Book Review: Written on the Heart: The Case for Natural Law by J. Budziszewski
How should we approach the question of the nature and limit of government? Should the government enforce morality? And how does the theory of natural law tie in with these questions? In his book Written on the Heart: The Case for Natural Law, J. Budziszewski takes readers through the major players in the fields of philosophy and ethics, and he triumphantly demonstrates how natural law helps us in answering our modern political and ethical questions.
This book is divided into five units in which Budziszewski devotes the first four units to Aristotle, Thomas Aquinas, John Locke, and John Stuart Mill, respectively. The last unit is spent defending a Christian view of natural law and how recent thinkers have taken and applied the natural law tradition to contemporary issues.
Budziszewski wastes no time diving right into unit one and Aristotle’s take on the human good and our role in politics. In the first chapter, much ground is quickly covered. First, a brief explanation of the four causes and how they’re applied to a city is given, followed by a series of objections and answers. Next, Budziszewski brings us to a discussion of the highest human good, which Aristotle takes to be happiness. He points out that there are two qualities to this highest good: “other goods would be sought for its sake” and “it would be sought for its own sake” (19)
But which definition of happiness do we speak of? There are four definitions that must be worked through in order to find the right one: pleasure, honor, virtue, and bodily and external goods. Budziszewski thinks it lies closer to happiness being as further, but he suspends judgment as he moves on to end the chapter on a discussion of goodness.
Much of the discussion in chapter two is centered upon the discussion of virtues, Aristotle’s doctrine of the mean, and its application to societies and regimes. From this discussion, Budziszewski springs into chapter three and zones in on justice and morality in society. Explaining Aristotle’s view of Justice, Budziszewski writes, “Aristotle considers three main kinds of justice: (1) justice in the complete sense, which is obedience to law, (2) justice in the partial sense, which is fairness in the allotment of goods and (3) political justice, the civic arrangement that exists among people who are free and equal under law.” (39).
From this, Budziszewski makes the connection between Aristotle’s view of justice and friendship. Basically, in fostering friendships in which “people are alike in excellence or virtue” and “practice fairness,” there will be “no need of justice” since society will be functioning as a property community (42-43).
Unit II is probably the chapter most sought after by those who are interested in Aquinas’s natural law. Budziszewski begins the unit by explaining how Aquinas’s Treatise on Law is written. This very helpful for those who want to go to the primary source text and sift through it to study natural law.
Additionally, Budziszewski also takes a few pages to break down the jargon that Aquinas uses in his Treatise. He explains terms such as substance, virtue, and habit, to name a few (56-58). Readers are left with some friendly advice that encourages readers to not despair, because “if you read the Treatise on Law enough times, each time more closely than the time before […] then little by little, like a light growing brighter and brighter until everything is illuminated, that which is clear in itself becomes clear to you” (59).
With that said, Budziszewski guides readers through a brief explanation of the eternal law, natural law, divine law, human law, and the law of sin. He even includes a few handy charts that help readers see how the different laws are connected to each other. The natural law, as Budziszewski explains, is “the reflection of eternal law in the very structure of the created mind, directing us to our natural good” (Budziszewski’s emphasis 61).
In chapter five, Budziszewski responds to the most common objections ran against natural law. For example, one objection is that there are multiple theories of natural law, and because of that there doesn’t seem to be some objective moral principle. Budziszewski points out that all the natural law theories do “agree about its basic content,” and they only differ concerning “secondary things” (65). The remainder of the chapter ends with a closer inspection of some troubling aspects of question 94 of the Treatise on Law, and with a discussion of the purpose of the human law.
The next chapter is devoted to human law and its role in political philosophy. Budziszewski some important questions that deal directly with the way things are ran in our government and how citizens interact with the law of government. For example, what should one do when there’s an unjust law? Are an individual justified in just disobeying the law? Yes and no. Budziszewski explains how Aquinas approaches this situation. First, he points out that a law can be unjust in two ways. He writes, “[unjust laws] may be harmful to human beings in either of two ways: it may undermine either their natural or their supernatural good–either their temporal or eternal well-being” (81).
When responding to unjust laws that violate our temporal well-being, Budziszewski, following Aquinas, advises that one does “not have to obey, except perhaps if disobedience would cause either scandal or disturbance” (81). The reason for that exception, Budziszewski continues, is because we must be mindful of our neighbors and the community in such a way that we don’t lead others to sin by acting in “violence, disorder, danger, or confusion” (81). Other questions such as “Can the laws be changed?” and “What is the relation between law and custom?” are also dealt with in the chapter.
Unit III is slightly different from the first two units in the sense that Locke’s modern view is somewhat disconnected from the ancient and medieval views that readers are exposed to earlier in the book. Budziszewski commences with a brief biographical and contextual sketch of Locke’s ideas and life. In discussing Locke’s biography, Budziszewski makes an interesting point on how some scholars will abuse the biography of some person by presenting their “beliefs as though they were merely the product of his life and times” (101). Examples of Augustine, Luther, and other writers are used to explain this point, and Budziszewski concludes by admonishing scholars and readers to take the arguments where they lead.
The remainder of the chapter is spent on a discussion on the target audience of Locke’s writings–with the main target of Locke’s writings being the royalist Robert Filmer (103). This discussion, of course, is important because Budziszewski is putting the writings of Locke into context, and one is able to get an idea of what Locke’s intent was when writing.
The next chapter is one of importance since this is where the natural law theory of Locke and Aquinas are compared side by side. One difference that’s highlighted is the fact that Locke’s natural law comes as a result of a deduction, whereas Aquinas holds that natural law precepts are such that they can’t not be known (108). Next, Budziszewski links the new natural law theory and it’s problems, which are espoused by Locke and other moderns, to the Protestant reformation. Instead of the natural law being something everyone can know, the Protestant reformation, as Budziszewski explains, gave us a “bleak” picture of human nature due to our corruption due to sin (109-110). Thus, either one rejects “natural law and [relies] on scripture alone” or one has to “reinterpret natural law” (110-111). In the remainder of the chapter, Budziszewski describes a few problems that plague Locke’s conception of natural law, and he explains Locke’s view of a just war.
Chapter nine contains a summary and analysis of Locke’s argument for private property. Locke’s basic argument is that since the earth belongs to God, and God gave it to humanity as a gift, then by someone “mixing their labor with something” one gets to claim that something as property. Budziszewski fleshes this idea out a bit more and he also introduces Locke’s view of money and how that influences trade and private property. Eventually, Budziszewski leads the discussion of private property up to Locke’s view of revolution. Revolution, for Locke, is the appropriate response to a tyrannical rule, whereas Aquinas thinks prayer is (131). Both thinkers agree, however, that it should be left to God, albeit Locke’s idea of “leaving it to God” is quite different than Aquinas’s. Locke thinks that for there to be a revolution there must be good reasons for it. His approach, Budziszewski points out, mirrors the principles of just war, except that in this case it’s being applied to a revolution against a tyrannical government.
Unit IV covers a philosopher who stands in contrast to Locke, Aristotle, and Aquinas. That philosopher is John Stuart Mill. Because Mill sees pleasure as the greatest good of human beings, Budziszewski suggests that there is a superficial similarity between Mill, Aristotle, and Aquinas in that the latter two hold to happiness. But while Aristotle and Aquinas think that happiness is “something we do” and is something different from pleasure, Mill thinks happiness is pleasure, and Budziszewski points out a number of differences between their conceptions of happiness (141).
It’s in the next chapter that Budziszewski really demonstrates the problems inherent in the “pleasure principle” and utilitarianism. Some of the problems associated with utilitarianism include the impossibility of performing the utilitarian calculus for every actions (145), the difficulty of measuring particular pleasures (146), and the fact that utilitarianism has no real basis for intrinsically good or evil acts (148). Some of Mill’s responses to these objections are presented, but in the end, Budziszewski demonstrates that each of the replies are far from being satisfactory. For instance, in reply to the impossibility of performing the utilitarian calculus, Mill attempts to establish rule and act utilitarianism based on the fact that human beings have been around long enough to know what brings pleasure and what doesn’t. But Budziszewski points out that if utilitarianism is such that it denies that there is a “fixed human nature,” then it would make no sense to appeal to tradition since people could change from generation to generation, and thus “utilitarianism would have to be redone form the ground up” (150). Thus utilitarianism remains a problematic position.
Readers of this review might be tempted to ask, “Well, where does Budziszewski break down natural law into a bite sized piece?” Well, natural law and its applications are sprinkled through the book and it’s seen in the comparisons between Aquinas, Aristotle, and Mill, to its basic application to government and law. It’s in the final unit that Budziszewski explains and defend his position on natural law, and he does so in such a way that Christianity comes first and plays a major role.
One question that Budziszewski himself raises is “Why [should a Christian] be interested in natural law at all?” (180). If the Christian already has scripture, which is God’s instructions to humanity about knowing God, doing right, etc., then why natural law? Budziszewski answers that even scripture appeals to a natural law–namely, that there is a testimony from creation, we are designed a particular way, and that there is a “law of conscience” written on the hearts of men (180-181). Budziszewski explores these scriptural elements in detail, and he does take into account the fall. Grace, he adds, is an important element in the natural law as well. Because of the fall, mankind has been trying to erase or mask the law written on man’s heart. But because we’re made in God’s image, Budziszewski concludes that it’s the case that the law cannot be entirely erased, and thus we will have some idea about it even through our sinful nature. We need grace because if we’re truly to participate in the eternal law through natural law, we need to be put in a position in which we can meet with God, so to speak. Budziszewski puts it this way,
In sum, the very heart on which God has written his law is estranged from itself. Jeremiah laments that it is ‘deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?’ (Jeremiah 17:9 NIV). Indeed it needs to be written upon again, this time with transforming power (31:33). Until this is accomplished, by grace through faith in Jesus Christ, we discern the law of God more through the consequences of its violation than through the witness of clear conscience. (182).
The final two chapters are just a quick overview and commentary on thinkers and philosophers who held to some tradition of natural law–Aristotle, Aquinas, and Locke. The last chapter, however, is a look at the most recent developments of natural law as seen in Catholic, Jewish, Protestant, and Secular circles.
Budziszewski’s book is a very crisp and clear treatment of natural law that is conversational and written at a level that’s very accessible to laymen, while retaining substance and key concepts. Moreover, Budziszewski is very gracious and genuine in his tone when treating objections and pointing out the problems in other systems. Every chapter ends with reflection questions that give readers a bit more to chew on while they wrestle mentally with what they’ve just learned. Budziszewski is very upfront about his position on certain matters, and he clearly carries himself as a strong Christian whose goal is to glorify Christ. Lastly, another good aspect of this book is that Budziszewski includes an appendix at the end that serves as a primer on the basic of reasoning, logic, and logical fallacies. Budziszewski certainly accomplishes what he sets out to do–to provide an intellectually rich view of natural law–and many will benefit from reading his book Written on the Heart.
Apologetics 315 Book Reviewer David Rodriguez is a student at San Diego State University and is majoring in philosophy with a minor in biology. His primary philosophical interests include ethics, philosophy of religion, epistemology and medieval philosophy. In addition to philosophy, David has a keen interest in theology and medieval history. He is currently concerned with pursuing a career in bioethics. His webpages are www.walkingchristian.com and Ad Dei Gloriam.