Friday, February 17, 2006

Astounding anachronism: Was St. Thomas Aquinas a Whig?

Keep in mind that the following is an interpolation of various writings of Aquinas. I'll mention some more qualifications at the end.
Here are the sentiments of the most celebrated of all the Guelphic writers: -- "A King who is unfaithful to his duty forfeits his claim to obedience. It is not rebellion to depose him, for he is himself a rebel whom the nation has a right to put down. But it is better to abridge his power, that he may be unable to abuse it. For this purpose, the whole nation ought to have a share in governing itself; the constitution ought to combine a limited and elective monarchy, with an aristocracy of merit, and such an admixture of democracy as shall admit all classes to office, by popular election. No government has a right to levy taxes beyond the limit determined by the people. All political authority is derived from popular suffrage, and all laws must be made by the people or their representatives. There is no security for us as long as we depend on the will of another man." This language, which contains the earliest exposition of the Whig theory of the revolution, is taken from the works of St. Thomas Aquinas, of whom Lord Bacon says that he had the largest heart of the school divines. And it is worth while to observe that he wrote at the very moment when Simon de Montfort summoned the Commons; and that the politics of the Neapolitan friar are centuries in advance of the English statesman’s.
It's important to remember that Aquinas would replace one king only with another king, and that for him liberty does not trump order, as it does for a great many impractical libertarians.

But this latter is perhaps not a huge hurdle for practical libertarians. David Friedman is in the habit of noting that the average person does not reject anarcho-capitalism because he is afraid the mail will not be carried effectively or because of economies of scale in road-building or because he believes no internet governance would lead to inefficiently-many standards: he rejects anarchy because he is afraid of killing and pillaging in the streets. Those who cry "let justice (or liberty) be done, though the heavens fall" are usually secretly sure that the sky will stay in place--or they are crazy and not to be trusted with power. Rational people only believe liberty should trump order when that trump card is never played, or if they have never been to Haiti.

The former point--of believing a king is superior to democracy--is more problematic. He does suggest the monarch should be elective, and requires laws to made by the people's representative. Perhaps for Thomas the king is the most dangerous branch of government?

In any event, a provoking thought. The paragraph above was assimilated by Lord Acton.


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