Sense and Nonsense: The Political Philosophy of Aquinas

Voiced by Amazon Polly

Thomas Aquinas put things succinctly. He found num­berless things about which to think. He could, with few words, illuminate the whole of what is in logi­cal form. He wrote little about politi­cal things. He discussed other topics normally called “political”—property, rebellion, prudence, justice, virtue, and common good. In commenting on the Gospels of Matthew and John, he spoke of the death of Christ and the things of Caesar.

Here, in propositional form, is what Aquinas held about politi­cal things. Presenting them this way gives, I hope, some overall view of where Aquinas’s thought leads.

1) A human being, body and soul, is a single person, created for his own sake, with a destiny that transcends and therefore limits any political or­der. 2) Man is and remains naturally a political animal. 3) A state (polity) is an established relationship existing among real human beings, outlining the order of action, especially free actions, toward one another. 4) The highest end of man is thus not po­litical. The political can and should provide “happiness,” usually called “temporal.” No actual polity is perfect. Often it contains laws or customs mili­tating against the human good.

5) Human happiness consists in the activities of the virtues, the objects of which are our fears, pleasures, relation to others, property, wit, anger, and speech. Each person is responsible for his own self-rule. 6) Every action has an accompanying proper pleasure. Pleasure as such is never wrong, only its experience when out of order. It is designed to foster and enhance the goods that are given to us. 7) The forms of rule correspond to the order or disorder of souls. Polities reflect the habitual choices of the citizens, their self-definition of what they consider to be virtue or vice. Modern notions that the soul is only formed by the polity deny the basis and origin of vi­tality and action in the public order. 8) Law, defined as “the ordination of reason, for the common good, by the proper authority, and promulgated,” is the context in which Aquinas dis­cusses most political things. An unrea­sonable law is no law, as Aquinas cites from Augustine; it lacks one or more elements of this definition.


9) A thing can be an end that itself becomes a means to a further end. Thus, the polity is an end, but it ordains those within it to a higher purpose. The polity does not itself define this higher purpose, but only recognizes it. 10) A polity needs to contain within itself at least some who are wholly oriented to what is beyond politics. All members of any existing polity are intended for a transcendent destiny. The presence of contempla­tives and philosophers within any society is necessary for its well-being. 11) The life of politics is worthy but dangerous. The Fall is a factor in each individual life, including that of the politician. His virtues are prudence and justice; however, legal justice brings all virtues under the purview of the polity.

12) The majority of men are not perfect. Therefore the law should not be more strict than the majority of ordinary men can observe. 13) Law ought to be a standard of what is right or wrong even if it is not fully ob­served. 14) Virtue is not simply follow­ing the letter of the law; it is normally more strict or noble than what the law defines. 15) Aquinas holds that private property is the best way to meet the purposes for which the world is given—i.e., that the generali­ty of men can provide for themselves.

16) Revelation is given so that or­dinary men can do what is right and necessary both for their own salvation and, indirectly, for the good of the pol­ity. 17) Revelation addresses reason. Reason will only recognize this ad­dress provided reason has already for­mulated genuine questions that it has asked itself and attempted to answer.

Fr. James V. Schall


The Rev. James V. Schall, SJ, (1928-2019) taught government at the University of San Francisco and Georgetown University until his retirement in 2012. Besides being a regular Crisis columnist since 1983, Fr. Schall wrote nearly 50 books and countless articles for magazines and newspapers.

Crisis Magazine Comments Policy

This is a Catholic forum. As such:

  1. All comments must directly address the article. “I tell you, on the day of judgment men will render account for every careless word they utter.” (Matthew 12:36)
  2. No profanity, ad hominems, hot tempers, or racial or religious invectives. “And be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.” (Ephesians 4:32)
  3. We will not tolerate heresy, calumny, or attacks upon our Holy Mother Church or Holy Father. “And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the powers of death shall not prevail against it.” (Matthew 16:18)
  4. Keep it brief. No lengthy rants or block quotes. “For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes.” (James 4:14)
  5. If you see a comment that doesn’t meet our standards, please flag it so a moderator may remove it. “Brethren, if a man is overtaken in any trespass, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness.” (Galatians 6:1)
  6. All comments may be removed at the moderators’ discretion. “But of that day and hour no one knows…” (Matthew 24:36)
  7. Crisis isn’t responsible for the content of the comments box. Comments do not represent the views of Crisis magazine, its editors, authors, or publishers. “Why do you pass judgment on your brother? Or you, why do you despise your brother? For we shall all stand before the judgment seat of God… So each of us shall give account of himself to God.” (Romans 14:10, 12)