Thomas Today

The reading I have offered of Thomas on politics has argued that what many modern interpreters see as his greatest strength, the autonomy he gives to secular politics through his notion of natural law, is in fact not Thomas' position at all. While Thomas believed that the goodness of human nature was not entirely vitiated by sin, and that just human societies were ordered toward the common good, he also shared the views of his culture that in any rightly ordered society the Gospel would be welcomed and promoted by the laws of that society. He argued that unbelievers should not be allowed to establish their rule over believers (2-2.10.10), that heretics were an illness of the body politic and could under certain circumstances be killed (2-2.11.3), and that an apostate prince could be deprived of his dominion over his subjects (2-2.12.2). He was not, as Lord Acton would have had it, "the first Whig."

Any proposed use of Thomas today must accept the fact that his views are not easily separable from the ecclesial-political situation of his day; and it must equally accept that Thomas' ecclesial-political situation no longer obtains in our day. In order to avoid any facile or distorted applications of what Thomas has to say on politics, we must look carefully at the assumptions of Thomas and his day and at those of our own. Thomas does not share our assumptions. He does not think of the common good as equivalent to the greatest good for the greatest number. He does not think of human societies as primarily instruments by which individuals pursue their private ends. He does not think that questions of ultimate truth must be bracketed in order for societies to function. Indeed, because "truth is stronger," a truly human society can be established only on the basis of eternal truth.

This last point indicates the greatest difference between Thomas' assumptions and contemporary assumptions, which is exemplified by his treatment of Pilate's question, "What is truth?" As noted above, Thomas takes Pilate to be making a serious inquiry. Pilate retains a goodness in his nature that still desires the truth. But contrast Thomas' reading of Pilate with the one given by Nietzsche in The Antichrist:

Need I add that in the whole New Testament there is only a single figure who commands respect? Pilate, the Roman governor. To take a Jewish affair seriously - he does not persuade himself to do that. One Jew more or less - what does it matter? The noble scorn of a Roman, confronted with an impudent abuse of the word "truth," has enriched the New Testament with the only saying that has value - one which is its criticism, and even its annihilation: "What is truth?" (Nietzsche 1954: 626-7)

Thomas' benign reading of Pilate's question seems to miss the irony in it that is so obvious to us today. It is almost as if Thomas could not imagine that Pilate was not genuinely interested in the truth, an eternal and universal truth. The question of Nietzsche's Pilate, on the other hand, is redolent of the corrosive irony that relativizes all truth, turning it into, in Nietzsche's phrase, "a mobile army of metaphors, metonyms, and anthropomorphisms - in short, a sum of human relations, which have been enhanced, transposed, and embellished poetically and rhetorically, and which after long use seem firm, canonical, and obligatory to a people" ("On Truth and Lie in an Extra-Moral Sense," §1 in Nietzsche 1954: 46-7). Whatever "truth" Pilate may be concerned with, it is a Roman truth, established by Caesar's rule and the greatness of the Roman people; he is supremely unconcerned with the Jewish truth of which Jesus speaks.

Pilate's "noble scorn" embodies for Nietzsche the reversal of the hierarchy of power that is at the heart of Thomas' politics. For Aquinas, the truth is more powerful than the king because it is God, eternal truth, who creates the king; for Nietzsche, the king - at least, a "noble" king - is more powerful than truth, because it is he who creates gods for his people. A Roman like Pilate might choose to ignore a Jewish truth, or to destroy it on a cross, but he would never bow before it as being more powerful than Caesar. And indeed, it seems that Nietzsche understood Pilate better than Aquinas did, for it was the reminder of the power of Caesar, the "truth" that Caesar can create, that strengthened the resolve of Pilate.

While few today approach Nietzsche's subtlety with regard to the relationship among politics, truth, and power, his conviction that "truth" is a product of human making and is malleable in the hands of whoever has the most coercive power is widespread, as a practical attitude if not a theoretical position. Liberal societies seek to bracket questions of truth not simply because they seem unre-solvable, but because they seem so subject to manipulation by the powerful. And in this they are capable of posing some difficult questions to a thinker like Aquinas, who at times accepts certain cultural assumptions as truths of nature. For example, in the quodlibital question with which we began, Thomas is convinced that he knows the place of "woman" in the order of things. A recognition of the role of human making in our understanding of the truth can lead us to be more critical than Aquinas was in his construal of the "natural" relations of men and women or masters and slaves.

But the corrosive question "What is truth?" can be turned back upon liberal societies themselves. The question that liberal societies must face is whether their bracketing of truth makes them more or less subject to ideological manipula tion. Does suspicion of overt truth claims liberate one from the covert claims? Could it be that the forces that shape our lives - forces that shape what we buy, how we earn our living, what we watch and listen to, who and for whom we will kill in war, who we see as "us" and who we see as "them" - are no less absolute in their claims upon us, even if they have abandoned the language of "truth" for the language of "freedom"?

It is perhaps here that Thomas can be genuinely helpful for Christian thinking about politics. The ideal of a Christian prince withers before the Nietzschean understanding of what Pilate is saying when he asks "What is truth?" Particularly when rule - even democratic rule - takes the form of empires, truth must always be subordinate to the rulers. But Thomas' conviction that truth is stronger than kings - or presidents or prime ministers - can still undergird a political vision for Christians. This conviction will not be manifested in laws proscribing heresies or popes deposing princes, nor in claims about the "natural" ordering of relations between slaves and masters or women and men. But it will be manifested by a Christian community that forms people to resist the functional idolatries of the state and the market, that makes its members disobedient subjects of tyrannical regimes, that manifests in its common life the beauty of order. It will be manifested by a church that emulates Zerubbabel before Darius and Jesus before Pilate, a church that speaks truth to kings in the conviction that truth is stronger and that a ruler who does not serve the truth is a tyrant. Such a political vision will have at its heart Thomas' claim that the cross, an instrument of imperial murder, has become the sign of Christ's "universal dominion over all things," a sign of the power of God's truth by which all earthly polities will be judged.


Aquinatis, S. Thomae (1996). Quaestiones de quodlibet. In Opera omnia 25, vol. 2. Paris: Cerf.

-(1948). Summa Theologiae, ed. Billuart P. Faucher OP et al. Rome: Marietti. English translation: St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, trans. the Fathers of the Dominican Province (Westminster, Md: Christian Classics, 1981 [1920]). In a number of places I have modified the translations. References in the text are by part, question, and article.

-(1952). Super evangelium S. Ioannis, lectura, ed. P. Raphaelis Cai, OP. Rome: Marietti.

English translation: St. Thomas Aquinas, Commentary on the Gospel of St. John, Part II, trans. Fabian Larcher OP (Petersham, Mass.: St. Bede's, 1999). In a few places I have modified the translations. References in the text refer to the paragraph numbers from the Marietti edition.

Finnis, John (1998). Aquinas: Moral, Political, and Legal Theory. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Gutiérrez, Gustavo (1993). Las Casas: In Search of the Poor of Jesus Christ, trans. Robert

R. Barr. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis. Long, Steven A. (2001). "St. Thomas Aquinas through the Analytic Looking-glass." The Thomist 65, 259-300.

MacIntyre, Alasdair (1991). Three Rival Versions of Moral Enquiry: Encyclopaedia, Genealogy, and Tradition. Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press. Nietzsche, Friedrich (1954). The Portable Nietzsche, ed. and trans. Walter Kaufmann. New York: Viking.

Pinckaers, Servais (1995). The Sources of Christian Ethics, trans. Mary Thomas Noble.

Washington DC: Catholic University of America Press. Porter, Jean (1990). The Recovery of Virtue: The Relevance of Aquinas for Christian Ethics. Louisville, Ky: Westminster/John Knox.

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