On Reading the “Treatise on Law” of St. Thomas Aquinas

It would be difficult to consider the question of social justice without considering the notion of the common good and its relationship to law.

The following terse statement written sometime from the 1260s to the 1270s irrevocably linked the notion of the common good to the definition of law:

Et sic ex quatuor praedictis potest colligi definitio legis, quae nihil est aliud quam quaedam rationis ordinatio ad bonum commune, ab eo qui curam communitatis habet, promulgata.

And so from the four traits that have been mentioned, we can put together a definition of law: Law is (a) an ordinance (ordinatio) of reason, (b) for the common good, (c) made by one who is in charge of the community, and (d) promulgated.

St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, First Part of the Second Part (I-II), Question 90, Article 4, Translated by Alfred J. Freddoso.

http://www.thomasinternational.org/projects/step/treatiseonlaw/delege090_4.htm, accessed 9/22/13.

Drawing in this case from St. Isidore of Seville, as well as from Classical, early Christian, Scriptural, and throughout his writings from a wide variety of his own contemporary sources, including Jewish and Islamic, St. Thomas Aquinas summarized, synthesized, and structured a moral, rational, practical, and communal basis for law that extends beyond what a mere summary of his presentation might reveal.

That is why I highly recommend that those interested in deepening their understanding simply “step into the water” and read into the thomasinternational.org presentation of the “Treatise on Law,” very nicely presented in several languages at that website.

What can be learned from a document on law that is hundreds of years old?

One is a deeper understanding of the relationship between human reason, both practical and what we would today call “theoretical” (and what translators of Aquinas call “speculative”), and the common good as a product of human action.

A second is the series of linkages that Aquinas establishes between human practical reason and the common good. These linkages involve natural law, which informs human-made law.

When the law appeals to “common sense” by any measure, despite popular modern rejection of any natural law, the law is appealing to natural law as Aquinas defined it.

Human-made law devoid of common sense toward the common good, and thus a linkage of practical reason with the common good–Aquinas’ natural law–is practically useless.

A third is the role of the Divine Law, both the Old Law (based, in St. Augustine’s memorable turn of phrase, upon “timor” or fear) and the New Law (based upon “amor” or love) in informing human action toward the common good.

The Divine Law and natural law inform human-made law. Both Divine Law and natural law lead us to direct human-made law toward the common good.

A law that is not made for the common good is unjust.

Few writers clarify and stimulate the mind as does Aquinas. I invite my readers to jump in!

I’ll have more on this topic after several more readings. But I will say this: those who try to merely boil down Aquinas to a catechism or a series of lists without wrestling with his dynamic and insightful mind miss being taught by him to live the Christian and intellectual life more fully and dynamically. Each time I turn to St. Thomas Aquinas, he wakes me up to something I never saw or never understood.

For more resources on reading and studying the works of St. Thomas Aquinas, try this link.

And just how does one measure whether a law or government action benefits the common good? A much longer answer is in the works. . .

© Copyright 2013, Albert J. Schorsch, III
All Rights Reserved


Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

Leave a Reply