Due Process of Law, #3: Cicero and St. Thomas Aquinas Preserved Aristotle’s Flame

Statue in Aristotle Park StagiraStatue in Aristotle’s Park at Stagira, Greece
(photo credit)

By Jeff Rutherford

[Part 1 was called “Can a Law be Unlawful?”]
[Part 2 was called “What Makes a Government’s Actions Legit?”]

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

CiceroCicero 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

Saint Thomas MedalConsidered 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.

The Enlightenment


About Necessary and Proper

Jeff believes in the Individual's ability to excel when liberty and freedom of choice are protected. Also believes in the Community's ability to take care of the vast majority of its own issues and needs when the federal government leaves the Community's resources and sphere of control alone. State and local choice produce better results than centralized federal control. https://necessaryandpropergovt.wordpress.com/
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11 Responses to Due Process of Law, #3: Cicero and St. Thomas Aquinas Preserved Aristotle’s Flame

  1. Thank you for the kind words!

    For readers that desire a quick skimming course on Cicero or Thomas Aquinas, the Hillsdale Dialogues lecture series is pleasant, and not much more than half an hour each. The Aquinas set begins just about half way down the scrolling list at the link above.

    Also worthy there, but unrelated to your pursuits here, is Marcus Aurelius Antoninus. I have a number of quotes from his Meditations — his notes to himself on how to act — around my screen and workspace. I need to get better at living by them, but I am trying.

    ===|==============/ Keith DeHavelle

    Liked by 1 person

    • tannngl says:

      Thanks for the links to Hillsdale, Keith. I learned so much on the Declaration of Independence and Constitution lectures.


      • I’m working my way through all of them. Larry Arnn softpedals a bit some of the contention during the framing and ratification of the Constitution; the ratification debate (particularly in Virginia and to a lesser extent Massachusetts and New York) makes for some good stories that are instructive in interpretation. He uses the federalists’ name for the opposition (anti-federalists) rather than their own name for themselves (republicans). To the republicans like Jefferson and Madison, their opposition was a mixture of federalists and monarchists, and a few of them privately admitted that they did hope for a monarchy still.

        My minor quibble about Larry Arnn’s downplaying of this is of small consequence; I am enjoying the Hillsdale series immensely and am learning new areas to explore. And I was delighted to see Aurelius covered; he’s been inspirational to me for some time. I have the complete PDF of Aurelius’ Meditations if you wish, plus a page of quotes of particular value to me.

        It has long struck me as odd that Madison, a republican, is one of the writers for the Federalist papers. Later, he fought furiously against monarchist/federalist Hamilton to stop the First Bank of the US from being formed. He failed. Decades later, he would fight for the Second Bank, rationalizing that since the First was okay, the Second must be as well. We have an unfortunate tendency to rank precedent above constitutionality, and that was evident even two centuries ago.

        Back in the early days of these United States, a number of the Framers and ratifying delegates were still alive when Adams signed the Alien and Sedition Acts. It was interesting to see how that blatant violation of the still-warm First Amendment was justified as being, well, Necessary and Proper. We put that behind us, finally, and it took another hundred-plus years and Democrat Woodrow Wilson before criticizing the government became illegal again.

        These days, it’s not a crime — but it will get you persecuted and audited. In fact, merely voicing a reasonable opinion is enough to get you fired, as has been demonstrated many times in recent weeks.

        Best wishes!

        ===|==============/ Keith DeHavelle

        P.S. I, too, was a Cain enthusiast.


  2. Incidentally, I am quite enjoying your series; the topic is a crucial one now and your careful approach is much appreciated.

    ===|==============/ Keith DeHavelle

    Liked by 1 person

  3. tannngl says:

    Jeff, it would seem that our entire legislature and presidential administration as well as the judiciary are not keeping our liberties and our welfare (not necessarily our total safety) in mind.
    They have, in the words of Cicero, become tyrants and we, the enslaved.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Tannngl, I think these words “tyrant” and “enslaved” have lost their effectiveness due to overuse in the political media. They’re no longer convincing words to try to persuade moderates, independents, and impressionable new voters because they just sound like throw-away cliche words. Kind of like “Nazi” and “Hitler”. I’m sure those words had strong visceral meaning to the Greatest Generation during and immediately after WW2, but now the verbal sting has become diluted.

      I’m working my way up to applying these deep-rooted principles to today’s issues. Examples abound, for sure. But I first wanted to get beyond the worn-out cliches and paint a larger perspective of the philosophy of limited government and empowered individuals. I have no idea how many parts I will end up posting — I’m only charting the outline for 1-2 parts in advance as I go. That’s why Keith caught me getting ahead of myself. 🙂
      – Jeff

      Liked by 1 person

  4. davidwithastick says:

    I have a couple observations, which are likely only tangential to your ongoing narrative, but are interesting (at least to me) nonetheless.

    First, in Part 2, I initially raised my eyebrows at the summary of Aristotle stating that he included democracies in his list of ruler-serving governmental systems, alongside tyrannies and oligarchies. Then it quickly occurred to me why it is important to remember that ours is a republic, not a democracy prone to irrational mob rule. I’ll come back to this in a moment.

    Second, I am impressed, as you are, at the incredible explosion of great thinkers in The Enlightenment. In the same way, though, that you rightly point to the Magna Carta as the greatest milestone in moral governance, perhaps a nod to the printing press is important as it triggered The Enlightenment itself, making it possible for those with great intellect to connect to that which was consequential and in turn to quickly disseminate their ideas so that others could build upon them. The rise of so many great minds in so short a time was not a coincidence, but a consequence. I believe that its only parallel in history was the collection of minds at the founding of our country (in fact, I’ll go so far as to say that all other instances pale in comparison).

    Third, I wonder how history will judge The Internet. This is not a non-sequitur. I think it is fair to say that nothing has changed the information and communication landscape so fundamentally and radically since the printing press as has The Internet.

    But my question is this: is there a difference in how The Internet is affecting the modern era from how the printing press affected those in the 15th and 16th centuries? What I see in The Internet is the same tyranny that Aristotle saw in the idea of pure democracy, but in modern terms: careful manipulation plus political correctness plus a foundation of progressive education K-16, and one can see a mob rule as despotic as any dictatorship. One only needs to be able to have the means to shape and then capitalize on the messaging. We are seeing that happen before our very eyes in national politics.

    Does the technology itself make a difference in people’s engagement of the tool of communication?

    Surely people are the same now as ever – human nature is fairly consistent throughout history – meaning that we are just as susceptible to vice and capable of virtue as any society before us. With the allure of an ever-evolving and endlessly fascinating digital extravaganza available to us 24/7, are there enough people still willing to listen to thinkers such as you and Keith DeHavelle, along with great modern philosophers such as Wm F. Buckley Jr., Thomas Sowell et al. to make a difference?



    • Thank you for the kind words.

      The Internet seems to have done to our ability to learn what Twitter is doing to our ability to write. In both cases, the attention given to the task is being grossly abbreviated, and the results are of poor quality and getting worse. There are books focused on this effect, such as The Shallows.

      Look at what Thomas Aquinas accomplished, having to read scarce, already-old parchment scrolls and laboriously writing out thousands of pages. He tediously traveled to a number of cities and learned much by these physically demanding treks, but someone today has access to millions of times as much information without stirring from their chairs. And yet, the modern mind is typically so incredibly shallow.

      You mentioned the technology, and I think your point is valid. We are no longer limited to access from desktop systems; the tech has been unbound. There are now thousands of Masai tribesmen in Africa who are carrying cellphones on hunts and using Twitter, though their lives are otherwise largely without electricity. (Some of that aspect is actually dictated by the West.)

      We have made it so easy to access knowledge and each other at the same time, and the generation raised with this access has clearly opted for the “impersonal” access to each other, and uses access to knowledge only in the most trivial of ways. It is a sobering notion to consider how this is affecting our culture, and the evidence of deleterious impact is everywhere.

      The culture, of course, responds: Shows aimed at these younger folks are crude, crass, vulgar, sexually charged (despite being consumed by pre-teens) and generally geared to the attention spans bred by social media.

      Can we successfully govern ourselves as we devolve to a nation mostly comprised of a sad hybrid of goldfish and sheep? And what is the next phase of this evolution?

      You wondered how history will judge the Internet. I wonder how many people will have an interest in history at all.

      ===|==============/ Keith DeHavelle


  5. Pingback: Due Process of Law, #4: America’s Founding – The Capstone of the Age of Enlightenment | Necessary and Proper

  6. Marian Quinlan says:

    Superbly written…food for the mind and soul
    to digest! From ancient philosophers to
    Aquinas, we have a profound yet simple
    solution to the clutter of governmental issues that plague our own Nation and the World. Truth or
    Natural Law are in essence constant. It
    seems to me that ignorance or blatant disregard
    for this ancient wisdom is at the crux of abuse of
    power and the subsequent suffering of those
    living under such “power”. Peace! We all seek it!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you for reading and commenting, Marian.

      I wrote a 4th installment of this series, and had compiled many notes and a vision forward for about that many more installments. I pictured reaching the point where I could apply the explanation of the development of natural law in western philosophy to help explain some of Justice Antonin Scalia’s most criticized rulings. Then some priorities needed to be adjusted to maintain a balance for me between work and family and this writing hobby, and I’ve never meandered back this way (yet). And Justice Scalia has passed away, though that’s no reason to avoid writing about his gifted contribution to restoring originalism to America’s judiciary.

      FYI, Marian…..the main framework I intend(ed) to use to guide the next installments is the excellent book The Conscience of the Constitution by Timothy Sandefur. I highly recommend it to you, and if you read it then please come back here and tell me your opinion of it.

      – Jeff


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