pp4 From the Ancient Greeks to the end of the Middle Ages


                                                                                                                                                                             Modified Feb 2013         


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                                                                                                                                                          Extracts from the City of God (St Augustine)


                                                                                                                                                          Political Philosophy Contents Page


                                                                                                                                                          Augustine and Aquinas Summary


                                                                                                                                                          Thomas More (pp5)


1. Why study this period? (#why)

1.1 A period of transition: the need to go beyond Plato and Aristotle (#transition)

1.2 Epicureans (#Epicurians)

1.3 Stoicism (#Stoicism)

1.4 Early Christianity, St Paul:

1.4.1 Early Christian beliefs (#early)

1.4.2 St Paul (#Paul)


2. St Augustine of Hippo (354 – 430 AD) and the early medieval period

2.1 Life and works of St Augustine (#Augustine)

2.2 The City of God - what is a ‘good’ life? (#City)

2.3 Other implications of the idea of the Two Cities:

2.3.1 for the state (#state)

2.3.2 for citizens (#citizens)

2.3.3 on peace, and obedience (#peace)

2.3.4 on war: a just war (#just)

2.3.5 additional note on ‘sin’ (#sin).


3. St Thomas Aquinas (1225 – 1274).

3.1 Context of Aquinas’s thought (#context)

3.2 Outline of Aquinas’s ideas (#outline)

          3.3 The four kinds of law (#law)

          3.4 General Implications (#general)

          3.5 Implications for politics (#politics)

          3.6 Conclusion (#conclusion)

          3.7 Footnote on other issues (#other)

          3.8 Aquinas’s main works (#works)


Main sources:


Bowle, John: Western Political Thought, from the origins to Rousseau, Methuen University Paperbacks, 1961.

Foster, Michael B: Masters of Political Thought, Vol 1, Harrap, 1979 – 0 245 56782 8.

Sabine, G.H.  & Thorsen, T.L.: History of Political Theory – 4th edn. Holt, Reinhart & Winston/Dryden Press 1973 - 0-03-910283 (esp ch X)

Deane, Herbert A.: The Social and Political Ideas of St Augustine, Columbia University Press, 1963

Irwin, T – A History of Western Philosophy: 1 Classical Thought – OUP (Opus) 1989 – 0-19-2891774-4


Additional: Heather, P.: The Fall of the Roman Empire, Pan/Macmillan 2005. 978 0 330 49136 5


1. Why study this period?


(i) The relation of church and state (religion and politics) is still an issue in the modern world:

- theocracies,

- the UK Constitution – the role of the (Anglican) church in UK politics

- the secular state and conflicts with religious-minded citizens


(ii) There has been a strong influence of Christian ideas on (our) ethics – and probably many of us have an outlook on life that is influenced by Christian ideas even if we are not believers. The right to life; notion of ‘sin’; the idea of something better than this life…


(iii) There is an ongoing conflict between spiritual and materialist philosophies.


(Note, however, that when the Reformation took place – 16th/17th centuries – and Protestantism developed, then religious ideas became much more clearly linked to our own ways of thinking).


1.1 The period of transition: the need to go beyond Plato and Aristotle.


(source: Sabine Ch X)


Plato and Aristotle both argued that the standards of the political community must arise form within that community (and from human nature) – not from any ‘outside’ or absolute standard or source. Even Plato’s forms are ‘knowable’ – i.e. demonstrable by reason. Religion, however, relies on revelation and faith.


Since the ancient Greeks, many political thinkers have sought ‘absolute standards’ in some way (e.g. natural laws s– an appeal to a sense of what is true a priori; the modern scientific approach is different – based on empirical evidence and leading to testable hypotheses. Hobbes was the first to use a new approach, and Marx is a good recent example of someone trying to be scientific)


          [Do we feel uncomfortable if we are told that our ethical principles, rules for conduct etc, are ‘up to us’? (Existentialism is based on the view that it is

 natural to feel uncomfortable about our freedom – our ‘existential’  freedom brings a sense of ‘angst’…)


Not being able to see beyond the city-state was perhaps a weakness of Plato and Aristotle’s thought: they had nothing to say about empires, and little to say about inter-city rivalry and war. Another weakness was their restricted view of citizenship.


The new philosophical – and later religious – ideas were to stress:

- the individual (not just the citizen: the brotherhood of man, love your enemies…)

- a wider community (the world, an empire, a church that goes beyond national boundaries).


However, as with most ‘new’ ideas, we can see a mixture of “something new and something old…”


1.2 Epicureans:


Epicurus (341 – 270 BC), and the Roman poet Lucretius (1st century BC) believed that:


- nature follows its own rules, independently of us

- the world consists of atoms, which move and collide in unpredictable ways (Marx wrote his university thesis on this idea)

- if there are gods, they do not interfere in our lives – we are free

- but fear of the unknown (death, the gods) make us unhappy

- therefore we should cease to believe in these frightening unknown things and concentrate on getting happiness through understanding the world, but not getting involved in it


[this involves a sense of detachment – or non-attachment, an idea that is central to eastern philosophies such as Buddhism and yoga…


- all this implies that there are no absolute rules – all is relative – and it is best to look for our own comfort and avoid politics!

- the aim in life is a detached, moderate, self-controlled happiness; together with care and sympathy for our fellows; but quietism as regards politics

- in their own words, the goal is ‘ataraxia’ (tranquility)

- as Lucretius said: “great wealth consists in living on a little with a contented mind” (this is then clearly not the same as hedonism, despite the modern connotations of the word ‘epicure’)


          [note that these ideas might seem to be predecessors of anarchism (no government, rejection of the ‘political’) – or of or socialism (equality), because of the emphasis in Epicureanism on the pursuit of individual tranquility; however, both anarchism and socialism necessitate involvement with existing political institutions – even if only to destroy or replace them!


1.3 Stoicism.


As noted, the world was in fact changing: Alexander established an empire, and this was followed by the Roman empire. Emperors were seen for much of the time as like gods – but the need to include different peoples (‘foreigners’) in the empires led to a ‘loosening’ of the definition of citizenship.


Since empires were equated with ‘world-rule’ it was necessary to be able to explain how this might come about, and to justify it – this paved the way for Christian ideas

[remember the two components of political philosophy: descriptive and normative…


The stoic Zeno (342 – 270 BC) and his followers (for example, though later, the Roman emperor and philosopher Marcus Aurelius, see Bowle p 76) believed that:


- nature is cyclical and life is a burden or a pilgrimage

- doing good is its own reward (the emphasis on action is different from Aristotle’s emphasis on meditation)

- the ‘order’ or ‘logos’ is a ‘world-soul’ and is wholly good. It represents reason (compare later ideas of ‘providence’, ‘divine law’ and ‘natural law’)

- all men are brothers, since all can reason

- there is a world-city, which corresponds to reason, and actual cities should try to be reasonable – though actual cities are based on custom

- ordinary affairs are unimportant beside the higher world of values – men must be detached, self-disciplined, with a trained will, and able to withstand all hardships

- the wise follow these guidelines, those who don’t are foolish

- we get composure from playing the part (accepting the ‘lot’) we are given

- individual life is separate from public life (an issue taken up by Christianity…)


Marcus Aurelius said:


“Human life! Its duration is momentary… its physical organism perishable, its consciousness vortex, its destiny dark, its repute uncertain; in fact the natural element is a rolling stream… life [is] a war and a sojourning in a far country, fame [is] oblivion. What can see us through? One thing and one thing only: Philosophy; and that means keeping the spirit within us unspoiled and un-dishonoured… and taking what comes contentedly, as all part of the process to which we owe our being.”


NB: the modern use of the word ‘stoicism’ has distorted the picture somewhat – Stoics did not repress their feelings but faced up to them and tried to find ways of dealing with them and living a good life with them. See the recent discussion around questions of repression of feelings and cancer, and the history of emotions in Britain: - by Jules Evans of the Centre for the History of the Emotions, Queen Mary, University of London.


1.4 Early Christianity, St Paul.


I believe that it is important to examine the original Christian beliefs (so far as we can!) since (a) Christianity has undergone so many changes of emphasis during its time – and (b) it seems to me also that many Christians will assume (and try to convince others) that theirs is the “true” version… (c) A further difficulty arises from the point above about revelation and faith… in such a context it is hard to be detached, but as philosophers, we must try to be!


1.4.1 Early Christian beliefs:


- monotheism: there is one God, who created the world and who loves everyone in it – all are equal before God (the basic idea of Judaism)


- but this is a spiritual equality, and God is a spiritual authority – this leads to the belief that politics is a separate sphere, to be either treated as separate or to be opposed


[in my view Christ was ambivalent about this: “render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s and to God that which is God’s” can be read two ways – it does

not deny Caesar his authority, but surely if God created everything then ultimately everything belongs to Him.

So one interpretation of Jesus’ response is that it only in the after-life does everything return to God, and meanwhile we have to compromise and live with

the powers-that-be…

On the other hand, the Sermon on the Mount seems quite un-ambiguous, and quite incompatible with earthly powers which must rely on (are defined by their basis in the ability to use) coercion…


- it is our duty to God, then, to love all (and to preserve life)

- Christ was God’s Son, who brought a message of forgiveness for our sins – a forgiveness that works through faith and love

- note the notion of sinfulness is basic to Christianity (though, again, it derives from Judaism) – the idea is especially connected to ‘things of the flesh’ (in Judaism as well, and note the similarity to Islam here – and the contrast with Hinduism)

- a longing for ‘salvation’ (freedom from the pains of this life, but also from the guilt that comes from sinfulness)

- an idea (again from Judaism) of a ‘chosen people’

- there is, therefore, a moral law (God’s law) which is superior to existing laws, and man must aim to obey this law – though he cannot do this without the assistance of God

- hence, and also because of our sinfulness, obedience to a higher good is central – in fact it is often argued that the origin of sin (original sin) was disobedience (Adam and Eve and the forbidden fruit).


1.4.2 St Paul:


An important figure in early Christianity, he added several key ideas:


- disgust with the world (and with the flesh… and women) (*) – which influenced St Augustine – and which led him to emphasise a “cutting off” from the world, both personally and politically

- an apocalyptic interpretation of the idea of the “end of the world” – it is often forgotten how many early Christians believed literally in a forthcoming apocalypse (current belief in a “rapture” goes back to this…

- the need for Christianity to “subdue” the world (theocratic ideas – cf. Islam again)


(*)Jesus and women:

Tom Holland (i) writing in the Face to Faith column in the Guardian (Feb 2010) argues, on the contrary, that Paul is responsible for our belief that all should be treated equally, since ‘there is neither Jew not Greek, slave nor free, male nor female...’


                   And (ii) in the Guardian 20.09.12 he comments on the recent finding of a scrap of manuscript/papyrus that indicates Jesus spoke of his ‘wife’: that these documents survived is amazing.  In 367, four decades after the formulation of the Nicean Creed under emperor Constantine, a bishop of Alexandria named Athanasius prescribed the 27 books that were to constitute a ‘New Testament.’  The newly-discovered papyrus dates from the 4th century, the time when the church was sorting out these issues; but the ‘original dialogue between Jesus and his disciples that it records has been dated by Prof Karen King (who discovered the papyrus) to the second half of the second century... when the spectrum of Christian opinion was bewilderingly wide.’


Christianity and the Roman Empire:


Note that Constantine (emperor 323 – 337) adopted Christianity - as a result of a vision in which the sun was overlaid with a cross (he had been a sun worshipper/pagan) - and for the time being the conflict between politics and Christianity ceased. Constantine presided over the Council of Nicaea (Bowle p 121). Not only did Christianity become the official religion of the Roman empire, but by the end of the 4th century paganism had been stamped out. Later Christian rulers – i.e. Charlemagne – would be crowned by the Pope, showing a unity of Church and state (the Holy Roman Empire). 


(I am omitting much of the early history of Christianity here, especially the split with the Eastern, Orthodox Church – also Gelasius, Gregory and the concilliar movement – for these see Sabine).


2. St Augustine of Hippo (354 – 430 AD) and the early medieval period.


2.1 Life and works of St Augustine.


He was born in North Africa, and became Bishop of Hippo (now Bone in Algeria) for 16 years. As a youth, he was a pagan, and later was involved with the Manicheans, regarded at the time as a heresy, and who believed that there are two active, real forces in the world: Good and Evil.


Augustine used neo-platonic ideas (these were developed by Porphry, Plotinus and others) to counter a weakness in Manicheanism, viz: if God (the Good) can be affected by Evil then it is not perfect and cannot be God, who must be immaterial and perfect. Any evil in the world must, then, be the result of human choice and action.


He became a Christian age 33 (in 386) after a “conversion”. Voices told him to take up the Bible and read it, and he opened it at Romans XIII (an epistle of St Paul):


“Let us therefore cast off the works of darkness, and let us put on the armour of light. Let us walk honestly, as in the day, not in rioting and drunkenness, not in chambering and wantonness, not in strife and envying. But put ye on the Lord Jesus Christ and make not provision for the flesh, to fulfil the lusts thereof…” 


This implied asceticism, and he saw it as the solution to things he had been worrying about. He took to Biblical exegesis and a study of the letters of St Paul. His major works were his Confessions (an amazing autobiographical account of his inner conflicts and development) and – for our purposes: Civitas Dei – the City of God.


It took him 13 years to write, (the first three parts were published in 413, the rest – 22 parts – in 425) and it started as an attempt to reply to those who were arguing that when Rome fell to the Goths in 410 AD it was because Christianity had undermined Roman notions of valour (and betrayed the Roman gods). (Though many Goths were in fact Aryan Christians…). Augustine’s response was, first that Rome had suffered many disasters before, when it worshipped pagan gods – so had they been responsible? Then he argued that Rome had been ‘moral’ when in conflict with external forces, such as during the war with Carthage; but when it ‘rested on its laurels’ then corruption set in. Rome’s “lust for domination” was what brought evils with it.


Christians, then, had a choice: to follow the “City of Earth” or the “City of God”. This “did not mean a rejection of the empire, nor that earthly peace was a bad thing (Heather, 2005, p 231) – but “The Heavenly City outshines Rome beyond comparison. There, instead of victory, is truth; instead of high rank, holiness; instead of peace, felicity; instead of life, eternity.” Christianity preached love (caritas) and humility – the Romans stood for valour (virtu [*]) and pride (superbia). The “two cities” thus cut across earthly ‘boundaries’ for among the Goths there might be Christians and friends of the City of God, and among the Romans there might be enemies. 


Not only was this, says Heather, a new explanation for the fall of Rome, and a rejection of those who believed that the Roman empire’s turning to Christianity would save it and was proof that the empire would last and was just – it was a revolutionary condemnation of earthly empires and earthly pride.


          [*] I am fascinated by the change in meaning of the word “virtue”: originally it meant a power, or ability to do something (and was similar to the Greek

          areté [virtue], as in Aristotle: the virtue of a knife lies in its sharpness etc – of a man in his development towards higher things) – but the Latin root is vir

          i.e. “man”… manliness? In Machiavelli it still meant this… Nowadays, of course, it means “personal morality”… 


2.2 The City of God - what is a ‘good’ life?


This is a bulky, unsystematic book, covering the whole range of Christian ideas on: sin, grace, resurrection, life after death etc.


The most memorable and influential idea in it concerns the “Two Cities”: the Earthly City and the City of God (an idea which comes from a Biblical source concerning “two ways” – or, as Heather suggests, from the Book of Revelation, where Christians are urged to look towards Jerusalem, where the “saved” would reside come the Day of Judgement). 


The basic meaning of this description is that those whom God has chosen live in God’s City, whilst the rest (especially sinners, the ungodly, fallen angels and demons (*) – but only God knows how He has chosen, so it is never quite clear-cut) the rest live in the Earthly City.


[(*) Yes, remember that in the early days and through the Middle Ages a belief in demons and angels was widespread…


Note that this is not the same thing as Heaven and Hell. It is a metaphorical account of existence, which then acts as the starting point in a subtle argument that will help to sort out the relationship between sacred and secular authority.


Augustine’s position is very radical – and to us I imagine a very harsh one: he believed that, since the Fall, all men are intrinsically sinners (‘marked by original sin’). Men can only do good if they follow the will of God. God has foreknowledge of everything, and ‘wills’ everything except evil: if men do evil, it is their choice – God does not try to stop them, since He wants men to realise that His order is superior.


However, God is forgiving (as we learn from the Bible and from Christ in particular) and He has chosen to give Grace (to forgive, if need be) to some. We have no way of knowing which, though, since only at the Last Judgment will the separation be made between souls to be saved (the Chosen ones, who will be united with God) and those to be damned.


To indicate how radical and harsh this is: it means that new born infants must be baptized, as even they are marked by original sin (note that it is only very recently that the belief that un-baptised children will not go to Heaven has been overturned); and whilst taking part in the sacraments (Communion, Confession etc) is necessary to Christian practice, doing this will not in itself guarantee that you have been saved.


Another way of interpreting the “Two Cities” idea is to say that it describes two sorts of people: those “living by the flesh” and those “living by the spirit”.

Eventually these ideas helped to change the way that people saw earthly authority – i.e. the state; and it raised deep questions concerning obedience, laws and justice (hence its importance in the study of political philosophy).


It seems unlikely that Augustine intended to suggest a split between Church and state, but since the Two Cities idea is not precise, some took it to mean that the City of God is Christianity, or the Church – whilst the Earthly City is (respectively) paganism, or those outside (not belonging to) the Church. For Augustine it was quite clear that the purposes of God’s City come first in human affairs, and so a just state is one that follows God’s will. However, he did recognise that some ‘Christians’ are not good or just (are sinners) – and there are good people outside the Christian Church. Absolute goodness and justice can only be found beyond this world.


So Augustine’s own position was subtle, but didn’t stop some using his arguments to advocate theocracy (the Church holding political power). Nor did the lack of clarity help to prevent the eventual split between church and state – where the two came to be seen as holding different spheres of power.


2.3 Other implications of the idea of the Two Cities: on citizens and the role of the state, peace and war.


2.3.1 For the state: it has no right to interfere in the affairs of the Church – certainly not to dictate beliefs. The state cannot make people good.


On heresy and doctrinal disputes: the immediate consequence of Augustine’s way of thinking, as just noted, is that the state should not interfere in matters of belief. However, as a Bishop Augustine had to deal with heretics, and in particular the Donatists (*) – and he had to call in the civil authorities to deal with them. But note that this is not an instance of the state dictating or controlling beliefs: it was responding to an appeal from the church to help stamp out a belief that the church felt was erroneous.


          [Is this a safe situation, a meaningful distinction?


          (*) When Christianity was being repressed, some bishops had handed over sacred documents to the secular authorities; the Donatists took a hard line on this and believed that they should not be welcomed back into the church – they should not be allowed to administer the sacraments and rites any more. Augustine (perhaps surprisingly from what we know so far!) took a more lenient line. But his argument is entirely consistent: the sacraments are divine, the church only acts as a human agent for God, only at the Last Day will judgment be made, so these bishops should not be excluded.


2.3.2 For citizens:


It is important to note here that Augustine believed that we are social beings: “There is nothing so social by nature, so unsocial by its corruption, than this race” [i.e. of humans].


This statement has several implications:


First, we all have consciences, and want to do what is good – especially “to do to others (only) as we would have them do to us” – but we can only find out what is good, what we should do, by living in a Christian community. A just life, producing a good citizen, can only be led in a just (i.e. Christian) community. On the other hand, a Christian will be a good citizen, since he/she is encouraged to love his neighbour.


          [“do unto others…” is known as the ‘golden rule’ – it is often seen as a basic starting point for ethics, and if we all followed it wouldn’t it be a much

          better world?!


Second, Augustine believed, as I have said, in the innate sinfulness of humans: “There is a little light in men – let them walk, let them walk in it lest the darkness overtake them.”

Hence, without social guidance (especially from the Church) man is capable of being extremely “unsocial”.


Thirdly, since it is not easy to stop men being sinful, (and only those living in God’s City obey God’s will naturally) Augustine put forward the argument that the state has been instituted by God (since He creates everything) to punish us for our sins (greed, violence etc). Again, this does not mean the state can persuade us of the right beliefs etc – its role is an external, coercive, repressive, remedial one.


          [this reminds me of the “minimal state” ideas of the ‘new right’ – a state which sets out to tell us how to behave is a ‘nanny state’…


2.3.3 On peace, and obedience:


“Joy and peace alike are desired by all men” – i.e. it is ‘natural’ for human societies to want and to seek peace. Augustine uses this point in an unexpected way: since earthly peace is an ‘earthly good’ and it is a means to reaching higher goods (i.e. not as good as Heavenly peace, but still a good, and a means to reach it since conflict and war will prevent people from practicing what is good) then we should obey secular laws. 


The only instance when we should not obey a secular law is if it comes into direct conflict with Christian law. Offences against God’s law are always wrong. Offences against man’s law are only sometimes wrong. This is an important point: nowadays we talk of ‘positive law’ to describe what is codified as law – but we acknowledge that law is not always right (otherwise how could it veer be changed?).


Some (Coleman) suggest that for Augustine peace and security were very valuable goods, and sedition and insurrection were very wrong (Luther, and to some extent Calvin, took a similar line in the Reformation), and so even a bad state must be accepted as punishment for our sin.



[Presumably it is wrong to actively oppose such a state - but we must simply put our trust in God to rectify things when it is appropriate? Does this logic frighten you as much as it does me?! Yet some have even argued that the Holocaust was a punishment for human sin…


2.3.4 On war: a just war:


War may be just if it is the lesser of two evils. Some states will pursue evil, and others will have to go to war to prevent evil from conquering. Note that this avoids a problem for Plato: if what is ‘just’ is defined by each state separately, then both sides in war will believe their cause to be just, and war will be more likely. Augustine sees values as ‘outside’ the state.


          [I am cynical about all this: in practice surely states do define the ‘other’ as evil   and justify their wars – even, recently, in the absence of aggression from the other side… To my mind, the only ‘outside’ opinion to which we can refer is the collective judgment of international bodies such as the UN. There is in place now a much tighter definition of a ‘just war’…


2.3.5 Additional note on ‘sin’:


An article by Giles Fraser (late of St Paul’s!) is thought-provoking, especially in its linking of the dependency and helplessness of the child with ‘original sin’. He says that for Augustine ‘original sin’ was not primarily a moral idea, but ‘more an existential one. Human beings are, [Augustine] insists, broken. We feel there’s something about us in need of fixing. And salvation, for Augustine, is the type of fixing that God promises.’ Fraser then draws a parallel with Freud on ‘original helplessness’ and ‘the terrifying impression of helplessness in childhood.’


I am not at all convinced by this – although it does fit in with what I have described about Augustine above: that God wants us (like an enlightened parent does) to find out why He is right... And although Fraser says that this goes wrong when it ‘distorts into something punitive’ – I cannot see why a child should feel ‘sinful’ when it is aware of its ‘helplessness.’ (Surely these are very different emotions?) Unless, that is, there is somewhere an authoritarian parent-figure who instills fear of ‘getting it wrong’ when the child makes his/her moral choices.


There is a further point here about different schools of psychology: surely whilst Freud saw the child as helpless and in need of guidance, others (Reich? Lacan?) could argue that this helplessness is a healthy precursor to a recognition of our own responsibility for ourselves and our choices, and for each other. What Fraser describes as the ‘fear of vulnerability’ can, as he suggests, lead to different kinds of ‘striving for ‘omnipotence’ – but does it have to? Isn’t it possible to allow children to feel their helplessness without it turning into guilt or the desire to control everything?


Giles Fraser’s article is at:


3. St Thomas Aquinas (1225 – 1274).


3.1 Context of Aquinas’s thought:


3.1.1 During the second half of the 12th century there was a ‘mini-renaissance’: universities were founded (Paris, Oxford, Cambridge, and in Spain). There were ‘teaching orders’ of monks – Dominicans, Franciscans. Through Arab learning, the work of Aristotle and other ancient Greek writers became known. 


3.1.2 At first, the ideas of Aristotle were rejected because of their paganism – but Aquinas’s great achievement was to bring together Aristotelian and Christian ideas.


3.1.3 In Aquinas, there was, for example, a fusion of Graeco-Roman ideas of: the supremacy of law; the importance of community – together with the Christian idea of there being a moral principle behind the law; and of a spiritual community.


3.1.4 During this period thinkers relied very much on logic and the idea of man’s rationality – later this was pejoratively known as ‘scholasticism’. Aquinas exemplifies this approach. There was less emphasis on Faith in his thinking, compared to Augustine - though Aquinas believed Faith was still essential to enable man to grasp the basic idea of the existence of God.


3.1.5 During feudalism there was a (secular) belief and practice that a leader’s power was derived from the community (kings were carried on shields in procession – symbolizing that without the support of his followers he would fall). This is known as ‘trusteeship’ (Bowle). For Aquinas, the whole community benefits from the rule of law, and therefore the whole community has some responsibility for the law.  He also saw the benefits of secular authority.


3.2 Outline of Aquinas’s ideas:


3.2.1 Man was created to live in a community – we are naturally social creatures. We share with all living things the need for biological/physical well-being (survival, procreation, parenting) and moral well-being. The community is the means to achieve well-being. This is a teleological argument, similar to that used by Aristotle.


3.2.2 The world is accessible to reason – and reason can guide us to finding the good.  God has created a rational order, and given us the means to understand it through our reason and intellect.


3.2.3 Man’s ultimate perfection is ‘beatitude’ which is defined as the joy that comes from the intellectual apprehension of the truth (Beatitudo est gaudium veritate.) When the intellect attains ‘the very essence of the first cause… it will have perfection through union with God as its object.’



3.2.4 This ‘apprehension of the first cause’ is the result of an activity that requires the whole of our person: intellect must be supplemented by Faith and Grace, and ‘for the perfection of contemplation, soundness of body is needed, to which all the arts of living are directed’.


          [Am I mistaken in finding a similarity with yoga here? The purpose of the postures and the rules for living is to bring first the body and then the mind to a

          state where the ultimate truth can be grasped…


Bowle puts it this way: ‘the full force of personality, focused in intellect and sustained by love, inspired by faith and disciplined by dogma, strives for the apprehension of the supreme reality.’ The word ‘dogma’ reminds us that for Aquinas the Church had a crucial educational role to play (naturally!).


3.2.5 As with Aristotle, there is here the potential for individualism (the individual striving to understand the ultimate truth), but it is held in check by the emphasis on community (as above: a natural need for us). Aquinas points out that without some superior power to care for the common good, individuals would pursue their own ends, or act irrationally, or find that their interests conflict with others’. 


3.3 The four kinds of law.


Aquinas formulated a hierarchy of ‘law’ – four kinds of law, in effect, which crystallised the inter-relation between the secular and sacred realms, and which helps to solve a number of problems concerning the individual and the community. This is his best-known idea, and acts as a good starting-point for setting out his whole view.


Note that Aquinas defined law in the following terms (relying on logic…): ‘it belongs to law to order and forbid; but to order is rational, therefore the law is rational’. Also: ‘the word “law” is derived from the idea of “binding”, because it compels to action, but what rules action is reason…’


- eternal law: this is God’s plan for the direction of all things (material and living, rational and non-rational)


- natural law is that part of the eternal law that can be known by men (further divided into ‘law of nature’ which applies to non-living things, and ‘natural law’ which applies to rational beings).  It is rational (since it is part of eternal law).


- human law is the existing legal code drawn up by men – we need this since no-one can grasp the whole of eternal law (apart from God!). The aim or purpose of existence (cf. Aristotle) is salvation and happiness (beatitude and eudaimonia)


- Divine law is God’s law as revealed through Revelation and Scripture (e.g. the Ten Commandments etc.) – its aim is to direct men towards eternal happiness (beatitude), but to reach this state, men need Faith and Grace as well remember... 


3.4 General Implications. Because this is an inter-locking hierarchy, certain things follow:


- the aim of natural law (since it is part of eternal law) is to promote justice and the common good for living beings, but it only gives general guidelines (hence the need for human law and Divine law)


- since these laws are rational, and can be understood by us, they are not deterministic – we do not have to react in a given way to them: we are intermediaries between cause and effect, and thus have moral responsibility


- human law must strive to meet the standards set by eternal (and natural and Divine) law.


- if a (human) law is contrary to natural law it is not a true law, but merely the expression of someone’s will (= the distinction between positive law and true law?)


- the fact that our reasoning powers have been given to us to help us to understand God’s will means that we have a right to interpret for ourselves and to criticise what we believe to be wrong  (but see below on disobedience). Aquinas was much more liberal in this than Augustine, but it is not until the Protestant Reformation that the individual conscience is regarded as an entirely legitimate source of truth for that individual.


- our ‘speculative’ reason enables us to understand the first principles of natural law, and our ‘practical reason’ helps us identify particular ends, and how to pursue the ends we should pursue.


3.5 There are further important implications in all this, specifically for politics:


- the first principles of natural law hold for everyone at all times (for example, self-preservation, propagation of the species, nurturing and education) – but according to time and circumstance there will be ‘particular determinations’ of the principles which will vary. The certainty of any precept diminishes as ‘we descend further toward the particular’ – in other words, as for Aristotle, ethics and politics deal with ‘variables’ and absolute certainty is not possible in these areas.


- the sovereign is bound by natural law. For Aquinas, the best form of government would be a monarchy, provided the monarch is wise and just. He argued that it is natural for the most able to govern. If it was needed, a monarch could be constrained by a constitution and some diffusion of power


- state and church are separate, with different parts to play in the promotion of the common good – the state in particular ensures the survival of the individual in a community


- given what was said above concerning the ability of the individual to criticise the law, then for Aquinas the individual is not totally bound by the state. However, he is ambiguous concerning disobedience and resistance to bad laws, though he was clear that laws opposed to the divine good ‘must in no way be observed’, for he says that if disobeying a law would create disorder or suffering, then it would be wrong to disobey


-  as with Augustine, there is no entitlement on the part of the individual to try to remove a bad ruler: the remedy ‘lies rather in the hands of public authority than in the private judgment of individuals’. Aquinas also believed (as with Augustine) that should the people fail to remove a bad ruler, then God must be punishing them through the ruler…



3.6 Conclusion.


Aquinas’s view of humans is more optimistic than Augustine – although we are weak, our reason (which is unique to humans – we share automatic and instinctive reasoning with other living things) can lead us to happiness (eudaimonia…). He was also tolerant of different religions: Muslims who sought the good life were also a part of the community.


There is much reference to Aristotle in his writing, and his formulation of four types of law is designed to reconcile Christianity with Aristotle. However, whilst for the latter education was the responsibility of the state, for Aquinas it was the responsibility of the church.


Man is naturally social and political, and the good life must come about through political society. This is a view shared by socialists and others though generally not by liberals, for whom freedom from the state is more important than the promotion of the good life by the state. Some conservatives would argue along similar lines to Aquinas, in regard to the state, since ethics and morality are to be promoted by the church or the community.


There is a problem with Aquinas’s account of human law: he makes no room for such laws to constrain the ruler… Only natural law and Divine law can do this. Moreover, some would balk at his view that we must obey human law because (or in so far as) it is part of natural law.


Does the allocation of different roles to the state and the church work? The state’s purpose is to provide for human survival and happiness through human law; the church’s role is to assist us to reach salvation and happiness, by clarifying the ends and means we should use (by analogy: the church is the helmsman, the state keeps the boat in good repair). This sounds clear enough, but don’t the two roles sometimes overlap? Doesn’t human law (especially when it deals with an ethical issue) promote (or not!) human goodness? As with Augustine, is there a clear line between the ‘external’ authority and role of the state and the ‘internal’ role and authority of the church?


Finally, Aquinas also left un-answered the question: who has the ultimate say (especially in cases of overlap) – church or state?


3.7 Footnote on other issues:


- on property: he originated the ‘suum’ argument i.e. property is an extension of the self (later used by Locke), and saw property as essential to social order


- on trade: whilst Aristotle and others looked down on trade, the view of the church at the time of Aquinas was not against trade; however, the church was against usury: exchange can only be moral if it is equal – also God has created value, money has no value in itself, and so it is wrong to charge interest – since Christians were told it was sinful, Jews were left to lend money…


- on war: Aquinas used a doctrine of the mean (i.e. between two extremes); the issue must be worth more than the loss of life that war would bring about. 



3.8 Aquinas’s main works:


Summa Contra Gentiles (arguments against non-Christians)

Summa Theologiae (here there is most material on politics and ethics)

On Kingship