Statue in Aristotle’s Park at Stagira, Greece
By Jeff Rutherford
As I try to plow this field of the history of Western political and legal philosophy, learning as I go, a newfound friend and fellow originalist blogger – Keith DeHavelle – recently pointed out a rich patch of ground I missed a ways back.
In Part 2, I was short-sighted in leaping over the important contributions to the development of individualism from two men: Roman philosopher, lawyer and orator Marcus Tullius Cicero (106-43 BC) and Italian philosopher and theologian St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274). So I paused to put in some learnin’ time.
These fascinating men bridged the centuries from the Greek philosophers of the 400s and 300s BC to the Enlightenment thinkers of the 1500s through 1700s AD. Cicero and Aquinas (pronounced uh-kwine’-us) were pivotal in preserving and developing the fledgling principle that individuals possessed liberties that could not morally be quashed by governments – what would later be called unalienable rights by Thomas Jefferson in America’s Declaration of Independence.
Cicero’s Vision of Limited Government
Cicero lived in tumultuous Roman times, concurrent with Julius Caesar, Mark Antony and Octavian/Augustus. He was highly educated, trained in public oratory, and deeply reverent of Greek philosophy. After entering politics, he bravely defied the Roman Republic’s political stigma against showing deference to the legacy of Greek wisdom. Cicero wrote De Legibus (“On the Laws”) in 52 BC, in which he described the existence of a rightness that is based on “correct reason,” not on the arbitrary commands of tyrants:
“42. But truly the most foolish thing is to think that everything is just that has been approved in the institutions or laws of peoples. And if those laws are from tyrants? If the Thirty at Athens had wanted to impose laws, or if all the Athenians delighted in tyrannous laws, surely those laws should not be held to be just for that reason? No more, I suppose, than the one that our interim ruler provided, that the dictator could kill whatever citizens he wanted with impunity, even without a hearing. Right is uniform; human fellowship has been bound by it, and one law has established it; that law is correct reason in commanding and prohibiting. He who is ignorant of it is unjust, whether it has been written somewhere or nowhere.”
A year later in De Republica (“On the Republic”), Cicero elaborated his vision of a universal law:
“33. True law is correct reason congruent with nature, spread among all persons, constant, everlasting. It calls to duty by ordering; it deters from mischief by forbidding. Nevertheless it does not order or forbid upright persons in vain, nor does it move the wicked by ordering or forbidding. It is not holy to circumvent this law, nor is it permitted to modify any part of it, nor can it be entirely repealed. In fact we cannot be released from this law by either the senate or the people. …There will not be one law at Rome, another at Athens, one now, another later, but one law both everlasting and unchangeable will encompass all nations and for all time. And one god will be the common teacher and general, so to speak, of all persons. He will be the author, umpire, and provider of this law.”
Ultimately, Cicero was assassinated – his head and hands were cut off – in 43 BC for his outspoken excoriation of the Roman tyrants that ruled or tri-ruled over the end of the Republic and the beginning of the Empire. Thankfully, much of Cicero’s extensive writings were preserved – far more than any other historic figure of the Roman era.
Saint Thomas Aquinas’ Reconciliation of Faith and Reason
Considered the patron saint of all Catholic schools and universities, St. Thomas Aquinas was a Dominican Friar born in Naples, whose rigorous theological education began at age five. He is most renowned for his incorporation of the rediscovered teachings of Aristotle into Christian theology. Many of Aristotle’s manuscripts had been “lost” through the centuries of Roman decline and subsequent Dark Ages, but had recently been retranslated into Latin, sparking deep controversy over their perceived philosophical conflict with Christianity. He reconciled Christian faith and Aristotelian ethics into one accepted truth.
Two excerpts from St. Thomas’ massive body of written work make clear his philosophy about the legal and moral relationship between government and the individual.
In 1270, he wrote in a minor work called De Perfectione Spiritualis Vitae (“The Perfection of the Spiritual Life”) that:
“The state of slavery does in some sort resemble death, and is therefore called civil death. For life is chiefly manifested in ability to move; he that cannot move save by the agency of others, may be accounted dead. Now, a slave has no power over himself, but is governed by the will of his master; and therefore this condition of bondage may be compared to death. Hence a man, who, for the love of another, delivers himself to bondage, practises the same perfection of charity, as he who exposes himself to death. Nay, we may say that he does more; for slavery is more abhorrent to our nature than is death.”
At about the same time in his prolific career, St. Thomas scholastically derived four basic aspects of the essence of law in Question 90 of his Treatise on Law, a section of the huge Summa Theologica (“Summary of Theology”):
“Thus from the four preceding articles, the definition of law may be gathered; and it is nothing else than an 1ordinance of reason, for the 2common good, made by 3him who has care of the community, and 4promulgated [meaning: duly notified to those people who are to be ruled by it].”
Summa Theologica was written from 1265 to 1273. It was 3500 pages, yet still unfinished when he suddenly stopped writing 3 months before his death. St. Thomas Aquinas died of an unknown illness in March 1274, coincidentally very near his birthplace while travelling in response to a summons by Pope Gregory X to join the Council of Lyons.
Conclusion of Part 3 (with apologies for the jumbled chronology)
From the birth of recorded ideas about government ethics by the classical Greeks including Plato and Aristotle, through Cicero’s brave influence during the violent Roman era, and on to St. Thomas Aquinas’ assimilation of Greek pre-Christian logic into medieval Christian theology, the fuse was lit for the explosion of political philosophy in The Age of Enlightenment of the 1600s and 1700s – which had been necessarily preceded by the Protestant Reformation of the 1500s and 1600s.
Centuries of political repression and turmoil throughout Europe at the whim of absolutist tyrants had made it critically obvious that the arbitrary power of rulers and governments required binding limits, and that individual liberty must be defined, respected and codified.