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On the Nature of Thomistic and Aristotelian Humanity

by David Foss

... Because to the right among nations belong those things which are derived from the law of nature as conclusions from premises, e.g., just buyings and sellings and the like, without which men cannot live together, which is the point of the law of nature since man is by nature a social animal, as is proved in Politics I, 1.[1]

References by Saint Thomas Aquinas to Aristotle’s Politics are not infrequent throughout his Summa theologiæ, but nowhere is the divergence of his views from that of Aristotle expressed so succinctly, albeit subtly, as here. Indeed, Aristotle does say something along the lines suggested by Aquinas:

From these things it is evident, then, that the city belongs among the things that exist by nature, and that man is by nature a political animal.[2]

Are they making the same claim? Such a superficially mild distinction, between man as essentially social or essentially political, might be dismissed as an unfortunate confusion introduced by so much translation. It is evident, however, from the developments which surround these claims, that Aquinas and Aristotle have fundamentally different views with respect to the role of the political in human living. This divergence can be overstated, ignoring the extraordinary degree of agreement between the two. But, merely observing their convergence, without a close examination of possible incompatibilities, would dangerously miscast one or both of the political philosophies.

Against the backdrop of Neo-Platonism, Aquinas’ use of Aristotle’s analysis of rationality, and especially his serious treatment of practical reason, highlights the turn toward a more practical study of human society from within the Christian context. While it could be argued that the Neo-Platonic tradition grossly misinterpreted Plato, and the differences between Plato and Aristotle were not nearly so great as those between Neo-Platonists and Aristotle, the reemergence of Aristotle into the western literature, largely through Aquinas, seems to be an effort not to reject Neo-Platonism outright, but to temper its anti-materialism such that there might be a more substantive treatment of practical experience. Just as Aquinas considers the highest form of government a sort of intersection of the best elements of the various forms explicated by Aristotle,[3] he generally concerns himself with a project of integrating the essential elements of the various philosophical positions available to him. While such a project may be feasible with respect to the views of Plato and Aristotle (and this itself is a controversial claim), it is not at all clear that Neo-Platonism and Aristotelianism are in any sense compatible.

Admittedly the same argument might be used with respect to Aquinas’ highest form of government, to which he would respond that, properly speaking, the result is not a monarchy, aristocracy, oligarchy, democracy, or any combination thereof, but a union of those aspects of each which are best suited toward particular aspects of living. It might be suggested, Aquinas is not so concerned with the integration of everything each view has to say, but only those elements of each view which succeed with respect to their most fruitful application. Thus, from Aristotle, Aquinas draws the conception that human beings are essentially social animals, without agreeing to the further claim that the meaning of “social” here is intended to denote an aspect of living, of which the political is the highest form and measure.

To see Aquinas in this light would be mistaken. His appreciation for Aristotle’s conception of human living, as being fundamentally a social endeavor, does not ignore the valuation made by Aristotle with respect to the various types of governance. Indeed, in order for Aquinas to incorporate Aristotle’s analysis of political institutions into his own thought, he must also accept Aristotle’s conception of human nature (as at least part of the story). Certainly, he wants to say more than Aristotle with respect to issues of divine law, but he clearly endorses the Aristotelian treatment of natural and human law. Aquinas considers himself, for the most part, in agreement with Aristotle (insofar as a Christian of the period could consider himself in agreement with a pagan), concerning the fundamental conditions under which people flourish.

Stepping back, it will be helpful to take a look at Aquinas’ understanding of human life with respect to social being. By exploring the interaction of divine, natural, and human law, the person is revealed in her proper context. And from this context, the Thomistic conception of persons as social animals may be better understood with respect to the Aristotelian political animal.

The logical etymology of Law, for Aquinas, is the fabric and foundation of (the good) society. The tripartite distinction of the Law, into the divine law, natural law, and human law, is a distinction of hierarchical degrees, ranging from the absolute to the contingent. On at least one level, the divisions of law can be viewed as the identification of what it is for the universe to be rational. Divine law, or eternal law, stands as reason itself, the laws of which are unchanging and immutable:

... granted that the world is ruled by divine providence [in the form of first causes, or the exemplar of order], as was stated in the First Part, that the whole community of the universe is governed by divine reason. Wherefore, the very idea of the government of things in God the Ruler of the universe has the nature of a law.[4]

Natural law, as the direct employment of that reason toward conclusions, appears to be simply the use of reason:

... the natural law is nothing other than the rational creature’s participation [as possessing a share of the eternal reason] in the eternal law.[5]

Human law seems to be, simply, the (more distant) conclusions, derivations, and specifications by the employment of reason:

... just as, in the speculative reason, from naturally known indemonstrable principles we draw the conclusions of the various sciences, the knowledge of which is not imparted to us by nature but acquired by the efforts of reason, so too it is from the precepts of the natural law, as from general and indemonstrable principles, that the human reason needs to proceed to certain particular determinations of the laws. These particular determinations,.., are called human laws,...[6]

At the very least, as Aquinas sees persons as essentially a rational animals, this is the Law as it is relevant to us. For Aristotle, it is enough to conclude from our nature as rational animals, (along with an understanding of reason which takes account of its natural division into first principles, method, and conclusions, as does this analysis of Law) that human beings are not merely social animals, but essentially political. For it is nowhere other than from within a polis that the rational nature of each individual (member) may be most successfully and completely achieved.

But for Aquinas, the divine is not simply the immutable mechanisms of rationality, and the end toward which each rational agent tends is not merely the living perfection of their rational virtues. He stipulates, “But there is a further destiny for man after his mortal life; that final blessedness and enjoyment [literally, “ultima beatitudo”] of God which he awaits after death.”[7] With respect to its ramifications in the shape of the Law, and most specifically the divine law, this divine end is expressed as a sort of higher order government:

... government is of a higher order according to the importance of the ends it serves.[...] But the enjoyment of God is an aim which cannot be attained by human virtue alone, but only through divine grace[..]. Only a divine rule, then, and not human government, can lead us to this end. Such government belongs only to that King who is both man, and also God; that is to Jesus Christ, ...[8]

And again in his treatment of Justice, or more properly, in what Aquinas comes to call legal justice, the divergence of his view from that of Aristotle is found in words of consensus.

This life in common of man with man pertains to justice, whose proper function consists in directing the human community. Wherefore human law makes precepts only about acts of justice, and if it commands acts of other virtues, this is only insofar as they assume the nature of justice, as the Philosopher explains.[9]

Aristotle does say something of the sort, speaking of the law’s effect in terms of virtue:

Now the law instructs us to do the actions of a brave person, ... and similarly requires actions that express the other virtues, and prohibits those that express the vices. The correctly established law does this correctly, and the less carefully framed one does this worse.[10]

Importantly, the sort of virtue which falls under the guidance of human law, and is found encompassed by general justice, is the total exercise of virtue:

This type of justice, then is complete virtue, not complete virtue unconditionally, but complete virtue in relation to another... justice is complete virtue to the highest degree because it is the complete exercise of complete virtue. And it is the complete exercise because the person who has justice is able to exercise virtue in relation to another, not only in what concerns himself,... This type of justice, then, is the whole, not a part, of virtue, and the injustice contrary to it is the whole, not a part, of vice.
. . . .
... virtue is the same as [this type of] justice, but what it is to be virtue is not the same as what it is to be justice. Rather, in so far as virtue is related to another, it is justice, and in so far as it is a certain sort of state unconditionally it is virtue.

It might at first seem that Aquinas accepts this analysis without revision:

... legal justice is said to be a general virtue, inasmuch, to wit, as it directs the acts of the other virtues to its own end, and this is to move all the other virtues by its command;[12]

But, he identifies that realm of virtue not encompassed by general justice as falling under charity (as opposed to Aristotle’s identification of it as being virtue simply). These two general forms of virtue stand to each other as the two final ends incumbent on persons essentially:

... for just as charity may be called a general virtue insofar as it directs the acts of all the virtues to the divine good, so too is legal justice insofar as it directs the acts of all the virtues to the common good.[13]

Still, at the very least, Aquinas considers general, or legal, justice much in the same light as Aristotle:

If we speak of legal justice, it is evident that it stands foremost among all the virtues, forasmuch as the common good transcends the individual good of one person.[14]

Indeed, he claims Aristotle stands as his conceptual source. However, cloaked in the language of agreement, these passages identify two important points of divergence. In this second passage, Aquinas makes the suggestion that the common good and the individual good may be in conflict. This contrasts with Aristotle’s general position that the individual good is most perfectly attainable only through the common good, or more properly by the observance of general justice (and thereby, the whole of virtue).[15] In the first passage, Aquinas includes charity as a comparable virtue to (general) justice. From his same discussion of justice in the Ethics, it seems that Aristotle sees no virtue as lying outside of the scope of general justice, but that this it presupposes whatever other individual virtues there are.

As briefly noted above, this division of the virtues into those falling under general justice and those falling under charity, mirrors the division between the dual ends Aquinas envisages as appropriate to persons. While there exists a distinction between the personal (or internal) and the popular (or external/interpersonal) virtues for Aristotle, it does not carry the implication obtained in Aquinas’ thought. Most notably, the priority between the two is reversed. Whereas Aristotle pictured the personal virtues as a means toward acquiring the general, and indeed, the acquisition of the ‘popular’ virtue of justice is evidence of the achievement of the various personal virtues, and stands above them as an end to its means. Conversely, Aquinas pictures the virtues of common living as a means to the higher ‘inner’ virtues. The distinction is confused by the common implications both orientations carry for the shape (human) law should take. But we can see its reemerge in Aquinas’ explication of the aim of society, and even politics itself. So he says, “Thus the final aim of social life will be, not merely to live in virtue, but rather through virtuous life to attain to the enjoyment of God.”[16] This final end is further expressed as it stands as the proper criteria for the evaluation of human governance:

... because the aim of a good life on this earth is blessedness in heaven, it is the king’s duty to promote the welfare of the community in such a way that it leads thereto, and forbidding, as far as possible, whatever is inconsistent with this end. The road to true blessedness and the obstacles which may be found along it, are learnt through the medium of the divine law; to teach which is the duty of priests...[17]

Indeed, the best condition of human society is understood as a peaceful unity.

The aim of any ruler should be to secure the well-being of the realm whose government he undertakes [...]. But the welfare and prosperity of a community lies in the preservation of its unity; or, more simply, in peace. For without peace a communal life loses all advantage; and because of discord, becomes instead a burden. So the most important task for the ruler of any community is the establishment of peaceful unity.[18]

From this it would seem that he considers the sort of diversity Aristotle considers essential to a political community as incompatible with its final end. But Aquinas does consider a certain level of tolerance (and thereby a certain degree of disunity) as unavoidable:

Human government is derived from the divine government and should imitate it. Now, although God is all-powerful and supremely good, nevertheless He allows certain evils to take place in the universe which He might prevent, lest without them greater goods might be forfeited or greater evils ensue. Accordingly, in human government also, those who are in authority rightly tolerate certain evils, lest certain goods be lost or certain greater evils be incurred....[19]

In one sense this appears to be in considerable agreement with Aristotle, as witnessed from his criticism of Plato’s Republic in Book II of the Politics. Both recognize the increased value and power of virtue when expressed within an institutional context which does not compel such action directly. But the diversity, which makes possible the moral self-sufficiency of a polis, and is thereby essential for the possibility that persons might achieve their end, is not so essential for Aquinas. It almost seems a somewhat inconvenient necessity of fact, no more a part of any individual’s grasping of human perfection than eating or sleeping. Where ever possible, such necessities are to be spurned as diversionary, and especially in the case of this diversity, are very nearly a threat to the unity of the community.

The expression of such prohibitions is not correctly based in the human law. They are more appropriately considered as features of the divine law. He claims, “human law does not prescribe concerning all the acts of every virtue but only in regard to those that are ordained to the common good...”[20] He shares Aristotle’s recognition of the power of (human) law to shape the moral integrity of those who fall under its precept. Indeed, it appears the action of law is necessary for the development of virtue.

... the perfection of virtue must be acquired by man by means of some kind of training.... [Specifically,] a man needs to receive this training from another whereby to arrive at the perfection of virtue.[21]

It seems equally clear that he considers at least one category of virtue for which a certain degree of training is necessary, but the guidance of human law is not sufficient. The capacity for law to instill virtue is identified in the subject as obedience, and insofar as certain virtues transcend the guidance of (human) law, these virtues lie beyond obedience — or human training:

All acts of virtue, insofar as they come under a precept, pertain to obedience. Wherefore, according as acts of virtue work causally or dispositively toward the generation and preservation of virtue, obedience is said to ingraft and protect all the virtues... [Yet] if there be any virtue whose object is naturally prior to the precept, that virtue is said to be naturally prior to obedience. Such a virtue is faith, whereby we come to know the sublime nature of divine authority, by reason of which the power to command is competent to God.[22]

Admittedly, the training necessary for the full development of virtue, either here, or in Aristotle’s thought, does not simply involve the law as the only social mechanism (even ideally). Experience, and any individual who has accumulated a great deal of it, offers a sort of training which compliments that obtained through (legal) obedience, but is distinct from it. It is a sort of training which defies teaching, though it may be learned. Aquinas quotes Aristotle:

Hence the Philosopher says that, in such matters, “we ought to pay as much attention to the undemonstrated sayings and opinions of persons who surpass us in experience, age, and prudence as to their demonstrations.”[23]

Aristotle continues in the passage cited: “For these people see correctly because experience has given them their eye.”[24] He is speaking of gnome (“good sense”, “insight”, “judgement”, etc.), as he distinguishes nous, or “intelligence”, from logos (“reasoning”, or literally “speech”). Nous is the grasping of particular facts, as well as first principles, from which we reason toward action. It seems gnome, as a part of nous, is the (habitually) developed capacity to discern situational relevance. Such a capacity is (indirectly) incorporated into the human law by the designation of those individuals possessing it to be fit to rule, and in some sense obligated to rule.

But, as mentioned above, Aquinas sees an important category of virtue as lying beyond the reach of either experience or human law:

... God destines us for an end beyond the grasp of reason.... Now we have to recognize an end before we can stretch out and exert ourselves for it. Hence the necessity for our welfare that divine truths surpassing reason should be signified to us through divine revelation.[25]

The identification of an end beyond one’s-self is markedly different from Aristotle’s teleology, and fundamentally alters the image of persons as essentially social or political animals. Aquinas seems to want to incorporate Aristotle’s vision of the political as essential to who we are, and even necessary for our ultimate satisfaction of our end. But another dimension to the human end is added.

Since man by his nature is a political animal, moral virtues as being in him according to his natural condition are called political virtues, for on them depends his behaving well in social life... Since, however, it is to strive towards divine things as much as he can,[...] there should be virtues between the political virtues, which are human virtues, and the exemplar virtues, which are divine.[26]

In the divine end, human fulfillment is suspended until after death, and the Aristotelian ideal of the possibility of a living human perfection is fundamentally corrupted. This is shown not merely in Aquinas’ discussions of justice (in general), virtue, and the ends appropriate to human beings as such, but also at the very core of his treatment of Law. If the Law were simply understood as being the perfection of a rational universe, and indeed the perfection of reason itself, the conclusions with respect to the eternal law would bare little distinction from Aristotle. But there is more to the eternal law. In fact, for Aquinas, there is more to the teleological fabric of human living than the perfection of living (either rationally or otherwise). The human condition is not one which finds its purest expression in a political context, but one which must needs fail in perfection, save by revelation and a pure death. The social context may be necessary for the ultimate happiness of any particular individual, but no social environment, no matter how conducive toward temporal virtue, is sufficient.

Fundamentals of Political Theory
PHIL-505-01, Georgetown University
Fall 1991
(© David Foss, November 12, 1991)

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Last modified June 13, 1998

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