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Natural School of Law: Tracing its evolution and core ideas (in brief :)

Founding father: Aristotle


Key contributors: Heraclitus. Socrates, Aristotle, The Roman Empire, Thomas Aquinas, Hugo Grotius, Thomas Hobbes, Jean Jacques Roseau, Immanuel Kant, Rudolf Stammler, John Rawls, Josef Kohler, Lon Luvois Fuller


The Concept


Natural Law theory has a history reaching back centuries and, the vigour with which it has flourished is in itself a tribute to its vitality. There is no one theory but many (not so) different versions of the same. The thought process under this School of law is more often than not pervasive in nature i.e. it was contagious and thus, spread out to a lot of thinkers of that time.


Scales of Justice-

This School of thought has tried to meet the paramount needs of successive ages throughout history. It has been a prominent factor in understanding two vital contemporary problems:

  • The validity of unjust law and,

  • The abuse of liberty.

Dr Wolfgang Friedman once said that the history of Natural Law is a tale of the search of mankind for absolute justice and its subsequent failure. It is put in the same bracket as the Law of Reason and implies that it is the basic reasoning between people that normally govern them.


The supporters of this School argue that the notions of ‘justice’, ‘right’ and ‘reason’ have been drawn from the nature of man and the law of nature. Thus, nature cannot be completely ignored while making laws.


We shall try to understand this concept by tracing its evolution through the ages:


The Ancient period


Heraclitus (530-470 B.C.)

Heraclitus - legal philosopher

The concept of Natural Law was developed by Greek philosophers around the 4th Century B.C. Heraclitus was the first of them to point out the three main characteristics of law:

  • Destiny

  • Order

  • Reason

He stated that nature is not a settled heap of things but there is a definite relation between the things and a definite order and rhythm of events. According to him, ‘reason’ is the guiding principle behind Natural Law.




Socrates (470-399 B.C.)


He reflected upon the sole element which was the decisive factor in the culture of his time – ‘Human Insight’. He believed that man has the capacity to distinguish between good and bad and, is able to appreciate moral values.


Statue of Socrates

Socrates’s work does not coincide with the authority of positive law. According to him, people obeyed the law because their ‘insight’ told them to do so. Perhaps that is why he had once stated [see Trial of Socrates (399 B.C.)] that he would rather drink poison in obedience to the law than run away from prison.


Till his last days, he pleaded for the necessity of Natural Law for security and stability, the principal needs of his age.




Aristotle (384-322 B.C.)

Head of Aristotle

He believed that man is a part of nature in two ways:

  1. As a part of the various creatures created by God.

  2. He possesses insight and reason by the virtue of which he can shape his will.

For this reason, man can find and be guided by an eternal principle of Justice.


Aristotle stated that the law should be reformed or amended rather than be broken or taken apart altogether.



It was his belief that law came from human conscience and not from the mind, thereby, setting it on a higher footing than the similar notions we observed in positive law.


The Romans


A visualization of ancient Rome

The ancient Romans strived to practically apply the notions provided and propounded by Natural Law. They transformed their rigid legal system into a ‘cosmopolitan living law’. In this way, Natural Law took charge in Rome and divided its laws into three distinct parts:

  • Jus Civile’- The general civil law applicable to Romans.

  • Jus Gentium’- Law that governed Romans as well as foreigners, consisting of universal principles based on Natural Law or the Law of Reason.

  • Jus Naturale’- Both Jus Civile and Jus Gentium were merged later on to form a larger Code that governed all Romans barring a few classes of people.

Romans did not reject Positive Law per se but, it was their core belief that since Natural Law came from conscience and reason, any conflict between the two Schools of law shall disqualify the former automatically.


The Medieval Period:


Catholic philosophers and thinkers in the middle ages gave a new theory of Natural Law and departed from the orthodox theology of the Christian Fathers i.e. the views presented in this era are logical and systematic, a virtue missing from the vague ideologies of the earlier ages.


There are many theories provided by a multitude of philosophers in this era. The core thought process of this era can be understood if we take a brief look into the work of St. Thomas Aquinas.


St. Thomas Aquinas


His views regarding society were quite similar to Aristotle i.e. social organization and state was natural phenomenon.


Aquinas defined law as “an ordinance of reason for the common good made by him who has the care of the communityand, promulgated”

He gave a four-fold classification of law:

  1. Law of God or the Eternal law.

  2. Natural Law that is derived through ‘reason’.

  3. Divine Law or the Law of Scriptures

  4. Human Laws (which were later recognized as positive laws)

According to him, ‘positive law’ must conform to the law of scriptures and, it is valid only to the extent of its compatibility with Natural Law and its conformity/compliance with the Eternal Law.


He regarded the Church as the only authority for the interpretation of Divine Law and advocated for holding individual property, considered a sin by the early Christian fathers.


To read more on the Medieval Era- please refer to THIS.


The Renaissance


This era is also called the “Modern Classical Era” as it marked the growth of rationalism and the emergence of new ideas and new fields of legal and general knowledge. It departed from talking about the origins of law and shifted its focus on the reasoning adopted by different societies to the various laws at that time.


We will now try to understand this era with the help of some of its major thinkers.


Hugo Grotius (1583-1645 A.D.)


He built his legal theory on the foundational idea of ‘social contracts’ i.e. the view that a political society exists or rests on a social contract. In such a contract, it is the duty of the Sovereign to safeguard the citizens because it was given the power for that purpose only.

A portrait of Hugo Grotius

He departed from Aquinas’s focus on ‘reason’ and propounded the need to focus on the ‘right reason’ while dealing with law-making.


Grotius argued in a two-fold manner. On one hand, he talked about Natural Law and how the ruler is bound by it and on the other, he stated that- a ruler, however bad he may be, cannot be disobeyed.



Basically, his theory focused on the stability of political order and the maintenance of international peace, a principle of that time.


It also provided for the deductions of the universal principles of law ultimately resulting in the birth of International Law.


Read more about his ideas HERE.


Thomas Hobbes (1632-1704 A.D.)


According to him, prior to the ‘social contract’, man existed in a chaotic condition that was constantly plagued by fear.

A portrait of Thomas Hobbes

He described that the life before was “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short” and therefore, they entered into a social contract with the State/ Sovereign to improve the quality of their life and give way to the fear that plagued them.


Though Hobbes points out that the Sovereign should be bound by Natural Law, however, it is no more than a moral obligation. He continued to advocate for an established order of law-making and stressed the importance of absolute sovereignty via the Natural Law theory.




Jean Jacques Rousseau (1632-1704 A.D.)


Jean Jacques Rousseau- Portrait


He pointed out that the ‘social contract’ is not a historical fact as contemplated by Hobbes but merely a hypothetical question. Rousseau was of the belief that prior to the existence of a ‘social contract’ or something of that sort, there was equality and life was tranquil.





Here are some of his ideas:

  • People wanted to preserve their rights of freedom and equality and for this, they decided to surrender their personal rights NOT to a single individual (i.e. the Sovereign) but, to the community as a whole (which Rousseau termed “General Will”).

  • He stated that it is the duty of the people to obey the ‘general will’ because, in doing so, they follow their own will.

  • The existence of the State is to protect freedom and equality. All laws are subject to the ‘general will’ and, if it does not conform to the same, they shall be discarded.

Rousseau preferred the sovereignty of the people and thus, limits his Natural Law ideas to the concepts of Freedom and Equality of individuals. For him, State, Law and Sovereign were all interchangeable terms.


Immanuel Kant (1724-1804 A.D.)


Natural Law theories along with the idea of the social contract were further backed by Kant and Fichte in the 18th Century. They emphasized that ‘reason’ was in fact the basis of a social contract.


Immanuel Kant

Kant drew a distinction between natural rights and acquired rights recognizing the former as necessary to protect the true freedom of an individual. He favoured the separation of powers and stated that it was the State’s function to protect the law or enforce it.


Much of Kant’s legal theory resembled that of Rousseau’s, embodying the following two principles:

  • The Categorical Imperative expects a man to act in such a way as if he is guided by his own conscience.

  • The Autonomy of Will to do or abstain from doing anything but, with reasonable restrictions and obligations.

Read more about Immanuel Kant’s work, HERE.


Modern Period:


Natural Law School suffered a setback in the early 19th Century due to the growing theoretical pragmatism of the then thinkers.


‘Reason’ was believed to be the only driving force behind law-making but, it could not shed a light or provide a structured explanation of the political changes that took shape all over the Western world. Natural Law theory could not find relevance and footing in what was becoming a rapidly changing society (amidst the growth of industrialism and capitalism).


Also, the Historical and Analytical School with its new ideas and various popular thinkers attracted individuals away from the Natural Law thought process.


Revival in the 20th Century:


Towards the end of the 19th Century, a revival of this School of Law took place due to the following reasons:

  • As a reaction against the new Schools of thought and some of their heavily contested and contradictory views.

  • It was realized that the assumptions of priori and abstract thinking were not completely futile when it came to law-making and its subsequent obedience.

  • In the wake of growing materialism, people needed something traditional to hold on to.

One of the chief thinkers in this era was the German legal philosopher Rudolf Stammler followed by Professor Rawls, Kohler and Lon Luvois Fuller.


Rudolf Stammler (1856-1938 A.D)


He defined law as a “species of will, others regarding, self-authoritative and inviolable”.
Every rule is a means to an end, so one must seek a universal method of making just laws. A just law is the highest expression of man's social activity.

Rudolf Stammler

According to him, the two fundamental principles necessary for law are:

  1. Respect and,

  2. Community Participation

The true purpose of the law is not only to protect the will of one but to act as the instrument for all purposes of man and assist the people in the attainment of the same.


John Rawls (1921-2002 A.D.) (“Professor Rawls”)


John Rawls

He provided two basic principles of Justice:

  • Equality of rights to secure generalized wants including basic liberties,opportunities, sustenance etc.

  • Social and Economic inequalities should be managed to ensure the maximum benefit of the community as a whole

Read more about Professor Rawls's work HERE.


Josef Kohler and Lon Luvois Fuller


They rejected the Christian doctrines of Natural Law and the Nationalist Doctrines of natural rights of the 17th and 18th Centuries.


To them, the best feature of Natural Law was its dependence on 'reason' in establishing legal structures in society. They found a "family resemblance" in the various theories under this School.


###--- That's it for now, we will keep updating this article with new insights as our own understanding of these far fetched and ambitious views, grows.


Thank you for reading!


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