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

Locke’s First Treatise Chapter II: Paternal and Regal Power


Quotes taken from John Locke’s Two Treatises of Government edited by Peter Laslett.

Help from Ashok

Having completed his introduction of Sir Robert Filmer’s work Patriarcha, Locke endeavors to explore the arguments made by Filmer. The first argument made is that of Paternal and Regal power. The argument for absolute monarchy according to Locke is far above anything man can think of, so high in fact “that Promises and Oaths, which tye the infinite Deity, cannot confine it.” This is a curious way of describing the idea behind absolute monarchy but upon further inspection one might find that even God cannot be described as an absolute Monarch in the manner in which Filmer uses the words. But if Locke is able to demonstrate that the logic used for absolute monarchy is faulty, then man can start a new with government by consent; Locke ends with “using their Reason to unite together into Society.”

The first instance of Absolute Monarchy is that of the parent over the child, which means that the child is not free and that the parents possess a regal authority over that child. At first glance one might think this is an argument against Filmer, but instead is actually against Aristotle who in the Politics argues that the relationship between a father and his child is that of kingly rule. Exactly what that fatherly authority is Locke and Filmer neglect to tell, instead Locke lays out three basic foundations in the beginning of the Patriarcha:

1. En Passant, Made his Obeysance to the Arcana Imperii.

2. Made his Compliment to the Rights and Liberties of this, or any other Nation which he is going presently to null and destroy.

3. Made his Leg to those Learned Men, who did not see so far into the Matter as himself.

In sum, Locke argues that Filmer’s use of absolute monarchy thumbs its nose at the idea of rule by consent of the majority. The basis for his argument of Fatherly authority stems from the Bible: Adam was the first human, our father who possessed absolute authority over the world; Noah and his sons reestablished the monarchy of Adam until the captivity of the Israelites; God re-established the line of king over Israel. And finally Filmer uses the commandment of Honor thy Father as proof of absolute fatherly authority. Locke immediately points out that this is only a half quote from the Ten Commandments and that the full commandment reads Honor thy Father and thy Mother. The problem of stating both Locke points out is that it would be a mixed monarchy, which ultimately leads to anarchy. It is for this reason that Filmer leaves out the latter part of the quote, which Locke calls Filmer “a wary Physician,… when he would have his Patient swallow some harsh or Corrosive Liquor…” for having done. Here Locke compares Filmer to the physician, who is representative of the legislative authority within philosophic thought.

It is then that Locke goes on to say “Without this, What Good could our A——do, or pretend to do, by erecting such an unlimited Power, but flatter the Natural Vanity and Ambition of Men, too apt of if it self to grow and encrease with the Possession of any Power?” The discussion of Absolute Monarchy, by extension of this argument, is the same as talking of anarchy. Locke finishes, “And by perswading those, who, by the consent of their Fellow-Men, are advanced to great, but limited degrees of it, that by that part which is given them, they have a Right to all, that was not so; and therefore may do what they please, because they have Authority to do more then others, and so tempt them to do what is neither for their own, nor the good of those under their Care, whereby great Mischiefs cannot but follow.” Everyone has a right to security and therefore they have the power to ensure their freedom, creating an anarchical state. Further, consent exists in the wrong system creating multiple centers of power as a result of Filmer’s argument.

From this Locke argues for three points for the argument of fatherly regal authority: Sovereignty of Adam, Absolute Power of Adam, and Adam’s Royal Authority. The first concerns with Adam’s authority over his own family, for Filmer argues that Adam had absolute power over his family including the power over life. In this the paternal powers becomes the regal power, and by extension calls into question maybe the polis and family. If Adam was not king by virtue of his title of father, then is the fatherly authority political, for if it is not then family is not by nature political which is contrary to the teachings of Aristotle. As for the second, Absolute Power of Adam, this is based on the authority of Adams over his posterity; this dominion then makes men nothing more than herds. Locke calls for Proofs and Reasons as to how Adam has gained this absolute authority, which creates two types of rule: reasonable and unreasonable. Filmer’s argument of Adam’s absolute power is an example of the unreasonable, because there lacks any proof or reason for such an assertion. Finally there is Adam’s Royal Authority, which is to say Adam’s paternal authority: Adam is king because he is father. While Filmer continues to argue for Adam’s Royal Authority, Locke points he fails to provide a proof. Analogously, the royal authority of Adam or the rule of absolute monarchy is the power of opinion or the power over the passions.

Locke’s argument against Paternal and Regal Authority is summed in that Filmer provides no proof of Adam’s authority as both father and king other than the half quote “Honor thy father.” Which itself is purposely cut short because the introduction of “honor thy mother” would imply a mixed monarchy and thus destroying any hopes of an absolute monarch. The argument for absolute monarchy does not exist within the realm of proofs or reason but rather in the power over opinion; which makes the argument far stronger because men are inclined to follower their passions. The Sovereignty of Adam, his absolute power, and is royal authority combine to make Adam a tyrant. He contains the power over life of his own family, he rules over his posterity like they are a herd and rules by appealing to human passions. This is juxtaposed to the idea the Law of Nature, social contract, and rule by reason. The first makes man a slave while the second provides for his security and safety.

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