Tracing the Origin of Natural Law & Equal Rights in Western Thought

The law of loving your neighbor as yourself written on the tablet of the heart by God

In Chapter 9 of Tom Holland’s book, Dominion: the Making of the Western Mind, he traces the idea of natural law back to 1150 AD when a lawyer named Gratian compiled the first canon of law in the west. His work (the Decretum Gratiani, as it came to be called) was derived from and Scripture and the writings of the early church fathers. It was an attempt at comprehensive harmonization of those two sources.

The original notion of natural law came from the Stoics: “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.” Gratian syncretized the Stoic notion of natural law (the law of nature) by attributing it to divine origins which he found in the nation of law written on men’s hearts, summarized as the law of loving your neighbor as yourself.

Holland observed that for a millennia Christianity existed without “what Muslim lawyers had long taken for granted – a comprehensive body of written rulings supposedly deriving from God Himself”. Holland is struck by the contrast of the Christian notion that God “wrote His rulings on the human heart”.

Holland first picks up that theme in his book with Saint Augustine of Hippo in Chapter 5. Hollands description of Augustine’s words – that “God writes His laws on the heart,” and, therefore, “Love, and do what you like” – is a theme Holland traces as he finds it in the history of western thought.

So, again, Holland picks up on the fact that Gratian opened his Decretum Gratiani (as it came to be called) with the statement that all law can be summed up in a single command: love your neighbor as yourself. Gratian called this idea “natural law”, summarized by the statement, “all souls are equal in the sight of God”. Gratian identified this principal to be the foundation stone of true justice.

Holland mistakenly attributes the notion to Paul (“Paul’s authority on this score was definitive…. [e]choing the Stoics”) and finds Gratian’s syncretism of the law a decisive departure from earlier ages:

“Much flowed from this compilation that earlier ages would have struggled to comprehend. Age old presumptions were being decisively overturned – that custom was the ultimate authority, that the great were owed a different justice from the humble, that inequality was something natural and to be taken for granted.”

This is the central theme of Holland’s book – “How the Christian Revolution Remade the World” (its alternate title). His book is an attempt to trace back the roots of modern notions, such as the idea that people have “equal rights” stemming from natural law (“inalienable rights”) that fundamentally inform modern, western thought.  

Holland notes that these ideas do not flow out of Greek or Roman philosophy or law. They were are much foreign to the world of classic Greco-Roman thought. They are definitively Christian – Judeo-Christian – in their origins.

Holland, of course, is an atheist. He comes to these conclusions through his study of western civilization. He is an “outsider” to Christianity, which perspective makes his observations so interesting – the that he picks up on the novelty of these ideas as being a distinctively Christian departure from classical Greco-Roman thought.

He also wrote Dominion coming off the heels of writing a similar work on the history of Islam. The contrast was striking for him. Whereas Islamic scholars attempted to proscribe laws for every detail of human life, including things like how to brush your teeth and dog ownership, Christians distilled law down to a single phrase – love your neighbor as yourself – and rested in the confidence that God writes His laws on people’s hearts (“not in ink” as Augustine said). The influence of Holland’s awareness of that contrast is striking.

It shouldn’t be surprising, coming from his perspective, that Holland doesn’t get things exactly right. When Augustine focused on love, he wasn’t championing anything new, and Paul was not the source of the notion that the law can be summed up in the phrase, love your neighbor as yourself or the belief that God writes His laws on human hearts. While he might attribute these things to Paul and Augustine, the history is much older and deeper than that.

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