The Pathos of Politics (21) Thomas Aquinas

Thomas Aquinas

By nature, all men are equal in liberty, but not in other endowments. ~ Thomas Aquinas

Italian theologian and philosopher Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274) reconciled Aristotelian philosophy with the principles of Christianity. He never thought himself a philosopher, whom he considered pagans for failing to appreciate “the true and proper wisdom to be found in Christian revelation.”

Aquinas conceived of both faith and knowledge as having a divine origin. Conflict between them was never real, only apparent. This assumption erased the tension between philosophy and theology.

Aquinas put faith above reason. Because faith relies upon divine revelation, it is closer to the source of all truth than philosophy, which is based on human insight.

Aquinas’ reconciliation of faith and reason put the church on a forward footing. It was not enough.

As early as the 14th century, the movement toward rationalism appeared unstoppable. In the 15th century cradle of the Renaissance lay the rebirth of classical humanism, which would break with the church by proclaiming the supremacy of knowledge. – So much for the emergence of the Age of Enlightenment; back to politics.

Every natural government is governance by one. ~ Thomas Aquinas

Aquinas found government a necessity because “man is naturally a social being.” Aquinas preferred monarchy, as it fit within the scholastic preference of unity.

In the whole universe there is one God, maker and ruler of all things. ~ Thomas Aquinas

This is a religious twist of Plato’s philosopher-king: a ruler with superior wisdom and morality governing for the benefit of all. In contrast, a tyrant “aims, not at the common good, but at the private good of the ruler,” which is “unjust and perverted rulership.”

Aristotle too preferred monarchy, though he doubted that both superior moral and intellectual faculties were to be found in one man. Aquinas concluded that one ruler was more likely to maintain peace, whereas a ruling council might be given to disagreement that could threaten stability.

To ensure quality, Aquinas favored elective kingship to heredity. Whereas the papacy and empire at the time were ruled by elective heads, the English and French had defaulted to hereditary dynasties.

To thwart degeneration, Aquinas suggested that a king’s power “be so tempered that he cannot easily fall into tyranny.” Aquinas was silent as to how this may be achieved.

All should take some share in government. ~ Thomas Aquinas

Unlike John of Salisbury, Aquinas had no taste for tyrannicide. Aquinas was also hesitant to tackle every tyranny with revolution, going so far as to suggest that even tyrants rule by divine permission, and so may be a punishment for the sins of the subjects.

Aquinas distinguished between minor and egregious varieties of transgression, proposing that revolution could carry a heavier price to society than the evil it seeks to remedy. He appreciated that a gyre of violence might be unleashed which could be hard to stop. Edmund Burke later applied this doctrine to his condemnation of the French Revolution.

Applying the Aristotelian principle that “the one to whom it pertains to achieve the final end commands those who execute the things that are ordained to that end,” and correspondent with Gelasian doctrine, Aquinas concluded that “kings are subject to priests.” Whereas the secular ruler has intermediate goals, the church looks to the salvation of souls, which is the ultimate end.

Law: an ordinance of reason for the common good, made by him who has care of the community. ~ Thomas Aquinas

The part of Aquinas’ political theory that is not primarily Aristotelian is his philosophy of law, which is conservative in its conception of being properly based on the custom of the community.

The natural law is promulgated by the very fact that God instilled it into man’s mind so as to be known by him naturally. ~ Thomas Aquinas

The origins of Aquinas’ construct of law are found partly in the Judeo-Christian doctrine of divine law above human law, and partly in the Stoic-Roman concept of there being a rational order of the world which is reflected in human society. The feudal system was itself largely an organic evolution, with proper relations between a lord and vassals determined by custom.

The concept of sovereignty in the Middle Ages was that of the law itself, whereas it had been in antiquity, and is now, attached to the lawgiver – whether a monarch, aristocracy, or representative government in a democratic application.

The medieval preference to communal custom as the basis of justice was not philosophic predilection but a reflection of social reality: status rather than social contract dominated, mobility was low, and political authority decentralized. This conception of the supremacy of law based upon the custom of the community is the greatest lasting contribution the Middle Ages made to political theory.

Mercy without justice is the mother of dissolution; justice without mercy is cruelty. ~ Thomas Aquinas

Though a man of kindness and humility, Aquinas had ideals of violence. He favored death for persistent heretics: a mild penalty, he thought, compared to the eternal torment that awaits a sinner in hell.

Aquinas started with the premise that proper government is an expression of divine order. Therefore, because the commandments of God include a duty of deference, “disobedience to the commands of a superior is a mortal sin.” Such dogmatic certainty has seen repeated incarnations throughout history to justify the persecution of dissenters, regardless of whether the dogma was religious or political in origin.

In order for a war to be just, three things are necessary. First, the authority of the sovereign. Secondly, a just cause. Thirdly, a rightful intention. ~ Thomas Aquinas

Aquinas’ take on women was also conventional; just what one would expect of a medieval monk.

As regards the individual nature, woman is defective and misbegotten, for the active power of the male seed tends to the production of a perfect likeness in the masculine sex; while the production of a woman comes from defect in the active power. ~ Thomas Aquinas

Aquinas had socialist inclinations. This aspect of his teachings is largely forgotten.

Man should not consider his material possessions as his own, but as common to all, so as to share them without hesitation when others are in need. ~ Thomas Aquinas

In reaching back to a near-mythical past of communal living, this view is reactionary. It is also radical, in being echoed by Karl Marx 6 centuries later.