Issues analysis
Natural law and conservatism
Fred Hutchison, RenewAmerica analyst
August 10, 2009

Natural law is a vital part of the conservative intellectual heritage. Among the five ancient kinds of conservatism, natural law is the second oldest. Natural law ideas were vital to the American founding fathers.

In this essay, we shall enter the modern era through the natural law of G. K. Chesterton and C. S. Lewis, and through these outstanding Christians, demonstrate the compatibility of Christianity and natural law.

Natural Law and the 5 kinds of conservatism

The five kinds of conservatism are listed below in order of their first known historical appearance:

1) Traditionalist conservatism as inspired by Hesiod's mythical golden age (8th century B.C.).

2) Natural law philosophy as expounded in elemental form by Aristotle (4th century B. C). Roman stoics such as Cicero and Marcus Aurelius, developed natural law principles and a universal moral law based on nature (1st century B.C. — 2nd century A.D.). Natural law theory was perfected by St. Thomas Aquinas in the 13th century.

3) Neo-conservatism for the world of imperial Rome by Virgil (1st century B.C.).

4) Christian conservatism (1st century A.D.). The perfect agreement of Apostles' Creed (2nd century), the Nicene Creed (4th century), and the Augsburg Confession (16th century) illustrates the astonishing continuity and stability of the doctrinal orthodoxy of Christianity — which is the very essence of Christian conservatism.

5) Libertarianism as per Thomas Hobbes (17th century). Hobbes had an extremely individualistic view of natural law and came up with a formula for proto-libertarianism. Some of the proto-libertarians morphed into "classical liberals" in the 18th century. They adopted the natural law ideas of Grotius, Locke, and Montesquieu, and the classical economics of Adam Smith and perhaps also the individualistic pragmatism of Benjamin Franklin.

Several of the founding fathers were classical liberals. Their views of natural law were metaphysically deeper and more harmonious and balanced than that of proto-libertarians like Thomas Paine and Patrick Henry. Revolutionary fervor was stoked by proto-libertarians like Paine and Henry. However, the U.S. Constitution, written mainly by James Madison, a classical liberal, was a masterpiece of mature and harmonious natural law principles.

Now let us skip forward to the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Natural law vs. positive law

Natural law was generally assumed to be the proper basis of legislative law in the 19th century. It was "the law above the law." It has been seriously challenged and almost eclipsed by a rival theory of law in the 20th century — namely, "positive law" or "legal realism," which simply means that man makes up his own law. Instead of consulting universal principles, man consults his own needs, wants, and agendas, or the changing norms of the society in which he lives.

Positive law advocates fancy that they are realistic about the contemporary world, but they are not. They are blown about by popular fads — and therefore are uniquely out of touch with the world.

One might suppose that ideological, agenda-driven politics — like that of President Obama's administration — would have a certain stability and continuity in policy matters. Yet no administration has ever been blown about by changing winds like this one. In contrast, natural law is immune to fads and changing winds, yet provides a stable vantage point from which to view the contemporary scene.

Positive law and judicial activism

The legal revolution in which positive law replaced natural law preceded and facilitated judicial activism and progressive agendas to remake society through law.

I must disagree with the venerable and learned Judge Bork on this point of legal history. In The Tempting of America (1990), the venerable judge pointed to spectacular early cases in American legal history in which judges overstepped their bounds. He gloomily concluded that the subversion of the legal system started early and corrupted the whole system. Not so. As a whole, 19th century judges followed judicial precedent and stayed within constitutional bounds. This contrasts favorably with the judicial activism of the 20th century. The judge is correct that the examples of early judicial activism that he cited are outrageous, but these are the exceptions, not the general practice of the judges of the day.

The telling difference is that 19th century jurists as a whole were grounded in natural law and 20th century jurists were increasingly attracted to positive law. A judge is first corrupted by positive law and then lawlessly defies precedent and steps beyond constitutional boundaries.

Every legal positivist has a built-in hostility to the Constitution — because the Constitution is redolent with natural law — and natural law is a rebuke to positive law. The secret motive of activist judges is not to produce a "living Constitution" as they claim, but to destroy the Constitution. If this had been understood by our GOP senators, they would not have put up such a weak resistance to the confirmation of Judge Sonia Sotomayor for Supreme Court.

We shall not decisively win the war against judicial activism or progressive social engineering until we defeat positive law and restore natural law. The "original intent" school of constitutional law is a step in the right direction, because it exposes the jurist to natural law ideas built into the Constitution. Original intent judges have to study the Federalist Papers and Blackwell's Commentaries to understand what Madison meant by certain words and phrases in the Constitution. Such studies are an education in both traditionalist and natural law thinking. Now we need to bring natural law into legislation in Congress and in state legislatures.

Chesterton: no stealing allowed in any universe

In the early 20th century, the jurist Oliver Wendell Holmes was the most famous proponent of positive law. G. K. Chesterton and C. S. Lewis were very popular proponents of natural law.

Chesterton's fictional detective, Father Brown, was a like a Christian Sherlock Homes. He was on the trail of Flambeau, a criminal mastermind. Before Father Brown solved a case against Flambeau, he debated Flambeau about natural law versus positive law. Flambeau speculated that there are many worlds in the starry heavens and that each one has a different moral law. Father Brown replied that every one of those worlds has a mortar board, "Thou shalt not steal." In this way, Father Brown emphasized the universality of natural law and rejected cultural relativism. His terse comments rebuked Flambeau for being a thief. His comments also rebuked him for temporizing the immorality of his thefts by using the relativistic philosophy of positive law.

Flambeau is representative of a long line of rascals who have argued for positive law to provide a place to hide from their guilty conscience. Natural law is written in the human heart, and human laws based on natural law sting the conscience. In contrast, positive law is neutral to the human conscience. Calls for "the separation of church and state" are really calls to separate the human conscience from the law.

Alan Keyes once said that capital punishment vindicates the law against murder. When the murderer is executed, the law against murder that is written in the heart of every man is awakened and vivified in the conscience of the citizens. When one is tempted to murder, his conscience rebels, he fears, and refrains. This is the real reason why capital punishment is a deterrent to murder. It is not the fear of execution that deters him, but the protests of his conscience that deter him. That inner protest of conscience is more powerful if murderers are being executed.

Finally, the awakening of the consciences of the citizens is not just for deterrence. It teaches the citizen to cherish life. A society that executes murderers is also a society that has laws against abortion. It is no accident that the same Alan Keyes who said that capital punishment vindicates the law is also a crusader against abortion.

C. S. Lewis: Mere natural law

Just as C. S. Lewis reduced Christianity to essentials in Mere Christianity, he did the same thing with natural law. He was mainly concerned with the basic elements of the universal moral law that all men everywhere can agree upon. He emphasized that natural law crosses religious and cultural lines.

Lewis wrote: "If a man will go into a library and spend a few days with the Encyclopedia of Religion or Ethics he will soon discover the massive unanimity of the practical reason in man. From the Babylonian Hymn to Sams, from the Laws of Manu, the Australian aborigines and redskins, he will collect the same triumphantly monotonous denunciations of oppressions, murders, treachery, and falsehood, the same injunctions of kindness to the aged, the young, and the weak, of almsgiving and impartiality and honesty." (From The Poison of Subjectivism, an essay by C.S. Lewis. Thanks to Timothy L. Hall, A Law for all Seasons. Touchstone, June 2009)

Lewis insisted that natural law was not just for Christians, but for all mankind. He was a fierce opponent of Christian theocracies. He thought theocracies generated mischievous agendas that are prone to the abuse of power. Mixing the issues of God, the divine kingdom, natural law, politics, and human ambition can confuse and corrupt the mind and obscure the issues of natural law.

Interestingly, the Christian Republics of Geneva, Massachusetts Bay, Cromwell's England, and Holland were authoritarian, legalistic, and inadequate defenders of human rights. All of these Republics failed after two or three generations. Natural law does not flourish in tight, legalistic theocracies — but it prospers in constitutional republics like America.

By opposing theocracy, Lewis emphasized the universality of natural law. Kublai Khan, sitting in his pleasure dome in Xanadu, could make decrees based upon natural law if he wanted to.

In Kipling's The Man Who Would be King, a British sergeant found himself to be the king of a pagan tribe through freak circumstances. He was the sole judge of disputes among the people. Some of his ad hoc judgments included simple elements of natural law. Although the sergeant was starting from scratch with natural law ideas that he had picked up by osmosis, there is no question that these shaky attempts at natural law swept away a lot of the injustice from the life in that savage tribe. To the extent that the people learned these principles, their way of life was improved long after the departure of the lawgiver.

The Christian compatibility with natural law

Lewis notwithstanding, the Christian has a head start in discovering natural laws. All of the laws of Moses that were carried over into the New Testament were, without exception, universal moral laws — do not steal, do not commit adultery, do not murder, do not practice homosexual perversions, etc. All the laws of Moses that were not carried forward were, without exception, explicitly for ancient Israel, and not for other nations or for modern times. In short, they were not universal moral laws. For example, the tithe, the Sabbath, Jewish dietary laws, laws of the temple, laws of clean and unclean, laws of animal sacrifices, and laws of stoning for adultery and witchcraft were not carried forward and were thereby abolished in the New Testament.

Enumeration of the abolition of particular laws is not necessary because of the several New Testament verses that abolish the law of Moses. Laws of Moses that are not brought forward into the New Testament are abolished.

Natural law is in perfect agreement with the laws of Moses that the Apostles brought forward into the New Testament! Hence, we notice the wonderful compatibility of Christianity with natural law. Judaism and Islam fall far short of this level of compatibility with natural law. Christianity is unique in its compatibility with natural law! It is no accident that the greatest flourishing of natural law ideas has come in Christian nations! And it is no accident that Christendom, being in command of natural law tools, has outdistanced all of the non-Christian nations of the world in almost every category of practical achievement.

The Bible promises the faithful believers that God will write his law in their hearts. Surely a Christian with God's law written in his heart has an advantage over an aborigine when it comes to seeking natural law. I feel that C.S. Lewis underestimates this Christian advantage. Yes, the aborigine has natural law written in his heart. At the same time, he lacks the Christian advantage of the testimony of the scriptures and the indwelling Spirit of Truth.

Posting the Ten Commandments in court

In spite of its comparability with Christianity, natural law is discerned by reason and not faith, and therefore is not a religion.

The posting of the Ten Commandments should not be barred from a courtroom on the grounds of the separation of church and state, because the Ten Commandments are universal moral laws. These laws predate the religions that embraced them. Recall that natural law is the second oldest kind of conservatism, while Christianity is the fourth oldest. Most religions accept the natural moral laws because they are written in the hearts of all people.

Lutheranism and a two-tiered natural law

Lutheran theologians recognize two kinds of natural law: 1) "orders of creation," and 2) general natural law. Lewis recognized only the second kind of natural law. "Orders of creation" apply to Christian families, churches, and communities. Some things that natural law allows, the orders of creation do not allow. For example, Sarah Palin was allowed to be governor of Alaska and govern according to natural law, but she was not allowed to be the head over her husband or the head of her house or the pastor of her church according the orders of creation.

A state or a corporation must be run according to the general second tier natural laws. They must not be run according to orders of creation, because that would reduce these entities to theocracies. In contrast, a church must be run according to the orders of creation. Woe to the church that is run like a corporation. Woe to the corporation that is run like a church.

The Protestant mistake

The magisterial Protestant denominations accepted natural law during the Reformation era. However, some of these denominations have rejected natural law in the modern era. The rejection of natural law by certain denominations of conservative Protestants and by some Evangelicals has crippled them in three ways: 1) Their understanding of the universal moral law is metaphysically weak; 2) Their leaders do not have the same restraint against the abuse of power as they would have had if they were seasoned with natural law; and 3) The full development of their reasoning powers has been hindered in a way that often makes them inarticulate and unpersuasive in the public, political, and moral discussions of their culture. They were not just thrown out of the public square by a hostile culture. They disqualified themselves by throwing away the tools of the debate.

In order to cure this defect, some churches have foolishly tried to become more "relevant" to their culture. In doing so, they have spiritually compromised themselves by becoming worldly and failed to become one whit more persuasive. A study in natural law would have made them a) more persuasive in the public square and b) less prone to compromise with the culture.

Natural law bombshells in committee

A few years ago, I was testifying in favor of a proposed defense of marriage law (DOMA) before an Ohio state legislative committee. The committee chairman, Bill Harris, was a Republican, an evangelical, and a tough ex-marine, and he favored the DOMA law. He passively accepted the outrageous ad hominem cavils of certain left-wing citizens and committee members, but strangely, he silenced the conservative voice. When I exposed the gay agenda, questioned the validity of gay marriage, spoke of the potential harms that come to children through gay adoption, and mentioned the vile exhibitionism of the gay pride parades, the chairman was scandalized and shut me up. Why would an evangelical legislator give total freedom to the pro-gay agenda — which he opposed — and silence the conservative opposition — which he agreed with in principle? What was it that crippled this powerful man?

Harris (who is now Ohio Senate president) belongs to a conservative Evangelical denomination that rejects natural law. When he heard the words of natural law in a public forum, his conscience was shocked, and he had to struggle to keep from weeping. The man was a novice and an emotional child before the sheer power of a natural law. His denomination managed to keep him ignorant as a babe and unexposed to natural law ideas.

Harris hinted to me that since I was going to get what I wanted (i.e., passage of DOMA), there was no reason for me to throw these bombshells into the committee. The hint was that I should go along with his wimpy ways, be content, shut up, and be happy with good outcomes. Something about this offer to become a spineless jellyfish like him offended me, so I threw one more natural law bombshell into the committee. He treated me as though I was a lawless rascal and a disrupter of his committee. Actually, he was the one who was lawless, because he abused his power and denied freedom of speech to a citizen at a lawful public forum set aside for the testimony of citizens — in order to suppress the voice of natural law.

His evangelical denomination rejects natural law and is infamous for authoritarian abuses of power. A church leadership that is ignorant of natural law can more easily drift towards a legalistic and authoritarian church theocracy. The last time I entered a church of his denomination, I smelled the spirit of death. The spirit of bondage of that church fell off me like Lazarus' grave clothes, as I walked out the front door and breathed the sweet breezes of American freedom.

If an evangelical Republican leader will lawlessly suppress the voice of natural law in the legislature, how much more will Democratic liberals want to lawlessly silence the conservative voice on talk radio and television? Whenever political conservatives speak freely, a lot of natural law ideas comes out, even though the conservatives often do not realize it.

Karl Barth's bad faith

Natural law is not the same thing as religion. We do not know natural law through faith, revelation, authority, or dogma. We know it through reason and conscience. Therefore, some modern theologians have seen natural law as a threat to Christianity where no threat exists.

During the twentieth century, the neo-orthodox theologian Karl Barth (1886–1968) was responsible for driving natural law out of favor in many Protestant circles. He thought natural law compromises the transcendence of God.

My answer to Dr. Barth is yes, we need to put more emphasis on transcendence. However, God is both transcendent and immanent. If He is immanent, some of His works have an immanent quality that may well be within the reach of human reason. Human reason itself is one of the immanent creations of God. He created natural law and created the rational powers of men so they can find out about natural law.

But yes, Dr. Barth, God's transcendence means that some aspects of his works are "past finding out." (Romans 11:33). This means that we must be modest and put limits on what we claim to know about natural law through reason. It is a challenge for proud philosophers to respect the limits of reason.

However, it is a case of bad faith to pout because some things are out of our reach — and then to refuse to learn those things that are within our reach. Barth's bad faith involves throwing the metaphysical baby out with the bath water. Barth is like Aesop's embittered fox who declares the grapes to be sour because he can't reach them.

Let us think of the high grapes that are out of reach as things "past finding out." Let us think of God 's immanent works as the low-hanging grapes. We ought to leave the high grapes alone, while we satisfy ourselves with the sweet low-hanging grapes, unlike the foolish fox. The low-hanging grapes are the elements of natural law within reach of human reason.

Is reason ruined by the fall?

Some of the theologians of the Reformed Tradition believe that the rational powers of man were too marred by the fall of man to be competent to discover natural laws. Yes, to some extent man's rational powers have been marred, damaged, and distorted. But man has not been maimed so badly that he cannot build civilizations.

It is well to keep in mind that we can be deceived because of the fall and corruption of our reasoning powers, but this is all the more reason why we should be continually learning. Let us therefore use what tools of reason we have — including the tools of natural law.

I argue that without some degree of implicit or explicit knowledge of natural law, it is impossible to build civilizations — or to renew civilizations that are faltering. Our frail, marred, myopic powers of reason need the lamp of natural law to help us grope our way forward, so as to heal society — and to settle difficult controversies like evolution and "gay marriage." Natural law might even help us find our way to work through the thicket of legislative committees with weak, deeply confused committee chairmen.

In contrast, the American founding fathers were richly endowed with the knowledge of natural law, and they founded the most long-lasting and resilient republic known to history.

Now let us raise the question of how much we can know through natural law. Saint Thomas Aquinas thought we can know a lot.

Aquinas and epistemological optimism

St. Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274 A. D.), lived at the confident summit of the civilization of the High Middle Ages and had three centuries of brilliant scholastic philosophers behind him. He came up with a definitive solution to the age-old puzzle of universals and particulars, a mystery that had eluded all the great philosophers who had gone before him. His solution upheld philosophical realism, defeated nominalism, and defended the integrity of both universals and particulars without compromising either and without falling into dualism. This premier achievement of Western philosophy gave the West a rational and aesthetic advantage over all other civilizations.

Obviously, Aquinas was an extraordinarily brilliant and knowledgeable man. He was also very confident and optimistic. He was as devout a Christian as a proud man can be.

Aquinas was a vigorous and systematic proponent of natural law. He wrote that natural law is the rational dictate through which God governs his creation ... that natural law is imprinted on human nature or essence. We must use reason and this special imprint to ascertain the best course of action. Natural law is the human participation in the Eternal will through reason and will. Through this process, one discerns good and evil, virtue and vice.

This formula might be true, and then again it might not be. God is a spirit being, and the incorporeal spirit of man is the part of us that has self-awareness and the part that "knows" God and has faith in God. In contrast, it is through reason we know natural law. The reasoning mind is always corporeal — that is to say, it always works within the body. Reason is a hybrid entity composed partly of brain activity and partly of spiritual activity. Ontologically, spirit is higher than mind. Therefore, there are natural limits for the mind.

Aquinas' formulation posits a proud exaltation of the rational mind that transgresses these limits — or so it seems to me. Beware any philosopher who presumes to makes the mind equal to or superior to the incorporeal human spirit. If it were not for the conscious spirit within him, man would not even be aware of his thoughts — Aquinas and Descartes notwithstanding.

The Great Dane of metaphysics

Aquinas had an extremely optimistic view about what man can know (epistemology), and he boldly stomped through the front door of the temple of truth. His overconfidence, which occasionally bordered on certitude, sometimes makes me uneasy and a little dizzy. At such moments, my instincts tell me that Aquinas was too clever by half and tends to overrun the boundaries God set for reason — like a dog breaking free of his leash. If only we could do without him — but we can't.

Martin Luther expunged the works of Aquinas from the university curriculum in Germany. I rarely disagree with the great Dr. Luther, but Aquinas is, for all his faults, indispensable and irreplaceable. However, we have to keep him on a leash, lest he run rampant in the neighborhood into those properties where he is forbidden to go. Aquinas is like a magnificent Great Dane that is well-muscled and full of energy because it has eaten its fill of rare red meat. Aquinas had eaten his fill of the rare red meat of metaphysics.

As a child of the Reformation, I am more cautious and equivocal than was Aquinas about what we can know through reason and how far we can safely go. My caution about reason makes me conservative in my claims about natural law — and perhaps it makes me conservative in other ways as well.

I have a horror of being like a Great Dane running wild in the neighborhood and digging up the neighbor's flowers. When reason makes us more civilized, we are on the right track. When we become proud of our intellectual prowess in unseemly ways, it makes us less civilized — and we tend to overrun the natural boundaries of civilized life.

There is a second reason why we put sane limits on the reach of the intellect. When we are arrogant and presumptuous, it is because of intellectual pride. Such things displease God who knows how to humble the proud. God humbled Aquinas at the end of his life by showing him the vanity of his proud achievements.

Instead of stomping through the front door of the temple of truth like Aquinas did, I shall tiptoe through the back door and start with what we can know for sure and work cautiously from there. I can make a robust argument on the steps of the temple, but I become hushed and reverent when I enter the temple. Deep waters and sacred mysteries lie within.

Reasoning from nature or from God

Some natural law philosophers reason from nature. "By real ideas I mean such as have a foundation in nature in conformity with their archetypes" (John Locke 1690).

Some natural law philosophers start with God. "Let us seek the dignity of knowledge in the archetype or first platform, which is the attributes and acts of God" (Francis Bacon 1605).

Like Locke and Bacon, I shall use "archetypes" as stepping stones in my search for knowledge about natural law. I get better results when I start with God, the designer, as did Bacon did, than I do when I start with nature, as Locke did.

However, I cannot ignore Locke's foundational archetypes in nature — for these were the first archetypes I found out about as a child and have been precious to me all my life.

The Great Designer

"[W]hat may be known of God is manifest in them for God has shown it to them. For since the creation of the world his invisible attributes are clearly seen being understood by things that are made, even his eternal power and godhead so they are without excuse" (Romans 1:19).

Certain things about God can be clearly seen being understood by things that are made. The Apostle is talking about human reason! To clearly see with the understanding is to understand with the reasoning powers. What is it we clearly see with the understanding? We see "things that are made," that is to say, we see the creation — i.e., we see nature.

But what is it in nature that is peculiarly accessible to reason? We must have a precise answer to this question that is trustworthy. The answer must open the door to a kind of knowledge that is universal to all men — because natural law is universal.

Recognizable design

All people who've reached the age of reason have the capability to differentiate between something that was designed and objects with accidental qualities. An arrowhead is designed, but a rock is accidental. A piece of pottery is designed, but a lump of clay is accidental. An oak tree is designed, but a babbling brook is accidental.

Marriage follows a design. A gay union is a human arrangement that follows the ad hoc arrangements of individuals. All humanity has the rational powers to recognize pottery and marriage as designs and perceive that a lump of clay as an accidental entity that lacks design. Gay marriage not only lacks design, but it is contrary to a design — that is to say, it is against nature. All mankind can use their powers of reason to discern that homosexuality is unnatural.

Notice that I said that we can all readily recognize design. I have not yet made a claim about understanding the designs we recognize. Remember, I am tiptoeing through the back door of the temple of truth.

All the works of nature, including man himself, are assembled according to a design. If there is a design, there must be a designer. Hence, "his attributes are clearly seen being understood by things that are made" (Romans 1:19). The Bible is particularly clear that we can know some things about Christ and the church from marriage, and know some things about marriage from Christ and the church (Ephesians 5:23).

In contrast, we can know nothing about God from a gay union, because it is not an entity formulated in according with the creator's design. Marriage has mystical overtones of divinity, and therefore it is blessed and sanctified by God. Gay unions only manifest the confusion and perversion of individual human beings who have lost their way. Marriage is universal. Gay unions are unique to the individuals involved.

The opening lines of Anna Karenina, by Leo Tolstoy, say: "Happy families are all alike. Every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." Allow me to rephrase it thus: "Happy marriages are all happy in the same way because marriage has a universal design. Every unhappy gay union is unhappy in its own way because gay unions are unique ad hoc arrangements."

The futile denial of design

An evolutionist who denies design cannot force himself not to see design. The harder he tries not to see design, the more he sees design everywhere. In the lectures of evolutionists, they continually stumble into the language of design. "This species has an interesting design. Oops, I mean that it has an evolved form that is like a design." The point of this caricature is to show that the evolutionist is trying to tell a lie and can't quite pull it off. As with all mankind, the evolutionist recognizes the difference between an accidental form and a design — but denies that he recognizes it. A species is an integrated, coherent design, not the accidental accumulation of random events.

A gay union might attempt to mimic marriage, but a relentless inner voice will whisper to them, "You are living a lie — this is not a marriage." Here again, the denial of design is futile. The condemning voice cannot be silenced. It is no accident that some gays are paranoid about those who oppose their agendas and fly into a rage if anyone doubts the legitimacy of their unions. Rubbed raw by the constant contradiction of an inner voice, they cannot endure hearing further contradiction from outer voices.

The inner voice that cannot be suppressed comes early. When did I first understand that there is a design behind things that are made? I knew it at age seven, the age of reason, without anyone telling me.

The perfect pumpkin

Two months after my seventh birthday, my mother gave a pumpkin to my sister and a pumpkin to me so we could each carve a Halloween jack-o-lantern. My sister recognized it as a test of creativity, originality, and personality.

I was more serious in my intentions, and I aimed high. I asked myself, "What is the ultimate Jack-o-lantern?" I asked, "What is the archetypal form for a pumpkin face?" "Is there an iconic form I ought to follow?" (I did not yet know the words "archetype" or "icon," of course. My budding reasoning powers outran my vocabulary.) I pondered the ideal pumpkin and the perfect pumpkin. I thought there were perfect designs in a higher realm. When I got older, I learned that Karl Jung called them "archetypes" and that Plato called them "forms."

The jack-o-lantern face I carved was commonplace and mediocre. It was clearly inferior to my sister's spectacular jack-o-lantern. This humiliating experience taught me that archetypes are not suited to certain tasks. The mediocrity has no discernment in when or how to use archetypes. I learned this from a mediocre boss at work. Many of his mediocre writings, decisions, and decrees made me cringe in the same way I cringed at the mediocre pumpkin.

In spite of the pumpkin humiliation, I never for a moment doubted the existence of archetypes. I did not desist seeking archetypes in the years to come. This had good and bad outcomes. By my college years, I had developed and internalized a systematic code of ethics. This happened prior to the awakening of my faith in Christ.

Unfortunately, I also played with the idea of an ideal woman. I did not yet know that it is wrong to use a person in order to realize an archetype. To the extent I did this, I had unmitigated disaster in my social life. I was developing powerful tools of reason that I did not yet know how to use in practice. Archetypes are fatal when it comes to pumpkins and women. But they are useful in developing a code of ethics.

The pursuit of excellence

The mediocre pumpkin changed me, and made me eager not to be a mediocrity. Civilizations that acknowledge the archetypes of natural law and have discernment in their use will hate mediocrity and love excellence.

I suppose that the love of excellence reached its all-time summit during the Baroque civilization (1600–1750). The best braumeisters (beer makers) and violin makers of today aspire to attain in quality what the best braumeisters and violin makers of the baroque era achieved — but cannot quite do it. No one even tries to duplicate the excellence in sculpture of Giovanni Lorenzo Bernini (1598–1680).

Without archetypes, we would have no concept for perfection or excellence. When men say "God is perfect," we know what they mean by "perfect" because we all intuitively understand archetypes.

Aquinas tried to prove the existence of God — i.e., a being who is perfect — based on the fact that we all understand the concept of perfection, an understanding that would be impossible if there were no God.

I propose an alternate proof: God is the designer of archetypes. Archetypes reveal to us the conception of perfection, symmetry, harmony, and beauty. God reveals these qualities about himself as we discover the idea of perfection, symmetry, harmony, and beauty from his archetypes. Therefore, a being of perfection, symmetry, harmony, and beauty must exist — i.e., God must of necessity exist.

The first platform of knowledge

Based upon the root words in Greek, the word "archetype" seems to refer to the stamp that was used to impress an image on a coin or to impress a seal of authority on paper. An Archbishop had a ring with which he could press a mark on a document to show his imprimatur of approval and authorization. It is his signification that the document is official and authentic. Thus, the word in Greek can mean a design prototype, a means of creation, as in pressing an image on a coin, or an imprimatur of authority.

As soon as the word passed from Greek and Latin into English, it quickly took on natural law connotations. The idea of a design prototype is what interested Bacon and Locke. Bacon in 1605 saw the archetypes as the "first platform of knowledge." Locke in 1695 claimed "real knowledge" is based upon a "foundation" that in turn is based upon archetypes.

Natural law was one of many topics Locke wrote about. His seminal political philosophy of human rights was grounded in natural law. That philosophy was the rationale for the "glorious revolution" in England (1688) and for the English and American Bill of Rights. The American founders were steeped in Locke's political philosophy.

Like the Romans, Englishmen began to have a facility for archetypes. Fifty years after Locke wrote about real knowledge through archetypes, England had become the richest, most powerful, and most technically advanced nation in the world. By 1900, Great Britain under Queen Victoria ruled a third of the world's people and a third of the world's land. Is there a connection between the rise of empires and the knowledge of natural law archetypes? I hope to consider this question in another essay.

Archetypes are snippets from God's design schematic. How did Bacon and Locke know about archetypes? It must have been a combination of innate knowledge and following the clues God left in the Creation. Does God tease and tantalize us with these clues? Yes indeed!

How is design connected with natural law?

We are still skimming the surface, because there is a difference between design and natural law. We can recognize design at a glance, but must dig for natural law. However, we know with confidence and cannot doubt that there is a natural law because there is design.

Look at a skyscraper. Instantly you recognize and cannot doubt that it was designed by an architect. This immediate understanding leads you to infer that the design was developed from orderly and rational principles. If you looked at the architect's design schematic (which used to take the form of blueprints) you would recognize a complicated and orderly design, but you might not grasp the principles behind the design. You might study the schematic for a long time and only figure out only a few of the principles. You might miss most of the important principles. Yet it would be impossible for you to doubt that the schematic was orderly and based upon rational principles.

Suppose you could stand with the architect with the schematic laid out before you both. He could easily point to principles that you had missed in your own examination. He could correct principles you had misunderstood. Some of these principles he could help you to understand. Some of the principles would remain beyond your grasp in spite of the architect's best efforts to explain — until you read special books or went to special classes.

The principles behind the schematic are like the natural laws that lie behind God's designs for nature. Some we can infer from the design. Some can be explained to us — and we can sometimes understand the explanation and sometimes not. Some of our false presumptions can be corrected. And some principles will remain beyond our grasp until we stand side by side with the Great Architect in glory, and he rolls out the grand schematic before us and explains the natural laws running like threads throughout his design for the world.

Designs have rules

All designs come with rules. If you buy an appliance from store, it always comes with instructions for correct and incorrect use of the product. There must be rules for correct and incorrect use of a designed product. In the case of a designed being like man, there must be rules for right and wrong living. The rules can take the form of a code of ethics or a universal moral law.

It is no accident that I was able to build a code of ethics from archetypes. Aristotle did the same thing in his Nicomachean Ethics, a work full of natural law principles. Aristotle's ethics probably has had a more powerful effect on Western culture than any other classical work. Everyone who has studied law or professional ethics had learned some of Aristotle's ethical principles.

The low-hanging grapes

What then are the low-hanging grapes of natural law we can reach through reason?

We can discern when something has been designed, when something has not been designed, and whether something is contrary to a design. Little by little, we can discover archetypes. We can discern if an archetype is applied in accord with excellence or if it is used in an inappropriate or mediocre way. We can be inspired to seek excellence from archetypes.

We can sense some qualities of God's excellence and perfection from archetypes. We can learn ethical and moral rules from archetypes.

Sometimes amid the low-hanging grapes, we can discern a natural law principle or two. But very often, such principles will be beyond our grasp. These are the higher grapes pertaining to things among God's works that are "past finding out." Humbly leave these things to God. As lowly finite beings, there is far more that is beyond our grasp than there is within our grasp. This is the realization that shocked and humbled Aquinas at the end of his life.

A message from Stephen Stone, President, RenewAmerica

I first became acquainted with Fred Hutchison in December 2003, when he contacted me about an article he was interested in writing for RenewAmerica about Alan Keyes. From that auspicious moment until God took him a little more than six years later, we published over 200 of Fred's incomparable essays — usually on some vital aspect of the modern "culture war," written with wit and disarming logic from Fred's brilliant perspective of history, philosophy, science, and scripture.

It was obvious to me from the beginning that Fred was in a class by himself among American conservative writers, and I was honored to feature his insights at RA.

I greatly miss Fred, who died of a brain tumor on August 10, 2010. What a gentle — yet profoundly powerful — voice of reason and godly truth! I'm delighted to see his remarkable essays on the history of conservatism brought together in a masterfully-edited volume by Julie Klusty. Restoring History is a wonderful tribute to a truly great man.

The book is available at

© Fred Hutchison

RenewAmerica analyst Fred Hutchison also writes a column for RenewAmerica.


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They that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength. —Isaiah 40:31