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In its most venal manifestation, scholarly writing betrays the anxiety of influence by claiming to offer a radically new solution to age-old conundrums. The goal is to make a clean break from a traditional path of thought that has become trapped in a cul-de-sac, to make progress by finding a new way forward. Not so with Jean Porter’s work, and particularly her most recent book. Professor Porter demonstrates that thinking through an established tradition – one that has responded to numerous challenges within very different contexts over several millennia – can sometimes offer the most productive response to contemporary dilemmas. She rejects the Sirens’ lure to make a sharp break from received traditions. Instead, she chooses to engage the natural law philosophy of the early Scholastic period from our contemporary perspective and its attendant problems. This provides helpful resources to deal with these contemporary dilemmas, but it also opens new possibilities for the development of natural law thinking. The resulting book, Ministers of the Law, is erudite, artfully presented, and provocative. In this article I view Professor Porter’s successful resuscitation of a plausible account of natural law through a particular lens. My thesis is that we can productively extend her work by more strongly acknowledging the hermeneutical and rhetorical nature of law. This may seem paradoxical, if not incoherent, in light of the common understanding that contemporary hermeneutical and rhetorical philosophy participates in the postmodern critique of rationality. Although many might assume that natural law is wholly at odds with hermeneutical philosophy and rhetorical theory, I argue that the case is just the opposite. Professor Porter acknowledges that rhetorical persuasion is at the center of the practices that gird the natural law tradition, but we should strengthen this acknowledgment to the point of embracing fully the theoretical commitments of contemporary hermeneutical and rhetorical theorists. My discussion is divided into three parts. First, I survey Professor Porter’s argument and establish that she regards hermeneutical and rhetorical practices as critical features of her natural law account. Next, I adumbrate a hermeneutical-rhetorical understanding of natural law that builds on my previous work. Finally, I explore how this account expands and deepens Professor Porter’s natural law account of legal authority. I conclude that we should recognize law’s hermeneutical and rhetorical nature, but that Porter has demonstrated the necessity of taking into account the Scholastics’ natural law philosophy as part of this project.

Publication Citation

8 Journal of Catholic Social Thought 221 (2011).