Here this you kings! Listen, you rulers!: Thomas Aquinas and his Regimes

An important part of any political philosophy seems to be the question of Constitution. Plato and Aristotle both spend time in their seminal works on politics to understand the forms of government. For Plato those regimes are Aristocracy, Timocracy, Oligarchy, Democracy and Tyranny.[1] Aristotle expands on those regimes by excluding Timocracy and adding Kingship, and Polity.[2] The Neo Platonic and Aristotelian thinkers of the Middle Ages took a similar view on the forms of government. St. Thomas Aquinas is no different than his fellow Middle Age thinkers and devotes time to understanding the various forms of government. In the First Part of the Second Part of his Summa Theologiae Aquinas lays out his Treatise on Law. Within that treatise, in question 95 article 4, Aquinas argues for five forms of government.  Within his discussion of the forms of government a series of important questions are brought forth including, the relationship between law and regime, the place of the ecclesiastical within the civil society, and what can be determined as Aquinas’ best regime despite what he explicitly states.

First it is necessary to examine the regimes laid out by Aquinas and also their corresponding form of law. By understanding the type of law associated with each regime and what Aquinas believes to be the best regime as a result we may gain a better understanding of their relationship. From there it seems proper to discuss the place of the ecclesiastical authority within the civil society and in particular whether or not Aquinas gives any authority to the ecclesiastical. Finally, based on his three statements found in questions 95, 105 of the Summa and On Kingship we may come to some understanding of what Aquinas understands as the best regime.

Aquinas explicitly discusses his regimes and their relationship to human law in question 95 article 4. The first regime Aquinas mentions is monarchy, and the form of law associated with this regime are “royal ordinances.”[3] Aristocracy is the second regime and is associated with “authoritative legal opinions and senatorial decrees.”[4] Oligarchy is associated with “praetorian law” or what Aquinas also calls, “honorary.”[5] Democracy is the final regime associated with law, as tyranny is lawless, and democracy has, “acts of plebian assemblies.”[6] It is curious that Aquinas does not place the distinction of human law in particular on any of the regimes. The closest are Aristocracy and Oligarchy yet even those are only “opinions” and “honorary” laws. And considering the regimes and the form of law associated with them, Aquinas declares that none are the best government. This is unique given that in question 105, and in his work On Kingship where Aquinas declares that Kingship is the best form of government.[7] Yet in light of the relationship between regime and law none seem to have authoritative human law associated with them. This may be because Aquinas states that the best is a mixed regime with Kingship, Aristocracy and Democracy.  However, if, none of the political regimes have law proper, then where does one receive law? Can authoritative human law be achieved through the temporal, or must one look towards someplace else? Aquinas exhibits four kinds of law: Eternal, Natural, Divine and Human law. The Human law is a reflection of the Natural and Divine laws. The Natural law is the Eternal Law’s participation in human reason. Therefore, it would appear as though only the ecclesiastical can make authoritative human law.

While Aquinas does not, in these sections, directly reference the relationship between the temporal and the ecclesiastical. However, using what Aquinas states in questions 95 and 105 of the Summa and On Kingship it nonetheless appears important to discuss that relationship. The polity is declared in question 95 to be the best regime. In question 95 of the Summa, polity, a mix of Kingship, Aristocracy and Democracy, is declared the best regime; this polity could be likened to the regime found in England. However, does Aquinas mean by polity a mix of temporal and ecclesiastical authority with the Papacy at its head as king, and local aristocratic and democratic assemblies to deal with the day to day operations of the civil society? At the time the Papacy was only beginning to take the traditional title of Kings, “Vicar of Christ” for itself. However, based on Aquinas’ view of the Human law, it would appear that the ecclesiastical authority is necessary in the creation of human law. And so looking at this possible relationship between the two spheres, temporal and ecclesiastical, then one may see in Aquinas his willingness to give to the Papacy political authority in connection with the Papacy’s emerging claim to the title of Vicar of Christ.  Authoritative Human law could be possible under Papal rule, if one assumes that Human law is a reflection of the Natural and Divine laws and that they can only be decreed by members of the clergy. If this in fact is true, then a starker contrast can be seen between Aquinas and the moderns, even a starker contrast between Aquinas and a fellow medieval like Dante. The alternative to seeing Kingship as filled by a temporal, civil leader rather than by the Papacy would call into question Aquinas’ belief that the ecclesiastical has any authority within civil society at all.

And so having examined what Aquinas defines as the political regimes, and what he explicitly states as the best regime and the place of the ecclesiastical within civil society we can now turn our attention to be better understand what exactly Aquinas’ view of the best regime is. Within the Treatise on Law and On Kingship Aquinas states his view on the best regime three times. In question 95-4 the best regime, as already stated, is a polity with Kingship, Aristocracy and Democracy. Yet ten questions later Aquinas contradicts himself by stating the best regime is Kingship. And then again in On Kingship the best regime is seen as Kingship. Looking at On Kingship we may dismiss the account of the best regime on one major premise, the treatise is written to the King of Cyprus. The seriousness of Aquinas’ claim in On Kingship, therefore, can only be taken in light of question 105-1 from the Treatise on Law. Yet, an understanding here may be taken in light of question 95-4 where he indicates polity will include kingship. However, in his On Kingship Aquinas states, “Man therefore needs something to guide him towards his end.”[8] This guide is a ruler, whether it is a King, aristocrat, oligarch, or democrat and the end appears to be, “man may devote his reason to some particular branch of learning.” The best guide or form of government, in On Kingship is Kingship. He further defends his argument for Kingship as the best regime on the grounds that government of many is more likely to become unjust than the government by one.[9] The question of government by many is explained by Aquinas as, “For there is no beauty in a body unless all its members are properly disposed, and ugliness arises when even one member is improperly so”[10] In each instance throughout On Kingship Aquinas appeals to what might be called the energy and efficiency of the one over the many. In addition, Aquinas considers that if there are three rulers and one is corrupt than the whole is corrupt. Both of these reasons are why Aquinas suggests that Kingship is the best possible regime.

However, in his Treatise on Law it appears that the best government, polity, corresponds to that government with the most authoritative law. Throughout the whole of the Treatise on Law it appears that law is the ultimate good given to man by God as it allows man to know and participate in the Divine As such, it appears that the best regime must have the best human law associated with it. As Aquinas says in questions 90 and 92 in his Treatise on law, “A law, properly speaking, regards first and foremost the order to the common good,”[11] indicating that the best regime should be the one that best orders the common good. He goes on to say, “Consequently it is evident that the proper effect of law is to lead its subjects to their proper virtue: and since virtue is “that which makes its subject good,” it follows that the proper effect of law is to make those to whom it is given, good, either simply or in some particular respect.”[12] And as before, it would appear that the best regime would be the one that best makes its subject good. And since Aquinas argues that the best regime in relation to law is polity, it would follow that the best regime simply for Aquinas would be polity.

Therefore, in looking at his description in the Treatise on Law and On Kingship of the best regime, the argument from the Treatise on Law that the best regime is the one with the best law seems to be stronger than the one in On Kingship. Because the argument in the Treatise on Law appears stronger, we may assume that Aquinas believes polity is the best government albeit with the proper form of kingship. This appears true because the role of law is so important in human affairs for Aquinas throughout the Treatise on Law.

Aquinas’ description of the regimes calls into question three key things, the relationship between regimes and law, the role of the ecclesiastical in civil society, and what appears to be Aquinas’ view of the best regime based on the relationship of regimes and law. Some may question the necessity of addressing the role of the ecclesiastical in society because Aquinas himself does not address this. However, because of the historic role of the Church at the time of Aquinas and the centuries immediately following his life one cannot exclude the possible implications of ecclesiastical in society. And because Aquinas states in various locations differing views of what can be called the best regime it is necessary to attempt to better understand Aquinas’ view based on what he says but not necessarily what he says is the best regime; i.e. the role of the regime in human life, and the role of law.

[1] Plato’s Republic book VIII. Plato also states that Aristocracy degrades into Timocracy, which degrades into Oligarchy and then into Democracy and finally into Tyranny.

[2] Aristotles’s Politics book III and IV. Aristotle claims that Kingship is the most desired regime and this differs from Aquinas’s view in On Kingship where he calls it the best regime. Aristotle calls polity the best possible regime and it is here in Question 95 of the Treatise on Law that Aquinas agrees with Aristotle’s account.

[3] Aquinas, Thomas. Summa Theologiae IaIIae 95-4 in  Aquinas: Political Writings edited by R.W. Dyson, (New York, Cambridge University Press, 2008) pg. 135

[4] Summa Theologiae I, II, 95-4 pg. 136

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] “A kingdom is the best form of government of the people” Summa Theologiae I, II, 105-1. And, “The rule of the King is best.” On Kingship, pg. 11.  One must call into question Aquinas’s declaration of kingship in On Kingship as it is a letter written to the King of Cyprus. As such, one may argue that Aquinas is simply appeasing the king in declaring kingship to be the best regime. His seemingly contradictory statements in the Treatise on Law may be rectified by demonstrating that Kingship is one of the regimes in the Polity and that Polity should be in the form of a kingship, albeit with Aristocracy and Democracy elements.

[8] Aquinas Political Writings, pg. 5

[9] Aquinas Political Writings, pg. 17, “If, however, one man rules…” and “For when dissension arises.”

[10] Aquinas Political Writings, pg. 13.

[11] Summa Theologiae, 1.1.90-3

[12] Summa Theologiae 1.1.92-1

And Those Who Have Fallen Away From the Lord

In our modern world when we hear the word vampire people have a tendency to laugh it off as mere legend, myth. Yet for centuries Europeans feared vampires as though they were real. In the Middle Ages the Catholic Church developed an interest in demonic possession and witch craft resulting Malleus Maleficarum by Heinrich Kramer & Jacob Sprenger. In the 18th Century, Europe was once again brought under the thrall of the Vampire as stories  circulated throughout Europe. This culminated when Dom Augustin Calmet, O.S.B. wrote Traitéi sur les apparitions des esprits et sur les vampires. Of any work concerning demonic forces this work comes closest to acknowledging the existence of vampires, though Dom Calmet does not explicitly accept nor deny their existence. Since then the Vampire has become something of fiction only written about by authors of horror stories. However, the Vampire has also been used to explore other ideas, particularly in the United States. Anne Rice, the first to create the modern genre of the vampire story, molds both European mythology and Catholic theology on vampires and demonic possession to explore Catholic themes such as salvation, redemption, free and grace into Interview with the Vampire.

Interview with the Vampire is composed of four parts which span from 1791 to present-day (circa 1970’s.) The novel, originally written as a story, explores the concepts of salvation, redemption, free will and grace through the person of a Vampire named Louis. Louis is a Frenchman living in New Orleans, Louisiana when he is turned by the vampire Lestat. The novel was completed by Anne Rice after the death of her first born daughter, an event that sent Rice into a spiral of self doubt and questioning God. To completely grasp Interview with the Vampire an exploration of its themes should be done by events. Only then can there be an understanding of how Catholic themes play into the novel.

Certain events in Part I of Interview with the Vampire are pertinent to exploring the conception of grace and salvation. Chief among these events concern Louis’ brother Paul and his preternatural brother Lestat. Louis comes to French America and settles in New Orleans on a plantation called Ponte du Lac. His love for his family is undoubted, specifically for his younger brother Paul. Paul is a devout Catholic and Louis agrees to build him an Oratory on plantation grounds. Yet, when Paul comes to Louis and reveals that he has been receiving apparitions from the Blessed Virgin that he should sell all of his possessions Louis doubts his brother. As a result Paul flees his brother’s room, only to be killed falling down a set of stairs. The circumstances of his death are unclear, Louis reports that his brother was lifted from the ground as he fell to his death. As his brother’s death eats away at Louis, no one is aware of the conversation Paul and he had moments before Paul’s death. While on his own death bed, a result of fever and being bitten by Lestat, Louis confesses to a Priest what his brother told him before falling to his death. The Priest refuses to believe Paul was visited by the Blessed Virgin, instead claiming Paul was possessed by demons and visited by the Devil. This infuriates Louis to no end, yet it serves as a precursor to his life as a vampire.

Lestat makes Louis into a vampire, and Louis struggles with his new found immortal life. For four years Louis refuses to feed on humans and instead chooses to feed on animals. However, this changes with the assistance from Lestat; Louis kills a five year old girl named Claudia and Lestat turns her into a vampire. Claudia’s death and rebirth as a vampire is an important event for Louis. Claudia becomes a daughter to both Louis and Lestat and ultimately becomes a pseudo lover for Louis. And it is with Claudia that Louis will begin to truly question his nature and will repeatedly attempt to answer the question of whether or not he is damned. Louis constantly refers to Lestat and Claudia as different from himself. Louis, while he feeds on those whom he comes across, still seeks to understand his own immortal nature  never fully letting go of his human nature. Claudia’s birth as a vampire serves as a key moment in Louis’ existence; he has partaken in the act of making a human into a vampire. Louis has killed his own child like innocence; there is no turning back at this point for him. If Louis is to receive grace and be redeemed, he must do it as an adult and as a killer.

So after some seventy years after Claudia’s transformation; she vows to kill Lestat after a period of angst over his refusal to speak of their origins. Further, Claudia and Louis conclude that they will travel to Europe in an attempt to find more of their kind and for Louis, an attempt to discover his nature and whether he is damned. However, on the night before they are set to sail for the Old World, Louis finds himself at the same Cathedral where his brother’s funeral took place so many years prior. He enters on a Saturday night and people are at the Cathedral for confession. Louis finds himself seated in one of the pews when he is hit with a vision. In his vision, Louis sees the Church falling apart around him; he admits that he is the only preternatural being in there. This admonition by Louis demonstrates the first time Louis openly denies the existence of God. Like other created beings, Louis has sunken to utter loneliness and denies his creator. The statues for Louis are nothing more than art work. He reaches out to grab the hand of the statue for the Blessed Virgin and it crumbles as he touches. Those who reach out to the Blessed Virgin for help are never turned away, yet Louis finds himself in the situation of being denied help.

Next, Louis sees a vision of a funeral procession coming into the Church and among the mourners is Claudia. Claudia begins to read a passage from the Bible aimed at Louis, the passage is that of Cain. Like Cain, Louis has betrayed his flesh and blood. First he betrayed his brother Paul for refusing to believe he had visions and then he betrays his preternatural brother Lestat by allowing for his execution. His vampirism is a mark upon himself, such as God gave to Cain. No one will come near Louis, nor will anyone attempt to kill him out of fear. Louis has received his judgment, or so he thinks, he is damned. Claudia at this point is not a vampire, but a child and from this child comes the pure truth that Louis is in fact damned for the destruction of his family. This vision is what Louis has desired to hear since his earliest day as a vampire. Louis is unable to accept himself; he believes he must be condemned for his nature.

Yet, Louis’ ultimate defiance of God comes moments after his vision ends. The Priest who had been hearing confessions comes to Louis and asks if he wishes to confess his sins. At first Louis is hesitant but ultimately agrees and follows the Priest to the confessional. Louis confesses the murders of thousands of persons over nearly a century and ultimately confesses that he is a vampire. Disbelieving Louis, the Priest leaves the confessional and Louis grabs him and ultimately takes the Priest’s life. Louis has gone from doubting God, to struggling over his nature, to ultimately rejecting grace and salvation by killing an agent of God. Twice has Louis confessed to a Priest, and twice has a Priest doubted Louis. These are important symbols as the represent Louis’ exploration of grace and salvation. He has to find the answer for himself whether he is damned or saved. If by his nature, Louis is damned then what does it say for free will and predestination. This difficulty that Louis is presented with eats away at him, causing him to bemoan his immortal existence. Grace is out of Louis’ reach; he has been denied by the Mother of God and has destroyed a most Holy Priest of the Lord.

Leaving America for Europe gives Louis a chance to contemplate further his nature and existence. Europe stands as Louis’ exploration of his vampire nature, in hopes of understanding his nature as a vampire he can understand if he can be saved or not. After spending time in Eastern Europe and coming across an Old World vampire, Louis and Claudia head for Paris. While in Eastern Europe, Louis and Claudia have an encounter with their first vampire. This vampire defies their expectations, as he is animalistic such as in the stories of Bram Stoker. This perplexes Louis and Claudia, and makes Louis feel more alone and that he will never be able to find answers to his questions. Louis and Claudia resolve to leave Eastern Europe and make their way to Paris. One night, while walking the streets of Paris, Louis encounters a new vampire who mocks his every move. After this encounter a third vampire appears and leaves a business card telling Louis to bring himself and Claudia to the Theatere des Vampires the following night. The following night Louis and Claudia encounter vampires like themselves for the first time since leaving America, though these vampires are similar to Louis and Claudia they will prove to be completely different creatures. For nearly a century Louis has lived under a cloud of suspicion as to the whereabouts of other vampires. Now in France, the place of his origin as a human, he finds his origin as a vampire.

Among these vampires is one named Armand, a 400 year old vampire who Louis comes to seek the knowledge he is certain Lestat had with held from him. Armand cannot provide him with the answers he seeks; he is only able to provide Louis with what he wants to hear. Louis is unable to accept that God still loves him despite his depraved nature. Louis struggles with his place in the world; he thinks his nature to be the same as the Devil. Yet, Armand questions whether or not this can be true because if God created all, including the Devil, then all must receive their power from God. Louis cannot himself; he believes that by being a vampire he must be damned. Yet Armand inquires, “And how is this evil achieved?”[1] This evil is an irredeemable evil that damns one for all eternity. Is evil without gradation, and if it is the as Armand says; “only one sin is needed…” But this only matters if God exists, but if God does not exist, “Then no sin matters…”[2] Louis cannot accept this, even though he himself cannot say if God exists. Armand is only able to say he knows one thing, and that is he is the oldest living vampire in the world. He has found no proof that there is a God or a Devil; this directly contradicts Louis’ admission to the reporter earlier when he admits that even those who deny God’s existence believe in the Devil.[4]

With the end of their brief discussion, Louis is still at a loss as to whether or not his nature is that of pure evil. Louis inquires to Armand of the nature of their power, whether it is of Satan or not. Armand inquires to Louis whether he believes Satan made the world, and Louis says it was God. Armand uses this to explain that their nature is that of God, not of Satan because Satan is a created being while God is not. This alludes to the story of Job, as Satan was an agent of God. Likewise, all living things are agents of God as we were all created by God. Whether we choose to accept God or not is where salvation and damnation differ. Louis once again takes the opportunity to bemoan his preternatural existence while back at his hotel when he says, “To be mortal, and trivial and safe.”[5] Like any person, Louis is caught between belief and disbelief in God and yet he wishes to be human, where he did not have to worry if he was damned or saved because he believes his nature then was not that of the Devil. This is where Louis falls apart, even humans are depraved irredeemable creatures who do not deserve salvation and yet are offered it anyways.

Louis’s ultimate fall from grace comes when, at the urging of Claudia, Louis does what he has sworn he would never do; transform an innocent into a vampire. Louis feels a deep responsibility that prevents him from wanting to turn someone into a vampire; Louis explains, “What has died in this room tonight is the last vestige in me of what was human.”[6] By condemning Madeleine, Louis has also condemned all of her victims to death. In Louis’s mind he has just become the greatest mass murderer of all time. Yet Louis confesses to Armand, “I don’t know if the child possesses the power to release the parent.”[7] This is a direct reflection on Claudia and Louis, but it is also a reflection on Louis’s relationship with God; and as a result of man’s relationship with God. Is it man who leaves God? Or God who leaves man? God does not give up on man and so ultimately it is the child who has the power to leave the parent. Louis has turned his back on God.

Interview with the Vampire is a personal tale, as well as a universal tale. The novel is a contemplation of salvation and grace and how it applies to those who do not deserve either. Catholicism plays an important role in Interview, namely through the aspect of Louis’ human religion. His childhood formation in the Catholic faith informs his understanding of salvation and grace. Ultimately he is a demon, but what does it mean for him and his chances of salvation. Like Adam and Eve he has be persuaded by Satan instead of adhering to God. Ultimately Louis’s tale, Interview with the Vampire, is a cautionary tale. Anne Rice wants her reader to think of these things, because we are all children of Adam and Eve and are all guilty of Adam’s sin. None of us deserve redemption, yet God has extended to us the possibility of grace, it is for ourselves to choose whether we wish to accept that gift or reject it.

 [1]Pg. 236

 [2]Pg. 236

 [3]Pg. 236

 [4]“People who cease to believe in God or goodness altogether still believe in the devil.” Pg. 13 This is also mirrored on page 236, “That’s not true. Because if God doesn’t exist we are the creatures of highest consciousness in the universe.” Thus, true evil still exists even if God does not.

 [5]Pg. 259

 [6]Ibid, 273


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