Archive E.J. Hutchinson Natural Law Nota Bene

Hemmingius on the Divine Law of Nature

Last week I quoted from the dedicatory epistle of Nicolaus Hemmingius’ De lege naturae apodictica methodus (“Demonstrative Method Concerning the Law of Nature”). In this post, I give his “complete and just” definition of the law of nature from early on in the treatise proper. In his definition, it is clear that this law is universal, teleological (“the proper end of man”), divine, and accessed through the organ of conscience.1

Now that these things have been thus briefly noted, I shall compose a just and complete definition, this way: the law of nature is a sure knowledge, imprinted on the minds of men by God [divinitus], of the principles of thinking and acting, and of the conclusions proved from these principles which are in agreement with the proper end of man – these conclusions reason constructs from the principles, by necessary consequence, for the government of human life, so that man may recognize, want, choose, do the things that are right, and avoid their opposites; and, as the witness and judge of all these things, the conscience [conscientia] has been bestowed on man by God [divinitus] .

Because it is divine, he notes that everyone who rebels against it is in rebellion against God himself (which, for Hemmingius, is specifically the God of the Christian faith). To characterize such rebels, he applies to them the name “God-fighters” [θεόμαχοι], an epithet appropriate to, for instance, Pentheus in Euripides’ Bacchae (to take just one classical example).

Next, this same origin will remind us that, as whatever is done according to this law is done correctly, so every violation of this law seems to fight not only with nature, but also with God Himself. For this reason, those who perversely transgress the limits of this law are said by the ancient philosophers to “fight against God” [θεομαχεῖν]; from this word also those who, having cast this law aside, have lived according to their own lust, are called “God-fighters” [θεόμαχοι].

How do we know that he is thinking specifically of a law “instituted” by the God of the Christians? He makes it clear in the next paragraph, where man’s rebellion against the law of nature is attributed specifically to Adam’s fall into sin; and all those who, through sin, violate this law are subject to the judgment of God.

Here the human perversity that followed the fall of our first parents must be lamented. For it is the outcome of that fall that the obstinacy and rebellion of men against this law of God is so great. Sun, moon, and all the stars obey the divine ordering, and they complete, according to the law imposed upon them, their course in the predetermined amount of time; man, placed in the midst [of these things] as a sort of investigator, alone is prosecuted unto condemnation for obstinacy, as one who does not wish to be subject to divine law and ordering. So great is the perversity, so great the obstinacy of men against the maker of nature.


  1. All translations are my own.

By E.J. Hutchinson

E.J. Hutchinson is Assistant Professor of Classics at Hillsdale College.