Natural law theories have a venerable place in the history of philosophy, stretching back to the time of Plato (428–348 or 347 B.C.E.) and Aristotle (384–322 B.C.E.) when the relationship between law and nature first became a central dynamic of discussion in ethics. Since then such theories have provided staple ingredients within each major phase in Western philosophy down to the time of Immanuel Kant (1724–1804) and beyond into the contemporary era. While such accounts have often been short on detailed and practical guidance on right action, the outlook of natural jurisprudence has been highly influential in ensuring a continuous focus on the alleged rationality of the natural world and the constant and uniform accessibility to the human mind of such principles of observed regularity. However, there has always been a tension between the claim that these principles are eternal and unchanging, and the particular forms and uses assigned to natural law: in Ancient Greece the focus was more on the apparently unchanging character of nature and the distressing mutability of actual law; in the medieval age St. Thomas Aquinas (c. 1224–1274) above all emphasized the accessibility of regular patterns in nature to human nature; and in the early modern era natural law theories evolved as responses first to skepticism about the sources of knowledge, and secondly in reaction to the political turbulence that followed the Reformation, which seemed to shatter the easy symmetry between the uniformity of church and state both across Europe as a whole and also within its constituent political units. In each case the position of natural law was ambiguous, both very much of its time, and yet claiming its authenticity and authority from its position outside history.
Natural jurisprudential approaches to ethics have proved difficult to integrate into the historiography of philosophy because of just this same ambiguous relationship to history itself. On the one hand, natural law was viewed as a set of eternal verities presented by God to humanity in finished and perfect shape, and found embodied in the moral and civil order as evidence of its divine fashioning, albeit in a form diminished by the Fall of Man. But on the other hand, natural jurisprudence is a product of the interaction not just of different and succeeding schools of moral philosophy, but also of the interaction of the range of plausible accounts of divine instigation and human response within wider politics and society. So, for example, the neo-Thomist and Lutheran-Aristotelian systems of natural law that evolved in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in Spain and Germany were both a reaction to the new ideological circumstances of the Reformation and Counter-Reformation eras as much as they were internal modifications and realignments within academic institutions of the legacy, above all, of Aquinas and Aristotle. The same epistemological ambiguity runs through the natural law systems of the early Enlightenment era and the interpretation that they laid upon the works of Hugo Grotius (1583–1645) and Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679), which were their foundation and self-conscious inspiration. The writings of Samuel Pufendorf (1632–1694), Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz (1646–1716), Christian Wolff (1679–1754), and Christian Thomasius (1655–1728) sought both to anchor themselves in a newly revealed metaphysics that stood outside time, and also to comment powerfully upon and if necessary direct the course of the world of contemporary practical politics.
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