An Appraisal of the Impact of Natural Law on Contemporary Legal Systems

Omoleye Benson Olukayode


Discourses on natural law have spanned aeons[1] of human history and it has remained a recurring decimal in jurisprudential thoughts till date.  In its chequered history, it has taken on different forms, changing in contents, role and scope.  Natural law has survived many turbulent periods during which its relevance came under threats but emerging always, as it were, with renewed vigour and growing influence on the legal systems the world over.

The search for the ultimate philosophical foundation of law having universal application has led to different ideas and theories from the ancient periods to the modern times.  The concern, primarily, has been how to subject positive law to higher and overriding principles of natural law which are universal and immutable in character.  In the process different versions of natural law have emerged.  The conceptions of natural law of the early Greek philosophers are essentially metaphysical in character.  They attempted to establish inextricable nexus between natural law and other elements that constitute the cosmos.  The Romans, on their part, made natural rights into natural law and sought to discover the contents of natural law.  In the middle Ages law was largely expressed in terms of theological principles and beliefs; the seventeen and eighteen centuries put forward rational – theological or rational – ethical natural law and at the end of the eighteen century Kent replaced the rational foundation by once again a metaphysical natural law. In the contemporary times John Finnis and Lon Fuller spearheaded a completely secular approach to natural law.

This paper undertakes an overview of the various ideas from the ancient to the contemporary that have shaped natural law. More importantly, it evaluates the utility and significance of natural law. It also asseses its impact on contemporary legal systems. It finally considers the prospect of its relevance in the future.

[1] “The search for a coherent set of natural law principles spans about two and half thousands years” Michael Doherty Jurisprudence:  The Philosophy of  law, 3rd Edition, London, Old Bailey Press 2004, page 86

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