After reading this article you will learn about the bio, life and political ideas of St. Thomas Aquinas.
Life and Work of St. Thomas Aquinas:
St. Thomas Aquinas, the chief spokesman of medieval scholasticism, was born at Aquino, a tiny place near Naples and from the name of the place he received the title Aquinas. But he is better known as Thomas and his thought is known to us as Thomism. He belonged to an aristocratic Italian family which had connections with European kings and emperors.
In order to be a church father and to devote his life to the cause of Christianity and study he surrendered his title “Count.” He joined the Dominican Order at the age of nineteen and for this purpose he had to fight his family.
He studied in Naples, Cologne and Paris and in the last mentioned place he delivered several lectures on philosophy and theology. At the age of forty- eight he died.
St. Thomas Aquinas was a voracious reader and voluminous writer. He wrote about seventy books on various subjects and sizes. He was called in his time an encyclopedia. In his literary works Thomas has, with an astute mind, summarized the scholastic philosophy. The most spectacular contribution of Thomas to scholasticism is “the incorporation of Aristotelianism into Christian thought. Both Augustine and Thomas helped the development of the church doctrine. Augustinianism is the fusion of Plato and Christianity, Thomism is the synthesis of Aristotle and Christianity.”
On Kingship and The Sum of Theology are treated as important books of St. Thomas Aquinas on politics. Thomas has discussed the several aspects of scholasticism in The Sum of Theology.
The Sum of Theology has been written in the question-answer form. Special attention has been paid to the political and legal questions and problems. Aquinas also wrote many other books on politics and theology.
Historians are of opinion that he could not finish all the books. His pupils completed those works. Few more words may be said about Thomism.
Augustine followed the path of Plato and made a synthesis between Platonism and Christianity. But the social, political and theological scene of Europe considerably changed and Augustinianism proved itself inadequate to cope with the change.
To Augustine Christianity was simply a faith. He did not believe that it could have any logic or philosophy or anything about law. In the 13th century people began to view Christianity with a new outlook.
They investigated its logic and philosophy. Thomas gave the leadership through his devotional analysis of scholasticism. And thus Thomism earned priority and predominance over Augustinianism.
Political Ideas of St. Thomas Aquinas:
1. Nature of State:
Before St. Thomas Aquinas the church fathers and other medieval thinkers held that the state was ordained by God and the government was the instrument devised by God to punish the evildoers. This view was the product of the unfamiliarity with Aristotelian thought. Since Thomas was the spokesman of Aristotelianism he revived Aristotle’s ideas on politics through his writings.
In Summa Theologica, St. Thomas Aquinas has said that, in the state of nature, there was no slavery. In the state of innocence, man had no dominion over man. Following Aristotle, Thomas says that man is by nature a social animal.
Therefore, men must have lived in society in the state of innocence. But there could not be a social life for many members unless there was the common good and members of the society must aim at that common good. Different men assembled together to single out a common end.
The assembly of men gave rise to social organisation which was another name of civil society. Thus it is the sociability of man which has originated the civil society. Thomas Aquinas has further said that it is a fact that of all men there may be one man who is superior in excellence.
It is quite natural that the superior man should be vested with the power of administration. The aim of the government is common welfare and the city (civitas) is a self-sufficing and perfect association.
So far there is a striking similarity between Thomas and Aristotle. But Thomas feels that Aristotle confined himself within the boundary of the city-state and he thought of the good life and welfare of its inhabitants. The other-worldly concern of St. Thomas Aquinas leads him to think that man cannot remain satisfied with the goodness and virtuousness of this mortal world. He tries to enjoy the company with God. In a word, Aristotle was concerned with man-centred values and we find Thomas to be concerned with God-centred values.
Commenting on Thomas’s concept of state Berki says “with Aquinas we might say that political conservatism has a better foundation, but by the same token it is also a more moderate, cheerful and discerning king of conservatism, Augustine’s Christianity enjoins us to accept, not enthusiastically, but with good grace a strange and hostile world; the Christian vision of Aquinas is a plea that we wholeheartedly accept a world which has in the mean time become friendly and Christian.”
Summarizing Thomas’s ideas about state a recent critic writes—The state is the human community which is most fully formed. It must follow from this that God wills the state to exist. J. S. McClelland-History of Western Political Thought.
2. Forms of Political Authority:
So far as the classification of government is concerned we find a clear influence of Aristotle on the thought of Thomas. Following Aristotle he says that broadly there are two types of government—one aims at the welfare of the ruler and the other seeks the welfare of all men. The latter type of government is just and ideal.
In the perverted form of government there are tyranny, oligarchy and democracy. In ideal type we find kingship, polity and aristocracy.
If an unjust government is carried on by one man alone, who seeks his own benefit from his rule and not the good of the multitude, such a ruler is called tyrant. If an unjust government is carried on not by one but by several and particularly by the few, it is called an oligarchy. The objective of oligarchy is the welfare of the few. Finally, if the bad government is carried on by the multitude, it is called a democracy. Here the plebeian people oppress the rich by force. In this case the whole people will be like a tyrant.
In the same manner the ideal or just government is divided into polity, aristocracy and kingship. Here the authority subjects its interest to the interest of the multitude. Welfare of the entire society is the only aim of the government.
St. Thomas Aquinas is found to be fluctuating between kingship and democracy. But ultimately he supports the kingship. On this issue he departs from Aristotle, because the latter lent his support to democracy.
Thomas’s argument is based on the consideration that the unity of the state is the main thing and this can be achieved if power is concentrated in the hands of a single man.
The characteristic feature of democratic cities and provinces is the dissension. So monarchy is the best form of government. While discussing that kingship is the best form of government he makes several identical statements.
Such as—the rule of one man is more useful than the rule of many, every natural governance is governance by one and it is best for human multitude to be ruled by one person.
3. Functions of Government:
Thomas’s concept of the functions of government has two aspects—regarding the first type the influence of Aristotle on him is very clear, on the second one he is influenced by the Bible.
Aristotle had laboriously established that the true function of the government was to maintain and promote right and moral living of all subjects. The moral purpose of the government is, therefore, of paramount importance.
It must also ensure the general welfare. St. Thomas Aquinas agrees with this contention. He says that the duty of every ruler is to direct his activities to the happy and virtuous life. Like Aristotle he also emphasizes the unity of the state and the government must attain it.
According to Thomas the government must provide security to all its citizens and defend its people from any external aggression.
Failure in this field will jeopardize the moral and right living of citizens to which it is committed. But the contemporary conditions suggest, and the Bible is made to confirm, a number of other functions on which the Greeks did not dwell.
It is the duty of the prince to keep the roads safe and free. The government shall keep an eye on number, weight and measure. It is the intention of God that all things shall be in order.
That is why number, weight and measure are necessary. He has imposed another duty on the ruler by suggesting that the government will carefully look after the poor.
In this respect the Christian dictum is that—Nature is never wanting in necessaries. Christianity has always demonstrated sympathy towards the weak and suffering people. Thomas’s emphasis upon the responsibility of the prince in respect of the alleviation of people’s sorrows and sufferings is an important aspect of his political doctrine.
His view on law and justice constitutes the most important part of his political thought and we shall now turn to that.
4. Law, Reason and Common Good:
“St. Thomas’s theory of law and justice is the channel through which the doctrines of Aristotle, the Stoics, Cicero, the Roman Imperial Jurists and St. Augustine blended into a rounded whole, were transmitted to modern times”.
Thomas’s definition and concept of law and its relation to reason and common good are very clear and in this respect he is superior to many medieval thinkers. “Law”, according to St. Thomas, “is nothing else than an ordinance of reason for common good, made by him who has care for the community, and promulgated.”
The above definition of law has several features which need special mention. Law is a rule and measure of acts whereby man is induced to act or is restrained from acting. Now the rule or measure of human acts is the reason.
So law is something pertaining to reason. Besides reason another foundation of law is the common good. Law is ordained to the common good.
Although law sometimes aims at the interest of private individuals, its chief purpose is the attainment of the general welfare. Law is imposed on others by way of rule or measure. The notification of law is made by promulgation.
St. Thomas Aquinas has suggested a limitation upon the promulgator. He is of opinion that the promulgator must be acquainted with common good of the community.
5. Fourfold Classification of Law:
The fourfold classification of law is a characteristic feature of St. Thomas’s political philosophy. His four kinds of law are in fact four forms of reason and all the laws aim at common good of the community. Four different laws are eternal law, natural law, divine law and human law.
If we look at different forms a cursory analysis of Thomas’s classification reveals that in his philosophy there is no place of arbitrary will or action. Behind every action there must be reason and it is manifested in law. Both the nature and the society are governed by reason that is law.
The eternal law is the reason existing in the mind of God by which the whole universe is governed. The eternal law is identical with the divine reason that governs the universe and St. Thomas calls it eternal because God’s rule of the world is not subject to time but is eternal.
The eternal law is above the physical nature of man and it is beyond his comprehension. Man acts according to the wishes of God and he participates in His goodness and wisdom. He has no contribution to the making and changing of eternal law. Again, man cannot keep himself away from the operation of this law.
According to Thomas “natural law” belongs that thing to which a man is inclined naturally and among these it is proper to man to be inclined to act according to reason.
Nature implants the inclination in all animals. But man with his superior intelligence and capability is able to find out the distinction between good and bad and he acts according to reason. St. Thomas has distinguished three different species of natural law.
There is the good that man pursues in accordance with the nature he has in common with all substances, such as self-preservation. Second, there is the inclination he has towards certain forms of conduct that he shares with all animals, such as sexual activities and education of offspring etc. Finally there is the inclination in him that is specifically human such as the desire to know God and avoid offending those with whom one lives.
Divine law is substantially revelation. It is related by St. Thomas to the fact that man’s reason is neither the sole nor the most reliable guide to his apprehension of truth and justice.
It is communicated to man through revelation. Thomas treats the divine law as the gift of God’s grace rather than a discovery of natural reason. Thomas says that there is no conflict between natural law and divine law.
There may be certain imperfections and loopholes in the natural law. The divine law corrects and removes them. “The divine law in the special sense is that through which the limitations and imperfections of human reason are supplemented, and man is infallibly directed to his supra-mundane end—eternal blessedness, it is the law of Revelation.”
The final and the lowest form of law is human law. Human law is the ordinance of reason aiming at common good. It is promulgated by man who cares for welfare of the community. St. Thomas states that it is not always possible for human beings to apprehend perfectly the inner meaning and objective of the divine law. To fill the gap another law is required.
That is why man makes the law for himself. St. Thomas further states that the natural law cannot always be applied to specific problems. For this reason man makes law. So far as human law is concerned it has been asserted by Thomas that it introduces no new principles.
A law is enacted by man remembering the divine law and natural law. But these laws are accommodated into the human law. Thomas has further admitted that there is hardly any arbitrariness in the human law because it always aims at the common good. Reason must also be embodied in it.
St. Thomas’s conception of law is highly significant. The Greek philosophers regarded law as impersonal in origin—as a manifestation of reason, and not an expression of human will. That is, human factor had no role to play in enactment of law.
Roman lawyers mainly emphasized upon the personal factor. St. Thomas Aquinas has combined both in his concept of law. In Thomas’s definition law is both a reason and an expression of will.
Even today we hold the view that reason must be embodied in every law, otherwise it cannot command allegiance from citizens. His attempt to relate common good to law is also noteworthy. “In his vision,” observes Berki, “the concept of law is made to play the most prominent role” St. Thomas’s concept of law has again combined theology, philosophy and modernism.
In eternal and divine law philosophy and theology play the important part. On the contrary, the natural and human laws are regarded as crucial parts of political theory.
The idea of justice is also related with his concept of law. In his view justice is the fixed and perpetual will to give to everyone his own rights. The fundamental principle of justice is equality.
In defining justice St. Thomas Aquinas has adopted the principle of both Roman jurists and Aristotle. Thomas has based his idea either upon nature or upon decrees promulgated by human authority.
He says that if a man gives something and in exchange of that he gets back the same then it will be said that there is equality. Similarly, decrees may be pressed into service to achieve equality.
Thomas wants to say that nature may not always be conducive to the fostering of justice. It may not be deficiency of nature but the peculiarity of human society. However, human law has a positive part to play in implementing rights and justice.
Again, it is to be noted here that the purpose of written law is to supplement the natural justice and not to create new justice. St. Thomas has not placed human law above nature.
St. Thomas’s concept of law and justice may be called a confluence of Aristotelian, Roman, Stoic and Christian ideas as to the basis of social order. “The most original contribution that he makes to the subject is that definition and analysis of law through which he displaces at the ultimate source of authority the impersonal forces of nature and reason, and subordinates them to the personal Christian God. It is in accomplishing this that he emphasizes the importance of volition in comparison with mere ratiocination, as an element in the definition of law.”
6. The Church and the State:
St. Thomas Aquinas was an orthodox Christian and naturally it is obvious that he will give priority to religion and the church over state affairs in general and politics in particular. But he recognised the importance of secular authority. Under such circumstances it is found that he took a moderate stand on the controversy between the church and the state.
Sabine observes “His position may be described as that of a moderate papa-list.” In fact, he did not scrupulously follow the doctrine of two swords. He said that the secular authority could claim allegiance from individuals, but the hegemony of the church over all matters must be accepted.
In determining the relation between the church and the state, St. Thomas has followed the Aristotelian principle. It shall be the supreme purpose of the government to help the realisation of the true end of the governed. But what is the true end of men? It is not to live according to virtue. But to live through a virtuous life to achieve the eternal enjoyment of the blessings of God.
There is another Aristotelian principle which finds place in Thomism. The principle is—”the one to whom it pertains to achieve the final end commands those who execute the things that are ordained to that end”.
Thomas’s scheme of church-state relation is couched with hierarchical terms. The purpose of the secular authority is to achieve certain legitimate ends. But these ends are not final. “They transcend mundane life. The government through which it is reached must be a higher that is, the sacerdotal, and kind.”
The temporal government holds the intermediate position. It is concerned only with the temporal matters. These must act as instruments to achieve higher ends. Hence the secular government is and must be subject to the church.
In the treatment of heretics St. Thomas’s suggestion also speaks of another aspect of church-state relation. Thomas says that in respect of heretics the church should practice toleration. The church is always against taking drastic action against the heretics. Generally it admonishes them.
But if the heretics are incorrigible and if their crime is serious and liable to create bad repercussion upon society, the church excommunicates them and delivers them to the hands of the temporal power for taking drastic action which may be death penalty. Thomas states that when spiritual weapons are exhausted, then, and then only, temporal weapons are resorted to.
The Church abhors the shedding of blood and only the government can do it. Ebenstein remarks “yet this separation of ecclesiastical and secular authorities is not final, because the church and state cooperate in the highest task of all—the salvation of the souls”.
The king will conduct the temporal affairs in his own way, but under no circumstances will he try to ignore the authority and supremacy of the church. Even his officials are bound to obey the church. Any defiance will be followed by excommunication. St. Thomas was interested in the unity and integrity of the nation and in his view this could be attained only through the church.
Any person disobeying the church would surely jeopardize the unity of the nation. Thomas thought is to be a serious crime. He recommended the abridgement of secular authority in the greater interest of the state, and the church was the embodiment of this greater interest.
Although St. Thomas Aquinas was a pioneer thinker of scholasticism and a great lover of reason, he held the view that the greatest truths would be obtained only through faith. The church was the final authority in faith and nobody could challenge the church.
By holding this view, St. Thomas Aquinas allowed inconsistency to creep into his thought system.
He did not allow the king to interfere with the spiritual affairs, but allowed the priest to interfere with the temporal matters. This did not solve the polemics between the church and the state which was the characteristic feature of the Middle Ages.