Sense and Nonsense: The Political Philosophy of Aquinas

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.

James V. Schall

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James Vincent Schall, S.J. is an American Jesuit Roman Catholic priest, teacher, writer, and philosopher. He was, most recently, Professor of Political Philosophy in the Department of Government at Georgetown University.

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