Archive Civic Polity E.J. Hutchinson Natural Law Philosophy Reformed Irenicism

Natural Knowledge Still Requires Teaching

If one holds to some version of natural law or a natural knowledge of the virtuous and the vicious, it might seem to imply that nothing else is required for virtuous action. I mean, we all know what “the good” is, right?

Well, yes and no.

Affirming that everyone knows the distinction between right and wrong–what should be pursued and what should be avoided–does not mean that everyone has a perfect understanding of that distinction, or that one’s capacity to deploy the distinction is fully formed at birth, and needs only the opportunity for action, such that right action will necessarily follow. This is not the case, even when one leaves aside the thorny problem of original sin and inherited corruption.

Philip Melanchthon, drawing on aspects of Aristotelianism and Stoicism, approaches the problem as follows in his Ethica doctrinae elementa (Building-Blocks of Ethical Teaching):

Melanchthon agrees with Aristotle that virtue is habit (this might come as a surprise to some, since he was at the same time busy inventing modernity, secularism, relativism, and strip malls). And what leads to habits are appropriate actions–the actions that habituate one to virtue.

Such causes are for Melanchthon of two kinds: efficient causes (αἴτια) and helping causes (συναίτια, συνεργά).

The efficient causes of virtue secundum philosophiam (“according to philosophy”) are right judgment and a free will obedient to right judgment.

The helping causes are of three kinds. Melanchthon says:

The helping causes, or συναίτια, are the following three things: teaching, natural impulses, and discipline. For just as in the case of the arts there is need of these helping causes, so too there is in the case of morals. No one learns architecture without teaching. For although we possess certain principles by nature, nevertheless those very natural notions [naturales notitiae] must be aroused and elucidated by teaching. Among those nations, therefore, where the light of teaching has been extinguished or is still extinguished, natural knowledge [naturalis notitia] is also obscured–just as the Spartans were allowing husbands to barter for their wives.1

Melanchthon’s position on the relation of knowledge and virtue is, in other words, dynamic. There are certain principles or notions than are innate in human beings as created in the image of God (discussed earlier in the work), but these must be developed in time by instruction (in this post, I do not treat the other two helping causes, natural inclination and discipline).

Indeed, for that very reason God promulgated the Law, Melanchthon says: the Law had already been “written in nature,” but it is aided by the instruction provided in revelation, which gives testimony that “natural notions congruent with the divine Word are the Law of God.”

In sum, natural law is not a magical fix-it that avails ex opere operato for the solution of all ethical dilemmas; it is not a decoder-ring. God, for Melanchthon, has implanted certain principles and lineaments of the virtuous–sketches, if you like–in the human mind as a reflection of and participation in the divine mind. But man, as a temporal creature who exists in the realm of becoming and not of absolute being, needs the helps that are a corollary of existing in the realm of becoming: he needs his natural capacities and natural knowledge to be further educated. Such education in virtue is an aid in the process of habituation. And far from being a defect–a necessary evil, if you will forgive the paradox; the medicine that must go down whether you get a spoonful of sugar or not–it is a genuine good that is part and parcel of creaturely contingency.

As a genuine creaturely good, then, the teaching of virtue should be prized and promoted, Melanchthon believes–and this not only in schools, but in the church as well. It is a fit subject for both, and the content in each context should be the same, even if the method utilized in the church is not (or, at least, is not always) the same as that used in the school–or so Melanchthon would contend. Far from seeing a radical disjunction between what the church “knows” and what civil society “knows” in the field of ethics, he sees them as (ideally, at any rate) coherent. In other words, he thinks that Christian society is a thing, in which church and school–theology and philosophy–can serve each other.

  1. CR 16: 185. The translation is my own.

By E.J. Hutchinson

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