Reading Time: 7 minutes Dietmut Teijgeman-Hansen - Flickr -
Reading Time: 7 minutes

Here is the first part in a series of pieces by regular erudite commenter Ficino. This series will be looking at Natural Law Theory in its historical context. Over to Ficino:

  1. Tertullian

On the Soldier’s Wreath (c. 211 CE)

In 211 C.E., Roman emperor Septimius Severus died in York, England. His sons, Caracalla and Geta, succeeded him as joint emperors. As was customary upon the accession of a new emperor, each soldier received a “donative” of money. And as was customary, each soldier was to wear a laurel wreath, as did victors of battles or athletic contests. One soldier, though, refused to put on the wreath.

What?! Why not, demanded his mates. What’s your reason? demanded the tribune. The soldier replied, “I am a Christian.”

Court martial. Prison. Impending martyrdom. But wait! New critics have begun to shout, He’s a showboat, he’s prideful. His obstinacy will get us all persecuted.

Who are these new critics?  You guessed it. The new critics were other Christians.

So begins the polemical tract, On the Soldier’s Wreath (De Corona Militis), written by Tertullian, a North African Christian apologist active around 190-220 C.E. Tertullian does not identify date or place, so it’s an educated guess to place the soldier’s case in 211. Tertullian’s interest does not lie in this soldier’s story but in principles that apply to all Christians. Most Christians, he thinks, are too permissive. Wearing a wreath is OK, they say. “The thing that is not forbidden is freely permitted.” But Tertullian is hardcore. “On the contrary, what has not been freely allowed is forbidden” (De Corona 2.4). What is going on here?

Tertullian’s main beef with wreaths is that their origin lay in polytheistic religion. But there is no Bible verse outlawing wreaths. Tertullian has to base his hardcore stance on other arguments. One of these is an argument from natural law. In general, natural law ethics seeks to derive moral norms from human nature and the natures of things that humans use. Traditionally, its defenders presume that things by nature have fixed essences, and that a thing achieves its natural good when it actualizes its essence. Because things have objective structures, acts have objective structures that fulfill or counteract things’ natural good. Natural law ethics thus promises norms that are objective—not up to decisions of humans—and absolute—binding for all peoples, places and times. Natural law norms are said to be accessible to human reason, since we make deductions from nature. Thus, although natural lawyers often claim that God as creator stands behind natural law, their arguments avoid direct appeals to sacred pronouncements. One common natural law strategy is to condemn a practice on the grounds that it undermines some good by misdirecting the natural function of some bodily organ. In our passage, Tertullian will argue that wearing a wreath on the head misuses the head. Though his argument is rather strained, we can use it as a test case from which to survey a range of ancient natural law arguments. My article thus supplements Jonathan Pearce’s series on natural law ethics. See his earlier recent posts:

My purpose, by the way, is not to pick out wacky things that ancient writers said—fun though that is for this ancient studies geek. Natural law arguments exercise influence today. The Catholic Church’s ban on artificial means of birth control has long been justified by the claim that it is wrong to prevent the sexual act from achieving its natural purpose, procreation. Princeton professor Robert P. George, a leading exponent of “new” natural law ethics, submitted amicus curiae briefs to the US Supreme Court in 2006 in defense of Texas’ anti-sodomy law, and again in 2015 in defense of states that denied same-sex couples the right to marry. [[citations]] On the other hand, same-sex relations have been defended on natural virtue ethics, an approach that has much in common with natural law ethics. [[citations]] We can get a better handle on this area of modern ethical discourse if we look at some of its historical antecedents.

OK, on to De Corona. The gist of Tertullian’s natural law argument is this. [For a full translation, see chapter 5 here:] Nature, the “first system of teaching” (prima disciplina), defends Christian norms because Nature is from God. Nature/God fashioned the senses for us to use things in the right way. Each sense operates by its proper bodily organ. Only sight and smell are suitable for us to enjoy flowers [it’s the leaves of laurel that are aromatic, but never mind]. The organs for sight and smell are eyes and nostrils. Flowers are meant to be enjoyed by eyes and nostrils, but the head has no organ for perceiving flowers, not even their softness. It is against nature to desire a flower with the head, just as to desire food with the ear or sound with the nostril. All men should consider monstrous that which is against nature. Wearing flowers on the head is against nature, therefore monstrous, therefore against God (De Corona 5).

Three related concepts are important to Tertullian’s argument: function, faculty, and organ. The eyes and nostrils are organs, or instruments (organon means “instrument” in Greek). Each organ of perception is proper to (propria) a corresponding sense. Like most ancient thinkers, Tertullian defines a sense, such as seeing or smell, as a power or ability of the soul, a doctrine he spells out more explicitly in On the Soul, written around the same time. I call powers or abilities of the soul/body complex faculties. A faculty in turn is our ability to accomplish a certain kind of work. The work done by a faculty through its proper organ/s is the function of the faculty and organ/s. Tertullian in On the Soul follows Aristotle in distinguishing within the soul, not parts, but different faculties by which we perform functions of life, such as moving, acting and knowing, including the functions of the five senses (14.1-3). Tertullian relies on this scheme in De Corona when he writes, “For going after, evaluating and obtaining the fruits/benefits of nature, God set particular senses in the human as instruments proper to body parts; he poured hearing into the ears, sight [snip] … and touch into the hands,” (5.1). In the order of explanation, the function is the reason for the faculty, which the faculty seeks to accomplish by means of the organ/s. My faculty of seeing uses my eyes to carry out the function of getting information about bodies that have color. A natural law argument will presume that natural functions are good, and that faculties are good if they achieve their functions.

Another assumption concerns the created thing that someone uses. The thing will have a structure such that some organs or faculties can be suited to derive benefit from it and others not. Tertullian’s question, “What benefit/enjoyment comes from flowers?” (5.2) assumes that flowers have stable natures, and only certain sensory faculties can get benefit from them. Eyes and nostrils, even fingers for sensing softness, are suited to act on flowers. The head has no organ or faculty that can derive benefit from flowers. To put flowers on the head amounts to a mistake about organs and the faculties they serve. Tertullian also holds the contrary of this, that some things should NOT be the object of a given faculty’s operation, like food in the ear. There is, then, a two-way relation of natural suitability: the human’s faculty and organ/s are suited to derive benefit from things of a certain kind, and the things have a structure and nature so as to be proper objects of the faculty’s functioning.

Because this reciprocity breaks down in the case of a wreath on the head, we might call Tertullian’s argument a Wrong Faculty Argument (WFA). His examples of bad organ/faculty choices, like ear for nourishment or nostrils for sound, work on the same principles.

Before considering whether the WFA is any good, I want to point out one thing I like about Tertullian’s example: the place of pleasure. Tertullian does not use the technical Latin term “pleasure,” voluptas, in this tract, but he alludes to pleasure as he talks about our enjoyment, fructus, of the sight and smell of a flower. He does not justify smelling a flower on some prudential ground—say, that the flower’s odor is medicinal. A flower for us (if not for bees!) is just “a thing to be looked at and smelt” (spectaculi scilicet et spiraculi res, 5.3). It’s difficult to think up a justification for looking at or smelling flowers that either excludes pleasure as an end or even downgrades pleasure to secondary status, an “add-on” to some other, primary end – in the way that natural law theorists say, for example, that sexual pleasure is a superadditum that need not accompany the primary end of a sex act, reproduction. Even hardcore Tertullian allows that we can activate some faculties for the sake of sensory pleasure if the faculties are doing their natural work.

Probably most readers of A Tippling Philosopher will think that Tertullian’s WFA is off, given its counterintuitive conclusion that it is “monstrous” to wear a wreath on one’s head. One feature that may stand out is Tertullian’s lack of concern about motive. Although he has accused “affirming” Christians of laxity and/or cowardice, the WFA only looks at objective structures in nature: what a flower is like and what our organs and faculties are equipped to do. But objective structures are the focus of natural law arguments in general, so we may let this pass. Second, it is not clear that Tertullian has all the facts. He is clearly wrong if he means his statement about the sense of touch literally rather than as metonymy, for the hands are not our only organs of that faculty. Neither has he measured how far we can smell flowers. He has not demonstrated his factual claim, then, that we cannot get sensory pleasure from flowers on our head. Third, the matter appears either indifferent or trivial. From the premises that wreath-wearing is against nature and that actions against nature are illicit, it follows that wreath-wearing is illicit. But it is difficult to see what morally significant natural good is being undermined, since wreaths on our head have no effect on our rational faculties, in the exercise of which Tertullian’s philosophical forebears placed a or the major human good. Where is the moral wrongness in missing out on some pleasures of flowers?

Is the problem simply Tertullian’s sloppy use of the WFA, or are there flaws inherent in its structure? As often comes up in criticisms of traditional natural law arguments, I think the WFA needs further work to keep it from foundering on the “getting an ought from an is” problem. WFAs threaten to collapse into prudential arguments of the type, “if you use the wrong faculty, you will not get the benefit.” A madman who tries to take in food only through his ear will eventually starve to death. It is not clear what harm the madman will incur if he tries to sniff sounds, since presumably his ears will still work unless he blocks them. But blocking them would stir up a different natural law argument, the Perverted Faculty Argument, which we’ll look at presently. For the WFA successfully to tie rightness or wrongness to an act’s objective conformity with nature, any use of the wrong faculty must be immoral, not merely a case of ineptitude, and must be immoral regardless of consequences. Many theorists would argue that other features of the act need to be considered before we can say whether it is the act of a good or bad person. I am left with the sense that the WFA relies too much on definitions, some of them question-begging.

A TIPPLING PHILOSOPHER Jonathan MS Pearce is a philosopher, author, columnist, and public speaker with an interest in writing about almost anything, from skepticism to science, politics, and morality,...

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