Root of Natural Law

Roots of Natural Law

  • The roots of Natural Law can be dated back to the Greek (8th – 6th C BC) and Roman era (27th BC to 476 AD).
  • However, the two man roots of Aquinas’ Natural Law lie in Aristotelian work and the Stoics. 


The Stoics existed in the 3rd C and they emphasized the importance of ‘logos’ (rationality that governs the world and sees human nature as part of one natural order). They believed that Natural Law is the Law formed by right reason. Right reason only serves its own ends and is not corrupted into serving special interests. This right reason helps humans to judge whether or not they want to follow a divine spark which existed in them. Being Pantheist they said humans have a divine spark within them which right reason helps them to follow.


Aristotle believed that we can judge the extent to which an action is good by seeing if it helps us to attain our ultimate good. It is difficult to see what our ultimate good is, it is not like maths. Higher social activities which other animals cannot do are ones which should be fulfilled in order to live a well functioning life. He also believed reason was key in working out ethics, this he called practical ethics. In ethics, Aristotle claimed, we go from ‘true but obscure judgements’ to general ethical principles (see parallel with primary and secondary principles). We can work out these principles by comparing to what extent they help us to achieve our ultimate good. 

In summary: Everything has a purpose and by fulfilling it we can reach our supreme good – eudaimonia.

Aquinas came along and identified three crucial things from Aristotle and the Stoics which he married with ideas of Christian Theology to create Natural Law theory. Those three points were:

  1. Human beings have an essential rational nature given by God in order for us to live and flourish.
  2. Even without knowledge of God, reason can discover the laws that lead to human flourishing.
  3. The Natural Laws are universal and unchangeable and should be used to judge the laws of particular societies.

Aquinas believed our telos isn’t eudaimonia buy rather perfection. We should strive for this because we are made in the image and likeness of God. Furthermore, for Aquinas this isn’t something which can be achieved in this life but rather starting in this life and continuing through to  the next.

Natural Law helps us to fulfil our telos of perfection and this in itself will help to live a fulfilled life and flourish.

Aquinas said that humans have a natural inclination to do good and avoid evil. Hence, he distinguished between real and apparent good. As no human would for this reason knowingly commit an evil action, he said people are evil unknowingly. They are following “apparent good” (something which seems to be good or the right thing to do but does not fit with the perfect human ideal). A “real good” on the other hand is the right thing to do, it fits the human ideal. 

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