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The Libertarian Aquinas: Aquinas and Libertarianism (Part 1)

Jonathan McIntosh (Ph.D., University of Dallas) is a Fellow of Humanities at New Saint Andrews College in Moscow, Idaho, where he teaches on the history of western political and economic thought, philosophical theology, natural law ethics, Aquinas, Anselm, and J.R.R. Tolkien. He is the author of The Flame Imperishable: Tolkien, St. Thomas, and the Metaphysics of Faërie, and blogs at The Natural Law Libertarian and The Flame Imperishable

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St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) is, without question, one of history’s greatest thinkers. Preeminent among the “doctors” of the Roman Catholic Church, he was a major influence on many early Protestant thinkers as well, and today his writings continue to be studied and referenced by a diverse range of readers, including Christians and non-Christians alike. In addition to notable contributions in theology, metaphysics, and ethics, Aquinas has also earned himself a permanent place in the annals of the history of political philosophy. His most important political writing, the so-called “Treatise on Law” from his celebrated Summa Theologiae, has for centuries been admired for its lucid and cogent systematization of biblical, Greek, Roman, patristic, and ecclesiastical (“Canon”) sources of law. These provided Aquinas with some of the more important stonework from which he, like one of the architects of the many Gothic cathedrals being built throughout Europe in his day, compiled into a single, impressive intellectual edifice.

Yet Aquinas was also no libertarian. Far from it, he viewed politics not, in libertarian fashion, as a science of the moral use of coercion in preventing or punishing acts of aggression, but under the influence of Aristotle, as the science of the highest, most “perfect” community ordered to the highest human end of happiness or well-being. In contrast with St. Augustine (AD 354-433), who taught that political subordination of one man to another was a species of slavery permitted by God only after the Fall as a consequence of and check on human sin (City of God 19.15), Aquinas was led by his studies in Aristotle to view man as a political animal by nature who, even before the Fall, in his original “state of innocence,” was in need of a (non-coercive) form of political authority to coordinate the activities of the individual members of the community towards the “common good” (Summa Theologiae I.96.3-4). Even now, after the Fall, a key component of the political common good for Aquinas is the responsibility rulers or governments have to oversee and ensure the moral formation of their citizens and the inculcation of virtue. Given this end, unsurprisingly, there is hardly any aspect of human social order that Aquinas does not see, at least in principle, as falling under the purview of the state. From the well-being of the family, to the suppression of religious heterodoxy, to the regulation of many areas of the economy, including fixing the exchange value of money, regulating foreign and domestic trade, and the production of those goods or services deemed necessary for the community, all of these are things that governments have both the right and the duty to oversee for the collective good. Even private property, which Aquinas acknowledges to be a practical necessity, is viewed not as a pre-political, natural right which law and government merely serve to protect, but as a post-fall institution that is created by political communities as a matter of social convention and convenience.

These anti-libertarian sentiments notwithstanding, there are yet many other respects in which Aquinas’s political thought is not only consistent with libertarianism, but arguably provide the latter with an ideal and even necessary, moral and metaphysical framework. To begin with his theology and metaphysics, for Aquinas, the center and source of all reality is a God who is reason and freedom himself, and who has made human beings after his own image and likeness. By virtue of their God-given power of free will, human beings are unique among God’s creatures for their ability to be the initiators and “masters” of their own actions (ST I-II.1.1), such that in order for any action to be truly human, it must have the individual’s own will and reason as its immediate and proximate source and explanation. For Aquinas, in a word, it belongs to the nature of human beings to be persuaded rather than forced into action. Consistent with this, Aquinas acutely defines coercion as any act of violence in which one is moved to act in a way contrary to the inclination of one’s own will (ST I.82.1). And although he views individuals as parts of the communal wholes to which they belong, he is equally emphatic that, as individuals, they are also always more than mere parts of their community who retain a metaphysical identity and significance that is irreducible to their purely political standing (SCG 3.113).

In his “Treatise on Law,” Aquinas’s overall purpose is to show the necessary role law plays in directing man to his natural, and ultimately supernatural, ends. Yet Aquinas also stresses throughout the inherent limits of law. He roots the nature of law, not, in legal positivist fashion, in mere political power and procedure, but in the objective realities of man’s rational and moral nature (ST I-II.90.1, 93.3, 95.2), and bases government’s own authority to make law on the authority and consent of the people (ST I-II.90.3). Although he does not include coercion in his formal definition of law, he does recognize that coercion is nevertheless part of the very concept of law (ST I-II.96.5), and it is when meditating on law’s coercive nature, significantly, that Aquinas has his most libertarian moments. For example, despite his idealization of law as a means for morally forming members of society, he also says that the law primarily exists to restrain those “depraved” individuals who have not received sufficient moral training by other, more preferable means (ST I-II.95.1), and for which reason law ought not attempt to punish all vices, but only the “graver” kind, such as murder and theft, that involve acts of outright aggression against others (ST I-II.96.2). While God’s eternal law is over all things, rewarding actions that are good and punishing those that are evil, it is also what permits human beings to use their freedom to deviate from the eternal law in ways that no human law is authorized to prohibit (ST I-II.91.4, 93.3), and only the divine law of grace, revealed in the New Testament, can regulate the human heart, whereas human law is limited judging external actions (ST I-II.91.5). Because all man-made law must legislate strictly within the bounds determined for it by the natural law (ST I-II.95.2), those so-called “laws” that deviate from the natural law are no true laws at all and so do not bind the conscience and may be resisted (ST I-II.96.4). And although Aquinas is never specific as to what the natural-law boundaries for human law are and allows each political society to make its own body of “civil laws” (ius civile) that are specific to it its unique situation, he also recognizes the existence of a universal “law of nations” (ius gentium) that he believes is logically deducible from the natural law and that, in libertarian fashion, largely concerns the protection of individuals from actions of violence, theft, and fraud (ST I-II.95.4).

These are only a handful of the many dimensions of Aquinas’s political philosophy of interest, both by way of similarity and difference, to the Christian libertarian. In the series of posts to follow, accordingly, we will undertake a survey of Aquinas’s “Treatise on Law,” aiming to pinpoint precisely those areas of disagreement between the Thomistic and libertarian approaches to law, but also those areas of either real or at least possible agreement. In doing so, my hope is to sketch at least the outlines of a distinctly Thomistic, natural law libertarianism, one that coherently combines Aquinas’s account of law’s place within the social and moral dimension of human nature, with libertarianism’s more considered and consistent ethic of law’s inherently coercive nature.

LCI posts articles representing a broad range of views from authors who identify as both Christian and libertarian. Of course, not everyone will agree with every article, and not every article represents an official position from LCI. Please direct any inquiries regarding the specifics of the article to the author. 

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