The Natural Law
So, the natures of things determine what’s good and bad for them, what they should pursue and avoid and, again, that is true for us too. Our nature, in this sense, is the “law” that we should live by. When Thomas talks about the “law of nature” (lex naturalis) or “natural law” this is partly what he has in mind. In part our nature is this law, but our reason, insofar as it grasps what is naturally good for us, and directs us to pursue it, belongs to natural law too.
Thomas’s account of natural law, however, does not stop there. For Thomas, our nature and our reason are created by God. Hence, he teaches that the natural law ultimately comes from God. By following the natural law – which is nothing more than living in conformity with our nature – we are following God’s will. When we act against it, we are acting against God. Thomas calls the “plan” for creation as it exists in God’s “mind” the “eternal law.” This plan not only includes our nature and purpose but the nature and purpose of everything else too. To say that the natural law comes from God is the same as saying that it is derived from the eternal law. What Thomas calls the “divine law” (lex divina) is likewise derived from the eternal law. I will come back to that in a moment.
And then something on happiness...
The “knowing” of God that we are talking about in both the natural and supernatural cases is an act of contemplatio or “contemplation.” For Thomists, Jordan Aumann explains, contemplation is “a type of knowledge accompanied by delight and a certain degree of reason’s wonder before the object contemplated.”4 Contemplation can be pretty pedestrian, as when I appreciate the dark gold color of the scotch in my glass, or more exalted, as when I marvel at the starry sky. But the beauty of creation can and should be a ladder we ascend to the divine.
Our lives as human persons and as Christians should have divine contemplation at their center. This is what we are ultimately ordered to by nature and by grace. That doesn’t mean that we should all pack up and move to a monastery. Most basically in means a way of life faithful Catholics already live: one of regular prayer and participation in the Church’s liturgy marked in general by an appreciative and celebratory attitude toward reality, including the reality of other people.5 As Thomas uses the term, vita contemplativa or “contemplative life” does not necessarily refer to the life of cloistered religious. As Aumann points out, it is something that we all practice – laypeople, religious, and priests – inasmuch as we engage in contemplative acts.6