Sunday, August 17, 2008

Book Review: Written on the Heart: The Case for Natural Law, by J. Budziszewski

I really looked forward to reading this book and wanted to like it. The title implies that a strong case will be made that all humanity has a natural moral sense that unites most people no matter where they lived or how isolated they were throughout history. This is a hugely important topic because it is under attack by many in the secular world who do not see this law written on their hearts. It is too bad that this book is not more focused on that main issue. Instead it deals more broadly, discussing the ideas of natural law philosophers like Aristotle, Thomas Aquinas and John Locke, while also dealing with the challenge posed by John Stuart Mill in the 19th century. The book ends with a brief discussion of contemporary philosophers in the natural law tradition or in its immediate orbit.

What this book lacked was a focus on the main issue which the title raises. Dealing with Aristotle’s and Aquinas’s conception of the ideal government is interesting but it doesn’t immediately address the issue in the title. So while one may be still questioning what natural law is and if it exists, we are treated a discussion on the nature of government by philosophers who are already assuming that natural law exists. Given our current cultural climate and the title of the book, defending the claim that there is a natural law should take precedent.

Despite this complaint, I found that the book was well written. If I hadn’t already studied Aristotle, Locke and Mill in college I would have found it much more fascinating, as I found the part about Aquinas (whom I don’t know much about) fascinating. Since this book is more wide-ranging than I wished it to be, I will keep the rest of the review focused only on the narrow topic of the existence of natural law. (I did study political philosophy in depth in college but I will refrain from speaking of government.)

J’s (his last name is just too long) defense of natural law begins at the beginning, which happens to be Aristotle. The natural law for Aristotle could be accessed through the data we have from our sea of moral intuitions which are expressed in common opinion. Just as I have to measure the desk in front of me to find out its dimensions, I have to look to inner data to discover moral truth. Of course, he didn’t just assume that common opinion or everyone’s inner intuitions are true but uses these to ascend to truth by questioning and applying logical reasoning. Aristotle’s method here seems so commonsensical to me that I find that it hardly needs to be said. This goes to show either how much Aristotle has influenced me or how much I have come to the same conclusions as him in this respect.

Unless one is interested in political philosophy one shouldn’t read this book. To get more into the topic of the title, perhaps a sampling the world’s religious and moral texts would help. Reading C.S. Lewis’ The Abolition of Man. Peter Kreeft, a Catholic philosopher, recommends (shockingly) the Pope. To be quite honest most of this book builds castles in the air based on heavily disputed foundations. They are good looking castles, built by the most awesome philosophers like Aristotle and Aquinas, but they are castles in the air nonetheless. I guess I was hoping for something more substantial from this author.

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