The history of sin

Aquinas next asked, “Whether the Old Law Was Conveniently Given During the Time of Moses?” (98, 6). The import of this provocative question should not be missed. It clearly implies that there is an order to history. This order is itself related to the often dire experience of living under natural law alone, that is, under the sole guidance of reason. The “noble savages”, it turns out, were never quite noble. What is the character or result of this historical and repeated experience? The response of Aquinas argues the Christian position that revelation happened in two stages, both of which are related to the original experience of men living under their own rule. At this point, it is already possible to anticipate that the rejection of revelation in either form, Jewish or Christian, would reposition men towards the initial condition, with, however, the difference that the elevated goals taught in the revelational tradition would still remain but without the revelational means to attain them. The validity of Chesterton’s quip that whenever men set out to be natural, they end up being unnatural, would be constantly observed. The quest for the best regime in modernity thus is now suffused with a positive rejection both of the law of nature and of revelation. The origins of ideology and totalitarianism in our time, including the post-Marxist time, seem to lie precisely here in their intellectual origins.

Aquinas, for his part, thought that we could identify two types of human beings in our experience (98, 6). One type consisted of those who are “hard-hearted and proud” (“duris et superbis”) in their ways. For them, the Law is imposed as a burden; while for the just and the good, it is imposed as an “instruction”, to “help them to fulfill what they intend to do.” The Law in this latter sense appears calmly as a response to those human beings genuinely perplexed about what they ought to do. In a way, revelation does not seem to be properly or adequately presented to men, neither to those under natural law nor to those under the Old or New Law, until they have had sufficient time and curiosity to wonder about their natural status or the ground of their being as given. It is almost as if revelation given solely to prevent evil would not be adequately appreciated by a race of men who could not conceive their own personal participation in this very evil. Good and just people, however, can, presumably, see the goodness of the Law if presented for their consideration. They can see that the Law instructs them in solving a real problem or puzzlement. The history of sin, in this sense, both individual and corporate, appears as the consequence of the rejection of or failure to understand the revelatory efforts to set men aright about natural reasoning itself. – from “The Right Order of Polity and Economy” in Cultural Dynamics,V. 7 (1995)