Savitri Era of those who adore, Om Sri Aurobindo and The Mother.

Sunday, June 03, 2007

Obviously, St Thomas Aquinas is not following our definition of democracy

Henry Karlson Vox Nova
What is government for St Thomas? Somewhat following Aristotle’s Politics, St Thomas says that we are social animals. We cannot obtain for ourselves all that we need on our own, and so we must rely upon the cooperation of our community to get them. “Wherefore, if man were intended to live alone, as many animals do, he would require no other guide to his end. Each man would be a king unto himself, under God, the highest King, inasmuch as he would direct himself in his acts by the light of reason given to him from on high. Yet it is natural for man, more than any other animal, to be a social and political animal, to live in a group” (St Thomas, On Kingship, 3-4).
To him, a community is better when it is guided by some common principles through some sort of authority, because it then can better organize itself for the sake of a common good, specifically, peace. “Now the welfare and safety of a multitude formed into society lies in the preservation of its unity, which is called peace” (ibid., 11). St Thomas believes that it is the natural inclination of humanity to form social networks, and with it, to develop a system by which that social network can best work together to achieve its common end, that is, it is natural for us to form governments.
How does one discern which system or method of governing is best? What is the best way to keep that communal unity? “Now it is manifest that what is itself one can more efficaciously bring about unity than several…” (ibid., 12). St Thomas brings to the table the neo-Platonic notion that “the one” is more efficacious, more powerful, more capable of producing unity and therefore bringing out what is needed for the common good. This is because, “Several are said to be united according as they come closer to being one. So one man rules better than several who come near being one” (ibid., 12).
With these two ideas guiding his thought, St Thomas discusses three different methods of government: one where a society is ruled by a multitude (polyarchy), one where a society is ruled by a virtuous few, and one where a society is ruled by a single person (monarchy). He then divides these into those governments which are ruled justly or unjustly, ranking them according to the potential good or evil that these forms of governments can produce. He puts them down in the following scale, from best to worst: a king, an aristocracy, a polity, a democracy, an oligarchy, and a tyrant. He ranks them in this fashion because as he believes, from the oneness of authority, a king has more innate authority and power than an aristocracy, but an aristocracy has more power and ability than a democracy because, with fewer rulers, it is more united than what can occur in a polity. He then creates a symmetrical reversal of this order to discuss unjust governments: a democracy, because it inherently has less unity, has less power to do evil than an oligarchy, and similarly an oligarchy has less power to do that evil than a tyrant (cf. ibid, 7-8).
Obviously, St Thomas Aquinas is not following our definition of democracy when he describes it as the worst form of polyarchy. Thus, we cannot simply take this order without further observation. We must see what St Thomas does with his classification. It is not as simple as to say “because a tyrant has more potential to do evil, a tyrant is a greater evil than an unjust polyarchy.” Indeed, he believes this is not the case. He does not only considers the potential good or evil within an individual system of government, but also the potential for that system to turn from a just form of itself into an unjust form, and also the potential, if it is unjust, for it to follow through to the greatest kind of injustice available for that system.
In his reflection on this problem, St Thomas makes the observation that a monarchial form of government is less likely to develop into tyranny, and if it does, less likely to achieve the fullness of its potential evil than any other system. Indeed, if not looking to potential but to what he thinks happens in reality, the cruelty of an unjust monarch is more limited in scope than the cruelty of an unjust polyarchy. To explain this, he writes that a polyarchy of any sort has more potential for this devolution from the very fact that it is less united in itself and less capable of producing those goods which prevent a devolution to tyranny. “Now, considerable dangers to the multitude follow more frequently from polyarchy than from monarchy.
There is a greater chance that, where there are many rulers, one of them will abandon the intention of the common good than that it will be abandoned when there is but one ruler. When any one among several rulers turns aside from the pursuit of the common good, danger of internal strife threatens the group, because, when the chiefs quarrel, dissension will follow in the people” (ibid., 21-2). Moreover, a tyrant will be less interested in the full extent of his powers, and will manifest his cruelty in a limited scope. “A tyrant, on the other hand, does not destroy this good [the social good], rather he obstructs one or the other individual interests of his subjects – unless, of course, there is an excess of tyranny and the tyrant rages against the whole community” (ibid. 21, note in the bracket mine).
St Thomas believes that in its nature, a polyarchy has less restrictions in place to prevent it from turning to tyranny than a monarchy. History, he says, proves this is so: “The best illustration of this fact is the history of the Roman Republic. It was for a long time administered by the magistrates but then animosities, dissensions and civil wars arose and it fell into the power of the most cruel tyrants” (ibid., 22). Danger, St Thomas tells us, is found within any system, but ones run by many people just multiply the risk for injustice, and therefore are best to be avoided. And, though he does not state it this manner, one cay say it is implied, that the more people are put in charge of a state, the more interests they can desire to obstruct, and thus the great amount of injustice can be found in the actual activity of an unjust polyarchy than in the similar activity of an unjust monarchy.
We can see that in modern democratic systems, because they have a representational form of leadership, they try to deal with some of the concerns of St Thomas Aquinas and those like him. There is one elected leader, and yet, he or she is seen to be ruling by the will of the people. Usually this leader does not have the full the authority of the nation or state invested upon his or her person: there others are who are given particular powers which he or she does not have. Thus, while there is the nominal idea that the people are in charge, in reality, the reality is that only a specific number of people in a given state possess real governing authority. Because this power is given to a specific group of people, and not to one individual, St Thomas would suggest that this group, instead of forming the basis of a check for power, forms the basis by which a government is most likely to devolve into tyranny.
Two more points need to be made before we end this discussion. St Thomas Aquinas, in his Summa Theologica, develops what he said in On Kingship a bit further. While he continues to point out that a king is the best ruler for a state, this king clearly cannot do everything himself. The authority must be his, but it must also be divested in others. And these others should be the best from the people, chosen in part by the people “For this is the best form of polity, being partly kingdom, since there is one head of all; partly aristocracy, in so far as a number of persons are set in authority; partly democracy, i.e., government by the people, in so far as the rulers can be chosen from the people, and the people have the right to choose their leaders” (St Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, trans. Fathers of the English Dominican Province (New York: Benziger Brothers, 1948) I-II:105.1.
Secondly, St Thomas Aquinas continues, in Christian fashion, to point out that all good, and the preservation of that good, comes from God. When we separate God from the equation, when we try to make it a perfectly human enterprise, corruption is to ensue; this is as true in a state as it is in an individual. It is not by arms or might, but in and through the grace of God we must work. Then, when God is brought into that equation, God can by grace perfect what is lacking in nature. “Indeed, everything that is variable in itself needs the help of an immovable mover so that it may be fixed on one objective. But man is subject to variation, both from evil to good and from good to evil. So, in order that he may immovably continue in the good, which is to persevere, he needs divine help” (St Thomas Aquinas, Summa Contra Gentiles: Book Three, Providence. Trans. Vernon J Bourke (New York: Hanover House, 1956), Part II.151.2. Posted by Henry Karlson at 11:40 AM Saturday, June 2, 2007 Labels: , , , Comments (4) Trackback
There are some general points above that I agree with you on, but I think your notion of monarchy as compared to democracy is simplistic when we turn from these general notions to the practical world of politics. Matt Peterson 06.02.07 - 2:21 pm #

Hmm, it looks like Thomas had Plato's Republic in mind when writing On Kingship than Aristotle's Politics. Anxietas 06.02.07 - 5:53 pm #

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