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Aristotle and Natural law


Aristotle, a 4th-century philosopher, scientist, and polymath set forth his theory that “natural law” and mankind’s idea of justice were not always in balance. He argued that for a law to be just in its passing, it must be in harmony with “natural law”.



Aristotle was a Greek philosopher, scientist, and polymath born in the 4th century BCE in Stagira, Thrace. He studied and taught at Plato’s academy for 20 years, evidenced by a strong “Platonic” influence in many of his philosophical ideas. His philosophical and scientific systems later went on to become frameworks for Christian scholasticism and medieval Islamic philosophy. Aristotle’s notable works include Nichomachean Ethics, Rhetoric, and Politics.



Picture Credit: britannica.com



Natural Law, according to britannica.com, is a system of justice held to be common to all humans and derived from nature rather than from the rules of society. Aristotle held the view that what was “just by law” was not always “just by nature”. Simply put, natural law is universal and unchanging. To put into context, Ulpian the Jurist argued that “ so far as the civil law is concerned, slaves are not considered persons; but this is not the case according to natural law, because natural law regards all men as equal”, in his books Ad Sabinum.



In his work, Rhetoric, Aristotle distinguished between natural and conventional law by citing the tragedy Antigone by the Greek playwright, Sophocles as an example of a conflict between the two laws. In the play, Antigone breaks the king’s edict by holding a funeral for her brother Polyneices. In a plea to the king, Antigone justifies breaking conventional law by appealing to a higher natural law which is the right to proper and respectful burial for her brother.



However, this also brings forth a challenge where it is difficult to distinguish between natural and conventional law. Even in Antigone, it is not a universal custom for proper burial as some societies in the world may leave their bodies in the open to be picked by birds. Therefore it is challenging to determine a rational basis for natural law for example, in the case of capital punishment. It is difficult to determine whether a person truly deserves to die for a crime they may or may not have committed. It requires a complex legal framework for such cases



Nevertheless, examples of appeals to natural law can be found in works such as the American Declaration of Independence and the International Bill of Human Rights. Human rights are used to appeal in many cases such as the fifth amendment in the U.S Constitution which gives the right to a person to remain silent in situations such as being arrested. This amendment is lawfully required by police officers to inform arrested persons.

It can be safely said that the right to remain silent is an appeal to higher natural law.



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