Friday, June 19, 2020

Understanding Thomas

To the extent such is possible to anyone other than a devoted, lifetime scholar (hint: not me).

I have been following a series offered by the Thomistic Institute: Aquinas 101.  From a recent chapter, I offer a couple of excerpts that expand on a Thomistic understanding of Natural Law.  You will get plenty of Murray Rothbard, Hans Hoppe, and Frank van Dun thrown in for flavor.

The Natural Law, Fr. Dominic Legge, O.P. (video).  Fr. Legge distinguishes between the negative precepts and positive precepts of the Natural Law, as follows:

The Natural Law is most clear with respect to certain general and negative precepts, like, for example, the precepts of the Ten Commandments.

He then lists the items from the Second Table of the Decalogue – the various “Thou shalt not” commandments.  Hans Hoppe has referred to these as well, while suggesting that not each of these must hold the same rank or status (regarding formal, physical punishment) for the libertarian (e.g. murder, as opposed to adultery).   From Hoppe:

Indeed, thus interpreted the full six mentioned commandments can be recognized as even an improvement over a strict and rigid libertarianism - given the common, shared goal of social perfection: of a stable, just and peaceful social order.

Returning to Fr. Legge and the negative precepts from the Decalogue:

These are wrong always and everywhere, because these are contrary to what the Natural Law teaches us is good for human beings.

Please hold on to any objections that make some assumption about what Thomas would view as punishment for such violations.

Fr. Legge then discusses positive precepts; these are a different case, as these are harder to apply:

We might all agree with the precepts “be brave,” “be just”; but there are many ways to do these, and some might be better than others.  That’s why Aquinas thinks that the negative precepts of the Natural Law are more easily known, and apply always and everywhere while the positive precepts don’t necessarily apply in every circumstance.

I look at the non-aggression principle, on which libertarianism is based, as a negative precept: do not hit first; do not take my stuff – this is akin to the Silver Rule.  I look at the positive precepts as the Golden Rule, an implementation of other-regarding action; a.k.a. love.  Please hold on to any objections that make some assumption about what Thomas (or I) would view as punishment for such violations – it is already offered that these do not necessarily apply in every circumstance.

It is the job of lawmakers to specify and apply the general precepts of the Natural Law in a particular context and for a particular community.

In other words, culture and tradition matters.  One cannot apply any theory of law and punishment in a uniform manner across all peoples and all times.  There is always gray at the edges – call it the continuum problem.  What is considered aggression?  Easy for murder and theft.  But consider the never-ending debates libertarians have about topics such as intellectual property, abortion, and borders.  When does one reach the age of majority? 

What rights do children possess?  Libertarians have few answers on such a topic (although I have recently read an argument by Richard D. Fuerle addressing this, albeit it was sent to me privately).  In any case, culture and tradition offer answers – unique to each place and time, but answers nonetheless.

Moving to a second lecture from this chapter: An Introduction to St. Thomas Aquinas on Law, Fr. Dominic Legge, O.P. (audio)

Here, we will get some understanding of How Aquinas comes to understand the purpose of law.  Aquinas offers that the purpose of law is to instruct.  It isn’t to threaten or punish.  It is a way of pointing you to the good, helping you to order yourself to the proper end.  Threats or punishment come at the end, not at the beginning, when considering law applied.

Now, this still might seem a bit dangerous – is it a theocracy, chopping off of heads for adultery or a glass of wine?  No, not at all.  I offer again a cite from Frank van Dun – forgive that I have also recently offered it, and also forgive the length.  However, it is quite important:

…Thomas clearly distinguished between mere sins (that merit disapproval and repentance) and injustices (that merit ‘action in justice’ and redress).  He also distinguished between vices of the sort no virtuous man would engage in and vices that threaten the existence of ‘society’ (not this  or  that  particular society but ‘human society’ as a general form of conviviality or symbiosis): murder, arson, theft, fraud, robbery, assault and other crimes against persons and property.  (Summa Theologica, IaIIae, question 96, art.2 (concl).  Only with respect to injustice and especially crime can the coercive power of ‘human law’ intervene. In short, while all virtues are necessarily lawful (sanctioned by the rational appreciation of their agreement with divine providence), and all vices are consequently unlawful, only a few vices of a particular sort should be made illegal. ‘Legislating morality’ was not on Thomas’ agenda.

Read the last sentence again, and if the point remains unclear read the entire statement over and over again until it sinks in.  This statement strikes me as nothing more than an extension of the points raised by Hoppe: not all violations rise to the point of formal, physical punishment; yet something more than the non-aggression principle must be considered if one is after a “a stable, just and peaceful social order.”  In other words, if one is after liberty.

Murray Rothbard has written the same thing regarding the “something more” that must be added if it is liberty we are after:

What I have been trying to say is that Mises's utilitarian, relativist approach to ethics is not nearly enough to establish a full case for liberty. It must be supplemented by an absolutist ethic — an ethic of liberty, as well as of other values needed for the health and development of the individual — grounded on natural law, i.e., discovery of the laws of man's nature. Failure to recognize this is the greatest flaw in Mises's philosophical worldview.

There are many reasons why the mainstream libertarian crowd reject Hoppe and Rothbard.  I will suggest that one need look no further than right here to find the root of the cause.  It is in the same place that divides society – not in political left and right, but in the acceptance or rejection of natural law. 

Returning to Fr. Legge: What is the essence of law?  Aquinas aims at this through Aristotle’s Four Causes: the material, efficient, formal, and final cause.  We act toward an end, a good, a purpose.  Fr. Legge expands:

Aquinas’s definition of law: An ordination of reason, for the common good, from him who has care of the community which is promulgated.

The two most important concepts to grasp from this definition:

Ordination of reason: the rule and measure of human acts is reason, which is the first principle of human acts.  For it belongs to reason to order things to their end: happiness [beatitudo]. 

For reason to be reason, it must aim at an end – with the ultimate end being happiness, not in any shallow sense, but as fulfillment.

One is always acting toward an end; the perceived good – even if it is not a “proper” good.  We desire ends; our choices are made up of the acts we choose to pursue these ends.

This happiness, or fulfillment, inherently involves other-regarding action, given this second important concept from Aquinas’s definition of law:

For the common good: law must be ordered toward communal happiness.  What makes a good a common good?  It is not something we can divide and share – like a pizza.  It is common as a common final cause or common end. 

He gives as examples the common goods of truth and justice. 


I might emphasize again the distinction of law to instruct as opposed to law to punish.  Aquinas did not find it proper that all violations of the Natural Law required formal, physical punishment.  I have offered the same, finding it immoral to apply formal, physical punishment to non-violent trespasses.


Returning once again to Hoppe:  truth and justice are prerequisites if one is after “a stable, just and peaceful social order.”  Neither is possible in a world where speech is stifled – whether by law or by the cancel culture.

I recognize that within a pure understanding of the non-aggression principle we have no right to free speech.  We have the right to free speech in accord with the property owner’s wishes.  This is fair enough, as I don’t offer free speech for everyone entering my home.

But if we are stifled in speech in our public forums – where we act in common – whether by law, property, or culture – there is no possibility for truth or justice.  And without truth and justice, there is no possibility for liberty.

And waiting for all property to be privatized offers no hope in this regard.  If you want private property, truth and justice come first.  If you want truth and justice, a culture that is grounded in Natural Law is necessary.

I find no other path.


  1. I would offer that you have found one problem with a fully private society or ancap society by comparing the 2 paragraphs below.

    "But if we are stifled in speech in our public forums – where we act in common – whether by law, property, or culture – there is no possibility for truth or justice. And without truth and justice, there is no possibility for liberty.

    And waiting for all property to be privatized offers no hope in this regard. If you want private property, truth and justice come first. If you want truth and justice, a culture that is grounded in Natural Law is necessary."

    I think you just highlighted how important it is to have a place where there is no property owner so that all voices are able to be heard. Maybe in an ancap world some property owners will designate some of their property as completely free speech zones. Maybe not. But I don't think we can leave that up to chance.

    If truth and justice is needed for a safe and stable society, you will have to have freedom of speech, otherwise people won't be able to determine truth and thereby enact true justice. It will all be left to the whims of a property owner.

    I am also not saying a State is needed either to provide that public forum. Just that there must be one of some nature.

    1. RMB, I have not worked through (and likely won't spend time to work through) this issue, albeit my gut tells me something along the lines of what you write is necessary.

      I won't take the time because, to me, it is one of the things that will just get worked out if / when society is forced to contemplate its destruction - and, therefore, return to a lifestyle and behaviors that afford meaning.

      I think it was something written by Frank van Dun, about the fully private property society and the one property owner surrounded by others who won't let him leave his property. We can't merely assume the market will resolve such things - what if this poor guy's neighbors want to metaphorically burn him out - force him to just sell at a discount or die in place?

      Anyway, I don't envision society will ever get to a point where it will have to answer such questions - a public space, as you describe, etc. Such public spaces will exist to the extent society requires it. And we require it if we are to survive. We have just lost that knowledge for a time.

    2. RMB, see the comment immediately below by Roger. I am wondering if this is the cause of your not seeing replies by others.

      I have noticed over the last weeks that many people are replying by starting a new comment thread, as Roger has done here. In this case, the original commenter would not get a notification, as the comment is not in "reply."

  2. There are only two types of property ownership: individual and communal. If more than one person owns anything, then it is communal, even though it may not be what we normally think of as public. For instance, a married couple may own a residence together communally, but that does not make it publicly held. It is still private property and must be treated as such. Public property, e.g., national parks, highways, and courthouses, is held communally, but the owners are named in some amorphous way—the people or the taxpayers, for instance, and the property is controlled and administered in a political manner. Whoever can scream the loudest for the longest time gets to ‘own’ the property.

    I think it is not possible to “ have a place where there is no property owner so that all voices are able to be heard.”, unless that place is devoid of human existence, in which case there would be no need to designate it as a free speech zone. In today’s world, all property, no matter the type, is owned by somebody and subject to restriction by said owner.

    What is more important than who owns the property is to ensure that free speech is allowed and tolerated in the public space in a manner which is civil, open to debate, accessible to everyone, and in accordance with the NAP. While someone can stand on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and expound on his hatred of tyrants everywhere, he is not allowed to use a can of spray paint to deface the statue with graffiti.

    It is true that private owners can, as Bionic mentioned, restrict speech on their own property. The problem arises when people think they can restrict the speech of others on property which is not theirs. We see this everywhere today in the form of mob rule where people are ‘canceled’, shouted down, fired, forced to apologize, etc., simply because someone didn’t like what they said, even though they were well within their rights to say it. This is the fault of the property owner who is pandering to the mob for some ulterior reason. I doubt that “black lives matter” or “social justice” has much to do with it. More than likely, it is due to the selfish desire for money, power, and influence. It is politics as usual.

    Since the State owns everything which is considered ‘public’, the State should allow all opinions and voices, without attempting to restrict any of them. To pick and choose which voices will be heard in the public arena is, like playing with fire, subject to getting burned sooner or later. However, it is in the interest of the State to limit certain opinions and to promote others, thereby enhancing their own power and influence. It is politics as usual.

    We do not need free speech zones, designated by law. These would be a form of “property” and, as such would be subject to change at the “owner’s” whims, which means when the political wind blows in a different direction. What can be enacted by law can be abolished by law. We need something better-- unfettered, free-market, full-bore competition between property owners as to the ideas they will allow and promote on their properties, with the State unable to decide who is heard or what is said.

    1. The way the State should - MUST - act in the meantime is to ensure all voices are heard on "State" property (peacefully, of course), and any actions taken by others to stifle that voice be prosecuted. In other words, the administrators doing the firing would be prosecuted; the students doing the demanding would, at minimum, be kicked out.

      Think about what that would mean on state college campuses across the country - as well as most private college campuses, as these are also funded significantly by the state.

  3. I do think about that and I am, like, what the heck are we waiting for?

  4. Bionic, refer to your note above to RMB. I deliberately replied to your comment as a reply, but it showed up as a new thread. I think you are on to something here.

    1. Roger, this could be. It isn't completely consistent - I have checked several of the comments threads to posts I have published after the switch. There are a few cases where the dialogue continued within the proper comment thread (replies, as appropriate). There are several that do not.

      My first thought would be that the distinction would be if someone was logged in to their google account that it should work normally - but per RMB (if I remember correctly) this wasn't true for him.

      So I don't know why the distinction. A search for reports of this problem is not yet successful.

      I will send a note to google, but given the size of my blog and that I don't take advertising, I doubt I will have any response - this path hasn't helped me in the past.