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

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A look at Book I of John Locke’s First Treatise of Government

Quotes taken from Two Treatises of Government edited by Peter Laslett published by the Cambridge Texts in History and Political Thought.

I would like to think Ashok for reading through the First Treatise with me.

John Locke begins the first chapter, “Slavery is so vile and miserable an Estate of Man, and so directly opposite to the generous Temper and Courage of our Nation; that tis hardly to be conceived, that an Englishman, much less a Gentleman, should plead for’t.” Locke starts his treatise with the theme of slavery, which according to him goes against the “temper and courage” of England. He claims astonishment that an English Lord (Englishman…much less a Gentleman) would write such a work. This individual that Locke is arguing against is Sir Robert Filmer, the writer of the work Patriarcha or The Natural Power of Kings. Locke uses Filmer’s work to refute the belief in Divine Right Monarchy. He calls Filmer’s work a “Rope of Sand” and a “Chain for all Mankind” whose business it is to “raise a Dust” that would “blind the People” but cannot bind those “who have their eyes open.” This is a very interesting argument against the work, Locke has set out on the stance that Divine Right Monarchy really means slavery and that Filmer’s treatise is only meant to blind the people into bondage.

Locke makes reference that Filmer’s work was long before his own First Treatise, and the editor notes that the Patriarcha was written in 1637-8 but not published until 1680. Filmer is called the “Champion of absolute Power” and anyone who reads his treatise cannot but think himself no longer a freeman. When published, Locke argues that Filmer’s treatise removed all liberty from the world. Furthermore, it intended to make itself the model of all politics for the future. However, Locke argues that the treatise by Filmer can be summed in two lines:

1. That all Government is absolute Monarchy

2. That no Man is born Free

These are two very dangerous beliefs for Locke, the champion of consent of the governed.

Authors of the generation in which Locke is writing, and the previous generations are said by him to have “flatter[ed] princes with an Opinion” this opinion being that despite the laws which constituted their authority, and are to govern under, they have absolute power under the title of Divine Right. They are not restrained by “Oaths and Promises” because their authority does not come from those, whom they govern, or from the laws but rather from God Himself. By making such an argument, these authors have stripped man of his natural rights and freedoms and made them subject to tyranny and oppression. Even more, Locke argues that they have “unsettled the Titles and shaken the Thrones of Princes.” Why is this? Because if there is such a thing as Divine Right monarchy, than all except them monarch are slaves to the monarch. Further, as Locke will argue, if Adam was made the first monarch then only one Prince in the world living has claim to that title passed down from Adam. All persons with the exception of that single heir have been made slaves and all government has been destroyed because of these Divine Right authors. If all are slaves then there cannot be politics and if there cannot be politics there cannot be government.

Yet, Locke argues that if we have to accept this argument, that we are all born Slaves, then it does not end. “Life and Thraldom” continue together until the former ends and we are released from the latter. But this notion of Divine Right monarchy, Locke claims, is a new idea. “Scripture or Reason I am sure doe not any where say so notwithstanding the noise of divine right, as if Divine Authority hath subjected us to the unlimited Will of another.” The notion that we are all slaves to a single human, a fallible person, is not present in our own human reason or in the Divine Scripture, where one would expect to find Divine Right authority promulgated first. Natural freedom and equality are the older opinions of mankind, not absolute Authority of a single man. Locke even argues that Filmer assents to this belief, that his opinion is the junior.

At this Locke leaves the argument of the age of this argument for historians to debate, but wishes to argue the point against Filmer who he believes was allowed to carry the opinion the furthest.

Plato and Aristotle’s Regimes: Republic and Politics.

There might be some confusion concerning the nature of politics and the type of regimes. Today we tend to think of a number of regimes, although many of them are simply the same regime with a different title. We call the government in England a Constitutional Monarchy, yet it simply is a Monarchy. China we say is a Communist regime, yet really all the political form of Communism is Oligarchy. All the regimes currently in use today can be boiled down to a list of just a handful. These regimes were originally defined and stated by Plato and Aristotle, two classical Greek philosophers who concerned themselves heavily with the nature of the polis. To get an idea of what the regimes are, this essay will attempt to outline the various forms of government as laid down by both men. In order to deal with the two authors it will be prudent to describe Plato’s regimes first followed by Aristotle.

In Book VIII of the Republic, Plato speaks of the degenerate regimes after having spent considerable time describing an Aristocracy. Aristocracy in the classical sense is not rule by the few, or rule by the wealthy. Aristocracy for Plato meant rule by the virtuous. The ideal city would be ruled by a Philosopher king, but because no philosopher will want to rule in the city there must be a handful of virtuous individuals willing to rule.

The first degenerate regime that flows directly from Aristocracy is Timocracy. This form of government is rarely spoken of and is largely forgotten compared to the remaining regimes. Timocracy is the rule by the honorable, or more simply a Warlord. Timocracy comes about when instead of concerning oneself with virtue itself, one concerns themselves with the seeking of honor. The primary means of attaining honor is on the battlefield, and thus the idea of a military leader leading the city falls into a Timocratic regime.

From the Timocrat comes the Oligarch, the son of the man who is more concerned about his honor than about wealth. When honor is lost and you have nothing else, then you are empty. The Oligarch as a result is a stingy person who spends little but acquires much. Oligarchy is defined by a few very wealthy individuals ruling the city over the less fortunate and often impoverished inhabitants. Oligarchy is the most popular form of government and the wealthy are often times viewed as the best individuals and therefore most worthy of ruling. Today Oligarchy is often confused with Aristocracy due to their elitist tendencies. With the fall of Oligarchy, so goes the way of the virtuous regimes. Oligarchy, Timocracy and Aristocracy represent the various parts of the soul for Plato, and also different virtues or, in the case of Aristocracy, virtue itself. The three parts of the soul that correspond with the three regimes are: Rational part with Aristocracy, the Spirited part with Timocracy and the Appetitive part with Oligarchy.

The first regime lacking virtue is democracy, or rule by the people. The democrat comes about because of the lack of equality in the Oligarchy. In the Oligarchy limits are placed on how much one can spend, preventing the democrat from being allowed to do as he sees fit. This coupled with the lack of equality brings about the Democracy. Democracy is ruled on two principles: Freedom and Equality. Because of its nature Democracy lacks virtue but it is not totally depraved. Democracy is the best possible regime while Aristocracy is the regime most wished for.

Finally Plato ends his account of the regimes with Tyranny, the most dreaded and depraved form of government developed by mankind. Tyranny is the exact opposite of Aristocracy. The tyrant comes to rule because he desires all. Tyranny is characterized by the lack of concern for one’s subjects and a desire to obtain all one wishes for. The tyrant cares nothing for his people or his city, only for his own selfish gains. Where the Aristocrat rules for the sake of the city, the tyrant rules for the sake of self. With the end of the analysis of the tyrant and tyranny comes the end of Plato’s discussion of the regimes within the Republic.

Aristotle does not entirely agree with Plato’s assessment of regimes in the Republic. His Politics is largely a rebuttal of the arguments made in the Republic. Aristotle defines three chief regimes: Kingship, Aristocracy and Polity. These regimes all have a degenerate regime corresponding with it: Tyranny, Oligarchy and Democracy. One will immediately identify that Aristotle lacks the Timocratic regime and instead replaces it with Polity, a mixture of Oligarchy and Democracy.

Kingship is a fairly self explanatory regime, for Aristotle it is the most desired regime but due to its ability to quickly turn into tyranny it is not the best possible regime. Kingship is simple, it is the rule by one person who is king. In the Kingship there is only one citizen and that is the King himself. This can be compared in some manner to Plato’s discussion of the Philosopher King, although the king in such a regime need not necessarily be a Philosopher but not a Tyrant either.[1]

Aristocracy is essentially the same regime for both Plato and Aristotle, the rule by the virtuous.

Polity as said above is a mix between Oligarchy and Democracy. Depending on the rulers it can either be more heavily Oligarchic or more heavily Democratic. The difference between the two being that an Oligarchic Polity would be ruled by a few selected wealthy individuals, while the Democratic Polity would be ruled by the people in general. This regime is what Aristotle calls the best possible regime because it involves the rule by the middling class. The middling class often makes up the most of all inhabitants in a city and thus the regime which allows for them to be citizens allows for the most participation in the operation of the city. Many often compare this to a Republic, but that is a false comparison as will be shown briefly.[2]

Oligarchy and Democracy are the same as in Plato and therefore require no additional attention. It should be noted, however, that Aristotle defines four types of democratic regimes unlike Plato. The first, considered the best and the oldest by Aristotle is democracy ruled by the farming sort. The second, similar to the first, is based around those who are herdsmen. The herding Democracy is exemplified by it’s military capabilities, as Aristotle states, “they are particularly well exercised with respect to their dispositions as well as useful with respect to their bodies and capable of living in the open.”  The third sort is made up of the middling class, or the merchants and exists in the city.[3]  This democracy is prone to more individuals being involved in the regime because of the proximity of living in the city. The fourth democracy laid out by Aristotle is where all are included in citizenship. Citizenship for Aristotle means those who are able to participate in the ruling of the polis. Therefore, this last sort admits people into the rank of citizenship who are unsuited for ruling the polis, including slaves. In this instance, slaves would apply to anyone who is unable to rule themselves and not the slaves who have been conquered in war.

Book Four of Aristotle’s Politics offers us another list of democracies, this time five. The first democracy in book four is based on the equality between the poor and rich, where neither class is preeminent in society. The second is where, “the offices are filled on the basis of assessments…”[4] The next two regimes are where those of unquestioned descent, and those who are citizens fill the offices but the law rules. The fourth is where the multitude, not the law, rules. The fifth democracy is similar in make up to the previous democracies except that the multitude, not the law, rule.

The best regime, and best way of life according to Aristotle are the same. The best way of life is the mirror image of the best regime. While Kingship is the regime most desired, and Polity the best attainable regime it is the mixed regime that is the best regime. The mixed regime contains elements of each individual regime, just as the best person is a mixture of all the different virtues. The regime must incorporate virtue, the farming class and the middling class. It is this regime, the mixed regime, which must properly be defined as a Republic. A Polity as stated before is a regime of Oligarchy and Democracy, while a Republic is a mixed regime with multiple regimes tied into it. Take for example the American regime, which is not a Polity at all but is a Republic. We have the element of Kingship in the President, we have the element of Democracy in the House of Representatives, we have the element of Oligarchy in the Senate and we have Aristocracy in the Supreme Court. Such a regime is the best possible regime because it allows for the virtues of each regime to be apart of the city; just as the the virtuous person participates in each individual virtue, so does the city participate in the virtues exemplified by the various regimes in a mixed regime.

Aristotle’s Politics Book III

Aristotle’s Politics Book IV

Aristotle’s Politics Book VI


Aristotle’s Politics Book IV


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