Thomas Aquinas, the great Medieval thinker, did not complete the Commentary on Aristotle's Politics as he had planned. His famous "Treatise on Law," from his Summa Theologiae, is something that often appears in political philosophy courses. However, St. Thomas had an exact sense of the place of political things in the over-all nature of other things.

Here, below the bibliography, I will include four essays: 1) "The Uniqueness of the Political Philosophy of Thomas Aquinas"; 2) "Political Philosophy: Remarks on its Relation to Metaphysics and Theology"; 3) "The Right Order of Polity and Economy: Reflections on St. Thomas and the 'Old Law,'" and 4) "On Post-Modernism and the 'Silence of St. Thomas.'"

Some books on St. Thomas: 1) G. K. Chesterton, St. Thomas Aquinas; 2) Brian Davies, The Thought of Thomas Aquinas; 3) Peter Kreeft, The Summa of the Summa; 4) Ralph McInerny, St. Thomas Aquinas; 5) Josef Pieper, Guide to St. Thomas Aquinas; The Silence of St. Thomas; Josef Pieper -- an Anthology;

6) James Weisheipl, Thomas d'Aquino: His Life, Thought, and Works; 6) Thomas Gilby, The Political Thought of St. Thomas Aquinas; 7) Charles N. R. McCoy, "St. Thomas and Political Science," in On the Intelligibility of Political Philosophy; 8) McCoy, The Structure of Political Thought, Chapters 4 and 5, "Christianity and Political Philosophy"; 9) Jean-Pierre Torrell, St Thomas Aquinas: His Person and His Work; 10) Paul Sigmund, ed., St. Thomas Aquinas on Politics and Ethics.

See also, James V. Schall, 1) Reason, Revelation, and the Foundations of Political Philosophy, Chapter 4, "Thomas Aquinas and the Proper Life of Man; 2) The Politics of Heaven and Hell, Chapter V, "The Limits of Law," Chapter XI, "The Reality of Society According to St. Thomas"; 3) What Is God Like?, Chapter 7, "The Inexpressible Value of Existence," on Chesterton's St. Thomas Aquinas; 4) "Immortality and the Political Life of Man in Albertus Magnus," The Thomist, 48 (October, 1984), 535-65; 5) "What Is Medieval Political Philosophy?" Faith & Reason, XVI (Spring, 1990), 53-62;

6) "A Latitude for Statesmanshim: Strauss on St. Thomas," The Review of Politics, 53 (Winter, 1991), 126-43; 7) "Human Destiny and World Population," The Thomist, 41 (January, 1977); 92-104; 8) "The Totality of Society: From Justice to Friendship," The Thomist, XX (January, 1957), 1-26 (in Redeeming the Time).

3) Further Bibliography:

Aveling, F., "St. Thomas and the Papal Monarchy," Social and Political Ideas of Some Great Medieval Thinkers, Edited by F. J. C. Hearnshaw, New York: Barnes and Noble, 1967), pp. 85-106.

Aquinas, Thomas, Introduction to St. Thomas Aquinas, Edited by Anton C. Pegis, New York: Modern Library, 1948.

________, On the Governance of Rulers, Edited by Gerald B. Phelan, London: Sheed and Ward, 1938.

________, On Laws, Morals, and Politics, Edited by William P. Baumgarth and Richard J. Regan, Indianapolis: Hackett, 1988.

________, Philosophical Texts, Edited by Thomas Gilby, Durham, N. C.: Labyrinth Press, 1982 (Originally Oxford, 1955), Vol. I.; Theological Texts, Vol. II.

________, The Political Writings of St. Thomas Aquinas, Edited by Dino Bigionari, New York: Dover.

________, On Politics and Ethics, Edited by Paul Sigmund, New York: W. W. Norton, 1988, "Introduction."

________, On the Truth of the Catholic Faith (Summa Contra Gentiles), Garden City, N. Y.: Doubleday Image, 1957, 4 vols.

________, Selected Political Writings, Edited by A. P. D'Entreves, Totowa, N. J.: Barnes and Noble, 1981, "Introduction."

________, Selected Writings of St. Thomas Aquinas, Indianapolis: Library of the Liberal Arts, 1965. ("On the Principles of Nature," "On Being and Essence," "On the Virtues in General," "On Free Will".

Cassirer, Ernest, The Myth of the State, New Haven: Yale, 1946, Chapters 7-9.

Chenu, M. Dominique, The Scope of the Summa, Washington: The Thomist Press, 1958. (also in The Thomist Reader, Washington, 1958).

Fortin, Ernest L., "St. Thomas Aquinas," History of Political Philosophy, Edited by Leo Strauss and Joseph Cropsey, Chicago: Rand-McNally, 2d and 3d Editions.

Gilby, Thomas, Principality and Polity: Aquinas and the Rise of State Theory in the West, London: Longmans, 1958.

Gilson, Etienne, A Gilson Reader, Garden City, N. Y.: Doubleday Image, 1957.

________, Medieval Universalism and Its Present Value, New York: Sheed & Ward, 1937.

________, The Spirit of Thomism, New York: P. J. Kennedy, 1964).

________, Thomist Realism and the Critique of Knowledge, San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1983.

Klocker, Harry B., Thomism and Modern Thought, New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1962.

Kossel, Clifford, "Some Limits of Politics," Essays on Christianity and Political Philosophy, Lanham, MD.: University Press of America, 1984, pp. 31-40.

Kreis, Douglas, "Thomas Aquinas and the Politics of Moses," The Review of Politics, 52 (Winter, 1990), 84-104.

Maritain, Jacques, Man and the State (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1953); Scholasticism and Politics (Garden City: Doubleday Image, 1960); The Social and Political Philosophy of Jacques Maritain (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1976); The Rights of Man and Natural Law (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1986).

McCoy, Charles N. R., "St. Thomas Aquinas," History of Political Philosophy, Edited by Leo Strauss and Joseph Cropsey, Chicago: Rand McNally., 1st Edition.

McInerny, Ralph, St. Thomas Aquinas, Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1982.

________, Thomism in an Age of Renewal, Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1968.

Pegis, Anton, The Middle Ages and Philosophy, Chicago: Regnery, 1963.

Midgley, E. B. F., The Natural Law Tradition and the Theory of International Relations, London, Elek, 1975.

Pieper, Josef, A Guide to Thomas Aquinas, San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1991.

________, Living the Truth ("The Truth of All Things" and "Reality and the Good," San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1989.

________, Scholasticism: Personalities and Problems of Medieval Philosophy, New York: McGraw-Hill, 1964, Chapters 9 and 10.

________, The Silence of St. Thomas, Chicago: Gateway, 1966.

Sabine, George H., A History of Political Theory, New York: Holt, 1961. Chapter 13.

Schall, James V., "The Intellectual Context of Natural Law," The American Journal of Jurisprudence, 38 (1993), 85-107.

________"The Law of Superabundance," Gregorianum, 72 (#3, 1991), 515-42.

________, Redeeming the Time, New York: Sheed & Ward, 1968, pp. 213-27. (See, "Truth, Liberty, and Law," Annual, Catholic Commission on Intellectual and Cultural Affairs, 1989, pp. 59-74. (St. Thomas on Promulgation).

Sibley, Mulford Q., "Scholasticism and the Political Mind of Thomas Aquinas," Political Ideas and Ideologies, New York: Harper, 1970.

Smith, Thomas, "Presentation and Understanding in Aquinas' Account of Law," The Review of Politics, 57 (Fall, 1995), 607-40.

Thompson, J. Walter, "Perspective: Aquinas and Nietzsche on Intellect and Will," American Catholic Philosophical Quarterly, LXVIII (#4, 1995), 451-73.

Whippel, John F., Metaphysical Themes in Thomas Aquinas Washington: Catholic University of America Press, 1984.

Wilhelmsen, Frederick D., Christianity and Political Philosophy, Athens, GA.: University of Georgia Press, 1978), Chapter 4.

NB also -- there are a number of Journals that will contain many articles on Thomist political philosophy -- The Thomist, The Aquinas Review, Revue Thomiste, Divus Thomas, Thought, Political Theory, Review of Politics, American Journal of Jurisprudence, Interpretation. It is always worth checking under Aquinas or Thomas Aquinas in the Humanities Index of Periodicals or in the Catholic Periodical Index.

1) From Perspectives in Political Science, 26 (Spring, 1997), 85-91.

James V. Schall, S. J.


"Potestas se habet ad bonum et ad malum. Beatitudo autem est proprium et prefectum hominis bonum. Unde magis posset consistere beatitudo aliqua in bono usu potestatis, qui est per virtutem, quam in ipsa potestate."

-- Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, I-II, 2, 4.[1]

"Strauss admired the magnificence of Thomas' efforts, and he saw in them a great humanizing and moderating of Catholic theology. Perhaps the greatest gain from the Thomist synthesis was that Aristotle, after being a forbidden author, eventually became a recommended one."

-- Harry V. Jaffa, Eulogy of Leo Strauss, November 3, 1973.[2]


To speak of the political philosophy of Thomas Aquinas (_1274) requires much attention to the nature and scope of what and how he wrote about political things. What is most obviously perplexing to modern readers about Thomas Aquinas is that he did not write a separate book or treatise on politics analogous to what we are used to when we speak of the classics in political philosophy -- Cicero's De Re Publica or Hobbes' Leviathan, for instance. To find out what Aquinas might have said about political things, we must look in what seems, to the contemporary reader, to be in the oddest of places, in a Commentary on St. Matthew's Gospel, or in a piece of advice to the Ruler of Cyprus, or in a doctoral study about a curious compilation by Peter Lombard, or, especially, in an introductory textbook for beginners in theological studies, called, famously, the Summa Theologiae. When someone does manage to find that amazing book, the Summa Theologiae, he discovers a huge work -- three thousand and eighty-nine large, packed pages in the Ottawa Edition.[3]

But again, politics does not appear in it, except incidently. Law is discussed, but again, compared to the whole corpus relatively briefly, as if to suggest that Aquinas did not think politics particularly important in human affairs. When he did refer to something that surely was political, like power (potestas), what Aquinas wanted to know about it was not how it worked or how it was organized, but whether it was the final definition of our happiness? To this latter question, he thought not. This very fact that something was more important than politics served to lessen the claims of politics by reducing it to its own sphere. When Aquinas did talk about power (potentia) more often and more at length, he spoke of the power of God (De Divina Potentia, I, 25). Interestingly enough, through Occam, Bodin, and Hobbes, it is this "omnipotence" or divine power that eventually wound its way into political philosophy in a manner that ended by divinizing the state at the expense of both God's power and civil freedom. The history of political philosophy is directly related to the history of theology, once the limits of each are questioned.

Aquinas observed, to briefly explain his position, that legitimate political power as such needed the discipline of reason and virtue before its use could be designated as good or bad. Power, thus, was presupposed to something else before we could properly begin to think about it or act with it. What does appear in the Summa Theologiae, however, is "law", for the accomplishment of which law, political authority with coercion can be required. But Aquinas' discussion of law is not quite like anything ever found listed under law in the legal casebooks, though natural law is not wholly unknown, while civil or human positive law is something we live under every day. Indeed, and this is also a question relative to Aquinas' discussion of law, we seem to live under nothing else but human positive law, itself unrelated to any "higher law".

Aquinas' famous definition of law -- quaedam rationis ordinatio ad bonum commune, ab eo qui curam communitatis habet, promulgata (I-II, 90, 4) -- already contains within it the purpose of the civil society, the essence or purpose of its enactments, who does the enactment and finally to whom the law is addressed.[4] In a very basic sense, any political disorder will arise from a violation of one or other of these principles. It is to be noticed that Aquinas does not list "coercion" as an attribute of the essence of the state, though he did not propose that it was never necessary. He merely hinted that it was only necessary in a polity wherein one or other of these essential elements was not functioning properly.

Thomas did deal with a subject related to both power and law, namely, justice. The object of justice, he tells us, is jus or right. The proper and improper understandings of this jus in the form of "rights" theory have constituted much of the political theory of modernity. From another angle, this same jus, what it is that justice restores or relates, is the object of law, not some autonomous internal quality called "natural right" with no further reference to anything but the will that proposes it. Aquinas deals with justice in a more detailed fashion in many of his works, including the Summa Theologiae (II-II, 57-61).

For Aquinas, justice, the right relation to others, the returning to them their due, the habitual disposition that we ever seek this "rightness" in whatever we do in the world of other human beings, does not seem to be as important as prudence, the intellectual moral virtue (II-II, 47-56). It is prudence, not justice, after all, that tells us specifically what we are to do in each case, after having taken into consideration all the circumstances and particulars of the case. Prudence is what puts the stamp of precisely our intellect on each action that proceeds out of us, including the acts of justice, so the act can be identified as our act. Once we know what is the right thing to do through prudence and the metaphysics on which it rests, we can be just. That is, we can actually do what is objectively just or right because we see that it is just and we choose to do it for this and no other reason.

However, justice appears to run into many curious difficulties. In Aristotle, and also in St. Thomas, friendship is more important than justice, even in the city, especially in the city. The fact is that when Aquinas comes to discuss the highest of the Christian virtues, charity, he bases his discussion on friendship (amicitia), not on justice. This choice of Aquinas may be the most important selection in all of social philosophy both by way of confirmation of Aristotle and by way of emphasizing something beyond him. Unlike justice, which looks to the abstract relationship between persons in terms of what is due or not due, not to the persons themselves, friendship and charity look primarily to the person who is the object of our friendship or love. This emphasis on friendship may be one of the most consoling and striking teachings in all of Aristotle or Aquinas.[5]


When it comes to the discussion of creation, furthermore, Aquinas will say that the world was not made in justice but in mercy (I, 21, 4). In creating from nothing, God did not "owe" anything to anyone in justice, in particular He did not "owe" them their very existence. Once created, He owed them, as it were, what they are, so that there is a kind of consequent justice in creation, all of which is presupposed to the divine mercy. But if existence is not due in justice, it must be due to something higher than, beyond justice. Aquinas' world is filled with something always more than itself, with a kind of abundance more like a gift than like something due in justice. The problem of the world is not that it reveals a kind of niggardly justice or subsistence but that it reveals a kind of unlimited superabundance. The mystery is "why is there so much, not why is there so little?" This awareness of the gift nature of reality also seems to suggest a further emphasis in Aquinas. God has an internal life that seems itself societal or containing within it an otherness. Aquinas' "thought thinking itself" takes on a richness that does not necessarily disagree with Aristotle but makes him more coherent in his own order.

Moreover, we find a great emphasis on love and forgiveness in Aquinas. He seems to take the Aristotelian virtue of epichia or equity, which is an aspect of justice that covers those instances in which justice does not seem to work, more seriously. He sees the whole discussion of justice in need of something more than itself. Justice when it is complete seems at that very moment most tantalizingly incomplete -- which may help to explain why so many modern justice theories, including those that are religiously based, have ended unexpectedly in ideology and coercion. Since in a sense, justice leads to friendship, which in turn seems to expect something beyond itself, charity, in fact, those intellectual systems closed to revelation have the greatest of temptations to supply by themselves those exalted expectations that are still alive in the tradition from revelation.

It would not exactly be correct to say, in comparison to Aristotle, that Aquinas downplays justice, the obvious political virtue, for he gives it its due. He thinks about it, defines it, examines it, locates it among the other virtues and activities of the human and divine reality. We can even speak of the justice of God (I, 21, 1-2). But he does not think that the human reality can ever be fully assumed under the virtue of justice, which does not direct itself to persons but to relationships. Again, justice has a place and a proper place in the order of things, but, like politics, it is not the highest place. For Aquinas, justice is the virtue of making things right within and among all beings, including human beings. Law looks to establish this same rightness but from the point of view of some authority looking at human relations to try to clarify, when it can, what exactly this justice is and to enforce its violations when they unsettle others in civil society.

St. Thomas, in addition to "natural law", talked about "eternal law", "divine law", "human law", even a "law" of sin (lex fomitis). He was very precise and explained how each of these kinds of law related to each other and to their origin or basis (I-II, 90-108). Moreover, the discussion on law appeared in a precise intellectual place, almost as if there were a proper order of reason according to which we should discuss each particular intellectual and existential issue. In fact, one of the unique features of the Summa Theologiae is precisely that, namely, the way it locates the subject of discourse, to know what we are talking about and why we are talking about it in a certain manner in relation to other discussions.

Law was what Aquinas called an "external principle of action", to be distinguished both from internal principles of reasoning and from internal principles of action, such as intellect, will, passions, and habits. The modern mind will be confused on learning that the "external" principles of action are God, the devil, and law. By an external principle of action, Aquinas does not primarily mean potestas in the sense of coercion, even though it may come to be used legitimately, as he explains in his discussion of the state authority confronting irrational acts that are harmful to others. An external principle is action means primarily some rule or norm of action, known and objective in the sense that it is understood by the one acting to have been set down by the lawgivers in a proper fashion -- Speed Limit, 25 MPH.

An external action in the sense of a good law, moreover, is not a violation of reason or nature, but in fact what is required by reason and nature; it is either a making clear what is already known to be good or bad, or it is designating some particular aspect of its being carried out that could allow alternative ways, but from among which one must be chosen -- drive right, not left. A known law indicates to us the elements that we must take into consideration before and as we act. A law as such is not external as if it were not spiritual or intellectual. The law is a product of intellect (of the legitimate lawgiver) addressed to intellect (of the citizen who is to obey it). The one subject to the law is to know it. But he also knows that he did not make the law, which gains its force by virtue of the legitimacy of the lawgiver and the rightness and purpose of the proposed norm.

So the observance of a law that is understood and known to be fair and just is not an alienation of intellect, but its perfection. To observe an understood and fair law is not to be coerced by it. Coercion only arises for Aquinas when someone acts unreasonably in a situation that seriously endangers others or the common good. Thus, a free and just society will be one primarily run by free obedience to law on the part of those who understand and will to be just or fair according to its stipulations. A society that requires a constant and heavy dose of coercion is one rapidly deviating from the norms of reason and free adhesion to what is understood to be required.


Aquinas also, as Harry Jaffa remarked, commented on Aristotle. Aquinas wrote an explication, a very orderly and detailed account, of the texts of the Metaphysics, the Physics, the Ethics, and the early part of the Politics, in addition to a number of other of Aristotle's works such as his logical works. Why is this important? Why not just read Aristotle? The answer is twofold. Aquinas' commentaries and readings of the Aristotelian texts point out and resolve many of the ambiguities that were thought to be found in Aristotle. He reasoned out many of the ideas that Aristotle was not certain about, though Aquinas thought that, even when Aristotle suggested a wrong conclusion or direction, it was always a possible and plausible argument. The light of revelation made the brilliance of Aristotle seem more, not less, luminous.

When Aquinas presumed to present exactly what Aristotle said, he also resolved and elaborated his own position within the tradition that reads Aristotle as part of the exercise of seeking the truth, including the truth of revelation. If Aquinas can see Aristotle's argument in a more complete way, or resolve some textual or intellectual confusions, he will do so. In this sense, Aquinas was not merely providing another way to read Aristotle, but a way to think with Aristotle and beyond him. The basic reason why Aquinas is important is not that he saved the texts of Aristotle, though this preservation was a great service, but that he saw the truth in Aristotle in a more coherent way, a way that scrupulously respected Aristotle's text both as to what it said and as to what his argument meant in its fullness. Aquinas was not a slave to Aristotle; both Aristotle and Aquinas were concerned about the truth as such.

The second reason why reading Aquinas is not merely reading a better edition of Aristotle is because Aquinas is saying that Aristotle is the primary authority or text on ethical and political things. This is not merely a judgement about Aquinas commenting on Aristotle in comparison to Plato or to the Stoics, but it also relates to revelation. Aquinas indicated, implicitly, that politics, the highest of the natural practical sciences, is not the purpose of revelation. We do not go to the Bible for our initial or primary understanding of political things. Revelation had a profound effect on political things, no doubt, but it does is not intended to replace our natural understanding of politics and the experiential way we come to know how politics deals with the right and wrong order of our souls.

Revelation is addressed to certain questions and issues that arise in reason, including political or practical reason deliberating on the right order of common political life. Without an authentic political philosophy, we could not know whether or why revelation was addressed to us in the first place or why it would make sense to pay attention to it.[6] Revelation in this sense presupposes nature, to follow a famous principle of Aquinas. One of the main problems of modern theology, paradoxically, will be caused by its lack of a sound political philosophy, the lack of which leads it easily into the utopianism or pragmatism found in modern political philosophy. Similarly, one of the abiding problems in modern political philosophy will be, the ignoring or rejecting the authentic eagerness of man to know what he and his world is about. Modern philosophy, including political philosophy, will choose to close itself off from even considering the possibility that revelation is addressed to genuine political philosophy in terms precisely of its own reason. Aquinas stands for the position that this closing off is a "choice", not a philosophic truth or necessity.


If we are to address ourselves to the "uniqueness" of the political philosophy of Thomas Aquinas, then, we must constantly be aware that to understand political things, we need to know more than political things. Aristotle, in an oft quoted passage, said that if man were the highest being, politics would be the highest science (1141a20-22; see 987b20-27). This statement is not designed to lessen man's importance but to identify the practical science of politics in its proper place. It suggests that there is a relation between the truth of man and the freedom of man. There is a wisdom higher than the practical wisdom, or prudence, that is politics, both in the sense of metaphysics and in the sense of revelation. The explicit or implicit denial of this higher wisdom alone can make it tempting to elevate politics, already a high science in its own practical realm, into the highest science simply. To accomplish this elevation, the theoretical sciences of what is, of being, have to become subordinate to politics, so that there is no criterion of reality able to resist the judgement of the politician. This is the reason why death and political philosophy are intimately related as we recall in the trials of Socrates and Christ in which the state, with its power over life and death, seeks to use this power as an instrument of truth defined solely by the polity.[7] The deaths of Socrates and Christ graphically indicate the limits of politics.

Aquinas' commentary on this important passage in Aristotle about politics not being the highest science is worth devoting some attention to. It recalls, among other things, the famous common-sensical opinion, found initially in Plato, of the uselessness of the philosopher, namely, the seemingly justified lamenting of a old lady who sees Thales, the philosopher, fall into a pit because he was intent on discussing the stars. First, St. Thomas states the terms of the issue:

Inconveniens est si quis politicam vel prudentiam existimet esse scientiam studioissimam, idest optimam inter sciencias. Quod quidem esse non potest nisi homo esset optimum eorum quae sunt in mundo. Scientiarum enim una melior est et honoribilior altra, ex eo quod est melioriorum et honoribiliorum.... Hoc autem est falsum, quod homo sit optimum horum quae sunt in mundo: nec politica, seu prudentia, quae sunt circa res humanas, sunt optimam inter scientias.[8]

The highest sciences depend on what are in fact the highest things. Since human things, both in individual life and in the polity, concerns changeable human things, the study of these things, a legitimate study in itself, cannot be the highest study. Notice that for Aquinas this denial that politics is the "science most worthy of study" is not a belittling of human things except over against those theories that maintain that man is the highest being This latter question about what is in fact the highest thing is not to be resolved by politics but by metaphysics, the study of what is.

In showing that prudence is subject to philosophic wisdom, Aquinas recalls that Anaxagoras and Thales were considered to be wise men but not prudent men. This story is told to "reprehend" the philosophers, though by implication Aquinas does not think that either Thales or Anaxagoras are particularly reprehensible.

Cum enim Thales exivit domum, un astra consideraret, incidit in foveam; eoque lugente, dixit ad eum quaedam vetula: Tu quidem, o Thales, quae ante pedes sunt nequis videre, ea quae in coelo sunt, putas cognoscere? Anaxagoras autem cum nobilis et dives esset, paterna bona suis dereliquit, et speculationi naturalem se dedit, non curans de politica, unde ut negligens reprehendebatur. Respondit: Mihi patria valde curae est, ostenso coelo. [9]

These famous and charming stories are recalled, it is to be noted, not to agree, but to disagree that politics or worldly affairs are the most important things.

That is, even when the philosopher does what to most people appear to be silly and impractical things, like falling in a pit because he is too eagerly discussing the higher things, his vocation still remains to seek wisdom, which is not about human affairs. Neither Plato nor Aquinas were advocating that philosophers be so absent-minded as constantly to be falling into holes while pursuing their trade. Rather they were reminding us of the intrinsic charm and fascination of those things that were divine, even granting the interest in the political life and the need of the economic life for sustenance. The people who laugh and ridicule the philosopher are in the unfortunate position of not yet being struck by the fascination that exists beyond merely human affairs, to which, though important in themselves, we are not to devote all our time.


Aquinas, in his commentary on Aristotle's Ethics, took up this same theme later in Book X in a more detailed fashion. Indeed, Aristotle's remarks on speculative and political happiness, as well as on the curious nature of his transition to the Politics in this book, along with Aquinas' reflections on them, show just why Aquinas is unique in political philosophy. Aquinas does not have any major quarrel with Aristotle on this score.

... Cum felicitas sit operation secundum virtutem..., rationabiliter sequitur, quod est operatio secunum virtutem optimam.... Felicitas est optimum inter omnia bona humana, cum sit omnium finis. Et quia melioris potentiae melior est operatio, ... consequens est quod operatio optima hominis sit operatio eius, quod est in homine optimum. Et hoc quidem secundum rei veritatem est intellectus.[10]

After again examining all the candidates for human happiness, including the careful examination of pleasure in Book X, Aquinas concludes with Aristotle that the location of happiness is in fact in the highest or intellectual activity of a human person in so far as that person is seeking the highest object of intellect in its very activity -- an activity that has a proper object. This is the importance of the story of the philosopher whose homeland is in the heavens and in their fascination to him.

Aquinas again examines the purity and nature of the operation of the intellect. "Inter omnes operationes virtutis delectabilissima est contemplatio sapientiae, sicut est manifestum et concessum ab omnibus."[11] Aquinas appeals here both to experience and to evidence, but again he is in part establishing a happiness to which any political happiness, which he will treat shortly, is related, if indirectly. Aquinas recognizes the need of material goods and of the moral virtues.[12] But the moral virtues are seen to need other people by some intrinsic necessity of themselves, something that makes them less exalted than the speculative virtues. However, in developing this, to us, strange position of Aristotle about the self-sufficiency (,*$) of the wise philosopher who needs very little in the way of material goods, Aquinas connects this contemplative freedom with Aristotle's treatise on friendship and with his own notion that the highest form of life is not simply to contemplate, but to teach what is contemplated (contemplata tradere).

Quia contemplatio veritatis est operatio penitus intrinsica ad exterius non procedens. Et tanto aliquis magis poterit solus existens speculari veritatem, quanto fuerit magis perfectus in sapientia. Quia talis plura cognoscit, et minus indiget ab aliis instrui aut juvari.

Nec hoc dicitur quia contemplationem non juvet societas; quia ut in octavo dictum est (the treatise on friendship), duo simul viventes intelligere et agere magis possunt. Et ideo subdit, melius esse sapienti, quod habeat cooperatores circa considerationem veritatis, quia interdum unus videt quod alteri, licet sapientiori, non occurrit....

Nihil enim accrescit ex contemplatione veritatis praeter ipsam veritatis speculationem. Sed in exterioribus operationibus semper homo acquirit aliquid praeter ipsum operationem, aut plus aut minus; puta honorem aut gratiam apud alios quae non acquirit sapiens ex sua contemplatione, nisi per accidens, in quantum scilicit veritatem contemplatam aliis enunciat, quod jam pertinet ad exteriorem actionem.[13]

Aquinas makes the point here that the truth is in fact what fascinates us and which we want to possess for ourselves. Even in the case of friends, their aid to one another and their teaching of one another is in the line of the possession of truth. In Aquinas' appreciation of this central truth of Aristotle's whole ethical treatise, it is precisely the further elaboration of what is truth and what is friendship as seen in revelation that he understands as the completion of Aristotle's analysis.

But in the commentary on the Ethics at this point, what concerns Aquinas, as it did Aristotle, is the purpose of what is called political happiness, the more properly human happiness insofar as it deals with what is to be done in this life.

Manifestum est in actionibus politicis, quod non est in eis vacatio; sed praeter ipsam conversationem civilem vult homo acquirere aliquid aliud, puta potentatus et honores vel quia in eis non est ultimus finis..., magis est decens, quod per civilem conversationem aliquis vult acquirere felicitatem sibiipsi et cuilibet, ita quod huiusmodi felicitas, quam intendit aliquis acquirere per politicam vitam, sit altera ab ipsa vita politica. Sic enim per vitam politicam, querimus eam quasi alteram existentem ab ipsa. Haec est enim felicitas speculativa, ad quam tota vita politica videtur ordinata....[14]

The example that Aquinas used immediately following the above passage was that of war and peace, to recall that the purpose of action or war is peace or leisure. The constant teaching of Aquinas here is that, however important the political life, it is not happiness and its own order, being something valuable in itself, nevertheless is ordered to making the highest activities in man possible in each and every person.


In what is perhaps an indirect commentary on the judgment about the relation of Aristotle and Aquinas made at the funeral of Leo Strauss by Harry Jaffa, namely, that Aquinas is mainly important because he kept alive the work of Aristotle in the West and passed it on to us, Ernest Fortin made the following remarks in his own evaluation of Aquinas:

Contrary to what has often been said, Aquinas did not baptize Aristotle. If anything, he declared invalid the baptism conferred upon him by his early commentators and denied him admission to full citizenship in the City of God. Instead, by casting his philosophy in the role of a handmaid, he made him a slave or servant of that City. In the light of Aquinas' own moral principles, the treatment was not unjust since, in return for contributing to Christian theology, Aristotle received, if not the gift of grace, at least the grace to live. The proof is that, whereas he was eventually banished from Islam and Judaism, he found a permanent home in the Christian West. The place of honor that he came to occupy in the Christian tradition as the representative par excellence of the most glorious achievements of natural reason bears eloquent witness to the novelty and daring of Aquinas' enterprise.[15]

Notice that Fortin praises not Aristotle but Aquinas. He praises Aquinas for recognizing Aristotle's philosophical achievements. Again, why praise Aquinas and not Aristotle?

Of course, Aristotle is being praised essentially for being right, a rightness that is recognized from the higher viewpoint of the rightness of revelation. The consistency of the whole is what Aquinas saw and explained. Fortin's point, then, is not that it is too bad that no one, not even Aquinas, could, as it were, baptize Aristotle. It is rather that in representing the highest traditions and insights of reason, Aquinas saw in Aristotle a body of truth and method that made it possible to understand more fully what revelation was about in human terms. The importance of Aristotle in his "permanent home," as Fortin called it, is that the avenue of reason remained open both to revelation and to philosophy and science in terms that required each, at the cost of its very intellectual integrity, to account for the other in terms that did not, as they could not, contradict each other.

Philosophy, we should recall, does not stand outside of human thought but it itself is human thought seeking to know from the inside ("penitus"), what it is and what it knows. The whole of the political life is itself ordained, albeit in an indirect way, to the happiness found in contemplation ("felicitas speculativa, ad quam tota vita politica videtur ordinata"). Thus, that curious seeking that characterizes the philosopher, even when he falls into his famous pit, itself betrays many perplexities and uncertainties at its best. The happiness is not in the seeking, but in the having found and the continued rejoicing in the truth, as Aquinas remarked in his comments on Aristotle. Revelation comes to the philosopher not by faith but, as it were, by philosophy. It comes to philosophy when it is honestly open not just to itself and what is lower than itself, but to whatever happens and to what is. Revelation only appears to the philosopher when the philosopher has put politics in its proper place and he is left with the proper leisure to wonder about what he has yet to know.

This is why we are warned not to get lost in merely human things, because there is something divine in the human intellect and to this all else is ordered.

Homo debet intendere ad immortalitatem quantum potest, et secundum totum posse suum facere ad hoc quod vivat secundum intellectum, qui est optimum eorum quae sunt in homine, qui quiden est immortalis et divinus. Quamvis enim hoc optimun sit parvum mole, quia est incorporeum et simplicissimum, et per consequens caret magnitudine molis, tamen quantitate virtutis e pretiositatis multum excedit omnia quae in homine sunt.[16]

This passage, perhaps more than any other, spells out the reason why man transcends the city and locates the highest things to which, through the moral virtues, man is oriented.

Aquinas' uniqueness arises precisely here, in his systematic responding to the positions and queries of Aristotle reflected upon by Aquinas himself and restated in the clearest of philosophic terms. When this philosophic contemplation is the center of our reflection, we find, as Aquinas remarked, that we are not at all surprised that the political life leads to considerations of the happy life, the solitary life of reason, consulting with others yes, but still in awe at what it knows of what is. It is precisely this highest life that is addressed in revelation in terms that both justify the speculative enterprise itself as having a transcendent object and that correct that strange feeling we have that even the highest life should be "with others", as Aristotle himself knew in his discussion of friendship. We need not be overly surprised, then, that the highest life will come to be described not in terms of solitary contemplation but in terms of the City of God.

It is no accident that Aquinas found the best and clearest way to describe what the love of God and of others in God might mean was to base his discussion of caritas on Aristotle's amicitia (II-II, 23, 1). Thus the Ethics, the Politics, and the Metaphysics are all necessary to establish the proper questions to which revelation addresses itself as coherent answers, answers that will not be recognized as answers without the hard philosophic work of knowing what we can know of the human and the divine things by our own philosophic efforts. The best guide for these efforts still remains, as St. Thomas thought, Aristotle..

The history of political philosophy since St. Thomas' time," Charles N. R. McCoy wrote,

has been a history of successive failures to relate ethics to politics and of successive attempts to find a substitute for theology -- either in politics itself, as fascism does, or in economics as Marxism does. Men are today oppressed by false theologies erected into political systems, and those who are not so oppressed are in risk of becoming so oppressed by an intellectual and moral inability to defend themselves. St. Thomas' political science will not give us the answers to problems of hydro-electric development or technological unemployment; but it will give us the answer to the most vital of contemporary problems: how to secure the rational foundations of human living.[17]

In one sense, the "intellectual and moral ability to defend" ourselves from "false theologies erected into political systems" is the reverse side of the delight in the contemplation of the truth itself. And the opposition that truth finds in the world is itself something that can be wondered about in reason. This opposition also finds its further explication in revelation and in the mysteries of the Fall and evil. The rational foundations of human living, once known, need to be pursued. That is, human living in all its forms, including its political forms, is to be identified according to that order that seems best by nature.

St. Thomas provides a consistent way to examine these moral foundations, one of which is the nature and place of politics in human affairs. That it is a human affair is the most important thing to know about politics. It is the highest of the practical sciences, but it is not happiness as such, though both Aquinas and Aristotle call it a kind of secondary yet real happiness. The understanding of political things is, in a sense, to limit them, limit them to what they are and can do. Properly to understand politics , we need to know what politics is not, what it cannot do. What it cannot do is become a metaphysics. It cannot itself become a way of deciding on its own powers. The power of a political prudence cut off from wisdom cannot know what reality, including human reality, is about. The possibility of "human conversation", as Aquinas put it, is that highest reach to which the order of the city is oriented.

Once the political task is accomplished, itself a rare and unusual thing, the great human task, the task of wisdom remains. It remains, in fact, even in the worst regime because each human being is directly related to the highest things. The political philosophy of Thomas Aquinas knows the importance of political things because it deals so much more thoroughly and profoundly with those things that are not political. When political philosophy is the only "metaphysics", then we can be sure that the most important human things are simply not known except by those few still willing to seek, even in the most disordered of societies, the highest things, which are not political. This too is the teaching of Thomas Aquinas about the things that are not Caesar's, to recall a phrase from the Gospel of Matthew, a text that Aquinas also found time to consider in his some twenty-five years of active intellectual work. Thomas did not simply preserve Aristotle or Matthew, but he showed that they both belonged to the same man to consider their respective meanings and relationship to each other.

2) From Angelicum, (Rome), LXX ((1993), 487-503.

James V. Schall, S. J.



Si aliqua potestas est summum bonum, oportet illam esse perfectissimam. Potestas autem humana est imperfectissima; radicatur enim in hominum voluntatibus et opinionibus, in quibus est maxima inconstantia. Et quanto major reputatur potestas, tanto a pluribus dependet; quod etiam ad eius debilitatem pertinet; cum quod a multis dependet, destrui multipliciter possit. Non est igitur in potestate mundana summum hominis bonum.[18]

-- Thomas Aquinas, "Quod Felicitas Non Consistit in Potentia Mundana," Summa Contra Gentiles, III, 31.


In The City and Man, Leo Strauss made this somewhat curious remark: "In our age it is much less urgent to show that political philosophy is the indispensable handmaid of theology than to show that political philosophy is the rightful queen of the social sciences, the sciences of man and human affairs...."[19] Clearly here are related theology, political philosophy, philosophy itself, and the social sciences. No particular present "urgency," in Strauss' view, demanded that the relation of theology and philosophy be taken up. Without specifically dealing with the relation between theology and philosophy, that would acknowledge that there is a fundamental issue about their relationship, Strauss chose to select for the more important issue, at least for his time (1964), the relation of political philosophy to the social sciences.

These social sciences Strauss called "the sciences of man and human affairs." Political philosophy he designated cryptically as precisely the "queen," not the "king," of these sciences. Politics was indeed that discipline that dealt with man qua mortal, insofar as he came into being, lived, and died in this world. Philosophy was the preparation for death, not for living.[20] In Plato, the discussions of philosophy arose at the death of the philosopher. The philosopher sought to call the potential philosopher to the kind of "living well" that would preserve moral equanimity even when the best existing state killed, in a civic trial, the best man.

Just what did Strauss have in mind by this use of a word like "handmaid," particularly when it is replaced by the word "queen"?[21] "Handmaid" is an apparently subordinate, though classically familiar, concept. At first sight, Strauss seemed to be exalting the position of the "queen" of the social sciences at the expense of philosophy and theology. But did he intend this conclusion? Did he not restrict this exalted position of the "queen" of the social sciences to an issue of current concern, to the status and stature of marxism?

"In our age," then, in the context of Strauss' analysis, must refer to the relation of the marxist world in its intellectual roots to the philosophic nature of the universal civilization, to the West. The West is the only place where the question of philosophy, the universal consideration as such, arose.[22] Philosophy itself was the consideration of the whole, a whole that included the classics and even needed to consider the civilizations that do not claim to belong to the universal civilization. In retrospect, now that this particular "urgency" that caused the "queen" to be more important "in our age" than the "handmaid," certain other considerations come to the fore. With the apparent demise of socialism -- a new form seems always to return -- could it be hinted that the other relationships, between political philosophy and philosophy, and both to theology, together with theology's own relation to reason, have suddenly become more central?

Perhaps Strauss meant no more by this "handmaid" and "queen" usage than that it is better to be first in Gaul than second in Rome. Political science is the highest of the practical sciences in classical thought. Strauss did not find the "mutual relation" of theology and philosophy to be more than a kind of agreement not to step on each other's turf or perhaps better, a doubt about whether differing turfs actually exist.[23] In a sense, he did not wrestle with the reason and revelation question in a more positive manner because, as he remarked in Natural Right and History, he did not hold the same faith, the same "biblical revelation," in which this question arose most immediately.[24] This position is itself one of philosophical import as it implies that a philosophy prodded by a faith is not "philosophy" even though it deepens philosophy as such.[25]

On the other hand, Strauss' famous caution may have rather implied that an intellectual disorder in the practical sciences, especially in political philosophy, make it more difficult to speak properly of the highest things, a discourse toward which political life itself points. Strauss remained Socratic enough to realize the dangers of speaking of forbidden things in democracies and in their academies. There were other kinds of "death" besides hemlock -- obscurity, indifference, exclusion from discourse, the refusal to question about which Voegelin referred.[26] Strauss hinted indirectly that the other social sciences were disordered because they did not know their proper relationship to political philosophy, which was itself disordered in modernity by an option to ground itself in autonomous will and not in what is.


Scholastic philosophy, of course, was concerned to understand political philosophy as the "handmaid" of theology -- not merely political philosophy, but philosophy as such.[27] Theology was the "rightful queen" of the intellectual disciplines in this tradition. Both philosophy and theology claimed to be knowledges of the whole. The question was whether this claim was mutually irreconcilable? But this scholastic understanding of philosophy was not intended to make philosophy or political philosophy other than what it was in itself.[28] The principle that "grace built on nature" was indeed a valid one and implied nothing less than that if nature were meaningless, so was grace. Strauss himself noted the radicalness of this position in his discussion of the relation of philosophy to Islam, Judaism, and Christianity.[29]

The New Testament was not designed as a substitute for Aristotle's Politics or Metaphysics. The "things of Caesar" remained properly Caesar's (Matthew, 22:22). To hold this rightfulness of place for politics was not "against" this revelation, but what the revelation itself maintained. Indeed, from the viewpoint of political philosophy, this latter congruity between faith and reason is perhaps the more remarkable aspect of revelation. Revelation persisted in speaking in terms intelligible to philosophy, or better, in terms not contradictory to it. It spoke in terms addressed to those limits of politics already found in the classical writers.[30]

But the "things of God" did entail confronting the question of the relative status of politics in the order of things. Was politics, as Aristotle held (1141a20-23), the highest of the practical sciences, but not the highest science as such? If politics were the highest "science," would it not be itself a metaphysics, a science of all that is? But if politics were "limited" because not all questions and methods fell under its scope, did this limitation not mean that its own content and order were to be related to those sciences higher than itself? The limits of politics were thus designed to open to members of any polity questions that politics itself could legitimately pose but which it could not adequately or fully answer. Politics in its self-understanding had something "moderate" about it.

Josef Pieper, in a remarkable little essay, "The Purpose of Politics," put the issue in precise focus:

All practical activity, from practice of the ethical virtues to gaining of means of livelihood, serves something other than itself. And this other thing is not practical activity. It is having what is sought after, while we rest content in the results of our active efforts. Precisely that is the meaning of the old adage that the vita activa is fulfilled in the vita contemplativa. To be sure, the active life contains a felicity of its own; it lies, says Thomas, principally in the practice of prudence, in the perfect art of the conduct of life. But ultimate repose cannot be found in this kind of felicity. Vita activa est dispositio ad contemplativam; the ultimate meaning of the active life is to make possible the happiness of contemplation.[31]

Implicitly reflecting the Tenth Book of Aristotle's Ethics in which we find two kinds of happiness, practical and contemplative, both legitimate, both related to one another, Pieper has touched on the essential aspect of political philosophy. This aspect is its concern with the purpose or end of the active life itself, with the fact that the active live, the political life, is not itself the highest activity, however good it is in itself.

One might wonder, however, whether the urgency of which Strauss spoke in showing political philosophy as the "rightful queen of the social sciences" is demanded by social science itself? Or is the relation of theology and political philosophy already intellectually established so that lesser urgencies might come to the forefront? Surely, if this resolution between revelation and reason is already in place, however much neglected or misunderstood, the figure that most comes to mind is Thomas Aquinas.

Did Strauss mean, then, that before we could properly confront the question of the relation of revelation and politics we must first accurately establish the nature of modern social science, almost as if social science might in modernity be conceived as itself a substitute for revelation? Was not this after all the problem with that famous lack of "moderation" and the embrace of "enthusiasm" that is so dangerous in modern political movements? And was it political philosophy that was most needed, even in religion, to prevent the utopianism so rampant in the social sciences from infecting theology? Perhaps the crises in theology have their origins in this theoretical problem with the social sciences, a problem that theology itself has so often not understood.


With the collapse of marxism, then, surely itself a considerable problem for the integrity modern social science, since no social science "predicted" such a collapse, we can ask whether the priority of political philosophy to other social sciences does not become rather more pressing? Is there not, as Strauss often suggested, something disordered in the modern social sciences themselves, in how they conceive themselves and their purposes? Strauss seems justified in worrying about the intrinsic disorder in the social sciences themselves.

Marxism, to be sure, presented itself as a "scientific" view of the world. But it was itself the product or result of movements and ideas that were not original to it. It was related to Epicurus, about whom Marx wrote his dissertation, and to Machiavelli's "founding" of modernity, and to Hegel's effort to explain all things in one system. In one sense, marxism was an effort to answer the question of the highest good within a philosophical system that excluded any transcendence at the origin of what is.[32] Marxism was an effort to substitute human collective intelligence for divine intelligence as the explanation of order in human affairs and through them, of order in nature.

The effort to "recover" classical or medieval political philosophy, an effort we associate with Strauss, Eric Voegelin, Maritain, and Hannah Arendt in particular, makes this effort, at first sight, appear as a kind of retrogressive enterprise, even when what is being recovered are the principles whose very rejection was the cause of much modern social and political disorder.[33] With the collapse of marxism it is perfectly legitimate to inquire whether its practical chaos in the empirical order requires also a rejection of the philosophic grounds upon which it was originally based? Or does another version of this same modernity, liberal relativism, for instance, now prove in effect to be valid or at least feasible? But if the problem lies with modernity itself, then, neither the marxist or liberal approaches will stand the test of reason and in fact are not so standing thing test.

Can a case be made for an analysis of the events of modernity that would argue that a reconsideration of St. Thomas is now not only valid but imperative? Interestingly, John Paul II, who by all accounts was instrumental in the de fact collapse of marxism, touched on this issue in his philosophical works.[34] His lecture, "The Perennial Philosophy of St. Thomas," given at the Angelicum University in Rome on November 17, 1979, addressed directly the "handmaid" question that Strauss had brought up.[35] Here, however, the "handmaid" status of philosophy is restored to its original meaning where philosophy becomes the word used to discuss the open relation of reason and revelation.

In terms of political philosophy, this position would mean that even though political philosophy is the "queen" of the social sciences, the social sciences themselves, including political philosophy, are insufficient. By being what they are, they remain open to the whole that they do not comprehend within their own methodologies and competencies. Science, metaphysics, and theology are needed to complete our understanding of political philosophy.[36] This further consideration, however, was not due to any intrinsic defect in political philosophy -- "man is by nature a political animal" -- but to the very structure of what is.


In order to make this case for a reconsideration of St. Thomas in the light of the historic present, therefore, it is necessary to recognize the limits of politics and to ascertain what it is that limits politics to be itself. In a well-known Eulogy for Leo Strauss, Harry Jaffa argued that the grounds for respecting St. Thomas' work were that St. Thomas saved and explained Aristotle, the Philosopher.[37] This conclusion, of course, implicitly ignores the broader work of St. Thomas about Aristotle himself and about the place political philosophy held within the corpus of his works. While not denying the value of St. Thomas in "saving" Aristotle, still we might wonder whether St. Thomas' completion of Aristotle's own arguments was not in fact the greater significance to philosophy.[38]

Josef Pieper has noted that when St. Thomas cited Aristotle, he did not cite him because he was in need of an "authority" to back up his position. St. Thomas cited Aristotle because he thought what Aristotle argued was true on the grounds of Aristotle's own premises.[39] When St. Thomas disagreed with Aristotle, he did so directly and clearly. In other words, St. Thomas was able to understand the truth in Aristotle because he also understood the validity of the argument that established it, almost as if it did not make any difference who set down the argument in the first place.[40]

Implicitly, of course, this position about Aristotle means that truth is not simply relative to time or place. A discourse with Aristotle is possible because of the stability of human nature over time and because of the spiritual nature of the soul that makes thought as such possible. Both of these latter positions, the stability of human nature and the spiritual nature of the soul, were themselves positions argued and established philosophically by both Aristotle and St. Thomas. They are not "assumptions" based on some desire that they might be true in order to support revelation or metaphysics.

In a recent Introduction to St. Thomas' political thought, we read the following:

The most authoritative text of the Christian Church, the New Testament, provides no code of conduct for the faithful in their day-to-day lives beyond the Ten Commandments and love of neighbor. Moreover, the New Testament provides no systematic guidelines for the organization of human society. How are human beings to act in this or that situation? What is just in this or that situation? How should Christians form their conscience? What are the purposes of human society? How should human society be organized? What is the role of law in human society? To help answer these questions, the Christian Church of necessity turned to philosophers, to those who systematically reason about morals, politics, and law.[41]

This analysis, of course, is in basic agreement with Strauss' remark about the need to address the order of social sciences to each other in the context of their limits or ends. The "queen" of the social sciences might herself remain, to be what she is, a "handmaid."

The most "philosophical" question asked by political philosophy is "what is the best regime"?[42] Such a question, of course, obviously has roots in Plato. It is not without interest that this question appears within St. Thomas' thought as an aspect of his discussion on the Old Law, the Law of Moses (I-II, 105). Clearly, the question is also an Augustinian one and no one took St. Augustine more seriously than St. Thomas. St. Augustine himself did not reject the Platonist and Ciceronian question of the location of the best regime as an unworthy one. Indeed, again recalling the Old Testament's usage of "the City of God," St. Augustine recognized that the question of its nature and location as both proper and necessary for political philosophy.[43]


With this background, how can we situate Thomas Aquinas in political philosophy?[44] Need our interest in him be merely "antiquarian"? Though there are literally thousands of observations and insights in the Opera Omnia of St. Thomas that have meaning for political life and thought about it, it is striking by comparison how little politics played in his system. It would seem that Aquinas himself was not overly interested in "the queen of the social sciences." Yet, Aquinas' very thought implied a fresh interest in all aspects of being, not the least political being.

Plato had suggested, and Aristotle reiterated (1177b31), that by comparison, the affairs of men are intrinsically less interesting and fascinating than philosophy. "For, presumably, Adeimantus, a man who has his understanding truly turned toward the things that are has no leisure to look down toward the affairs of human beings and to be filled with envy and ill will as a result of fighting with them" (500 c-d). The work of St. Thomas, I would suggest, relates to politics by spelling out in considerable detail the fascination that arises beyond politics. In this sense, Aquinas saved politics from itself thinking itself an adequate explanation of all that is. This latter is the most subtle temptation of politics, as Aristotle hinted in The Metaphysics (982b29).[45]

In his discussion of the relation of justice and mercy, a key question in which he deals with the fact that the world is not created in justice but in something more than justice, St. Thomas remarked that justice required us to return what was "due" to another, say a borrowed hundred dollars, but if we chose to give the person two hundred dollars instead, our action was not unjust (I, 21, 3).

Mindful of Plato's good as higher than justice, St. Thomas saw the world filled with deeds that are more than justice, with mercy, generosity, and sacrifice. As justice is the political virtue, the virtue that orients us to others, to our proper relation to them, though not to their particular persons and characters, this means that political philosophy naturally and normally reaches what it cannot deal with in its own terms. Political philosophy intrinsically opens us to what is not merely justice. The treatment of friendship in both Aristotle and St. Thomas already hint at this openness.[46] Charity in St. Thomas is treated as precisely as aspect of friendship (II-II, 23, 1).

To be sure, St. Thomas' commentaries on Aristotle's Ethics and part of The Politics are obviously important. The "Treatise on Law" in the Summa Theologiae (I-II, 90-109) is the context of most discussions of Aquinas' political thought together with his short treatise De Regimine Principum and the discussions on justice, war, sedition, toleration, usury, property, and other such questions in the Summa Theologiae and other works. It is fascinating to study these texts with a class to see how quickly it is realized that to understand politics, it is not sufficient to study merely political things.

The "Treatise on the Law," for example, begins innocently enough perhaps with its "law is an ordination of reason, for the common good, by the legitimate authority, and promulgated" (I-II, 90, 1).[47] Soon we realize that we must quickly understand the difference between eternal, natural, divine, human, and the law of disorder (q. 91). Already we are into the structure of the Summa Theologiae, of why do things belong where they appear in the structure of the whole. We discover that law is dealt with as an external norm of action. We must know the internal principles of action and the capacities and ends of a being that can act freely in the first place.

This reflection leads back to questions about what are the different kind of beings in the universe and how are they related to each other. In short, the political philosophy of St. Thomas, if we wish to begin with it in our theoretical reflections, as we may do, does what all great philosophy should do, namely, lead us to a consideration of the whole, to what are the limits of politics not as a denigration of its importance but as an accurate understanding of what it is.


Perhaps the most important reason why St. Thomas is to be reconsidered in a fundamental manner in political philosophy has to do with the question of science, particularly that science that has been responsible for the material improvement of the human lot. It has long been argued that religion and science were at loggerheads and that science progressed only with the elimination of religion. However dubious this theory is in itself, a basic question remains: why did science begin where it did and are there any theological aspects to its origins and possibility?

It seems that the origins of science do require a view of God and of the world, in the absence of which, science will not begin or prosper. If God is conceived as pure will and the secondary causes in nature possessing no stability because of the arbitrary power of the divinity, then it appears that there will be no science. Moreover, science requires a view of the world that maintains that matter exists and is good. Its laws need to be discovered, not merely projected from the human mind onto a chaotic world with no intrinsic order to it, even it that order cannot be located in the world itself as to its own existence.[48] Science does deal with objective reality. Its "laws" work.[49]

Political philosophy is particularly related to such questions because it finds itself necessarily involved in the condition of the nations, in poverty, freedom, war, exchange, with the worthy condition of mankind. Recent modern experience has proved that not every system works, not every system produces justice, freedom, and truth, let alone abundance and prosperity. The legitimate variety of human polity has limits, precisely those limits that St. Thomas found in his discussion of natural law and the law of nations. That is to say, if the social affairs of mankind have wide and legitimate variety -- in St. Thomas' terms, if there were positive laws, customs, and institutions less than the state -- these diversities had some kind of basic grounding. This grounding St. Thomas called the "natural" law, a law that did not explain itself as to its own existence but existed in so far as each human being stood outside of nothingness as a certain kind of being not made by man.[50]

The natural law of St. Thomas was not simply the "natural right" of Strauss' Aristotle, still less the natural law or "human rights" of modernity.[51] The natural law of St. Thomas was ontological, that is, standing outside of either the human mind or the human power to make, both of which were ordered to this same world as the cause or arena of their activities.[52] To the question of why it was a "law" and not just a "right," the whole of the metaphysics of St. Thomas is presupposed. That is to say, following Aristotle's notion that the human mind is capax omnium, capable of knowing all things, St. Thomas argued that finite things did not and could not cause themselves to be. If they existed, which they did, they bespoke a cause of their existence, a cause that was discovered through the stable finite being that each thing was in itself. The limited truth and good in finite things were grounds for understanding that finite things exist because of will, but not any will found in things themselves.

This very natural law created for St. Thomas both in the citizen and in the philosopher a curiosity about further "law," about further understanding about the good in which things existed.[53] This very curiosity hinted that the knowledge of the whole to which philosophy was ordained was incomplete. Put in terms of St. Augustine, it meant that the City of God could not be identified with any existing city, or, for that matter, any city founded in speech and argument. In terms of St. Thomas, it meant that the natural law was rooted in being, but did not explain itself.[54] Thereby, political philosophy by being itself remained open to what is.


In a remarkable essay, "The Possible Future of Philosophy," that has many points that parallel Strauss, though coming to rather different conclusion, Josef Pieper, following St. Thomas, presented another understanding of the relation of philosophy and revelation that has great significance for political philosophy. First of all Pieper noted the "natural desire (of philosophy) to create a clear, transparent and unified image of the world."[55] Pieper remarked that a Gnostic theory might easily find the Incarnation, a teaching of revelation, to be merely a kind of cyclic confirmation its worldview that the human mind understood all things, including revelation, by man's own powers.

Not unlike the remark of Glaucon in The Republic about what would happen to the just man in any existing city (362a), Pieper observed:

But the fact that, within the framework (of actual historical events), mankind hated and killed the God-made-man "without a cause' (Jn 15:25) and that yet this same death effected the salvation of man, who had committed the murder: these theological truths explode any tidy formula which anyone might conceive about the world.[56]

The point is that the Thomist principle of faith and reason not being in contradiction also includes the impossibility of human reason by itself to be able to claim complete understanding of the whole of the world, including the inner life of its cause. In this sense, moderate liberalism and St. Thomas are in agreement with Strauss about the diversity of reason and revelation.

In his own alternative to Strauss' position that philosophy and theology's are unable to enter into intercourse with each other, however, Pieper maintained that the

essential thing in philosophy is neither the avoidance of knotty problems nor the bewitchment of the intellect with plausible or conclusive proofs. Instead the essential thing is that not one single element of reality be suppressed or concealed -- not one element of that unfathomable reality the vision of which is synonymous with the concept of "truth."[57]

This passage comes as close to any, I think, in clarifying the meaning of St. Thomas' political philosophy. For if political philosophy is in a sense first necessary in order that we might have a polity that allows us to philosophize in the first place, a polity that recognizes its own incompleteness, a polity based on moderation, it follows that revelation will be discovered in the existing polities not merely because it is there in the sacred books, as it were, but it is there in the questions that arise in the leisure towards which politics is naturally ordained.[58]

If St. Thomas was most careful about civil law being addressed to "human beings who were for the greater part imperfect" (I-II 96, 2), this position was taken because this imperfection did not prevent the highest things from being confronted in all existing polities. In the end, this freedom to grapple with the highest things even in any existing polity, a freedom that originates in most societies with revelation, seems to be the true purpose of natural law and of all existing polities, in which, as Aristotle said, we do not listen to those who tell us that "being human we should only deal with human things" (1177b32).

For St. Thomas dealing with political things, with the law, with the regime, even with the best regime, is the first step to the freedom for confronting the divine things -- both those divine things we can discover with our intellect and those which our intellect encounters in the "unfathomable reality the vision of which is synonymous with the 'truth'." Thus, St. Thomas can quite legitimately observe about political philosophy: "Non est igitur in potestate humana summum hominis bonum."

In this sense, to conclude that human power is not the highest human good is precisely what is needed intellectually to allow politics to be itself. The great political disorders of modernity have almost invariably arisen not from classical tyranny but from philosophical politicians seeking to order all things by their political theories. At this level of discourse, at the level of politics and the highest things, Thomas Aquinas remains fundamental to the discourse of political philosophy.

3) From Cultural Dynamics, V. 7 (November, 1995), 427-40.

James V. Schall, S. J.


Reflections on St. Thomas and the "Old Law"

"Legis enim humanae finis est temporalis tranquillitas civitatis, ad quem finem pervenit lex cohibendo exteriores actus, quantum ad illa mala quae possunt perturbare pacificum statum civitatis. Finis autem legis divinae est perducere hominem ad finem felicitatis aeternae; qui quidem finis impeditur per quodcumque peccatum, et non solum per actus exteriores, sed etiam per interiores. Et ideo illud quod sufficit ad perfectionem legis humanae, ut scilicet peccata prohibeat et poenam apponat, non sufficit ad perfectionem legis divinae; sed oportet quod hominem totaliter faciat ideoneum ad participationem felicitatis aeternae."[59]

-- St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, I-II, 98, 1.


Christians are habitually disposed to look upon the detailed prescriptions of the Hebrew Law as something from which they have happily been freed. They are particularly gratified, as they piously maintain, that the same source, that set these apparently complicated and burdensome rules in motion in the first place, put a stop to them in due time, "in the fullness of time". Christians consider, in regard to this liberty from the Law, that they owe a lot to that good Pharisee, Paul of Tarsus. They remain astonished at their Jewish friends who faithfully and, to them, unaccountably observe the restrictions of the Sabbath or the dietary rules, however much Christians themselves might from time to time enjoy a good kosher pastrami on rye with their beer or lox and bagels with their wine. This Christian reaction is not to doubt that the body of discipline that they affectionately call "The Old Law" -- "Lex Vetus" in St. Thomas' terminology -- was not, properly speaking, revelation and in some aspects still obliges them. The Holy Father's recent Encyclical Veritatis Splendor is, among other things, a brilliant account of the binding nature of the Two Great Commandments and of the Ten Commandments as these are reinforced and reaffirmed in the New Law.

Moreover, as Leo Strauss often pointed out, the Hebrew revelation was a revelation of a law and not a philosophy, so that the lawyer was the one to whom the Jew (or, in his similar case, the Muslim) turned in considering the exact obligation to which a believer is in fact held concerning disputed points of the Law. Christianity, on the other hand, was not a revelation of a "law" but of a teaching or doctrine.[60] This difference meant that philosophy was more directly pertinent to the Christian enterprise. The understanding of doctrine necessitated knowing the "tools" of understanding as well as undergoing the experiences on the basis of which the tools and principles of reasoning were founded in the first place. Christianity was not a revelation of doctrine or dogma apart from the objective reality that these definitions and understandings were designed to explain. Faith seeks precisely reason. A human being is not complete only with definitions or only with experiences. The notion of "the word" becoming "flesh" can also be used to emphasize that seeking to know and articulate accurately what is, including the What Is of God, is properly a human function, properly how he searches for the highest things.

These rational tools, moreover, had their own rules or standards that were themselves "given" as constituent elements of being, of what is. They did not exclusively originate in man's own artistic capacities, but were given to or found by him. Even though God dwelt in ineffable mystery and light, this transcendence did not mean that the principle of contradiction, above all, could be violated with impunity. The medieval theory that God had to be so "free" that He was not bound by any principle of contradiction was in fact the avenue in which skepticism, doubt, and absolute power came into modern thought.[61] The very fact of revelation, to be known, had to approach the laws of being and reason with utmost respect. If "grace built on nature," as it surely did, this very fact must have indicated that the two sources had the same ultimate origin. Revelation could not "contradict" reason, as St. Thomas often remarked; and if it purported so to do, it could not really be "revelation" from the One God. The very credibility of revelation required some articulated grounding in reason. Those later deviant philosophies, Christian, Muslim, or Jewish, which did indeed propose "two truths", did argue that a truth of faith could contradict one of reason, did in fact introduce a split into the human soul, into the human search for the whole. Any unified understanding of both reason and revelation becomes impossible if faith or reason can either claim truth and contradict each other.[62]


The classical question of political philosophy has to do with the best regime, its location and its formation or formulation. What surprised the thinkers of the revelational traditions in particular was that, without their help, there was already a coherent, orderly, and consistent accounting for political and economic things in the philosophers, even some account of the relation of the cosmos to its origins. St. Augustine's efforts to explain the state primarily in terms of the Fall, moreover, had to be reconciled with Aristotle's clear affirmation that man was by nature a political animal, that is, that the state would exist even if the Fall did not occur.[63]

Aristotle, furthermore, had a long discussion of private property, itself occasioned in part by Plato's audacious Book Five of The Republic that proposed the communality of wives, children, and property in the regime constructed in speech, in the regime in which alone the philosopher could be safe because he could rule.[64] Aristotle himself saw this Platonic arrangement as quite unworkable and indeed dangerous to the human condition. This sort of arrangement was better to be left safely "in speech". Aristotle took Plato's proposal seriously enough, however, more seriously, apparently, than with the pure "irony" with which Strauss preferred to understand this discussion. But both Aristotle and Strauss evidently agreed that a kind of activist perfectionism could constitute the most dangerous political condition for actual human life.

When St. Thomas Aquinas in the Thirteenth Century came to consider the status of the Old Law, he understood it to contain three different sorts of precepts -- moral, ceremonial, and judicial (I-II, 98-107). Thus, Aquinas asked, "Whether All Men Are Obliged to Keep the Old Law?" (I-II, 98, 5). Aquinas' answer, of course, is of great interest when it comes to a consideration of the abiding meaning that we might give to the specific precepts of the Old Law. Aquinas answered that the "Old Law manifested precepts of the law of nature and added above it certain proper precepts of its own." All men were obliged to the former precepts of nature but only the Jewish people were held to the latter ones specifically addressed to themselves. Aquinas found no "injustice" in this apparent favoritism on the part of God in initially choosing the Jews and not all men. The task of the philosopher in the light of this revelation was to reflect on how such choosing could be also reasonable and defensible and not necessarily a rejection of revelation on grounds of reason alone.

Aquinas thus continued that a "certain prerogative of sanctity might be obtained (for the Jews) because of Christ from whom He would be born." The Jews are thus bound because of this prerogative to certain special things "to which other people are not bound". Aquinas found the reason for this special obligation in Deuteronomy (18:13) where it reads, "You will be perfect, and without stain, before the Lord, Thy God"; and again, "I will profess today before the Lord Thy God..." (26:3). I think it legitimate to read these remarks of Aquinas in the light of the classical discussion of the best regime, a regime that the philosophers had talked of and one that actual politicians sometimes claimed to be embodied in their own polity. Thus, even though all men are bound by the natural law, this natural law is not complete with regard to all that mankind is to accomplish or stand for or indeed receive.

The very incompleteness of natural law, it is to be noted, somehow incited a search for its completion. It provoked wonderment about the reasons for its apparently "natural" insufficiency. The philosophers knew of Aristotle's remark that nature did nothing in vain. The Old Law, even at the bar of reason for those who cared to think about it, however, was at least one possible indication of the nature of this incompleteness. No one who was not a Jew would need to pay any attention to the Old Law, it seems, did it not appear somehow addressed to issues about which the philosophers had, oftentimes unsuccessfully, concerned themselves (Deuteronomy, 4, 6). The Rabbi became unsettled about the unexplained existence of the philosopher, while the philosopher sought to duck the intellectual implications of the Old Law without, in the very act, losing his claim to a knowledge of the whole, the one thing that justified his existence in the first place.[65]


Aquinas next asked, "Whether the Old Law Was Conveniently Given During the Time of Moses?" (98, 6). The import of this provocative question should not be missed. It clearly implies that there is an order to history. This order is itself related to the often dire experience of living under natural law alone, that is, under the sole guidance of reason. The "noble savages", it turns out, were never quite noble. What is the character or result of this historical and repeated experience? The response of Aquinas argues the Christian position that revelation happened in two stages, both of which are related to the original experience of men living under their own rule. At this point, it is already possible to anticipate that the rejection of revelation in either form, Jewish or Christian, would reposition men towards the initial condition, with, however, the difference that the elevated goals taught in the revelational tradition would still remain but without the revelational means to attain them.[66] The validity of Chesterton's quip that whenever men set out to be natural, they end up being unnatural, would be constantly observed. The quest for the best regime in modernity thus is now suffused with a positive rejection both of the law of nature and of revelation. The origins of ideology and totalitarianism in our time, including the post-Marxist time, seem to lie precisely here in their intellectual origins.[67]

Aquinas, for his part, thought that we could identify two types of human beings in our experience (98, 6). One type consisted of those who are "hard-hearted and proud" ("duris et superbis") in their ways. For them, the Law is imposed as a burden; while for the just and the good, it is imposed as an "instruction", to "help them to fulfill what they intend to do." The Law in this latter sense appears calmly as a response to those human beings genuinely perplexed about what they ought to do. In a way, revelation does not seem to be properly or adequately presented to men, neither to those under natural law nor to those under the Old or New Law, until they have had sufficient time and curiosity to wonder about their natural status or the ground of their being as given. It is almost as if revelation given solely to prevent evil would not be adequately appreciated by a race of men who could not conceive their own personal participation in this very evil. Good and just people, however, can, presumably, see the goodness of the Law if presented for their consideration. They can see that the Law instructs them in solving a real problem or puzzlement. The history of sin, in this sense, both individual and corporate, appears as the consequence of the rejection of or failure to understand the revelatory efforts to set men aright about natural reasoning itself.


Aquinas thus held that it was important that the revelational instruction be not given before men would have had a chance to see what they could do by themselves. Otherwise they would not easily recognize their need of anything but themselves. Already here we find a hint of the validity of the famous medieval dictum, "homo non proprie humanus sed superhumanus est".[68] The kind of beings this particular race of men actually are somehow seems to be more than human in its destiny. It turned out, of course, that in the period up to the time of Moses, what became obvious was that men with only the use of their reason, minus the minute instructions of the written Law, learned "by experience that they suffered under some defect of reason whereby they lapsed into idolatry and the most vile vices." This experience is no doubt a recurring one. Thus, it seemed obvious that some guidance in the form of a written law was needed "as a remedy for human ignorance." It is interesting that Aquinas here seems to use the Platonic notion of ignorance rather than the Christian terminology of sin which he had previously used. Aquinas then cited St. Paul's remark to the Romans that the very "recognition of sin comes through the Law" (3:20). What is implied here is that the correct identification of what constitutes human disorder or sin will not be recognized by a proud reason in its own service. Something from the outside seems necessary to identify even the nature of the disorder. It is worth recalling here that Socrates' vocation itself seemed, indirectly at least, to come from without the polis when the oracle somehow identified him as the wisest man in Greece.

This new situation, however, the written Law, also had its problems, in Aquinas' view. For after men, that is, the Jews, were instructed by the Law about their "weakness" (infirmitate), they still were not able to "carry out what they now knew" (98, 6). It almost appeared that the true destiny of man was indeed "superhumanum" so that reason even at its best could not quite ascertain what was in store for mankind. Aquinas' idea was thus both that it was historically necessary to have a long period of time in which what men "did do" with their own powers (an enterprise that later came to be identified with Machiavelli) became obvious and, as a result of this observed decline in natural morality, that they needed instruction even to see in reason the nature of their disorders, sins, or weaknesses. When instructed about this disorder by revelation, however, they would still in this plan of instruction not be able to save themselves. This latter condition of the incompleteness of initial revelation itself needed historical experience to understand its full implications. Even after the Law was given there was still idolatry, something even more serious than the natural state precisely because of the given Law which explicitly forbade it (98, 4).

Once this impossibility to redeem men by themselves by reason or even by themselves under the Law of Moses became more manifest, then, Aquinas thought, following again St. Paul to the Romans, that God sent His own Son to remedy the situation in quite a new manner (8:3). On the part of the good, therefore, the Law was given as a help. Aquinas always speaks, be it noted, as if each stage of nature and revelation is understandable in terms that the human mind can grasp, even though it may not anticipate what it is that it will be given to think about. This help and its need would become most evident to the good when the natural law began to be increasingly obscured because of "the excessive abundance of sins" (exuberantiam peccatorum). There is already a hint here of some fundamental connection between correct intelligence and moral order or disorder, a central and controverted thesis of the greatest importance.[69] Thus, Aquinas located the Old Law between the law of nature and the New Law, which latter presupposed both the reason found in natural law and the additional instruction contained in the Old Law (98, 6), together with the experience of living under both, that of the good and that of idolatry and the worst vices.


The problem for Aquinas, looking back at the content of the Old Law, was not that it was not authentic revelation or that it was not a revelation addressed to reason in its ability to see what human order and disorder were about. The Old Law remained known and pious Jews over the centuries continued to live good lives under its precepts and worship. The abidingness of Israel over the centuries, the way it choose to deal with the New Law, is also a Christian mystery.[70] In one sense, the Christian freed from the ceremonial obligations of the Old Law, could still be instructed by its moral and judicial precepts if he were seeking to know what was particularly reasonable in a given situation. While Christianity is not a revelation of a good polity, the Old Law was precisely this in some sense. Thus, it remained quite legitimate to look to the Old Law as an "instruction" to reason itself in pursuit of certain clarifications of polity and right living, clarrifications necessitated by the inability easily to keep a civil order virtuous and related to a common good. Of course, this freedom from the Law made it possible to look at the philosophers in a new fashion. If revelation was not intended to supplant reason, then reason, for its part, was not to pretend that revelation, including the Old Law, did not exist. An objective examination of revelation did not indicate to any philosophy that its configurations were outlandish or unrelated to genuine questions of philosophy.

It is in this context, evidently, that Aquinas is able to look to the Old Law for certain illuminations of philosophical problems that seemed unsatisfactorily confronted by the philosophers in their own order. The fact that Israel was in its classical presentation in the Old Law precisely an organized civil society, something the Kingdom of God certainly was not in the New Law, meant that Israel did represent an "answer" to the question of the best regime. Aquinas, of course, had no intention of questioning whether the best existing regime, whatever it might turn out to be, is the ultimate location of human happiness. It is not. The net effect of the New Law in the mind of Aquinas is to settle forever, as it were, the question of whether some civil society down the ages will ever fulfill all those desires and ends to which each human being is ordained.

In terms of political philosophy, therefore, this settling of the problem of that in which human happiness exists, in an invitation to the divine life, allows politics to be, almost for the first time in human history, merely itself. Politics becomes merely the politics of existing men during the time in which they are alive in this world, this brief time, that recurrs to each new generation down the ages. Aristotle no doubt had understood something of this in his clear distinction between ethics, politics, and metaphysics. Augustine's two loves and two cities likewise separated the highest things and the lowest things. What still seemed to be a fruitful line to follow in Aquinas' way of thinking was attention to certain issues that Aristotle himself did not seem to resolve. These were properly philosophical issues, almost as if to imply that the continuation of the vitality of the philosophical enterprise was itself essential for the New Law. This is why Strauss was perceptive in understanding that Christianity was in part a doctrine, an understanding of what was found in revelation, an understanding that presupposed the work of the philosophers and intended to further it if it was necessary to understand its own revelation more clearly and definitely.


Aristotle in his Politics had discussed the various kinds of simple regimes into which men could organize themselves. There were six simple regimes, each of which was identified both by its number of ruling principle and by its end or purpose. These ends or purposes were themselves reflections of the First Book of Aristotle's Ethics in which he discussed the differing kinds of happiness that were identified in acting human souls. Politics was the highest of the practical sciences. Practical sciences dealt with human actions in light of some end or purpose of soul. Politics would have been the highest science, Aristotle thought, if man were the highest being, which he was not. Thus, first philosophy, the contemplative life, dealt with the highest science and belonged to man as something divine in him. The prudence of politics, that is, the rule of the ruling principle over the matters of action and passion in the polis, was the practical intellectual virtue in which the right (or wrong) ordering of the parts of the polis to the whole was identified and spelled out in terms of definite laws.

Aristotle also spoke of mixed regimes, those which formed some combination of the simple regimes. The highest life for Aristotle was the contemplative, not the political life. The political life at its best was a preparation for and a promotion of the highest life, the reflection on what is. Unlike Plato, then, Aristotle did not identify the philosopher and the politician. He always seemed to recognize that the politician was a potential threat to the philosopher but that the politician had his own special purpose, a purpose that seldom left the politician time truly to philosophize. The simple regimes were monarchy, aristocracy, and polity, tyranny, oligarchy, and democracy. The first three regimes were considered to be good regimes because the ruling principle, whatever it was, one, few, or many, ruled for the common good. That is, the contributions of each to the whole were properly recognized. The bad regimes were not rule according to law or measure but rule according to the private good of the ruling principle. Aristotle understood the strength and weaknesses of each form of regime. His analysis of tyranny remains classic both in what the principles of tyranny are, that is, rule for the sake of the good of the tyrant, and for his advice on how to preserve this disordered regime. For Aristotle, political science included knowledge of bad regimes and a knowledge of how a change in regime could make for either a better or worse regime. Aristotle's mixed regimes tended to be practical devices to prevent the defects of one or other regime from taking their couse.

Now, I bring all of this discussion of the regimes in Aristotle up, because St. Thomas addressed himself to a question about the best regime that arose precisely in his consideration of the Old Law. He seems to imply that what Aristotle did not figure out could be resolved by attending to the Old Law's configurations of polity. It is of some interest and moment to state the issue clearly. Plato's best regime had existed only in speech or in thought. The extraordinary structure of the city in speech meant that it was not likely to exist among actual men. Indeed, the attempt to make it exist almost always seemed to end in disaster. St. Augustine had recognized that Plato's question about the best regime, however, was a legitimate one. Men must wonder about the best order and highest community, not merely among themselves, but whether that community, as Socrates intimated at the end of his Apology, included converse witht he gods and with other human beings who do not exist in our time. Aquinas, for his part, did not disagree with St. Augustine, nor with Aristotle and Plato, for that matter. What he did notice, however, was that Aristotle had not sufficiently considered the notion of the best regime as an actual polity. It was the conditions of this "moderate" best regime, if you will, that Aquinas came to define with the help of the Old Law.


St. Thomas began his consideration of the political teaching of the Old Law by asking, "Whether the Old Law Properly ("Convenienter") Organized the Offices of Rulers?" (I-II, 105, 1). In order to answer this question properly, Aquinas began with a philosophical consideration pointing out that a "good organization of rulers in any city or people" needs to be considered in two ways. The first way asks whether everyone has some part in the ruling principle. He immeditately cites Aristotle who said that the peace of a city required that everyone loved and protected the order of his regime. This love and protection seemed to imply active participation in the rule itself in some form. Aquinas next recalled Aristotle's reasoning about the diversity of regimes, that each different good regime emphasizes another aspect of human good. An aristocracy is the rule of the few virtuous. The best ordination of rulership (optima ordinatio principum) occurs when those who are superior in virtue are recognized and placed over all. But the other members of a political society are also involved in this selection and recognition both because the genuine virtues can arise from any place in the society and because all participate in the selection. The best political community is a regime mixed of monarchy, aristocracy, and polity, a regime that takes into account the strengths and weaknesses of each good regime.

Aquinas next turned to the constitutional structure found in the Old Law and found that all of these elements were in fact identified there in Deuteronomy and Exodus. There were monarchical, aristocratic, and popular elements, in due portion. Hence Aquinas concluded, "Unde patet quod optima fuit ordinatio principum quam lex instituit". The best form of regime contains these elements, and these elements were already found in the offices of Israel. This position is not that the mixed regime solves all of man's eternal or philosophical problems, but that it does do the best that can be done within the confines of what a city is. No city is the Kingdom of God, so that a good city may still be radically deficient in some transcendent aspects because its own citizens do not seek first the higher kingdom.

In the Second Objection to this same Question,, Aquinas dealt with Aristotle's own position that monarchy (that is, rule of the one best or most virtuous man) is the best simple regime. Why, if this is so, Aquinas wondered, was it not chosen in the Old Law? Aquinas immediately granted the value of this monarchical form of rule, but recalled Aristotle's notion about how easily corrupted monarchy can be. Unless the monarch has perfect virtue, he easily degenerates into a tyrant. Aquinas noted that the Jewish leaders in their history had often shown some of these disorderly tendencies in their own character, so that Yahweh did not initially give them a monarchical form of rule, but an aristocratic one, the rule of the judges. Aquinas sought to understand this historical record, in other words, in terms of political philosophy in order first to notice that revelation did seem aware of its owns insight and second to see if revelation might also suggest solutions to problems otherwise not yet clarified by the philosophers.

When the monarchy was finally granted, furthermore, Yahweh granted this concession almost as if He were indignant ("quasi indignatus concessit"). And when a form of monarchy was established in Israel, it was surrounded with forms of election. The Hebrew kings were not to imitate the forms of rule of nations surrounding them, nor were they to live with a great abundance of chariots and horses, and especially not with a multiplicity of wives or with immense riches, all of which things can corrupt the king. The desire of these latter things, which are after all merely those items Aristotle himself rejected as the meaning of happiness in the First Book of the Ethics, leads a prince to tranny. Likewise, the Law ordered the king to have a proper relation with God. He was always to live in obedience and fear of the Lord. With regard to his subjects, the king was not to act proudly nor to oppress them, nor to deviate from the standards of justice. These seemed to be things actual best kings could be expected to do.


In the following question, St. Thomas further asks, "Whether the Judicial Precepts (of the Old Law) Were Conveniently Handed Down with regard to the Living Together of the People?" (I-II, 105, 2). In the Sed Contra affirmation of the validity of this position that Old Testament did adequately treat of the structure of political life, Aquinas cited Psalm CXLVII, 12 to the effect that "(Yahweh) did not do a similar thing to every nation, and He did not manifested his judgments to them." This meant that the Jews had received a "special benefit". Aquinas took this brief comment to mean that he would find in the very structure of Old Testament judicial precepts some insight to the proper structure of polity, especially now that the universal purpose of revelation is more clearly promulgated.

Aquinas began his discussion by citing St. Augustine's own famous recollection of Cicero's definition of a people -- "populus est coetus multitudinis juris consensu et utilittis communmione sociatus" (II De Civ. Dei, c. 21). St. Augustine used this passage, it will be recalled, to show that Rome never was a real polity because it lacked on empirical grounds the rightness of law that its own best philosopher had said was necessary for any good regime. Cicero himself had argued, in terms of the mixed regime, that Republican Rome did correspond to a fully just city, almost as if Cicero himself intended to correct Plato on this issue. Aquinas, on the other hand, addressed himself to this highest topic of political philosophy as a practical science, to the highest organization of men qua mortal, in the context both of the Old Law and of Cicero. I take this context and analysis to mean that Aquinas still was able to see that the "reason" found in the judicial precepts of the Old Law needed to be taken seriously in the light of philosophical questions and dilemmas.

In this same question, Aquinas dealt with both political orders and property or domestic arrangements on the basis of what was laid down in the Old Law. He is not arguing here to suggest that the particular institutions of the Old Law should be reinstituted verbatim. Rather he is asking whether there are to be found in these particular arrangements some general philosophical principle that would apply to the whole, or to other nations. Aquinas pointed out that there are two types of communication of men one with another. The first is through the authority of the rulers and the second is through the proper wills of private persons in their own affairs. Aquinas saw in the Old Law elements of both of these aspects which emphasize that the private life is not to be absorbed into the city but retains its own dignity and purpose, without which the polity would be disordered (I-II, 105, 4).

The treatment of the Old Law is of great length and detail on the part of Aquinas. What seems to be of importance, in conclusion, is that Aquinas was able to take principles of political philosophy and organization and ask whether the Old Law did or did not contain valid principles. In doing this sort of analysis, Aquinas established the principle that revelation, whether Old or New Law, did in fact exhibit a rational order that corresponded with what the best philosophers had set down. But he also used the detailed instructions of the Old Law to address questions that were not always fully or properly resolved by the philosophers. I have in particular noted the importance of Aquinas' treatment of the Old Law and its relation to political philosophy, to the best regime. Aquinas does not see political philosophy as a discipline higher than revelation and what it contains, nor does he see it as higher than metaphysics. He is not, in other words, using it to subsequently judge the worth or lack of it of the structures of the Old Law. Rather, Aquinas, arguing from the wholeness of truth and reason wherever it appears, finds it possible to account for reason while examining revelation. It is in this line of thought that he comes to revelation with a considerable number of perplexities and unresolved issues that are in fact clarified by the peculiar contents of revelation, itself particularly constitued in its own manner. As a Christian, the status of the Old Law is considered to be both revelation and itself ordained to a further completion. But as a philosopher, Aquinas recognized that the Old Law did itself contain an order of intelligence about human action within the polity that either reflected reason, as in the case of the Ten Commandments, or suggested a possible conclusion to philosophic problems that remained obscure to the classic philosophers even after their most strenuous efforts.

4) From Post-Modernism and Christian Philosophy, Edited by Roman Ciapalo (Washington: American Maritain Society/The Catholic University of America Press, 1997), pp. 219-29.

James V. Schall, S. J.


"Oh my soul, I gave you back the freedom over the created and uncreated; and who knows, as you know, the voluptuous delight of what is yet to come?"

-- Nietzsche, Thus Spake Zarathustra, III.[71]

"There is the extraordinary regime of intelligent creatures insofar as they are free agents: to receive without having asked."

-- Jacques Maritain, Notebooks.[72]

I have begun these reflections on the "silence" of St. Thomas and post-modernity with two very curious, very contrasting remarks, each in its own way, I think, pertinent to the subject at hand. One citation is from Nietzsche, who more than any one else, sensed the death of modernity and defined the nihilist attractions of post-modernity. The other passage is from Jacques Maritain, who saw in St. Thomas that human liberty would be most free precisely when it received into itself, not exclusively itself, but rather all that is.

Nietzsche accused classical metaphysics and Christianity of a kind of weakness or even cowardliness. Nietzsche would not allow the suspicion, contained both in classical metaphysics and Christianity, that what is to be given to man is more than man can ever imagine by himself. That is, all humanly constructed utopias are insufficient precisely as utopias. This is the most telling judgment of revelation on all rationalism. Indeed, when spelled out, what man would be given would be precisely what he would want if he could have it. This perception that we do not even realize what it is we are to ask for, of course, is the sense of Maritain's remark that free agents are to receive what is properly theirs "without having asked."

The struggle between these two positions, the one that creates its own world, its own pleasure, and the one that receives what in fact is, is, in a way, a struggle over utopias. But it is over advanced utopias that have themselves previously rejected the utopias of the philosophers (Plato) and of those utopian thinkers who wish to establish the kingdom of God on earth (the Enlightenment) because, it is thought, the religious location (i.e., eternal life) has failed or is impossible. The issue in this sense is not primarily an intellectual one but a spiritual one, one that sees within itself the possibility of receiving or rejecting a love that is in genuine and best for the receiver, but one not intrinsically formulated by the receiver.

David Walsh's remark about Nietzschean tradition is to the point:

The analysis (of modernity) must recognize that the closure (the refusal to accept a natural or supernatural order) is motivated at root by the revolt against God, and that it is only the grace of divine reconciliation that can finally overcome it. If the problem could be resolved through the discovery of an acceptable intellectual formulation, then it would have been remedied long ago; it would not have been a spiritual crisis, in which the refusal to acknowledge what we know we should acknowledge constitutes the crux of the issue.[73]

Walsh was here developing a theme familiar in Voegelin, namely, that the denial of God is not primarily an intellectual problem about proving God's existence but a spiritual problem, a murder in fact. There are basic questions that we refuse to ask so that our problem is not really intellectual but spiritual, a problem of will and not intellect.[74]

To bring up the question of the silence of St. Thomas in the context of post-modernism hints, I presume, at a common, but dubious, suspicion that the configurations and gyrations of the contemporary mind are so unique and so original that they cannot possibly find response in the perennial philosophy of St. Thomas. Modernity, for its part, which we perceive to be largely over, was indeed confronted by the efforts of the sundry famous and not so famous neo-Thomists, even by those neo-Thomists who identified themselves as Thomists and not neo-Thomists, as most did. And the specter of Nietzsche has always stood for a kind of mocking challenge to modernity, prodding its adherents to have the faith of their convictions. Since God is dead, these superior men can inaugurate their own rights and their own delights, free from both the "created" and the "uncreated", as Nietzsche put it.

The modern project, to use Leo Strauss' term, conceived itself to be erected over the tomb of St. Thomas. Strauss himself knew of this tomb but did not think it pertinent except as a marker on the road to Aristotle. The modern project is also that against which post-modernity claims to rebel. The modern project consisted in the effort to use human intelligence for the charitable benefit of man. It based intellect itself on nothing but itself as the only criterion for valid knowledge of reality. This project seems to have run full course in the failure of Marxism and the growing statism of liberalism.

What has appeared among us instead of the perfect society, much to our surprise, has been pure thought with an unexpectedly inhuman face. Paradoxically, this face was most distorted when modernity sought to put into being its highest longings with the best of intentions. We have denied the possibility and necessity either of defining or of practicing virtues as the classics understood them, only to be rather astonished at the sorts of conduct, based on the premises of this very denial, that have appeared among us. The denial of original sin and the declarations of the goodness of man only seemed to make matters worse.

The effort to exclude systematically from modern life anything that could claim human attention from revelation was proposed to be the essence of humanism and the core of the project for human improvement. Religion, subsequently, has come to be identified as the only vice that remains recognized among us, that is, "fanaticism." The only acceptable world was the self-made world of pure reason. The only true evil is "intolerance"; that is, the claim that some truth demanding attention and obedience exists and can be discovered by the human mind.

This theoretic analysis of modernity led to a brave project, to be sure, one reminiscent of the account in Genesis of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, of the claim of man to decide for himself the distinctions between good and evil. Interestingly enough, this claim of autonomy has been fought out largely in the name of "human rights", in perhaps one of the most ironic twists of intellectual record ever witnessed by the philosophic historian. If we pay careful attention to their intellectual origins and justifications, human rights in modernity are not equivalent to the classical "natural law."[75] It is especially dangerous to make them so.

Human rights find their origins in Hobbes' notion of will presupposed to nothing but itself. This will, in itself, has an absolute right to everything. The "war of all against all" is natural right in its purest form. With considerable irony, human rights have come to function as the replacement for and, as to their content, the contradiction of what was considered to be the content of natural law. Natural law, for its part, did not depend on the human will or intellect for its content or for the fact that this content constituted the human good itself if freely understood and chosen. The natural law corresponded to the true human good.

Strauss' exact words about the modern project need to be repeatedly pondered:

The modern project was originated (by philosophers) as required by nature (natural right) ... to satisfy ... the most powerful natural needs of men: nature was to be conquered for the sake of man who himself was supposed to possess a nature, an unchangeable nature; the originators of the project took it for granted that philosophy and science are identical.... The conquest of nature requires the conquest of human nature and hence ... the questioning of the unchangeability of human nature: an unchangeable human nature might set absolute limits to progress.... The natural needs of men could no longer direct the conquest of nature; the direction had to come from reason as distinguished from nature, from the rational Ought as distinguished from the neutral Is.[76]

This remarkable passage underscores better than any other I can think of the reason why theories of human autonomy and human right have turned against human nature.

Ideologies, that is, worldviews whose content depend on nothing but will, seem to be the logical political alternatives to substitute for classical philosophy and revelation as a guide for human action. Ideology is formulated by a "rational Ought" that does not derive its content from any given nature, natural, human, or divine. The mind is free to speculate independently and with presumably exhilarating liberty about what it wants. It is thus free to establish an "Ought" independently of an "Is", since no "Is" by itself supposedly engages human intellect. As a result, the reason why an "Ought" might be limited by or, better, fulfilled by a given nature or "Is" has been theoretically eliminated by a science that can find no "reasons" or secondary causes in nature.[77]

The post-modern project appears at first sight, as it were, to be more humble. Nevertheless, it takes off from the unexpected and dire results of the modern project as Strauss understood it. Post-modernism doubts not only these grandiose rationalist schemes to transform the world in the name of autonomous man, but also the very notions of universal good, knowledge, and prosperity, on whose majestic premises the modern project was, in its own view, initially based.

Chesterton remarked in Orthodoxy that the problem of the modern mind is that it has mislocated the virtue of humility by putting it in the human intellect. Thereby, this pseudo-humility makes the intellect incapable of affirming the truth of anything. The proper place of humility is rather in the human will where it belongs. Post-modernity, in an odd fashion, agrees that will not intellect is the crucial power. For the classical and medieval thinkers, however, will was to follow intellect, whereas for the post-moderns it was to be independent of it.

The problem with modernity, then, was not that it did not discover vast reaches of the human mind and hand. Rather it was that it did not want to see these reaches to be anything but products of the human intellect presupposed to no criterion but what it imposed on itself. Modernity was still under the assumption that the conquest of nature was guided by mind. But this guidance was not through reference to a divine mind that might lie at the origin of the distinction in things, including the distinction between human, non-human, and divine things.

Reacting to this anthropocentric view, the post-modern mind suspected in fact that one of the directions that we could and perhaps should take, once modernity reached its own impasse, something made most vivid by the fate of Marxism, was towards a revival of virtue, classical metaphysics, and revelation. The historic and philosophic reasons why these classic ideas were rejected by modernity did not in retrospect hold. Realizing that the ideologies that took the place of religion could also themselves turn out to be the opium of the people, post-modernity took steps to protect itself from any implication that classical metaphysics and revelation might still be valid and true alternatives to the impasse of modernity.

This post-modernist defense of itself was by way of defining all knowledge, including religious and especially moral knowledge, as simply power. As McCoy pointed out, prudence was replaced by art as a guide to reality.[78] What caused the intellect to move was not, as Aristotle had held, wonder, but rather self-interest and control. In a move of what can only be called desperation, rather than admitting some normative value to truth and being, post-modernism doubted the very capacity of intellect itself to know anything at all.

Solzenitsyn recently described the situation quite accurately:

For a postmodernist, the world does not possess values that have reality. He even has an expression for this, "the world as text," as something secondary, as the text of an author's work, wherein the primary object of interest is the author himself in his relationship to the work, his own introspection. Culture, in this view, ought to be directed inward at itself; it alone is valuable and real. For this reason the concept of play acquires a heightened importance -- not the Mozartian playfulness of a universe overflowing with joy, but a forced playing upon the strings of emptiness, where an author need have no responsibility to anyone. A denial of any and all ideas is considered courageous. And in this voluntary self-delusion, "postmodernism" sees itself as a crowning achievement of all previous culture, the final link in its chain. We can have sympathy for this constant searching, but only as we have sympathy for the suffering of a sick man.[79]

Solzhenitsyn, be it noted, here stresses the same point of "a universe overflowing with joy" over against "the strings of emptiness ... with no responsibility to anyone" that I tried to emphasize earlier in my remarks on Nietzsche and Maritain.

Post-modernism allows no apparent opening to anything that might suggest that there was in fact an objective truth to which the mind was naturally oriented. The given world for the mind to know, a given world that was, to recall Aristotle's definition of knowledge, "to become" his after the mind's own manner of being, could not be reached. However "courageous" it might be to live with the denial of everything, that empty world was in fact most dangerous since everything was now permitted.[80]

"In literature, post-modernism amounts to a denial of the fixity of any 'text', of the authority of the author over the interpreter, of any 'canon' that 'privileges' great books over comic books," Gertrude Himmelfarb has perceptively summarized this position's central theses.

In philosophy, it is a denial of the fixity of language, of any correspondence between language and reality, indeed of any "essential" reality and thus of any proximate truth about reality. In law (in America, at any rate), it is a denial of the fixity of the constitution, of the authority of the founders of the constitution, and of the legitimacy of law itself, which is regarded as nothing more than an instrument of power. In history, it is a denial of the fixity of the past, of the reality of the past apart from what the historian chooses to make of it, and thus of any objective truth about the past.[81]

Fact and truth are thus looked upon as tyrannical in post-modernity because they prevent the free human intellect from creating what it wants, what it could do if it would.

While modernity was willing to consider that truth could be found if thought were left free to be thought, which is what science originally meant, post-modernity argued that an objective world to which the intellect was open and from which it could learn something would necessarily restrict that same intellect from doing what it wanted if the world was not the way it would like it to be. If human nature is changeable, and thus open to scientific manipulation since what is need not be what it is, only the boldest souls will be able to choose that into which it ought to change.

In Milan Kundera's novel, Immortality, we read the following extraordinary passage:

Because people in the West are not threatened by concentration camps, and are free to say and write what they want, the more the fight for human rights gains in popularity, the more it loses any concrete content, becoming a kind of universal stance of everyone toward everything, a kind of energy that turns human desires into rights.... The desire for love the right to love, the desire for rest the right to rest, the desire for friendship the right to friendship ... the desire to shout in the street in the middle of the night the right to shout in the street.[82]

Kundera has sensed here what I have suggested earlier, that there is a specific relation between the rise of human rights, as they are most commonly understood, and the loss of any sense that might imply an "unchangeable human nature", to use Strauss' words.

Desires thus become rights without the benefit either of clergy or even of nature. And desires, by themselves, are strictly speaking unlimited, as Plato already understood. Human rights, when based solely on desires, mean ultimately nothing other than we want them to mean. In this context, moreover, "we" is usually a political we, since individual rights have no grounding against collective ones. In other words, we have the strange phenomenon of human rights with no standard of what it is to be human other than what we might want. No transcendent or natural notion of the human good is either possible or wanted.

In Josef Pieper's wonderful opusculum, The Silence of St. Thomas, we read these words:

The last word of St. Thomas is not communication but silence. And it is not death which takes the pen out of his hand. His tongue is stilled by the superabundance of life in the mystery of God. He is silent, not because he has nothing further to say; he is silent because he has been allowed a glimpse into the inexpressible depths of the mystery which is not reached by any human thought or speech.[83]

Pieper in context, of course, is referring to the fact that St. Thomas, who wrote an incredible amount of the profoundest of things before he died at fifty, did not finish his great Summa Theologiae.

St. Thomas did not finish his great work, Pieper emphasized, because he suddenly died or because he was prevented to finish it by some natural or political reason. He did not finish it because of a vision he had in which he realized, as he said, in a remarkable phrase, that all he had written, compared to the depths of God, was "but straw." For Pieper this event signified that it was part of the essential nature of St. Thomas' work that it was "unfinished", as if to imply that human knowledge could not by itself ever penetrate to all the things that were to be known, especially the highest things.

Let us ask, then, what might be St. Thomas' position were he to have encountered "post-modernism", always a dangerous supposition, I know. What happens, we might ask, when this post-modernist "right", because that is his desire, to "shout in the streets", to take up Kundera's remark, meets the silence of St. Thomas? In the first place, we know that the proper Thomist approach to a thing like post-modernism would be initially the effort to formulate accurately what it is, to formulate it perhaps better than post-modernist writers themselves could formulate their own position. Even in this most skeptical post-modernist position, there is some truth or point that can be distinguished, some truth that can be accepted.

I want to suggest that the effort to escape from reality that Gertrude Himmelfarb rightly saw in the post-moderns is, in a way, the logical antithesis of St. Thomas' mysterious silence. But to establish this point, or at least to clarify its possibility, I want to cite a passage from a lecture of Professor Richard Kennington about the strange position of charity in modernist thought, a point that Leo Strauss had also emphasized. In his Thoughts on Machiavelli, Strauss had remarked that modernity had rejected the means that were implicit in medieval (that is revelational) theories about the grace needed to achieve many of the elevated positions of charity and mercy that were introduced into the world by revelation.[84] Even though modernity rejected these means, it did not reject the goals to which they pointed. Hence the characteristic of the city in speech or the city on the hill were thought now to be feasible in a way that neither the classics nor revelation itself warranted.

Kennington wrote, in this regard,

The secularization of charity is ... a constituent element of the founding of modern philosophy. For the fruits of this charity both motivate the philosopher, guaranteeing him the love and gratitude of all mankind, and supply those benefits that anchor this love and gratitude in the self-interest, "rightly understood", of the rest of the human race. The right of mankind "to be satisfied," in Hegel's phrase, ,,, has been placed on a solid footing. But humanity needs desperately ... some standard of the good and evil of life, by which to choose among satisfactions, if only because universal satisfaction is not available for all individuals, races or peoples. The very goal of mastery of nature, that appeared to put us on the road to universal satisfaction, is the reason why nature, the standard of the good and right, of natural right and natural law, can no longer have for us that function. The secularization of charity is held hostage by the secularization of nature.[85]

Bacon's goal of the mastery of nature to result in universal satisfaction through material goods has eliminated as a criterion of good and evil nature and especially human nature.

This project was what was meant by the famous "lowering of the sights" so that questions of the higher things would not be elements of the public order because they were seen as interfering with material progress. Human nature, as Strauss remarked, came to be seen as a dangerous limit on the progress of science. Without this unchangeable nature, however, the distinction of good and evil disappears. The secularization of nature prevents grace from working on nature to achieve the elevated goals that were introduced into the Enlightenment world as a secularization of the eschaton. This strain to achieve the unacknowledged higher means by science alone came to justify the significance of ideology in the public order in modernity

If we return to St. Thomas' silence, then, it is possible to suggest, at least, that the order of the world, which Thomas did so much to articulate, with its relation to revelation, which he integrated into a way of looking at both, of accounting for both, leaves us with the famous Socratic knowing that we know nothing, or with St. Thomas' negative theology with the fact that what we do know about God is that we know nothing. Both Thomas and post-modernism do, in a strange manner, testify to the insufficiency of the actual world. St. Thomas testifies to it while granting its wonder and radiance and light. Post-modernism testifies to it while affirming that nothing in the world is at all binding or true in comparison to imagined worlds presumably better than the one that is about which we can know nothing.

Gertrude Himmelfarb sought to take up a kind of Thomistic effort to suggest how bright young historians, tempted by the dead-end of post-modern theory, might think their way back into reality. Her way was, perhaps not too unremarkably, the very way of Aristotle and Thomas in their approaches to the existence of God through the reality of particular things.

(The post-modernist argument in history) has meant abandoning not only the conventions regarding the presentation and documentation of evidence, but the very idea of historical reasoning, of coherence, consistency, factuality. The post-modernist argument is that these are the "totalizing", "terroristic" practices of an "authoritarian" discipline. But they are also the hard practices of a difficult discipline. Gresham's law applies in history as surely as in economics: bad habits drive out good, easy methods drive out hard ones. And there is no doubt that the old history, traditional history, is hard.

Hard -- but exciting precisely because it is hard. And that excitement may prove a challenge and inspiration for a new generation of historians. It is more exciting to write true history (or as true as we can make it) than fictional history, else historians would choose to be novelists rather than historians, more exciting to try to rise above our interests and prejudices than to indulge them; more exiting to try to enter the imagination of those remote from us in time and place than to impose our imagination upon them....[86]

This excitement has, as its grounding, not the discovery of some imagined history, of some imagined account of how things might have been were we gods to recount them, but the humble respect for what we can know and for what did happen.

The epistemological skepticism about either our knowing faculties or the moral skepticism about our ability to see beyond your own self-interest can both be faced head on. We can show that skepticism is itself theoretically contradictory. We can experience our ability to subject self-interest to common good and objective reality. We can also follow the path of what happens when we deny in theory either of these bases of thought and morality.

The "silence" of St. Thomas, I think, is of a very different nature from that which professes to be able to account for nothing except what it freely chooses because nothing to contradict our own thoughts can, presumably, affect us. Pieper has stated the alternative well:

Man, in his philosophical inquiry, is faced again and again with the experience that reality is unfathomable, and Being is mystery -- an experience, it is true, which urges him not so much to a communication as to silence. But it would not be the silence of resignation and still less of despair. It would be the silence of reverence.[87]

The "silence of despair", it would seem, would characterize the post-modern enterprise, if by despair we mean that, in the end, what we encounter and can encounter in the world is only ourselves. The "silence of reverence", on the other hand, would grant how little we actually might know about things in their order, but it would recognize that since even the tiniest thing has its existence, its being outside of nothing, from the only source that can cause something to stand out of nothingness in the first place, that our not knowing is but an invitation to knowing, "to receive without having asked."

In his Approaches to God, Maritain remarked that "what we prove when we prove the existence of God is something which infinitely surpasses us -- us and our ideas and our proofs."[88] What we should not conclude from this is that the effort to know as much as we can about God, the effort to state clearly and accurately what we know about Him and about what is, is either futile or contrary to our nature and faculties of knowledge. If we might agree with post-modernism about the vastness of what we do not know about ourselves and the world, we can still agree with the silence of St. Thomas in recognizing that the proper path to understanding what it is we do not know is only through what it is we do know.

"We can never properly grasp this correspondence between the original pattern in God and the created copy, in which formally and primarily the truth of things consists," Pieper wrote.

It is quite impossible for us, as spectators, so to speak, to contemplate the emergence of things from "the eye of God." ... The reason for is that things are creaturae, that the inner lucidity of Being has its ultimate and exemplary source in the boundless radiance of Divine Knowledge.[89]

The silence of reverence and the humility we need before what is are the true sources of excitement, of the real drama of our lot which knows that we did not create ourselves.

Voegelin's remark to a group of students in Montreal, in conclusion, is decisive here: "We all experience our own existence as not existing out of itself but as coming from somewhere even if we do not know from where."[90] This initial experience itself can be misunderstood, deliberately misunderstood, to mean that the source of our own radical experience that we "come from somewhere" not ourselves is not primary. The silence of St. Thomas witnesses to the expectant awe of what is, of what we did not ask for in the presence of a post-modernism that can listen only to itself. The freedom over the created and the uncreated, the delight of what is yet to come, finds its proper context in St. Thomas rather than Nietzsche precisely because we do not experience our own existence nor that of anything else as coming from our of ourselves. That is, we are agents free enough even to receive a gift, even the gift of ourselves, without our having had to ask for it.