Below, find my observations as I read Norton’s selection of St. Thomas Aquinas on Politics and Ethics. The topics discussed are entirely outside the realm of my current expertise and so I reserve the right to falter, fail and downright err in my attempts to assimilate and summarize the text. You’ll also no doubt note that my writing style is faulty and at times illegible due to the complete lack of familiarity with the topic. Parties wishing to correct my interpretation, grammar or content are welcome to do so. Parties wishing to argue about the nuances of Thomist theology should find a more worthy opponent with whom to test their expertise.
St. Thomas Aquinas on Politics and Ethics
Norton Critical Editions
Life of St. Thomas – Timeline
1225 – Born near Naples
1244 – Joins to Dominican order but is imprisoned for a year by his family as they are disappointed in his choice. They preferred he become a Benedictine.
1259 – 1264 – Writes ‘Summa Contra Gentiles‘; an aid to help missionaries in their work to convert Muslims and Jews in Spain and North Africa.
1265 – Writes ‘On Kingship‘ for the youthful new king of Cyprus
1266 – 1272 – Writes ‘Summa Theologiae‘, an introduction to the Dominican theology for novice members
1274 – Died after striking his head on an overhanging tree branch
1323 – Canonized
Saint Thomas’ primary contribution to history was to integrate the newly discovered and seemingly contradictory teachings of Aristotle into the theological teachings of his day. Because Aristotle’s teachings ran contrary to long-standing church teachings they were banned in 1215. The ban was re-affirmed in 1231 but a few short years later the logic of Aristotle’s arguments was irresistible and by 1255 he had become required reading.
Thomas’ use of the scholastic approach allowed complex philosophical problems to be broken down via rational debate. Where previously issues of governance and morals were resolved by attempts to extract answers directly from interpretation of Biblical texts, with Thomas we see the evolution of the use of natural law or reason as an extension of Biblical teachings. The belief that man’s natural reason is all part of God’s plan for the world is key to Thomas’ work. “Grace does not destroy nature, but completes it.” he writes. The grace of God and the knowledge of Jesus’ sacrifice does not contradict our observations of the world around us but instead caps it nicely by wrapping up the lose ends that human reason is too feeble to resolve. Man can know some part of God’s divine plan by use of his intellect but can never know God completely. Where knowledge ends faith must begin. For Thomas, reason was simply another path to God, not one of self-deception as St. Augustine argued.
Summa Contra Gentiles
In Summa Contra Gentiles Thomas argues about the fundamental properties of God and the universe. God, he argues, cannot be entirely understood by application of human reason. Using the human senses to know God is like knowing an object merely by the shape of it’s shadow. One can demonstrate logically that God exists, that God is one and eternal but the deeper mysteries of God, such as the fact that he is simultaneously 1 and yet also 3, are impenetrable to logic. Though it is possible to know something of God by argument alone, few men do so. Most are distracted by earthly concerns, not mentally capable of the pursuit or merely too lazy. But the knowledge is there for anyone who seeks it; reasoning and logic, derived as they are from God himself, will never contradict faith and truth. It cannot be emphasized enough, however, that no matter how diligently we may seek or reason, the final step to knowing God must be an act of faith. Reason alone will not give us all the answers.
Thomas goes on to compare humans’ relationship with the divine to an oyster’s relationship to a plant. The oyster represents the very lowest of the animal forms and as such is only slightly separated from a plant. In the same way, humans, supreme among the animals, are only slightly separated from the angels above them in the great ‘Chain of Being.’ Man, as ruler of the animals has only his soul to separate him from his baser counterparts. While all animals outstrip man in some manner (some are faster, stronger, better hunters) man dominates them all in that he has a soul and can partake of the ultimate happiness, the contemplation of God. While communion with God is the greatest joy possible to mankind this is never without an accompaniment of sorrow or distraction. No man is without suffering until he reaches his ultimate reward. The soul needs the human flesh to help it derive knowledge from the substance of the world around it but this flesh comes with a price, constant suffering while man lives on Earth. Only the divine light of God can teach the soul directly without the need for a human form.
All the acts of man, no matter how base-seeming, come about as the fulfillment of natural appetite. Since nature tends always towards the good and optimal all acts are good though that good may be of a strictly local nature. If a man should kill another man, it would be for the benefit of himself. Whether this should benefit society in general is another argument altogether but in the context of murderer alone the act is a good one. Similarly, all intellectual acts bring us closer to God. No matter what we seek the only truth in the universe is God himself and when we approach truth by any path we approach God. If we should derive pleasure from any act we commit it should be noted that this is merely a byproduct and not the goal to be achieved. Pleasure is never an end in and of itself but instead merely a sensation that signals that we have completed some more important goal.
On Kingship illuminates Thomas’ views on the best manner of government. This text was started for the King of Cyprus in 1265 but Thomas did not, in fact, ever finish this work as the young King was killed not long after it was started. Another writer completed the text afterwards. Thomas argues emphatically that the best form of government is a Monarchy. A single ruler, he says, is not burdened with differing viewpoints. A benevolent monarch can move quickly to serve the needs of his people without the need to consult anyone else. While private concerns of the citizens work to divide the community the king’s role is to guide the people to focus on the public goals that bind them together. It is this act of uniting his people in peace that is the ruler’s first and most important responsibility. Because this is the first goal, it can obviously be done most efficiently by only one man. No appearance of dissent is possible if all the decisions stem from a single individual. Nature also demonstrates to the superiority of a single leader. Thomas points out that the body is ruled by a single organ, the brain. The universe is ruled by a single God and even bees are guided by a single ‘king’ bee as he refers to it. Lastly, a government ruled by many, no matter how seemingly benevolent, is more likely to devolve into tyranny. If a group rules then it becomes increasingly likely that at least one of them is corrupt and thirsts for more power and may overthrow the others.
While a king is the best form of government a tyrant is the worst. As the king works for the benefit of the ruled the tyrant works only for the benefit of himself. A tyrannical monarch is worse than any form of government in which many rule since he works in the interest of only himself while a oligarchy at least works for the benefit of a select handful of people. A tyrant also drives the virtuous from his kingdom. Any who excel in a society ruled by tyranny represent a threat to the status quo and are quickly forced to either leave or act against the king. Men will still labor to support a just king but a tyrant brings out the best in no one around him.
A relatively benign tyrant can be better than a particularly oppressive oligarchy, Thomas concludes. A tyrant only steals for his own benefit but an oligarchy may go so far as to spur a war or in the best case steal for the needs of many more individuals. Once established, a tyrant should not be removed except by the united rebellion of those he rules. It is thought by many that simply assassinating the despot will resolve the government’s problems but often is it found that another even worse tyrant simply replaces the first. Since this new ruler is keenly aware of the delicate position he holds his reign will be even more oppressive. If the ruled cannot unite strongly enough to depose their ruler then their only valid course is to appeal to God himself. It is better to suffer an unjust ruler than to act unjustly in deposing him as God sometimes uses such rulers to punish the sinful.
A king who wishes to be just should model his rule after that of God over the universe. Rulers should consider their subjects like parts of their own body and treat them with the same respect. The ultimate goal of the government is to support the people in their own goals: to live virtuous lives and enjoy the divine knowledge of God. The government should recognize the supremacy of the church in all matters since it is the Church which is the best guide of virtue and Godliness.
Summa Theologiae Part 1
In the Summa Theologiae, Thomas takes on some of the stickier theological questions of his day. The format for these answers takes the form of a debate in which the question is posed, objections are raised and then Thomas puts forth his proof. I will boil down these proofs to their key points below.
Does God Exist?
Objections: God cannot exist because a true God would not allow evil to exist in the world. Besides, everything that takes place in nature can as easily be explained without God.
God’s existence can be proven in 5 days:
- Objects on the Earth and outside it move from the stars to the wind. In order for these things to move there must be someone to move them. This is most assuredly the work of God.
- The universe operates on the principle of cause and effect. Everything we see around us has some cause but there is no effect without a cause. This first cause which is required for anything to exist is God.
- Objects in the world either exist or they do not. Objects come into being because of other preexisting objects therefore there must be some initial object to have created all others. Again, this first object is God.
- To all properties in the universe there is a greatest superlative example. God exist to represent the greatest possible example of ‘goodness’ and benevolence in the universe.
- Nature operates in the optimal way possible for the survival of animals and plants. Just as for the arrow in flight there must be an archer to guide it, so also in order for nature to behave in a rational manner there must be some God to dictate this behavior.
Responds to Objections: God is so utterly powerful that he allows evil to exist so that he may turn it to good. Further, all the acts of God seem rational and explained by other means exactly because God dictates that they behave in a reasonable fashion.
Can we know God in this lifetime by use of reason alone and is it better to know God by reason or by Grace?
Man can learn to know God by the use of his reason but the results will be hollow when compared with that gained by God’s grace. The pursuit of God by logic is prone to error since man’s reason is subject to the frailty of his senses while God’s grace instructs the soul directly.
Does God love all things?
God does love all things and everything is good in God’s eyes. God’s very love for things makes them good while man’s love is contingent on the belief that they are good.
Is the soul a material object? Is the human soul corruptible?
The soul is incorporeal and as such is not corruptible
Should woman have been made in the Original Creation?
Objections: A woman is basically just a defective man so she shouldn’t have been made in the first place. This is obvious because she is subject to the rule of the man and this is an indication that she has sinned and is being punished for it.
Woman was made as a “helpmate” to man. Not for helping in the fields but as an aid to procreation. Animals in nature reproduce in the same way and while the woman is concentrating on bringing new life into the world the man can be focused on the first goal of mankind: communion with God.
Responses to Objections: Woman is somewhat defective in her nature but that’s what God made her to be. Her duty is to create children and this was as God intended therefore it is good. Also, woman is subject to the rule of man but that’s only because man is more endowed with intelligence than woman so it’s for her own good that this is so.
If the ‘Fall’ had never happened, would we still need Kings to lord over us? Would we still have sex?
Man is a social animal so regardless of the circumstances he will require the company of others. Whenever men congregate there will be some who are more intelligent or stronger than others so even if man had never fallen from grace, we would still need leaders to direct the actions of the community. As to sex, male and female were made before the fall so sexual intercourse would still exist. It would be different however in that it would not be tainted by lust. This is not to say that it would be less pleasant however. A moderate man who eats only what he needs enjoys his meal no less than a glutton.
Are there different orders within the hierarchy of angels?
Yes, angels are broken into orders by their function and into three levels: highest, middle, and lowest.
Summa Theologiae Part 2a
In part 2 of the Summa St Thomas pursues a few more questions but for brevity I will reduce the findings to a more comopact form and dispense with the Question and Answer format.
The only happiness that can be found in this life is merely transitory. Man is never truly happy as long as there is more to do and more to find out about and in this life we cannot possibly hope to exclude all suffering and evil. It is only by achieving his primary goal, to know God, that man can achieve happiness. God in his wisdom and mercy gives us tools added to our natural intellect to help us attain this final happiness, they are the theological virtues: faith, hope and charity. It is by exercising these virtues that man can eventually become truly happy.
Just as you would not blame the hand alone for a murder it carried out, so too can one man alone not be blamed for his sins. The body of mankind as a whole is tainted and this is the nature of original sin.
Law is the rule or measure of action or restraint in a man and the first law of all is that of human reason. A law is said to be good if it is oriented towards the common good. To be effective a law requires consensus among the ruled and must be widely known. Effective law also requires that the ruler has the power of compulsion in cases where the law is disobeyed. Unjust law is contrary to divine goodness and should be considered no law at all. There are four types of law:
Eternal law is the law by which God governs the universe, the divine wisdom by which all things are ultimately ruled. Eternal law is a constituent in all other laws.
Natural Law represents the manner in which man behaves according to the Eternal Law. These laws are the same for all men but are unknown or unfollowed by some. They are also prone to exceptions since they can be changed or exceptions made depending on the situation or the will of God. Natural Laws fall into three basic categories: those laws which preserve life (prohibitions on murder, suicide), that knowledge shared in common with the animals (sex, education of children), knowledge of how we can become closer to God.
Divine Law is the word of God given to us in the form of Scripture. Divine law serves four purposes. First, to aid man to reach beyond the Natural law towards his own salvation. Secondly, to correct human laws where they may err. Third, to judge those things which cannot be judged by man’s sense of the world around him. Lastly, to tie up any loose ends that are unenforceable in the course of a normal human lifetime (such as punishing suicides who would otherwise be beyond the reach of civil authority).
Finally, Human law is constructed by man and derived from Natural Laws as an aid to the young and the weak who might not otherwise observe those laws. The purpose of human laws is not to suppress all human vice, this would be impossible to enforce. Rather, those infractions which would diminish the social order are focused on. Even those who are outside the enforceable realm of human law are subject to it as God will sit in judgment of even Kings who violate it. Over time, Human Law evolves and exceptions are made but changes should only happen with the support of the ruled and in cases when the risk of changing a long-held belief is small compared to the benefit derived from the change. In many cases, local custom has the force of law even when it is not formally codified. The best way to administer Human Law is through a single ruler and a council of elders much like Moses and the council of 72 elders. Human Laws fall into two basic categories. Firstly, those laws which are common to all nations and from which there is no dispensation. These laws are derived directly from the Natural Laws.
Secondly, laws which are derived less directly from the Natural Laws merely for the convenience of the of the community.
Most importantly, it should be noted that no system of laws, no matter how constructed or how closely adhered to can make a man truly good. Only the Grace of God can bring man to the level of true goodness.
Summa Theologiae Part 2b
Those who never believed in the salvation offered by Jesus Christ (primarily the Jews and the Muslims) should should not be physically compelled to believe since this would not actually do any good anyway. Heretics, apostates, and any others who stand in the way of the faith can be removed by any means necessary as these threaten the viability of the faith. The faithful should also not associate with unbelievers, especially those weak in faith. Others may associate with them only if there is hope of conversion and the rituals of unbelievers are not to be tolerated unless that tolerance directly serves to advance the cause of conversion. Further, the children of unbelievers are not to be baptized against the will of the parents until such time as they reach the age of reason. In extreme cases, heretics may be killed but only after being given the chance to renounce their heretical views.
War is not in and of itself a sin. If waged for a just cause and in a just manner war is an acceptable means of advancing the cause of the faith or removing an tyrannical ruler. In all cases of violence, however, the benefit must be weighed against the costs of the disruption to the common peace. Similarly, it is just to murder a criminal if that murder benefits the public good but this must be undertaken by the ruler of a community and not by its private citizens. Killing in self defense is not considered murder as long as it is proportionate to the risk of doing nothing. In such cases, the intent of the killer is paramount. If the intent was to murder then so should the action be adjudged. In the same way accidental killing is not considered murder except in the case where gross negligence caused the death. In that case, regardless of intent, the ruling shall be that of murder. Finally, in the case of the death of an infant before it’s birth, it shall be considered murder if the pregnancy is more than 40 days old (in the case of a male) or 80 days old (in the case of a female).
Suicide is a mortal sin for three reasons. Firstly, the act of suicide is contrary to the natural law of self preservation. Secondly, the destruction of a member of a community is harmful to that community so the act is also one against the common good. Lastly, suicide is an infringement on the sole jurisdiction of life and death that belongs to God.
It is within man’s natural rights to own objects as his own private property. In this way he is best able to care for those objects as he has a sense of ownership and pride. However, with that ownership comes the responsibility to share that objects in a time of need. A man may rightly steal if he is in dire need so the right of ownership is secondary to that of necessity. A man may also sell his objects for a profit without fear of committing a sin but it is a sin against nature to charge interest on the use of money itself since nothing is bought or sold in the transaction.
It is natural that inferiors obey their superiors in life but a slave may never be commanded in contradiction to orders given by a greater superior (ie, God). A superior can also not command outside the realm of his dominion. Specifically, a master may command the body but the mind is beyond his reach. It should also be noted that faith in Christ does not release us from our duty to secular authority.
In no case is lying acceptable even in cases where a another sin may be averted by use of a falsehood. Instead, it is recommend that one simply avoid giving a direct response.
The act of drinking is not a mortal sin unless the intention is to actually become drunk. Drinking to drunkenness deprives man of his natural reason which directs him to act virtuously.
Virginity, although contrary to the natural law of procreation, is not a sin if it is done so as to free one for more time to contemplate the divine. The opposite extreme, that of promiscuity, however, is a mortal sin as it works against the proper rearing of children. The mere act of kissing and embracing is merely a venial sin but those of masturbation, bestiality, sodomy and ‘sex using the wrong organs’ is against nature and constitute mortal sins.
Summa Theologiae Part 3
Christ is the head of all mankind though in differing degrees:
1. Christ is head of those united to him in heaven
2. Christ is head of those united to him in love (those not currently in a state of mortal sin)
3. Christ is head of those united to him in faith
4. Christ is head of those who have not yet united with him but who are predestined to before their deaths.
5. Christ is head of those who will never be united with him and who will separate from him utterly upon their deaths.
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