Authority in the State, which resides in the public authorities, is indispensable because, among other things, citizens may misuse their natural freedom and work against the public purpose. Therefore, what is needed is a principle of internal unity which obligates the citizens to orderly living together, and which can keep the conduct of the individual in harmony with the purposes of the whole community.
– Heinrich Pesch1
“If men were angels,” wrote James Madison in Federalist 51, “no government would be necessary.”2 And I suppose that this statement seems self-evident to most Americans today, equally as it seemed self-evident to its original readers. It is, however, neither obvious nor necessarily true. In fact, St. Thomas Aquinas did not share that opinion, rather he explicitly defended the opposite view. The difference of viewpoint here is expressive, I think, of a fundamental difference in approach to the necessity and role of government and even of the nature of man. So beginning with this seemingly arcane question about angels and men, we can examine two very different ways of looking at government and its place in human society.
Although it is true that St. Thomas did teach the existence of a hierarchy of superior and inferior angels, with the superior angels illuminating and instructing their inferiors,3 still it is not really angels with which we are concerned. For when Madison said if “men were angels,” he meant if men were without sin or without evil passions, such as ambition. He was of course not interested in the question of how men would behave if we were pure spirits like angels. We might paraphrase him by saying, “If humanity had no sinful tendencies, no government would be necessary.” But even if we accept that emendation, we still find Aquinas disagreeing. In the Summa Theologiae part one, question 96, article 4, he asks whether there would be subordination of man to man in the state of innocence, i.e., without Adam’s fall into sin.4 And he answers his own question very clearly saying, “Yes.” Although there would not have been the domination (dominium) characteristic of the slave (servus), who is “ordered to another,” there would still have been the kind of subjection proper to the free man, when someone directs him to his own good or to the common good. And the reasons given by Aquinas for this are two: First because man is “naturally a social animal” and “social life cannot exist unless someone presides who aims at the common good,” and secondly, because it would be unfitting for someone who had “supereminence in knowledge or justice” unless he could use this supereminence for the good of others. In other words, according to Aquinas, even if our first parents had never sinned and lost the state of original justice, we still would have required a sort of government, a government that would not have needed to punish anyone, but was still there to coordinate and direct our efforts toward the common good or even toward one’s individual good.
Aquinas thus distinguishes between two sorts of governmental authority. One kind, as we saw, concerned the government’s function of directing people toward the good, the other, which would not have existed in the state of innocence, was the result of sin. Although Aquinas does not explicitly include the police powers of government or national defense in this latter category, implicitly he does, for this kind of dominium results from and governs all those human relationships that are the effect of sin. Thomas Aquinas looks at the result of sin in a more comprehensive sense than simply as necessitating a police force and jails, for he sees in it the origin of all domination, which he calls servitude, a term with a much wider meaning here than simply slavery or serfdom, and which includes all forms of human domination that are effects of sin, including the coercive power of the governing authorities.5 Broadly then we can say that for Aquinas there exist two sorts of dominium, one we can call positive, which directs men toward the good, and the other, that we can call negative, which is the result of sin and includes all the familiar restraining, coercive and punitive powers of the state.
Now I submit that this difference of opinion between Madison and Aquinas is of the highest importance for our political and social life. Of course this question does not necessitate any particular viewpoint about angels or about the origins of the human race or sin. Fundamentally it is a question of whether we think that government is natural to man as such, or whether we think that it stems only from a defect in man, from his proclivity to selfish conduct, however we may suppose that tendency originally arose.6 Whether we hold the first opinion or the second will affect many of our daily political and social views and behaviors. Someone holding the latter opinion will necessarily see government at best as a necessary evil and tend to be suspicious of every undertaking that limits, or appears to limit, his freedom, while someone who embraces the former opinion will generally understand the need for state action on behalf of the common good, even if he might disagree with some particular instance of it.
The view expressed by Madison sees government fundamentally as merely a restraining or punishing force, not a positive force in human society.7 It is the myriad of private individual choices and motivations of individual free men that are the necessary mainspring of social action. Only because men are driven by passions, because they are apt to use force and fraud against their fellows, is government necessary. But the only positive force moving human society is the sum total of individual choices and acts made by the many individuals who make up society, each pursuing his own notion of happiness in his own way. Aristotle had noted that people differ radically in what they think is happiness,8 but it follows from Madison’s perspective that whatever subjective idea of happiness or the good an individual has, this is none of the government’s business. So long as each individual’s pursuit of what he regards as his good does not infringe upon his neighbor’s like pursuit, one ought generally to be free of governmental restraint. As a contemporary adherent of this view, Fr. Robert Sirico, put it: “So long as individuals avoid forceful or fradulent actions in their dealings with one another, government is to stay out of their business.”9
The other attitude, that of St. Thomas, supposes that “because man naturally is a social animal” the kind of dominium that directs citizens toward the good is always appropriate to mankind. And note that this is not only the common good of which he speaks, but likewise one’s particular good (proprium bonum ejus qui dirigitur). In other words, not only does society need to be directed toward its common good, but, at least in some cases, individual men need to be directed toward their own good. This seems connected with Aquinas’ second reason for his opinion that I cited above, that it would be unfitting if someone who had “supereminence in knowledge or justice” were prevented from exercising that superiority for the good of others. In Aquinas therefore it is the objective good both of the whole and of individuals that is held to be the basis for the necessity of dominium in a state of innocence, and it is the state’s responsibility to direct people toward their authentic good, a responsibility that, as we will see, was not fundamentally altered when human sin entered into the picture.
The practical consequences of this difference of opinion about the purposes of government are clear when we examine the differences between public opinion—and even more differences in legislation and public policy—in the United States and in most other Western nations on such matters as environmental regulation or possession of guns or national healthcare or taxation. Because of the almost universal acceptance in the United States of the liberal viewpoint, the usual attitude in the United States is one of suspicion of the government’s ability to do anything positive, in fact, the attitude that government is not the solution but is part of the problem.10 Of course this does not mean that in other Western countries there is a robust Thomistic understanding of man and the state; rather there is an echo in social democratic, and even socialist, conceptions of political authority of the earlier classical and medieval outlook, as Michael Novak noted with regard to Latin American socialists.11
From this also come some fundamentally different ideas about justice.12 While commutative justice is the basic form of justice, in the United States it is apt to be taken as the only form. The other kinds of justice, distributive, legal, and social, struggle for recognition because of the constant tendency to regard the state, or even society, as simply a collection of individuals, with no sort of real existence. Here a passage from Josef Pieper’s The Four Cardinal Virtues is relevant:
The individualist’s criticism would be that there are in reality only individuals, and that, when an individual confronts the social totality, one individual confronts many individuals. For him the social whole is not a reality of a special order. Therefore he admits of only one single type of justice—commutative justice—because individuals always have to do with other individuals. Every phrase of man’s communal life, in the family as well as in the state, is a compromise between the interests of individuals with equal rights.13
While political and social thought in the United States does not always reach such an extreme, it always tends toward it, and it is difficult for many people to make the case for the existence of the other forms of justice, or for the rights of the social whole as such, and our customary political vocabulary and discourse often lack the appropriate terms. It requires an effort to make a case for the social viewpoint, while it is simply second nature to see the individualist viewpoint as the only and obvious one.
Is it not the case, however, regardless of how one looks at the Christian account of the Fall of man, that historically the family came first, then the village, then finally what can be called political society in the proper sense, and that therefore the state or the political community is simply a contrivance for safeguarding the fundamental human society of the family, merely a convenience for the sake of the basic and natural unit of mankind? Aristotle himself had traced the rise of the political community in this manner.14 Clearly for him the family was temporally prior to the state. Does that mean that he supported a view something like that of Madison? Though it is true that for Aristotle the family was temporally prior, it does not follow that he held anything like the liberal viewpoint. He states, “it is evident that the state is a creation of nature, and that man is by nature a political animal” and “the state is by nature clearly prior to the family and to the individual, since the whole is of necessity prior to the part. . . .”15 The implications of this relationship, in which the family is temporally prior while the state is logically prior, is explained by Josef Pieper:
The state, we may note, occupies a unique place in the scale that extends from the individual to the whole of mankind; more than anything else, it represents the “social whole.” The idea of the common good is its distinctive attribute. A nation (in the midst of other nations) ordered in a state is the proper, historically concrete image of man’s communal life. Communitas politica est communitas principalissima—Political community is community in the highest degree. In the fullest sense the state alone incorporates, realizes, and administers the bonum commune. That does not mean, however, that the family, the community, free associations, and the Church are not important for the realization of the common good, too. But it means that the harmonizing and integration of nearly all men’s functions occurs only in the political community.16
If man is a social or political animal, then it is proper to his nature to live in a political community. He is incomplete without it, and that community, although obviously made up of individuals, is more than simply a collection of individuals, but has in itself an essential function to pursue and realize the good, a function that no other entity has. Of course, the political community exists for the sake of something else; it is not an end in itself. But it is still both natural and necessary since “the harmonizing and integration of nearly all men’s functions occurs only in the political community.”17
One very important difference between the view expressed by Madison and St. Thomas Aquinas’ opinion concerns the proper level at which discourse concerning the good for man ought to take place. I noted above that one consequence of the former opinion is that the motive force of human society is the totality of the many individual choices and acts made by the multitude of individual persons who make up society, each one pursuing his own notion of happiness in his own unique way. The result of this is that discourse about the good for man, both collectively and individually, must be merely private discourse, that is, discourse conducted below the level of the political community’s conversation about its proper acts and purposes. This is because the state, and society as constituted thereby, has no concern with individuals beyond restraining them from harming others. Each individual’s conception of the good is his own business, and although he is no doubt free to argue for his own idea of the good, necessarily, no matter how many others he might convince to share his view, this remains a private view. The state as such has no opinion on it. The political community’s concern is necessarily limited to questions of public order and it has no interest in whether there is a good for man that is knowable. This kind of thinking lies behind the religion clauses in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.18 No matter how many Americans might become convinced of the truth of any particular religious faith, it would be no business of the government qua government. Religion, like all concern with the genuine human good, remains always a private matter.19
This does not mean that in St. Thomas Aquinas’ conception of political authority the state would act after the manner of a totalitarian regime. Above I quoted Pieper to the effect that although “the state alone incorporates, realizes, and administers the bonum commune [this] does not mean, however, that the family, the community, free associations, and the Church are not important for the realization of the common good, too.” In fact they are crucial, since the state as such is not the source of morality; rather the state, as constituted by persons who have learned the good precisely from “the family, the community, free associations, and the Church,” reasonably incorporates that knowledge into the conduct of its affairs. It is unnatural to draw a line between the affairs of the individual and the affairs of the community such that the community qua community cannot acknowledge the entire range of human concerns, including the genuine human good. If the political community is natural to man, then it is hardly logical to exclude from its concern the good for man, or to artificially relegate that to the private sphere on the plea that not all citizens agree on what is the good.
Although Madison and Aquinas differed on whether political authority would exist if man were without his disruptive passions and his tendency to defraud or rob his fellows, both thinkers recognized the ubiquity of human evil in the world as it now is. Indeed, at one point Aquinas even goes so far as to say that human law ought principally to prohibit those sins “which are harmful to others, without the prohibition of which human society cannot be preserved; as murder, theft and the like are prohibited by human law.”20 Does this mean then that because man is now in a fallen state—however we understand that theologically—that the primary purpose of government for Thomas is altered? Does it mean that restraint of evil doers rather than pursuit of the good is now the main function of the state authority? More than once Aquinas affirms that the original purpose of society, and hence of the state, is still the primary one. In his De Regimine Principum he writes, “It seems moreover to be the purpose of the multitude joined together to live according to virtue. . .the virtuous life therefore is the purpose of the human community,” and even adds that “the ultimate end of the multitude joined together is not to live according to virtue, but through virtuous living to attain to enjoyment of God,”21 while in the Summa Theologiae he states that “human law aims to lead men to virtue. . . .”22 So even though in the present state of the human race it is obviously necessary to deal not only with the promotion of the good but also with restraining and punishing evil, still the essential and fundamental task of government for St. Thomas Aquinas is to promote the good.
We can see this expressed in the writings of two of Aquinas’s modern followers, both Roman pontiffs. Pope Pius XI, in his 1931 encyclical Quadragesimo Anno, discussing the earlier encyclical of Leo XIII, Rerum Novarum, explicitly rejects the view that limits governmental authority to those matters only which are occasioned by human wickedness:
With regard to the civil power, Leo XIII boldly passed beyond the restrictions imposed by liberalism, and fearlessly proclaimed the doctrine that the civil power is more than the mere guardian of law and order, and that it must strive with all zeal “to make sure that the laws and institutions, the general character and administration of the commonwealth, should be such as of themselves to realize public well-being and private prosperity.” (no. 25)
And more recently Pope Paul VI, in his Apostolic Letter Octogesima Adveniens of May 1971, wrote:
Political power, which is the natural and necessary link for ensuring the cohesion of the social body, must have as its aim the achievement of the common good. While respecting the legitimate liberties of individuals, families and subsidiary groups, it acts in such a way as to create, effectively and for the well-being of all, the conditions required for attaining man’s true and complete good, including his spiritual end. (no. 46)
If it is the case that the promotion of the good remains the essential task of government, a task unchanged by the human propensity to fraud and violence, does this propensity in any way affect our notion of political prudence? After all, much of the Federalist is concerned with how to prevent or limit or circumvent the damage that the flawed individuals who perforce must administer the government might be tempted to inflict in the furtherance of their ambition or greed. And one must admit that it is a real difficulty. For though the authors of the Federalist framed the question wrongly and unnecessarily restricted the scope of public authority, still they are correct that some means must be devised to prevent, or at least to inhibit, the establishment of tyranny and other evils on the part of rulers. It is in this question that there can be some convergence between these two traditions of political thought. For many of the practical means written in the U.S. Constitution, and stressed in the Federalist, are by no means alien to the school of political thought originated by Aristotle and refined by Aquinas. In several chapters of the De Regimine Principum Aquinas deals with ways of preventing rulers from becoming tyrants and discusses which kind of governmental structure is least likely to degenerate into tyranny, a question of course that Plato had examined at length in books VIII and IX of the Republic. That Aquinas’ suggestions are not always the same as those of the American Founders is not the point; the point rather is that each recognized the importance of the question, and although St. Thomas Aquinas realized both the goodness and naturalness of the state, this did not blind him to the fact that any government would always be administered by sinful men who could not simply be trusted always to do the right thing.
Nevertheless, the many differences in attitudes toward governmental authority between the United States and most other Western countries do show that there exist real differences between Aquinas and the liberal tradition as represented by James Madison’s statement. Government, as Aquinas understands it, does have a positive role, a role that in fact is essential and primary. The complicating factor of human sin does not change that, but only adds the requirement that we must realize that the rulers of the state can never be absolutely trusted. That St. Thomas Aquinas believed that “tyranny more often occurs in the rule of the many than in the rule of one” and that therefore the “rule of one is better,”23 and that James Madison would have dissented violently from this judgment, does not mean that both men were not trying to think intelligently about the question. But it does mean that we can go beyond Madison’s limited understanding of the nature and purpose of political authority without leaving the door open to tyranny. Anything done in human affairs is apt to degenerate or to overreach itself and government is no exception. We do no favor to mankind, however, by forgetting the most important part and purpose of public authority and simply leaving the shaping of society to the multifarious passions of individuals.
Excursus: The question of state religious establishments
At the time of the adoption of the United States Constitution, a few of the individual states had established churches or otherwise provided public support for religious worship and instruction, a situation that obtained in Massachusetts, the last state to have such an arrangement, until its constitution was amended in 1833. This fact is often held to prove that, in the minds of the American founders, discourse about the ultimate good for man was not privatized but rather was simply left to the individual states, since the federal government was seen as dealing with only a limited number of enumerated concerns. Although in a formal sense this may be true, we must ask whether the cultural, economic and political trends were not such that these local particulars were bound to be eliminated eventually. The fundamental question is whether the people of that time conceived the United States as one country, one political community, or many. If it is the case that it was regarded as a single nation, then it is hard to see how in one part of the country the authority of the state could determine God as the ultimate good for both individuals and society, while other parts of the same polity could be officially agnostic on that point. My own view is that, despite some ambiguity in the text of the Constitution, and likely some confusion in the public mind, the cultural, economic, and political forces pushing for an essentially unitary state, with only minor concessions to state sovereignty, were overwhelming, and that only a determined and principled opposition could have halted or modified these trends. If this is true, then the privatizing of religion at the federal level effectively doomed both the state churches that still remained and any attempt to insert religious discourse into the national political conversation. If the United States was one national community, or fast becoming such, then discourse at the level of the political community necessarily prescinded from religious questions, as the Constitution requires.
Thomas Storck is an independent scholar in Ohio.