Thomas Aquinas, the First Whig: What Our Liberties Owe to a Neapolitan Mendicant


October 1, 1990

We encounter the ideas of St. Thomas Aquinas in practically every court of law, in which criteria of full or diminished guilt are applied; in every attempt to contrive international law; in the conceptual separation of the things of God from matters proper to the state; in the use of concepts which he was the first to fashion and to order, such as “secular,” “conscience,” “will,” and “person.” Neither Dante in dramatic poetry nor St. John of the Cross in mysticism are quite conceivable apart from the labors of Aquinas. The “western tradition” rests upon Aquinas as the sturdy bridge from the ancients (Moses and the prophets, the Greeks, Jesus, Cicero and the great church fathers) to the modern age. He really did write a Summa, an architectural synthesis. Remove Aquinas and that bridge falls. Unlike Descartes, Hobbes and other moderns, he really knew his ancients. A greater sophistication on their part might have saved generations of elementary confusions about the passions, the virtues, the senses, reason and other basic concepts.

The question here to be explored comes from Friedrich von Hayek who, in the process of claiming for himself the noble name of “Whig” (in The Constitution of Liberty) cites as part of his own lineage Lord Acton’s claim that St. Thomas Aquinas was “the first Whig.” What does this claim mean? In what sense is Aquinas entitled to it?

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In 1245, at the age of 21, Aquinas began his studies at the University of Paris. (In the prescribed Dominican manner, he walked to Paris from Naples). The long missing text of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics had just been discovered after centuries of disappearance. The intellectual climate had otherwise been thoroughly permeated with studies of the Jewish and Christian books of the Bible and the Church Fathers, especially the Christian Platonists.

Plato (at that time known only through the Timaeus) was referred to, for his mystical inclinations, as “the divine Plato,” whereas Aristotle, known only for his books on logic, was called “the materialist” and the “atheist.” Some of the authors that Aquinas studied upheld the thesis that, outside the grace of Christ, true virtue is not possible for human beings; indeed, that unless one professed Christian belief, and was redeemed by grace, such sinfulness abounded that no one who was not a Christian could even be a true and full citizen.

Consider for a moment why such pessimism (partly of an Augustinian coloring) made rough empirical sense. The evil that abounded in human beings in that semi-barbarous age was everywhere apparent. The medieval schoolmen had a quite realistic view of the murders, rivalries, and debaucheries to which the most privileged of the day were especially prone. The man that Shakespeare was to call “the murdrous Machiavel” would soon describe multiple evils even in the papal court. Adultery and rape flourished. The walls of tiny mountain towns were necessarily thick and high, against the wantonness and violence that thrived in the countryside. Such Christian peace as existed sought refuge in the cities; the very word “pagan” meant country folk, who were in many places thinly Christianized even into modem times (if such novels as Christ Stopped at Eboli are to be believed). To describe men as they actually behaved in the thirteenth century was not to hold an excessively optimistic view of human virtue. Consider the rings of Dante’s Inferno, the history of King Richard III, the depictions of hell on the frescoes of the Orvieto cathedral and (centuries later) Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel. Not exactly paradise on earth.

By contrast, the vision of Aquinas was anything but bleak. Indeed, the sobriquet bestowed on him for his serenity was “the Angelic Doctor.” This did not signify that he was otherworldly; indeed, he was rushed from one hot contemporary controversy and power struggle to another; he died on his way to an embattled Council of the Church at Lyons. This name was intended, rather, to signify his uncommon capacities for the dispassionate assessment of evidence. He was famous for being able to do justice to more different points of view than any scholar before him (and maybe since).

Baptizing Aristotle

In the matter of the just claims of nature within a world of grace, Aquinas was one of the first men in the Christian West to have in his hands an accurate Latin translation of Aristotle’s Ethics and Politics, this translation being provided, at his request, by his schoolmate in Cologne, William Moerbeke, both of whom had studied under the greatest and broadest mind of that generation, St. Albert the Great. Fortified by his own studies of Scripture, the Church Fathers, and in particular St. Augustine’s eloquent writings on human weakness of will, Aquinas began his great commentaries on Aristotle’s Ethics. Aristotle had been introduced to the West through Arab and Moslem commentaries, which suggested a kind of pantheism and materialism. The Arabic Aristotle was deeply troubling to the contemporary intellectual establishment; but Aquinas found in the authentic text much that was invigorating. Whatever the biblical fundamentalists of his time might say, Aquinas had in hand manuscript proof of what Aristotle, while being altogether unknowing of Moses, the prophets, and the teachings of Christ, could discern about the way human beings can and do act in the world. Aquinas found it morally admirable.

Quite independently of any biblical revelation, Aristotle, as it were, had discerned what the Creator had written into the nature of his human creatures. Aquinas deeply honored this evidence. It helped him mightily in his own ability to understand Christian theology, to map out its relation to the works of (unaided) human intelligence. It raised many deeper questions about the Christian faith itself. It was, he thought, a priceless gift. Although his own life was built upon total commitment to the faith of Christ, he came to call Aristotle, in matters of unaided human wisdom, especially in matters that today we refer to as “the humanities,” Magister, the Teacher.

Not that Aquinas hesitated to go beyond Aristotle. Aquinas had, thanks to Jewish and Christian experience, much fuller and clearer notions than Aristotle of such basic ethical concepts as conscience, weakness of will, person and community, among others. Above all, he had a less aristocratic, more egalitarian, sense concerning virtue and character. Aristotle had written for a special elite among men, the aristocratic warrior class; whereas Aquinas knew that Judaism and Christianity addressed widows, orphans, the poor, and indeed all human beings in their ordinariness. Unhappily, Aquinas has come down to most American students as a philosopher, rather than a theologian. Most read only what is of interest to the philosophy professors they happen to come upon, usually such philosophical texts of Aquinas ripped from their theological context, horizon, and presuppositions as the treatise on law, the proofs for the existence of God, or the structure of human action. This is a certain denuding of Aquinas.

In addition, some of the greatest Thomists of our century happened to be philosophers: Etienne Gilson, Jacques Maritain, Anton Pegis, Yves R. Simon, Josef Pieper, and many others. All this is good and valuable. Still, when you rip Aquinas from the whole sweep of his theology—and, above all, from his mooring in caritas (that is, the love of God shared in by humans)—you get a much thinner Aquinas than the great intellectual figure that he actually is. And you open him to charges from theologians, who dismiss him as “just another Aristotle” In truth, Aquinas had to be deeper than Aristotle, more learned in traditions unknown to Aristotle, even in order to situate and to “rescue” Aristotle for the West. He had to make infinitely more distinctions, and to account for many more materials, than Aristotle had dealt with. To stand upon Aristotle’s shoulders, he had to climb higher.

Virtuous Pagans

In addressing the thesis of his predecessors, that only those saved by the grace of Christ could be truly good men or good citizens of the earthly city, Aquinas pointed to manuscript evidence: the text of Aristotle showed how humans might follow the imperatives written into their nature in order to become good men and good citizens. Seeing that, Aquinas “saw that it was good.” That alone might or might not be good enough for their salvation (depending upon the invisible ways of grace spread by the Creator throughout the universe He had created and redeemed). If it was good enough for the Creator, that was plenty good for him—not sufficient, perhaps, for all purposes, but legitimately and fully good, and to be praised, as far as it went.

In other words, Aquinas distinguished “good” from “saved.” He wished, as it were, to honor the work of the Creator, and by no means at the expense of the Redeemer. It is the advantage of Jews and Christians, Aquinas argued, that “our God is reasonable.” (Albert Einstein was to pick up this line of thought in saying, “God does not play with dice.”) Nature is good. Philosophy—proceeding by its own rules of evidence and proper methods—is good; not only good, but the highest and most legitimate of all human works, short of the works of faith. The vocation of philosopher—and scientist and artist—are noble vocations for Christians to practice, good in themselves, to be valued for themselves, even as, properly coordinated, they can also be instruments of, and are ordered to, the further riches of faith.

Faith, in short, does not contradict nature, nor the Redeemer the Creator. Faith does not contradict human knowledge or science; so if it seems to, we must be missing something, and need to think again on both sides. In God’s eyes, the existing world is one, grasped in the eternal simultaneity of God’s vision. To worship the true God, humans need not go down on all fours. The human that God loves most stands erect and free, open to the grace he cannot reach with unaided vision, and quite unable to reach that far, unless further aided by God’s special grace. Still, Aquinas vindicates the goodness, authenticity, and nobility of the humans God created in his image.

This is the proudest boast of the Catholic intellectual tradition: through Thomas Aquinas, it legitimated, within a Christian vision, all that is good about human nature and its strivings. (Without this, it would be hard to imagine the artistic heritage of Rome). This Christian humanism, “integral humanism” as Jacques Maritain called it in his famous and influential book just before World War II, is by no means blind to the weakness, sinfulness, and full capacities for evil in the human breast. This humanism nonetheless shares in the satisfaction the Creator took in His creation and, especially, His most beloved creature, man. The most realistic humanism, without illusions, it is quite resolute against nostalgia about the past or utopianism about the future. And it may also be the humanism least closed to the transcendent, and most aware of the judgment of God. But humanism it most assuredly is.

The achievement of such a humanism is the first sense in which it is legitimate to speak of Thomas Aquinas in the term Lord Acton used, “the first Whig.”

The First Whig

In defining the term “Whig” for his own purposes, Friedrich Hayek seems to presuppose a triple test. First, Whigs are the party of liberty. For them, the key to the history of humankind is human liberty. Thus, for example, Lord Acton himself, who in praising the early stirrings of the quest for liberty among the nobles gathered around Simon de Montfort points out that their struggles against the monarch were more clearly articulated by a young scholar of the Order of Preachers in faraway Italy. Liberty, then, is the first theme.

Second, Whigs are thinkers who recognize that their forefathers were at least as bright and serious as they. Whigs guard their patrimony lovingly (“Tradition,” Chesterton said, “is the democracy of the dead”). Whigs value the tacit learning and practical originality that accumulates down the ages from the experiments of preceding generations, and deeply respect the slow, partial, but organic learning that comes from trial-and-error. Whigs, in short, by contrast with utopians, revolutionaries, “theoretic politicians” (as James Madison called them), and ideologues (in the original nineteenth-century sense), place considerable weight on the lessons of experience, on things tried and proven, on tradition, on community, and on values learned organically, tacitly, and often below the level of verbal articulation. This characteristic, more than any other, distinguishes Whigs from “progressives” who are bewitched by bright and new ideas. Liberty first and then tradition.

Third, Whigs are thinkers who love existents more than essences. Whigs recognize that, by the laws of human action, human beings must bring into existence what does not yet exist. Whigs welcome this challenge to create, to venture, to act even in the midst of doubts, uncertainties, and mere probabilities. This characteristic most clearly distinguishes Whigs from mere traditionalists or (as today’s fashion has it) paleoconservatives: the Whig theory of action focuses upon the future. Unlike the ancient Greeks, and accepting a lesson from Judaism and Christianity, the Whigs believe that it is the human vocation to construct—patiently and slowly—better institutions for the future. Not quite a better future, mind you, since Whigs do not expect that human nature changes, but better institutions for the future; that is, institutions more consonant with the dignity of free men and women.

If they did not believe in slow human progress, Whigs would have to believe that human nature renders men impervious to the lessons of the past, incapable of imagination, and incompetent to nudge human institutions toward more tolerable practices. As they are the party of liberty and tradition, Whigs are also the party of hope—of realistic hope, a modest hope, a carefully checked and balanced hope; they are certainly not the party of fatalism, nor the party of nostalgia for some lost golden age.

In short, the Whigs are the party of liberty, tradition and institutional progress. Yet, as Hayek argues so poignantly, to call oneself “progressive” these days is to be enrolled against one’s will under a banner that is the euphemism given by the left to sinister dreams of domination. By comparison with the “progressives” of today’s left, the Whigs have too much respect for tradition to fall into neodoxy, the doctrine that the unproven new is better. Still, on their other flank, believing in the free polity, the free economy, and the moral and cultural order of ordered freedom, contemporary Whigs can scarcely call themselves (in the colloquial sense) “conservatives”; the free society is always, under the inspiration of liberty, open to creativity. Thus, their conservatism is tempered by the desire to test new spirits, to prove the good results of experiments, and—even when experimenting—to provide many checks and balances against observed tendencies to self-aggrandizement.

Now, in these three senses—his commitment to liberty, his love for tradition, and his sense of realistic hope and modest progress—was St. Thomas Aquinas a Whig? No one reading his work can fail to be struck by his zeal to vindicate these three principles. But these are general principles, matters of viewpoint and orientation. The particular case needing additional proof, I think, is that his political vision laid down specific practical principles that were to be useful to later generations of Whigs, in the construction of new institutions of political liberty. To these arguments I now turn.

The Civilization of Liberty

There are six propositions of Aquinas that seem particularly compelling to the Whig temper.

First Thesis: Civilization is constituted by reasoned conversation. Two of the most distinguished Thomists of our time, Thomas Gilby, O.P. and John Courtney Murray, S.J., offer the following summary of Aquinas: “Civilization is formed by men locked together in argument. From this dialogue the community becomes a political community.” For Aquinas, the most decisive human trait is that human beings are truth-seeking animals, moved by love for the truth (come what may), able to gain insight into complex matters and contingent circumstances, to test hypotheses, and to come to virtually unconditional judgments concerning which hypotheses are true, and which are not. So inherent in human nature is this imperative—this drive for understanding, this relentless drive to inquire—that to address a human being in any lesser mode is to do violence to his nature. “The political community,” writes Aquinas, “is the sovereign construction of the reason.” And he elaborates thus:

rational creatures are governed for their own benefit, whereas other creatures are governed for the sake of men. Men are principals, not merely instruments.

Humans, therefore, ought to be addressed (they often are not, of course) as free, reasoning, inquiring animals. They ought to be moved by rational persuasion, not by force—and not by demagogy or seduction, either.

In a word, that regime is the more civilized which relies less on coercion and more on rational persuasion. The principle of reasoned conversation is probably the one that moved Lord Acton to his original exclamation about “the first Whig.”

Not so incidentally, here following Aristotle, Aquinas also recommended that the human mind adopt a “democratic” regime in ruling its own human passions. Neither Aquinas nor Aristotle approved of Plato’s image of the mind driving the passions as a charioteer drives his charging steeds. They thought the passions should be treated by the mind as a father reasons with grown sons, not as he would command slaves or servants. The passions deserve to be heard, although not always to be followed. Educated into good habits, under the sweet sway of temperate reason, human passions and sentiments should be neither allowed to be unruly nor brutally suppressed. How civilized a man is shows from the degree to which his passions have been rationally persuaded to follow the urgings of his mind.

Second Thesis: The human being is free because he can reflect and choose. Consider the sentence: “The god who gave us life gave us liberty.” The words are Thomas Jefferson’s, but the thesis is that of Thomas Aquinas. For Aquinas, man is the glory of the universe, an image of God on earth, made to be like God in his liberty. Aquinas contrasted human with other forms of life observable on earth. Inanimate objects are free to be moved, as stones may be moved, but by laws of motion not internal to their being. Vegetative life—oak trees, flowers, tomatoes—have an internal principle of movement; they grow; but their rootedness confines their movement rather narrowly. Animals have both an inner principle of movement and freedom of location; they move about, seeking the fulfillment of their sensual and emotional appetites. But human animals have yet another kind of internal principle: their freedom to reflect and to choose among ends proposed to them, and among means to reach those ends. Thus Saint Thomas writes:

A special rule [of Divine providence] applies where intelligent creatures are involved. For they excel all others in the perfection of their nature and the dignity of their end: they are masters of their activity and act freely, while others are more acted on than acting.

In these two capacities: to reflect and to choose, humans are most fittingly called “created in the image of God.” No one, of course, sees God. But, as revealed in the Jewish and Christian Testaments, the God of the Bible (whom we can neither see with our senses nor imagine in our fantasies), has understanding and chooses. In creating an image of Himself, God made creatures who pursue understanding and who choose. For Aquinas, the work of Aristotle was sufficient proof that one does not have to be a Jew or a Christian to figure this out from the image created, even if one knows nothing of the Creator. The glory of this creation—the human being—was made to be free. Therefore, responsible. Therefore, worthy of respect. Dignus.

Third Thesis: Civilized political institutions respect reflection and choice. In the middle fifty years of the thirteenth century, to speak of democratic republics in the modern sense was to describe no existing regime. And Aquinas was no utopian. Yet, he held, just as the well-ordered mind rules human passions “democratically” and not “tyrannically,” so monarchs can be judged by the degree to which their regimes rule their subjects tyrannically or through their consent, if only implicit. To argue that Aquinas, before Montesquieu and Madison, foretold the shape of the practical institutions that might allow for the routine and regular expression of such consent would be to overreach. Nonetheless, St. Thomas did legitimate the search for such institutions. He announced its first principles. He insisted upon the proper measure: institutions are more civilized the more they are worthy of the human person’s capacity to reflect and to choose. If they violate that capacity, they are by that much deformed.

We can also go a little farther than that. Aquinas established certain limits beyond which governing agents (monarchs) could not go. They are bound by the laws of human nature itself, by the law in man’s being that flows directly from God’s eternal creative act, by the image of God impressed on man’s being. Aquinas did not yet speak of inalienable rights. But he did speak of indelible laws in man’s being that command the respect of all, agencies of the state included.

No doubt, in a world so marked by disorder as Italy, France, and Germany in the thirteenth century—so characterized by massive fortresses around every tiny island of civilization—Aquinas was duly impressed by the first imperative of civilization, the establishment of the order of law. In his eyes, this meant a government by rulers under law, a law superior to themselves, or in modern terminology “the rule of law, not of men.” He saw clearly enough that positive laws, laws framed by legitimate governments, represent practical approximate reflections concerning how hic et nunc (here and now) the natural law is to be expressed in particular circumstances. Positive law, to that extent, is worthy of respect and obedience.

Nonetheless, positive laws at variance with man’s nature—at variance with the laws of nature and of nature’s God—could and should be overturned; their authority is flimsy and ultimately unfounded. Given the rampant disorder of the era, Aquinas could hardly have been a preacher of revolutionary chaos, let alone anarchy. Nonetheless, he did legitimate, when abuses were flagrant enough and real probabilities of a better order were present, the overthrow of tyrants. For Aquinas, the foundation of law is the human capacity for reflection and choice: man’s reasoning nature. On the one hand, to violate that capacity in the name of law is to empty law of its inherent claim to respect and obedience. On the other hand, civilized life demands order. Without authority, common life falls into listlessness, an incapacity for community action, and ultimately chaos. Order there must be, but not just any kind of order. Only a reasonable order does justice to the dignity of citizens. Unlike the moderns, Aquinas does not argue on behalf of order from the violence of lack of order (although that argument is not unknown to him), so much as from the human propensity for reasoned conversation in community.

Fourth Thesis: True liberty is ordered liberty. The glory of the human being is personal liberty: that is, the liberty to choose from reflection and due deliberation. To choose merely by whim or desire or inclination, without reflection, is to live as other animals do. Among the creatures of this earth, observably, humans have a unique power to choose. Just as visibly, humans do not always develop this power and do not always exercise it. To develop this special liberty from potency to active exercise requires the ability to maintain a sense of responsibility even in the heat of events.

This ability, in turn, depends upon a full panoply of those “manly strengths” (virtues) possessed by great warriors: calmness and clear vision in the battle, command of the passions, a sense of proportion, and correctives against personal weaknesses. Often passion grips us, or lethargy, or the turmoil of contrary inclinations. To place all these under the sway of reason requires habits that protect our capacities for reflection and decision from being overwhelmed.

Temperance, fortitude, a sense of proportion (justice), and practical wisdom are the names given to these four central settled dispositions, which are characteristic of the person whose capacities for reflection and decision are unimpeded from within. These cardinal habits give “order” to our capacity for human freedom. They are not easy to develop; they are partly a gift and partly earned by repeated effort. Thus, the conquest of personal liberty requires self-education in the “manly strengths” (virtues) necessary to ordered liberty. No such habits, no actual liberty.

The proudest boast of the young Whig Republic, the United States, was the legendary “manly strength” (virtue) of its leaders, notably George Washington, James Madison, Thomas Jefferson and others—and also the virtue of its people, who were asked in an unprecedented way to reflect and to deliberate upon the ratification of the Constitution under which they would live, and to maintain that virtue, in order to keep the Republic from the self-destruction into which all earlier Republics had speedily fallen. The American idea of liberty is ordered liberty.

Fifth Thesis: Humans are self-determined persons, not mere individuals (group members). As an individual, a citizen is only part of a whole, and in this aspect may be asked, for sufficient reason, to lay down his or her life for the whole. As a person, a citizen is an autonomous subject who participates in the liberty proper to the Creator, and is thus an end in himself—an end for which the world was created, more valuable than the world. By shifting attention from the individual (mere member of a collective) to the person (self-determining, an end and not a means) Aquinas reached the conclusion that the internal capacities of the person transcend the purposes and limited powers of the state. From a purely philosophical point of view, each person has a responsibility to direct his own destiny. From a theological point of view (Jewish and Christian), each person has been created to share in the life of God.

“In human affairs,” writes St. Thomas in III Contra Gentiles (80), “there is the common good, the well-being of the state or nation; there is also a human good which does not lie in the community, but is personal to each man in himself.” And in the Summa Theologica, 1a.29.2: “Person signifies what is noblest in the whole of nature.” And again in III Contra Gentiles, 111-116:

Men are principals, not merely instruments…. Providence directs rational creatures for the welfare and growth of the individual person, not just for the advantage of the race…. Actions have a personal value, and are not merely from and for human nature…. The intent of the divine law given to man is to lead him to God. The will cleaves to another either from love or from fear. But there is a great difference between these motives. In the case of fear the first consideration is not the loved object itself but something else, namely, the evil that would impend but for its presence. In the case of love the union is sought for the very sake of the beloved. What is for its own sake is more primary than what is for an outside reason. Hence, love is our strongest union with God, and this above all is intended by the divine law. The entire purpose of the lawgiver is that man may love God.

In the Jewish and Christian view, humans are made for far more than the purposes of the state, or even of the whole of civil society in this world. No matter how powerful or how rich a society might become, and no matter how famous, successful, or wealthy a person may become, each person has been made to be restless until he rests in God. No state or no law is legitimate that blocks the free exercise of this quest for God.

Sixth Thesis: According to historical experience up to the mid-thirteenth century, each of the three main types of regime so far known to history—monarchical, aristocratic, democratic—had such grievous faults that the “best regime,” worthiest of human persons, would seem to be a regime that “mixes” the best elements of all three. Aquinas did not invent this typology of regimes; he borrowed it from Aristotle and Cicero, but gave it his own grounding and exposition. Every human person, given the capacities for personal responsibility, ought to participate responsibly in forming a worthy regime. Regimes gain their authority from the practical wisdom they embody, a practical wisdom participated in by every citizen; thus, the justness of regimes is measured by human reason. Regimes ought, therefore, to be based on the consent of citizens. (Indeed, the fact of dissension explains why tyrannies, odious to many, are not likely to be of long duration.)

For Aquinas, this principle led to three practical observations. Rule by one strong leader is best, but is so easily corrupted into tyranny, the worst form of government, that it requires remedies. A virtuous aristocracy may check a strong leader, and help to maintain him, if not in virtue, at least in wise pursuit of the common good, rather than in personal aggrandizement. Legitimacy comes from the participation of all citizens in choosing their leader (and perhaps in rotating him at regular intervals). Here it is best to let Aquinas speak for himself:

Two points should be observed concerning the healthy constitution of a state or nation. One is that all should play a responsible part in the governing: this ensures peace, and the arrangement is liked and maintained by all. The other concerns the type of government; on this head the best arrangement for a state or government is for one to be placed in command, presiding by authority over all, while under him are others with administrative powers, yet for the rulers to belong to all because they are elected by and from all. Such is the best polity, well combined from the different strains of monarchy, since there is one at the head; of aristocracy, since many are given responsibility; and of democracy, since the rulers are chosen from and by the people.

Economic Flaws

These six theses of St. Thomas Aquinas, to which others might be added and much more detail on each appended, would seem to justify the willingness of Lord Acton to call Aquinas “the first Whig.” Each of these theses has its large echoes throughout subsequent history. These six theses also indicate much work yet to be done. Such work includes philosophical (and theological) efforts to clarify the intellectual foundations of today’s free societies. It also includes much practical work to shape our social institutions so that such principles may more thoroughly suffuse them, rendering them more humane, reasonable, and self-correcting.

The modern Whigs went far beyond Aquinas in making political philosophy work. It was not Aquinas who imagined that the executive and the legislature should be limited and framed by constitutional law, interpreted by an independent judiciary. It was not Aquinas who imagined practical methods of reconciling “energy in the executive” with an “aristocratic” senate and a “democratic” House of Representatives. It was not Aquinas who thought first of the separation of powers. It was not Aquinas who first articulated the even more fundamental separation of systems: the limited state, flanked on one side by the larger moral-cultural system (composed of such basic institutions as free churches, a free press, and free cultural associations of many sorts) and on the other side by a free economy.

In particular, as Thomas Gilby remarks, Aquinas never studied economic history; and this remains a great task looming before Thomistic thought. Both historical experience and his own concept of the free person had early persuaded Aquinas of the practical necessity of a regime of private property. But his own skepticism about money, money-making, and free markets mark Aquinas as no early progenitor of capitalism. In his day, most wealth was gained by plunder or conquest or favors from kings and emperors, not from commerce or manufacture or invention. He never lived to see the great economic transformation of modern times. To have seen it might have strengthened his esteem for practical intelligence, by discerning in it the ultimate form of capital.

Nonetheless, in political philosophy, Aquinas did legitimate and honor much that the later Whigs would take up as their supreme vocation. “The political community,” Aquinas wrote, “is the sovereign construction of the reason,” specifically of practical reason. “So political science must needs be the chief and governing practical interest, since it is occupied with the most final and complete value within the present world.” Political philosophy “rounds off the philosophy of human nature.” Political philosophy is less important, Aquinas thinks, than the study of God, Who is the end citizens and polities obscurely seek. Political philosophy is under God’s judgment. Nonetheless, political philosophy is, of all inquiries within the present order, the most noble. Thus did Aquinas pay his successor Whigs high honor and confirm their nobility.

Toward the Future

Indeed, several basic concepts of Aquinas are experiencing a very strong revival today, and are likely to become yet more powerful in the future. James Q. Wilson has remarked that the greatest intellectual event of the past twenty years has been a revival of the concept of “character.” In the work of Alasdair Maclntyre, Stanley Hauerwas, and James Gustafson, the same may be said of those “virtues” that for Aquinas and Aristotle are the chief protectors of human liberty in practice. Apart from the exercise of virtue and character, in fact, it would seem that human liberty is little more than a cloud of whimsy, desire, and inclination, which reflective reason, like the lamp of Lady Liberty, has yet to dispel.

Secondly, as this planet’s 165 or so nations become ever more “interdependent,” the much ballyhooed “cultural relativism” of recent generations comes ever more closely under universal, planetary moral standards. If it is immoral to practice torture in Argentina, then so it also is in Uganda, Syria, and the People’s Republic of China. If citizens of Hungary and Poland claim “inalienable rights” and break the power monopoly of the Communist Party, then the Baltic nations and Ukraine, Armenia, and other republics have the right to do the same. In such fashion, the horrible abuses of the human person in the twentieth century have led to the gradual emergence of a virtually universal condemnation of certain practices.

These condemnations may yet fall far short of practical effect, from want of regular and routine systems that enforce the declared standards of behavior. Nonetheless, the principles of what might be called a universal natural law, binding upon all members of our species (whether they like it or not), seem to be attracting a dim but sure consensus. It seems not too risky to hold, as if in confirmation of Aquinas, Cicero, and Aristotle, that there are emerging—waiting to be fully adumbrated both in human consciousness and in institutions that work—the dotted lines of what one day may be recognized as the natural law of a species that respects its own capacities for ordered liberty.

Thirdly, from one point of view, the so-called “environmental crisis” seems to have tempered the arrogant claim of the Enlightenment that “knowledge is power,” that is, merely power. Knowledge is, first of all, truth. It is a learned respect for reality, and indeed for the interaction of the knowing subject with the known. Through knowledge, the human soul is called—not to distance itself from all things, as a separated observer and will-to-power—but “to become all things,” and to live in this world with that ordered knowledge that is wisdom. The

“environmental crisis” calls for a new way of relating knowledge and power, more like that of certain of the ancients, less like that of the modem Rationalists. But this is to call not for less knowledge, but more; not for irrationality and nostalgia, but for a deeper and wiser ordering of human affairs.

From another point of view, however, “ecological consciousness” today displays all the hallmarks of a gnostic religion. As if we had witnessed the death of the real God, Mother Nature herself has now been set up as an idol. To her, calculating priests minister, the gurus of grim. Before her, the poor of this world are expected to grovel, since economic growth must be sacrificed at her altars. Moreover, this Mother Nature is now prettified with cosmetics. It is forgotten that down through history she has exercised, in earthquake and hurricane, plague and drought, pestilential wind and poisonous water, a bitter threat to human survival. This goddess of the new fundamentalism has taken millions of infants in childbirth, has wiped out whole cities with smallpox, has infiltrated consuming tapeworms into the bellies of children in the jungles, and for most of human history has cut down with Her scythe so many so recklessly as to keep the average age of human death below 18. In the face of this new fundamentalism, the Whig task is as it has always been: to defend liberty, to learn from trial-and-error, and to make solid institutional progress.

It was, after all, on the note of doom and damnation that the early middle ages began; and it was the role of the first Whig to calm fevered passions. As Thomas Gilby remarks: “Iconography shows St. Thomas calm and sedate, a book on his lap, his fingers expository; he is not proclaiming, denouncing, or wringing his hands. He was singularly free from the homilist’s complaint of living in bad times.”

The Whig task in history is by no means at an end. The construction of institutions worthy of free men and women—a construction that is sovereign among the practical sciences—will never come to an end. When Aquinas in the thirteenth century thought that the human pilgrimage is an adventure in which there was then much more to do, he was not wrong. Nor will we be. “Person signifies what is noblest in the whole of nature,” Aquinas wrote. And Maritain glosses yet another of his texts: “By its liberty, the human person transcends the stars and all the world of nature.” These are Whig sentiments, worth keeping alive in yet another generation, to pass on to the next.


  • Michael Novak

    Michael Novak (1933-2017) founded Crisis Magazine with Ralph McInerny in 1982. He held the George Frederick Jewett Chair in Religion and Public Policy at the American Enterprise Institute and was a trustee and visiting professor at Ave Maria University. In 1994, he received the Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion. He was also an emissary to the United Nations Human Rights Commission and to the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe.

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