Natural law or the law of nature (Template:Lang-la) is a theory that posits the existence of a law whose content is set by nature and that therefore has validity everywhere.[1] The phrase natural law is opposed to the positive law (which is man-made) of a given political community, society, or nation-state, and thus can function as a standard by which to criticize that law.[2] In natural law jurisprudence, on the other hand, the content of positive law cannot be known without some reference to the natural law (or something like it). Used in this way, natural law can be invoked to criticize decisions about the statutes, but less so to criticize the law itself. Some use natural law synonymously with natural justice or natural right (Latin ius naturale), although most contemporary political and legal theorists separate the two.

Natural law theories have exercised a profound influence on the development of English common law,[3] and have featured greatly in the philosophies of Thomas Aquinas, Francisco Suárez, Richard Hooker, Thomas Hobbes, Hugo Grotius, Samuel von Pufendorf, John Locke and Emmerich de Vattel. Because of the intersection between natural law and natural rights, it has been cited as a component in United States Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States. The essense of Declarationism is that the founding of the United States is based on Natural law.

History Edit

The use of natural law, in its various incarnations, has varied widely through its history. There are a number of different theories of natural law, differing from each other with respect to the role that morality plays in determining the authority of legal norms. This article will deal with its usages separately rather than attempt to unify them into a single theory.


Greek philosophy emphasized the distinction between "nature" (physis, φúσις) on the one hand and "law", "custom", or "convention" (nomos, νóμος) on the other. What the law commanded varied from place to place, but what was "by nature" should be the same everywhere. A "law of nature" would therefore have had the flavor more of a paradox than something which obviously existed.[1] Against the conventionalism that the distinction between nature and custom could engender, Socrates and his philosophic heirs, Plato and Aristotle, posited the existence of natural justice or natural right (dikaion physikon, δικαιον φυσικον, Latin ius naturale). Of these, Aristotle is often said to be the father of natural law.[4]

Aristotle's association with natural law is due largely to the interpretation given to his works by Thomas Aquinas.[5] This was based on Aquinas's conflation of natural law and natural right, the latter of which Aristotle posits in Book V of the Nicomachean Ethics (Book IV of the Eudemian Ethics). Aquinas's influence was such as to affect a number of early translations of these passages,[6] though more recent translations render them more literally.[7] Aristotle notes that natural justice is a species of political justice, viz. the scheme of distributive and corrective justice that would be established under the best political community;[8] were this to take the form of law, this could be called a natural law, though Aristotle does not discuss this and suggests in the Politics that the best regime may not rule by law at all.[9]

The best evidence of Aristotle's having thought there was a natural law comes from the Rhetoric, where Aristotle notes that, aside from the "particular" laws that each people has set up for itself, there is a "common" law that is according to nature.[10] The context of this remark, however, suggests only that Aristotle advised that it could be rhetorically advantageous to appeal to such a law, especially when the "particular" law of one's own city was averse to the case being made, not that there actually was such a law;[11] Aristotle, moreover, considered two of the three candidates for a universally valid, natural law provided in this passage to be wrong.[1] Aristotle's theoretical paternity of the natural law tradition is consequently disputed.

Stoic natural lawEdit

The development of this tradition of natural justice into one of natural law is usually attributed to the Stoics. The rise of natural law as a universal system coincided with the rise of large empires and kingdoms in the Greek world.[12] Whereas the "higher" law to which Aristotle suggested one could appeal was emphatically natural, in contradistinction to being the result of divine positive legislation, the Stoic natural law was indifferent to the divine or natural source of the law: the Stoics asserted the existence of a rational and purposeful order to the universe (a divine or eternal law), and the means by which a rational being lived in accordance with this order was the natural law, which spelled out action that accorded with virtue.[1] Stoics emphasized the universal ideas of individual worth, moral duty, and universal brotherhood. These theories became highly influential among Roman jurists, and consequently played a great role in subsequent legal theory.

Christian natural lawEdit

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