13 St Augustine and Thomas Aquinas

Sreerupa Saha

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7.1   Objectives

7.2    Introduction

7.3   History of Christianity

7.3.1 Politics in Christian Thought

7.3.2 The Conciliar Movement

7.4   St. Augustine

7.4.1 His thoughts and preachings

7.5    Thomas Aquinas

7.5.1 The nature of medieval political thought

7.5.2 Aquinas’s thoughts and ideas.

7.6    Assessment and Evaluation


7.1    Objectives


After going through this module, you should be able to

  • Understand the politics in the history of Christianity.
  • To have an idea about the Conciliar Movement.
  • Understand the preachings of St. Augustine
  • Brief outline about features of medieval political thought
  • St Thomas Aquinas and his ideas.


7.2    Introduction


Elements which were added to political life at the beginning of the Middle Ages were the doctrines of Christianity and the political ideas of the Teutonic barbarians. The ideas of the Teutons did not affect political philosophy of the medieval period. But the establishment of the Christian religion and the development of the Christian church became cardinal influences on the medieval political thought. Christianity, with its Stoic doctrine of equality of man in sight of God and its emphasis on the supreme value of the individual appeared just after the Roman world. With the emergence dominance of Christianity we see pre-eminence of the political community being displaced by the religious community. The goal of the human beings was to live a life of virtue, but individual life was now linked with one’s religious life instead of one’s political life. In the works of Augustine transition from the classical period of hostility between the church and a pagan state to the period of unity in a Christian church state was observed. St Aquinas aimed to harmonize reason and revelation, to reconcile the doctrines of the church and the rational pagan philosophy which the classical learning had made.



7.3   History of Christianity


7.3.1 Politics in Christian Thought


The founder of Christianity had little interest in political doctrines. In emphasizing the principle of the Golden Rule, the morality of the individual was appealed to, and the authority of government was thereby minimized. Jesus carefully distinguished the spiritual kingdom and evaded every attempt to entangle him with the roman authorities. Passive obedience to the powers was enjoined. Government was conceived as a means of carrying out God’s will on earth. Only when the state interfered with the teachings of the church was disobedience permitted.


Certain element of political theory which the early Christian writers drew from the ideas and which increased as Christianity spread to the upper classes and was more influenced by Stoic philosophy. The New Testament contains important statements concerning the doctrines of natural law, of human equality, and of the nature of government.


The Apostles adopted the cosmopolitan ideas of the later Greek philosophers concerning the equality of men. The attitude of the early Christians like the Stoic philosophers in the question of slavery was not altogether consistent. Civil government was viewed as a divine institution, deriving its authority from God. Obedience to the state was demanded as a religious obligation as well as a political necessity. The state existed to maintain justice. State had a sacred character, its ruler was god’s servant and obedience was essential. The Christian theory of the state was essentially based upon the later stoic; government is necessary to proper human development. The church fathers adopted the concept of natural law. They recognized slavery as a legal and necessary institution. The Fathers accepted the state as divine institution. They taught that ultimate authority for government must be sought in God.


As Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire, gradually it developed its semi-political organization, acquired property and power, built up its system of theology, a new attitude was seen in its political ideas. The church began to assume rights and dignities equal to the empire. The civil ruler was considered the ‘vicar of God’, a line of separation began to be drawn between ecclesiastical and secular authority. The church became more self-conscience and claimed independence and there was a tendency to depreciate the importance of political authority and to exalt by comparison spiritual authority of the church.



7.3.2 The Conciliar Movement


The Conciliar Movement was a 14th-15th century reform movement within the Catholic Church. The main tenets of conciliarism were that the final authority in spiritual matters lay with the church and represented by a general Council and not with the pope. The Catholic Church had become, by the Middle Ages, the principle carrier of Roman imperial absolutism, and by attacking pope’s authority, conciliarism became an inspiration for Western constitutionalism as well. Before Luther, the Catholic Church had to face a lot of criticism. Some critiques were fundamental for instance those questioning the idea of church as a mediator between individual believer and God.


Church is a collective body. The Catholic Church claims to be a universal church open to all races, nationalities and sex. Christ refuses no one from God’s grace and he sends his apostles to preach all mankind. The conciliarist claims that the ultimate religious authority lay with the church. According to the conciliarists, the only way the church could exercise its authority was through a general council consisting of its leading members. Initially, the Conciliar Movement advocated that power should be shared between the pope and bishop-in-council. Later it demanded unlimited sovereignty for the internally democratic council of bishops. The Church Council of Constance issued two degrees: the first, a general council is superior to a pope in matter of doctrine; second, council must meet at regular intervals. Within the movement the issue of how a large collective body was to act was problematized. This collectivity was assumed to have a common interest a smaller group could act in its name.


The political leaders of Europe who wanted their own authority enthusiastically supported the conciliarists and they regularly interfered in the election of several popes in an attempt to keep the power of the popes in check. This interference in Church election was to displace the budding absolute monarchies of Europe. It gave up the idea that as the authority of the Christian church was to be seen as devolving to the community of the Christian church as a whole, and not just to the pope similarly the political community was not to be led by the person of the monarch, but was to be in the hands of a larger elective body.


7.4   St. Augustine


7.4.1 His thoughts and preachings


The work of St Augustine ( A. D. 354 – 430 ) embodies the transition from the classical world, to the world of Christendom; from the period of hostility between church and a pagan state to the period of unity in a Christian church state. In his City of God (most influential book written in fifth century) he attacked paganism, traced Roman history to show that the old gods have not saved Rome from misfortune, and argued that Christianity if adopted by the people would save the state. This work was aggressively apologetic. He shifted his attention from earthly to the spiritual city. By this he meant not only Heaven, to which the Christians looked forward as their eternal home. Its counterpart on earth composed of the body of true believers. The church was, thus, the City of God.


Augustine imitated Plato in working out his ideal city and combined the philosophy of Plato with the doctrines of Cicero and the theology of the Christian religion. He justified slavery as the result of the fall of man. Accordingly, slavery was both a remedy and a divine punishment for sin. He criticized Cicero’s conception as an embodiment of justice. Justice to him was not created by civil authority but by the ecclesiastical, which existed as a principle of authority independent of state. He broke away from the earlier Church Fathers and eliminated the elements of law and justice which Romans considered as the basis of the state. He considered state as a punitive, partly as a remedial institution. Men were compelled to form social relations. Men originally obeyed the rules of wisdom and justice. But as a consequence of sin some men had to be subjected to the authority of others. He believed in divine origin of the state. He opposed state as a diabolical institution. The fundamental distinction in Augustine’s thought, however, was not between church and state, but was between two societies. Augustine conceived the City of God as a “Christianized Church-State, from which unbelievers are excluded and claimed the supreme power in that state for the leaders of the ecclesiastical hierarchy.”1


Augustine’s City of God dominated Christian thought for centuries. Thomas Aquinas, Dante and Grotius drew largely from the City of God for their writings. The work of Augustine


1  J.N. Figgis, Political Aspects of St. Augustine’s City of God (1921), p 79


gave to the church at a critical period of history a crystallized body of thought, and put into definite statement the ideal which gave it distinctive existence and self conscious purpose.2


7.5    Thomas Aquinas


7.5.1 The nature of medieval political thought


From 5th to the 9th century the condition of Europe was such that it did not permit philosophical or theorizing activity. The two social factors that influenced medieval political thought in Europe were feudalism and Catholicism. Feudalism was the tenure of land from a feudal lord in return for military service. It was an institution ideally suited to the economic and military needs of medieval times. Contract, not dominion, was the essence of feudalism.


Catholicism, represented by the Roman Catholic Church with the Pope as its spiritual head, was dominant in the middle ages and influenced the political thought. It competes with the secular authority of the Empire for a position of supremacy.


Church competed with the secular authority for man’s final allegiance; its problem was its relation with the state. Its weapons were spiritual and its strength was the belief of the people. Thus in the middle ages central theme was the relation between the Church and State. There were two universal empires- one spiritual and the other secular. Each claimed a universal dominion and the final allegiance of man.


The Medieval man was subject to dual authority of Pope and the Emperor. His prime object was to owe allegiance to the Christian Republic or the City of God as St Augustine described it.


‘Doctrine of Two Swords’ characterized medieval political thought. One sword symbolizes the Emperor and the other the Church.


As church was the main dominating institution, decision of church in all matters were final. Church controlled the whole thought system and there were no free play of different thoughts and ideas.


Slavery was the consequence of sin and person involved in sinful activities were penalized by god. Medieval political thought made important contributions to politics


Politics was dominated by the insistence of man’s duality both as a spiritual being and as a temporal being.


Modern idea of representation developed during the medieval period saw rise of Parliaments.


St Aquinas expanded the idea of natural law and made it an integral part of Christian thought.


There was a great stress on reason in natural law.


2  Wanlass C. Lawrence , Gettell’s History of Political Thought (1981), p 101 The Medieval communes and guilds provide the basis of a new type of self government.3


So Barker rightly observes: “Middle Ages, therefore, are not dead. They live among us, and are contemporary with us, in many institutions of our life and many modes of our thought” 4


7.5.2 Aquinas’s thoughts and ideas


The 13th century was marked by the culmination of papal power and by interest in speculative philosophy. Scholaristic writer of this period was St Thomas Aquinas (1227-1274). He aimed to harmonize reason and revelation. He best represented the desire of his age for an unification of knowledge based on divine revelation. He marked the beginning of the later medieval rational political thought which combined with old theocratic and scriptural arguments.


St Aquinas defined law as “an ordinance of reason for the common good, promulgated by him who has the care of a community”.5 He introduced the idea of positive law, of rules actually formulated by a sovereign power in the state. However he viewed law as something universal, immutable and natural. Positive law was only a corruption of law if it conflicted with the fundamental principles of justice.


He also considered the various forms of law. He states four types of law. On the lowest level is human law, composed of custom and other laws which have a human origin. Then comes the divine law consists of revealed codes, by which men are expected to live. Divine law is followed by natural law which concerns God’s reason in created things. And finally there is an eternal law which stands as the ultimate reality of the universe.


St Thomas Aquinas based political authority on the Aristotelian conception of the social nature of man. Aquinas believed that the city was too small and weak for defense and preferred the larger kingdom as the proper type of state. He recognized the anarchic element in the doctrines of tyrannicide and rejected them. In spite of Aquinas’ respect for reason he felt that the greatest truths were still obtainable only through faith. He held that the church should be given precedence over any secular power. It was the duty of the political ruler to administer secular affairs in a way as to further God’s will, if a ruler disobeys the church he should be excommunicated ; the authority of the priest was temporal as well as spiritual. Pope is to be obeyed by all above rulers in matters of civil welfare and those relate to salvation.


The theories of Aquinas were later made the basis of the Jesuit system, and exerted an influence through political activities.

  • 3 Ghosh Birendranath (2004), Glimpses of Political Thought, Mahila Mangal Prakasani, p 36
  • 4 Ibid p 36
  • 5 Wanlass C. Lawrence , Gettell’s History of Political Thought (1981), p 121


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