. Thomas Aquinas: The State and the Common Good | Ceasefire Magazine

Thomas Aquinas: The State and the Common Good An A to Z of Theory

In the last essay of his three-part series on the medieval philosopher, Andrew Robinson examines the political thought of Thomas Aquinas, notably his ideas on the state, the limits of state power, and the uses and abuses of the idea of the common good.

In Theory, New in Ceasefire - Posted on Friday, October 9, 2015 14:47 - 2 Comments


Thomas-Aquinas-Ceasefire-3In this last essay, I examine and critique Aquinas’ argument for the state, explore the limits of state power, and inquire into the uses and abuses of the idea of ‘the common good’.

Aquinas’ political theory

Aquinas’ argument for the state is complex and multi-layered. It stems from the idea of pursuing order at a social level. Social groups are ordered, both by mutual coordination and by sharing a common goal. Law is seen as central to this, but its coercive function is secondary. Law does not inherently require coercion, because even a world of saints would require laws to make life predictable. Aquinas strangely argues that law is a kind of intelligent instruction directed to reason, yet also insists that it must be coercive. This seems to be a self-contradiction.

There are three layers of law. “Eternal law” is created by God and governs the natural world – for instance, the laws of physics and the instincts of animals. Most of these laws are literally impossible to break. Humans are uniquely endowed with a share in divine providence, allowing actions against certain laws.

“Natural law” consists of a set of basic propositions which can be derived from reason or revelation, and which are supposedly obvious to humans everywhere (e.g. murder, adultery and theft are wrong and should be punished). Natural law sets certain general limits on human law, but does not provide much detail. It is the human variety of eternal law. Aquinas believes that it is naturally instilled in the minds of all humans, it is unchangeable, universal and ineradicable.

Legitimate human law consists of a broad field of variations on natural law, specifying further prohibitions, exact definitions of offences, and specific types of punishment and compensation. These specifics do not make a regime good or bad (though some may be inappropriate to context). They are necessary for social life because the natural law is too imprecise. (Remember that medieval Christianity, unlike Islam and Judaism, did not have a recognised body of law).

Like Aristotle, and unlike modern thinkers such as Hobbes, Locke and Rawls, Aquinas sees political life as expressing a human need in itself, rather than as an instrumental institution serving other needs. Law is directed towards common good (or flourishing).

I find the term “common good” rather vague. Does it mean the good of other people, or does it mean the good of an abstraction (a Stirnerian spook or essentialist category)? Sometimes, Aquinas seems to mean something else entirely: the common good is a term for each person’s need (or “good”) for social fellowship or friendship. This is a good of each person which is met by social life, in the same way that the good of knowledge is met by learning, or the good of religious life by religious practice. But sometimes, he writes of the common good as the welfare of the community as a whole, taken collectively or distributively. It is a good common to everyone, which is distinct from and superior to individual goods. It is supposed to be higher than individual goods because it is wider in scale. A good citizen puts the common good before other goods. At other times he sees a common good as a situation where two people both will each other’s goods, so the good of either is satisfying for both.

The slippage of terms of this type is central to statist arrogations of power. For instance, cooperation to produce more food together than each could do on their own is good for each person who cooperates. But foregoing food so as to instead promote “national greatness” does not really benefit any of the people cooperating – it benefits the abstraction. Statist thought frequently confuses the two types of situation so as to subordinate people to abstractions while pretending to take care of their welfare.

Conflict theorists (notably Marxist, anarchist and feminist ones) usually argue that social arrangements don’t benefit all of the participants but enrich one part at the expense of others. Meanwhile, other conflict theorists also elevate collective categories into abstractions to which the flourishing of actual members of these categories is sacrificed.

In terms of what makes society possible, it is certainly possible to create connections of fellowship and affinity without a legal, political or coercive apparatus. If Aquinas is claiming that the state aids the formation of affinity among individual people, then he is wrong: the state tends to break down horizontal forms of social connection so as to atomise and control its subjects.

In Aquinas’ hands, the idea of the common good is double-sided. Some things taken to aid the common good are pretty repressive, and include things like addressing superiors by their titles. However, the Catholic Worker tendency of Christian anarchists interpret the idea of the common good as a way of deriving a revolutionary politics from Christian doctrine. The need for fellowship and the resultant common good mean that we have duties to resist injustice and social inequality.

Aquinas and the state

Aquinas supports the existence of a state, including a state monopoly on military and police violence. As with most statist thinkers, Aquinas believes that the state creates the “good” of social order. By setting clear rules, rights and duties, it creates a context for people to flourish and develop, free from the risks of violence and instability. Hence, everyone’s general welfare depends on state power. In order to attempt to justify something as extreme and violent as the state, statists must maintain that these goods are both indispensable and overwhelmingly important.

This is an argument which makes more sense for those included in a particular social order than those exploited or excluded by it. For in-groups, the state protects the conditions of life; for out-groups, it destroys or threatens these conditions. States often commit forms of violence and instability against subjects/citizens -sometimes even in disorderly, unpredictable ways.

Another problem is that states can and do prohibit actions that are necessary for someone’s flourishing. It can be argued that states don’t really create clear, consistent rights and rules at all, because they operate with a double standard of sovereignty which suspends such norms.

Furthermore, stable forms of social life can also arise from affinity, custom and life in common, as with many indigenous groups. There is something vaguely racist about the belief that only states can provide social goods, when statist societies are so clearly deficient in social connectedness compared to classical (i.e. non-colonised) indigenous groups. It is almost as if the statist will to believe that the state is overwhelmingly necessary creates its own empirical premise through the disqualification of indigenous forms of life. The monopoly on violence is even more arbitrary, since it clearly leads to a situation where a power-holding ingroup can and will dominate outgroups using the common good as a cover.

Aquinas’s argument does, however, have a certain empirical relevance in the processes which led diffuse peasant communities to accept increasingly repressive feudal relations in the centuries before he was writing.  Vulnerability to roving bands of pillagers and invading states (or lords) seems to have played a role in the coalescence of repressive power, though it was clearly conjunctural rather than fundamental, and may have done the peasants more harm than good in the long run.

There is also a logical problem here. Aquinas, like Aristotle and Marx but unlike Hobbes and Locke, assumes that people are basically predisposed to sociality, or at least will be if they are thinking rationally. This makes it harder to justify the state than if people are assumed to be competitive, possessive individuals. Why is it too much to expect that people would unite to meet a need (for fellowship) they all have as individuals, and that, having formed affections for one another, they would refrain from undermining each other’s flourishing unless a coercive power stepped in?  And if people are greedy enough that they can’t be trusted to coexist, how can a few of them be trusted with a much greater power of coercion which could be (and often is) used to arrogate wealth and status or to impose their own beliefs or preferences?

In contrast with Aristotle, Aquinas does not believe that political life has a kind of ultimate significance over other goods. However, he seems to think that a fully human life necessarily has a political dimension. In his commentary on Aristotle, he suggests that the capacity for speech means that public deliberation is natural. He also believes in an early form of historical teleology, in which humans supposedly evolve from tribes to villages to states, possibly to increase wealth through the division of labour. This reflects the process of urbanisation which was underway in his day, but it is not true for all places and times. After all, a few hundred years before Aquinas, the trend was in the opposite direction.

As with most statists, Aquinas supports the use of punishment. Unlike its modern defenders, however, his view of the role of punishment is not cynical. Rather, Aquinas sees it as a kind of restorative or “medicinal” process which rectifies an imbalance in the cosmic order. This is arguably the real basis of punitive practices, which seem to have evolved initially from rights to compensation or vendetta. Modern theorists who seek to justify punishment are effectively seeking to maintain a superstructure of a long-dead ideological grammar, repurposing it for social control. However Aquinas also uses arguments in which he expresses hope that punishment will deter, but thereby instil habits to be virtuous. This seems naïve in light of deviance amplification theory.

Aquinas is a statist, but his view of justified state power is not unlimited. Firstly, members of the state are also members of the Church, and the two institutions limit one another. This reflects the political reality of Aquinas’ time and place, in which Church and state power balanced one another. Secondly, moral standards are primary in relation to state laws. A state is not legitimate unless it operates morally, and its morality or immorality is established by standards external to it. Thirdly, state officials are subject to something like the rule of law, including respecting the circulation of offices, and obeying their own laws. Fourthly, state power must be exercised for the common good, not for private gain, self-interest, greed or vanity, and also not for the enforcement of other forms of good.

Balance must also be pursued, and the burdens of the common good may not be distributed unfairly. Laws should only prohibit the worst, rather than all, vices. Otherwise they overreach and fail to concentrate on the worst kinds of harm. Trying to enforce petty laws against minor harms distracts from policing major harms such as murder and rape. (This is clearly counterposed to the moral panic mentality of today’s authoritarians).

The inner focus of morality and the outer focus of the state are in contradiction. This places further limits on the state’s role. State power can only regulate external, interpersonal actions which disturb social stability. It should not be used to enforce other kinds of morality, even when these are clearly right. The state is not a paternal power or a substitute for God. Of the four virtues, the state can only require justice, and even then only of acts, not motives. Royal absolutism or divine right is clearly rejected.

Aquinas thus rejects the older Christian view which saw the role of secular power as a way of restricting humans’ sinful nature. Instead, he sees it as principally a form of expression of particular virtues. As a result, he also rejects the view that secular power is necessarily connected to the ruler’s faith. An ‘infidel’ ruler can also be a just ruler. This is also in continuity with some earlier theorists, such as Augustine, who assumed that Christianity was compatible with any state which did not suppress it. However, Aquinas seems to restrict state power more than Augustine.

Members of the Church are also subject to Church law, though this should not trespass on state power, be applied to non-believers or imposed by force. Aquinas makes an exception for apostasy as a kind of breach of oath, and heresy as a kind of forgery, both of which the state may prohibit. Parental power is also limited to the particular goals of justice and education.

As such, Aquinas creates an extensive architecture of restrictions on state power. When a state or ruler oversteps these boundaries, it becomes a tyranny. People have a right to resist and overthrow a regime that is tyrannical in any of various ways, such as overreaching its function or acting from greed. Aquinas assumes that there is a kind of tacit covenant between ruler and subjects, which the ruler breaks by acting tyrannically. People have a right (but not a duty) to break laws which require immoral actions. Such laws are considered acts of violence rather than true laws. Laws made in such a context are equivalent to a bandit’s demands, and have no greater moral force. There are also cases where the common good overrides the law.

Like Aristotle, and in contrast to most modern statists, Aquinas is refreshingly honest about the limits of legitimate power. As the state has expanded as an institution, its advocates have become increasingly reluctant to accept that its authority is limited by justice, morality or any other criterion external to it. The right to resist has been curtailed to almost non-existence. The contrast with ancient and Medieval statists makes clear the hubris involved in such modern statist thought.

However, Aquinas also suggests that people should hold back from resistance which might be unjust (since there’s a right to punish sedition), and to avoid resistance which might encourage wrongdoing or disorder, even at the expense of injustice. These are serious limits to Aquinas’ theory of resistance, which suggest that, ultimately, he sees order as more important than justice.

Aquinas advances various arguments about which form of state is the best. In theory, monarchy is the best form of government because it imitates divine rule and the supposed hierarchies in nature. (In this case, a boss in Heaven really is an excuse for a boss on Earth). It is also best because it creates unity and allows quick decisions. But in practice, monarchies are at risk of degenerating into tyranny. This means that monarchy is not really the best form of government. In practice the best form of rule is a mixed governmental type combining an executive head of state, an elected chamber and a popular electorate – a model surprisingly similar to modern democracy or polyarchy.

Overall, Aquinas’ statism stems from a contradiction in his definition of the human – as all extensional humans, or as a conformist in-group. Like many theorists, Aquinas seeks to maintain both normativity – with its inherent coercive split between ‘valued’ and ‘worthless’ people – and a general valuation of the whole of humanity. The trick of reconciling the two stems from the operation of the category of the human as an essence or spook, with the basic needs specifying the “truly” human in a manner discontinuous with the extensional set of beings categorised as human. Like all such normative theories, Aquinas’ model ends up sacrificing real humans (the punished criminals/sinners) to the ideal.

In practice, communitarianism is reactionary, because it entails sacrificing the flourishing of some (the marked term, the “un-man”) for that of others (the unmarked term, the social in-group, those who conform to the politicised category “man”). This construction of essences or spooks undermines the other-regarding nature of the theory, and the principle of not doing unto others what one would not have them do unto oneself. Nobody (besides the self-hating) would wish others to exclude, dehumanise or normatively disqualify them; yet communitarianism requires that they do it to others.

It was suggested earlier that Aquinas is in many ways distinct from modern forms of political thought. But to what extent is Aquinas already foreshadowing the repressive politics of modernity? The clearest parallel is in his attitude to the relationship between reason and the body. Although he rejects the view that the body is simply a container for the soul, his mode of reasoning focuses entirely on rational thought.

Emotions and bodily responses have no place in Aquinas’ theory except as barriers to correct moral reasoning. This suggests that he is in favour of psychological repression, much as in Wilhelm Reich’s critique of ChristianityAquinas also exemplifies the spook-based rationality of dominant forms of power. But in other ways – in his discussion of property, his rejection of ego-driven motives, his diverse and concrete view of human needs, his valorisation of spiritual and inner growth – Aquinas is very much opposed to the direction modernity has taken.

For more essays in this series visit the In Theory page.


Andy McLaverty-Robinson

Andy McLaverty-Robinson is a political theorist and activist based in the UK. He is the co-author (with Athina Karatzogianni) of Power, Resistance and Conflict in the Contemporary World: Social Movements, Networks and Hierarchies (Routledge, 2009). He has recently published a series of books on Homi Bhabha. His 'In Theory' column appears every other Friday.


You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

John C Medaille
May 29, 2021 15:58

If a student of mine had turned this in, I would flunk him for numerous direct and indirect quotes without a single source.

Ashley L
Sep 19, 2022 16:56

“Some things taken to aid the common good are pretty repressive, and include things like addressing superiors by their titles.”

Normally, bizarre assumptions have to be given explicit justification in order for them to support the argument in any meaningful way.

Leave a Reply


More Ideas

More In Politics

More In Features

More In Profiles

More In Arts & Culture