“The Generall and Perpetual Voyce of Men” (Hooker’s Doctrine of Law II)

In my first post on Hooker’s view of law, I outlined his basic schema, showing how for him the whole universe was bound together in one architectonic system of law, all depending upon the twofold eternal law in God himself, the law by which he rules his own being and all outside of him.  I summarized the “law of nature”–the law which guides involuntary creatures to their perfection–and its relation to the “law of reason” the law which voluntary beings discern and follow as the guide to their perfection.  Now it is time to explore further how we know this law, what it tells us, and what its limits are.

For, on the one hand, Hooker will tell us that the law of reason encompasses “the generall and perpetual voyce of men” which thus may be taken “as the sentence of God him selfe.”  On the other hand, it seems clear that not all men seem to concur in the dictates of the law of reason.  We must either, it seems, define extremely narrowly the scope of the law of reason, if it really comprises only those things on which all men agree; or we must qualify in some way the requirement that all men at all times concur in it.  Hooker will do the latter.  

The discussion of our knowledge of the law of reason occupies Hooker throughout the lengthy eighth chapter of Book One.  He begins by linking this law to the involuntarily striving after its proper perfection that characterizes all nature: “as every thing naturally and necessarily doth desire the utmost good and greatest perfection, whereof nature hath made it capable, even so man.  Our felicitie therefore being the object and accomplishment of our desire, we cannot choose but wish and covet it” (I.8.1).  We therefore will whatever reason suggests to us to be good.  How do we know what is good, and consequently, what is evil?  There are two ways, he says–by causes and effects: “the one the knowledge of the causes whereby it is made such, the other the observation of those signes and tokens, which being annexed alwaies unto goodnes, argue that where they are found, theree also goodness is, although we know not the cause by force whereof it is there” (I.8.2) The former route is always the most certain but it is much more difficult, so we generally have to rely on the latter.  

So what are some of the signs and effects that we discern?  The most reliable is “the generall perswasion of all men” that it is good.  For “although we knowe not the cause, yet thus much we may know, that some necessary cause there is, whensoever the judgements of all men generally or for the most part runne one and the same way.”  Indeed, the only way reason can only overrule this judgment is by returning to the former route, that of necessary causes of goodness.  Therefore, as I quoted above, “The generall and perpetual voyce of men is as the sentence of God him selfe.  For that which all men have at all times learned, nature her selfe must needes have taught; and God being the author of nature, her voyce is but his instrument” (I.8.3).

What sorts of things are taught by these laws?  Well, the most universal and self-evident of all axioms is “That the greater good is to be chosen before the lesse” (I.8.5).  It is on this basis that we learn to forgo temporary pleasures that will have evil long-term consequences, and to bear with short-term difficulties for long-term gain.  Other less general but self-evident axioms “are such as these, God to be worshipped, Parents to be honored, others to be used by us as we our selves would by them.  Such things, as soone as they are alleaged, all men acknowledge to be good; they require no profe or furder discourse to be assured of their goodnesse” (I.8.5).  But these are mere examples.  To proceed more systematically, we must follow the order of man’s self-knowledge.  The first thing we come to know by reflecting on ourselves is that “The soule then ought to conduct the bodie, and the spirite of our mindes the soule” (I.8.6)  Likewise, by recognizing ourselves as God’s children (for even natural man can come to a basic knowledge of God’s being, power, supremacy, and, for lack of a better word, creatorhood), we come to discern certain basic rules of our relation to him: “That in all things we goe about his ayde, is by prayer to be craved, That he cannot have sufficient honour done unto him, but the utmost of that we can doe to honour him we must” (I.8.7).  The last of these, he says, is the same as the first and great commandment that Jesus gives us.  

Moreover, by discerning the natural equality of all humans, we will necessarily recognize that I cannot expect to receive any greater good from my fellows than that which I give unto them, and can expect to suffer from them in proportion to that which I cause them to suffer–this leads to the principle of the second great commandment, that we must love our neighbors as ourselves, and to all that it involves.


Is it really true, however, that all men at all time have recognized these principles?  Are they really so self-evident?  Given Paul’s affirmation in Rom. 1:19-20 that God’s invisible attributes are made manifest in creation, and in 2:14-15 that the moral law was known by nature to the Gentiles, Hooker would seem to be on safe ground.  But it is doubtless the case that many men, particularly nowadays, do not consider it at all self-evident that we are to seek God’s aid in prayer, or that he should be worshipped–even plenty of people who genuinely profess to believe there is an omnipotent God.  Likewise, even if it be true that a consideration of the equality of men leads naturally to the principle of loving our neighbors as ourselves, haven’t many people throughout history, and even today, managed to persuade themselves that men are not equal–some are naturally slaves, and thus can be treated as we please?  


Hooker goes on to qualify his account in three crucial ways, in order to deflect such possible objections.  First, it is not, he says, that the principles of the law of reason are in fact known to all men, but that they are such that “being proposed no man can reject [them] as unreasonable and unjust” and such that “anie man (having naturall perfection of wit, and ripeness of judgment) may by labour and travail find out” (I.8.9).  They are in themselves knowable by all men, but that does not mean that laziness may not leave many in ignorance of them.  

Moreover, the propensity to such laziness is readily magnified by the force of “lewde and wicked custome,” which, “beginning perhaps at the first amongst few, afterwards spreading into greater multitudes, and so continuing from time to time, may be of force even in plaine things to smother the light of naturall understanding” (I.8.11).  One man may start doing something wicked and unnatural, and others may follow his example, until soon so many people are doing it that men do not stop to think about the unnaturalness of it, but imagine that this is how things have always been and how they’re supposed to be.  Hooker suggests that the practice of worshipping idols falls into this category–clearly absurd and unnatural, but a custom that became so generally rooted that it came to seem natural.  By this means, it would seem, many of the key principles of the law of reason could become almost hopelessly obscured by sinful man.

But the third qualification goes even further:

“For whatsoever we have hitherto taught, or shall hereafter, concerning the force of man’s naturall understanding, this we always desire withall to be understood, that there is no kind of faculty or power in man or any other creature, which can rightly performe the functions alotted to it, without perpetuall aid and concurrence of that supreme cause of all things.  The benefit whereof as oft as we cause God in his justice to withdraw, there can no other thing follow, then that which the Apostle noteth, even men indued with the light of reason notwithstanding in the vanitie of their minde, having their cogitations darkned, and being strangers fromt he life of God through the ignorance which is in them, because of the hardness of their hearts” (I.8.11). 

 Indeed, Isaiah says just this about idol worship–”God hath shut their eyes that they cannot see.”  This qualification is clearly a crucial one, without which we might infer a much more rationalistic picture from Hooker than he intends.  Reason, it appears, is not some independent power that man has over against God (as in the Enlightenment), but is at all times dependent upon the illuminating power of God, enabling it to continue to function rightly.  Should man in his stubbornness reject God, and what his reason tells him of God, then God justly abandons his reason and leaves him to fall into all manner of unnatural absurdity.

Thus, while Hooker clearly provides ground for explaining how unbelievers may attain unto much knowledge and even moral and political wisdom, he hardly provides us with optimism that they will maintain such knowledge and wisdom.  Those in rebellion against God may through this rebellion so lose their reason as to lose their grip on the laws of nature and reason.  To be sure, this is not so dark a picture as Calvin’s, because Hooker does not maintain that this inevitably happens–it appears rather as an extremity into which wicked men may fall, but not as something that occurs universally to its fullest extent.  To most men, God continues to extend enough of his favor to enable their reasons to discern some knowledge of moral laws, though not enough to guarantee them a clear and reliable grasp, particularly of its secondary and tertiary principles.  There will more to say on this and related issues when I come in a later post to explain Hooker’s view of the necessity of supernatural law.

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