The last ten years has seen the publication of a plethora of neo-scholastic thought made accessible and available to the minds of non-academic laymen. The surge in best-selling books on godlessness, riding the wave of the short-lived New Atheism movement, helped stoke the fires of the more intellectually-inclined Christians around the world. While the New Atheism movement—classified as a movement only by the handful of know-it-alls who considered taking it seriously—only seemed to gain significant traction among internet denizens of video game forums, a slower buildup of interest in medieval scholastic thought is beginning to make larger waves among more important contributors to the present culture-wide philosophical dialogue. And John Lawrence Hill’s 2016 book, After the Natural Law: How the Classical Worldview Supports our Modern Moral and Political Values, fits into this dialogue extremely well.
Written as a general introduction to the world of natural law, Hill’s approach is two-pronged: first, he addresses the tradition from which natural law came about, exploring the roots of Greek and Latin philosophy, before getting into St. Aquinas’ synthesis in the middle ages; second, Hill contrasts this foundation against the modern developments of philosophy by analyzing the fruits of Descartes and those who proceeded him. After the Natural Law is not so much a guide toward understanding natural law theory per se—for that, I would recommend J. Budziszewski’s book What We Can’t Not Know: A Guide. Instead, Hill looks into the historical roots of philosophy in order to better explain the metaphysical roots of morality.
Hill spends the first two chapters with a broad overview of Greek philosophy, beginning with the early materialists and progressing into Plato and Aristotle. He emphasizes the trend in Greek philosophy toward a teleological world view, and in particular, how the teleology of the Socratics was a development and progression away from the trend toward materialism of the early philosophers. Plato’s theory of forms, and likewise Aristotle’s four causes, were answers to problems of mind, temporality, and coherency that earlier philosophers, with their emphasis on the composition of matter and preoccupation with causality, had difficulty grappling with. As he moves on, Hill addresses Stoicism and, finally, compares the ways in which these differing schools of thought viewed the world to the burgeoning Christian religion. This takes center stage in chapter three, in which Hill covers St. Thomas Aquinas and his particular synthesis of Aristotelianism and Christian metaphysics.
The last chapter of part one analyses the important metaphysical implications of the philosophers discussed in the previous four chapters, with particular interest in how personhood was conceptualized in classical thought. He emphasizes the holistic approach to human beings as substances, subject to changes according to their potencies and active according to their own self-governing wills, was what undergirded the tradition of natural law throughout the middle ages. St. Augustine’s writings on free will, with his particular emphasis on its seemingly self-causing nature, are sensible only within the context of a metaphysic that entails forms of substances. Similarly, Aquinas’ hylomorphism, building off of Aristotle’s view of the person, requires a metaphysic that entails formal and final causes in order to make sense. The metaphysics of these schools of thought make comprehensible the moral framework—that being, of course, the natural law. Rejecting any segment of that metaphysic would naturally entail the crumbling of that moral system.
Which, it turns out, is exactly what happened. Hill begins part two of his book with a look at William of Ockham and the popularization of nominalism, comparing that to the thought of the Sophists of Greece and their indulgence in relativism. Although Ockham wasn’t specifically a relativist, the nominalist belief in the importance of semantics over the reality of objects—the belief, in other words, that forms and categories exist more as a matter of linguistic convenience than as real, verifiable truths that exist independent of man’s perception of them—opened the door for relativism to slip inside. From Ockham, it was but a short jump to the Cartesian method, which begins intellectual rigor not with what we can know, such as forms and substances, but rather with how we know. Epistemology, not metaphysics, became the foundational cornerstone of philosophical thought in the seventeenth century.
From there, Hill briefly explains, over the next four chapters, the slow disintegration of the scholastic tradition. As epistemology lost its perspective due to a lack of anything to credibly base itself on—something Hume discovered—metaphysics slipped further away from the modern mind. Kant’s successful reconciliation of Hume’s extreme skepticism did nothing to stop the slide from a teleological world that comprehended a purpose to existence and human morals into the utilitarian world of Bentham and Mill, devoid of freedom in any significant sense, self-interested, and economical. While Kant’s epistemological system worked for a while, and from it he derived a moral framework that satisfied, for the most part, common sense problems, it still left gaping holes in the bigger questions: what was a human being, and what relationship does he have to other people? Such fundamental questions have been left unanswered by modernity; all claims of ‘answering’ them fall short of explaining the difference between a human being and any other object, or worse, the reality of “other people” that the human being has to interact with. Modern thought, Hill shows, reduces Man’s actions to determined mechanical processes, and it reduces Man’s will to a vague illusion cast by causality. Modernity, in other words, dances around the vacuum at its center, addressing its own metaphysical flaws only in history books.
While hardly a detailed analysis of the disintegration of morality and thought, Hill’s book is one of the best mid-level introductions to this disintegration around. Students and laymen with some background in philosophy will find refreshing Hill’s catalogue of the Greeks and the early moderns, though readers without any clue as to where to start with philosophy would probably benefit from a broader introduction. That said, disillusioned students tired of the present relativist morality pushed by secular culture today would be wise to grab a copy of After the Natural Law, if only to help galvanize their perspective on the failings of modern liberalism while also learning about its intellectual origins.
Hill’s book fits in well with the growing library of neo-Thomistic writings of the last thirty or forty years, which in turn is contributing to the slow but building trend among academics toward a possible re-embrace of natural law and classical scholasticism. Hill finds apt company with the likes of J. Budziszewski, Edward Feser, and Dr. Michael Augros, among others, each of whom have put forward readily-accessible books for the growing laymen’s interest in a worldview that actually makes sense. As many colleges around the nation continue to churn out morally relativist nonsense based on liberal ideas of freedom, individualism, and hedonism, a growing number of college-age students are finding themselves left behind in the intellectual ruins of common sense and self-reflection. The academic world, mad enough as it was a generation ago, now openly calls for self-induced schizophrenia in order to be part of their club. For students unwilling to commit to such radical intellectual masochism, the neo-scholastics form the best, most rigorous, and perhaps most accessible, alternative.
The question is, will it be enough? The academic fields seem to be increasingly hostile to outside strains of thought, even as many philosophy departments grow in size and diversity. The liberal arts on most campuses have been fortresses of Marxist ideology for decades, so much so that trend in variation among professors in philosophy departments makes little difference in the mired swamp of postmodern intellectual snobbery and debauchery that consumes the rest of the campus. While the sustainability of the modern university system is a topic for another time, one must wonder whether the academy is still a place worthy of discussions and analyses of the natural law and a teleological order, or whether some new venue must be sought out for reasoned discourse to remain possible. The internet, at least, offers some solace.