Aquinas: Group Life and the State

The Philosophical System of Thomas Aquinas, by Maurice de Wulf, edited and adapted for the web by Jonathan Dolhenty

XV. Group Life and the State

A. The fundamental principle of group life

Man is intended by nature to form a society. The group life is necessary, for if left to himself in an isolated state, an individual would be deprived of the materials, the intellectual guidance, and moral support necessary for the attainment of happiness. The group life is necessary precisely and only because of this insufficiency of the individual for his own needs.

In this way, then, we justify the fundamental principle of life in society, which we may enunciate as follows: “The collectivity exists for the sake of the individual, and not the individual for the collectivity.” Similarly, the well-being of a group will not differ in kind from that of the individuals which compose it.

The principle is a general one, and applies to domestic groups, political (village, city, state), religious (parish, abbey, diocese, Christendom), and economic ones (e.g., trade union or guild). It is based upon general ethics, which emphasizes the value of human personality, and this moral individualism, itself one of the most striking achievements of the civilization of the Middle Ages, is in turn linked to metaphysics, which recognizes no other existent, substantial reality than the individual, in the particular sphere in question.

B. The Unity of the group and the inalienable rights of its members

The collectivity therefore is not a substance as such, as is taught by some contemporary philosophers, and the very notion of ‘a collective person’ is contradictory (X, A). Its unity is not the internal unity which belongs to a natural substance, and which ensures coherence within it, but rather an external unity. Each member of a group retains his value as a person, but his activities are united or rather coordinated with those of others. This is specially true of the State, “which comprises many persons, whose varied activities combine to produce its well-being” [1].

The unity of a social group or of the State is a “unity of functions” exercised by the different members. The only difference between natural groups (such as the family or the State) and artificial ones (such as a club or a political party) is that the working in common is necessary in the first case and not in the second.

Since the group exists for the sake of the members, it goes without saying that it cannot take away or modify those inalienable rights which are expressions of the personality, i.e., which belong to the individual as possessing a rational nature. Whether he be slave or free, rich or poor, ruler or ruled, an individual has “the right to preserve his life, to marry and to bring up children, to develop his intelligence, to be instructed, to hold to the truth, to live in Society” [2]. These are some of the prerogatives of the individual which appear in the thirteenth-century Declaration of the Rights of Man.

Among various natural groups, scholastic philosophers paid most attention to the family and the State.

C. The family

The family, which forms the cell of the social organism, comprises the husband, wife, children, and servants. The father is the head of this group, and derives his authority from God (XV, D). Although the wife belongs in a sense to the husband (she is said to be some part of the husband), her independence relative to her husband is greater than that of children relative to their father, or servants to their masters. The subordination of a child to his father is complete, as is that of a serf to his master.

From this it follows that there will be stricter relations of ‘justice’ between husband and wife than between father and children, master and serfs, for, as we have seen above, justice requires a distinction (ad alterum) between persons. But always the individual rights of human beings remain. As for the serfs, the thirteenth century was not prepared to give them complete enfranchisement, but still their condition was altogether different from the slavery of antiquity and the early Middle Ages. Moreover, both canonical and civil legislation were constantly bettering their condition.

D. Origin of authority in the State

Whether great or small, a State consists of a group of families under the authority or power of one or several persons. Whence comes this sovereignty, i.e., the power of a man to command and rule his fellows? Schoolmen reply that all power comes from God, and explain this a follows: The whole universe is regulated by the plan of Divine Providence, the eternal law of all reality (lex aeterna). Each individual thing contributes, by attaining to its own end, to the realization of this divine plan and the object of the whole. In consequence, man will play his part in the cosmic order ordained by God for the Universe precisely by achieving the destiny which belongs to him as a rational being and thus ensuring his happiness (XII, A, B). Now, since the group life was instituted in order to help individuals to attain their ends, the governing authority which forms a necessary element of a society (ratio gubernationis) must be a way of realizing the divine plan, and ultimately come from God also.

“Since the eternal law is the reason or explanation of government in the chief ruler, the reason for governing rulers must also be derived from the eternal law” [3]. Ruler are therefore divine delegates. The theory is a general one, and applies to every kind of authority. In the case of the State, it does not matter by what means this divine power is transmitted, or in whom it is found. These are points for separate consideration.

E. Government is an officium or duty

The raison d’être of government determines its nature: it is utilitarian, an officium, ‘office’ or duty. The princes of the earth are instituted by God not in order that they may seek their own profit, but in order that they may ensure the common well-being. Even in the case of the papal theocracy, the idea of officium is always found with that of power, and the Pope describes himself as the servus servorum Dei, servant of the servants of God. Hence all treatises written for the use of princes and future monarchs condemn the capricious, selfish, arbitrary or tyrannical exercise of power.

Thomas builds up a whole system of guarantees in order to save the State from a government so completely opposed to its nature [40]. The guarantees are preventive in the first place: let the people carefully inquire concerning the candidate for power when choosing their ruler. Similar guarantees will exist throughout the monarch’s reign, for his power will be controlled and countered by the intervention of other factors, as we shall shortly see. There are likewise repressive guarantees: resistance to unjust commands of a tyrant is not only permitted, but even enjoined. Thomas expressly condemns tyrannicide: one must go to any length in order to put up with an unjust ruler, but if the regime becomes quite unsupportable, then one must have recourse to that power of deposing the monarch which is the corollary of the right to choose one. This doctrine holds good whatever be the nature of government, — monarchy, aristocracy, or democracy. This brings us to the question of the depository of power.

F. The Sovereign People and its Representatives

To understand properly the thomistic view on the seat of authority or of government in the State, we must distinguish as he does between two questions: (a) where is the seat of sovereignty in any case, (b) what is the most perfect form of government?

(a) At the outset, and in every state, sovereignty belongs to the collectivity, i.e., the sum total of individuals. The people are the State. This is logical, for the only realities in society are the individuals, and apart from them the State is nothing, and moreover, government has as its object the well-being of all (B, E). The doctrine of the sovereignty of the people is thus no modern invention.

But the collectivity or sum total of individuals is too complicated, too chaotic, to exercise power itself. In its turn, therefore, the collectivity delegates it usually, but not necessarily, to a monarch. For in theory one could choose instead an aristocratic or a republican form of government: “To ordain something for the common good belongs either to the whole community, or to someone taking the place of the community” [5]. Thus power is transmitted by successive delegation from God to the people, and from the people to the ruler. The people hold it by a natural title which nothing can destroy, the king holds it by the will of the people, and this may change. There is, accordingly, at the base of the people’s delegation to the king a contract, rudimentary or implicit in less perfect forms of society, explicit in States which have arrived at a high degree of organization. This will of the people, which can make itself known in many different ways, legitimatizes the exercise of power. Monarchy, in the opinion of Thomas, has the advantage of not scattering power and force. But he adds that circumstances must decide which is the best form of government at a particular moment in the political life of a nation. This gives his theory all the elasticity which could be desired.

(b) Still, he himself shows a very marked preference for a composite form, which he considers to be the most perfect realization of delegated authority. It is a mixed system of government, in which sovereignty belongs to the people, with the intervention of an elective monarchy, and an oligarchy which modifies the monarch’s exercise of power.

The best regime will be realized in that city or state, in which one alone commands all the others by reason of his virtue, where some subordinate rulers command according to their merit, but where nevertheless power belongs to all, either because all are eligible as rulers, or simply because all are electors. Now this is the case in a government which consists of a happy combination of royalty, inasmuch as there is only one head, of aristocracy inasmuch as many collaborate in the work of government, according to their virtue, and of democracy or popular power inasmuch as the rulers may be chosen from among the people, and it belongs to the people to elect their rulers [6].
Aquinas affirms such political principles as universal suffrage, the right of the lowest of men to be raised to power, the appreciation of personal value and virtue, the domination of reason in those who govern or an ‘enlightened government,’ an elective system giving the means of choosing those most worthy, and the necessity of the political education of the people.

G. The duties of the Sovereign, and the Legislative Power

In De Regimine Principum, of Thomas Aquinas, the ruler is charged with a threefold duty: he must establish the well-being of the whole, conserve it, and improve it [7].

First he must establish the common weal by preserving peace among the citizens (sometimes peace is referred to as convenientia voluntatum, — agreement of wills), by encouraging the citizens to lead a moral life, and providing a sufficient abundance of the material things which are necessary to it.
The public weal once established, the next duty is to conserve it. This is accomplished by assuring the appointment of sufficient and capable agents of administration, by repressing disorder, by encouraging morality through a system of rewards and punishments, and by protecting the state against the attacks of external enemies.
Finally the government is charged with a third mission, which is vague, more elastic: to rectify abuses, to make up for defects, to work for progress.
The means par excellence by which a Government is enabled to fulfill its threefold task is the power of making laws, i.e., of commanding. The thomistic theory of human or positive law, in its double form of jus gentium, law of the nations, common to all states, and jus civile, civil law, proper to individual states, is closely connected with the theory of law in general. For the civil law is, and can only be, a derivation from the natural law, and in consequence it ultimately comes from the eternal law (XIII, B). Hence once again the individual is protected against the State, for “in the measure that positive law is in disagreement with the natural law, it is no longer a law, but a corruption of law” [8]. In this way the arbitrary element is banished from positive law, which is accordingly defined as “a rational injunction, made in view of the common good, and promulgated by the one having charge of the community” [9]. Positive law adapts to concrete circumstances the immediate prescriptions of the natural law, which in their abstract form belong to the law of nations. For instance, the law of nations enjoins that malefactors are to be punished. Positive law determines whether the punishment is to be by fine, imprisonment, etc. Positive law is therefore at once fixed and variable. It changes with circumstances, and it belongs to a government to modify it if necessary, always on condition that it bears in mind that every modification of a law lessens its force and majesty.

H. Social Justice and the Commonwealth

The common good is the result of good government and the reign of social justice. Thomas’ views on social justice and solidarity are worthy of note. To understand them we must bear in mind what we have said of the notion of right and of justice (XIV, C).

A compensation is due to each individual for whatever benefit accrues from his acts, and right is simply the requirement that this equal adjustment be made. To render to each one his due is to do justice. When the act benefits an entire community, social justice arises.

Hence, social justice demands two elements:

(a) that the actions of the individual citizen or of the several members of a group be conducted in such a way that the community, i.e., its members, shall be benefited thereby;
(b) that, in return, the individual should receive from the community an adequate compensation.
Social justice thus understood rests upon a solemn affirmation of solidarity and mutual assistance. Every human action, inasmuch as it is performed in a community, has its reaction upon that community, and benefits or harms it more or less, in some way [10]. The soldier who fights, the laborer who works, and the scholar who studies are engaged in social activities which, being such, do good to the whole community. Even the outbursts of individual passions admit of being referred to social justice, and “can be regulated with a view to the common good” [11], since these outbursts intensity action, and every action has its echo in society.

Who ensures this convergence of individual activities? An individual citizen is obviously without the qualifications necessary for this task. It therefore belongs to the ruler to orient all good acts towards the common good of all. He is the custos justi, the justum animatum, — the guardian of right, the living embodiment of justice [12]. He is the architectonic chief (architectonice). Just as the master builder of the cathedral supervises the stonecutters, the carpenters, the sculptors, the painters, so that they may be ready at the proper time and place, so the master builder of social justice oversees all the diverse social activities and takes account of their relative importance in the community. It belongs to the ruler to see that the soldier fights, the scholar studies, the laborer works, etc., in such a way that all their activities may be directed to the realization of the harmony of the body politic. He must think out the best way of ensuring mutual assistance in order that everything may be of profit to all. His intervention will above all regulate all external actions: such as diligence in work, temperance, meekness. But if necessary he will also occupy himself with actions which belong to the ‘internal forum” [13].

How is the ruler to carry out this high humanitarian mission? He can only do so by way of commandment. For, he possesses the virtue of justice as commanding (per madum imperantis et dirigentis), while the citizens share in it only as obeying (per modum executionis) [14]. At first sight this looks like an intolerable and autocratic notion, a worship of the state, etatisme, which is bound to destroy individual autonomy. But these fears are groundless. The theory contains within itself the correctives for those abuses to which it seems to open the door, for the realization of the common good is the one and only motive which can render legitimate the intervention of the ruler. And this common good “is no other than the good of each one of the members of the collectivity” [15]. An arbitrary intervention on the part of the ruler which would be destructive of individual good — and thus of liberty — would be contrary to the common good, and as a consequence to social justice.

The doctrine of social justice constitutes in the thomistic system an ideal which governments must never forget, and which they must realize to the fullest measure consonant with the actual conditions of a given civilization.

As to the compensation to the individual, which is owed by the community for services done, it is again the ruler who should decide as to the demands of social justice, although Thomas Aquinas does not insist upon this second aspect of the question.



  1. Summa Theol., Ia IIae, q. 96, art. 1.

  2. Ibid., q. 94, art. 2.

  3. Ibid., Ia IIae, q. 93, art. 3.

  4. De Regimine Principum, lib. I, cap. 6.

  5. Summa Theol., Ia IIae, q. 90, art. 3.

  6. Ibid., q. 97, art. 1. The servi are deprived of political rights because of their lack of adequate culture; heretics and Jews because Catholic civilization was then looked upon as the only existing civilization, and he who rebels against the Church necessarily rebels against the State also. But only political rights are here in question, not civil rights.

  7. Lib I, cap. 15.

  8. Summa Theol., Ia IIae, q. 95, art. 2. Tribunals can correct the positive law by means of the natural law, if necessary.

  9. Ibid., q. 90, art. 4.

  10. Ibid., q. 58, art. 5. Cf. art. 6.

  11. Ibid., art. 9, ad. 3.

  12. Ibid., art. 1, ad. 5.

  13. Ibid., art. 9.

  14. Ibid., q. 58, art. 1, ad. 5.

  15. Ibid., q. 58, art. 9. The ruler is not only the arbiter of social and legal justice, but he also contributes to the reign of particular justice: firstly, by distributing honors, distinctions, offices, etc., to the citizens in a way conformable to the requirements of distributive justice (actus distributionis, qui est communium bonorum, pertinet solum ad praesidentem communibus bonis. The act of distribution of common goods pertains only to the one presiding over common goods. Ia IIae, q. 61, art 1); secondly, by enunciating in his courts of law the private rights (jus) of the citizens, as required by commutative justice (determinare jus, judicium…importat…definitionem vel determinationem justi sive juris. It belongs to a judge to define or determine that which is just or right. Q. 60, art. 1). Thomas condemns any intriguing in courts of law (acceptio personarum), and, in conformity with his moral optimism, he holds with the Roman lawyers that the accused should have the benefit of doubt (ibid. q. 63).

The late Dr. Jonathan Dolhenty was the Founder and President of The Center for Applied Philosophy and the Radical Academy, and is Honorary Philosophy Editor at The Moral Liberal. The Moral Liberal has adopted these projects beginning with a republishing and preserving of all of Dr. Dolhenty’s work.