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Melford Spiro. Picture: Manuel Rotenberg, UC San Diego

Aspects of lex aeterna, Nibbanic Buddhism and radical feminism juxtaposed

This (sort of) commemorative article will try to juxtapose an aspect of the Thomist lex aeterna (in Latin, English translation ‘eternal law’) with two other concepts arguably derived from anthropology and feminist legal theory to be discussed below. Apart from being a theologian Aquinas ‘dabbled with’, wrote or postulated his ‘suppositions’ on the classification of laws. 

According to Aquinas there are four categories of law: lex aeterna, lex divina (divine law or law derivable from the Christian scriptures), lex naturalis (natural law) and lex humana (human law).

Lex aeterna is the eternal law of God which is known only to God and perhaps select (or is it ‘Elect’?) few ‘touched’ by God. From the secondary sources and from English translations (in summary) this writer is not sure whether Aquinas considered himself as among the few Elect personages who can have a glimpse of the eternal law through the blessings conferred by God.

Lex divina (divine law) is the law that can be seen or discerned in the Christian scriptures mainly, perhaps not exclusively, from the New and Old Testaments. Again, this writer is not sure whether Aquinas and the Thomist scholars throughout the centuries would consider Aquinas’ own extensive writings touching upon law matters mainly but not exclusively in the Summa Theologica to have formed part of lex divina, albeit at what can be termed the penumbra. The legalistic commands or statements in the Old and New Testaments would form the ‘core’ of divine law. What is virtually certain is that the Thomist lex divina would not have contained or accommodated say The Analects of Confucius and (albeit Aquinas was quite familiar with Islamic theology) the laws laid down in the Quran.

Lex naturalis (natural law) is the laws of nature that are discernible through the reasoning of men (and arguably and in all likelihood Aquinas would have considered only men to have the facility or the gift to discern natural law). Perhaps the doors of cognition for men to discern the contents of what is natural law would be more widely open to them than those of the eternal law. Eternal law of God would only be available to the ‘Elect’ few men touched by the Grace of God.

Lex humana (human law): Notwithstanding the presence of the above three categories of law(s) the learned doctor (Aquinas) stipulated that human beings tend to act selfishly and for ‘men to curb their selfishness and passions’ human laws made by humans (perhaps mainly through legislation and perhaps customary laws as well) are necessary. Therefore human laws would also have to constitute the corpus of (laws) for ‘men’ (and perhaps in this instance for women although the early 21st century radical feminists – see below – would have considered most of lex humana to be ‘male constructs’).

Melford Spiro’s categorisation of ‘Nibbanic Buddhism’ and the Thomist lex aeterna: A Juxtaposition (not a link)

The late Melford Spiro (26 April 1920-18 October 2014) was an anthropologist whose work (among others) include those relating to Burma (Myanmar) from an anthropological viewpoint. Professor Spiro did ‘field work’ mainly in Upper Burma (residing for months in the village of Yei Kyi near Mandalay) during the period of 1960 to 1962. In 1970 he published the first edition of his book Buddhism and Society: A Great Tradition and its Burmese Vicissitudes (2nd edition, 1982).

Just as Aquinas categorised ‘law’ into four discrete categories, as stated above, Spiro also ‘classified’ Buddhism (as it relates to Burmese society) into four: (1) Nibbanic Buddhism: A Religion of Radical Salvation (2) Kammatic Buddhism: A Religion of Proximate Salvation (3) Apotropaic Buddhism: A Religion of Magical Protection (4) Esoteric Buddhism: A Religion of Chiliastic Expectations. This writer will only re-narrate in summary what Spiro wrote about ‘radical salvation’ of Nibbanic Buddhism.

Spiro stated in effect (and in so few words) the salvation or perhaps less inappropriately soteriology as discoursed or discernible in what he termed Nibbanic Buddhism is difficult for ordinary worldlings (in Burmese pu htu zin) to adopt and internalise it (so to speak, the words are those of the writer in summary not those of Professor Spiro) that only a select (this time not the ‘Elect’ from Christian theology) few could practice it.

Perhaps the concept and status of Arahat (in Pali language) (Yahandar in Burmese) which only a very, very few select persons can achieve attest to Spiro’s categorisation or postulate that Nibbanic Buddhism is of radical soteriology. Hence Spiro argued that for the overwhelming majority of the Burmese Buddhist populace based on the ‘popular’ rather than the canonical (or ‘nibbanic’) Buddhist concept of Kamma (transliteration from the Pali) or Karma (transliteration from the Sanskrit) (mainly albeit not predominantly based on Kamma from past lives) provides a ‘proximate salvation’.

My humble and tentative submission juxtaposing Nibbanic Buddhism with lex aeterna is not a cross-cultural or cross-theological exercise as such. It is based on the presumable or at least apparent if not obvious point that only a handful of persons (arguably in most instances men) can glimpse or attain insights to internalise and practice Nibbanic Buddhism. In Thomist lex aeterna too only a few men touched by God can glimpse His Eternal Law.

In a sense then and in the content-neutral sense of the word both Nibbanic Buddhism and lex aeterna are ‘elitist’ in that very few persons could ‘glimpse’ (in the Christian and Thomist milieu) lex aeterna and likewise very few (in the Buddhist milieu as per Melford Spiro) can appreciate and practice Nibbanic Buddhism.

Radical feminists’ critique of liberal feminists’ adherence to ‘male constructs’ and ‘piercing the veil of male constructs’

In modern history liberal feminists started the women’s rights movement as early as the 19th century. Since the 1960s or 1970s a few postulates or suppositions of the liberal feminists have been critiqued by some radical feminists.

The liberal feminists’ emphasis on ‘equality of women and men’, ‘women and men as rights-bearing autonomous individuals’ have been critiqued by some radical feminists (again in so few words) as ‘playing the male game’ and adhering to ‘male constructs’. ‘Radically’ paraphrasing the saying or slogan ‘women’s rights are human rights’ from this writers’ discernment, select radical feminists seem to be stating that most (or is it almost all?) ‘women’s values are male values or male constructs’. Perhaps radical feminists feel or believe that liberal feminists’ equality arguments etc. indicate that not only liberal feminists but also an overwhelming mass of women are enmeshed or ‘stuck’ in the cycle, loop or trap of ‘male constructs’.

Hence, in this writer’s view, some radical feminists by implication or by derivation seem to be claiming that they and they alone – not liberal feminists, not many other women, not almost all males i.e. those who have thought, written about and articulated about women’s dilemmas and women’s rights – have the insight, the audacity and the radical boldness to ‘pierce the male constructs’. (In company and corporate law there is a term called ‘piercing the corporate veil’. Likewise the centuries nay the millennia old 'male constructs’ and male dominations in all aspects of life can only be pierced and not only pierced but broken down and radically restructured through the insights and discourses of the radical feminists. Or so, it seems, are the radical feminists’ certitudes).

Juxtaposing the ‘insights’ regarding Thomist theology, anthropological study of religion and radical feminism

How does one juxtapose the Thomist ‘eternal law’ with the discourse of radical feminism? Aquinas asserted that the lex aeterna is known only to God and a few who are touched by the Grace of God. To all intents and purposes Aquinas writing in the 13th century would have said that only men had been granted such facilities of cognition and even among those ‘Elect’ males they would have constituted a small minority.

And from a radical feminists’ perspective relatively few persons including the liberal feminists who have thought about the subject concerning women and their relationship with men and the world would have the insight, the daring and (should I say it) the wisdom to see through the male constructs and the necessity to deconstruct and to overcome them.

The subjects discussed above deals with different religious, theological, anthropological, jurisprudential and social ‘genres’. Notwithstanding such diversities (or ironically and ‘radically’ in spite of them) lex aeterna (per Aquinas), Nibbanic Buddhism (per Melford Spiro), an aspect of radical feminist critique re male constructs are available to or discernible only by a minority of men and women. That is the surmise that this writer derives through reading the works of a theologian from the 13th century and the writings and discourses in the late 20th and early 21st century of an anthropologist and a few radical feminists.

This article is dedicated to the memory of Professor Melford Spiro whose 101st birthday falls on 26 April 2021. Though we have never met, throughout the past few decades until several days before he passed away we had fairly extensive correspondence through email and also occasional conversed through phone calls. We occasionally discussed anthropological, philosophical and religious issues in our correspondence. I never had the chance to mention to him the above juxtapositions (dealing in part with his classification of Nibbanic Buddhism) which I now present to the readers.

Dr Myint Zan is a retired Professor of Law and taught jurisprudence (legal philosophy) for 10 years at Multimedia University, Malacca, Malaysia. In 2012, he published a booklet in the Burmese language on the just and unjust law theories of St. Thomas Aquinas.

The book that he edited (in English) Legal Education and Legal Traditions: Selected Essays was published in 2020 by Springer Link. He has also established the Myint Zan Fellowship in Philosophy for post-doctoral and early career researchers at one of his alma maters, Australian National University, for the years 2018 to 2021 and an undergraduate Myint Zan prize in the Philosophy of Science in perpetuity at ANU.

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