Kelsen and Aquinas on “The Natural Law Doctrine”

In Georges Mazur (ed.), Hans Kelsen: A Twenty-Five Year Commemoration (Semenenko Foundation, 1999). Reprinted in Notre Dame Law Review 75:5 (August 2000); John Goyette, Mark S. Latkovic, and Richard S. Myers (eds.), St. Thomas Aquinas and the Natural Law Tradition (Catholic University of America Press, 2004). Reprinted in Spanish translation (“El Tribunal de la Teoria Pura”) in Persona y Derecho, Vol. “Cambio Social y Transicion Juridica” (2000).

The fiftieth anniversary of the publication of Hans Kelsen’s influential essay, The Natural-Law Doctrine Before the Tribunal of Science, provides an occasion to revisit a work in which the leading European legal theorist of the twentieth century outlined and strongly criticized the tradition of natural law theorizing. Contemporary scholars on the Continent and in the English-speaking world will, no doubt, examine Kelsen’s essay from a variety of angles. I am struck, however, by the fact that it makes no reference whatsoever to the thought of the most famous and influential of all natural law theorists, namely, Saint Thomas Aquinas. Kelsen refers frequently to the writings of Gennain Grotius, Samuel Pufendorf, Thomas Hobbes, Immanuel Kant, G. W. F. Hegel, and classical Greek philosophers; but Aquinas’s theory, or “doctrine,” of natural law is left unaddressed. If, however, something called “the natural-law doctrine” can be attributed to anyone, surely it can be attributed to Aquinas. I propose, therefore, to consider (1) the extent to which Kelsen’s exposition of “the natural-law doctrine” captures or describes Aquinas’s account of natural law and (2) whether Kelsen’s critique of natural law ethics and jurisprudence tells against the teachings of Aquinas.

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