Saint Thomas Aquinas on History, Politics, and Law

HomeThe Collected Works of Eric VoegelinSaint Thomas Aquinas on History, Politics, and Law

Sic enim est dispositio rerum in veritate, sicut in esse.

– Saint Thomas, Contra Gentiles


History: Truth and Being

The work of Saint Thomas (1225-1274) absorbed his life in the literal sense in that he died from exhaustion before he reached the age of fifty. And it absorbed his life in the existential sense in that the work has become the expression of a life spent in penetrating and ordering the problems of his age.

To say that he was a great systematic thinker is a half-truth. He had a monumentally ordering mind, and he could apply this mind to a wealth of materials drawn into its orbit by a personality equally distinguished by sensorial receptivity, range of soul, intellectual energy, and sublimeness of spirit. The will to order alone could have produced a system more admirable for its coherence than for its grasp of reality; the extraor­dinary receptivity to the contents of the world could have produced an encyclopedia. That the two faculties combined to produce a sys­tem with a dynamic sweep from God through his creative causality to the world, and from the world through the desiderium naturale back to God, is due to the sentiment of Thomas that made him the saint: the experience of identity between the truth of God and the reality of the world.

“The order of things in Truth, is the order of things in Being.” This sentence from the Summa contra gentiles means ontologically that the divine intellect, as the first cause of the universe, has impressed itself into the structure of the world. It means methodologically that the orderly description of the world will result in a system describing the truth of God. It means practically that every being, and in particular man, has its ratio, its meaning, in the hierarchy of divine creation and finds the fulfillment of its existence by ordering it toward its ultimate end, that is, toward God.

The sentence is not only to be understood generically but also applies to individual man, and in particular to Saint Thomas himself. Ontologically speaking, his intellect carries the impression of the divine intel­lect; methodologically, the use of his intellect reveals the truth of God manifest in the world; practically, the intellectual enterprise means the orientation of his mind toward God. When Saint Thomas analyzes the function of the intellect, the discussion of fundamen­tal theoretical problems becomes, therefore, an intellectual self-portrait of the saint.

The Christian Intellectual

The most elaborate of these self-portraits is contained in the open­ing chapters of the Contra gentiles. Saint Thomas conceived of philosophy as the art of ordering and governing things toward an end. Of all the arts philosophy is the highest because it considers the end of the universe, that is God, and presents the contents of the world as ordered toward him.

God, the first cause and ultimate end of the universe, is Intellect. The aim of philosophy is, therefore, the good of the Intellect–that is, Truth. In the term truth (veritas) the meanings of the truth of the revealed faith, the truth of the self-­manifestation of God in his creation, and the truth resulting from the intellectual work of the philosopher tracing manifestations of the divine intellect are blended. God’s truth is manifest in three forms: the creation, the incarnation in Christ (with reference to John 18:37), and the work of the human intellect in the philoso­pher’s exposition of the first principle of being.

The concept of truth is important as the Christian counterposi­tion to the Averroist pathos of the intellectual. The authority of the intellect is not challenged in the least; it rather carries an additional dignity because the human intellect is the ratio of human existence as created by God. Through his intellect man is closest to God, and in the life of the intellect he approaches closest to divinity in the Aristotelian sense.

But the intellectual has now found his place in Christian society. He is still superior in understanding to the common man, but the common man is not a vilis homo. Saint Thomas uses for him the term idiota in which the meanings of the layman as a Christian and of the layman lacking technical knowledge are not quite distinguished, though on occasion he calls him a rudis homo.

The distance between the intellectual and the layman is not compared to that between man and animal, but rather to the distance between angel and man. And it is duly stressed that the distance from the angel to the intellectual is far greater than the other distance, which, after all, comes within the range of the human species.

The common man is, furthermore, not left without knowledge. What the philosopher knows through the activity of his intellect, the layman knows through the revelation of God in Christ. The supranatural manifestation of the Truth in Christ and its natural manifestation in the intellectual as the mature man stand side by side.

Faith and Reason

This juxtaposition could lead to the conflict between faith and reason that we observed in the work of Siger [de Brabant]. Saint Thomas avoids it through an ingenious construction.

Faith and reason cannot be in conflict because the human intellect carries the impression of the divine intellect; it is impossible that God should be guilty of deceiving man by leading him through his intellect to results con­flicting with the revealed faith. It follows that the human intellect, though capable of errors, will arrive at the truth wherever it goes. The revealed faith, however, contains besides the truths that are accessible to natural intellect, such as the existence of God, other truths, such as the Trinitarian character of the divinity, that are inaccessible to reason.

The theory is a dynamic principle of the first order. It separates the spheres of supranatural and natural theology. The supranatural part is removed from intellectual debate into the sphere of Revelation and of dogmatic decisions of the church. The natural part is left free to be integrated into a system of human knowledge under the authority of reason.

It is no exaggeration to say that the authority of Thomas and his superb personal skill in achieving the harmonization for his time have decisively influenced the fate of scholarship in the Western world. He has shown in practice that philosophy can function in the Christian system and that revealed truth is compatible with philosophy; and he has formulated the metaphysical principle that gives philosophy its legitimate status in Christianity.

Both achievements have to be seen in the light of the fact that philosophy depended at the time for its evolution on clerics. This does not mean that the relations between faith and reason were smooth in Thomas’s thought; we have seen that in the Condemnation of 1277 some of his tenets were found to be heretical.

The advancement of empirical and intellectual under­standing of the world would have required a permanent redefinition of the line separating supranatural from natural truth. In this task both sides that should have been responsible for the intellectual development of our civilization, the church and intellectuals, have failed signally.

The intellectual stagnation of the churches since the sixteenth century and the permeation of secular intellectual life with metaphysical principles opposed to Christianity have pro­duced a situation that today seems almost hopeless. Nevertheless, Saint Thomas defined the problem and solved it for his time through his work; we have yet to see a better formulation and solution.

From the metaphysical construction emerges the portrait of the saint in the setting of his age. He faces the intramundane forces that threaten to wreck the Christian world, and he successfully attempts a synthesis. He is an intellectual like Siger, but he has no desire to make the intellect an independent authority. The authority of the intellect is preserved, but through its transcendental orientation it is transformed from an intramundane rival of the faith into a legitimate expression of natural man. The life of the intellect is the highest form of human existence because it orients the rational creature toward its creator.

Thomas’s intellectual pride is no less strong than Siger’s; we can feel it in the description of philosophy as an ordering and ruling art, as well as in the juxtaposition of the philosopher (in whom natural truth becomes manifest) with Christ (in whom the truth has become incarnate supranaturally). But the pride is tempered by a spirituality that recognizes revelation and cannot conceive of a conflict between natural reason and spirit.

Intellectual Propaganda

The same will to harmonize pervades the transformation of the problems aroused by Joachim, Saint Francis, and the Franciscan Spirituals.

Saint Thomas was a mendicant, and the spiritual aggressiveness of the missionizing and preaching effort was an es­sential feature of his attitude. But the anti-intellectualism of Saint Francis is overcome. His Christ is not a Christ only for the poor in mind and worldly goods, but a Christ who expands his realm through intellectual propaganda.

The Contra gentiles is written for the Dominican missions in Spain in order to meet the Muslim intellectual influence on its own ground. Saint Thomas says in the Prooemium that with the Jews we can argue on the basis of the Old Testament, with the heretics on the basis of the New Testament, but with the Muslims we have to argue by appeal to the authority of the intellect.  The situation resembles that of Saint Paul. The Pauline three laws corresponded civilizationally to Christianity in the Jewish and Hellenistic environments.

For Saint Thomas the Muslims have taken the place of the pagans, with the important difference, however, that the early Christians were themselves former pagans sufficiently acquainted with pagan civilization to meet, in defense of Christianity, the pagans on their own ground, while the Christians of the thirteenth century were not sufficiently acquainted with Islamic civilization to do the same.

The intellect that can only produce Christian results becomes the instrument of Christian propaganda on an intercivilizational scale. The foundation is laid for the claim of Western civilization to be supreme on rational grounds, a claim that has survived its close con­nection with Christian spirituality and reached its full aggressive­ness only in the later age of secularized reason. For an understanding of the international dynamics of Western civilization we have to be aware of these roots in Aquinas’s position.

The claim draws its force not from the validity of reason, but from the harmony of intellectual operations with Christian spirituality. When these sources dry up and reason becomes a hieroglyph, the internal vitality of the claim weakens and the conviction it might carry externally is lost. At present we have arrived at a situation in which the revolt against reason can appeal in the name of almost any spirituality and find response because the Christian momentum of the intellect in our civilization is on the wane.

The Hierarchies

With regard to the hierarchies, Thomas’s horizon was larger than that of the Franciscans, but his attitude toward spiritual power was not the same as that toward the temporal. The function of the prince as the founder and ruler of the earthly commonwealth is well elaborated. The picture of the prince in De regimine principum shows the impression made on Aquinas by the figure of his great relative, Frederick II. His understanding of the Aristotelian advice to the successful ruler is determined by the appearance of the intramundane ruler in his own time and by the observation of his actions.

The idea of the commonwealth, tentatively evoked by John of Salisbury, is now fully developed with the apparatus of the Politics of Aristotle. With regard to the church, on the other hand, his position is rather close to the Franciscan. The church is accepted as the institution administering the sacraments, and in the hierarchy of powers the spiritual ranks over the temporal; but the church is not built into Aquinas’s system.

Saint Thomas never wrote a treatise on the church comparable to the De regimine principum on temporal government, and although the Summa the­ologiae contains a voluminous section on government and law (I- II.99.90-114), it does not treat the church explicitly. Even the theory of law simply forgets canon law. That a theory of the church can be assembled from scattered passages of his work does not offset the omission, which certainly is not an oversight.1

The accents of interest have shifted considerably. The sacrum imperium with the Gelasian powers is no longer topical; we are in the time of the Interregnum. The temporal power, which at the time of the Investiture Struggle was still implicitly understood as the im­perial power, is now replaced by the plurality of political units with their immanent natural structure, and the spiritual power recedes from its place as an order within the unit of the Christian empire into the position of a spiritual superstructure over the multitude of civitates. The Politics of Aristotle, which would not have made sense in the environment of the sacrum imperium, could now be accepted as an adequate theory for political pluralism.

The Evangelium AeternumWestern Imperialism

The redistribution of accents shows that Thomas could be pliable when confronted with the exigencies of historical reality. His great pliability has to be weighed as a factor in the appraisal of his attitude toward Joachim of Fiore and the Evangelium aeternum. The idea of a Third Realm of the Spirit is roundly condemned as nonsense.2 The age of Christ is the age of the spirit as well; no more perfect status is conceivable in the world than the life under the lex nova.

But this condemnation is not meant to destroy the dynamic element of a progressive history. For Saint Thomas the age of Christ is diversified according to space, time, and persons insofar as the grace of the spirit can be had by some more perfectly than by others; and the diversification is not aimless, for a trend can be discerned toward the fuller realization of the Gospel. The Gospel has been announced to the universe once and completely, but to make the annunciation effective continued preaching is necessary until the church is established among all nations (I–II. 106.4, ad 4).

Historians have sometimes accused Saint Thomas of lacking a philosophy of history. The accusation is justified if we assume history to mean either the history of the sacrum imperium or the history of the rising nations. Thomas stands between the ages: the medieval unit of imperial Christianity is dead, the world of the na­tional states is not yet born. Hence he has no philosophy of history of either of the political worlds; Joachim of Fiore’s symbolism and the Renaissance principle of the nations as the agents of history are equally impossible in his situation.

Nevertheless, his sense of history is very strong, and he has expressed perfectly the historical force that was living in him–that is, the imperialistic will to power of the Christian intellectual civilization. He can no longer symbol­ize the fulfillment of Christian history by the idea of a new arrival of the spirit, operating through an elitarian brotherhood, for he is more than a medieval spiritualist: his personality is wide enough to embrace the natural contents of the world as well as the human intellect and mankind organized in a plurality of commonwealths.

A philosophy of history corresponds to the power and range of his mind, which envisages the expansion of intellectual Christianity over the whole universe of peoples through the activities of his order. In the system of Western historical and political forces, Saint Thomas represents the will to world domination of the intellectu­ally and spiritually mature man.

Aquinas’s evocation has remained a part of our history of ideas as a component in the imperialism of the national state period. In the sixteenth century we can discern it in combination with Spanish national imperialism in the theories of Francisco Vitoria as well as in Elizabethan English imperialism. In the seventeenth century it is seen in combination with the Dutch commercial imperialism of Hugo Grotius and in general in the subsequent struggle for colonial empires that implies the idea of a providential domination of the West over the rest of the world.

The Historical Mind

We are in a position now to clarify the character of Thomistic thought.

Thomas was not a theoretical thinker, if by theory we mean the systematic ordering of an ahistorical field of problems. His theoretical solutions, such as the construction of the relation between faith and reason, are at the same time harmonizations of historical forces. The truth of God is manifest in the world, but the world is not a static structure; it is rather an organism of changing historical forces. Hence, the intellectual work of the philosopher cannot be exhausted by aprioristic speculations; it has to re-create the unity of the historically concrete world at a given moment in the framework of a system.

The form of the quaestiones of the Summa theologiae is the ideal instrument for the execution of this task. It permits the organiza­tion of the material in a great stable frame, and it offers ample oppor­tunity to fill historical detail into the polemical notes preceding and following the corpus of the quaestio. The Summa is, therefore, as far as wealth of detail is concerned, far from a systematic masterpiece. Discourses and obiter dicta of the greatest importance for the un­derstanding of the intentions of the philosopher are hidden away in the corollaries and sometimes are to be found in the most unlikely places so that their discovery is a piece of luck.

The transitions from one topic to the other, furthermore, are frequently obscure if not missing. In this respect Saint Thomas greatly resembles Hegel, who kept the levels of his philosophy of mind masterfully distinct while the transitions from one level to the other were of a rather dubious character. This loosely jointed system, in places bulging and overflowing from excesses of digression, is the perfect symbol of a mind that is neither aprioristic nor empiristic but itself a living historical being, experiencing its harmony with the manifestation of God in the historical world.

The conviction of Saint Thomas that the parts of God’s world would fit together matched his will to prove it through his work. This conviction gave to his writings their magnificent tone of authority; but it would have had a para­lyzing effect unless the incessant endeavor to make truth manifest through the intellect had been, in the sentiment of the saint, the act of orientation toward God incumbent on a rational creature.

Politics: The Reception of Aristotle – Humanism

In the presentation of Thomistic politics we are faced for the first time since the reception of Aristotle with the curse of Western political theory–the curse that we do not quite know what our symbols mean. The Politics of Aristotle is definitely a theory of the Hellenic polis; it excludes from its scope the governmental organizations of nations on a territorial basis such as Persia. While in a penetrating analysis of a particular type of political organization it is impossible not to touch on the general problems of politics, the Aristotelian categories were formed with special regard to the experiences of the city-state from the sixth to the fourth centuries B.C. When Saint Thomas took over the fundamental Aristotelian concepts, he indulged to a certain extent in a humanistic exercise that had little bearing on the political problems of his time.

The difficulties become apparent in the translation of the term polis. Thomas uses civitas as an equivalent, but also gens, reg­num, or provincia. By the terms gens and regnum the political organizations of peoples are included; the term provincia is taken from the Roman imperial vocabulary, where it designated such provinces as Gaul, Spain, Africa, and Egypt. The term provincia was generally accepted at the time, and John of Salisbury used it when he referred to such countries as, probably, France or England.

The suspense with regard to the type of political organization to which the theory applies is, furthermore, marked by the dedication of the De regimine principum to the king of Cyprus. In the Third Crusade the island of Cyprus had been conquered by Richard I of England and sold by him to Guy of Lusignan. The dedication to a Lusignan king of Cyprus shows the radius of the political horizon at the time.

But that the treatise was not dedicated to the emperor or a Western king shows also how far away the new theory was from either the imperial problems of the Investiture Struggle or the political problems of the national state. The curious structure of political theory from which we still suffer perceptibly today began to appear: no theory of government is general enough to pierce to the elements of a political form and not special enough to apply unambiguously to a concrete political unit. We have not yet by any means overcome the humanistic, unrealistic vagueness of ascribing general validity to the intermediate realm of categories stemming from the absorption of Aristotle.

The Dedication to Cyprus

There may have been, however, one element of realism in the dedi­cation to Cyprus that is not easy for us to grasp now that Thomas’s unknowable future has become the knowable past for us. Hellenic political theory drew part of its strength from a situation in which the existing poleis were permanently engaged in founding new ones. The possibility of creating new political units from the selection of a site, through the planning of the city, to the drafting of a constitu­tion, formed the background for the construction of ideal states for Plato as well as for Aristotle.

The horizon of new foundations was opened again on a large scale only with the discovery of America and the Western colonial settlements. A comparable situation had arisen in the thirteenth century, not through the opening of new territories for settlement, but through the Norman migrations and the Crusades with their wealth of new governmental foundations. We have discussed earlier the revolutionary effects of the Norman conquests in Sicily and England on the European political scene. We have now to add the similar effects of the foundation of the Teu­tonic Order in the East, of the consolidation of northern and Slavic governments, and particularly of the chain of exotic principalities carved out of the Islamic and Byzantine domains by the Crusaders.

That the expansion of Western political foundations in the east­ern Mediterranean would soon collapse under the Turkish advance and that the weight of Western politics would shift to the West and across the Atlantic could not be foreseen at the time.3 Here in the East was indeed a frontier of political foundations, seem­ingly pointing to an expansion of Western civilization among the gentes in accordance with the imperialistic vision of Saint Thomas.

Nevertheless, book II of De regimine principum, with its advice for the selection of a polis site in the best Aristotelian manner, looks somewhat odd when compared with the real problems of governmental foundations of the time.

The Prince – The Divine Analogue

There was more, however, to the problem of foundation than the desire to take over, at all cost, a piece of Aristotelian doctrine. In the system of Thomas the theory of foundation holds the place that is held in the system of Aristotle by the theory of the evolution of social forms from the family to the village to the polis.

In the chapter on Aristotle we have seen that the Platonic idea of the foundation by the forces of the soul had been lost and that the idea of the polis as the cosmic crystal had been replaced by the idea of the autarkic unit; evolution “by nature” had been substituted for foundation by the spirit.

Thomas reverses the Aristotelian step. He goes back to the systematically superior Platonic construction and draws a series of analogues of God as the ruler of the universe, the soul as the ruler of the body, and the prince as the ruler of the civitas. Parallel to the divine functions of creating and governing the universe, the princely functions are those of founding and ruling the civitas (De, 13).

The reversion to the ruler as the analogue of God inevitably has to upset the Aristotelian construction of the polis “by nature.” The compulsory series of communities (family, village, polis) loses its meaning for the simple reason that Thomas was not, and could not be, interested in the polis. He preserves the Aristotelian naturalism insofar as he accepted the idea that man has to live in community because when isolated, or even in the family, he is not able to bring his faculties as a rational creature to their full development.4

For Thomas there was such a thing as the perfecta communitas, the perfect community, which satisfied the natural needs of subsis­tence, of defense and intellectual life. However, the sociological type of the “perfect community” remained indeterminate with him. Beyond the family, the Aquinas vocabulary becomes hazy: the Aristotelian series is translated as familia, civitas, provincia (I.i), but rex, defined as the ruler of the perfect community, may be rex of either the civitas or the provincia. The Aristotelian pattern is reduced to the two types of the family head and the king.

The introduction of the king as the central figure of the political unit is not simply a return to the philosopher-king of Plato. This possibility is excluded following the appearance of Christ. The royal function of Thomas is not spiritual, but natural. In the distribution of natural gifts one individual may be outstanding through the possession of the regia virtus, the royal virtue (I.9).

The regia virtus is not the Platonic wisdom of the ruler because it does not carry spiritual authority. It is not the Aristotelian aretè because it is not the virtue of the ideal citizen at large but a specific ability in the system of natural gifts. It is almost the Machiavellian virtù, but not quite because it does not contain the Machiavellian demonic element. It comes fairly close, however, to an evocation of the Re­naissance prince, and it bears markedly the imprint of Frederick II.

The Community of Free Christians

The king functions as the ruler of a community of the free (libero­rum multitudo, I.i). This is perhaps the most important deviation from the Aristotelian system. Thomas makes freedom or servitude the criterion of good or bad government. If the members of the com­munity cooperate freely in the enterprise of common existence, the government is good, be it a monarchy, aristocracy, or polity. If one or many are free and conduct the government in their [own] interest by exploiting the others, the government is bad.

The vocabulary of the Aristotelian good and bad forms of government is preserved, but according to Thomas even the good forms of Aristotle would be bad, because the theory of the polis included under all circumstances the “natural slaves.” For Thomas there are no natural slaves. His anthropology operates with the idea of the mature, free Christian, and in his magnanimous idea of freedom we can even feel a touch of the aristocratic egalitarianism of Saint Francis. Thomas feels strongly the freedom of the Christian, but he does not put man in the setting of a natural community with obligations of its own. The free are a multitudo, a multitude, and the common­alty arises as the effect of free creative cooperation.

Thomas has no theory of a social contract establishing the corporate unit with obligations for its members, nor has he a theory of the political people. His kings are the princes of the populus Christianus that transcends the boundaries of all particular political units. The diffi­culties ensuing from this weakness can be traced from the Summa contra gentiles to the Summa theologiae. The Contra gentiles has not yet adopted the full Aristotelian sociology. Man is the nat­uraliter animal sociale (III. 117), and he is naturally inclined to mutual love and helpfulness, but the social aim does not lie in the natural sphere at all.

Beyond the Aristotelian Language

What constitutes the community of men is a common end in the love of God and the direction of life toward eternal beatitude. Between those who have a common end there has to be a “bond of affection” (III. 117); and from this necessity follow the further rules for the life of men in community as given by God (III. 111– 46). In the Summa theologiae (I-II.90.2) Saint Thomas develops at first the same position with regard to the spiritual aim as the determinant of community life.

And then, from the sky, he drops the quotation from Aristotle that the civitas is the perfect com­munity because it leads to felicity, disregarding entirely the fact that for Aristotle the historically concrete polis is an absolute into which the “contemplative action” of the bios theoretikos has been built with considerable pains of construction, while in the Summa the beatitudo is the absolute that attaches to itself a politically nondescript natural community life.

In spite of the incorporation of Aristotle, the elemental figure of Thomistic politics is not the zoon politikon, but the homo Christianus [De reg. pr. 1.14). The transla­tion and adaptation of the Aristotelian term as animal politicum do not imply an adaptation of meaning. Aristotle’s man finds the fulfillment of his existence in the polis and is nothing but the zoon politikon, while the homo Christianus is oriented toward a transcendental spiritual end and is, among other more important things, also an animal politicum.

The series of analogues of God in the universe, the prince in the civitas, the soul in the body cannot remain, therefore, the final word of Thomistic politics. The order of the multitude of Christian men has to be under the ruler who is the spiritual king of mankind–that is, under Christ. The ministry of this spiritual reign is entrusted to the priesthood, in order to keep it distinct from the natural earthly affairs, and in particular to the Roman pontiff, “to whom all kings of the Christian people are subordinate as to the Lord Jesus himself” (I.14).

Under the hands of Thomas the term political begins to assume its modern meaning; the Gelasian dichotomy of spiritual and temporal powers began to be replaced by the modern dichotomy of religion and politics. With Thomas, the political sphere, in the modern sense, was still completely oriented toward the spiritual, but the beginning of the momentous evolution that led, through the Lockean privatization of religion and the assignment of a public monopoly to politics, to the totalitarian integration of an intramundane spirituality into the public sphere of politics can be discerned.

The Theory of Constitutional Government

On the level of governmental institutions the humanistic character of Thomas’s theory is so strong that we can hardly speak of a system at all. The principles of constitutional government are developed by reference to Aristotle and the Israelite institutions, and it remains doubtful to what extent they are meant to apply to the political situation of the thirteenth century.

The only clear reference to a social structure of the time is contained in the thesis that every perfect community (multitudo perfecta) has to be stratified socially into the three orders of the optimates, the populus honorabilis, and the populus vilis [Summa theologiae 1.108.2). The model for the three orders is obviously furnished by the typical stratification of Italian towns into the nobility, the popolo grasso, and the popolo minuto. 5 This gives us an idea of the potentialities of a political theory that is carried by the sentiment of Christian freedom and tries to develop governmental institutions for homo Christianus as political man.

If the ideas of constitutional government and general suffrage were to be applied to a community consisting of the three orders, not only the Third Estate, the bourgeoisie, would be integrated into the political system but also the proletariat. For the Italian towns that would have meant adequate political represen­tation for such social elements as the Pataria of Milan or the lesser guilds and the ciompi of Florence.

We do not know, however, what the policy of Thomas would have been in the concrete situation of even an Italian town; and how his principles would have operated in complex territorial units like England, which had just arrived at the Montfort stage of parliamentarism, or in France, with its feudal structure and communal movement, is beyond imagination.

In the De regimine principum the theory of constitutional gov­ernment is announced in connection with the problem of tyranny (1.6). Thomas did not approve of tyrannicide as did John of Salisbury. The deposition of an unjust ruler falls to the collective auctoritas publica; the pope as a possible agent of deposition is passed over with eloquent silence. The proper method of dealing with the dan­ger of tyranny is its prevention through a limitation of royal power. The De regimine principum remained unfinished, and the section on limited monarchy is not elaborated.

An Early Evocation of Constitutional Principles

In the Summa theologiae the problem is raised twice. The first time it appears in a brief enumeration of the Aristotelian forms of government (I-II.95.4), concluding with the statement that the regimen conmixtum is the best form of government. The passage is merely a verbal adoption; beyond the quotation from Saint Isidore that under the mixed form the patricians and plebeians cooperate in legislation, nothing can be extracted from it.

The second occasion arises in the discussion of Israelite institutions (I-II.105.1). This ar­ticle is of particular interest because it shows the almost incredible insouciance of Thomas when it comes to strict systematic con­struction. Monarchy is considered, as in De regimine principum, the best form of government because it is the analogue of divine governance of the world. On the other hand, it is not the best form of government because empirically men are weak and the danger of tyranny necessitates preventive institutions.

This conflict in the evaluation of governmental forms, which in itself would represent a ticklish systematic problem, is now further aggravated because the primary democracy of Israel had no kings at all. God considered kingship so bad that he entrusted the custody of his people to judges and received the expression of the popular desire for a king with displeasure (I-II.105.2).

The difficulty is solved by the explanation that the Jews are particularly cruel and avaricious and that God had to take his precautions. The construction shows that the ordinates of the system are well fixed: the problems raised by the facts of history are registered but do not suggest a revision of the axioms.

Nevertheless, the Israelite case offers the opportunity to elaborate on the ideal constitutional form with more detail. The guiding principle is the Aristotelian rule for a stable polity: everybody should have a share in the government. The polity (Thomas uses the term politia) should have for its magistrates the king, the heads of the nobility, and representatives of the people elected by general suffrage.

It is a constitutional project that in principle would be realized by the English constitution in the second half of the nine­teenth century. Nothing is said about the functions and the relative powers of the “princes.” The constitutional rules should not be applied, however, unconditionally. The purpose of constitutional government is the prevention of tyranny.

If democratic suffrage should result in a tyranny from the bottom of the social ladder, a return to aristocratic forms of government would be indicated. The criteria for a tyranny from the bottom are vote-buying, election of questionable characters (I-II.97.1), and plundering of the rich (De reg. pr. I.i).

As the main sources from which the political thought of Thomas derives we can enumerate: the Aristotelian theory of politics, the Roman constitution, the Israelite primary democracy and king­ship, the experience of Italian town democracy, and the sentiment of Christian freedom. The elements were not integrated into a strict system; in keeping with the “harmonizing” style of Aquinas’s thought, they exist comparatively unrelated side by side.

What results from this array of elements is the evocation of the idea of constitutional government based on two principles: the natural psychological axiom that the stability of a government depends on the participation of the people, and the spiritual Christian principle of the freedom of the mature man.

The evocation is humanistic because intellectual operations with Aristotelian terminology do not penetrate sufficiently into the concrete problems of politics. At the time, the evocation was esoteric, because its public ef­fectiveness did not go perceptibly beyond the Dominican Order. It represents, nevertheless, the synthesis of nature and Christian spiritualism in politics, and as the symbol of this synthesis it has dominated, with or without explicit reference to its author, the evolution of Western politics to this day.

The Four Types of Law

For a proper understanding of the Thomistic theory of law it is essential to consider its place in the system of the Summa the­ologiae. The first part of the Summa deals with God and his cre­ation, the second part with man, the third part with redemption through Christ.

The Prima secundae (I–II) in particular deals with the actions of man. First, the end of human life, which consists in beatitude (I–II. 1–5 ), is considered, then the means by which man can arrive at the end. The means consist in human actions, subdi­vided into voluntary actions, which are specifically human (6-21), and the passions, as the types of action that man has in common with the animals (22-48). Finally, the principles of human action are considered, subdivided into the internal and the external. The internal principles are the powers and habits (48-89). The external principle moving men toward the ultimate good is God.

God can move man through instruction by the law (90-108), or through assistance by Grace (109-14). Hence the theory of law is the theory of the instruction given by God to man in order to motivate his acts toward the ultimate goal of beatitude.

The general outline of the theory of law follows as an application of the ontological principles discussed earlier to the problem thus formulated. The world, including man, is the creation of God; it bears the impress of the divine intellect; the meaning of created ex­istence is the movement back toward God. The rule that motivates the action of man in his return to God is, therefore, the ratio of the creation in the intellect of God himself. This divine ratio is called the lex aeterna. Through the process of creation the lex aeterna is impressed into the nature of man; the dictate of reason living in man is called the lex naturalis.

As man is imperfect, he pos­sesses the lex aeterna only in its general principles; the adaptation and elaboration for the contingencies of human existence by man himself produces the lex humana. If man were a natural being only, finding the fulfillment of his existence in earthly achievement, this instruction would be sufficient. As he is oriented, however, toward spiritual transcendental beatitude, special revelations of divine law in the Old and New Testaments were necessary, and these are called the lex divina.

The four laws, eternal, natural, human, and divine, are the topics of the theory of law.

The Definition of Law

The ontological thesis is combined with the theory of the analogues (God in the universe, the prince in the community) in order to arrive at a definition of law. Law is defined as an ordinance of reason (ratio), for the common good, made by him who has the care of the community, and promulgated in it (90.4).

The definition is important because it sounds like a definition of positive law, but is meant as a definition of the essence of the four types of law above mentioned. The ambiguity shows that the accent of interest lies strongly on the political community and on the constitutional organs of legislation, but that the problem of legislative political authority is not yet clearly distinguished from the authority of the legal order by virtue of the justness of its contents.

As a conse­quence, the four elements of the definition do not fit the varieties of eternal, natural, human, and divine law equally well. The elements of reason and common good fit of necessity because they are strict speculation; a rule that is unreasonable, or not to the common good, simply is not law. The element of promulgation can be made to fit by interpreting the manifestation of the lex aeterna in the minds of men, in the form of the lex naturalis, as its promulgation (90.4, ad. 1).

The lex divina is a further promulgation of eternal law through Scripture. And the lex humana is promulgated by the proper polit­ical authorities, though here it becomes doubtful of what law the lex humana is a promulgation: of eternal law, of natural law, or simply of human law itself?

Thus serious difficulties arise over the element of “making” by the representative of the community. The element is supposed to refer to God as well as to the prince, and we find indeed in 91.1 the analogue carried out in the splendid picture of God as the prince of the civitas perfecta of the world, governing the universe by his eternal law. The analogue breaks down, how­ever, over the question of “making” because the lex aeterna is not “made” in any conceivable sense, but exists in the mind of God from eternity.

On the other hand we observe that in 90.3, where the element of “making” is discussed explicitly, Thomas refers exclusively to the natural perfect community. The “making” of the law is entrusted to the multitude or its representative (vicis gerens); and Aquinas discusses as an example the legislative function of the patricians and plebeians under the Roman constitution.

Quite obviously Saint Thomas is trying to evolve a theory of positive law. The attempt must lead in the context to a conflict with the theory of the contents of the legal order as given in the classification of the four varieties.

With regard to contents all law is created by God, with the exception of the uncreated lex aeterna. Man can participate in this creation only through the “making” of the lex humana. But this human “making” consists in finding the right contents of the law in agreement with natural and divine law. This “making” is part of the return of man to God, and the human “making” has the dialectical structure of a making of law by God through the instrument of human action, or, seen from the other side, of an orientation of man toward God through the creation of rules of action in accordance with the divine legislative will.

The dialectic of positive law that results from the initial ontolog­ical position of Saint Thomas is never treated adequately. Instead we find the bewildering identifications of positive law with the “essence” of law on the one hand in 90.4 and with the lex humana on the other in 95.1-2.

The confusion on this point corresponds to the crack in the system that we noted in the preceding section on Politics when the Aristotelian perfect community is dropped from the sky into the discussion of the free multitude and its common end. The perfect community, its constitution, and legislative action are received factually into the system, but a conclusive theoretical integration has not been possible for Thomas.

The Theory of Natural Law

The strength of Aquinas’s legal philosophy lies in the theory of the contents of law and particularly of natural law.

The eternal law impresses itself on rational creatures and endows them with an inclination toward their proper actions and ends. This participation of the rational creature in eternal law is called natural law. The light of natural reason by which we distinguish between good and bad is the refraction of the divine light in us (91.2). All law, insofar as it participates in right reason, is derived, therefore, from eternal law (93.3).

In accordance with the limitations of human nature, direct knowledge is restricted to general principles only. As such are enu­merated: self-preservation, preservation of the species through pro­creation and education, preservation of the rational nature through desire for the knowledge of God and the inclination toward civilized community life (94.2). The construction is metaphysically on the level of the Stoic theory of natural or common law, the koinos nomos, and participation in it is through the apospasma, the spark of the nomos in the individual man, although the anthropology has become Christian.

The Stoic-Hellenistic conception could lead on the one side to the Neoplatonic theory of individual illumination, which is still discernible in Saint Augustine, on the other side to the collectivist assumption of the anima intellectiva, which we observed in the Averroist theory of Siger de Brabant. For Thomas participation in the lex aeterna is objective insofar as it does not depend on individual illumination; and it gives due weight to the singularity of the person insofar as it conceives of the legally ordered community as a cooperative effort of the free homines christiani.

Systematically, the ontological foundation of a theory of natural law by Aquinas is probably the only tenable position for a philoso­phy of law. If the recourse to the transcendental lex aeterna is not taken, we have a choice between the alternatives: either having no ontological foundation at all for the contents of the legal order and accepting as valid every positive order that can compel submission; or erecting the intramundane elements, such as instincts, desires, wants, secular reason, the will to power, the survival of the fittest, etc., into absolutes.

The first course is nihilistic; the second is unable to integrate transcendental religious experiences into the philosophy of ethics and law. Thomas’s theory is a classic solution insofar as it gives a religious foundation to a legal order that respects the ontological structure of human existence.  The transcendental foundation does not determine the type of community to be ordered.

Aquinas’s philosophy of law has lasting importance for Western political thought because it harmonizes the Christian spiritual personality with the natural perfect community. The “perfect community” is an elastic formula with unpredictable potentialities. In the system of Thomas it is no longer identical with the Hellenic polis but remains on the whole nondescript with regard to the social type that it denotes. The political people were later made to fill the skeletal formula, and other types that may grow into the stature of “perfection,” such as federations of peoples, may enter it as well.

In this respect Thomas’s theory is eminently dynamic; its function in Western civilization insofar as it is Christian has by no means come to an end.

Historically, the parallel with the Stoic theory of participation in the koinos nomos deserves some attention. Both theories are universalistic in the sense that they assume the spiritual equality of men and that they make equal men the constitutive elements of the community. It is no accident that the universalistic theories appear at the moment when the older institutions begin to disintegrate.

The dissolution of the polis forms the background of Stoicism just as the dissolution of the sacrum imperium forms the background of Thomas’s transcendental ontology. In both cases, furthermore, the universalistic theory is absorbed into the political philosophy of the rising new evocations: the Stoic theory into the Ciceronian Roman cosmopolis, and the Thomistic history into the natural law theory of the national state period.

Human Law – Positive Law

Since the human law is determined by the natural and the divine law by the supranatural contingencies of human life, the human and divine laws may be classified together as the contingent contents of law. The discussion of the lex humana in qu. 95 again raises the problem of positive law insofar as on occasion the lex humana is identified with the lex positiva. The technical confusion arises from the fact that Saint Thomas does not distinguish sufficiently between the contents of the legal order and the legislative authority and enforcement.

The term lex humana actually covers two different concepts. The lex humana as a contents of law is described as a lex adinventa, meaning that human rational action invents the detailed rules that fill the general framework of natural law by derivation from it and application of it to the concrete situation. The lex humana as a body of rules made by legislative organs and enforced by governmental sanction is called lex humanitus posita or lex positiva. The lex ab hominibus inventa dominates qu. 91.3; the lex humanitus posita dominates qu. 95.

Setting aside the equivocal terminology, the problems are quite clear. Under the title of the lex humanitus posita the two problems of (1) generality of the law and (2) compulsion are treated.

The legal rule cannot be left unformulated up to the time when a case arises, for “the living justice of the judge” is to be found only in very few men. It is better to provide general rules for the future because then the rules can be formulated at leisure with due consideration of the problems involved; furthermore, the formulation has a better chance of being dispassionate, and, finally, the legislative drafting can be entrusted to selected competent men.

Compulsion is neces­sary because the nature of man is weak and the seedlings of virtue need support from “force and fear” to grow straight (95.1). Under the title of lex ab hominibus inventa the problem of the adequacy of the law to the contingencies of natural life is treated.

In this respect Saint Thomas follows the advice of Saint Isidore [Etymologies 5.21): the law should be in keeping with religion and in keeping with the principles of natural law. It should neither demand what is humanly impossible nor contradict the local traditions, and it should have regard for the circumstances of time and place, be necessary, serve the commonweal, and be clear (95.3).

The Old Law – The Property Society

The divine law was given by God because the supernatural end of man requires direction that man cannot find with only his natural faculties given that human judgment is uncertain. In the elabora­tion of human law, man requires the support of undoubted rules since human law can punish only overt acts and does not touch the intentions; since an exhaustive prohibition of evil acts by hu­man law would also destroy the good of the community life; and because divine law, therefore, has to regulate and to sanction the evil that of necessity escapes human regulation (91.4).

The divine law is only one; the successive revelations of the Old and the New Law correspond to stages of human maturity. The Old Law fits the imperfect stage of human childhood, the New Law the state of spiritual maturity. The Old Law orders man toward his earthly good by regulating external acts and compelling obedience by fear of punishment. The New Law directs man toward the heavenly realm by regulating internal acts and inducing obedience through the love of God instilled into the hearts of men by Grace (91.5).

The position taken by Thomas implies a philosophy of human culture; it creates a relation between the contents of a legal order and the general civilizational stage of a people.

The discussion of the Old Law has given Thomas the occasion to treat the Israelite in­stitutions voluminously in what practically amounts to a separate monograph (qu. 98-105). [Alois] Dempf remarks rightly that this mono­graph is the first treatise on an ancient civilization conceived in the humanistic spirit of the Renaissance. It comprises a penetrating analysis of the Israelite ceremonial, political, and civil life.

The theory of constitutional government, developed on this oc­casion, we have presented already in the section on Politics above. Of similar rank is the theory of private property, developed in con­nection with the analysis of the civil order.

Thomas distinguishes between two fundamental relations in the perfect community: the governmental relation between the prince and his subjects, and the private, civil relations among the subjects themselves. The governmental authority over the subjects manifests itself in the en­forcement of the legal order; the private relations between subjects result from the authority of the citizen over his res possessae, his private property.

The subjects can have commerce with one another by exerting their specific proprietary authority, expressing itself in buying, selling, donating, etc. The theory may sound trite today, but for its time it was revolutionary because it swept aside the feudal structure of property rights and made the society of property owners and their business relations the center of legal theory (105.2).

The theory of the property society has the same touch of the untimely and humanistic as the theory of constitutional government, but it has also the same portentous significance for the future evolution of political thought.

The New Law – Justification by Faith

Compared with the bulky treatise on the Old Law, the discussion of the New Law, which after all should be more important for the existence of the mature Christian, is surprisingly brief (three short quaestiones, 106-8, in size about one-fifth of the Old Law). The terseness, however, does not prevent the discussion from bordering on the revolutionary, as did the theories of constitutional govern­ment and of the property society. The lex nova is written by the grace of the spirit into the hearts of the faithful; only secondarily is it a written law.

With a radical sweep, not eliminating but at least not mentioning the church, the essence of Christianity is put directly in the faith, in the pistis in the Pauline sense. To exclude any other principle of justification, Thomas (I-II.106.1) quotes Rom. 3:27: “Where is then your boasting? It is ruled out. By what law? By your works? No, but by the law of faith.” It is the passage preceding the famous sentence: “For we believe that man is justified by faith, and not by works according to the law.”

The principle of justification by faith is made the essence of the lex nova. Within the framework of orthodox Catholic theology this is perhaps the strongest possible expression of the principle of free Christian spirituality.6 Only if we take into consideration the independent spiritualism of Saint Thomas can we fully understand the strength of the sentiments that express themselves in the conception of the community of the mature free Christians, of their participation in government through general suffrage and in the constitution of a free society of property owners.

A Master Harmonization

The place of Saint Thomas in the history of political thought has to be fixed with regard to the irruption of the intramundane forces since the Investiture Struggle. The new age, announcing itself in the stirring of these forces, could be characterized by the entrance of the “world” into the orbit of the otherworldly spiritualism of Christianity. Thomas stands on the dividing line of the ages in the sense that his harmonizing powers were able to create a Christian spiritual system that absorbed the contents of the stirring world in all its aspects: of the revolutionary people, of the natural prince, and of the independent intellectual.

His system is medieval as a manifestation of Christian spiritualism with its claim to universal validity. It is modern because it expresses the forces that were to determine the political history of the West to this time: the consti­tutionally organized people, the bourgeois commercial society, the spiritualism of the Reformation, and the intellectualism of science.

Saint Thomas could achieve this incredible concentration of the past and the future of a high civilization through the miracle of his personality. The sentiments of the time were strong enough to determine separately the distinct and forceful personalities from John of Salisbury to Siger de Brabant. Saint Thomas could absorb them all and keep them in an ordered balance.

Comparing him to Frederick II we may say that he shared the emperor’s responsiveness to the forces of the age, but that he surpassed him in intelligence and spiritual qualities. John of Salisbury’s individualism of character is heightened to the spiritual personalism of the Christian political man; Thomas’s humanism has gained the breadth that can digest Aristotle and create as a by-product the study of Israelite institu­tions.

The spiritual individualism of Saint Francis appears more radical in the almost Protestant spiritualism of Saint Thomas; the Franciscan popularism is continued in the evocation of the com­munity of the politically free, while the limitations of the Christ of the poor are overcome by due recognition of the new function of the prince.

The secular consciousness of Joachim of Fiore is translated into the idea of an expansion of the church over the world; the narrow horizon of the monastic brotherhood is enlarged to the imperialistic vision of a world of Christian perfect communities. The intellectualism of Siger and Boethius is fully present, but it is balanced by an equally strong spiritual orientation.

Through his domination over the forces and their masterful harmonization, Saint Thomas became the unique figure who could voice the pathos of medieval imperial Christianity in the lan­guage of the modern West. Nobody after him has represented in the same grandiose style the spiritually and intellectually mature Western man.



1. For a presentation of the theory of the church see Martin Grabmann, Thomas Aquinas, trans. Virgil G. Michel (New York: Longmans, Green, 1928; rpt. New York: Russell and Russell, 1963), chap. 13, “Thoughts on Christianity and the Church.” See also Grabmann, Die Lehre des heiligen Thomas von Aquin von der Kirche als Gotteswerk: Ihre Stellung im thomistischen System und in der Geschichte der mittalterlichen Theologie (Regensburg: Manz, 1903).

2. “Stultissimum est dicere quod Evangelium Christi non sit Evangelium regni.” Summa theologiae, pt. I–II, qu. 106, art. 4). On recent editions within Opera om­nia see above, p. 200, n. 34. See also Summa theologiae: Latin Text and English Translation, trans. The Blackfriars, 60 vols. (New York: McGraw Hill; London: Eyre and Spottiswoode, 1964); English edition: Summa theologica, trans. Fathers of the English Dominican Province, 22 vols. (London: Burns, Oates and Washburn, 1912- 1936; rpt. New York: Christian Classics, 1981). This translation is available today (2013) on-line free and in downloadable form and on disk.

3. The De regimine principum is to be dated 1265-1266. Constantinople had been regained in 1261 by Michael VIII Paleologus, but in Europe the Byzantine empire was territorially restricted to the immediate surroundings of the capital. Recent editions: De regimine principum, ed. Stephen Baron, American University Studies, series 17: Classical Languages and Literature, vol. 5 (New York: Lang, 1990); and De regimine principum (Milan: Editoria elettronica Editel, 1992). The 1992 edition is a text file on one computer disk. English edition: On Kingship: To the King of Cyprus, trans. Gerard B. Phelan and I. T. Eschmann, Mediaeval Sources in Translation, vol. 2 (Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, 1949, rpt. 1982).

4. “Naturale autem est homini ut sit animal sociale et politicum, magis etiam quam omnia alia animalia: quod quidem naturalis necessitas declarat.” See De regimine, bk. I, chap. I.

5. The three orders are not understood merely as empirical groups. They are supposed to correspond to a necessary pattern of hierarchical order. That is why this important political type-concept is found in the quaestio on the hierarchy of angels where the problem of hierarchy in general is discussed.

6. The text touches on a fundamental problem of Catholic doctrine and should perhaps be safeguarded against possible misunderstanding.

There is, of course, noth­ing of Lutheranism in the theology of Thomas Aquinas. The question under dis­cussion is, strictly speaking, one not of doctrine but of accents and tensions. In the queastiones concerning the lex nova, Aquinas is stressing to the utmost the spiritual element of faith at the expense of ecclesiastical mediation.

The strongest formulations, expressive of spiritualism, are found in qu. 113.4, “[i]deo motus fidei requiritur ad justificationem impii” and “[e]x quo patet quod in justificatione impii requiritur actus fidei quantum ad hoc quod homo credat Deum esse justificatorem hominem per mysterium Christi.”

The formulations are so strong that in the edition I am using (Regensburg, 1876) the editor found it advisable to attach a note: “Fides quae ad justificationem requiritur est fides Catholica, qua redimus vera esse quae divinitus revelata et promissa sunt, atque illud in primis a Deo justificare impium per gratiam ejus, per redemptionem quae est in Christo Jesu. Non vero requiritur, ut volent lutherani, fides illa qua unusquisque in speciali credit vel certissime confidit sibi remissa esse peccata (cf. Concilium Trid., sess. VI, can. 12).”

The warning is considered necessary, though there can be no doubt that no Lutheran interpretation can be put on the passages if we take into account the disquisition on the actus fidei in II-II.2, and the article on Christ as the head of the corpus mysticum in III.8.6.

The concept of justification through faith in I-II.106 and 113, remains well within the system of Catholic doctrine unless it is torn out of the context of the Summa theologiae as a whole–but within the disquisition of the lex nova, taken for itself, the spiritualism of Aquinas becomes, indeed, somewhat forgetful of the institutions.


This excerpt is from History of Political Ideas (Volume II): The Middle Ages to Aquinas (Collected Works of Eric Voegelin 20) (Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 1998)

Eric Voegelin

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Eric Voegelin (1901-85) was a German-born American Political Philosopher. He was born in Cologne and educated in Political Science at the University of Vienna, at which he became Associate Professor of Political Science. In 1938 he and his wife fled from the Nazi forces which had entered Vienna and emigrated to the United States, where they became citizens in 1944. He spent most of his academic career at the University of Notre Dame, Louisiana State University, the University of Munich and the Hoover Institution of Stanford University. More information about him can be found under the Eric Voegelin tab on this website.