Archive Authors E.J. Hutchinson Natural Law Nota Bene Philosophy

Authority and Truth, “Law” and Law

In the dedicatory epistle to his De lege naturae, Niels Hemmingsen remarks that some might say that, because of the existence of contradictory laws among various commonwealths, justice is a matter of opinion, not nature. In most instances, then, it would be the opinion of the strong that would determine justice, because the strong would be in the position of power whence legislation comes.

But Hemmingsen, drawing on Plato’s Socrates, says it is not so. “Law” is not just any rule that happens to be made by the stronger. If this were the case, there could be no objective standard for justice; all would hang on someone else’s Wille zur Macht; he would dominate the rest; justice and law would be the will of the stronger. The alternative is to hold that there is a higher standard than power. Justice actually exists; man did not make it, and his man-made laws must conform to it.To truly deserve the name, then, laws must be in accordance with the truth of things as they actually are. The responsible legislator is a “discoverer of the truth.”

But Plato’s Socrates wisely contends that the opinion of these people is most false. For he affirms that just things are just, honorable things are honorable; and, on the other hand, that unjust things are unjust, and shameful things are shameful–and that this [holds] everywhere and among all people; and he defines law as being, not the opinion of men, but τοῦ ὄντος εὕρησιν, that is, the discovery of the truth. For the name of law is rightly given only to that law which has not only the authority of princes and magistrates, but also (and this is much more important) relies on reason [ratio] firm and unmoved.

This reason ought not to be sought from anywhere else than from two [sources], namely, from nature itself, and from the end [fine] of the law. In nature itself are certain seeds of the just and the honorable, besides the faculty of judgment, by which just and honorable things may be preferred to unjust and shameful ones. From these seeds arise laws that are intended for the soundness of the commonwealth (a soundness that does not deviate from its ultimate end) to which all things are properly referred. Whatever laws have been erected in this way, these alone deserve to be called “laws,” and not just any decrees whatever of tyrants or prescriptions of the powerful.1

On Hemmingsen, see further here, here, here, here, and here.


  1. The translation is my own.

By E.J. Hutchinson

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

One reply on “Authority and Truth, “Law” and Law”

Comments are closed.