Tuesday, January 28, 2014

St. Thomas Aquinas Day

Here in Austin we're icing over slightly, so the college called off classes. The roads are actually not very bad. I know this, because classes were cancelled quite late, so by the time they had cancelled classes I had driven the fifteen miles up the Interstate to northern Round Rock in heavy traffic and had been on campus for an hour; after which, having done some minor bits and pieces of work I drove back. Well, it's probably for the very best; Austin drivers tend to lack the concept of 'following distance', and going up I passed three or four accidents.

In any case, I'll take the holiday. Today is the Feast of St. Thomas Aquinas, Doctor of the Church. It is also the 1200th anniversary of the death of Charlemagne. So, how about a little medieval political philosophy to celebrate? Here's a passage from Summa Theologiae 2-1.105.1, my translation:

With regard to the good ordering of the government [principum] of some city or nation, two things must be attended to. One is that everyone should have some part in the government [in principatu], for through this is conserved the peace of the people [pax populi], and everyone loves and takes care of such an ordering, as is said in Politics 2. The other is that one must attend to the kind of ordering of regime or government. For whereas these are of diverse kinds, as the Philosopher hands down in Politics 3, nonetheless especially significant is kingdom, in which one rules according to virtue, and aristocracy, that is, governance by the best [potestas optimorum], in which a few rule according to virtue. Thus the best ordering of government is in a kingdom or city in which one is distinguished so as to rule all according to virtue; and under him are several ruling according to virtue; and nonetheless rule belongs to everyone, both because anyone can be chosen and also because they are chosen from all. This, then, is the best polity, well-mixed from kingdom, inasmuch as one is preeminent, and aristocracy, inasmuch as many rule according to virtue, and democracy, that is, governance by the people [potestas populi], inasmuch as the princes are chosen from the people and to the people belongs the choosing of princes [electio principum].

This follows fairly straightforwardly from Aquinas's account of law, which is based on common good, and his conception of who has the authority to do what is required to take care of the common good. From Summa Theologiae 2-1.90.3, also my translation:

Law properly, primarily, and principally is concerned with order to common good. But to order something to common good belongs either to the whole multitude or to someone acting as proxy [gerentis vicem] for the whole multitude. And thus making law either belongs to the whole multitude or to some public person who is to care [curam habet] for the whole multitude. For in everything else to order to the end is his to whom the end belongs.

And what follows about the responsibilities of such a government. In De Regno 1.13 lays out what he sees as the seven responsibilities of the one charged with caring for the multitude (also my translation):

Thus taught by divine law, he should set himself especially to the study of how the many subject to him may live well; which study is divided into the three parts, as the first is to institute a good life in the many subjects, the second to conserve what is instituted, and the third to move what is conserved forward to what is better [conservatam ad meliora promoveat].

And for good life for one man two things are required, one principally, which is acting according to virtue (for virtue is that by which one lives well), the other secondarily and as it were instrumentally, which is sufficiency of bodily goods, whose use is needed to act virtuously. But the unity of that man is caused by nature; while the unity of the many, which is called 'peace', is procured through the industry of the ruler. Therefore for the instituting of good life for the many three things are required. [1] First of all, that the many be established in the unity of peace. [2] Second, that the many united by this bond of peace be directed to acting well. For just as a man can do nothing well unless a unity of his parts is presupposed, so a multitude of men, lacking the unity of peace, by fighting among themselves are impeded from acting well. [3] Third, it requires that through the industry of the rulers there be present a sufficient abundance of things necessary for living well.

So when the good life by the duty of the king is established for the many, it follows that he must set himself to conserving it. But there are three things which do not allow public good to last, of which one arises by nature. The good of the many should not be instituted for only one time, but should in some way be perpetual. Yet men are mortal; they are not able to abide perpetually. Nor, while alive, are they always vigorous, because they are subject to many variations of human life, and thus men are not able to perform their duties equally throughout their whole lives. And another impediment to conserving the common good, proceeding from inside, consists in perversity of will, in that some either are lazy [sunt desides] in performing what the commonweal requires or, beyond this, are noxious to the peace of the multitude, in that by transgressing justice they disturb the peace of others. And the third impediment to conserving the commonweal is caused from outside, in that through the incursion of enemies the peace is dissolved and sometimes it happens that the kingdom or city is scattered.

Therefore to these three a triple charge is placed on the king. [4] First, that he prepare for the succession and substitution of those who fulfill diverse duties; just as through the divine government of corruptible things, which cannot abide forever, provision is made that through generation one should take the place of another, so that the integrity of the universe is conserved, so also is the study of the king to conserve the good of the many subject to him, in that he concerns himself attentively to fill with others places that are empty. [5] And second, by his laws and precepts, penalties and rewards, he should force [coerceat] men subject to him away from iniquity and encourage [inducat] them to virtuous works, taking God as example, who gives law to man, favoring those who observe it, repaying with penalty those who transgress it. [6] Third, a charge is laid on the king to restore safety against enemies to the many subject to him. There would be no use in eliminating internal dangers if one could not defend from external ones.

And then for the instituting of the good of the many there is a third thing belonging to the duty of a king, [7] that he attentively move it forward, which is done when, in each thing noted before, he studies to perfect it, correcting what is disordered, supplying what is missing, and doing better what he can.


  1. Timotheos7:35 PM

    I’ve always found it strange when people chew up Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas, etc for being so “un-democratic”. The problem is that it just seems like pure equivocation; what we call “democracy” is nothing like what it was for them. Most people agree that the type of democracy they had in Athens just doesn't work; it disintegrates into mob rule.

    But then, why do we beat up on Plato and company when they attack such a democracy that we don’t ever really dream of holding ourselves? What we call “democracies” have historically been called “republics”, and that seems to be the sort of government Aquinas is calling for in the piece you quoted.

    I mean, Aquinas has a head of state, a council/group of lower leaders, and the people who elect these leaders from their own. Sounds a lot like America to me!

  2. branemrys7:55 PM

    Exactly. America would be regarded as an oligarchy by Plato and Aristotle (two signs: the importance of money and the fact that we have election rather than sortition), and Aquinas's ideal government is a constitutional monarchy. And, as people have pointed out, the American government is structurally just a constitutional monarchy in which the monarch is elected and only temporary but in exchange is guaranteed the full powers of a constitutional monarch for the duration of his term at a time when constitutional monarchs elsewhere are maintaining their hereditary & permanent status in exchange for giving up their powers.

    People forget that absolute monarchs were an invention of the modern age; they require a degree of national centralization the medieval world only rarely even came close to. Feudalism, on the other hand, is government structured almost entirely by mutual contractual obligations.

  3. MrsDarwin8:33 PM

    Austin Strong! We of the -18 degree lows salute you.

  4. branemrys8:54 PM

    That was an awesome article.


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