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Nature's Law

When Thomas Jefferson wrote:"Laws of Nature" into the Declaration of independence, he was referring to an Enlightenment concept deeply rooted in Western philosophy. In later writings, Jefferson elaborated:

Nature has written her moral laws on the head and heart of every rational and honest man, where man may read them for himself. If ever you are about to say anything amiss, or to do anything wrong, consider beforehand you will feel something within you which will tell you it is wrong, and ought not to be said or done. This is your conscience, and be sure and obey it... Conscience is the only sure clue which will eternally guide a man clear of all his doubts and inconsistencies.

What is Nature's Law?
   
The Greek philosopher, Aristotle, suggested that human virtue is not imposed from without, but blossoms from within. People feel a natural inclination to ideas of fairness, human rights and equality. We know in our hearts what is right and wrong. This struck a philosophical chord that has resonated ever since, and resulted in an awareness of what was later called natural laws, or Nature's Law.
    Know upfront that is not a compilation of rules or regulations, or commandments carved in stone. Nor does it refer to the general concept of scientific laws.
    What philosophy refers to as Nature's Law is the convergence and conclusions of human conscience and rationality, an inner reference that recognizes the intrinsic dignity of human rights and values that are then rationally perceived. It is not a single person's possession, but shared among us all at the deepest level. It is our sense of justice, fairness and compassion by which all subsequent laws should be judged. One can think of it as the intuitive precursor and stimulus for human law.
   
John Locke, the philosopher who most influenced Jefferson, went to far as to believe that acting dishonorably meant acting against nature. The moral equality of human beings, he said, is based on their common nature (translated by Jefferson into "all men are created equal"). Natural law is what steers people toward the common good, rather than getting mired in self-interest. Personal ethics are recognized duties we have toward one another by virtue of our being human. We are social creatures, and that requires concern for others. The following quote by Locke illustrates how deeply he believed this:

To take away wrongful from another and for one man to advance his own interest by the disadvantage of another man is more contrary to nature than death, than poverty, than pain, than any other evil.

While the ancients saw natural law as obligation, Enlightenment thinkers saw it from the recipient's point-of-view by calling these obligations human rights. Instead of seeing right action as a magnanimous virtue on the way to self-perfection, they saw it as universal rights that people should not be treated poorly or with bias. These approaches, subtly different, lead to similar results. From our perspective, they are best embraced together. People have certain rights, and we have a duty to respect them.
    Is this just a quaint philosophical idea no longer relevant in our age of science? Or does Nature's Law point to something of intrinsic value for us now, when our understanding of the natural world far exceeds anything Enlightenment philosophers imagined?
    Unlike most of us today, who have so many resources available to us, earlier generations had to look for truth in themselves and the world around them, with the bold confidence that truth could be directly found and related to.
    Today, we have almost unlimited supplies of knowledge at our finger tips. But something is missing. With the availability of legions of experts on every subject, much of the personal urge to discover, which is part of our nature, has been left to stagnate. We expect answers to be ready-made and quickly available, so we can pick and choose what we want. This attitude denotes subtle changes to our encounter with the world. It makes us dependent more on others than on ourselves to an intellectual extreme. Our present dynamic for learning things is that of being perpetual students at the feet of supposed masters, who may or may not be correct. Our fundamental need for soul-searching discovery remains ignored.
    Jefferson and his peers saw the acquisition of knowledge as a perpetual quest filled with wonder and excitement that reflected human nobility.
    In contrast, we are the recipients of conclusions already formulated by others. Our challenge is reduced to choosing among prefabricated options, remembering what we are taught, and fitting in with a quiescent status quo. Pervasive social values, which have somewhat strayed from Nature's Law, encourage us to apply knowledge for personal pleasure or profit, and not as responsible citizens of the world. These are two very different versions of life's meaning. One is purposeful, exciting and progressive; the other dependent, unimaginative, and obsessed by self-interest. Unless we choose one over the other, we inherit what we will by chance.
    For today's skeptical minds, we need to know if Nature's Law is something real, something that even strict evolutionary science can validate. I think it is.
    Despite cultural differences, human morality and social law are, in various forms, found in all human societies. Logic suggests that such universality could only be explained by the common denominator of human beings themselves. When certain mammalian instincts and rational thought converge, values and meanings gradually develop over time. As rational thought continues to be applied, moral tendencies become clearer, and conscience earns its due. Written laws are, or should be, expressions of this process.
    While this is a universal human phenomenon, it can, and often is, interfered with. The entire process can be impeded if people are detoured at an early age, as we see today.
    The utility of Nature's Law is not given to us whole cloth at birth, but just as a potential that hopefully gains ascendency as we mature. It places us in relationship with the mystery of life and existence itself. It grows as we grow, and as our ability to reason becomes more refined. Properly encouraged, it flourishes. Neglected, it shrivels to suppressed feelings of discontent. Just as a seed needs water to produce a mature plant, so too the mind needs deep, independent inquiry and reflection for its full potential to bloom. The mind with undeveloped conscience has been diverted from its own natural growth. Too many ready-made answers, too much peer pressure or social expectation, too few personal expectations and inspirational opportunities, result in this loss—as does a lack of love.
    Which brings us to very real and important consequences. Our view of ethics depends on our view of human nature, and its subsequent view of reality. However we define our ethics, defines us as well. We cannot leave them to chance or expediency.
    What about religion?
   
From what has been said so far, Nature's Law might be construed as purely a secular or philosophical idea, in that it fails to reference God. Is it in any way compatible with Judeo-Christian theology?
   
The answer is yes. Seven out of the Ten Commandments, those referring to social morality, reflect the essence of natural law, as does the Golden Rule of loving one's neighbor as oneself. Confirming this connection more specifically, St. Paul wrote in his letter to the Romans:

When Gentiles who do not have the law do by nature what the law requires, they are a law unto themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that what the law requires is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness…

Natural law provides an important concept to Chivalry-Now. It affirms a process through which we find and relate to virtue that starts within ourselves. This relationship is vital to who we are, leading to a fulfilling life. It encourages us to seek truth for ourselves, and tap into the dictates of conscience, even when society points in another direction. It also provides a certain level of autonomy conducive with the experience of freedom that we refer to as the quest.

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