A beautifully told story with colorful characters out of epic tradition, a tight and complex plot, and solid pacing. -- Booklist, starred review of On the Razor's Edge

Great writing, vivid scenarios, and thoughtful commentary ... the stories will linger after the last page is turned. -- Publisher's Weekly, on Captive Dreams

Sunday, December 22, 2013

On the Natural Law

There is something in the human heart that recognizes wrong. As long as it is in other people. Ze'ev Chafets once wrote that "Mainstream Protestants tend to locate sin in the moral malfeasance of others—slaveholders, colonialists, capitalists, settlers, oil barons, and the Bush administration." Perhaps distance lends perspective. Or perhaps it is easier to spot a hole in front rather than one behind one's own eyeballs.

Evil, one may recall, is defectus boni, a deficiency of a good. In a sense, it is something that isn't there rather than something that is. That is why to "take away the sin of the world" can be imagined as a sort of hole-filling operation, a bringing-in and not a taking away. It would be something that fills us up.

Writers know that it is far easier to recognize an error in their work than to recognize that something is missing. That is why pride is easier than humility.  But the Natural Law is the recognition that these deficiencies, or at least the most basic of them, can be recognized by any human being, as St. Paul says in Romans 2. This is what makes a recent story out of Spain so interesting.

A 64-year-old man in the city of JaĆ©n called up the police to report a home burglary. He certainly recognized burglary as a defectus boni, since he was now literally deficient on many of his personal goods, mostly fencible electronic equipments. The victim, who coached a youth soccer team, provided the police with a list of missing items.  Oh, the moral outrage!

A few days later, the police received an anonymous call from a pay phone, telling them that a package containing some videotapes had been left under a parked car and gave directions of finding it.  The tapes showed a man molesting young boys. An accompanying note gave the address of the soccer coach's house and read:
"I've had the misfortune that these tapes have fallen into my hands and I feel obligated to turn them in so that you can do your job and put that (expletive) in prison for life."

A few days later, Spanish National Police arrested the burglarized soccer coach.

The burglar, it seems, also had a conscience, and recognized a defect in a good in the (unreported!) tapes he had taken.

The pedophile recognized the sin of the burglar. The burglar recognized the sin of the pedophile.How much happier both men -- and their victims -- would have been had they in addition recognized their own.  Most folks might be inclined to give the burglar a pass and wish him buena suerte, for there is little doubt which of the two transgressions was the worse; yet, this is not likely the first such burglary he has committed, and on victims far less worthy of being victimized.

It's easy, it seems, to recognize an evil provided it is not one to which we are personally devoted. It also seems to indicate that no one is ever so far lost as to lose all grip on the natural law.  

For those of us in the writer's trade, this is also an important lesson when it comes to depicting villains and other such characters.  Save for their particular blind spot, the particular "hole" into which they have fallen, they can be otherwise quite moral actors, outraged by the sins of others.  This can be the lifeline by which they are saved.  And even heroes may have their blind spots, their "tragic flaw" by which they are lost.

Also noted here.


  1. Machiavelli, in his Discourses on Livy, points out that no human can be either totally good or totally evil. The best of us have imperfections, and the worst of us occasionally do something good.

    1. And some of us are compulsively banal.

  2. Thank you for this illuminating exposition on the natural law, especially as it pertains to writing. I'll keep it in mind.

  3. Well, you losers may have deficiencies, but Mr. Rogers likes me just the way I am.

  4. "I'm O.K your O.K." seems to fall short in describing our moral condition.


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