The following is an excerpt from chapter 6, (“Hooker as Philosopher”) of my new book, Richard Hooker: A Guide to His Life and Work.
When Hooker says that “nature hath need of grace,” he does not merely have in mind fallen human nature’s desperate need for the redemption promised in Christ. To be sure, this is affirmed unequivocally in the Laws, but this need is so pressing precisely because mankind is meant for life in God. All created things, says Hooker, following an Aristotelian metaphysic, strive by nature not merely toward particular goods, but to a comprehensive final good, “our sovereign good or blessedness, that wherein the highest degree of all our perfection consisteth, that which being once attained unto there can rest nothing further to be desired” (I.11.1). And since “there can be no goodness desired which proceedeth not from God himself, as from the supreme cause of all things,” it is clear that “all things in the world are said in some sort to seek the highest, and to covet more or less the particiation of God himself” (I.5.2). Although this is true of all creatures, it is especially true of mankind, the capstone of creation, who is capable of participating in God by his reason and will, knowing God and loving him: “Then are we happy therefore when fully we enjoy God, as an object wherein the powers of our souls are satisfied even with everlasting delight: so that although we be men, yet by being unto God united we live as it were the life of God” (I.11.2).
Now this desire for supernatural happiness, Hooker is at pains to establish, is itself natural, for all men have it. It is not in our power not to desire this, he says. Therefore, being naturally desired, it must in some sense within natural capacity since “It is an axiom of nature that natural desire cannot utterly be frustrate” (I.11.4). So man’s reason is not enclosed within the bounds of creation, but naturally transcends these bounds, by desiring and striving unto the supernatural end of union with God.
Of course, Hooker has no doubt that, fallen as we are, we have lost this natural capacity for the supernatural, but we have not lost the desire, nor have we lost all knowledge of the object of this desire. On the contrary, Hooker is convinced, with Paul in Romans 1, that unbelievers are still dimly aware of it, and that the greatest amongst pagan philosophers succeeded in discerning many fundamental truths about God as the supreme source of being and governor of the world. At their best, says Hooker, they have been able to recognize our creaturely dependence on Him, and to discern such duties as “that in all things we go about his aid is by prayer to be craved,” and “that he cannot have sufficient honour done unto him, but the utmost of that we can do to honour him we must” (I.8.7, quoting Plato’s Timaeus and Aristotle’s Ethics).
This natural knowledge of and desire for God has important consequences not only for Hooker’s attempt to lay out the foundations of natural law in Book I of the Laws, but throughout his defense of the English Church. Although we often think of liturgy, church government, and all the rest falling within some self-contained bubble of “grace” over against “nature” or “redemption” over against creation, Hooker recognizes that nothing could be further from the case. On the contrary, he argues, the public exercise of the Christian religion is simply the full, purified, and rightly-directed expression of this natural impulse to do “the utmost of that we can do to honour him.” Christ is the fulfillment of long ages of pagan yearning, and so our worship of Christ, far from seeking to rid itself of any resemblance to non-Christian religions, should seek to adopt and perfect all that is best in them.
A great example of how this conviction informs Hooker’s method can be found in his discussion of festival days and the legitimacy of the church calendar in Book V of the Laws. He begins with an elaborate disquisition on the nature of time, the rhythms of rest and motion appropriate to all created beings, and on God’s action within created time. All of these things lead men naturally to “the sanctification of days and times” as “a token of that thankfulness and a part of that public honor which we owe to God for his admirable benefits” (V.70.1). Even heathen peoples therefore testify “that festival solemnities are a part of the public exercise of religion” (V.70.5), and besides, he adds, working his way through the church year holiday by holiday, they are of great importance to “keep us in perpetual remembrance” (V.70.8), of God’s redeeming work. Therefore, “the very law of nature itself which all men confess to be God’s law requireth in general no less the sanctification of times than of places, persons, and things unto God’s honor” (V.70.9). Hooker follows a similar method in his discussion of matrimony a few chapters later, even going so far as to justify the appropriateness of celebrating the Eucharist within the wedding ceremony by referencing “the laws of Romulus” which “established the use of certain special solemnities, whereby the minds of men were drawn to make the greater conscience of wedlock” (V.73.8).
The same conviction undergirds Hooker’s understanding of the place of religion in a political commonwealth. Rather than seeking to justify the Queen’s authority in the church by reference to Old Testament examples like Hezekiah and Josiah, as many of his predecessors did, Hooker begins with Aristotle:
For of every politic society that being true which Aristotle hath, namely, “that the scope thereof is not simply to live, nor the duty so much to provide for life, as for means of living well”: and that even as the soul is the worthier part of man, so human societies are much more to care for that which tendeth properly unto the soul’s estate, than for such temporal things as this life doth stand in need of. (VIII.1.4, quoting Aristotle, Politics III.6)
Political theology, on this understanding, is simply rightly-ordered political philosophy.