In his introduction to the Fordham University Press edition of Yves Simon’s “The Tradition of Natural Law,” Russell Hittinger cites the following sentence from Simon: “One of the social functions of philosophers, when they speak of natural law, is to remind men that their own nature, the moral nature, the universe of morality, is no less mysterious than this physical universe.” One might ask, on reading such a sentence, “Who is reminding whom of what?”

Aristotle makes us aware that alongside of what he calls physics – the world of things that necessarily happen through their own laws – there is a second world, perhaps a second nature, that is, if anything, more complicated and intricate than the physical universe itself. And each of us is intimately involved in both worlds. But the one that fascinates us most is the world of our own drama.

The other morning during a walk through Georgetown, I was looking up at an almost full moon. It was not quite full. I am always challenged to picture just where I am situated on this planet when I see the moon’s location and wonder at what angle it must be so that its side always facing the sun is not quite a circle to me. The vast reaches of the universe go on – I read recently that studies evidently show that all the planets in our solar system are experiencing a warming trend that must find its origin in the inner movements of the sun.

In any case, we can stand in a given place on our own planet Earth and, by looking out from it, contemplate its relative size and age compared to the rest of the universe. We know how we depend on our star which we call the sun. We know that it will burn out some day, but it is nothing that we have to immediately worry about. The very fact that we exist at all as we do is made possible by the whole heavenly coordinates behaving as they do and, as the anthropic principle puts it, on an extremely tight schedule. We are usually about our own affairs; but still, we cannot but wonder about our place in the universe all at times.

We can use the word “mysterious” of the ways of the physical universe, something the Greeks called a “cosmos,” an order. At the same time, there exists something we call “ourselves.” We are about many things. The Simon comment talks about a “social function” of philosophers. That is a curious phrase. I wonder what it means.

In effect, Simon implies, and also something commented on by Albert Einstein, that the complexity of human morality and politics is more, not less, mysterious and complicated than the movements of the physical universe. This fact means, as it were, that there really are two “universes” going on in the same universe, to put it paradoxically. The human universe puts things into existence that depend on mind and free will.

This is the maddening origin of the difficulty in understanding and studying human things. Modern social thought has tried valiantly to reduce the human free world to the principles of the physical sciences. But it always runs into unexpected surprises and alternatives, something that throws off the “science” presuppositions, like predicting the fall of communism.

Logically, this means that we are all involved in an adventure that includes our intelligence and free choices. We are simultaneously concerned with what we actually do and with what we ought to do. When the two are theoretically judged to be the same, we suddenly find ourselves locked within ourselves. But we suspect, if we be honest, that many times what we actually do is not what we ought to do. Leo Strauss talks about “lowering our sights” so that we only can do what we want to do. He thinks rightly that this lowering is a kind of self-chosen imprisonment.

Somehow, I find it particularly fascinating, the notion that the human world is every bit as mysterious as the cosmos itself. There is something about us that seems to be, as it were, “trans-cosmic.” As I like to put it, we look at the universe; it does not look at us. We have as sense, as St. Augustine taught us, that that we are in fact more important than the universe. It exists for us, not we for it.

If this priority is so, then the drama of what goes on in our own lives that cannot go on in the universe, the complexities revolving about our free choices, is really what constitutes the central drama of existence. As I say, with Simon, philosophers need to remind us of such things. Students are, or ought to be, as Plato said, “potential philosophers.” That is, they also need to be reminded of these mysterious things.

Fr. James V. Schall, S.J., is a professor of government. He can be reached at AS THIS JESUIT SEES IT. appears every other Friday, with Fr. Ryan Maher, S.J., and Schall alternating as writers.

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