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Natural Law, Nature, and Relativism

The Liberty Fund just sent me one of the treasures they publish to try to save the world from its own follies. In this case, it’s called The Natural Law: A Study in Legal and Social History and Philosophy. Heinrich A. Rommen wrote this book while practicing law during the dissolution of the Weimar Republic and the rise of the NAZI party in Germany. Eventually, he was forced to flee to the States, where he became a professor at Georgetown University.

The Introduction tells us that he was imprisoned by the Nazi party for his political and legal work, and that “the book was written by a lawyer in response to a political and legal crisis.”

Every generation, it is said, finds a new reason for the study of natural law. For Rommen and many others of his generation, totalitarianism provided that occasion. As he put it in his book on the state, “When one of the relativist theories is made the basis of a totalitarian state, man is stirred to free himself from the pessimistic resignation that characterizes these relativist theories and to return to his principles.” Rommen’s writings were prompted by the spectacle of German legal professionals, who, while trained in the technicalities of positive law, were at a loss in responding to what he called “Adolph Legalite.”

Rommen speaks from the destruction of order that is Nazi Germany to draw our attention to the roots of this destruction, and that root is relativism. Relativism is the great enemy of the human soul, of thought, and of civilization. It is a parasitic despairing anti-philosophy that arises because people who poke their own eyes out refuse to see what others see at birth.

And the opposite of relativism is not so much absolutism as the recognition of nature. For example, Aristotle tells us that “it is the mark of an educated man to look for precision in each class of things just so far as the nature of the subject admits.”

That statement cuts at the root of most of the intellectual Tom-foolery of the past 400 years. But if you don’t believe in nature, that statement is meaningless and knowledge disappears.

I am eager to read more of this book and highly recommend it and anything else the Liberty Fund publishes. I also recommend you turn up at the 2009 CiRCE conference to discuss this idea of nature some more. All of our thought leads into and out of this idea.

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