Anno Urbis - The Roman Empire Online


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  1. What is the law of nature?

  1. It is the constant and regular order of events, by which God governs the universe; an order which his wisdom presents to the senses and reason of men, as an equal and common rule for their actions, to guide them, without distinction of country or sect, towards perfection and happiness.

  1. Give a clear definition of the word law.

  1. The word law, taken literary, signifies lecture,* because originally, ordinances and regulations were the lectures, preferably to all others, made to the people, in order that they might observe them, and not incur the penalties attached to their infraction: whence follows the original custom explaining the true idea.

The definition of law is, "An order or prohibition to act with the express clause of a penalty attached to the infraction, or of a recompense attached to the observance of that order."

  • From the Latin word lex, lectio. Alcoran likewise signifies lecture and is only a literal translation of the word law.

  1. Do such orders exist in nature?

  1. Yes.

  1. What does the word nature signify?

  1. The word nature bears three different significations.

  1. It signifies the universe, the material world: in this first sense we say the beauties of nature, the riches of nature, that is to say, the objects in the heavens and on the earth exposed to our sight;

  2. It signifies the power that animates, that moves the universe, considering it as a distinct being, such as the soul is to the body; in this second sense we say, "The intentions of nature, the incomprehensible secrets of nature."

  3. It signifies the partial operations of that power on each being, or on each class of beings; and in this third sense we say, "The nature of man is an enigma; every being acts according to its nature."

Wherefore, as the actions of each being, or of each species of beings, are subjected to constant and general rules, which cannot be infringed without interrupting and troubling the general or particular order, those rules of action and of motion are called natural laws, or laws of nature.

  1. Give me examples of those laws.

  1. It is a law of nature, that the sun illuminates successively the surface of the terrestrial globe;--that its presence causes both light and heat;--that heat acting upon water, produces vapors;--that those vapors rising in clouds into the regions of the air, dissolve into rain or snow, and renew incessantly the waters of fountains and rivers.

It is a law of nature, that water flows downwards; that it endeavors to find its level; that it is heavier than air; that all bodies tend towards the earth; that flame ascends towards the heavens;--that it disorganizes vegetables and animals; that air is essential to the life of certain animals; that, in certain circumstances, water suffocates and kills them; that certain juices of plants, certain minerals attack their organs, and destroy their life, and so on in a multitude of other instances.

Wherefore, as all those and similar facts are immutable, constant, and regular, so many real orders result from them for man to conform himself to, with the express clause of punishment attending the infraction of them, or of welfare attending their observance. So that if man pretends to see clear in darkness, if he goes in contradiction to the course of the seasons, or the action of the elements; if he pretends to remain under water without being drowned, to touch fire without burning himself, to deprive himself of air without being suffocated, to swallow poison without destroying himself, he receives from each of those infractions of the laws of nature a corporeal punishment proportionate to his fault; but if on the contrary, he observes and practises each of those laws according to the regular and exact relations they have to him he preserves his existence, and renders it as happy as it can be: and as the only and common end of all those laws, considered relatively to mankind, is to preserve, and render them happy, it has been agreed upon to reduce the idea to one simple expression, and to call them collectively the law of nature.

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