Saint Thomas Aquinas’ Political Theory Analysis

Courtney Deed

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How did St Thomas Aquinas justify the coercive authority of the state? How did he justify war? Are his justifications of state authority and war compatible? Are they convincing? Why/ Why not?

This essay will critically examine Saint Thomas Aquinas’ political theory on the coercive authority of the state and his justification of war. Authority and power have been utilized as a form of social control to regulate the masses. It ensures the common good for people so that they can live amicably, as much as possible, with one and another (Finnis, 1998). Without some form of social control, there would be questionably, no state. Political authority is not only necessary for social control, but is also necessary to bring all to virtue (Weithman, 1992).

Definition of Terms

In the interests of transparency, key terms in this essay include; the state, authority, legitimacy, law and war. Morris (2011) describes the state to be “the principal political entity or form of political organization”. Narveson (2008) concurs with this assessment of state, only adding that it is a considerable number of people, in the same area, bound by the same government. In Summa Theologica, Aquinas defines law as “a rule or measure of action in virtue of which one is led to perform certain actions” (ST in Coleman). In essence, laws are rules fashioned by the legislature for the benefit, safety and uniformity of civilians. Authority is power of people, of any kind to rule (Narveson, 2008). From this, coercive authority is when power is enforced through suppression of right and the use of fear and distress. It is a common tool in tyrannical or dictatorial government systems. Legitimacy is the compliance and acceptance of rules and laws by society (Vinayagamoorth, 2013). If civilians do not accept direction by the rule maker, their authority is not legitimate. Finally, war is organised conflict between two groups of people (Smith, 2012)

How did he justify the coercive nature of the state?

Power and law making are inextricably linked. The legislator creates laws and as these are enforced, power over the state is defined. Coercive nature stems from the forcible decisions on law that a ruler makes. Aquinas proposes an explanation for this, it is an “ordinance of reason for the common good of a [complete] community, promulgated by the person or body responsible for looking after that community” (Summa Theologica in Finnis, 1998). Aquinas comments in Summa Theologica that the masses have to assent to be ruled and then by “practical proposition” law is made by those who are responsible for ruling (Finnis, 1998). From this it is clear that as long as civilians accept the rule then any law that is made is legitimate. Aquinas observes that “every set of laws is addressed by two kinds of people: the obstinate and the proud who are restrained and disciplined by law and the good who are assisted by the law’s guidance to fulfil their good intentions” (ST) If an authoritative decision is made to solve a problem, then it will be accepted by the masses. Finnis (1998) reinforces this, stating “the authoritative decision, whether legislative, executive or judicial … will not result in co-ordination unless it is accepted as settling the question, and accepted even by those who would have preferred a different decision, a different law”. This has a run- on effect to decisions that are made coercively. By definition, if society assent to the power of legislators, then even autocratic decisions are justified and accepted.

A local example of this, the Clyde River Dam Saga in New Zealand in the 1960’s under the prime ministership of Robert Muldoon.

Aquinas identifies two types of ruling; ordered for governing and for the sake of domination. Ordered for governing is where it is for the good of those who are being ruled. This would be the King, who for the common good makes decisions to help and benefit his subjects. The King is free from coercive restraint, as he can alter it himself. Aquinas comments that he is, however, subject to the laws of God (Dunbabin, 1988). The second, is for the good of the ruler. Aquinas likens this as a master over his slaves (Weithman 1992). Aquinas believes that law, and by explanation the coercive nature of the state is forced onto the community, “citizens don’t have [a] choice about it- it isn’t a piece of advice, it’s an order!” (Narveson, 2008). These orders, have to be rational and more importantly legitimate, “an ordinance of reason for the common good, promulgated and enforced by the one who is in charge of the community” (Summa Theologica). So, as citizens, we accept valid ruling for our benefit and for the benefit of the community. It is trust, that the ruler is making the

Aquinas is fixated on the notion of the common good. On surface level, this could be likened to peace, success and contentment. Aquinas looks at the best for the most people rather than the best option. Aquinas argued the common good is a reasonable and rational objective for all people. It is from this point that he founded his belief that civilians can disobey laws, as long as disgrace would not result should they choose not to follow (Dunbabin 1988). However, when considering Aquinas’ views on the execution of heretics, it questions whether the common good is only about harmony but rather what the Roman Catholic faith would like to see. In Summa Theologica, Aquinas directly addresses this issue, asserting if heretics cannot be made to see reason by priests, they can be executed.

Aquinas justifies the nature of power and the co-ordination of society by using the law. This does not have to coercive – it is just power. However, by way of authority and legitimate rule, this power can be coercive.

How did he justify war?

Aquinas has a firm view on war, but more importantly, how war is imposed. He believed the act itself, of war, to be “a sin in itself” (Summa Theologica) However, rather than the act, Aquinas is concerned with the decision to start the war. This stems from the Romanic notion of ‘just cause’ for war. Just cause is a moral criterion to justify the invasion or aggression against another country. It weighs up, on the balance of facts, if it is permissible for one country to wage war on another. In the Summa Theologica, Aquinas outlines the three prerequisites for a just war. Firstly, the authority of the sovereign must be legitimate. It is not for the private individual to wage war, but rather the ruler maker, or sovereign. The private individual “can seek for redress of his rights from the tribunal of his superior” and in war time, it is not for ordinary people to make such decisions. The sovereign must “summon together the people, which has to be done in war time” (Summa Theologica). If the sovereign cannot bring together the masses, his authority cannot be legitimate. The ultimate test for legitimacy is whether a ruler will be followed. The second, just cause is required. The decision to go to war has to be made by the Sovereign or public authority as “no private person has the right to initiate war” (Summa Theologica in Finnis 1998) Aquinas explains this to be “those who are attacked, should be attacked because they deserve it on account of some fault” (Summa Theologica). Aquinas believes that, just cause allows for and to defend the common good. This may mean avenging and punishing adversaries for sins committed by or against the enemy state. Finnis (1998) describes this could be being attacked by reason of their guilt in respect of some wrong which they refuse or fail to rectify. Persecution or self-defence is an example of this. It should be noted, that Aquinas does not belief that war and be waged to impose religion, even if those fighting it believe it to be the true religion. The third requirement of a just war is the combatants have the right intention to engage in war. In Summa Theologica, Aquinas says that this includes “[the] right intention so that they intend the advancement of good or the avoidance of evil”. The right intention must be held above all else. There can be no ulterior motive or secret agenda when faced with the question of war. War must be used as a means to quell a situation and for absolutely no reason, should war be used as punishment or for any ferocious means.

Once all requirements of war are satisfied, Aquinas then looks to the legitimacy of the ruler. It is them, who make the decision. Aquinas believes that it is only the public official who can legitimately start combative and engage the public in war (Mooney, 2007). A ruler who lacks legitimacy is a tyrant. Aquinas, ever early on makes the clear distinction between what he calls the private and the public citizen. The private, an ordinary person, who subjects their will to the state and dutifully obliges to the rule of the sovereign, conditional on the legality of the situation. The public official “charged with public authority, directing men by law to the common good, are unifying and co-ordinating functionaries, representatives of the corporate will of the community” (Coleman, 2000). From this it is inferred that by doing their job, as well as being part of the group, they are bringing society towards the common good. It can be likened with the idea of utility, the best option for the most amount of people. It should be now mentioned, that a solider, conscripted or not, is innocent of any killing or war crimes should he be ordered to do it from a higher authority (Miller, 2002)

Therefore, Aquinas condones and justifies warfare should the decision be made by the correct person. For war to be justified, a public authority has to make the decision; bearing in mind just cause and have the right intention to go to war. Right intention may include avenging what has been lost or for the common good of the populace (Miller, 2002)

Are his justifications for war/ state authority compatible? Why? Why not?

By virtue of one, the other follows. Through the power if the state, governed by legitimately made laws, the public official can wage war. As previous discussed, “the power of the sword, as the state understands it, is essentially the public authority of the state’s rulers and their judicial and military officers, to execute criminals and to wage war” (Finnis). Public officials, have the ultimate say in decisions. The head of state effectively can choose whether or not a country goes to war or not. To determine whether or not a decision is coercive or not it is defined by the legitimacy of the ruler. Aquinas commented in De Malo that “[people] may not have a freedom of action but they do have a freedom of choice”. This can be related to modern system of governance and ruling. In New Zealand, we follow a representative system of representation. Through the choice of enrolled adults, we elect members of parliament to best represent our interests. Although we may not agree with every decision that they may make, however for the best interests of the government, they stay in power.

The best way to show how Aquinas’ justifications of war and coercive authority link is the example of self-defence. It is here Aquinas introduces the principle of double effect. Unlike the traditional approach; ‘an eye for an eye’ or using force with force, Aquinas differentiates between the intention that the person has and the repercussions that the act had. In its most basic sense, the Doctrine allows for reverence of all people (Finnis 278)

Whether it is lawful to kill a man in self-defence?
Principle of double effect, permits killing where it is the foreseen but unintended side-effect of doing good, where the bad does not lead to the good, and where the good outweighs the bad

This is similar to Aquinas’ views on capital punishment. For the common good and betterment for the community, Aquinas condones capital punishment of extreme ‘sinners’ or evildoers. This is due to the belief that they are more likely to hurt others than to amend their behaviour (Miller, 2002). Aquinas general idea regarding capital punishment is to deter the potential criminal from offending and to uphold the common good in the community.

This could be likened to the Christian thought that one must love and his neighbour above all else. By taking the choice away from civilians (‘private individuals’), they are left to continue following Jesus’ commandment. It is the ruler’s authority, which can make such decisions; to wage war, introduction sanctions or to consent to capital punishment.

First, Thomas classifies an act as intrinsically good, bad, or indifferent (Miller, 2002)

Old Wine in New Skins: Aquinas, Just War and Terrorism

Mooney, T Brian

Pacifica : Journal of the Melbourne College of Divinity; Jun 2007; 20, 2; ProQuest Central

pg. 204

Aquinas and the Presumption against Killing and War

Richard B. Miller

The Journal of Religion, Vol. 82, No. 2 (Apr., 2002), pp. 173-204

Published by:The University of Chicago Press

Article Stable URL:

Vinayagamoorthy, K. (2013). Contextualizing legitimacy.Texas International Law Journal,48(3), 535-574. Retrieved from

Ron Smiths Text book : Morality of War