St. Thomas Aquinas on Tyrants and Tyranny

Building on Aristotelian political theory, particularly the Politics, Thomas Aquinas outlines his understanding of the earthly end of man and the best way for him to achieve it.:”(“On Kingship, or The Governance of Rulers,” in Paul E. Sigmund, trans. and ed., St. Thomas Aquinas on Politics and Ethics [New York: W.W. Norton & Co., Inc., 1988], pp.14-29.)”:

Since the earthly end of man is to live in community with other men in order to seek in general the common good of all and in particular the life of virtue, it is necessary to discuss how such communities should be governed. The basic distinction to make is between a government directed toward the common good of the group and a government directed toward only the good of the ruler:

The proper end of a group of free men is different from that of a group of slaves, for a free man determines his own actions while a slave, qua slave, is one who belongs to another. If then a group of free men is directed by a ruler to the common good of the group, his government will be right and just because it is appropriate for free men, but if the government is directed not at the common good of the group but at the private good of the ruler it will be unjust and a perversion. God warns such rulers in the book of Ezekiel, “Woe to shepherds that feed themselves (because they seek their own benefit). Should not the flocks be fed by the shepherd?” Shepherds must seek the good of their flocks, and rulers, the good of those subject to them.:”(On Kingship, Chapter 1, ibid., pg. 16, citing Ezekiel 34:2.)”:

Next is the definition of tyrant: “If a government is under one man who seeks his own benefit and not the good of those subject to him, the ruler is called a tyrant.” This is in distinction to a king: “if a good government is in the hands of one man alone, it is appropriate to call him a king.” Furthermore, “it is the nature of kingship that there should be one to rule and that he should be a shepherd who seeks the common good of all and not his own benefit.”:”(Ibid.)”:

For Aquinas, the best form of government is monarchy (kingship), or, rule by one good man for the common good of all. Since all rulers should aim to promote the welfare of the territories they have been given, which means in practice to preserve unity and peace, and since “it is evident that that which is itself one can promote unity better than that which is a plurality,” it follows that “government by one person is better than by many.” Aquinas thinks that nature demonstrates this – he offers as examples the heart moving all the other parts, the dominance of reason among the powers of the soul, the rule of one among the bees, and the rule of the whole universe by one God.:”(Chapter 2, ibid., pg. 17.)”: Indeed, “every plurality derives from unity,” and since art imitates nature, government by one is best.:”(Ibid., pg. 18.)”:

Now if government by one good man (kingship) is best, what is worst? Aquinas again follows classical political theory (Aristotle, Polybius, Cicero, etc.) by noting that the natural degradation of kingship is into tyranny: “Just as government by a king is best, so government by a tyrant is the worst…Kingship is the opposite of tyranny since both are governments by one person…Since that which is opposite to the best is the worst, it follows that tyranny is worst form of government.” Again (it cannot be stated enough, I suppose), “what makes a government unjust is the fact that the private interest of the ruler is pursued in preference to the common good of the society. The further he departs from the common good, the more unjust his government will be.”:”(Chapter 3, ibid.)”:

Aquinas continues, “when the ruler departs from law there is no security and everything is uncertain. No reliance can be placed on the will, not to speak of the lust, of another.” More importantly (for a certain enormous controversy a bit less than 300 years in the future, at least),

[The tyrant] threatens not only the bodies of his subjects but also their spiritual welfare, since those who seek to use rather than to be of use to their subjects oppose any progress by their subjects since they suspect that any excellence among their subjects is a threat to their unjust rule. Tyrants always suspect the good rather than the evil and are always afraid of virtue. They seek to prevent their subjects from becoming virtuous and developing a public spiritedness which would not tolerate their unjust domination.:”(Ibid., pg. 19.)”:

The Scriptures which Aquinas cites in his exposition are quite interesting. Above he cited Ezekiel 34:2, “Woe to shepherds that feed themselves (because they seek their own benefit). Should not the flocks be fed by the shepherd?” Now he proceeds to the following passages – (1) Proverbs 29:4, “A just king improves the land; a greedy man destroys it,” (2) Colossians 3:21, “Fathers, do not provoke your children to indignation lest they become discouraged,” (3) Proverbs 28:12, “When the wicked reign it is the ruination of men,” (4) Proverbs 29:2, “When the wicked take power, the people weep as if they were being led into slavery,” (5) Proverbs 28:28, “When the wicked rule, men will go into hiding,” and (6) Proverbs 28:15, “A wicked prince over his poor people is like a roaring lion and a ravenous bear.”

For all of this, Aquinas still believes that monarchy is the best form of government, and even thinks that tyranny is more likely to develop from the rule of the many rather than of the one:

A monarchy which changes into a tyranny leads to less evil than the corruption of an aristocracy. The dissension that usually results from a government involving many people works against peace which is the most important social good. But a tyrant does not destroy peace but only takes away some of the goods of individual men – unless the tyrant is so excessive that it adversely affects the whole community. Therefore government by one person s preferable to government by many, although there are dangers in both.:”(Chapter 4, ibid., pg. 21.)”:

What should one do if one is under a tyrannical government? Aquinas answers this question with a view toward preserving social peace, which he thinks is best accomplished by the rule of one: “If the tyranny is not extreme, it is better to tolerate a mild tyranny for a time rather than to take action against it that may bring on many dangers that are worse than the tyranny itself.” For it is possible that those who try to overthrow the tyrant will fail, and the tyrant will thus become more extreme, or, worse still, that those who overthrow the tyrant will themselves become worse tyrants.:”(Chapter 6, ibid., pg. 23.)”:

So one should view a “mild” tyranny, but what of a truly extreme one? Here Aquinas advocates the biblical duty of individuals as individuals to suffer under unjust rule, for as the Apostle Peter says, “If anyone bears undeserved suffering out of reverence for God, this is (the work of) grace” (I Peter 2:19). Other than this biblical injunction, “It would be very dangerous for the community and for its rulers if any individual, using his private judgment, could attempt to kill those in government, even when they are tyrants.”:”(Ibid., pg. 24.)”: Again, the peace of the community as a whole is the supreme social good.

However, Aquinas shows himself a true son of the Medieval Christian concern for limiting rulers under God, for he acknowledges that in the judgment of the community as a whole, there is recourse against an extreme tyrant: “if a given community has the right to appoint a ruler it is not unjust for the community to depose the king or restrict his power if he abuses it by becoming a tyrant.” Aquinas gives some examples from Roman history, including the expulsion of the tyrant Tarquin the Proud (which act gave birth in 509 B.C. to the Roman Republic), and the execution of the wicked Emperor Domitian by the Senate.:”(Ibid.)”:

Other than these examples, Aquinas also relies on the commonplace assumption of the feudal world in which he lived that if rulers fail to discharge the duty which God has given them toward their subjects, their subjects may lawfully depose them precisely for their violation of the covenant: “The community should not be accused of disloyalty if it deposes a tyrant even if it had previously agreed to obey him forever, since he did not rule the community as the office of king requires and thus he deserved to have his subjects break their agreement.”:”(Ibid.)”: This commonplace assumption – it was called diffidatio – of the feudal world in which Aquinas lived will prove quite handy in about 150 years when the conciliarists formulate their arguments for the deposition of the tyrannical popes running the Church into the ground during the Western Schism, thus showing more evidence of the non-innovative nature of the conciliarist program. It may also have connections (though I have not explored this in any detail) with John Calvin’s idea that “lower magistrates,” being lawful organs of government, may interpose themselves between tyrants and the people for the sake of preserving the people.

On the other hand, Aquinas may provide some support for the papalist cause as well, for he goes on to say that if “it is the right of a higher authority to appoint a king over a certain community, then the remedy for the wickedness of the tyrant is to be sought from that authority….if no human aid is possible against the tyrant, recourse is to be made to God, the king of all, who is the help of those in tribulation.”:”(Ibid., pg. 25.)”: This line will be taken by the papalists of the 16th century, particularly in the early phases of the Protestant reformation by men such as Cardinal Cajetan, who, though seeing the horrific wickedness and spiritual predation of the popes against their subjects, nevertheless believe adamantly that because God alone set up the papacy, God alone may judge the papacy. For Cajetan, indeed, the only recourse against the tyrannical popes of his day was to pray for God to remove the tyrant before he destroyed the whole society. A lofty ideal, to be sure, but not one that recommends itself well to men of principle standing at the tail end of a long line of men of principle, all of whom have been dealing for centuries with an entrenched tyrant who has repeatedly, obstinately refused to respond to all reasonable requests for reform.

Lastly, Aquinas agrees with the common Medieval explanation, drawn from Scripture, of course, for why political calamities befall a people: God punishes the sins of His people. He cites Hosea 13:11, “I will give you a king in my wrath,” and Job 34:30, “He maketh a man who is a hypocrite to rule because of the sins of the people.” Therefore, says Aquinas, “for the scourge of tyranny to cease, guilt must first be expiated.”:”(Ibid.)”:


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