Catholic Bishop and Theologian (1193-1280)
Latin excerpts from Alberti Magni Opera Omnia, ed. Borgnet 1892-1899. Translation into English by John Wijngaards
According to Albert the Great, Doctor of the Church, human conscience is a natural inner tribunal [courtroom] in which our human reason judges certain actions to be right, others wrong. God himself is the source of our human intelligence and of its innate ability to judge between good and evil. It is light of God’s own face which God impressed upon us like a seal (Psalm 4,7). Albert sees this as a consequence of God, the ultimate Judge, creating human beings in his own image – so that we carry to some extent God’s judging ability in us.
Moreover to enable us to judge properly God the supreme lawgiver inscribed on this inner tribunal, that is: our human intelligence, our conscience, his ‘natural law’. For Albert natural law is our human intelligence, our conscience, in as far as it prompts us to do good and avoid evil. Albert calls natural law an ‘innate’ ability in us prompting to what is good. Natural law, our human mind, can immediately recognise the general principles of morality. But with regard to specific actions — “Would this be theft?”, “Would this be adultery?”, “Would this be murder?”, etc. — it needs human intelligence to assess their morality. However, throughout this assessment natural law remains present to prompt us to choose what seems right and good.
The diagram is fully explained by the excerpts from Albert the Great’s writings given below.
(Note Albert the Great taught Thomas Aquinas. We find Albert’s ideas on Natural Law fully and logically worked out in Aquinas’ writings. See our sister website www.naturallawandconscience.org)
Texts from Albert the Great
This can be deduced from Basil who says that natural law is inscribed on our natural tribunal. But that tribunal is our [human] reason. Natural law is inscribed on our conscience, because through it [i.e. through natural law] it always drives to what is good. Therefore it would seem that conscience is either [human] reason itself or something belonging to [human] reason.
Hoc videtur per Basilium, qui dicit quod lex naturalis scripta est in naturali judicatorio. Judicatorium autem ratio est. Lex naturalis scripta est in synderesi : quia secundum illam semper agit ad bonum. Ergo videtur, quod synderesis vel ratio sit vel aliquid rationis. (Summa theologiae Pars II, tract.16, q.99, m.2, art.1
* Basil says at the beginning [of his commentary on] Proverbs that “conscience is a natural tribunal, on which natural law is inscribed”. That tribunal judges about what should be done and what should not be done.
Basilius super principium Proverbiorum dicit, quod “synderesis est naturale judicatorium, in quo scripta est lex naturalis.” Tale judicatorium de faciendis et non faciendis est. (Summa theologiae Pars II, tract.5, q.25, m.2, art.3).
* It has to be said that natural law, which is stated to be the law of our mind, is an inborn ability as far as universal principles are concerned that lay down rules for the good. For this is the light spoken of in Psalm 4,7: “The light of your face is sealed upon us, O Lord”. Therefore the law of our mind is an inborn ability with regard to principles, but an acquired ability with regard to matters we discern. The same is not true of passion, that is of the law of our limbs. For this is rather a corruption than an ability and has not part in discernment. It is simply an ability binding us to evil because of our corrupt nature. That is why the Apostle [Paul] says that is opposes the law of our mind which obliges us to what is good.
Dicendum quod lex naturalis quae dicitur lex nostri intellectus, habitus est innatus nobis quantum ad universalia principia regulantia in bonum, sicut dictum est : hoc enim est lumen de quo dicitur in Psalmo IV, 7 : Signatum est super nos lumen vultus tui, Domine. Unde lex mentis habitus naturalis est quantum ad principia, acquisitus quantum ad scita. Et non est simile de fomite sive lege membrorum : ille enim non tam habitus est, quam corruptio, et nihil habet cognitionis, sed est simplex habitus ligans ad malum ex natura corrupta : propter quod dicit Apostolus, quod contrariatur legi mentis quae obligat ad bonum. (Summa theologiae, Pars II, tract.16, q.99, m.3, art.1
* It has to be stated that conscience is said to be the law of our human reason and our mind, because by universal rules it binds to what may or may not be done. And as such it is an ability leading us to what is both pleasurable (award) and painful (punishment). Hence 2 Corinthians 1,12 says: “This is our glory: the testimony of our conscience.” The commentary to that verse says: “Just as conscience causes much pain to criminals, to the devout is gives great joy” . . . And matters differ between the law of the flesh and the law of the mind. Because natural law directs the element of prompting through discernment: that is why it needs to involve discernment. It does not oppose passion in every element, only in the element that prompts to the good. And so it does not follow that if the law of our limbs has no element of discernment, the law of the mind would also have no element of discernment. Because the law of the mind both prompts and rules, while the law of the flesh only prompts.
Dicendum quod conscientia dicitur lex rationis et intellectus : quia ex universalibus regulis ligat ad faciendum vel non faciendum : et sic est etiam habitus motivus et ad delectabile et ad poenale. Unde II ad Corinth. I, 12 : Gloria nostra haec est, testimonium conscientiae nostrae. Ibi Glossa dicit sic : “Sicut impiis est magna poena conscientia, ita piis magnum gaudium.” . . . Nec est simile de lege carnis, et de lege mentis : quia lex naturalis per cognitionem dirigit motivam partem : et ideo oportet, quod aliquid cognitionis habeat : nec opponitur fomiti ex omni parte, sed tantum ex illa qua motiva est ad bonum. Et ideo non oportet, si lex membrorum nihil habeat cognitionis, quod etiam mentis nihil habeat cognitionis : quia lex mentis et regit et movet, lex carnis movet tantum. (Summa theologiae, Pars II, tract.16, q.99, m.3, art.1)
* Man [= Adam] did not know more things about himself as far as they are discerned by himself than the things he came to know later through natural law. For this later knowledge which he received from himself was natural law which God impresses on every rational human being. And this is stated by Psalm 4,7: “The light of your face, Oh Lord, is sealed upon us”. And that is why Basil says at the beginning of [his commentary on] Proverbs that the natural law is inscribed on our natural tribunal, that is: on our reason.
Homo de seipso per cognitionem acceptam in creatione non cognovit plura quantum ad scita per seipsum, quam postea cognovit per legem naturalem : quia haec ipsa cognitio quam accepit de seipso, lex naturalis fuit, quam Deus omni homini impressit rationali. Et hoc est quod dicit, Psal. IV, 7 : Signatum est super nos lumen vultus tui, Domine. Et propter hoc dicit Basilius super principium Proverbiorum, quod naturalis lex scripta est in naturali judicatorio, hoc est, in ratione. (Summa theologiae, Pars II, tract.14, q.89, m.3)
* Malachi 2,15: “Preserve your spirit and do not despise the wife of your youth”. On this Jerome remarks in his commentary: “With the wife of his youth he [Malachi] means natural law written in our heart and spirit. But the spirit here does not refer to the animal part [in us] which does not perceive the things of God, but the rational spirit which pleads for us with unspeakable sighs”. Therefore it appears that the spirit is the rational part in us by which a human being is inclined towards God and towards the things which are in harmony with nature. But that is no other faculty is us than our conscience.
Malachi II, 15 : Custodite spiritum vestrum, et uxorem adolescentiae tuae nolite despicere. Super illud Hieronymus in Glossa : “Per uxorem adolescentiae intelligit legem naturalem scriptam in corde et in spiritu. Spiritus vero dicitur non animalis pars quae non percipit quae Dei sunt, sed rationalis spiritus, qui postulat pro nobis gemitibus inenarrabilibus.” Ergo videtur, quod spiritus sit rationalis pars in nobis, qua homo inclinatur in Deum, cui sicut viro conjungitur lex naturalis a principio vitae, et inclinat ad ea quae Dei sunt, et quae sunt secundum naturam : sed illa non est alia potentia quam synderesis. (Summa theologiae, Pars II, tract.16, q.99, m.2, art.1).
* [Commentary on “Four months and then the harvest . . .” John 4,35] These ‘four months’ refer to four new moons, namely natural law, the written law, prophecy and enlightenment brought by John. For these four lights lead to the harvest of grace. About the first illumination [natural law] Psalm 4,7 states: “The light of your face is sealed upon us, o Lord”. About the second Proverbs 6,23: “The commandment is a lamp, the law light and the way to life is the correction of discipline”. About the third 2 Peter 1,9 says: “We possess a firmer prophetic statement which you do well to heed as a lamp radiating in a dark place until day will dawn”. About the fourth, Luke 1,79: “To enlighten those who reside in the darkness and the shadow of death”. For by these (four) kindled lights, the light of the Lord will prevail in the world until Christ. But with Chirst the fifth month has started, the month of maturity for the harvest.
Isti autem quatuor menses sunt quatuor lunae renovationes, quae sunt lex naturalis, lex scripta, prophetia, et illuminatio facta per Joannem. Haec enim quatuor lumina ducunt ad messem gratiae. De prima illuminatione in Psalmo, iv, 7 : Signatum est super nos lumen vultus tui, Domine. De secunda, Proverb. vi, 23 : Mandatum lucerna est, et lex lux, et via vitae increpatio disciplinae. De tertia, II Petri, i, 19 : Habemus firmiorem propheticum sermonem, cui benefacitis attendentes, quasi lucernae lucenti in caliginoso loco, donec dies elucescat. De quarta, Luc. i, 79 : Illuminare his qui in tenebris et in umbra mortis sedent. Istis enim accensionibus lucis, lumen Domini convaluit iii mundo usque ad Christum. Sub Christo autem quintus incepit mensis maturitatis ad metendum. (Super Iohannem, in cap.4, v.35).
* About this it has to be stated that in the precepts concerning the Sabbath two obligations are indicated. The first, the moral one, exists because of natural law. That is, tranquillity [‘rest’] is indicated, namely that the tranquillity of the heart be kept firm and clean . . . This is what natural human reason prescribes to every human being. And this is natural law which, as Basil tells us, is recorded in natural law, that is in our natural tribunal which is the natural intelligence of the human person stating what is to be done and what to be avoided in the common principles of morality which regulate life. And this is so indelibly written on the tablets of our heart as in stone. Therefore there can never be dispensation from it.
Ad hoc autem dicendum, quod in praecepto de sabbato duo significabantur. Unum quidem quod est morale, de lege naturae existens : et hoc est significatio quietis, scilicet, ut quies cordis firma et munda servetur . . . Et ratio naturalis dictat hoc omni homini. Haec autem est lex naturalis, quae (sicut dicit Basilius) in naturali lege est descripta, id est in naturali judicatorio, quod est ratio naturalis hominis dicens quid faciendum, et quid cavendum est in communibus principiis morum, quae ordinant vitam. Et ideo hoc in tabulis cordis scriptum est adeo indelebiliter, tamquam in lapide : et ideo numquam potest habere dispensationem. (Super Iohannem, in cap.5, v.16-17).
* There is a knowledge of the law which is a first potency with respect to the general matters of the law, concerning which it is only necessary to know the terms of the commandment, that is to say, what is stealing and what is adultery, and then through knowledge of these terms, it is evident that one should not steal or commit adultery. Hence, the knowledge of these principles is not acquired except in an accidental sense, namely, through the knowledge of the terms, and not through anything that is prior [to these principles] themselves, as the knowledge of conclusions is acquired. Thus, the knowledge of such principles is placed in us by nature, simply speaking, and is acquired in an accidental sense through knowledge of the terms…(De bono V 1.1).
* The natural law is nothing other than the law of reason or obligation, insofar as nature is reason. When, however, I say that nature is reason, it is possible to understand it more as nature, or more as reason, or equally as nature and reason. If however it is taken as nature, then it would be the principle of actions pertaining to the continuance and well-being of the one in whom it is, and of the rational consideration of those things which pertain to the well-being of the individual, as for example, food, clothing, a house, a bed, the care of health and the procuring of medicine, and other things of this sort which we seek for ourselves through rational consideration. Similar to these are those things pertaining to the well-being of the species, such as a wife and children, and care and provision for each of them. For when reason is said to be nature, and more nature than reason, I do not exclude reason. And because the law does not establish injury, I always assume right reason with regard to these things. On this account, the desire of gluttony and adultery and stealing would not be in accordance with the natural law nor according to nature spoken of in this way, because right reason is that which is rationally discerned about natural things, that is to say, things pertaining to nature, through the natural law (De bono V 1.2).