This is the last of the series on Aquinas. I hope this was helpful; I found it fascinating and I learned a lot about everything from logic to God to how my faith can be applied to many areas of life. Any requests for the next theologian?
Let’s get started. Today we’ll cover politics and Renick’s summary.
Chapter 9: Politics
Martin Luther King Jr., in his Letter From a Birmingham Jail, wrote, “How does one determine whether a law is just or unjust? A just law is a man made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law. To put it in the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas: An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law. Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust.”
The question is, “Can it ever be right to disobey the laws of the state? Is breaking the law permissible if the laws themselves are unjust?” Based on Paul’s thoughts in Romans 13 as well as Augustine’s in The City of God, until Aquinas, most Christians said no. Indeed, Augustine wrote, “Thus it happens, but not without God’s providence, that some are endowed with kingdoms and others made subject to kings.” Since God made them king, your are disobeying God if you disobey the king. If this wwere the case, revolution and civil disobedience would be morally wrong.
However, Aquinas, in his book On Princely Government, says that just as all people do, kings and rulers have the end of pursuing the good – God. If they don’t, by definition they are no longer the king or state since the definition of these is to pursue justice and the good.
Referencing Aristotle, Aquinas discusses six different forms of government. They are ranked by how closely they achieve the end of pursuing the good and justice.
Second is aristocracy, which is “rule by a few individuals who all are seeking the common good – God.” This is second because it is not as efficient as a monarchy – each of the individuals may have different goals in mind for the common good and so debate and compromise lower efficiency.
Next is polity – “rule by the many.” Here again, all have the best for society in mind, but since there are many of them, it is even more inefficient than aristocracy.
Fourth is democracy, which is “the least unjust of the unjust forms of government.” Why unjust? Because unlike a polity, instead of having the common good as a goal, the many seek self-gain instead. They are voting in their own self-interest rather than society’s. Democracy is the least bad, though, because the endless debate and compromise mean very little bad gets done. Aquinas was not far from the truth – the American government was set up with checks and balances to help prevent moving too quickly toward unjust ends.
Next on the list is Oligarchy, or rule by a few individuals with selfish motives. It is worse than democracy because it is more efficient at pursuing unjust ends.
Finally, the worst form of government is tyranny. This is basically a king that pursues selfish ends. It is very efficient at pursuing the bad, which is why it is the worst of all.
This seems contradictory – rule by a single individual is both the best and worst form of government! Aquinas believes in taking the chance because he feels that humans are basically “good enough to rule justly,” and most people are good, so most of the time the ruler will be good. also, Good is stronger than evil – there “is only one ultimate good (God) yet as many evils as there are individual goals and ends. God and its supporters are unified; evil tends to divide.” So, good usually beats evil. This, he reasons, is why it is best to support government by one person and take the chance they could be a tyrant. He would later qualify this view in Summa Theologica,” saying that a mixed form of government, with an elected monarch, an elected aristocracy, and a polity that would check them and elect them, is best. The Founding Fathers, of course, used Aquinas as one of their inspirations when drafting the Constitution, using checks and balances on each branch of government. Regarding a tri-partite government, Aquinas writes, “Such is the best government, formed by a good mixture of kingship, in the sense that one person is the chief, and aristocracy, in the sense that many men rule according to virtue, and polity (that is, the power of the people), in the sense that leaders can be elected from among the populace, and further, the choice of the rule belongs to the people.”
This idea of Aquinas’s is not that of divine right of kings. The king in Aquinas’s system gets the right to govern from the people and must be obeyed only if he pursues God. If not, he’s not really a king anyway; instead, he’s a tyrant. A tyrant need not be obeyed, nor an oligarchy, nor a democracy – when they are unjust. You must do what is right, even if the government says to do something wrong. However, there are times an unjust government should receive obedience, because “rebellion is often more costly than bearing up under tyranny.”
You will naturally obey a just government if you are a just person – it comes, wait for it, naturally. And only unjust laws will be hard for you to obey because you are naturally just. An unjust law is not a law because the essence of a law, Aquinas writes, is to be “an ordinance of reason directed to the common good.” It is morally required to disobey an unjust law.
This, Renick says, was an extraordinary thing for Aquinas to write, because at that time, with belief in the divine right of kings, he stated that the people needed to use their reason and intellect to decide if the ruler was right or wrong. Indeed, he wrote, “Nor should the community be accused of disloyalty for deposing a tyrant, even after a previous promise of constant fealty, for the tyrant lays himself open to such treatment by his failure to discharge the duties of his office as governor of the community, and in consequence his subjects are no longer bound by their oath to him.”
Thus it was that Thomas Jefferson, in the Declaration of Independence, wrote, “Whenever any form of government becomes destructive of [its] ends, it is the right of the people to alter or abolish it, and to institute a new government,” and King wrote, “We can never forget that everything Hitler did in Germany was ‘legal’ and everything…the freedom fighters did…was ‘illegal.” For these two and Aquinas, “the ‘law ‘ is by definition that which is just. An unjust law is no law at all. The concept,” Renick concludes, “is a simple one; the implications are, quite literally, revolutionary.”
Chapter 10: Reading Aquinas
Aquinas’s ideas have become mainstream, but their attribution has been lost. Renick points out that exalting reason, questioning authority, human rights, natural law, war codes, intentionality in crimes, and double effect are all Thomist ideas. Reading Aquinas, though is difficult because his works are usually quite long, and there are over 60 of them. In the Summa itself, there are 38 treatises, divided into 3.120 articles – nearly 10,000 objections posed and answered (the Summa is written in a question and answer format).
Aquinas starts each case “with a series of objections to the answer he will eventually adopt to the question.” The objections are not Aquinas’s beliefs. Next comes a series of “on the contraries”, where Aquinas “cites authors who have taken up the opposite position on the same question.” Finally, Aquinas’s answer begins with “I answer that…” where he states his own beliefs. He then concludes with “replies to objections,” where he deals with each of the objections brought up one by one.
He quoted a wide range of people; he dealt with a wide range of issues, including “the nature of the incarnation and the significance of baptism…the centrality of the virtues and the problem with lying…what constitutes a habit and when does fear cause human decisions to become less than voluntary,” and many more.
Aquinas writes, “The human mind can understand truth only by thinking.” God made us thinkers, it is a sin to not use this ability. Renick concludes, “The concept is simple; the implications are extraordinary.”