Natural Law: Definition and Meaning

Natural Law is a collection of universal moral precepts that have established the moral and ethical standards that should be followed to govern human behavior. The law of nature is another name for it. Even when it is not acknowledged by the state or the government, natural law still exists.

Meaning and Definition of Natural Law

The definition of Natural Law and its relationship to positive law have been hotly debated on numerous occasions. According to Aristotle (384-322 BCE), there is a universally applicable natural justice that is "not existing by people's thinking this or that," and that it can be invoked through positive law. However, what is "Just by nature" is not always the same as what is "Just by law."

But he mostly derived his instances of Natural Law from his observation of the Greeks in their city-states, who regarded women as subservient to men, slaves as citizens, and "barbarians" as inferior to Hellenes. The Stoics, on the other hand, saw a completely egalitarian law of nature in line with the logos (reason) built into every human mind. In the writings of St. Paul (c. 10–67 CE), who portrayed a law "written in the minds" of the Gentiles, it was evident that Roman jurists gave lip service to this idea (Romans 2:14–15).

Evolution of Natural Law

Natural Law's content has occasionally changed in accordance with the uses to which it has been put and the tasks it has been assigned in order to meet the demands of the moment and the situation. As a result, "natural law" has undergone numerous periods of development that can be roughly explored under the following headings −

  • Ancient Period

  • Medieval Period &

  • Modern Period

Let’s discuss each one of them separately in brief −

Ancient Period

We will discuss ancient period according to three philosophers −

Heraclitus (530 – 470 B.C.)

Around the fourth century B.C., Greek philosophers created the idea of Natural Law. The three primary defining characteristics of the Law of Nature, namely

  • Destiny,

  • Order, and

  • Reason, were first identified by the Greek philosopher Heraclitus.

He claimed that nature is not a dispersed collection of things but rather that there is a clear relationship between them as well as a clear order and rhythm to events. He asserts that "reason" is one of the fundamental components of natural law.

Socrates (470 – 399 B.C.)

According to Socrates, there is a natural or moral law that is similar to the natural physical law. "Human Insight": A man has the ability to recognize right from wrong and can value moral principles. The foundation for judging the law is this human "understanding." The validity of the positive law was acknowledged by Socrates.

He claimed that obeying the law was more appealing due to his "insight," which may be why he chose to consume poison rather than escape from prison. He argued that Natural Law was essential for the nation's security and stability, which were two of the era's most pressing concerns. Plato, one of his students, agreed with this view.

Medieval Period

A new theory of "Natural Law" was developed by Catholic philosophers and theologians in the middle ages. Despite providing it with a theological foundation as well, they diverged from the orthodoxy of the early Christian Fathers. Their opinions are more logical and organized. The opinions of Thomas Aquinas can be regarded as illustrative of the new theory. He shares Aristotle's social philosophy in this regard. State and social structure are examples of natural phenomena.

According to him, a law is "an ordinance of reason made by him who has the care of the community and published for the general welfare."

Modern Period

In the wake of 19th-century pragmatism, the Natural Law idea suffered a setback. Bentham and Austin, two of the more influential proponents of analytical positivism, rejected natural law on the grounds that it was vague and deceptive. The ideas of Austin and Bentham entirely separated morality from the law. Natural law doctrines saw a fall in acceptance in the 19th century. The "Natural Law" doctrines roughly mirrored the significant social, economic, and political changes that had occurred in Europe. The guiding principle of 18th-century thought was "reason" or rationalism. It was about time someone responded to this idea in the abstract.

A collectivist mindset emerged as a result of the issues brought on by the new changes and individualism. There are no unalterable, absolute truths, according to modern skepticism. The natural law philosophers' priori approaches were inappropriate for the developing scientific era. The social compact was a myth, according to historical studies. The entire cornerstone of the Natural Law doctrine in the 19th century was destroyed by all these events. Jurists preferred the historical and analytical approaches to law because they were more grounded in reality. They signaled the dawn of a fresh period in the study of law. The "natural law" doctrines found it challenging to persist in this altered intellectual environment.


This brief examination of the subject matter of "natural law" has changed over time. It has been employed to support virtually every ideology, including absolutism and individualism, and it has also sparked revolutions and bloodshed. It has significantly altered and had an impact on positive laws. As a tool for both social control and social advancement, the law must serve specific functions. If this other aspect is not included, a study of law would not be complete. In essence, the "natural law" theories have dealt with the goals of law. In many different legal systems, the "Natural Law" principles have been incorporated into the laws and have come to represent their guiding principles.

Frequently Asked Questions

Q1. Is natural law legal?

Ans. Natural law is the foundation for legal traditions.

Q2. What is the purpose of natural law?

Ans. In philosophy, "natural law" is a theory of justice or right that is believed to be universal to all people and derived from the laws of nature rather than from positive laws or social norms.

Q3. Where did natural law come from?

Ans. The Greeks first proposed the idea of natural law, and Stoicism is considered its most significant development.

Q4. Why is natural law so important?

Ans. The principles of modern Western democracy—individual rights, justice, and limited government—were developed in large part thanks to the historical contributions of natural law scholars.

Q5. Why was natural law established?

Ans. The desire to rely on moral principles that are considered natural rather than merely conventional was sparked, as it had been in previous centuries, by the need to contest the unfair laws of specific states.

Updated on: 13-Mar-2023


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