M. N. Roy Jawaharlal Nehru



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  • ST. THOMAS AQUINAS (1225?-74)



  • His Environment: Period of Scholasticism

  • St. Thomas Aquinas is regarded as the greatest of all scholastic philosophers. In all Catholic educational institutions that teach philosophy his system is to be taught as the right one. St. Thomas is not only of historical importance, but is a living influence, like Plato and Aristotle.

  • St. Thomas was born in 1225 or 1227 at the castle of Rocca Secca, a few miles from the town of Aquino, after which he later took his name. His father was Count of Aquino, a fief within the kingdom of Naples and nephew of Frederick Barbarossa. His mother, Theodora of Theate, was descended from the old Norman kings of Sicily. Thus Thomas came into the world blessed with every material advantage. Both his parents and his teachers were anxious that he should enter the University of Naples, for they were sure that a great career lay before him either in the field of learning or in the ecclesiastical hierarchy ; and at that period the vocation of scholarship, like that of the priesthood, was held in far higher esteem than it is today. Hence Thomas was sent to Naples at the age of fourteen.

  • St. Thomas stayed at Frederick IPs University of Naples ; then he became a Dominican, which surprised his parents, and went to Cologne, to study under Albertus Magnus, who was the leading Aristotelian among the philosophers of the time. After a period in Cologne and Paris, he returned to Italy in 1259, where he spent the rest of his life except for the three years from 1269 to 1272. During these three years he was in Paris, where the Dominicans, on account of their Aristotelianism, were in trouble with the University authori­ties, and were suspected of heretical sympathy with the Averroists, who had a powerful party in the University.

  • The period in which St. Thomas lived was a period of extra­ordinary religious and intellectual moment. It was the best period of Scholasticism which, as a philosophy of life, was all comprehensive, including moral, social, political, economic and other problems. The Scholasticism of the Middle Ages had two characteristics. It assumed that church dogma was infallible, and, hence, unquestionable. It also tried to clarify dogma by rational explanation, i.e., to show that dogma was not at all contrary to reason. In all, the 13th century was marked by certain things which profoundly affected Aquinas's writings.



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    1. It is just said that the aim of Scholasticism was to demonstrate the harmony or compatibility between Reason and Faith. What St. Thomas succeeded in doing was not merely to prove such compatibi­lity but to codify all knowledge in the light of it. Being an exceed­ingly careful and precise thinker, he avoided the pitfalls into which so many religious philosophers have sunk : he sought not to 'spiri­tualize' everything, but, by recognizing what his modern disciple Maritain has termed the 'primacy of the spiritual', to define with accuracy the boundaries and 'rights' of the natural realm. Studying Aquinas for the first time, modern thinkers have been surprised and impressed to find that, austere and high-minded man though he was, he fully recognized the part played in human conduct and motive by such natural forces as sex. What he did not do was to attribute to such impulses a power and supremacy out of all proportion to their nature.

    2. St. Thomas was also well acquainted with the writings of Aristotle and his (Aquinas's) works represented what is best in Hellenism. His friend William of Moerbeke provided him with translations from the Greek, and he himself wrote commentaries. Until his time, men's notions of Aristotle had been obscured by Neoplatonic accre­tions. He, however, followed the genuine Aristotle, and disliked Platonism, even as it appears fn St. Augustine. He succeeded in per­suading the Church that Aristotle's system was to be preferred to Plato's as the basts of Christian philosophy, and that Mohammedans and Christian Averroists had misinterpreted Aristotle.

    3. Aquinas* followed Aristotle in asserting that the 'form' is that which gives being to a thing and makes it what it is ; 'further, that all forms are in some way linked with matter, except the form of God, the Form of Forms. Thus we come to know God by and through the world of matter, which manifests a hierarchy of Forms ; Sad since the more perfect a Form is the more it increases its individuality, God is the supreme unity and supreme individual at once. For St. Thomas, the natural sphere has both meaning and purpose. He was not the kind of philosopher who claimed to know God in some direct fashions, and who&e primary task was, therefore, to explain away the existence or 'illusion' of Matter.

    4. St. Thomas held that the human mind was committed to a standard which prevented our intellect from being converted into something different, and possibly mischievous. That standard was Reason. In the same way, the human will was committed to a standard which, as long as it remained uppermost, preserved the will as a free instrument. That standard was the Good. The onset of sin was due entirely to our natural and sensual nature rising up and suspending the will's operations. St. Thomas refused to entertain the paralysing notion which Augustine came to embrace with excessive fervour : namely, that human souls were predestined to salvation or damnation. So great was his respect for Reason, and so ample his



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    1. conception of it, that he held the Divine Will itself to be motivated by Reason. If there were any predestination to sin, it was not of the deterministic kind of Augustine ; it was a moral predestination.

    2. Since the intellect necessarily has Reason for its guide, it can know and understand the world of Nature without any illumination from outside ; but as both the intellect and world of Nature are, as it were, orientated towards God, philosophy inevitably leads on to theology and is completed by it. Thus, St. Thomas wished to apply his important (and in its origin Aristotelian) distinction between 'potentiality' and 'actuality' to every sphere of existence. Since Nature is a hierarchy of Forms, each stage in the hierarchy is the 'form' of the stage next below it, and the 'matter' of the stage next above it. Thus, Matter is potential Spirit, the natural man a potential Christian, philosophy a potential theology, and the State a material version of the Church.

    3. His Views> about Nature and God

    4. St. Thomas discussed his views regarding Nature and God in his book Summa Theologica, but he could not complete it. Great master of synthesis and codification as he was, he was content to leave his finest work unfinished, because he was conscious of the idea, that no single book and no single man could attempt to embrace all the mysteries of Nature and'God ; and also because, as he confessed to those friends who questioned him on this point, "all that he had written so far appeared to him as nothing in comparison with the wonderful things that God had been pleased to reveal to him recently."

    5. Another important book of St. Aquinas is the Summa Contra Gentiles. This book was written during the years 1259-1264. It is mostly concerned with establishing the truth of the Christian religion by arguments addressed to a reader supposed to be not already a Christian ; one gathers that the imaginary reader is usually thought of as a man versed in the philosophy of the Arabs. The book tries to establish that what is demonstrable is, so far as it goes, in accordance with the Christian faith, and nothing m revelation is contrary to reason. But it is important to separate the parts of the faith which can be proved by reason from those which can't. Accordingly, of the four books, into which the Summa is divided, the first three make no appeal to revelation, except to show that it is in accordance with con­clusions reached by reason ; only in the fourth book are matters treated which cannot be known apart from revelation.


      1. 1 In Aristotle the argument leads to 47 or 55 Gods.

      The First Book is concerned with the existence of God. The existence of God is proved, as in Aristotle, by the argument of the unmoved mover.1 There are things which are only moved, and other things which both move and are moved. Whatever is moved is



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    1. moved by something, and, since an endless regress is impossible, we must arrive somewhere at. something which moves other things with­out being moved. This unmoved mover is God.

    2. The Second Book is mainly occupied with the soul in man. All intellectual substances are immaterial and incorruptible ; angels have no bodies, but in men the soul is united to a body. It is the form of the body, as in Aristotle. There are not three souls in man, but only one. The whole soul is present entire in every part of the body. The souls of animals, unlike those of men, are not immortal. The intellect is part of each man's soul ; there is not, as Averroes main­tained, only one intellect, in which various men participate. The soul is not transmitted with the semen, but is created afresh with each man. There is, it is true, a difficulty ; when a man is born out of wedlock, this seems to make God an accomplice in adultery. This objection, however, is only specious.

    3. The Third Book is largely connected with ethical questions. Evil is unintentional not an essence, and has an accidental cause which is good. All things tend to be like God who is the end of all things. Human happiness does not consist in carnal pleasures, honour, glory, wealth, worldly power, or goods of the body, and is not seated in the senses. Man's ultimate happiness does not consist in acts of moral virtues, because these are means ; it consists in the contempla­tion of God. But the knowledge of God possessed by the majority does not suffice ; nor the knowledge of Him obtained by demonstra­tion ; nor even the knowledge obtained by faith. In this life, we can't see God in His essence, or have ultimate happiness ; but here­after we shall see Him face to face. This will happen, not by our natural power, but by the divine light; and even then, we shall not see all of Him. By this vision we become partakers of eternal life.

    4. In this book, St. Thomas also discussed sexual ethics and pleads for strict monogamy. Polygyny is unfair to women, and polyandry makes paternity uncertain. He then passes on to sin, predestination, and election, on which his view is broadly that of Augustine. He seems to hold, with St. Augustine, that no reason can be given why some are elected and go to heaven, while others are lefi reprobate and go to hell. He also holds in this book that no man can enter heaven unless he has been baptized.

    5. The Fourth book is concerned with the Trinity, the Incarna­tion, the supremacy of the Pope, the sacraments, and the resurrection of the body. In the main, it :s addressed to theologians rather than philosophers.

    6. The conclusion that St. Thomas draws in this book is that though revelation is above reason, it is in no way contrary to reason. Theology completes the system of which science and philosophy form the beginning, but never destroys its continuity. Faith is the fulfil-



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    1. merit of reason. Together they build the temple of knowledge but nowhere do they conflict or work at cross purposes.

    2. But the most important part of Thomas's philosophy is the picture which he draws of Nature. The universe forms a hierarchy reaching from God at its summit down to the lowest being. Every being acts under the internal urge of its own nature, seeking the good or form of perfection natural to its kind, and finding its place in the ascending order according to its degree of perfection. The higher in a'l cases rules over and makes use of the lower, as God rules over the world or the soul over the body. No matter how lowly it may be, no being is wholly lacking in value, for it has its station, its duties and its rights, through which it contributes to the perfection of the whole. The essence of the scheme is purpose, subordination to an end. In such a structure human nature has a unique place among created beings, since man possesses not only a bodily nature but also a rational and spiritual soul by virtue of which he is akin to God. He alone of all beings is at once body and soul, and on this funda­mental fact rest the institutions and the laws by which his life is directed.

    3. Social and Political Philosophy of Aquinas

    4. The entire social and political conception of Thomas, which can be gleaned from his two books, Summa Contra Gentiles and De Regimine Principum, particularly from the latter book, falls directly into, or forms part of, his larger plan of Nature as a whole. Like Nature, society is also a system of ends and purposes in which the lower serves the higher and the higher directs and guides the lower. Following Aristotle, Thomas described "society as a mutual exchange of services for the sake of a good life to which many callings contri­bute, the farmer and artisan by supplying material goods, the priest by prayer and religious observance, and each class by doing its own proper work. The common good requires that such a system shall have a ruling part, just as the soul rules the body or any higher nature rules the lower."1 Thomas compared the founding and ruling of states, the planning of cities, the building of castles, the establish­ments of markets, and the fostering of education to providence whereby God creates and rules the world.


      1. 2 Sabine, G. H. : A History of Political Theory (London, 1948) p, 219.

      Aquinas was of the opinion that man was a social and political animal and that the state was essential not only because it checked human evil, as it was held by the early medieval Christian thinkers but also because an individual could not realize himself fully in its absence. Also, Aquinas attempted to support his earlier contention that the higher always rules over the lower by holding that as one man was superior to others in knowledge and justice, it was good that he should rule over others for their benefit. In Thomas's view



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    1. rulership was trust for the whole community. He justified the authority of the ruler because he thought that whatever the ruler did, he (the ruler) did for the common good. The moral purpose of the Government, according to Thomas, is paramount. Broadly speaking, it is the duty of the ruler so to direct the action of every class in the state that men may live a happy and virtuous life, which is the true end of man in society. Ultimately, of course, this must lead to a good beyond earthly society to a heavenly life, but this is beyond human power and is in the keeping of priests rather than of rulers. But it is characteristic of Thomas that he should regard an orderly political life as a contributing cause even to this ultimate end. More specifically, "it is the function of the earthly ruler to lay the founda­tions of human happiness by maintaining peace and order, to pre­serve it by seeing that all the needful services of public administra­tion, of judicature, and of defence, are performed, and to improve it by correcting abuses wherever they occur and by removing all pos­sible hindrances to the good life."

    2. The moral purpose for which political rule exists implies that authority ought to be limited and checked by the law. Thomas's dislike of tyranny was as great as that displayed by John of Salisbury though he explicitly disavowed the latter's defence of tyrannicide. Justifiable resistance is a public act of a whole people, and the right is safeguarded by the moral condition that those who resist are res­ponsible for seeing that their action is less injurious to the general good than the abuse which they are trying to remove. In fact, Thomas's interest was essentially in the moral limitation ? laid upon rulers, and the legal or constitutional phases of the subject seem not to have concerned him. He was explicit on the point that a king's power should be 'limited' (temperatur) though he never explained exactly what this meant. As a moralist, he broadly held that the end of the state, as also of the individual, was the realization of good in a virtuous life. To him, the source of all political authority is God who is the Supreme Governor of all things. From God the . legitimate authority to govern passes to the whole community. The people under God are sovereign and they may delegate their authority ! to a monarchical, aristocratic or republican form of government.

    3. The Purpose of Government

    4. St. Thomas was not so conscious of the functions of the govern­ment as he was conscious of its purpose. As such, he held that all governments were good or bad according as they worked. He strongly believed that the main aim of a man was to lead a virtuous life and that of government was to promote virtue amon# men to enable them to achieve eternal salvation. And the character of a govern­ment is to be determined according to the fulfilment of this object. Aquinas, like Aristotle, divided the governments into monarchy, aristocracy, polity, tyranny, oligarchy and democracy. He preferred



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    1. monarchy to a democracy. His preference for monarchy was in line with his earlier argument that one God rules the universe and one soul rules the body. According to him, the monarchical form of government is the best, because it gives to the state important advan­tages of unity, regularity, experience and an analogy with Divine Rule. Tyranny he considered the worst type of government. The degeneration of a monarchy into a tyranny, he asserted, could be possibly prevented if the monarchy were a limited one. The best form of government is an elective monarchy in which a monarch should be made to take an oath to observe the constitution of the state so that if he breaks the oath he can be justifiably deposed. "The king must work for the sake of the kingdom and not vice versa."

    2. Supremacy of Church ■

    3. As Aquinas regarded the rule' of God as superior to that of man, he held that a secular ruler could properly perform his func­tions only in co-operation with and under the guidance of the Church. Salvation was to be achieved not through reason but through faith, and on all questions of faith the church was the final autho­rity. The Pope must, therefore, be obeyed by everyone, including the temporal rulers, in everything whether relating to temporal or ecclesiastical affairs. A king might be the image of God, but if he disregarded the Church he could be excommunicated. In assigning superiority to the Church over the most exalted of secular rulers, in­cluding the Holy Roman Emperor, Aquinas was only theorizing over a fait accompli. Besides, like all good medievalists, Aquinas believed in the fundamental importance of unity amidst universal disorder and anarchy, and believed that this unity could only be achieved by the supremacy of the Papacy over all persons and all classes, spiritual or temporal.

    4. Law : ft Theory and Classification

    5. Further, Aquinas believed that the whole universe represents - a rational unity which is only possible through a rational scheme of interconnected laws. Human institutions, he maintained, are a part of the universe and, therefore, the same principles operate in the regu­lation of human institutions as they do in other levels of the universe. His constant attempt was to relate human law as closely as possible to divine law. To this he was led not only by his own inclination to harmonize, but also by the assumption that law is something much broader in its scope than a means of regulating human relationships. Law in the narrower human sense is, therefore, merely one aspect, important indeed but still an aspect, of a cosmic fact. This is the point which seemed to him important, and accordingly he developed his general theory of law more carefully than any part of his political theory. His classification of law was, therefore, one of the most characteristic parts of his philosophy.

    6. Aquinas discussed four kinds of law at four different levels in a



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    1. rational scheme of the universe. The first kind of law is Eternal Law, which is practically identical with the reason of God. It is the eternal reason which exists in the mind of God by which the whole universe is governed. This law is above the physical nature of man and, in its entirety, also beyond human comprehension, though it is not contrary to human reason. This law regulates both the heavenly and earthly spheres. It works in the rational and irrational worlds in different ways. Over the irrational or inanimate world, it takes the form of natural laws like the law of gravitation.

    2. The second, Natural Law, may be regarded as a reflection of divine reason in living beings. It is manifest in the inclination which nature implants in all beings to seek good and avoid evil, to preserve themselves, and to live as perfectly as possible the kind of life suitable to their natural endowments. Thomas mentioned as examples of this the inherent inclination in men to live in society, to preserve their lives to beget and educate their children, to seek the truth, and to develop intelliger.ee. The reason of man helps him to evolve certain general principles of conduct through his innate knowledge of what is good or bad and these general principles form a body of Natural Law. Natural Law enjoins all that is implied to give human inclinations their widest scope.

    3. The third. Divine Law, holds an important position in the rational scheme of laws as put forth by Aquinas. By Divine Law he meant substantially revelation. It is a gift of God's grace rather than a discovery of natural reason. An example would be the "special code of laws which God gave to the Jews as the chosen people or the special rules of Christian morals or legislation, given through Scrip­ture or the Church." Aquinas believed that revelation added to human reason instead of destroying it. The structure of Thomas's system is built of reason and faith, but he never doubted that it was one structure. His applications even on the political level were inter­esting and important. Natural Law, because it is produced by unaided reason, is common to all men, both Christian and pagan ; hence morals and government do not in general depend upon Christianity. But Divine Law, on the contrary, is revealed by God to his chosen people. This position does not weaken the civic obedience of the Christian subjects to a pagan prince. It is rather strengthened when he (Thomas) said that the Christian subjects were not justified in refu­sing or withholding their obedience to a pagan prince. Heresy, in­deed, Thomas regarded as one of the worst crimes, since it falsifies the truth on which salvation .depends, and the church may rightly absolve the subjects of an apostate or heretic ruler.

    4. Human Law, the fourth in Thomas's scheme of laws, is derived from Natural Law and, hence, is subordinated to the latter. It is valid so long as it does not conflict with Natural Law. It is especially meant to regulate the human affairs and is subdivided into ius gen-



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