Jacques Maritain Center

Chapter Vll: Scholastic Ethics and Politics

1. The Ethics of the Schoolmen. THE Ethics and Politics of the Schoolmen are founded upon the Nicomachean Ethics and the Politics of Aristotle. Nevertheless, being Christian, the School did not depend upon the ancient Greeks for ethical teaching so much as for logic and metaphysics. The Aristotelian ethics stood alone, complete, but isolated. The Schoolmen added to them a science of Deontology, and thereby brought them into connection with Theology. They added to Aristotelian virtues such notions as Duty, Obligation, Sin, a Sovereign Lawgiver and Judge, Reward and Punishment in a life to come. They brought ethical conduct under a law, and for that law they provided an adequate sanction. Aristotelian Ethics make a system of Eudaemonism, but stop short of Deontology. Aristotle points out the road to happiness (eudaemonia), but makes little or no attempt to characterise that road as the path of duty (deon). If the fellow does not want to be rationally happy, Aristotle would say, he is a fool, and must be expelled my lectures. The Schoolman says more. The man who will not take the road of rational happiness is a law-breaker. He breaks a law, formulated indeed by his own conscience, but imposed by an authority from without, which is the authority of the Supreme Reason, God, Creator and Lord. In refusing the way of virtue and rational happiness man not only plays the fool, he commits sin. And sinning, he must be punished. This punishment is radically natural, inasmuch as by sinning and depraving himself, man becomes unfit for rational happiness, and stores in his frame the elements of misery. This is an ethical consideration. The punishment is, further, a positive infliction, proceeding from the will and judicial sentence of the offended Legislator. This is a theological consideration. And similarly of happiness and reward. To do right conscientiously and systematically is to build up habits of virtue; it is to form to oneself a character of goodness; it is to become naturally a fit subject for happiness, and positively to merit an award of happiness from the just Eternal Judge.

About the best thing that Scholasticism has done is the perfecting of the Aristotelian scheme of happiness, and the adaptation of it to the Christian promises, contained in Scripture and Church tradition, as set forth in many a glowing page of St. Augustine. Plato and Aristotle, Augustine and Aquinas, here felicitously join hands. Plato with his vision of Beauty in the Symposium, Aristotle with his account of the crowning happiness of contemplation in the tenth book of the Ethics,* Augustine on the vision of God in the latter books of his Confessions, finally St. Thomas, Contra Gentiles, iii. 17-63, all come together in anticipating the prophecy, We shall see him as he is (I John, iii. 2): And they shall see his face, and his name upon their foreheads (Rev. xxii 4).

St. Thomas altogether takes up the Aristotelian argument, that man's last and highest happiness consists in theoria, or the contemplation of the understanding for contemplation's sake; for theoria alone fulfils the requisite of perfect happiness, to be self-sufficient, not useful to a further end, and to be proper to man as man, or rather, proper to man in respect of the highest element of his being. The only point in which this contemplation fails to meet requirements is this, that, taking life as it is, our contemplation cannot be continual, it is fitful and uncertain. To this objection Aristotle coolly replies that it only shows that happiness in full perfection is beyond the reach of man to attain; he must make the best of a bad adventure, and realise this ideal of happiness in such transient and inadequate fashion as he may; better an hour of that than fifty years of any other occupation; better, no doubt, an eternity of it, but eternity is not to be had; man must be content in a mortal life to play the immortal. This we do by philosophising. pursuing science and scholarship for its own sake, not for any vulgar utility. In fact Aristotle places happiness precisely in what are now called 'useless studies.' And because few men have leisure and ability for such pursuits, Aristotelians say that few men can be happy. As the flower and fruit is but a small part of the plant, and still the plant may be said to be for the flower and the fruit, so the vast organism of human society exists for the sake of these few 'useless' but happy students. Philosophers are the flower of humanity. This view, however, did not wholly satisfy Aristotle's great exponents, Greek and Arabian, Alexander and Averroes, each honoris causa named 'the Commentator.' They looked for the realisation of his theoria not to any ordinary study of sciences, but to a mystical union with a higher Intelligence. Upon these aspirations St. Thomas writes: 'Alexander and Averroes laid it down that the final happiness of man is not in such knowledge as is possible to man through the speculative sciences, but in a knowledge gained by conjunction with a separately subsistent Intelligence, which conjunction they supposed to be possible to man in this life. But because Aristotle saw that there was no other knowledge for man in this life than that which is through the speculative sciences, he supposed man not to gain perfect happiness, but a limited happiness suited to his state. In all which investigation it sufficiently appears how hard pressed on this side and on that those fine geniuses were. From this stress of difficulty we shall escape in positing, according to proofs already furnished, that man can arrive at true happiness after this life, the soul of man being immortal. In this disembodied state the soul of man will understand in the way in which pure spirits understand. The final happiness of man, then, will be in the knowledge of God, which the human soul has after this life according to the manner in which pure spirits know him' (Contra Gentiles, iii. 48).*

If any one would see for himself the blend of Aristotelian with Christian virtues, of virtues with commandments, of moral deformity with sin, he may read it at length in what is called the Secunda Secundae of St. Thomas's Summa Theologiae.* One remark about Casuistry, or the study of cases of conscience, principally in view, of the practice of the confessional. The principles of the science are to be met with in the great Schoolmen, but the developments are not due to them. Casuistry interested the human mind chiefly in the seventeenth century, when the star of Scholasticism had paled before Descartes. 2. The Politics of the Schoolmen. For a thousand years and more -- for some fourteen centuries in the East -- the State to the Church meant the Roman Empire. There were, to be sure, barbarian kings many and lords many, Persian, Gothic, Hun, Saxon: these were but faint copies, or distorted caricatures of the Majesty that dwelt, or had dwelt, in Rome. There was no king but Caesar, however he might be girt with a Persian scimitar at his side, or swing in his rude hand a German battle-axe. Did not the ninth-century monarch of Wessex or Northumbria inscribe on his coins basileus, the Greek name of the Roman Emperor, to imply that he was the Augustus Caesar of Britain? The treatment that the Church experienced at the hands of the Roman State for three centuries was an uncertain tolerance, interrupted by outbursts of fierce persecution. Then the Empire became officially Christian, and at times did the Church more harm by its patronage than it had done by its hostility. Still Church and State hung together, and when the barbarians broke up the Empire of the West, Church missionaries went among them bearing in their right hand the Gospels and in their left Roman law and Roman social institutions. When a great Christian ruler of many peoples appeared in the person of Charlemagne, the Church gladly bestowed upon him, as a sacred gift, the consecration and name of Roman Emperor. He was declared 'Caesar, the unconquered, ever Augustus.' When his posterity lapsed into feebleness, the Church in the middle of the tenth century, a hundred and fifty years after Charlemagne, saluted a new Roman Emperor in the person of Otto the First.* Thence to the end of the eighteenth century there was ever a Holy Roman Empire by the side of the Holy Roman Church. On the whole the two powers got on ill together. In the most flourishing period of Scholasticism, Christendom was distracted by the strife of Papacy and Empire. We have seen a prince of the School, William Ockham, abandon his professorial chair to turn Imperial partisan. The political science of the Schoolmen, then, was conditioned by the political situation of their times. In their idea Christendom somehow was one, not one religious body merely, but one political body, a Christian commonwealth. True, there were various princes and nationalities, but in an age of feudalism no very close coherence of parts was thought necessary to form a kingdom, no very definite unity of authority, no intense centralisation. The Roman Emperor was in theory the political chief of a united Christendom. The English, of course, were insular, and claimed that their island was beyond the bounds of the Empire: they were tolerated as outer barbarians, amiable men with queer notions; and besides, from the time of John, their land was held to be a fief of the Holy See: indeed all islands, Ireland as well as England, were considered by some canonists to be appanages of the See of Rome. While Scholasticism was at its best, in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, kings indeed went to war, and their vassals followed them, but nation had not yet risen against nation: the very name 'nation' did not signify a distinct State, but only a difference of race, or less than that, merely of geographical position. Thus Picardy was a 'nation' at the University of Paris; and in that of Oxford there were two 'nations,' the northern and the southern English, Scotland going with the former, and Ireland and Wales with the latter. When what we call nations emerged towards the end of the fifteenth century, Scholasticism was already in its decline. The best mediaeval scholastic intellect was never given to a Europe such as lies before our view. Consequently there is a certain archaeism in Scholastic Politics. The Hugo Grotius of the Schoolmen is Francis Suarez, with his treatise, De Legibus, and that was written in the early seventeenth century.

The antithesis before the Schoolman was not Church and State: it was Pope and Emperor -- in England and France, Pope and King. These were the two luminaries in the firmament of heaven, the greater and the lesser. Whence the greater came, every one in those days knew: but what was the origin of the lesser luminary? From the devil, said some; it was a consequence of the Fall; had we remained in paradise, there would have been no kings. 'They all put on diadems, and their sons after them for many years, and evils multiplied upon the earth' (I Maccabees, i. 9). It was remembered how Rome owed its origin to the asylum, said to have been opened by Romulus on the Palatine for robbers and murderers. Nevertheless it was admitted that kingly power was a necessity in our present condition, and must be endured, as the necessity for wearing clothes, and consulting physicians, which things would not have been had we kept our innocence.

No, said others, the king's power is a holy thing, the gift of Christ to Peter; and Peter's successor has given it to the Emperor, and so to Christian Kings who owe the Emperor reverence. So said Augustinus Triumphus and Alvarius Pelagius, and sundry others, but no great Schoolman took this view: it is censured by the poet of Scholasticism, Dante, Purgatorio, c. xvi.

The Roman Jurists gravely asserted that all Imperial and Royal power is the gift of the People. The People, whose is the sovereignty by original right, finding themselves too unwieldy a body to administer it efficiently, have made it over by a lex regia, 'a king-making law,' to the Emperor. He is their vicarius, or representative.* Whether this power had been transferred to the Emperor without reserve, whether it had been transferred irrevocably or could for any just cause be resumed, was a point on which the Jurists were not agreed. This theory of the original sovereignty of the people came into remarkable prominence in the Jesuit schools during the century following the Reformation. At that epoch Protestant Sovereigns entirely, and even Catholic Sovereigns partially, had possessed themselves of ecclesiastical power. The theory, then, was resuscitated by Bellarmine and Suarez in the interest of the Church, to curb the pretensions of those princes of reigning with God-given prerogative, the immediate, irresponsible ministers of the Most High. Suarez was by no means the inventor of this theory, which is exposed in his work, called Defensio Fidei, written against James i. in 1612. This ancient theory, be it observed, knows nothing of any Social Contract to live in society: it agrees with Aristotle in taking man to be a social or political animal by nature: it is not the theory of Rousseau.*

This theory of the Jurists must have been well-known to St. Thomas. He neither repudiates nor explicitly accepts it. He deals with the further question, how there came to be such a thing as authority at all. In his answer he closely follows Aristotle's Politics, giving them a theological turn. Authority is necessary to human society, and society is a necessity of man's nature. In solitude and isolation from his fellows man is not a man, as a dead hand is not a hand, except in an analogical sense. A hermit must be either a brute or an angel: he is not in the category of human kind. Man is a social animal more than any bee or ant. Bees and ants are gregarious, but man is social: he absolutely requires to be a member of a rational community. Nor is the community of family life sufficient: families must form societies, and the society of families is ultimately the State. One State, one authority. Anarchy is the destruction of the State, and thereby the ruin of the individual. The individual can only thrive as the citizen. So far Aristotle and St. Thomas.

Suarez and modern Schoolmen continue thus. We regard God as the author of nature, and whatever is necessary for human nature to work out its essential development is the ordinance of God. So then civil society, and its consequent civil authority, is the ordinance of God. The powers that be are ordained of God. To disobey them is to disobey Him who is the author of that nature to which they are a necessity. God forbids anarchy as severely as He forbids any excess against temperance. Thus the civil ruler is of God, not in virtue of any positive institution or revelation from heaven, but by virtue of God having created a nature to the proper unfolding of which the State and the civil ruler is indispensable. In whose hands the civil power shall reside, that is not argued here. That depends upon history and individualising circumstances. The distribution of power will be various, but some civil power there must be. The specific ratio of civil authority is from God: the individual who wields that authority is of God only inasmuch as in him, here and now for the present, such civil authority becomes an actuality.

The assignment of a rational or natural basis to the State sets aside two of the theories that have been mentioned. It sets aside the notion that the State is of the Evil One, or is a necessary evil, the consequence of the Fall. Not the mere evil, but the good of human nature it is that bids the civil ruler take and hold his place. Also it overturns the notion that civil government is a property of Christianity as such, and therefore belongs in chief to the living Head of Christendom, the Pope, whose vicars, or vassals, all kings must be. Not as a Christian, but as man simply, is man a social animal for the purposes of this life. The State is a natural institution, not a supernatural or spiritual entity: the State, therefore, as such, does not belong to the Pope, just as land, houses, money, and other property are not all given over into the hand of the successor of St. Peter. To Caesar the things that are Caesar's. Nevertheless 'the Church laid it down that, while the civil and ecclesiastical polities existed in different orders and for different purposes, and were so far forth independent of one another as their orders and purposes were different, yet the spiritual order was superior to the temporal, salvation of more consequence than political well-being.'* 'Man is not subservient to the political community to the extent of his whole self, all that he is and all that he has,' writes St. Thomas. Not throughout the whole range of his nature is man a political being. He is a citizen and more than a citizen. He is, or may be, philosopher, poet, artist, father, friend; and in all these capacities he is something over and above a limb of the State. The State has neither ability nor right to control his thoughts. If he has an immortal soul, he belongs already by anticipation to a world in which there is no State. He shall outlive the State, and must look forward to the time when the State for him shall be no more. Even then while he still lives one of its components, he cannot wholly be contained in the State. This doctrine involves a certain aloofness of the individual from the State, and prevents his entire absorption in it. There are traces of this aloofness in pre-Christian philosophy, much more in Christianity, and therefore in Scholasticism.

This train of thought brings us within sight of some hope of removing from Scholasticism a reproach, which more than any other cause has prejudiced the modern mind against it, and is the greatest obstacle to its propagation. I mean the reproach of being pledged to foregone conclusions, of being tethered to orthodoxy like a captive balloon to the earth. This reproach grows greater with the lapse of time, as the attaching ropes are multiplied and made stronger by new condemnations of error and new definitions of faith. The reproach may be removed by this reflection, that definitions of faith fall upon judgments, not upon reasonings; not upon speculations, but upon assents. It is a rule of the Higher Philosophy to speculate freely, but to assent cautiously, to think much but believe little. Faith challenges our belief, not our logic: it does not say, this is proved, but this is. You may call Scholasticism, or any orthodox philosophy, a captive balloon, but for tentative ascents, for exploration and reconnoitring purposes, the ropes that hold it stretch to infinity. You may see and meditate all that can be said for any condemned doctrine, provided you do not hold the doctrine itself.* You may sound all the depths of Hegelianism, and see with your mind's eye all the gloomy visions of Schopenhauer, provided you hold fast to the Nicene Creed and Vatican Council, and do not deny, however little in some respects you may be able to justify, the Providence of God. Nor is it quite exact to say that the dogmas of faith are forgone conclusions. They are forgone truths. They are not presented to our belief as conclusions. We may never be able to reach them by way of conclusion. Some are confessedly inaccessible to conclusive argument, as the doctrine of the Triune God. Some may be accessible, but I cannot find the way. There is a way up the Matterhorn, others have gone to the top, I start and fail. I have to take the feasibility of the ascent on the word of others. So with such a doctrine as the immortality of the soul. I have not the least doubt that the soul is immortal: my faith tells me so. But I am as free as any other man in judging of the value of the arguments for immortality. I may search them all, and condemn them all; and, with Scotus, I may have to fall back upon my faith as the one sure guarantee of my immortality. A truth of faith can never be in question; but my ability rationally to vindicate a given truth of faith is a very open question indeed. I am satisfied with the word of God; but my own philosophical, or critical and historical speculations, may fail to satisfy me, at least for the present. Perhaps I may reason better to-morrow: meanwhile I will believe, even to-day.

A Catholic will say: this free philosophical speculation, trying all conclusions, but holding aloof from assents, where the word of the Church forbids them, is a dangerous game. It is dangerous. Alpine climbing is dangerous, and foxhunting. All the stronger efforts of man's body and mind are fraught with danger, not excluding the paths of higher sanctity. There is danger of broken limbs, of lunacy, of intellectual pride and apostasy. If Scholasticism is to revive -- and Popes have bidden it live again -- the Neo-Scholastic who shall lead the movement of revival will need to be a man of great faith, fearless speculation, and absolute reliance on the word of God.

'What makes against the faith, either as a consideration in the mind of the believer, or in the way of exterior persecution, augments the merit of faith, so far forth as it reveals a will more prompt and firm in the faith. Therefore also the martyrs had greater merit in faith, not receding from the faith for persecutions; and likewise men of learning have greater merit of faith, not receding from the faith for the reasons of philosophers or heretics alleged against it.' -- (St. Thomas, Summa Theologiae, 2a-2ae , q. 2, art. 10).

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