Praiseworthy by Nature

Marcus Tullius Cicero (106–43 BC)

If sanctity consists in doing our duty and leaving the rest to God, how are we to know our duty?

Though divine law instructs us in this matter, its counsels and injunctions are addressed to men already blessed with the light of reason. At their best, St. Paul tells us, “The Gentiles, who have not the [divine] law, do by nature those things that are of the law.” In a crucial sense, God has made human beings “a law to themselves” (Rom. 2:14). His further directions are meant to perfect, not replace, the compass built into our nature.

St. Thomas Aquinas notes that reason is the principle or beginning of every properly human act, since reason alone is capable of identifying the ends at which our actions aim, and thus evaluating the means used to achieve those ends.

Reason discerns ends and measures means by perceiving the right order of things. Natural law guides us towards what is good and away from evil when we perceive that whatever tends to perfect our nature is good and to be done, and whatever tends to corrupt it is evil and to be avoided.

St. Thomas’s summary of the goods that perfect our nature is remarkably similar to Cicero’s overview of the natural principles of morality.

Cicero begins with the observation that “every kind of living being” seeks to “protect its own life and body,” is driven by an “appetite to unite for the sake of procreation,” and exhibits “a certain degree of concern” for its offspring.

In human beings, reason’s capacity to discern causes and consequences prompts us to pursue the well-being of ourselves and our families in light of the “whole course” of life, rather than simply responding to “what is immediate and present.”

Additionally, reason “unites one human being to another in an association of language and life,” instilling us with an eager desire for the flourishing of others whom we hold dear. Finally, reason causes us to regard “the examination and investigation into the truth” as “necessary” to our (and others’) integral fulfillment.

On account of our rational nature, we are capable of discerning what is just, legitimate, orderly, proper, and in due measure. This not only gives us a taste for what is beautiful, elegant, and harmonious, but causes us to despise material things, or emotional attachments, when their pursuit conflicts with the order of things.

“A spirit well formed by nature wishes to obey no one except . . . one who advises or who teaches or who rules” in accordance with truth and justice. The healthy man seeks to live (and encourage others to live) honorably, understanding that “we truly call honorable that which, even if praised by no one, is praiseworthy by nature.”

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