On Responsibility, Freedom and the Purpose of Natural Law

Niccolo Machiavelli

Responsibility implies the exercise of freedom. If someone threatens to kill your child if you don’t open the wall safe, love and fear combine to enforce their demand. Acting under such duress, the individual making the threat takes control of our will. Of course, the irresistible amalgam of passions the threat engenders is the proximate cause enforcing it. But in human terms, is it simply irresistible?

In his famous handbook for the maladministration of human affairs, the philosopher of the public evils, Machiavelli, recounts the story of the Countess Caterina, wife of Girolamo, the Count of Forli:

Since it appeared to them that they could not live secure if they did not become masters of the fortress, and the castellan was not willing to give it to them, Madonna Caterina (so the countess was called) promised the conspirators that if they let her enter it, she would deliver it to them and they might keep her children with them as hostages. Under this faith they let her enter it. As soon as she was inside, she reproved them from the walls for the death of her husband and threatened them with every kind of revenge. And to show that she did not care for her children, she showed them her genital parts, saying that she still had the mode for making more of them. (The Discourses on Livy, Bk 3, Chapter 6)

This account illustrates the fact that human will is capable of resisting the power of natural passions. The choice to do so, or not, is an aspect of our specific nature as human beings. This point is also conveyed by the passage from St. Paul’s epistle to the Romans (Romans 7:23) when he writes:

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For I am delighted with the law of God, according to the inward man: But I see another law in my members, fighting against the law of my mind and captivating me in the law of sin that is in my members.

In the original Greek text, the word translated above as “captivating” refers, at its root, to being taken as a prisoner of war. Our passions enforce the regime of law, as it were, programmed into our flesh. In our day, we can now appreciate the extent to which what seems a metaphor is an observable material fact. However, in their very different ways, Paul and Machiavelli (Saint and anti-Saint) make the same observation about another fact of human nature—the capacity for deliberate choice, which can result in actions that do not simply follow the promptings of our material passions, feelings and inclinations.

Though St. Paul and Machiavelli see the same capacity, we cannot easily assume that they see it in the same light. For St. Paul the “law of the mind” that gives us grounds for resisting the force of nature exists in the transcendent will, intelligence and benevolent interest of our Creator, God. It therefore takes account of consequences and purposes, known but to God, that serve and preserve the whole of Creation, including humanity. Machiavelli, on the other hand, foreshadowed the insights and limitations of the empirical scientific method. Unless we taste the apple, we cannot know it’s sweet. Unless we feel the pain, we cannot know its bitterness. And since the only end we know with certainty is death, what good can come of dwelling on it?

Empirical science knows no purpose but to understand what is happening at the moment. The Countess standing on the fortress wall in Forli resolves against the ordinarily crushing anguish of love and fear for her children. To her mind, what will happen at the moment of their death defeats those who had taken her husband’s life and would take the life of her city away as well. Her choice is a matter of material calculation, with the passions that attach her to her duty, rank and power warring against the violently passionate ambitions of others who would deprive her of them. What transcends the moment on which hangs defeat or victory in that hellish perception of the war of all against all?

The law of the mind transcends it, in the spirit that considers it all as if from a place of shelter: like the one prepared for Moses before God’s Glory passed by him. In the presence of all wisdom, glory, knowledge, and power the one who presumed to know it all would lose himself in the process. In the heat that burns beyond all flames, what fleshly impulse matters enough to survive? God knows. And He shares the good fruit of that knowledge with us, withholding the other. But as He does so He has to take account of the bonds, boundaries and limitations that make our discrete existence possible.

The law in our minds serves this purpose. It conveys His mind, translated in terms we can understand. It hedges us about within the amazing whole, of which our little knowledge would otherwise be confined to things of the moment, always here and gone. Without it, we would have no place in which to stand, peaceably, apart from what just happens; no place in which to know our own existence. In this respect, the law of our mind does not constrain our knowledge. Rather it creates the ark in which we can freely explore what the law’s bonds and boundaries serve only to reveal, after they have come to pass.

Of course, there is something we have to know before they come to pass, something that warns us to expect a revelation and gives us the signs by which to know it has happened. It may not be the only purpose of our flesh, but without it the quickening of the Spirit that informs the wisdom of creation might remain only for God. Is this why life for us requires Spirit and the dust? So that, all amazed, we can make our way, from time to time, outside the maze’s hedge marked high- and byways, wondering at some insight that soars—above the patterns of glancing blows with which perception assails our senses here and there, the patterns that are the net negotiable amount of our experience of nature.

We choose with the power on loan from our Creator, God; but also with a purpose informed in part by those patterns in perception, but also—on the whole, by the leaps and bounds of insight they inspire. They draw us toward the Being of infinite possibility who is beyond blows; beyond insights; even beyond existence itself as we must know it. But not beyond the hope of life and love we may taste in the presents of the Word made flesh (and blood)—who may dwell in us, if we choose rightly—so that we may live and dwell with God, forever.

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of Barb Wire.

Once a high-level Reagan-era diplomat, Alan Keyes is a long-time leader in the conservative movement. He is well-known as a staunch pro-life champion and an eloquent advocate of the constitutional republic, including respect for the moral basis of liberty and self-government. He has worked to promote an approach to politics based on the initiative of citizens of goodwill consonant with the with the principles of God-endowed natural right.

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