Wishing for a Thomistic Politics

During the last century, fragments of a booklet by Thomas served as charter for a Catholic politics. The text has the form of a letter to the king of Cyprus and bears the short title De regno, On Kingship. The fragment is puzzling, especially because it appears sometimes to contradict what Thomas teaches in his exposition of Aristotle's Politics or in the Summa of Theology.67 Still some

67 Many of the troubles over De regno are ably narrated in J. M. Blythe, "The Mixed Constitution and the Distinction between Regal and Political Power in the Work of Thomas Aquinas," Journal of the History of Ideas 47 (1986): 547—565. Blythe himself repeats some of the misunderstandings that he describes. Since he ignores the genres of the Thomistic texts, he claims to find in Thomas "a truly original synthesis of Greek political theory and medieval thought" (p. 564).

readers did not hesitate to enlist On Kingship in support of one or other project of Thomistic political philosophy. The puzzles and the projects can be resolved by a careful discrimination of what is invented and what inherited in Thomas's texts. Without the claim that On Kingship is an original political "treatise," there would be little reason for imagining that Thomas had ever wanted to offer a self-contained discourse of political philosophy. To borrow teaching is not to fail at teaching; originality is not the principal excellence in intellectual tradition. But if Thomas's teaching on politics begins to look more like a quick collation of commonplaces than a deeply meditated inheritance, the claim for a "Thomistic" political science fails to convince. If a careful exegesis of On Kingship shows that it was not intended as an original treatise in Thomas's own voice, then the textual warrants for a project of Thomistic political philosophy shrink or vanish.

In what follows, I show that in On Kingship Thomas appropriates and transforms sets of inherited texts, their patterns and authorities. My reading begins with discrete authorities and then proceeds to the structures for organizing them. I conclude from this double reading that On Kingship cannot warrant the construction of a freestanding Thomistic political philosophy. The place of political thinking in Thomas is not as an autonomous philosophic treatise, but as an excursus within the moral part of theology. That conclusion might have offered Thomas's readers a radical alternative to modern notions about both political thought and governmental practice. The attempt by some of them to extract from Thomas a political philosophy according to twentieth-century disciplinary notions refuses the alternative.

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