To those familiar with the standard account of Aquinas' political thought, what I have written above must seem strange, because I have not mentioned "natural law." This is because I am convinced that the nontheological account of natural law that some claim to find in Aquinas (e.g. Finnis 1998) is simply not there (see Long 2001). While Thomas discusses "natural law" in various places in his writings, one ought not to abstract these discussions from their theological context. Attention to this context yields an account of natural law that is both more theological and more modest than the one often ascribed to Aquinas.
In the Summa Theologiae, Thomas' discussion of natural law (1-2.94) occurs in the context of a cluster of questions (1-2.90-108) concerned with law as one of the "external principles" of human action. These questions occur in the larger context of Thomas' discussion of human action in the second part of the Summa, which in turn is located in the larger context of the Summa as a whole, with its structure of creation coming forth from God and returning to God through
Christ. Of the 512 questions in the Summa Theologiae, Aquinas devotes only one, consisting of six articles, to natural law. By way of contrast, he devotes seven questions, a total of 46 articles, to the Torah. While such quantitative information can be misleading, since the notion of natural law crops up throughout the questions on law and in various other places in Aquinas' work, it raises the question of whether the importance of natural law in Aquinas' thought has been overestimated. Our evaluation, however, must ultimately rest on a careful reading, in context, of Thomas' account of natural law.
After a general discussion of "law" (1-2.90-92), Thomas begins not with natural law, but with the basis of all law in the "eternal law," by which "the whole community of the universe is governed by divine reason" (1-2.91.1). This law is a ratio (in this sense, an idea or exemplar, but also an "order") existing in God eternally, by which all of the world's actions and movements are directed: the eternal law is both the pattern of divine order within the uncreated being of God, and the pattern of order in which all created things participate and by which they are governed and led to their end. This eternal law is "appropriated" to the divine Word, the second person of the Trinity, by which the Father expresses himself (1-2.93.1, 4).
The natural law is the participation of rational creatures in the eternal law through sharing in divine wisdom (1-2.91.2). While all creatures are guided by the eternal law, rational creatures are guided by God precisely through their intellects. Thomas' initial emphasis is not on natural law as an autonomous human faculty, but on how the human ability to discern good and evil is "nothing else than the imprint on us of the divine light" (1-2.91.2). This participation in divine reason provides rational creatures with "first principles" of moral reasoning. These first principles are not conclusions about particular actions, but rather what one might call the basic "grammar" of such reasoning (see 1-2.94.2). The first precept of moral reasoning - "good is to be done and pursued and evil is to be avoided" - does not tell us whether any particular action is good or evil, but that no action can be simultaneously good (and therefore to be pursued) and evil (and therefore to be avoided) at the same time and in the same way. In other words, all reasoning about action must begin with a recognition of the "grammatical" or logical distinction between good and evil.
However, Thomas thinks that natural law can also yield something more than simply the principle that good is to be pursued and evil is to be avoided. Since all rational creatures participate in divine reason, human beings "naturally" (i.e. by virtue of their rational natures) incline toward those things that they apprehend as good, and therefore our knowledge of what it means to be a human being can yield a skeletal account of those goods we ought to pursue. Thus, we have the goods that we pursue in common with all beings, such as self-preservation; goods that we pursue in common with other living beings, such as nutrition, reproduction, and the nurture of young; and, finally, pursuits peculiar to us as human beings, such as life in community and truth (1-2.94.2).
Thomas follows Aristotle in claiming that the human being is by nature a "social animal" (1-2.61.5; 1-2.95.4) - that is, human society and all it entails is part of what it means to be human. For human beings to flourish as human beings, they need some sort of structured way of living and flourishing together. This flourishing together is based on what Thomas calls "the common good." This is neither the aggregate of all individual goods, nor those goods that a given group of individuals happen to have in common. Rather, it is God who is the common good of all creatures (1.60.5; 1-2.19.10), both as the source of all created goods, and as the end toward which they are drawn. Beings are drawn to God through what Thomas describes as "the beauty of order" (1.96.3 ad 3): the good of ordered diversity reflecting in a finite way the infinite, simple goodness of God. Thus we might say that, on the level of human community, the common good is the good of ordered common life itself, a goodness that is a participation in the goodness of God.
While social life is natural to human beings, this does not mean that untutored human impulse will inevitably lead to the forsaking of individual goods for the common good. Human beings have a "natural aptitude" to pursue good and avoid evil in particular ways, but this aptitude is not sufficient in itself for leading a good life, precisely because those particular goods must be coordinated to reflect the "beauty of order." Thus particular human laws must be instituted in order to train and direct human beings in community to properly order the goods that they pursue by natural inclination (1-2.95.1). Thomas is remarkably undogmatic about which form of government is best suited to this purpose, though he tends to identify pure democracy with mob rule and expresses a preference for a "mixed" form of government incorporating elements of monarchy (one clear head of government), aristocracy (the powers of government distributed among a group), and democracy (those who govern being chosen from the people and by the people) (1-2.105.1). Whatever the polity, however, a government is judged as good or bad according to its ability to properly order human life together.
The presence of the beauty of order in human societies is what we call "justice," and the lack of such order is what we call "tyranny." Aquinas says that "justice, by its nature, implies a certain rightness [rectitudinem] of order" (12.113.1). A just society is one that is rightly or beautifully ordered by imitating God who, according to his eternal law, "gives to each thing what is due to it by its nature and condition" (1.21.1 ad 3). Human communities participate in the beauty of God's order when, for example, they give to children the nurture and education due to them on account of their nature. However, when those entrusted with the leadership of a community fail to render to each what is their due, we have tyranny, which is a kind of perverse imitation of law (1-2.92.1 ad 4). Indeed, if justice truthfully mirrors the ordering action of God by caring for each and every one, tyranny is a false representation, because it is an exercise of power that ignores the common good.
The task of justice, understood as our participation in the divine beauty of order, is something to which human beings are called, both as individuals and as communities, but at the same time is a task to which they are in no way ade quate. This inadequacy is rooted in human creaturely finitude and exacerbated by human sin. Thus, beyond natural law and human law it was necessary that there be a law given to human beings by God, which Aquinas calls "divine law" (1-2.91.4). This divine law is intended both to strengthen the dictates of natural law and to supplement them by uniting human beings in the right worship of God.
This divine law is first manifested in the Torah of the people Israel, which in the decalogue clearly articulates the natural law for God's people, and in the ceremonial and judicial precepts gives shape to the common life of that people (12.99.4). Indeed, Thomas says that "the people of Israel is commended for the beauty of its order" (1-2.105.1 sed contra). That beauty lies in part in the relative clarity with which the Torah renders God's eternal law, but above all in its "figurative" quality, by which it points to the new law of Jesus Christ (12.104.2). The new law surpasses the old by bringing it to perfection. Whereas the old law directed and ordered human action through external means -promises and punishments - the new law directs and orders human action from within, through the infusion of grace (1-2.107.1 ad 2). Indeed, Thomas says that the new law first and foremost simply is the grace of the Holy Spirit, ruling (in the sense both of directing and of measuring) our hearts (1-2.106.1). Here we find echoes of Thomas' comments on the distinction in his commentary on John between Christ's kingship and "physical" kingship. However, the new law also commends certain physical action: the sacramental rituals that are a source of grace and the visible acts of human love that are consequences of divinely imparted love (1-2.108.1). Thus the new law, no less than the old, imparts a visible "shape" to the community of God's people, though without recourse to physical coercion.
Attempts to reduce Thomas' discussion of law to the few articles that he devotes to natural law stumble over the fact that his account of law is irreducibly theological. In fact, it is not simply theological, but Christological. It begins by rooting all law in the eternal law expressed by the Father in the generation of the Son and ends with the new law of Christ, given through the Spirit to his disciples. In between these Christological bookends we do indeed find discussions of natural and human law, and Thomas clearly holds the view that certain particular goods can be realized by societies established on the basis of the natural law written in our hearts. He rejects the position that the seemingly good things that people do apart from grace - such as building houses or having friends (12.109.2, 5) - are in actuality sinful. But they do remain incomplete, and radically so, because such natural goodness can only dimly glimpse the eternal law, the divine truth manifested in God's incarnate Word. Though human societies apart from divine law can instantiate particular goods, and even partially order them to the common good, they cannot ultimately attain the truly common good, which is God.
To make this same point from a different angle, let us return to Jesus standing before Pilate. Pilate's human nature has retained sufficient goodness for him to recognize Jesus as a teacher of the truth; it has retained sufficient goodness for him to value the truth enough to want to release Jesus; but because he has not recognized "the gift of God which enables us to believe and love the truth" (§2363), he has not recognized Jesus himself as the truth, the embodiment of the eternal law. Pilate has retained just enough goodness to be morally responsible, and thus, in his condemnation of Christ, "he has condemned himself" (§2393). Like all embodiments of human law and authority left to their own devices, Pilate can be held accountable to justice, but he cannot implement it except in the most ad hoc and ultimately inadequate ways. He cannot enact the beauty of order.
Was this article helpful?