29 January 2013

The Feast of the Angelic Doctor

This time last year, I was working on my master’s thesis, whose topic was the influence of the physical presence of public school facilities on civic participation in Homewood. My topic, which started off far too broad and had to be narrowed down drastically in order to be workable, was in no small part inspired by reading De Regno, a treatise on government by St Thomas Aquinas which also touched on the art of good urban living. St Thomas, as the official theologian which the modern Roman Catholic Church takes as its guide, has an undeserved reputation in this unenlightened age as being stodgy and conservative (even boring), when in truth he was anything but. His work was a monumental and indeed politically radical attempt to reconcile the thought of Aristotle with contemporary Catholic theology, an attempt whose success is enshrined in his designation as a Doctor of the Church in 1568. He also inspired and embodied an entire tradition of apologetics which involves standing in the shoes of the other, and truly following the Pauline exhortation to test all things, and to hold fast to the good no matter the source.

Indeed, much of his work has not lost its radical bite, especially in our age where many injustices and acts of cruelty are tolerated and even encouraged openly. He denounced lending at interest (that is, usury) as being a violation of the natural law, in a straightforward way which makes me surprised that he was not employed regularly by the Occupy movement:

On the contrary, it is written (Exodus 22:25): “If thou lend money to any of thy people that is poor, that dwelleth with thee, thou shalt not be hard upon them as an extortioner, nor oppress them with usuries.”

I answer that, to take usury for money lent is unjust in itself, because this is to sell what does not exist, and this evidently leads to inequality which is contrary to justice. On order to make this evident, we must observe that there are certain things the use of which consists in their consumption: thus we consume wine when we use it for drink and we consume wheat when we use it for food. Wherefore in such like things the use of the thing must not be reckoned apart from the thing itself, and whoever is granted the use of the thing, is granted the thing itself and for this reason, to lend things of this kin is to transfer the ownership. Accordingly if a man wanted to sell wine separately from the use of the wine, he would be selling the same thing twice, or he would be selling what does not exist, wherefore he would evidently commit a sin of injustice. On like manner he commits an injustice who lends wine or wheat, and asks for double payment, viz. one, the return of the thing in equal measure, the other, the price of the use, which is called usury.

On the other hand, there are things the use of which does not consist in their consumption: thus to use a house is to dwell in it, not to destroy it. Wherefore in such things both may be granted: for instance, one man may hand over to another the ownership of his house while reserving to himself the use of it for a time, or vice versa, he may grant the use of the house, while retaining the ownership. For this reason a man may lawfully make a charge for the use of his house, and, besides this, revendicate the house from the person to whom he has granted its use, as happens in renting and letting a house.

Now money, according to the Philosopher (Ethic. v, 5; Polit. i, 3) was invented chiefly for the purpose of exchange: and consequently the proper and principal use of money is its consumption or alienation whereby it is sunk in exchange. Hence it is by its very nature unlawful to take payment for the use of money lent, which payment is known as usury: and just as a man is bound to restore other ill-gotten goods, so is he bound to restore the money which he has taken in usury.

And also on the topic of the right ends of ownership and the proper distribution of property, and whether taking without consent is lawful in cases of need, also from his Summa Theologica:

On the contrary, in cases of need all things are common property, so that there would seem to be no sin in taking another's property, for need has made it common.

I answer that, things which are of human right cannot derogate from natural right or Divine right. Now according to the natural order established by Divine Providence, inferior things are ordained for the purpose of succoring man's needs by their means. Wherefore the division and appropriation of things which are based on human law, do not preclude the fact that man's needs have to be remedied by means of these very things. Hence whatever certain people have in superabundance is due, by natural law, to the purpose of succoring the poor. For this reason Ambrose [Loc. cit., 2, Objection 3] says, and his words are embodied in the Decretals (Dist. xlvii, can. Sicut ii): “It is the hungry man's bread that you withhold, the naked man's cloak that you store away, the money that you bury in the earth is the price of the poor man's ransom and freedom.”

Since, however, there are many who are in need, while it is impossible for all to be succored by means of the same thing, each one is entrusted with the stewardship of his own things, so that out of them he may come to the aid of those who are in need. Nevertheless, if the need be so manifest and urgent, that it is evident that the present need must be remedied by whatever means be at hand (for instance when a person is in some imminent danger, and there is no other possible remedy), then it is lawful for a man to succor his own need by means of another's property, by taking it either openly or secretly: nor is this properly speaking theft or robbery.

It is especially on the feast day of the Angelic Doctor that we should be reminded of the thread of radicalism running through his work, echoed also in De Regno (which could serve as inspiration, as it did for me, for many other communitarians, environmentalists and advocates of ‘smart growth’ against the soulless anti-aesthetics of suburban sprawl and high modernism). There is great wisdom in the West’s middle age, and most of it to be found amongst the works of St Thomas.


  1. Saint Augustine of Hippo is an important forebear of the Dominican tradition in which some of us stand. His Rule remains part of the Constitutions to this day, and his influence suffuses the great theologians and spiritual writers of Dominicanism. Saint Thomas Aquinas was a Dominican. Therefore, far from being the rupture with Augustinianism that is often asserted, his thought is wholly within it, and indeed utterly incomprehensible apart from it. Other attempts to affirm the Augustinian vision of all knowledge as divine illumination are not necessarily in opposition to Thomism; rather, under the Magisterium (its own point of reference and correction), it provides their point of reference and correction.

    This applies to the entire rational and empirical systems, since, at least in the context of those who devised these systems in Early Modern Europe, the very belief in the possibility of true knowledge by rational or empirical means - indeed, of true knowledge at all - is Augustinian, and indeed Thomist. Blessed John Paul the Great, in Fides et Ratio commended at once Thomism in paragraphs 43 and 44, and the works of Blessed John Henry Newman, Blessed Antonio Rosmini, Saint Teresa Benedicta of the Cross (Edith Stein) and Russians of various stripes alongside Maritain and Gilson in paragraph 74, not to mention engagement with Indian and other non-Western philosophies in paragraph 73.

    Alas that Chesterton defines Aquinas against the Christianised Neoplatonism of the Augustinian illuminist tradition, rather than recognising Thomism’s Christianised Aristotelianism as nevertheless belonging within, and greatly enriching, that tradition. Had Chesterton done this, then he would have been quite astonishingly prescient in this as in so many other areas. However, what Chesterton writes about Thomism as the definitive philosophical articulation of the world-view that he shares is of course entirely correct. In Saint Thomas Aquinas (1933), he sets out that “the primary or fundamental Part” of Thomism “or indeed the Catholic Philosophy” is “the praise of Life, the praise of Being, the praise of God as the Creator of the World.” Precisely so.

    Ora pro nobis.

  2. Many thanks, David! The Classical philosophers do need to have their place reaffirmed in the education systems of the West, I think - not least for their politically radical potential.