HaleLegal historian Sir Matthew Hale has been described as “one of the greatest jurists of the modern common law.” Yet during his lifetime (1609-1676), he chose not to publish most of his legal writings, going so far as to prohibit such publication in his will.

Against these wishes, many manuscripts were copied and circulated by other lawyers after his death. One such work, Of the Law of Nature, was written on multiple hand copies, and now, for the first time ever, it is available via CLP Academic.

As its title indicates, the treatise explores the natural law, its discovery and divine origin, and how it relates to both biblical and human laws. Hale’s close connection between law and theology also demonstrates the importance of natural law to early modern legal thought.

The work was most likely written as a series of private meditations and reflections by Hale, giving it a unique, free-flowing style. Hale also brings a unique theological background and perspective to the topic, as editor David Sytsma explains in the introduction:

Sometime between writing the Discourse (ca. 1639–1641) and the Law of Nature (ca. 1668–1670) Hale’s religious perspective underwent a shift in the direction of Arminianism away from the Calvinism of his youth…In a manuscript likely written in the late 1650s, Hale still affirmed the traditionally Calvinist belief that the light of nature is insufficient for salvation. But after the Restoration he moved toward an Arminian soteriology which understood the gospel of the new covenant as offering forgiveness of sins by a condition of imperfect, sincere obedience. He also came to affirm the view, commonly associated with Arminianism, that virtuous pagans could be saved through obedience to the natural law (discussed below). In the last years of his life Hale professed that “Points controverted between the Arminians and Calvinists” regarding God’s decrees, his influence on the human will, the resistibility of grace, and so forth were impossible to determine and of “inconsiderable moment.” …Whether or not Hale changed his mind in the last year of his life, the soteriology present in his Law of Nature is clearly representative of his Arminian turn.

Among Hale’s contributions is his discussion of the function of human conscience in applying the natural law. Sytsma explains how Hale’s treatment of conscience fits with the traditional Reformed and Thomistic approach to this topic:

In his Law of Nature, Hale describes “conscience” as that which persuades a person of the divine obligation of the natural law and applies the natural law to particular circumstances. This application takes place by means of a syllogism, wherein right reason supplies the major premise of the general rule and conscience provides the minor premise of a particu­lar circumstance and then draws a conclusion either of absolution or condemnation . . . . In this description of conscience, Hale maintains strong continuity with Reformed scholasticism, which typically described the conscience as the application of a practical syllogism. Although it is unclear from Law of Nature whether Hale viewed conscience precisely as a faculty, habit, or act of the soul (a point of scholastic debate), elsewhere he clearly placed con­science under the nature of the soul’s acts (as distinct from faculties and habits). This view of conscience as an act was recognized by Hale’s contemporaries as both distinctively Thomistic and the “most common opinion” of Reformed theologians. It is therefore probable that, despite a passing reference to “faculty of Concience” . . . , Hale’s description of the “actings” of the conscience in Law of Nature . . . reflects this “most common” Thomistic and Reformed position that he expresses in his other writings.

For more on Hale’s historical context and contribution, and for the full work itself, purchase Of the Law of Nature in its first ever release.

Add it to your bookshelf on Goodreads here.

Check out other titles in the Sources in Early Modern Economics, Ethics, and Law series for more English translations and editions of formative but previously inaccessible texts in the realm of economics, ethics, and law. Subscribe to CLP’s mailing list or follow CLP on Facebook or Twitter for updates on forthcoming titles.

  • Robert Landbeck

    Looking at oneself with critical self scrutiny, one is trapped between a more positive religious view of human nature, which obviously was the case with Hale or a less attractive conclusion, which is being forced upon our species today. With an unfolding environmental crisis, the cause of which is almost unanimously agreed to be that of the predominant material values of our species, what ever cultural respectability is, morality must be measured by the higher standard of sustainability. The values of which our species has yet to master or even comprehend other then their necessity. Thus ‘natural law’ is a failed moral paradigm. And the future of our selves and planet may very well depend upon finding a ‘way’ to break free of the invisible bars and limitations that natural has imposed upon us, to search for and discover the nature of the sustainable. http://www.energon.org.uk