Chapter 1b

The Law of Nature

by Hugo Grotius

Part 12

The existence of the Law of Nature is proved by 2 kinds of arguments:

  • a priori
    • This is more abstruse method of proof
  • a posteriori
    • This is a more popular method of proof.

We reason:

  • a priori when we agree or disagree with anything with a reasonable and social nature.
  • a posteriori, when without absolute proof, but only upon probability, any thing is inferred to accord with the law of nature, because it is received as such among all, or at least the more civilized nations. For a general effect can only arise from a general cause.

Now scarce any other cause can be assigned for so general an opinion, but the common sense, as it is called, of mankind.

There is a sentence of Hesiod that has been much praised, that opinions which have prevailed amongst many nations, must have some foundation.

Heraclitus, establishing common reason as the best criterion of truth, says, those things are certain which generally appear so. Among other authorities, we may quote Aristotle, who says it is a strong proof in our favour, when all appear to agree with what we say, and Cicero maintains that the consent of all nations in any case is to be admitted for the law of nature.

Seneca is of the same opinion, any thing, says he, appearing the same to all men is a proof of its truth. Quintilian says, we hold those things to be true, in which all men agree. We have called them the more civilized nations, and not without reason. For, as Porphyry well observes, some nations are so strange that no fair judgment of human nature can be formed from them, for it would be erroneous. Andronicus, the Rhodian says, that with men of a right and sound understanding, natural justice is unchangeable. Nor does it alter the case, though men of disordered and perverted minds think otherwise.

For he who should deny that honey is sweet, because it appears not so to men of a distempered taste, would be wrong. Plutarch too agrees entirely with what has been said, as appears from a passage in his life of Pompey, affirming that man neither was, nor is, by nature, a wild unsociable creature. But it is the corruption of his nature which makes him so: yet by acquiring new habits, by changing his place, and way of living, he may be reclaimed to his original gentleness. Aristotle, taking a description of man from his peculiar qualities, makes him an animal of a gentle nature, and in another part of his works, he observes,25 that in considering the nature of man, we are to take our likeness from nature in its pure, and not in its corrupt state.

Part 13

There is another kind of right, which is the voluntary right, deriving its origin from the will, and is either human or divine.

Part 14

We will begin with the human as more generally known. Now this is either a civil right, or a right more or less extensive than the civil right. The civil right is that which is derived from the civil power. The civil power is the sovereign power of the state. A state is a perfect body of free men, united together in order to enjoy common rights and advantages.

The less extensive right, and not derived from the civil power itself, although subject to it, is various, comprehending the authority of parents over children, masters over servants, and the like. But the law of nations is a more extensive right, deriving its authority from the consent of all, or at least of many nations.

It was proper to add MANY, because scarce any right can be found common to all nations, except the law of nature, which itself too is generally called the law of nations. Nay, frequently in one part of the world, that is held for the law of nations, which is not so in another. Now this law of nations is proved in the same manner as the unwritten civil law, and that is by the continual experience and testimony of the Sages of the Law. For this law, as Dio Chrysostom well observes, is the discoveries made by experience and time. And in this we derive great advantage from the writings of eminent historians.

Part 15

The very meaning of the words divine voluntary right, shows that it springs from the divine will, by which it is distinguished from natural law, which, it has already been observed, is called divine also.

This law admits of what Anaxarchus said, as Plutarch relates in the life of Alexander, though without sufficient accuracy, that God does not will a thing, because it is just, but that it is just, or binding, because God wills it. Now this law was given either to mankind in general, or to one particular people. We find three periods, at which it was given by God to the human race, the first of which was immediately after the creation of man, the second upon the restoration of mankind after the flood,26 and the third upon that more glorious restoration through Jesus Christ. These three laws undoubtedly bind all men, as soon as they come to a sufficient knowledge of them.

XVI. Of all nations there is but one, to which God particularly vouchsafed to give laws; and that was the people of Israel, whom Moses thus addresses in the fourth Chap. of Deuteronomy, ver. 7. “What nation is there so great who hath God so nigh unto them, as the Lord our God is in all things that we call upon him for? And what nation is there so great, who have statutes and judgments so righteous, as all this law, which I set before you this day!” And the Psalmist in the cxlvii. Psalm, “God shewed his word unto Jacob, his statutes and ordinances unto Israel. He hath not dealt so with any nation, and as for his judgments they have not known them.”

Nor can we doubt but that those Jews, with whom we may class Tryphon in his dispute with Justin, are mistaken, who suppose that even strangers, if they wish to be saved, must submit to the yoke of the Mosaic Law. For a law does not bind those, to whom it has not been given. But it speaks personally to those, who are immediately under it. Hear O Israel, and we read everywhere of the covenant made with them, by which they became the peculiar people of God. Maimonides acknowledges and proves the truth of this from the xxxiii. Chapter and fourth verse of Deuteronomy.

But among the Hebrews themselves there were always living some strangers, persons devout and fearing God, such was the Syrophoenician woman, mentioned in the Gospel of St. Matthew, xv. 22. Cornelius the Centurion. Acts. x. the devout Greeks, Acts xviii. 6. Sojourners, or strangers, also are mentioned. Levit. xxv. 47. These, as the Hebrew Rabbis themselves inform us, were obliged to observe the laws given to Adam and Noah, to abstain from idols and blood, and other things, that were prohibited; but not in the same manner to observe the laws peculiar to the people of Israel. Therefore though the Israelites were not allowed to eat the flesh of a beast, that had died a natural death; yet the strangers living among them were permitted. Deut. xiv. 21.

Except in some particular laws, where it was expressly said, that strangers no less than the native inhabitants were obliged to observe them. Strangers also, who came from other countries, and were not subject to the Jewish laws, might27 worship God in the temple of Jerusalem, but standing in a place separate and distinct from the Israelites. I. Kings viii. 41. 2 Mac. iii. 35. John xii. 20. Acts viii. 27. Nor did Elisha ever signify to Naaman the Syrian, nor Jonas to the Ninevites, nor Daniel to Nebuchadnezzar, nor the other Prophets to the Tyrians, the Moabites, the Egyptians, to whom they wrote, that it was necessary for them to adopt the Mosaic Law.

What has been said of the whole law of Moses applies to circumcision, which was a kind of introduction to the law. Yet with this difference that the Israelites alone were bound by the Mosaic Law, but the whole posterity of Abraham by the law of circumcision. From hence we are informed by Jewish and Greek Historians, that the Idumaeans, or Edomites were compelled by the Jews to be circumcised. Wherefore there is reason to believe that the numerous nations, who, besides the Israelites, practised circumcision, and who are mentioned by Herodotus, Strabo, Philo, Justin, Origen, Clemens, Alexandrinus, Epiphanius, and Jerom, were descended from Ishmael, Esau, or the posterity of Keturah. But what St. Paul says, Rom. ii. 14. holds good of all other nations; that the Gentiles, not having the law, yet doing by nature the things contained in the law, become a law to themselves. Here the word nature may be taken for the primitive source of moral obligation; or, referring it to the preceding parts of the Epistle, it may signify the knowledge, which the Gentiles acquired of themselves without instruction, in opposition to the knowledge derived to the Jews from the law, which was instilled into them from their cradle, and almost from their birth. “So the Gentiles show the work, or the moral precepts of the law, written in their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts the mean while accusing or else excusing one another.” And again in the 26th ver.; “If the uncircumcision keep the righteousness of the law, shall not his uncircumcision be counted for circumcision?”

Therefore Ananias, the Jew, as we find in the history of Josephus, very properly taught Tzates, or as Tacitus calls him, Ezates, the Adiabenian, that even without circumcision, God might be rightly worshipped and rendered propitious. For though many strangers were circumcised, among the Jews, and by circumcision bound themselves to observe the law, as St. Paul explains it in Gal. v. 3.; they did28 it partly to obtain the freedom of the country; for proselytes called by the Hebrews, proselytes of righteousness, enjoyed equal privileges with the Israelites. Num. xv.: and partly to obtain a share in those promises, which were not common to mankind, but peculiar to the Jewish people, although it cannot be denied, that in later ages an erroneous opinion prevailed, that there was no salvation out of the Jewish pale. Hence we may infer, that we are bound by no part of the Levitical law, strictly and properly so called; because any obligation, beyond that arising from the law of nature, must proceed from the express will of the law-giver.

Now it cannot be discovered by any proof, that God intended any other people, but the Israelites to be bound by that law. Therefore with respect to ourselves, we have no occasion to prove an abrogation of that law; for it could never be abrogated with respect to those, whom it never bound. But the Israelites were released from the ceremonial part, as soon as the law of the Gospel was proclaimed; a clear revelation of which was made to one of the Apostles, Acts x. 15.

And the other parts of the Mosaic law lost their peculiar distinction, when the Jews ceased to be a people by the desolation and destruction of their city without any hopes of restoration. Indeed it was not a release from the law of Moses that we, who were strangers to the Commonwealth of Israel, obtained by the coming of Christ. But as before that time, our hopes in the goodness of God were obscure and uncertain, we gained the assurance of an express covenant, that we should be united in one Church with the seed of Israel, the children of the patriarchs, their law, that was the wall of separation between us, being broken down. Eph. ii. 14.

Part 17

The law given by Moses imposes no direct obligation upon us.

It shows that what it enjoins is not contrary to the law of nature.

For since the law of nature is perpetual and unchangeable, nothing contradictory to it could be commanded by God, who is never unjust. Besides the law of Moses is called in the xix. Psalm an undefiled and right law, and St. Paul, Rom. vii. 12, describes it to be holy, just, and good. Its precepts are here spoken of, for its permissions29 require a more distinct discussion. For the bare permission, signifying the removal of an impediment, or prohibition, has no relation to the present subject. A positive, legal permission is either full, granting us power to do some particular act without the least restriction, or less full, only allowing men impunity for certain actions, and a right to do them without molestation from others. From the permission of the former kind no less than from a positive precept, it follows that what the law allows, is not contrary to the law of nature.4

But with regard to the latter kind of permission, allowing impunity for certain acts, but not expressly authorizing them, we cannot so readily conclude those acts to be conformable to the law of nature.5 Because where the words of permission are ambiguous in their meaning, it is better for us to interpret according to the established law of nature, what kind of permission it is, than from our conception of its expediency to conclude it conformable to the laws of nature. Connected with this first observation there is another, expressive of the power that obtains among Christian Princes to enact laws of the same import with those given by Moses, except such as related entirely to the time of the expected Messiah, and the Gospel then unrevealed, or where Christ himself has in a general or particular manner established any thing to the contrary. For except in these three cases, no reason can be devised, why any thing established by the law of Moses should be now unlawful. In the third place it may be observed, that whatever the law of Moses enjoined relating to those virtues, which Christ required of his disciples, should be30 fulfilled by Christians now, in a greater degree, from their superior knowledge, and higher motives.

Thus the virtues of humility, patience, and charity are required of Christians in a more perfect manner than of the Jews under the Mosaic dispensation, because the promises of heaven are more clearly laid before us in the Gospel. Hence the old law, when compared with the Gospel, is said to have been neither perfect nor faultless, and Christ is said to be the end of the law, and the law our schoolmaster to bring us to Christ. Thus the old law respecting the Sabbath, and the law respecting tithes, show that Christians are bound to devote not less than a seventh portion of their time to divine worship, nor less than a tenth of their fruits to maintain those who are employed in holy things, or to other pious uses.


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