By nature all men are equal in liberty but not in other endowments.
- Thomas Aquinas
A good place to start.
Freedom's Progress?: A History of Political Thought, by Gerard Casey
Thomas Aquinas lived for about fifty years, during the middle of the thirteenth century. He was at the heart of what was one of the most intellectually revolutionary periods in European history:
…he was one of those who led the successful fight to have the newly translated (into Latin) works of Aristotle accepted by the academic and ecclesiastical establishments…
In addition to Aristotle, another rediscovered source for this revolutionary period was Emperor Justinian’s sixth century codification of Roman law. A quick detour into Justinian’s work:
…Justinian tried to restate the whole of Roman law in a manageable and consistent form…. [The members of the second commission] were to read the works of authority, none of them written later than about AD 300, and excerpt what was currently valid.
The compilers were authorized to alter the texts they kept. If the new version of a text differed from the old, the new prevailed, on the theory that Justinian was entitled to amend the previous law as he wished.
Justinian was Eastern Emperor. Presumably, his codification of law was the basis upon which the Byzantine Empire was built. What can be said of this? This codified law supported a long-lasting, reasonably stable, commercially successful empire; connecting Asia and Western Europe, its economy was far more dynamic than could be found east or west; gold coinage, while not free-market derived, was respected – certainly one of the key factors in the commercial success. (My one meaningful foray into this history can be found here.)
In this, we see the issue: Western Europe was governed by a more libertarian law; the Eastern Empire a more codified law (albeit, I have not studied this law at all). The differences in the development of trade and the economy and internal peace are clear and cannot be avoided. One is reminded of Rothbard and his essay “The Myth of Efficiency.” One should not conflate economic efficiency (a myth in any case) with liberty:
I conclude that we cannot decide on public policy, tort law, rights, or liabilities on the basis of efficiencies or minimizing of costs. But if not costs or efficiency, then what? The answer is that only ethical principles can serve as criteria for our decisions. Efficiency can never serve as the basis for ethics; on the contrary, ethics must be the guide and touchstone for any consideration of efficiency.
Returning to Casey: the universities in Paris and Oxford, along with the Dominicans and Franciscans, provided the intellectual vehicle through which Aristotle and Justinian were integrated into Western thought.
Thomas wrote little directly on political theory; he did write that political authority can only be properly exercised in accordance with the law. Thomas’s view of the law, therefore, becomes the focus. Law is something much more than a system for regulating the affairs of men; it is part of a system of divine government – and coming to man thusly:
- Eternal Law is God’s design for the whole of creation. It is ‘the ideal of divine wisdom considered as directing all actions and movements’ and all other forms of law ultimately derive from it.
- Divine Law is, in effect, what is given to us by revelation in Scripture.
- Natural Law is ‘the participation of the eternal law in a rational creature,’ a reflection of Eternal Law as we see it manifested in creatures. It gives to each kind of thing ends in accordance with its nature. For man, those ends are the preservation of his own life, life in society, the generation and education of children and the search for truth.
- Human (or Positive) Law is law as it applies specifically to men in their concrete and practical circumstances. It is an ordinance of reason for the common good made and promulgated by those who have charge of the community.
Casey will focus on natural law and positive law and the relationship between the two. I will be citing extensively from Casey as this issue and this period in European history seems to lie at the crux of many important points (and I don’t want my paraphrasing to mess things up): the transition from the old and good medieval law to the bureaucratic and administrative law post-Renaissance; the unavoidable and necessary connection between Christian thought and classical liberalism (and the reliance of the latter on the former).