From a recent review by Jeff Mirus of Catholic Culture of John Lawrence Hill's book After the Natural Law: How the Classical Worldview Supports Our Modern Moral and Political Views (Ignatius Press, 2016):
We live and move and have our being today in what we might call the aftermath of the natural law. We have become once again culture-bound, and our culture denies the pervasive evidence for the natural law in favor of philosophies which serve particular passions, mostly having to do with a flight from God, the pursuit of power and wealth, and the unquenchable desire for utopia, by which we mean a world made in our own image.
How has this come about? How was such a great synthesis, forged over nearly two thousand years of brilliant thought and insight, torn apart over the next seven hundred years, leaving us with essentially nothing? The question is pertinent, for the “nothing” that we have now inherited looks surprisingly like the nothings that were being proposed in ancient Greece before the great Western philosophical tradition began to develop.
Talk about going back to the future! If we go back far enough we arrive at where we are today, imagining the twin deceptions of “no matter and never mind”. Either everything is materialistically determined (never mind) or everything is whatever we project it to be based on our desires (no matter). Given the intellectual achievements of our past history, it is astonishing that in the twenty-first century we have no greater grip on reality than had the Greeks before Socrates! (And no greater than the pagans before Christ.) Perhaps it is time to freshly examine how Western civilization escaped despair and futility in the first place, and to reconsider what went wrong.
Fortunately, we now have a clear and readable book which does exactly this, exploring the rise and decline of the quintessentially Western understanding of reality beginning in the sixth century before Christ. In some 275 luminous pages, John Lawrence Hill of the Indiana University School of Law connects all the dots with such clarity of thought and expression that the subject matter, which readers might otherwise find confusing, is always deeply engaging. The book was published this year by Ignatius Press. Its title is After the Natural Law: How the Classical Worldview Supports Our Modern Moral and Political Values.
Hill gives us not only Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Aquinas and the other great contributors to the Western synthesis, but also William of Ockham, Descartes, Locke, Hobbes, Mill, Kant and others who largely dismantled it, without solving the problems it had so successfully addressed. The story is riveting because it explores the fundamentals of human existence—the very fundamentals we are so desperate to grasp today. Can we know reality? If so, is there such a thing as truth? Do we have a purpose? If so, are we capable of choosing our ends and means in any meaningful way? Are we free merely for nothingness? Or are we free at all?
But no matter how many factors one identifies, the progress of civilization remains a mystery. A full understanding of the ebb and flow of the human grasp of truth, including religious faith, remains hidden in the workings of Divine Providence. This makes it even more helpful to focus on the path followed by the ideas characteristic of the Western synthesis, the better to grasp how we should start thinking about things now. Again, it is precisely this story of rise and fall—of construction and deconstruction—that Hill tells with such admirable clarity.
Even better, what we see in this account is that hope is not lost. Quite the contrary. Not only does Hill enlighten in a wholly positive and encouraging way, but he also knows that those who have pronounced the Natural Law dead have made a premature diagnosis. In fact, quite a number of scholars have been quietly at work on a significant reconstruction for the past fifty years. It is true that the loss of meaning that characterizes Western intellectual life today is still pervasive, but there is rapidly growing energy on the other side—even as those who have abandoned meaning drift slowly into irrelevance.
I do not know the future, but I think it can be glimpsed in this welcome and even remarkable book. After the Natural Law is a brilliant lesson in intellectual history, but it is also much more. It is a vision of meaning, and a marking of the path that leads to it.