Following an apprenticeship elsewhere, Megan Moore joined me for a week to develop several short guides to British politics which I will publish later in the summer. I wanted to demonstrate that apprentices can challenge graduates on quality. I hope after reading this you will agree that this is so. — Steve
For those who acknowledge that a free society requires ethical as well as constitutional foundations, the thought of St Thomas Aquinas, described by Rothbard as ‘the towering intellect of the High Middle Ages’ (The Philosopher-Theologian: Thomas Aquinas’, Murray N. Rothbard), provides not only a principled refutation of overbearing state power but also firm basis for classical liberal ethics.
To Aquinas, a right was an assertion of the inviolability of the individual and not, as the intellectual fashion of the 12th century held, a positive claim over others. Man’s self-ownership was divinely instituted and based on his capacity as a rational being – a capacity that allowed him to discern the basic moral principles of the universe as set down in the natural world. Aquinas saw this Natural Law as ‘the rational creature’s participation in the eternal law,’ (ST I-II, 91, 2) and the fact that Western civilisation has traditionally accepted reason as the foundational principle of justice, with coercion used only as an ultima remedio, is largely thanks to the Thomistic concept of the relationship between man, morality and the empirical world.
Aquinas set the Natural Law in a hierarchy: below the Divine Law (the rules and commandments given by God) and above the Human Law (the temporal constraints on our behaviour necessary for a functioning society). For classical liberals, the great benefit of this formulation of laws is that it keeps the personal development of virtue and the securing of the common good as two distinct, though of course interlinked, ideas. Government, in the Thomistic view of Human Law, is permitted to legislate only against ‘the vices that would destroy human society if they were not prohibited; murder, theft and other vices of this kind, which the law prohibits,’ (ST I-II, 96,3) or in other words, ‘those sins chiefly whereby one’s neighbour is injured‘ (ST I-II, 96, 2).
Conversely, the sins which impede our development as moral beings, but do not directly harm others, are not to be legislated against: not least because the permittance of these evils encourages individual citizens to become conscientious, strong-willed and virtuous in their actions. Any attempts by government to legislate away man’s imperfect nature are a gross overreach of human power and a challenge to the Divine Law which their undeniably good intentions cannot mitigate. Such things are, as Aquinas puts it, ‘acts of violence rather than laws.’ (ST I-II, 96, 4).
It is not surprising that totalitarian states invest so much effort in eradicating religion: it is far harder to impose overbearing state authority on a populace who hold themselves to an immutable, non-human standard of justice of the kind formulated in Thomistic ethics. As Jesse Harrington recently noted on the Adam Smith Institute blog: ‘Ultimately, the first protection in upholding the rule of law in a free society is not the court or legislature, but the sentiment of the people, wherein religious sentiment can perform a valuable role.’
- Summa Theologica, St Thomas Aquinas
- The Philosopher-Theologian, St Thomas Aquinas, Murray N Rothbard
- The Church and the Market, Thomas E Woods
- Aquinas, Edward Feser