Monday, 27 January 2014


This article is published in Encyclopedia of Political Theory, edited by Mark Bevir, Sage Puhlications, 2010, Volume Three, pages 1361-68

The term ‘Thomism’ may be understood in two senses. In one it refers to the ‘school of Thomas Aquinas’, an unbroken tradition since 1274 in which people study, teach and promote the thought of Aquinas. In the other sense it seeks to identify the doctrines that distinguish adherents of this school. These distinctive doctrines are, in the first place, metaphysical and theological, rather than political, although it can be argued that a distinctive political philosophy emerges from the application of Thomist doctrines to questions of government.

Here ‘Thomism’ is treated in both senses. In the first it requires identifying the important personalities and significant events in the history of the school of Thomas Aquinas. In the second it means considering the philosophical and theological teachings of Aquinas that are relevant to political philosophy, in particular his understandings of natural law, of the distinction between nature and grace, of the human person, and of that in which human flourishing consists.

A School in History
Early followers

Aquinas did not gather a group of disciples to promote his thought and it is clear that he never intended to found a ‘school’. His secretaries and pupils finished some of the works left incomplete at his death. Reginald of Piperno wrote the remainder of the Summa theologiae using earlier writings of Aquinas and edited some of his Scripture commentaries. Two of Aquinas’s main political works were incomplete and their subsequent editions much interfered with, his commentary on Aristotle’s Politics was finished by Peter of Auvergne, and his De regno ad regem Cypri (On Government to the King of Cyprus, also known as De regimine principum) by Ptolemy of Lucca.

Although Aquinas nowhere presents a complete political philosophy, some distinctions introduced by him begin to be used with effect in early 14th century treatises on government. The distinction between Church and state, for example, is placed on a new footing on the basis of Aquinas’s distinction between grace and nature, as is also a distinction between royal (regimen regale) and political government (regimen politicum), something he learns from Aristotle. Royal government belongs with what Walter Ullmann calls the ‘descending’ theory of government (sovereignty from above), whereas political government opens the door for the ‘ascending’ theory (sovereignty from below). There is a practical political wisdom in Aquinas’s preference for a monarchy ruling in collaboration with an aristocracy chosen by the people. His familiarity with the practical realities came through his family’s involvement in the struggles between Pope and Emperor, as well as through his contacts with those directly involved in government both ecclesiastical and secular. Nor should the particular form of government enjoyed by the Dominicans be overlooked: many, though by no means all, Thomists have been Dominicans, members of the same Order as Aquinas, and so sharing his experience of its democratic, representative and capitular form of government.

Dante Alighieri may be regarded as an early follower. Although Aquinas was not canonized until 1323, Dante’s Paradiso, written two years earlier, already places Aquinas in a privileged place in heaven. Likewise Dante’s work on government, De monarchia, has been described as Thomism in practice. The idea of state sovereignty begins to take hold in Dante, in other writings of the period, and in the Papal decree Pastoralis cura of 1313. To what extent Aquinas and his followers reflect movements inspired from elsewhere and to what extent they contributed to instigating or strengthening those movements is a matter for debate.

One of the early Thomist to write on royal and papal power was John of Paris (John Quidort) who drew Thomist principles to their logical conclusion, arguing for the autonomy of the state as a natural political community in which the king is chosen by the will of the people. John was suspected of heresy on other matters though died before action could be taken against him.

Renaissance and Early Modern Thomists

A school of Thomists in northern Italy before the Reformation shared the general interest of Thomists elsewhere in the central concerns of Aquinas’s philosophy and theology, but some of them were particularly interested in the practical and moral aspects of his thought. This no doubt reflects also the particular political constitutions and concerns of the city-states from which they came. Aquinas’s acceptance of Aristotle meant a theory was available for what was already observed in practice in many places. From the perspective of moral and political philosophy the most important of these early renaissance Thomists is Saint Antoninus, archbishop of Florence, who wrote much on questions of justice, law and economics.

Although their own form of government was democratic and based on representative chapters of friars, Dominicans tended to support the supremacy of the Pope against conciliarist ideas. At the same time Thomists made very important contributions to the development of international law in the 16th century. Francisco de Vitoria and his colleagues at Salamanca, supported by Cajetan, especially when he was Master of the Order in Rome, rejected the idea that the Emperor or even the Pope had a universal right to wage war and appropriate the goods of other political communities. They replaced the medieval notion of a universal jurisdiction of the Church with natural law as a universal lex gentium (‘law of nations’). Vitoria spoke of a global commonwealth or respublica which could enact the law of nations. The customs, treaties and agreements that make up this law are binding on individuals and come close to what natural law requires. In fact natural law had developed in relation to, and informed by, such ideas of a lex gentium. Though they continued to think of a state properly speaking as something less than a world community, their thought defended the rights of Muslim and pagan states, for example, against unjust aggression on the part of Christian states.

Domingo de Soto is another key figure among the Salamancan Thomists. His work On Justice and Right was the most often printed and widely distributed book of legal and political theology in the 16th century. He said that he could not see where Spain’s ‘right’ to its colonies in the new world came from. He developed Vitoria’s notion of natural right adding to it a notion of personal liberty. The question of balancing individual rights and liberties with the requirements of the common good moved to the centre of political philosophy. Early modern Thomism is marked by a tension between the priority to be given to the common good (a prioritization that makes politics the highest practical science) and the fact that each individual exists not purely for the political community but for his own sake (propter seipsum, the anti-totalitarian principle). The latter side of this tension is seen for example in the rejection by all Thomist theologians of the use of force in the process of evangelisation: to enforce conversion to Christianity, Soto says, would be ‘against the natural right of freedom’.

Under the influence of Aquinas’s appropriation of Aristotle’s thought, these 16th century Thomists replaced another medieval political conception – rule by persons with a divine mandate – with a modern one – an international rule of law based on the natural law to which all human beings have access and which recognizes individual human beings as bearers of rights and duties. It may seem paradoxical that this understanding which undoes all theocracy is itself theologically founded, based ultimately on the conviction that every human being is created in the image and likeness of God. Although they move beyond Aquinas, their work is based on the principles of his political thought. They developed what they had received particularly 1) in speaking of subjective rights or freedoms complementary to objective right, and 2) in giving a universal scope to notions of right and liberty which apply to everyone ‘by nature’ (see Roger Ruston).

The humanizing influence of Aquinas’s thought is seen in another important Thomist of this period, Cardinal Thomas de Vio, known as Cajetan. His views on slavery stand out as enlightened for his time. In response to Spanish actions in the New World he said that what was going on amounted to robbery on a grand scale. The lords of these new lands, in place before the Europeans arrived, and although they are unbelievers, are lawful lords, he said. Slavery is the continuous affliction on a living human being of personal violence and the enslavement of the people of the new world is unjust and immoral.

Another key figure of the period is Bartolomé de las Casas, conquistador turned Dominican friar and later Bishop of Chiapas in Mexico. With the support of Cajetan and others his agitation and writings eventually gained the response of Pope Paul III’s encyclical Sublimis Deus (1537), one of the milestone statements in the process of weakening the acceptance of slavery by Christian rulers. Not that it brought disagreement to an end: even in 1550 and 1551 de las Casas was obliged to debate with the Jesuit Sepulveda on the question of the full humanity, and therefore of the rights and liberties, of the native peoples of the Americas.

Thomism in Decline

Although Aquinas continued to be recognized as an important figure, later thinkers, even while regarding themselves as ‘Thomist’, departed significantly from some of the characteristic principles of his thought. Thus Francisco Suarez, an original thinker in the philosophy of law, developed it in an unThomistic direction, locating the essence of law in the legislator’s will rather than in an ordinance of reason. Two difficulties explain this move, one the fact that intellect and will are both involved in the explanation of law and their relationship can be taken in different ways, the other the fact that Aquinas’s account of natural law leaves the origin of obligation unclear. The post-Reformation period wanted clearer answers to questions about will and obligation and Suarez’s account of natural law can be understood as an admirable attempt to provide such answers. However he concedes so much to new ideas – developing a modern understanding of freedom as ‘active indifference’, for example – as to make his fidelity to Thomism questionable.

Protestant thinkers struggled with the same questions. ‘Keeping God in’ seemed now to require a voluntaristic understanding of natural law so that when Hugo Grotius came to reject such an understanding of law he felt able to take a further step and regard natural law as something self-standing, having its meaning and force ‘even if there is not God’. But the question of obligation remained unanswered, a gap Kant sought to fill with his categorical imperative.

Richard Hooker is the most important of the ‘Anglican Thomists’. In his Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity he acknowledges his debt to medieval political philosophy, accepts Thomist ideas of natural law and of power deriving from the community, and adapts the notion of universal harmony to the nation-state. John Locke acknowledges Hooker’s work in his Second Treatise on Civil Government although on natural law Locke is more influenced by Pufendorf.

Locke set limits to the claims of absolute monarchy and showed that government is responsible to the people it governed. This is what Aquinas taught also though Locke’s basis for it was different. Beginning with the idea that every ‘man’ (the term is deliberate here) is endowed with the inalienable rights of life, liberty and estate, the function of government became for Locke that of giving effect to and preserving these rights. In practice the focus moved to property, which then came to be regarded as an absolute right and the basis for other civil rights (so only men of property were entitled to representation in parliament). Lockean government moved in the direction of an oligarchy of the propertied classes. Aquinas warned about the possibility of any form of constitution becoming tyrannical, including the aristocracy that becomes oligarchic, as well as offering a more profound reflection on the basis of the right to private property, a right that for him is relative and not absolute.

The differences that had by now emerged between Aquinas’s presentation of natural law and those found in modern political philosophy are connected with voluntarism, with the idea of a ‘state of nature’ prior to the political order, and with an understanding of law as setting limits to conflict rather than explaining the positive contribution of the human creature within a theological, cosmic harmony. Thomist ideas carried little weight in this new perspective, the highest good is no longer a matter of concern, the common good is simply the sum of individual interests rather than a qualitatively different good, and the human group is inherently problematic rather than naturally collaborative. In modernity, then, the distinction Aquinas made between the natural and supernatural orders becomes a full-blown separation and even opposition between a ‘sacred’ and a ‘secular’ order, the implications of which continue to be worked out in contemporary political struggles and philosophy.

The Irish political philosopher Edmund Burke is another example of an Anglican whose political philosophy may well have been informed by Aquinas’s thought, by however circuitous a route (he would have known Hooker at least). Burke appeals to principles that are obviously congenial to the thought of Aquinas, notably in impeaching Warren Hastings (for his treatment of Indians) ‘in the name and by virtue of those eternal laws of justice which he has violated’ and ‘in the name of human nature itself, which he has cruelly outraged, injured, and oppressed’.

Thomism after the French Revolution

There is a revival of Thomism from 1879 with the publication of Leo XIII’s encyclical Aeterni Patris, which argued that a return to scholasticism, in particular to the thought of Aquinas, was the best response to 19th century philosophical difficulties about faith and reason. This ‘Leonine Thomism’ as it is sometimes called reached its fullest development by the middle of the 20th century

The French philosopher Jacques Maritain is the most important Thomist political philosopher of this revival. In fact it was politics that led to conflict with his mentor, Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange. Maritain wrote in many areas of Thomistic philosophy, particularly epistemology and metaphysics but with important ventures into the philosophy of education and political philosophy. Garrigou-Lagrange taught in the areas of metaphysics, dogmatic theology and spirituality and his extensive account of Thomism the Dictionnaire de théologie catholique has nothing to say about political philosophy. In the 1920s Garrigou-Lagrange organised ‘Thomistic circles’ that were attended by the young Maritain. They collaborated with other French medievalists, philosophers and theologians in the development of new approaches to Aquinas but fell out over the Spanish Civil War and Vichy. It shows at least this much, that Aquinas’s political philosophy, schematic as it is, is not one that falls on either side of the ‘right-wing’ / ‘left-wing’ divide in modern politics but is concerned with more fundamental questions that inform political practice leaning in either direction.

Maritain advocated what he called an ‘open Thomism’ which would be conservative and yet progressive, faithful to the teaching of Aquinas and yet capable of assimilating the insights of modern philosophy and science. He was convinced that in Thomism were to be found the principles for a realistic and existentialist metaphysics which alone, he believed, could provide the basis of a political and ethical philosophy that would do justice to the dignity of the human being and his relationship with God. Maritain sought then to present a philosophy of being, of society and of politics that would be open also to the gospel’s message of love.

His many works in political philosophy include True Humanism, Man and the State, Freedom in the Modern World, Christianity and Democracy, Moral Philosophy, and The Rights of Man and Natural Law. He developed a Christian social philosophy of what he called ‘integral humanism’, a valuing of the human person that was also theological, that called for a brotherhood of all peoples, and that respected human dignity and rights. In the ideological turmoil of the 20th century Maritain said that a new Christendom could only be established by a humanism that was heroic. He is without doubt a democrat and he re-defines the basic political concepts of Thomism – the body politic, the state, the people, and sovereignty – so as to make them serviceable for the defence of democracy. Freedom becomes a central concept in Maritain’s political philosophy.

Yves Simon is another important twentieth century political philosopher who, with Maritain, sought to move the axis of Thomist social and political theory towards liberal democracy (John P.Hittinger). Simon sees in Aquinas’s view that law is properly enacted only by one who has care of a whole community the seed of the ‘transfer’ or ‘transmission’ theory of power, explicitly proposed by the Jesuit Thomists Suarez and Robert Bellarmine. This theory regards government as legitimately established through a transmission whereby the people transfer power to the rulers and this provides the basis for democratic authority.

Maritain’s ‘personalist democracy’ was criticized by Aurel Kolnai whose alternative political philosophy, ‘metaphysics of political conservatism’, also appeals to Aquinas and to the importance for him, as for all medieval thinkers, of the notions of hierarchy, privilege (grace) and liberty. Kolnai’s work is in response to any tendency to regard political life as capable of concerning itself with the fullness of human flourishing. The higher realms of human experience in art, philosophy and spirituality reach far beyond the concerns of politics, he says.

Maritain was the first Thomist to contribute significantly to thinking about questions of authority and freedom in the context of modern ‘pluralistic’ societies. A fundamental question is whether the modern nation-state coincides, and to what extent, with what Aristotle and so Aquinas meant by the state. The Catholic philosopher and theologian Robert Sokolowski thinks that these two conceptions of the state are irreconcilable, the modern Hobbesian Leviathan being, appropriately, a totalitarian monster where Aristotle’s polis is a humane community of persons in which reason can be exercised, prudence decide that forms and constitutions are required as circumstances change, and prepolitical communities (or civil society) be respected.

Sokolowski makes no mention of Aquinas and argues that political philosophy has been short-changed by Leonine Thomism. Maritain and Simon stand out as exceptions, he says, in a school for which political philosophy practically disappeared, with just a few questions such as just war and capital punishment being treated, and then as part of ethics rather than in a political philosophy as such. As a philosopher Sokolowski is a phenomenologist rather than a Thomist but his work is interesting in showing how a Catholic understanding of the (Aristotelian) state, critical of the Hobbesian alternative and dependent on the crucial notion of the person, can be developed without any Thomist mediation.

To be noted also is the extensive involvement of Dominicans in issues of social justice. Dominique Pire won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1958 for his work on behalf of displaced persons after World War II and he is just the most distinguished of a large group of thinkers and activists from many parts of the world, all of them educated in the school of Aquinas. Francesco Compagnoni and Helen Alford have edited a substantial but by no means comprehensive record of Dominican involvement in such work.

Distinctive Doctrines

Distinctive doctrines of Thomism are, in the first place, philosophical, even metaphysical, to do with understandings of being and of the knowledge of being. Thomism is a moderate realism with a common sense confidence in the ability of human beings to come to know their world and appreciate to some extent how they ought to live if they are to flourish within it. The natural philosophy, metaphysics and moral philosophy that characterize Thomism are closely dependent on Aristotle. Thomists have always regarded themselves as Aristotelians, keeping abreast of expanding knowledge of Artistotle’s philosophy even when it came to be seen that Aquinas’s knowledge of it was limited. One of the significant movements in Thomism through the twentieth century has been a fresh realization of Aquinas’s indebtedness to Neoplatonism for important aspects of his philosophical theology.

In the early twentieth century the Roman Catholic Church identified twenty-four theses in Thomistic philosophy that were to be subscribed to by all Catholics as essential foundations for the theological teachings of the Church. This was a controversial position, even within the Church, and did not last long. Other attempts to identify the doctrines of Thomism have been made but it is striking that political doctrines tend not to feature in these lists. That of James A.Weisheipl is an exception. Beginning with the distinction between nature and the supernatural he lists ten principles of ‘Thomistic Philosophy’ and ten of ‘Thomistic Theology’. The sixth philosophical principle reads:

By nature man (sic) has the right to cooperate with other men in society in the pursuit of personal happiness in the common good; this pursuit of happiness is guided by conscience, laws both natural and positive, and virtues both private and public.

Thomistic doctrines that are most important from the point of view of political philosophy, then, are natural law, the distinction between nature and the supernatural, happiness, the virtues, and the notion of person.

Natural Law

For Aquinas natural law is the human being’s participation in the eternal law. Such participation is intelligent and responsible, making the human being a participant in providence and not simply a passive object of it. All law is an ordinance of reason enacted by one who has responsibility for a community and made known to that community. The right to legislate positively that belongs to those who have such responsibility is part of natural law even if the natural law does not determine in advance the particular ways in which such laws should be enacted nor what their specific content should be. The state, and so political authority, is natural for Aquinas as it was for Aristotle. There is no ‘state of nature’ that precedes the political community. Natural law establishes the need for certain elements and values - e.g. possession of property by citizens, government in some form – but there is still room for contractual agreement about the ways in which these elements and values are to be pursued within a particular community. Thomist understandings of natural law bring together many strands of earlier philosophical thought, Roman jurisprudence and canon law. Such strands of thought also included important considerations of notions such as ‘right’, ‘person’ and ‘sovereignty’.

Nature and the Supernatural

Although the order of grace transcends the order of nature it does not replace that order but perfects and fulfills it, bringing nature to a fulfillment beyond its inherent capacities but still in the direction of its natural inclinations to happiness. The most important implication of this for political philosophy was a clearer distinction between ‘sacred’ and ‘secular’. Thus the person under grace is more than the natural human being. This has two important consequences. The human being who is a subject in the Church is at the same time a citizen in the State: there is autonomy of the natural created order within the overall economy of grace. Thus Aquinas acknowledges that there is true virtue among pagans (Summa theologiae I.II 65,2). But he believes also that true human fulfillment is found only in the order of grace so that the human person is always more than the citizen. 

The state is a relatively ultimate end in the line of the natural human instinct towards community. It is concerned with ‘the highest good’ Aristotle says, and Aquinas follows him in this. While it is not the absolutely ultimate end – which is eternal life with God, or the society of the heavenly kingdom – at the same time how can it be disentangled altogether from human seeking of that ultimate end? The state is not just for the management of evil tendencies but also for the promotion of good ones, for the encouragement of virtue.

This distinction of the good citizen and the good human being thus sets the scene for modern times. Some fear that Aquinas’s distinction contained the seeds of a disjunction between the natural and the supernatural that led eventually to secularization, the cutting of any link between nature and God. Aquinas himself did not do this, nor would his followers want to. It happens rather with Marsilius of Padua in the early 14th century with whom the link between nature and God becomes a matter of faith. Aquinas’ understanding of natural law remained essentially theological and in this he belongs more straightforwardly than does Marsilius to the traditions coming down from the ancient Greeks and Romans.

Happiness and the Virtues

For Aquinas full human flourishing requires the body, not just the physical body but also the body politic of a human community. The human being does not flourish alone. Such a life would be beastly says Aristotle, though for Aquinas it is perhaps divine in the case of some unusual saints. It is for the wellbeing of our beatitude (our complete happiness) that we are bodily, Aquinas says, and our flourishing is enhanced by the companionship of friends. Life in community requires the development of dispositions or virtues if it is to be established and sustained. As the human being needs to be temperate and confident if he or she is to be mature in personal affairs, so he or she must develop especially the virtues of justice and prudence in order to participate effectively in political life, the pursuit of common goods.

The Notion of Person

One of the central questions raised by Thomism is whether the notion of ‘person’ presupposes a theological understanding of human nature and destiny. Theological controversies in the early centuries of Christianity helped to refine the meaning of ‘person’ and ‘humanity’. These notions are central in Maritain’s political philosophy, which is an important influence on the Roman Catholic Church’s acceptance of the language of ‘human rights’. Recent popes have been happy to use this terminology, beginning with John XXIII in his encyclical Pacem in terris (1963). Paul VI was also significantly influenced by Maritain’s work and made his notion of ‘integral humanism’ central to the encyclical Populorum progressio (1967). John Paul II’s social encyclicals likewise emphasize the dignity of the human person and the centrality of human rights. Although he pursued doctoral studies with Garrigou-Lagrange in Rome and was much influenced by Maritain, John Paul II was not simply a Thomist. His thinking about political questions is significantly shaped also by his lived experience of Marxist-Leninism as well as by Max Scheler’s theory of value.

Contemporary Thomism

Contemporary debates appeal to Aquinas from different perspectives. Some have sought to show that his political views are compatible with forms of liberal democracy, and that his understanding of natural law is not so dependent on theological beliefs that liberal critics must reject it out of hand. On the other side are efforts to show that Aquinas is misinterpreted if he is interpreted as liberal or as liberal-compatible, arguing instead that his political views support just the kind of radical critique of which liberal democracy stands in need, and that his (theological-philosophical) understanding of natural law offers one of the few credible alternatives to the dominant philosophy of culture. Thomists of various shades are important contributors to contemporary debates about the meaning and purposes of education, for example, as well as participating in debates about war, bioethics and environmental ethics.

In the work of American students of Aquinas such as Robert P.George and Peter Augustine Lawler, of Germain Grisez, Ralph McInerny and Jean Porter, and of non-Americans influential on the American scene such as John Finnis and Alasdair MacIntyre, is to be found a range of interpretations of natural law, a variety of uses of Thomist ideas, and telling contributions to contemporary political, social and cultural debates. John Courtney Murray believed American Thomism’s most important contribution was to defend a realist epistemology, to ground the genuine human goods to which people aspire and to order freedom so that those goods might be affirmed as genuine. Thomism’s strength continues to be in affirming the naturalness of social and political life while underlining that the secular is not ultimate for human beings. On the one hand emphasizing the importance of reason and freedom, Thomist approaches seek to ensure that the state does not become totalitarian (which can happen in religious, sacred dress also of course). The tension between freedom and truth, identified so clearly by John Paul II in Veritatis splendor (1993), has its roots not in 1960s libertarianism but much earlier, in the developments from Marsilius of Padua to Thomas Hobbes and beyond to the French Revolution, a tension that has grown ever stronger between a voluntarist idea of law as will and natural law as an intellectualist idea. So Thomism, in Mark Guerra’s words, can praise the virtues of liberal democracy while moderating its dehumanizing excesses.

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