Saint Thomas Aquinas

Saint Thomas Aquinas, an Italian Dominican theologian, and Roman Catholic saint is the foremost medieval Scholastic. He was responsible for the classical systematization of Latin theology, and, as a poet, he wrote some of the most gravely beautiful Eucharistic hymns in the church’s liturgy.

Saint Thomas Aquinas

The thirteenth century was marked by the culmination of papal power and by an extensive interest in speculative philosophy. The ablest of the scholastic writers of the period was Saint Thomas Aquinas (1227-1274). He aimed to harmonize reason and revelation, to reconcile the doctrines of the church and the rational pagan philosophy that the revived study of classic learning had made known.

He best represented the desire of his age for a complete unification of knowledge based on divine revelation and the principle of final causes. In his work, politics again became a science, although, with true medieval methods, it was the politics of Aristotle and Cicero as modified by St. Augustine and the Bible.

Thomas Aquinas marked the beginning of the later medieval, rationalizing political thought, which combined with the old theocratic and Scriptural arguments general considerations derived from the nature of political societies and founded on the Politics of Aristotle. He exhibited the historical spirit and drew material from contemporary political institutions. In many respects, his views were singularly advanced and moderate.

St. Thomas defined law as an ordinance of reason for the common good, promulgated by him who has the care of a community. In contrast to the Greek conception of law as existing in nature and reason, he emphasized the volitional element, and thus introduced the idea of positive law, that is, of rules formulated by a sovereign power in the state.

Essentially, however, he viewed law as something universal, immutable, and natural; and positive law, made by man, was only a corruption of law if it conflicted with the fundamental principles of justice. The revived study of Roman law had renewed the reverence for a law of nature, which neither emperor nor pope could ignore. The development of this notion became of great importance, not only in placing limits on authority within the state but also in creating the conception of rules of equity that control the relations among states.

Saint Thomas Aquinas also considered the various forms of law. There are, he states in a now famous section of the Summa Theologica, four types of law. On the lowest level is human law. This is composed of customs and other laws which have a human origin. Human law is followed by divine law which consists of the revealed codes, such as the laws of Moses, by which men are expected to live. Divine law in turn is followed by natural law which concerns God’s reason in created things.

Examples of things held to be part of natural law include self-preservation, sexual intercourse, education of offspring, and life in society with other men. Finally, there is an eternal law which stands as the ultimate reality of the universe. This is God’s Divine Wisdom, directing all actions and movements.  It is the truth itself.

St. Thomas based political authority on the Aristotelian conception of the social nature of man, adding to it the doctrine of the divine origin of the state, based on St. Paul’s dictum that there is no power but of God. In contrast to the Greek ideal, Aquinas believed that the city was too small and weak for defense and preferred the larger kingdom as the proper type of state, With the medieval love of unity, he preferred monarchy to democracy, believing that democracy breeds dissension, and arguing that the ruler must be one, as the heart rules the body and God rules the universe. The widespread turbulence and anarchy of the Middle Ages made the idea of permanence and unity in political organization seem doubly excellent.

St. Thomas recognized the anarchic element in the doctrines of tyrannicide and rejected them. He held, however, that a tyrannical ruler might be deposed, at least in an elective monarchy; and suggested a relation of the ruler to a subject which approached the later theories of constitutional monarchy and election.

By elaborate scholastic seasoning, based on Greek and Roman thought and upon Scriptural quotations, he argued that the state should keep up its population, protect and care for its roads, establish a system of coinage, weights, and measures, and provide for the poor.

Despite St. Thomas’s respect for reason, he felt that the greatest truths were still obtainable only through faith. He held, as a result, that the church, the final authority on matters of belief, should be given precedence over any secular power. It was the duty of the political ruler to administer secular affairs in such a way as to further God’s will, and to this extent, the officials of the state must be subject to the priests and the divine law of the church. If a ruler ignored the decrees of the church he should be excommunicated and his subjects absolved from all necessity of obedience, The authority of the priest was temporal as well as spiritual; the pope was to be obeyed above all rulers, in matters of civil welfare as well as in those which relate to salvation.

The unfinished system of Saint Thomas Aquinas was worked out more fully by his follower, Egidius Colonna. His treatise, intended as a textbook for the French prince, was arranged with systematic clearness and precision. No important original contribution was added.

The work of St. Thomas and Egidius coordinated the doctrines of the church that developed during the preceding centuries and worked out what was considered to be a perfect and permanent system. Natural law was identified with the will of God; monarchic government and the supremacy of ecclesiastical authority were assumed and explained rather than justified.

Believing that controversy was ended, because of the weakness of the imperial power, dogmatic finality was impressed upon political concepts. A new period was about to begin, in which the scholastic method and the ecclesiastical point of view were to be completely overthrown. The theories of Aquinas, however, were later made the basis of the Jesuit system and exerted an influence through their political activities.

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