An Analysis on the Political Contribution of Saint Thomas Aquinas

This undergraduate philosophical paper was originally written as a ten-page final paper in partial fulfillment of the requirements for PHIL 2033. Semester I, SY 2013-2014.


Saint Thomas Aquinas (1225 – 1274) stood at the high episodes of medieval life where a certain crossroad was felt. On the one hand were the limping remnants of the classical philosophy from the age of antiquity, on the other was a horizon of a new beginning for the early Western world.[1]

These eight hundred years, from the death of Saint Augustine up to the 11th to 13th century had witnessed the critical development of Western civilization. Particularly during the 9th century did the medieval world exemplify a sort of intellectual recovery that was to become the predominant pattern of thought thereafter: scholasticism.[2]

It was during this period that the domination of ecclesiastical philosophy and learning, imbued with the guiding spirit of church dogmas and doctrines, was clearly manifest. Before the advent of scholasticism, Tertullian (A.D. 160-220), an early church Father, was extremely opposed to the idea of joining faith and reason, declaring that Christianity and philosophy were utterly irreconcilable.[3]

Centuries later, the heralds of scholastic philosophy proved the possibility, if not the plausibility, of such an admixture. Moreover, the very core that characterized the grandeur of scholastic philosophy was a tang after the fall of the Roman Empire (and quite relatively, but not precisely, scientific than that of Dark Ages’ Augustine dichotomy of the earthly civitas terena and of the Civitate Dei) to reconcile theology and philosophy, to unite in one organized body of ideas the doctrines of both systems and to efface the friction ignited between these narratives, with the general principle of subordinating—and not eradicating—reason to faith. Oversimplification beckoned it is in the case of Scholasticism that the Greek ratio is reinforced with dogma. This attempt found its clearest expression in the words of Saint Thomas Aquinas, that “philosophy is the handmaiden of theology”.

It has often been uttered that Saint Thomas Aquinas’ lasting accomplishment in the realm of medieval introspection was his incorporation of Aristotelianism into Christian thought. The influence of the Greek philosopher on Aquinas was so clearly evident that to mark their point of difference would be quite a task. Historical-wise however, it was clear that these two philosophical figures wrote their literatures at two distinct epochs in history, under two separate circumstances: whereas the philosopher seek for truth in the realm of material-naturalesque world, the theologian saw it only as a point of departure and fixed his eyes more intently on a higher supernatural end.

While the political philosophy of Saint Thomas Aquinas to a negligible extent might lack the precision and the coldness expected of a pure science, it nonetheless bore with such genius, rare and unique during his time, the mark of a true catalyst of Christendom. The short essay, On Kingship, to the King of Cyprus, is as close Aquinas came to writing a treatise directly on politics without digressing from but partakes with matters of faith. In this work he discussed man’s nature by describing man as an intelligent agent, his part being to act in view of his end.

For Aquinas, man is directed towards his end by the light of reason which is the guiding principle through which the end may be reached. Following, and as is philologically been the case, Aristotle’s line of thought, Aquinas agreed that man is a political animal, but more than that, he added the element of sociality to man. For him man is naturally a social being.

Man could not alone provide for life, but able to attain, by use of reason, knowledge necessary. It is not possible for one man to arrive at a knowledge of all these things by his own individual reason. It is therefore necessary for man to live in a multitude. [4]

It is in this light, as we have seen, that the necessity of society emerges from the natural inclination of man to “develop and express their rational and non-rational dimensions” [5] within a certain community. The afterlife or any other species thereof, the metanarrative of Medieval thought, is after all also a communal paradise.

To return to the secular and the temporal, as above mentioned: the necessity of government arises from the fact that there is a need for instruments for moulding and directing society towards the common good. For Aquinas, laws and institutions can contribute to the realization of virtue in the individual and in society, and the happiness found in the natural order can lead to the happiness found in the supernatural order.

That happiness is the goal of human life and of society is very evident of the incorporation of Aristotelianism in Aquinas’ thought. Aristotelian Eudaemonia is noticeable. But emphatically Aquinas goes far beyond Aristotle for Aquinas saw in man a still higher end, an “extrinsic” good that does not exist in man himself and that is yet the supreme value, namely, the “final beatitude which is looked for after death in the enjoyment of God”. [6] Indeed Medieval period transcends, makes supplements if not complements to Antiquity.

Within the spatio-temporal realm, Aquinas emphasized the hierarchy of beings as an important point in the formation of government guiding the society. Aquinas wrote that if one man surpasses others in knowledge and justice, it would be wrong to disregard such superiority for the benefit of all. For this reason, Aquinas preferred monarchy. He derived his preference for the monarchical form of government from his religious views of the world. [7] But Aquinas nonetheless seek to delimit monarchy by preferring elective to hereditary kingship and by suggesting that the king’s power “be so tempered that he cannot easily fall into tyranny”. In Summa Theologica, moreover, Aquinas showed preference for a mixed constitution rather than monarchy. He wrote: “…all should take some share in the government, for this form of constitution ensures peace among people, and all love and defend it…” [8]

Saint Thomas Aquinas lived in the age of the world where faith was to be invoked in matters where classical reason tend to fumble or had fallen short, Medieval scholasticism amounts to the rigorously infallible authority of its day. Thomism in that context reifies the system to beat, it is so organized, firm and systematic having alloyed itself partly with the established success of Aristotelian taxonomic robustness and order on the one hand, and with the Scholastic legitimation that persists during the heydey of the church, papacy and Christendom.

The discourse of Medieval Europe had all revolved in the idea that, put rather bluntly, there “out-there” exists a stable non-changing essence(s) of things. Pre-dating Nietzsche indeed, Medieval thought remained loyal to the tenet that there were static absolutes, which is safely situated at the hollow between the Platonic eidos and the Kantian a priori. It is in the midst of Cosmological Antiquity on the one hand and the Anthropocentric Enlightenment on the other, that faith in the Supreme had became intellectively plausible, irrefutable, eminent. It is under this state-of-affairs where the crucible was niched at the midst which the idea of Faith was first ensconced, then brood, and finally fledged, flourished, triumphed over the pagans.

But like all flow of time-and-space humanity forwarded. What was then a seat of strength and dominance and authority had become more and more a place of a dialectic. George Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel of the 18th century Germany, in an afterthought might have recognized this space as another contradiction in history. The corporeal church which was once the herald of the Medieval epoch turned out to be yet another stuff that its very successor period make an ally-of. More particularly, the Renaissance took the throne and respect owed to the other-worldly as a hinge where it may launch its own glory. The church the saints may have built, entrenched and fortified, as it practically turned out, was made reconciled with the secular. Monarchy once more claimed its throne (with or without Aquinas’ sanction) as the inimitable social organization to make sense out of feudalism. The church made amends with the prince; Christendom alloyed with Kingdom. The prince befriended the papacy, and/or the papacy befriended the prince. On this alliance, the Aquinas of the On Kingship had wrote to the foretold:

[Thus,] in order that spiritual things might be distinguished from earthly things, the ministry of this kingdom has been entrusted not to earthly kings but to priests, and most of all to the chief priest, the successor of St. Peter, the Vicar of Christ, the Roman Pontiff. To him all the kings of the Christian people are to be subject as to our Lord Jesus Christ Himself. For those to whom pertains the care of intermediate ends should be subject to him to whom pertains the care of the ultimate end, and be directed by his rule.[9]

And yet the demands of the times made their noble alliance all the more inseparable and inevitable. The society through which the individuals can attain their higher ends need the corporeal organization maintained and fostered by the temporal kings and princes. It wasn’t the case that society can subsist only with an ecclesiastical order under the administration of the clergy and the priests. History dictates that in the discourse of politics, society cannot be plainly nurtured by the church order alone, that society needs the sustenance of institutions of politics.

If and when Hegel’s dictum that “world history is world justice” [10] is above all else applicable, one cannot very easily dispense the reason as to why the churches of Medieval Europe stooped low to the castles of the succeeding epoch. Under these circumstances it may appear that the sanctity of the royal church relinquished some of its other-worldly untaintedness as it joined forces with the worldly rulership of the kings and princes. Through Aquinas’ political philosophy, as sanctioned by the Scholastic order itself, Faith anticipated the realism Aquinas embedded in it.

To the history and victory of the monotheistic order, the religious flock may have been the sole witness. Above all else scholastic thought corroborated by Aquinas and others in the Medieval epoch permeated not only the affairs of 13th century exclusively, but clearly spilled over the religious beliefs that remain in our day and age. That said, it is neither the Greek nor the Roman gods that have reached and pastored our lives but it is the God St. Aquinas along with all the other martyrs of the Medieval age had fought, lived, wrote and died for. So long as salvation is desired, and as the promise of eternal life resonates along the maturity and consciousness of the religious, love and devotion to God—by sectarians and non-sectarians alike—will continue to be the driving force in the acceptance of the challenge of the change of times.

________

[1] In A. D. 529, within a century of Augustine’s death, the Emperor had closed a unique institution of the ancient world, the schools of Plato, Aristotle, and the other Greeks philosophers. Fittingly, that same year, a different kind of institution, the Great Benedictine Abbey, Monte Cassino, was founded, inaugurating the “Middle Ages” as that time period between the ancient and the modern worlds has come to be called.”[cited:Hallowell and Porter (1997). The Search for Humanity and Order.Canada: Prentice-Hall,Inc. p.175.]
[2] “In the 9th century, King Charlemagne of the Holy Roman Empire aggressively attempted to revive classical learning. And with the appearance of Erigena’s large scale and systematic work, The Division of Nature, we might have expected philosophy to emerge from this intellectually suppressed period and flourish once again throughout Western Europe.” [cited: Stumpf and Fieser (2008. Socrates to Sartre and Beyond.New York, NY: The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc.p.129.]
[3] Ebenstein, William and Ebenstein, Allan (2000). Great Political Thinkers: From Plato to the Present, 6th Edition.Hardcourt College Publishers: Pennsylvania. p.219.
[4] Gerald B. Phelan and I. Th. Eschmann, trans., On Kingship, to the King of Cyprus. Toronto:The Pontifical Institute of Medieval Studies, 1949, I. ch.6.
[5] Hallowell and Porter (1997). The Search for Humanity and Order. Canada: Prentice-Hall, Inc. p.206.
[6] Ebenstein, William and Ebenstein, Allan (2000). Great Political Thinkers: From Plato to the Present, 6th Edition.Hardcourt College Publishers: Pennsylvania. p. 224
[7] He noticed that “in the whole universe there is One God, Maker, Ruler of all things” In the multitude of bodily members, the heart rules all the others; among the bees, there is “one king bee”; and generally, “every natural government is government by one” [cited: Ibid, p. 226.]
[8] Summa Theologica. I-II. p. 105, 3.
[9] Gerald B. Phelan and I. Th. Eschmann, trans., On Kingship, to the King of Cyprus. Toronto: The Pontifical Institute of Medieval Studies, 1949.
[10] Both Right and Left Hegelians accepted the master’s thesis that the sweep of human history was intelligible if viewed as the subtle and often hidden workings of mind or reason or geist (translated as spirit). Hegel […] provided method for studying history and showed history’s direction. The method was the dialectic, which is to say that within any historical movement the conflicting forces and ideas reach a rough synthesis over time. Within the synthesis are further divisions that continue the dialectical process of change. The direction is the actualization of reason or geist in time and in history. One of Hegel’s more famous aphorisms was that the rational is real and the real is rational. Thus, the actual or real historical situation contains the rational to some degree, since it incarnates at least a stage of the dialectical process and is also, for that reason, the best and morally justified situation.” [cited: Hallowel and Porter (1997). The Search for Humanity and Order.Canada: Prentice-Hall, Inc.]

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