The Dragonfly and Raven

The Dragonfly and Raven

Friday, May 20, 2016

"Grace does not abolish nature but perfect it" How does this maxim influence Aquinas' political thought?

I never thought that I would be uploading this essay. I thought it was a complete and utter failure, as it was 1500 words (as opposed to the desired 2000) and because I feel like I didn't do the question justice. However, my tutor believes that this is the best essay that I have ever written for her. So, I am publishing it now. However, there are a few things to note before going into this essay.

First, I missed the most important part of the grace that God bestowed upon man, and that is the ability to reason. For, without reason, man can not have the natural law, and without that, man cannot have human law, and without both of those things, man cannot correct its perverted nature.

Second, I do not really go into the political implications of this, and the grace of God in particular. The most important aspect of this reasoning is that it is a divergence away from the writings of Augustine. Augustine believed that it was possible, if only just barely, to have a just government made by man. This was only possible though if it was led by good Christians, full of virtue and wisdom. Aquinas breaks away from this, and sets out the idea that reason is what is important, and that if a government is led by reason, then that government, even if it is not spiritual, and not led by Christians, is still a just, legitimate government. This is the first time in the Christian ethos that this idea is really presented.

But, that is the point of these tutorial essays. They are the starting point for the conversation. They are the way to get your thoughts rollings, to then be corrected and expanded upon during the tutorial sessions.

Now, given that preface, here is the essay.

During the Thirteenth Century, European philosophers were marveling over the writings of both St. Augustine of Hippo and the newly rediscovered works of Aristotle. Great thinkers of the time, such as St. Bonaventure and St. Albert the Great, spent a considerable amount of time rethinking political philosophy with the guidance of either Augustine's or Aristotle's writings, respectively. It was St. Albert's student, St. Thomas Aquinas, who would work to bring the philosophy of Augustine and Aristotle together, having tremendous respect for both of them. This essay will look at the political thought of Aquinas, looking specifically at Summa Theologiae IaIIae 57-60 and 90-97, those being a section on right, justice, and judgment, and a section of law, respectively. In particular, this essay will seek to answer how the maxim “grace does not abolish nature but perfects it” informs Aquinas' political thought.

Aquinas devotes quite a bit of his time in an attempt to understand and define what nature and the natural law is, and how this differs from the other manifestations of law. He begins by defining law as part of reason, as it deals with the rules and measures of human acts, which are ruled by reason. He then goes on to argue that laws are created by the community as a whole, or a trusted person, for the common good. After setting up these basic definitions of what makes a law, Aquinas then shifts to discuss the various types of laws that exist. There is the eternal law, that being the law of God, created from His Divine reason. Then there is the natural law, which Aquinas says is resultant of the participation is the observance of the eternal law by the rational creatures of God's green Earth. Human laws, then, are further derived from the natural law, and are meant to order the temporal, earthly society that we as humans naturally form. There are then lastly Divine laws, of which the eternal law is but one of.

Grace, being the goodwill and benevolence that God shows to the race of men, influences how Aquinas views the role of law, in both the sense of human law, but also in the sense of the natural and Divine laws. It is apparent from reading Aquinas that he believes, as many Christians do, that God is an omni-benevolent being. Augustine went so far as to say that He—that being God—is the one, sole good, that is simple and unchangeable. This idea of His grace being given to men is easily seen in how before the Original Sin was committed, only the eternal and natural laws reigned, and during this time, man lived in a literal paradise. After man was perverted by sin, however, God withdrew some of his grace, requiring instead the need for one to be virtuous and good in order to gain his favor. This is also present in the idea of Confession, where God forgives the faithful of their sins. While those are all true, they are all tangential to how Aquinas sees grace influencing and perfecting nature. For this, we look to his role of law. In his mind, Aquinas sees the role of law to be to make men good. This idea he takes from Aristotle, both from his Ethics and from his Politics. From Ethics, Aquinas takes the idea that by being virtuous, one is being good. From Politics, he takes the idea that obeying the law is a virtue for citizens. Thus, the law makes people good when they follow it. Law can also do this by punishing, or threatening to punish, bad behavior, thus modifying people to be good based on fear, which he also views as acceptable.

This ties into grace perfection nature thusly. All human law, which is what is being discussed when talking about making people good and punishing them for being bad, is derived from the natural law, which is imprinted on us by God. He gives us this law out of His grace, so that we might be able to live lives that are good and wholesome, and that we might one day be able to shed our mortal coils, and join our souls with him in Heaven, as opposed to spending an eternity without knowing Him in such a manner. So, by giving us the eternal law, by giving us the natural law, He seeks to improve us, and fix our perverted nature. This appears to be quite obvious to Aquinas, who additionally adds that virtues are given to us by God, as an additional way to redeem ourselves in His eyes.

How else though does grace perfect nature? Well, this is seen quite well in a discussion that Aquinas has as to whether or not the law of nature can be abolished from the hearts of men. In this section, he discusses how sin can blot out from the hearts of men parts of the natural law, and the grace of God. However, the general principles of the natural law cannot be entirely removed from the hearts of men. The way that this blot is removed, according to Aquinas, is through God's grace. So, here again we see that nature is not being abolished by the grace of God, but is, in fact, being restored by it—being brought back into perfection by His benevolence.

On the other side of law is justice and what is right. Justice, according to Aquinas, is about establishing equality between multiple parties, in attempt to make things right between the aforementioned parties. Thus, by doing what is right, justice is a virtue, and virtues are, as previously stated, give by to man by the grace of God to allow us to better ourselves, and to perfect our nature. Justice is unique among the virtues, as deals with multiple parties, and how they interact with each other, and thus is a virtue that is not only of one person, and also is able to rule over, or direct other virtues. Justice, then, seeks to control and regulate what is the “positive right,” which differs from the natural right, in that the natural right is the natural exchange between two or more parties that occurs, and satisfies all of those involved, and the positive right is such interactions happening through some sort of agreement or contract. So, justice then acts as a way for men to make and keep peace among themselves in the temporal world, as it is a virtue imparted on us by God, that seeks to perfect our perverted nature.

Judgment then, is the last of what Aquinas discusses in his section on rights, justice, and judgment. In discussion judgment, he sees it as a person, who is vested to be knowledgeable, fair, and a representative of the community and its interests, imparts justice on a situation. So, judgment is how justice is dispensed, and is vital in the maintenance of an ordered society. It is through the word of God that we are given this instruction to judge (from various Biblical entries). Thus, this is another way in which God's grace has been bestowed upon us to help us perfect our nature.

The maxim “grace does not abolish nature but perfects it,” is a major influence on the political thought of Aquinas. It is from this maxim that Aquinas views virtues. It shapes how he believes that laws are supposed to function, and how justice and what is right are to be seen. This maxim appears to be one of the central tenants of the political thought of Aquinas.