Political Philosophy in Aquinas

On Kingship is not an independent treatise on political philosophy composed by Thomas from his own reflections. Analyses of its choices among authorities and structures show that On Kingship is a clarification of inherited topics, arguments, and materials. Its novelties are novelties of balance and selection, not of doctrine or discovery. Thomas subordinates even the newest Aristotle, the Aristotle of a more complete Politics, to traditional themes and ends. Those themes and ends carry with them, among other implications, an important limitation of pedagogical rhetoric.

If this characterization is right, On Kingship cannot serve as a source for a specifically Thomist political teaching, especially according to the modern sense of that discipline. Indeed, it cannot warrant an effort to construct such a teaching as a separate "treatise." So far as On Kingship is Thomas's skillful

reworking of the inherited genres, it gives no evidence for supposing that Thomas had any alternative structure for political teaching in view. You could more plausibly call it "medieval Latin" than "Thomistic." The incom-pletion of On Kingship may be due as much to a reflective decision by Thomas as to the accident of the Cypriot king's death. Thomas may have judged his essay in writing a mirror for princes too familiar in its limitations. Or he may have failed to make the kind of pedagogical discoveries he wanted for thinking about kingship. In short, the incompletion of On Kingship could be a wise choice rather than a lamentable accident. Thomas may have chosen, soberly and rightly, not to undertake the writing of a Thomist political philosophy.

These speculations gather support, though certainly not the forcefulness of proof, when one places On Kingship back into Thomas's corpus. Within some five years of its composition, and perhaps within as few as three, Thomas would twice return to political topics. He would do so once in writing a literal exposition of Aristotle's Politics. He would do so again in the discussion of the judicial precepts of the Old Law at the end of Summa of Theology 1—2. Both works confirm what the condition and character of On Kingship suggest: Thomas was skeptical of independent treatments of political topics, as of pretensions to an autonomous political science.

Thomas's exposition of Politics is also incomplete. It breaks off at 3.6, about a third of the way through Aristotle's text. More than a few of Thomas's expositions of Aristotle break off before finishing, but the exposition of the Politics covers the least percentage of any Aristotelian text that Thomas took in hand.102 The break is not due to Thomas's final silence or death. The exposition was undertaken and set aside in Paris, before Thomas's return to Italy for his final stay. Thomas apparently chose to stop with the Politics after proceeding into it only a short way. Why? Thomas may well have stopped expounding the Politics because he judged its project too alien or too incomplete for his own purposes as a Christian theologian. This hypothesis gains some credibility by looking at the most complete expression of Thomas's theological purposes. The Summa of Theology disposes the discussion of political matters quite differently than either the exposition of the Politics or On Kingship.

Of course, the first difficulty in approaching the Summa is to locate the

102 The exposition of Peri hermenias ends in chapter 10 (19b31), about 50% of the way through the text. The exposition of De celo ends at 3.3 (302b9), about 75% of the way through the text. The exposition of De generatione et corruptione ends at 1.5 (322a3), about 37% of the way through the text. The exposition of Meteora ends at 2.8 (369a9), about 66% of the way through the text.

discussion of political matters in it. Virtues and vices important to political life are scattered throughout the second half of the moral part.103 Each of these sections must always be read back into the overarching plan of Summa 2-2, which makes no special place for political virtues. Indeed, the only specifically political Questions in the Summa concern human dominion in the state of innocence (1.96) and the judicial precepts of the Old Law (1-2.104-105). Only the latter two Questions can be considered anything like an extended discussion. Together they are just a little longer than the single Question on moral precepts. They are less than half as long as the three Questions on the ceremonial precepts, which comprise the longest individual articles in the Summa. No structural prominence is given, then, to the judicial precepts. Thomas proceeds with them as with the others. His purpose is to show that the Old Law was not irrational. Hence Thomas begins his discussion of the Israelite regime with the issue, "Whether it is fitting that the Old Law establish ordinates for princes" (1-2.105.1).

It is important to be precise about this purpose. Thomas wants to argue that the judicial precepts are rational, not that they are universally binding. They do not bind in virtue of God's command, since the legal force of the Old Law was abrogated with the new. A king in Thomas's time could choose without sin to imitate Israel's regime; he would sin if he pretended that the regime was obligatory because legislated by God.104 The judicial precepts do not bind by rational self-evidence. They represent a prudent disposition in view of the character and historical situation of the Jewish people.105 They do not reveal universally applicable constitutional principles. There is for Thomas no "best regime" simply speaking. The wise legislator disposes offices and powers in view of the character and the historical maturity of the people.

Any real enactment of a regime depends on moral diagnosis and therapy. Thomas shows this by embedding his few political remarks within a treatment of law, which itself falls near the center of the extended moral teaching that is the second part of the Summa. No section of the Summa has been abused so regularly as the discussion on law, and no abuse of it is so regular as the refusal to see the discussion whole and in place. Thomas's discussion does not stop with the last article on human law (102.107.4). On

103 The most obvious instances are the following: 2-2.10.8-11, on political relations to unbelief; 2-2.40, on war; 2-2.42, on sedition; 2-2.60, on judicial judgment; 2-2.104, on obedience.

104 Summa theol. 1-2.104.3.

105 Summa theol. 102.105.1 ad 2, on God's concessions to the alleged cruelty and avaricious-ness of the Israelites.

the contrary, he treats natural law and human law on the way to divine law and grace. A reader can understand what Thomas means by law only after she has read at least up through the Questions on the New Law - and, preferably, the Questions on grace and merit. Those Questions, in turn, take their full sense only when read as the culmination of Summa 1-2 and the opening for the more particular discussion of virtues and vices in 2-2.

I conclude that the treatment of political matters in the Summa confirms what was suggested by the analysis of On Kingship and the exposition of the Politics. Thomas thinks about political matters only within the larger project of a Christian morality. His view on politics is eminently theological, but he hardly intended to construct a separate political theology. Writing the Summa, he fractures the discourse of politics in order to distribute it within a meticulously elaborated moral teaching. The moral teaching is then framed by the great mysteries of Christian creed.

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