the human sciences.

This new order of human work has many implications. First, it embodies man’s reflection on the truth of things. As has been said in many ways by the philosophers, man is the being who reflects on the nature of being. This, it would seem, is a major part that humanity has to play within Nature. The human mind is Nature reflecting on herself.

This higher order of work does not remain in the realm of mere thinking or learning, it passes into and informs the manner in which the “ordinary” or “necessary” tasks are performed and transforms them into craftsmanship and ornaments of beauty, so that even the most physical things that serve the body may also serve the spirit.

Yet another element emerges through human work at this point. If human civilisation embodies Nature reflecting upon herself in this way, then it also must ultimately embody affirmation of the Truth of things and the Good. Such affirmation is a necessary aspect of the reflection, just as admiration is a necessary aspect of perceiving beauty. I would like to suggest that this affirmation is the inmost meaning and fulfilment of human work and human nature. It is what brings man into a truthful participation in Nature, which calls forth all the human virtues and talents, and which contributes to Nature’s end.

I appreciate that this sounds very idealistic and far from what today gets called “the real world”! I am convinced, however, that it was that kind of “rationalist” protest that sundered the tradition of Natural Law from the Western tradition in 18th century. If one is to consider Law, then one has to start from the highest principles first and trace the way these flow down into the so-called “real world”. According to Plato and Aristotle the intellect has a primordial intuition of the highest or most universal principles, and that the appropriate study of things brings these to light. There is a yet further point to mark here. How a society conceives the nature of the world determines its relationship with the truth of things and therefore its own possibilities. The quality of human reflection on Nature, and upon human society, is determinative of the state of society whether we call such a view idealist or not. The present environmental crisis is the direct product of how modern secular thought conceives the world and the manner in which man participates in Nature. It really is the thinking that makes it so. And in terms of Natural Law, it is unethical to conceive Nature falsely.

According to Aristotle all “use” is ethical. This is worth pondering. In our age we have come to think of things in terms of ownership or acquisition, especially in economic thinking. But Aristotle does not regard ownership to be of particular significance, and this is because the real relationship with things lies in the manner of their use, and the manner of use of things is immediately ethical, because use treats things according to ends within the totality of reality. All use embodies a dedication to an end or purpose of some kind, and this act of dedication is an ethical act. It embodies in that moment what is held to be the Good. And what may be held to be the Good depends upon the degree to which the true is recognised in things.

To put this in the terms in which Aquinas expresses it, every intentional act is an act of the will, and the will is governed by the intellect. But the will or the volitional aspect of human knowing has an immediate intuition of the Good, and all decisions or acts of will by nature seek the Good. The intellect, on the other hand, has an immediate intuition of the True, and all intellectual acts by nature seek the true. Virtue is the embodiment of the unity of the intellect and will, the good and the true. Since it is the seeking of the Good that moves the will, all willing belongs to the ethical sphere. And, finally, the human act of willing is the emergence into the sphere of mind of the orientation of all things in Nature towards the Good. It is this emergence of the orientation of Nature towards the Good into the sphere of mind that gives birth to the ethical and the genuinely human. This in turn manifests as the economic and political spheres, in which the human community acts as part of Nature as a whole and according to the laws of Nature as a whole.

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