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The Mind of the Maker
By Dorothy L. Sayers
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1987 Harper San Francisco
All rights reserved.
THE "LAWS" OF NATURE AND OPINION
A stranger to our University, observing that undergraduates were inside their colleges before midnight, might believe that he had discovered a law of human nature—that there is something in the nature of the undergraduate which impels him to seek the protection of the college walls before the stroke of twelve. We must undeceive him, and point out that the law has a quite different source—the College authorities. Should he conclude then that the law is altogether independent of undergraduate nature? Not necessarily. Careful research would reveal that the law depends on considerable antecedent experience of undergraduate nature. We cannot say that the twelve o'clock rule is not based on undergraduate nature; but it is not based on it in in the way the stranger assumed. —SIR ARTHUR EDDINGTON: The Philosophy of Physical Science
THE "LAWS" OF NATURE AND OPINION
THE word "law" is currently used in two quite distinct meanings. It may describe an arbitrary regulation made by human consent in particular circumstances for a particular purpose, and capable of being promulgated, enforced, suspended, altered, or rescinded without interference with the general scheme of the universe. In this sense we may talk of Roman "Law," the "laws" of civilized warfare, or the "laws" of cricket. Such laws frequently prescribe that certain events shall follow upon certain others; but the second event is not a necessary consequence of the first: the connection between the two is purely formal. Thus, if the ball (correctly bowled) hits the wicket, the batsman is "out." There is, however, no inevitable connection between the impact of the ball upon three wooden stumps and the progress of a human body from a patch of mown grass to a pavilion. The two events are readily separable in theory. If the M.C.C. chose to alter the "law," they could do so immediately, by merely saying so, and no cataclysm of nature would be involved. The l.b.w. rule has, in fact, been altered within living memory, and not merely the universe, but even the game, has survived the alteration. Similarly, if a twentieth-century Englishman marries two wives at once, he goes to prison—but only if he is found out; there is no necessary causal connection between over-indulgence in matrimony and curtailment of personal liberty (in the formal sense, that is; in another, one may say that to marry even one wife is to renounce one's freedom); in Mohammedan countries any number of wives up to four is, or was, held to be both lawful and morally right. And in warfare, the restrictions forbidding the use of poison-gas and the indiscriminate sowing of mines must, unfortunately, be regarded rather as pious aspirations than as "laws" entailing consequences even of a conventional kind.
In its other use, the word "law" is employed to designate a generalized statement of observed fact of one sort or another. Most of the so-called "laws of nature" are of this kind: "If you hold your finger in the fire it will be burnt"; "if you vary the distance between an object and a source of light, the intensity of the light at the surface of the object will vary inversely as the square of the distance." Such "laws" as these cannot be promulgated, altered, suspended, or broken at will; they are not "laws" at all, in the sense that the laws of cricket or the laws of the realm are "laws"; they are statements of observed facts inherent in the nature of the universe. Anybody can enact that murder shall not be punishable by death; nobody can enact that the swallowing of a tumblerful of prussic acid shall not be punishable by death. In the former case, the connection between the two events is legal—that is, arbitrary; in the latter, it is a true causal connection, and the second event is a necessary consequence of the first.
The word "law" is applied also to statements of observed fact of a rather different kind. It is used, for example, as a handy expression to sum up a general tendency, in cases where a given effect usually, though not necessarily, follows a given cause. Thus the Mendelian "law" of inheritance expresses the observed fact that the mating of, for example, black with white will—taking it by and large—produce black, white and mulatto offspring in a certain numerical proportion, though not necessarily with arithmetical exactitude in any one case. The same word is also used to express a tendency which has been observed to occur, as a historic fact, over specified periods. For instance, the philologist Jakob Grimm observed that certain phonetic changes took place in particular consonants during the development of the Teutonic languages from the primitive roots which they share with Greek and Sanskrit, and the summary of his observations is known as "Grimm's Law." "Thus Grimm's Law may be defined as the statement of certain phonetic facts which happen invariably unless they are interfered with by other facts." A "law" of this kind is, therefore, very like a "law of nature." An apple, we may say, when it leaves the tree, will invariably fall to the ground unless there is some interference with the law—unless, for example, the hand of Isaac Newton arrests it in mid-fall. There is, however, this difference: that we can readily conceive of a universe in which Grimm's Law did not function; the world would remain substantially the same world if Sanskrit t, instead of being represented by d in Old High German, had been represented by something different; whereas a world in which apples did not fall would be very unlike the world in which we live. Grimm's "law" is, in short, a statement of historical fact, whereas the "laws" of nature are statements of physical fact: the one expresses what has in fact happened; the others, what does in fact happen. But both are statements of observed fact about the nature of the universe. Certain things are observed to occur, and their occurrence does not depend upon human consent or opinion. The village that voted the earth was flat doubtless modified its own behavior and its system of physics accordingly, but its vote did not in any way modify the shape of the earth. That remains what it is, whether human beings agree or disagree about it, or even if they never discuss it or take notice of it at all. And if the earth's shape entails consequences for humanity, those consequences will continue to occur, whether humanity likes it or not, in conformity with the laws of nature.
The vote of the M.C.C. about cricket, on the other hand, does not merely alter a set of theories about cricket; it alters the game. That is because cricket is a human invention, whose laws depend for their existence and validity upon human consent and human opinion. There would be no laws and no cricket unless the M.C.C. were in substantial agreement about what sort of thing cricket ought to be—if, for example, one party thought of it as a species of steeplechase, while another considered it to be something in the nature of a ritual dance. Its laws, being based upon a consensus of opinion, can be enforced by the same means; a player who deliberately disregards them will not be invited to play again, since opinion—which made the laws—will unite to punish the law-breaker. Arbitrary law is, therefore, possessed of valid authority provided it observes two conditions:—
The first condition is that public opinion shall strongly endorse the law. This is understandable, since opinion is the authority. An arbitrary law unsupported by a consensus of opinion will not be properly enforced and will in the end fall into disrepute and have to be rescinded or altered. This happened to the Prohibition Laws in America. It is happening today to the laws of civilized warfare, because German opinion refuses to acknowledge them, and the consensus of world opinion is not sufficiently powerful to enforce them against German consent. We express the situation very accurately when we say that Germany is "not playing the game"—admitting by that phrase that the "laws" of combat are arbitrary, like the "laws" of a game, and have no validity except in a general consensus of opinion.
The second condition is, of course, that the arbitrary law shall not run counter to the law of nature. If it does, it not only will not, it cannot be enforced. Thus, if the M.C.C. were to agree, in a thoughtless moment, that the ball must be so hit by the batsman that it should never come down to earth again, cricket would become an impossibility. A vivid sense of reality usually restrains sports committees from promulgating laws of this kind; other legislators occasionally lack this salutary realism. When the laws regulating human society are so formed as to come into collision with the nature of things, and in particular with the fundamental realities of human nature, they will end by producing an impossible situation which, unless the laws are altered, will issue in such catastrophes as war, pestilence and famine. Catastrophes thus caused are the execution of universal law upon arbitrary enactments which contravene the facts; they are thus properly called by theologians, judgments of God.
Much confusion is caused in human affairs by the use of the same word "law" to describe these two very different things: an arbitrary code of behavior based on a consensus of human opinion and a statement of unalterable fact about the nature of the universe. The confusion is at its worst when we come to talk about the "moral law." Professor Macmurray, for example, contrasting the moral law with the law of nature, says, "The essence of ... a mechanical morality will be the idea that goodness consists in obedience to a moral law. Such a morality is false, because it destroys human spontaneity ... by subjecting it to an external authority.... It is only matter that can be free in obeying laws." What he is doing here is to use the words "law" and "laws" in two different senses. When he speaks of the "laws" governing the behavior of matter, he means statements of observed fact about the nature of the material universe; when he speaks of a moral "law," he means the arbitrary code of behavior established by human opinion.
There is a universal moral law, as distinct from a moral code, which consists of certain statements of fact about the nature of man; and by behaving in conformity with which, man enjoys his true freedom. This is what the Christian Church calls "the natural law." The more closely the moral code agrees with the natural law, the more it makes for freedom in human behavior; the more widely it departs from the natural law, the more it tends to enslave mankind and to produce the catastrophes called "judgments of God."
The universal moral law (or natural law of humanity) is discoverable, like any other law of nature, by experience. It cannot be promulgated, it can only be ascertained, because it is a question not of opinion but of fact. When it has been ascertained, a moral code can be drawn up to direct human behavior and prevent men, as far as possible, from doing violence to their own nature. No code is necessary to control the behavior of matter, since matter is apparently not tempted to contradict its own nature, but obeys the law of its being in perfect freedom. Man, however, does continually suffer this temptation and frequently yields to it. This contradiction within his own nature is peculiar to man, and is called by the Church "sinfulness"; other psychologists have other names for it.
The moral code depends for its validity upon a consensus of human opinion about what man's nature really is, and what it ought to be, when freed from this mysterious self-contradiction and enabled to run true to itself. If there is no agreement about these things, then it is useless to talk of enforcing the moral code. It is idle to complain that a society is infringing a moral code intended to make people behave like St. Francis of Assisi if the society retorts that it does not wish to behave like St. Francis, and considers it more natural and right to behave like the Emperor Caligula. When there is a genuine conflict of opinion, it is necessary to go behind the moral code and appeal to the natural law—to prove, that is, at the bar of experience, that St. Francis does in fact enjoy a freer truth to essential human nature than Caligula, and that a society of Caligulas is more likely to end in catastrophe than a society of Franciscans.
Christian morality comprises both a moral code and a moral law. The Christian code is familiar to us; but we are apt to forget that it is valid or not valid according as Christian opinion is right or wrong about the moral law—that is to say, about the essential facts of human nature. Regulations about doing no murder and refraining from theft and adultery belong to the moral code and are based on certain opinions held by Christians in common about the value of human personality. Such "laws" as these are not statements of fact, but rules of behavior. Societies which do not share Christian opinion about human values are logically quite justified in repudiating the code based upon that opinion. If, however, Christian opinion turns out to be right about the facts of human nature, then the dissenting societies are exposing themselves to that judgment of catastrophe which awaits those who defy the natural law.
At the back of the Christian moral code we find a number of pronouncements about the moral law, which are not regulations at all, but which purport to be statements of fact about man and the universe, and upon which the whole moral code depends for its authority and its validity in practice. These statements do not rest on human consent; they are either true or false. If they are true, man runs counter to them at his own peril. He may, of course, defy them, as he may defy the law of gravitation by jumping off the Eiffel Tower, but he cannot abolish them by edict. Nor yet can God abolish them, except by breaking up the structure of the universe, so that in this sense they are not arbitrary laws. We may of course argue that the making of this kind of universe, or indeed of any kind of universe, is an arbitrary act; but, given the universe as it stands, the rules that govern it are not freaks of momentary caprice. There is a difference between saying: "If you hold your finger in the fire you will get burned" and saying, "if you whistle at your work I shall beat you, because the noise gets on my nerves." The God of the Christians is too often looked upon as an old gentleman of irritable nerves who beats people for whistling. This is the result of a confusion between arbitrary "law" and the "laws" which are statements of fact. Breach of the first is "punished" by edict; but breach of the second, by judgment.
"For He visits the sins of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate Him, and shows mercy unto thousands of them that love Him and keep His commandments."
Here is a statement of fact, observed by the Jews and noted as such. From its phrasing it might appear an arbitrary expression of personal feeling. But today, we understand more about the mechanism of the universe, and are able to reinterpret the pronouncement by the "laws" of heredity and environment. Defy the commandments of the natural law, and the race will perish in a few generations; co-operate with them, and the race will flourish for ages to come. That is the fact; whether we like it or not, the universe is made that way. This commandment is interesting because it specifically puts forward the moral law as the basis of the moral code: because God has made the world like this and will not alter it, therefore you must not worship your own fantasies, but pay allegiance to the truth.
Scattered about the New Testament are other statements concerning the moral law, many of which bear a similar air of being arbitrary, harsh or paradoxical: "Whosoever will save his life shall lose it"; "to him that hath shall be given, but from him that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath"; "it must needs be that offences come, but woe unto that man by whom the offence cometh"; "there is joy in heaven over one sinner that repenteth more than over ninety and nine just persons that need no repentance"; "it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter into the Kingdom of God"; "it is better for thee to enter halt into life than having two feet to be cast into hell"; "blasphemy against the Holy Ghost shall not be forgiven ... neither in this world, neither in the world to come."
We may hear a saying such as these a thousand times, and find in it nothing but mystification and unreason; the thousand-and-first time, it falls into our recollection pat upon some vital experience, and we suddenly know it to be a statement of inexorable fact. The parable of the Unjust Steward presents an insoluble enigma when approached by way of a priori reasoning; it is only when we have personally wrestled with the oddly dishonest inefficiency of some of the children of light that we recognize its ironical truth to human nature. The cursing of the barren fig-tree looks like an outburst of irrational bad temper, "for it was not yet the time of figs"; till some desperate crisis confronts us with the challenge of that acted parable and we know that we must perform impossibilities or perish.
Of some laws such as these, psychology has already begun to expose the mechanism; on others, the only commentary yet available is that of life and history.
Excerpted from The Mind of the Maker by Dorothy L. Sayers. Copyright © 1987 Harper San Francisco. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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