Riccardo SACCENTI.  Debating Medieval Natural Law: A Survey.  Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame, 2016.  Pp. xiv + 156.  $45.00 hc.  ISBN978-0-268-10040-7.  Reviewed by Benjamin J. BROWN, Lourdes University, Sylvania, OH 43560.


In Debating Medieval Natural Law Riccardo Saccenti provides just what the subtitle states, a survey of over 100 years of thought among the leading scholars of the medieval understanding of natural law and natural rights both in terms of ethics and legal-political theory.  This is truly both an overview and also a work of high-level scholarship, with 50 pages of notes for 80 pages of text, along with nearly twenty pages of bibliography.

Saccenti is not focused on staking out his own position among the complex of questions connected to the medieval concept of natural law and related ideas.  Instead he competently and systematically lays out the key points of debate among scholars and attempts to craft a narrative in which the lacunae of one assessment pave the way for an alternative view to develop, which in turn has its own pitfalls that lead to further alternative approaches.

The major issue that captures the book’s attention has to do with the differences in the medieval and modern eras and what role concepts of natural law and natural rights (ius naturale, lex naturalis) play the ethical-political theories of each period.  Was there “a long intellectual shift” over several centuries, or was there a point at which the modern concept of natural law broke from the medieval?  If there was a break, then when, why and how did it occur?  If there’s a continuity and/or only gradual transformation, then what are the points of continuity and growth and how much have concepts actually changed?

Some scholars (e.g., Michael Villey) have argued that figures like Thomas Aquinas mark a culminating point of a previous development which was unraveled or at least vastly changed as we moved into the modern era.  In this account, Aquinas and other medievals had a strongly objective view of ius natruale and did not use the term for subjective, individual human rights; William of Ockham is the thinker who first does this in his philosophy in general and in the way that he starts to use ius, paving the way for the modern definition of right and legal positivism.  Others (e.g., Francis Oakley and Richard Tuck) would emphasize that Ockham’s whole era, especially conciliarism, more than Ockham alone, marks the break with the medieval, or even that there are a series of breaks and new emphases, presenting a picture of gradual change.

Still others (e.g., John Finnis) would see both meanings, the subjective and the objective present already in Aquinas, Gratian, and others before them; in this account, the change is more a matter of development and/or teasing out the implications of what is already present in medieval thought.  Scholars such as Cary Nederman argue that use of the same words even in similar ways is insufficient to show continuity, and that the whole historical-political context must be considered, with the result that Ockham’s use of ius natural is vastly different from Grotius’, for example.  Others contend that the metaphysics of various thinkers as well as their historical context also plays a significant role in their accounts of natural law and natural rights.

Central to this whole debate is the question of what exactly constitutes “modernity” as opposed to “medieval.”  Is it a difference in metaphysical views, in political structures, in ideas about law and rights, in growing secularization, or an interrelation of multiple factors?  Saccenti skillfully explains the key concepts and their interrelations as he leads the reader through the complex history of the debates.

In the fifth chapter and the following conclusion, Saccenti offers something his own analysis of the situation, which draws partially on all the scholars he had examined earlier.  He emphasizes the importance of historical context for understanding concepts as well as philosophical analysis.  There is a metaphysics that grounds the various ideas, and the metaphysics changes over time.  Conceptions of natural law change in tandem with changes in political context and metaphysical/theological outlook while also partly driving or cementing those changes.  He seems to suggest in the end that the major shift in the meaning of ius naturale is not in whether it is used objectively or subjectively, or legally or morally; the medievals do all of that, though not with those categories.  Rather the significant change is in the concept of nature itself, which undergoes something of a crisis in the thirteenth century debates on Aristotle that is not concluded until the rise of modern science.

As a book that specializes, it is not for everyone, but it will be very much appreciated by those with the appropriate background and interest.  While it could be more clear and definite at times, especially in its conclusions, it aptly depicts the major issues regarding the medieval concepts of natural law and natural rights in relation to the modern world.  The index is also helpful, and the bibliography and notes invaluable for anyone in the field.