In the previous posting in this series we saw that, in orthodox Christian belief, the “grant” of the natural rights of life, liberty, and property is not, and could never be separated from the act of creation or existence itself. To argue otherwise is to claim that natural rights are not, in fact, part of nature at all — a contradiction in terms. They would be, rather, a later “add-on” that is not, strictly speaking, essential for human beings to be able to conform themselves to their own human nature.
Nor does the essential argument change for non-Christians or even non-theists. This makes sense if we agree with Aquinas that the natural law is written in the hearts of all men, that all people are equally human, and are human in the same way as all other people. We need merely start with the supremely logical premise that essential human nature cannot change and is the same for everyone.
If, on the other hand, we admit that what defines humanity’s substantial nature can change, then we have admitted that nothing can define anything, for who knows when the definition will change, or who has the power to change it? If human — or any other — nature is not certain, then what is certain? How can we be said to know anything?
It does not matter (at least for our purposes here) that, for example, Thomas Jefferson was not Catholic, or possibly in any meaningful sense a Christian. In writing the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson assumed as a matter of course that humanity’s natural rights are absolute — “unalienable” — in human nature. There is thus no way to separate rights from each individual human being, and therefore no way to sever personality from being as so many today demand by making natural rights alienable or subject to redefinition.
Had Jefferson meant that the Creator first made man and later vested him with rights, he would have said so. Jefferson, whatever you may think of his equivocations, even hypocrisy on slavery, was not a stupid man, nor was he a poor writer. Benjamin Franklin was by far more clever and witty a writer, John Adams more forceful and emotional, George Mason more precise and legalistic, but Jefferson was, all things considered and for all his faults, brilliant.
Jefferson might avoid a subject, but when he stated something, you knew what he was talking about . . . assuming you knew what the words meant in the first place. Thus, had Jefferson meant that the Creator vested humanity with rights apart from human nature itself (and therefore alienable), he would have said “all men are created equal, and are then endowed by their Creator with certain alienable rights,” or words to that effect. (Had Jefferson done so, of course, or had he meant that natural rights are really alienable at the will of the strongest, he would have undermined the whole case the colonies had against Great Britain.)
Jefferson’s position on the natural law was Aristotelian, Jefferson being a sort of unbaptized or pre-Thomist, to use an analogy Chesterton used more cleverly with respect to Aristotle himself. The Creator created humanity with rights as an inherent — inalienable or absolute — aspect of human nature. The grant of existence, and the grant of the rights of existence (life, liberty, property, etc.), was not a contradictory two-step process that nullifies itself. It was, rather, a single unified and consistent act of creating “being.”
This “unity of creation” is analogous to and derived from Aquinas’s “unity of the Intellect.” The unity of creation ensures that, God being perfect, knowing and being wholly and all, that is, knowing everything fully, with His Intellect and His Nature perfectly integrated (“self-realized”), relations between God and man are, ultimately, based only on charity. At the same time, man being imperfect (but perfectible), knowing and being only in part, relations between man and man are necessarily based on justice, albeit fulfilled or completed by charity. As Paul explained in Chapter 13 of his first letter to the Corinthians,
“Charity never falleth away: whether prophecies shall be made void or tongues shall cease or knowledge shall be destroyed. For we know in part: and we prophesy in part. But when that which is perfect is come, that which is in part shall be done away. When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child. But, when I became a man, I put away the things of a child. We see now through a glass in a dark manner: but then face to face. Now I know in part: but then I shall know even as I am known. And now there remain faith, hope, and charity, these three: but the greatest of these is charity.”
Why is this important?
Even God cannot take away or change rights that He has built into something created in His own image and likeness. That would be to change human nature — being — itself. If (as Christians, Jews, and Muslims believe) God is a perfect Being, and humanity was created in His “image and likeness,” then God cannot change human nature. To say that God can change human nature is the same as saying that God can change His own Nature. This is impossible.
Here is the argument. Change implies movement toward or away from perfection. God’s perfection therefore necessarily implies that God cannot change. Change in the natural law based on God’s Nature would mean that He is then either “more perfect,” or less perfect. The former is an oxymoron when applied to that which is already absolute perfection. The latter implies that He is imperfect, and therefore not God.
God being perfect, and His perfect Nature being reflected in imperfect but perfectible human nature, it necessarily follows that natural rights cannot be a mere “add-on” to human nature, or some kind of revocable or changeable gift. As a reflection of God’s Nature, “human nature” without natural rights would not truly be human nature, for it would not then reflect God’s Nature, even imperfectly, “through a glass in a dark manner.”
By the same token, if human nature could truly be human nature without natural rights, then either human nature is not a reflection of God’s Nature, or God’s Nature would be imperfect as It would then not embody the natural law that manifests as natural rights. Natural rights are a gift of God, not as something separate from being, but as an integral part of the larger gift of existence (being) itself.
Can God do anything? Yes — except be “not-God,” that is, embody a contradiction such as an imperfect perfect Being, or a reflection that does not reflect, even imperfectly. This is why Fulton Sheen in his first book, God and Intelligence in Modern Philosophy (1925), insisted almost to the point of redundancy that the problem with the modern world is the ease with which people accept contradiction. Contradiction violates the first principle of reason, negating everything that follows. G. K. Chesterton concurred, both in the “Introduction” (technically a “foreword”) he wrote to Sheen’s book, and in many of his own books and essays.
And therein lies a tale — and why I believe, however worthy Chesterton may be, and however deserving of canonization, he will not be canonized any time soon. That is what we will look at in the next posting in this series.