natural law

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natural law,

theory that some laws are basic and fundamental to human nature and are discoverable by human reason without reference to specific legislative enactments or judicial decisions. Natural law is opposed to positive law, which is determined by humans, conditioned by history, and subject to continuous change. The concept of natural law originated with the Greeks and received its most important formulation in StoicismStoicism
, school of philosophy founded by Zeno of Citium (in Cyprus) c.300 B.C. The first Stoics were so called because they met in the Stoa Poecile [Gr.,=painted porch], at Athens, a colonnade near the Agora, to hear their master Zeno lecture.
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. The Stoics believed that the fundamental moral principles that underlie all the legal systems of different nations were reducible to the dictates of natural law. This idea became particularly important in Roman legal theory, which eventually came to recognize a common code regulating the conduct of all peoples and existing alongside the individual codes of specific places and times (see natural rightsnatural rights,
political theory that maintains that an individual enters into society with certain basic rights and that no government can deny these rights. The modern idea of natural rights grew out of the ancient and medieval doctrines of natural law, i.e.
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). Christian philosophers such as St. Thomas AquinasThomas Aquinas, Saint
[Lat.,=from Aquino], 1225–74, Italian philosopher and theologian, Doctor of the Church, known as the Angelic Doctor, b. Rocca Secca (near Naples).
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 perpetuated this idea, asserting that natural law was common to all peoples—Christian and non-Christian alike—while adding that revealed law gave Christians an additional guide for their actions. In modern times, the theory of natural law became the chief basis for the development by Hugo GrotiusGrotius, Hugo
, 1583–1645, Dutch jurist and humanist, whose Dutch name appears as Huigh de Groot. He studied at the Univ. of Leiden and became a lawyer when 15 years old. In Dutch political affairs Grotius supported Oldenbarneveldt against Maurice of Nassau.
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 of the theory of international law. In the 17th cent., such philosophers as Spinoza and G. W. von Leibniz interpreted natural law as the basis of ethics and morality; in the 18th cent. the teachings of Jean Jacques RousseauRousseau, Jean Jacques
, 1712–78, Swiss-French philosopher, author, political theorist, and composer. Life and Works

Rousseau was born at Geneva, the son of a Calvinist watchmaker.
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, especially as interpreted during the French Revolution, made natural law a basis for democratic and egalitarian principles. The influence of natural law theory declined greatly in the 19th cent. under the impact of positivismpositivism
, philosophical doctrine that denies any validity to speculation or metaphysics. Sometimes associated with empiricism, positivism maintains that metaphysical questions are unanswerable and that the only knowledge is scientific knowledge.
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, empiricismempiricism
[Gr.,=experience], philosophical doctrine that all knowledge is derived from experience. For most empiricists, experience includes inner experience—reflection upon the mind and its operations—as well as sense perception.
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, and materialismmaterialism,
in philosophy, a widely held system of thought that explains the nature of the world as entirely dependent on matter, the fundamental and final reality beyond which nothing need be sought.
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. In the 20th cent., such thinkers as Jacques MaritainMaritain, Jacques
, 1882–1973, French Neo-Thomist philosopher. He was educated at the Sorbonne and the Univ. of Heidelberg and was much influenced by the philosophy of Henri Bergson.
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 saw in natural law a necessary intellectual opposition to totalitarian theories.


See J. Maritain, The Rights of Man and Natural Law (1943, repr. 1971); J. Fuchs, Natural Law (1965); J. Stone, Human Law and Human Justice (1965); A. Battaglia, Toward a Reformulation of Natural Law (1981).

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natural law

Collins Dictionary of Sociology, 3rd ed. © HarperCollins Publishers 2000
The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Natural Law


a widespread concept of political and legal thought, denoting the aggregate or collection of principles, rules, laws, and values dictated by human nature and therefore seemingly independent of concrete social conditions and the state.

Natural law has always appeared as a value category relative to the legal order in force in a given political society and to the system of social relations consolidated by such a legal order. In views serving as apologetics this system and the existing laws are declared to be in conformity with natural law and natural justice; views calling for social transformations declare the society and its laws to be in contradiction with natural law and justice. During the long history of natural law its content has varied according to the historical conditions, as well as the social and political positions of its proponents. F. Engels noted that natural law and natural justice are the “ideologized, glorified expression of existing economic relations, now from their conservative, and now from their revolutionary angle” (K. Marx and F. Engels, Soch., 2nd ed., vol. 18, p. 273).

The idea of natural law had already developed in ancient times, especially in the classical world. It was used by the Greek Sophists and Aristotle and was central to Stoicism. Along with civil and popular law Roman jurists singled out natural law (jus naturale) as a reflection of the laws of nature and the natural order. Cicero stated that a law of the state that contradicted natural law could not be viewed as law.

During the Middle Ages natural law was primarily theological in form. It was an integral part of religious doctrine: in the teaching of Thomas Aquinas, for example, natural law is the concrete expression of divine reason guiding the world and the basis of law created by the state. Even today the idea of natural law continues to be a part of the official theological and political doctrine of the Catholic Church.

The idea of natural law had its greatest social influence in the 17th and 18th centuries as a fundamental ideological weapon in the struggle of the progressive forces of society against the feudal structure. The ideologues of the Enlightenment, such as Locke, Rousseau, Montesquieu, Diderot, P. Holbach, and A. N. Radishchev, used the idea of natural law widely to criticize the feudal orders as a contradiction of natural justice. In these views natural law was set forth as the unchanged principles of man’s nature and reason. These principles were to be embodied in laws, entailing the substitution of rule by law for rule by men (that is, absolutism). The ideas of natural law were reflected in the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen (1789), the American Declaration of Independence (1776), and other documents. During the same period (17th-18th centuries) there were attempts to justify feudal-absolutist regimes with the aid of natural law (for example, S. von Pufendorf in Germany).

With the stabilization of the capitalist order, 19th-century bourgeois ideologists renounced natural law, declaring the bourgeois system to be the only possible and just order, not requiring supralegal criteria for its justification. Positivism opposed the idea of natural law especially vigorously.

The 20th century has seen the so-called renaissance of natural law. This occurred because the transition of capitalism to the monopolistic and then the state-monopolistic stage required the reevaluation of many legal institutions, which both included natural law and was conducted with its aid. Increased consciousness of the working masses forced the bourgeois ideologists to seek popular slogans that could be directed against socialist ideas, and the theory of natural law was convenient for these purposes (for example, the rejection of private property is declared to be a violation of the fundamental principles of natural law). Since World War II natural law has been used in West Germany, Italy, and certain other countries, on the one hand, as a demarcation line to indicate a difference from fascist ideology and, on the other, as a means for hindering far-reaching social and political reforms. “Renascent natural law” is undergoing a strong influence from clericalism; it is also imparting a pragmatic character to the concept of natural law (for example, natural law “with changing content” or “natural law of a concrete situation”).

The Marxist materialist approach to law as a reflection of the economic order and political structure of class society makes superfluous the concept of natural law as a precondition for the existence and validity of existing law. In society there may be only one system of law, which is established by the state. And in its law-making activities the state is bound by the principles of a given social system, which are determined not by the “nature of man” but by the socioeconomic order and the means of production. At the same time Marxism does not consider false everything that stands behind the concept of natural law. Marxism attaches great significance to the inalienable rights of man and citizen and, in evaluating existing law, assigns an important role to ideals and values (and justice as well), considering them, however, socially conditioned, class-bound, and historically changing, not a priori categories.


Istoriia politicheskikh uchenii, 2nd ed. Moscow, 1960. Pages 213–15,
236–49, 269–327.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
References in periodicals archive ?
Today the natural law concept is closely tied to Robert P.
law, (28) and arguments grounded in natural law pervade divisive aspects
for religious liberty have invoked natural law. (12) The belief that
religiously based natural law can override positive law is resurging in
natural law suggest that their obligation to obey civil law is secondary
It should be noted at this juncture that some influential legal positivists, such as John Austin, have cast the position of natural law theory on the relationship between morality and legality as an extreme version of strong natural law theory--that all promulgated laws are necessarily moral.
Weak natural law theorists, on the other hand, interpret the morality of law as a "defectiveness condition" of law.
With the positions thus laid out, four key differences between the strong and weak natural law positions can be identified.
The strong natural law position sees a definition of law as the specification of a set of conditions that must be fulfilled--failing any of which, the precept in question is not a law at all.
Still, my own reading of Aristotle," John Deely's semiotics, and Martin Heidegger gives rise to a few exploratory ideas concerning the grasping of the natural law and the importance of "nature," which I suspect can usefully complement what already is in the literature detailing our coming to be conscious of the natural law's normative prescriptions.
These must include the first principles of practical reason, the natural law. (20)
Still, just as the compulsion to know instrumental facts for the sake of survival is loosened and backgrounded, and the quest to know for its own sake is therefore in its place, foregrounded, so also, as we experience a greater detachment from other drives instrumental to our biological survival and related principally to our biological needs (or what Deely calls "cathexis" (22)), we then grasp more clearly the normative direction of the natural law or the first principles of practical reason--namely, the gentler but no less important direction to pursue other goods in life for their own sakes and as intelligible ends understood as terminal reasons for action and not as mere emotions or feelings.

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