Here are some more questions for you to think about (again, these are all just meant as jumping-off points for a wide-ranging discussion).
Based on our reading of St. Thomas, how should we understand the limits of politics and the law? What can we legitimately expect from political life (in contradistinction to moral life)? Do you think St. Thomas is right to say that human law must tolerate certain vices?
Do you think there are conditions under which it is right for a person to disobey the law? What sorts of conditions? What sorts of conditions does St. Thomas think would allow for such disobedience?
Lastly and most importantly: what is the natural law, according to St. Thomas? We want to get a good handle on this before examining modern natural law theories, which deviate from St. Thomas’s understanding in important ways.
St. Thomas Aquinas reconciled political philosophy from Aristotle with Christian teachings and faith, where he believed that justice by any ruler or government must aim at the common good of all. In comprehending law and politics, St. Thomas concluded that the existence of the government was not merely to put sinners in check but also promote what was good such as the protection of life, the preservation of the state, and the promotion of peace. Politics not governed by these principles of the common good was tyrannical and unjust. From politics, people can expect adherence to natural law where “good is to be done and pursued and evil avoided” (Sulmasy 2001). Moral life was placed under human law where St. Thomas believed that it could vary with time, place, and circumstance. It is on this point that scholars expound, meaning that in some cases evil is justified, but the highlight of St Thomas’s teachings was that any action, regardless of its moral standing, must be for the common good for it to be justified.
St. Thomas allowed for civil disobedience should a ruler promote tyranny where he believed that “a tyrannical government is not just, because it is directed not to the common good, but to the private good of the ruler” (Keys 2006). He offered that recipients of tyranny are not under any obligation to obey the law because the people tasked with the duty to uphold the law lack legitimacy. This concept has been carried along to the modern world by great activists such as Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, Nelson Mandela, and Mahatma Gandhi, among many others. It is reasonable to oppose oppressive governance even through force, as St. Thomas stated. However, the process and limits of disposing of a tyrannical government must match up to the evils committed by an unjust government but must not go beyond. He set some sort of scale on the amount of evil allowed when fighting for the common good.
Keys, M. M. (2006). Aquinas, Aristotle, and the promise of the common good. Cambridge University Press.
Sulmasy, D. P. (2001). Four basic notions of the common good. John’s L. Rev., 75, 303.
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