The Stoic Idea of Natural Law
This lecture primarily focuses on the great Roman statesman and philosopher Cicero. Cicero, according to Koterski, offers the first thorough going presentation of natural law theory. Before going into Cicero, Koterski briefly covers the Stoic ideas that influenced Cicero. The Stoics focus on the ideal of self-reliance and of living according to “right reason in accord with nature.” This latter idea articulates an important and foundational principle of natural law theory. Cicero will also place this idea at the center of his thought. The idea of right reason is that humans can reason rightly or wrongly. Right reason is truthfully discerning the nature of things. We can go astray or be on target, but we should strive for discerning truth and reality. The Stoics thought that by living in accordance with right reason and discovering their true nature, one can live in harmony and happiness. All humans have reason, and if all are self-reliant and practice right reason, society will be harmonious. According to Koterski, the Stoics also sought to connect nature and law to God. God becomes more personal for the Stoics than with Aristotle or Plato. God also becomes the law-giver. This is important historically because it paves the way for Christian natural law and its notion of a personal God. It also puts ethics under the rubric of law instead of virtue. Cicero brings much of Stoic thought to Roman society and philosophy. He articulates further the ideals and principles of natural law. He discusses the notion of right reason and the discovery of our nature. He brings into the equation the notion of a kind of punishment or sanction violating natural law. Cicero expresses the Stoic ideal of one law binding on all people at all times. This incorporates a fundamental principle of equality and kinship among all humans. Cicero was also concerned about enumerating a vision of politics that was not based on power or might, but on justice and law. He saw the natural law has dictating duties and obligations, and that these should guide our actions, personally and politically. He seems to also get at a notion of positive and natural law in the distinction of Jus and Lex. Jus is the notion of justice and right that exists as a matter of nature. Lex is the idea of legislation that is created by humans. In his expression of morality, Cicero followed the Stoics in insisting on focusing on that which one can control: his own choices and actions. It is here that one must follow right reason and choose well based on one’s nature. In areas outside of one’s control (luck or natural course of events) one can’t choose and ethics is silent. One can see in the Stoics and Cicero the groundwork for later Christian thinking on natural law and other issues. Naturally, that is the topic for subsequent lectures.
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