Audio file

By Dr. John J. Goyette

Note: Periodically members of the Thomas Aquinas College teaching faculty present informal lectures, followed by question-and-answer sessions, on campus. These late-afternoon gatherings afford an opportunity for tutors to speak about some topic of great interest to them and to share their thoughts with other members of the community. Dr. John J. Goyette delivered the following talk on March 19, 2014. Parts of this text are adapted from Dr. Goyette’s essay, On the Transcendence of the Political Common Good: Aquinas versus the New Natural Law Theory (PDF), The National Catholic Bioethics Quarterly, 13.1 (2013): 133-15.


There is a growing tendency among conservative Catholics to adopt a quasi-libertarian view of human government: that government should not be concerned with making its citizens morally virtuous, but should instead concern itself with a more limited and instrumental common good, one that is ordered ultimately to the good of families and individuals who privately pursue their own notion of happiness. This view, that human law and government are concerned only with peace, security, and economic prosperity, is contrary to the teaching of Aristotle and Aquinas, and to Catholic social teaching. I will argue that for Aquinas the political common good transcends the private good of individuals and families, that it consists in the virtuous life of the political multitude (what Aquinas calls “communal happiness”) and that the family is insufficient to lead men to virtue apart from law and the civitas.

This tendency to embrace a libertarian view is due in part because our own opinions about human government have been largely formed by our political institutions, and those institutions have been shaped largely by the writings of John Locke and Thomas Jefferson. The recent trend toward the libertarian model is also a reaction to our contemporary politics and culture which, have steadily undermined the institution of marriage and the importance of family life. We see this in the adoption of no-fault divorce, the legalization of abortion, the proliferation of pornography, and in the current movement to legalize gay marriage. The family is a fragile thing and the desire to safeguard it from those things that threaten it is natural. Nonetheless, there is an opposite danger: there is a danger in settling for an impoverished notion of political life, or perhaps even abandoning altogether political life, in the belief that the great task of the family, raising children to be morally virtuous human beings, can be achieved without the help of human law and government.

So that is the background, the motivation for my talk. My paper has several parts. In the first part I will outline St. Thomas’s understanding of the political common good, which he identifies as happiness, or the life of virtue. In the second, I will focus on the need for human law as a guide to the life of virtue and the insufficiency of the moral training proper to the family. In the third, I examine the virtue of legal justice, which he describes as the most perfect of all the moral virtues and the virtue by which man participates in the communal life of the civitas. Finally, I turn to the society of the family and its role in within the political community. In this last part I will show how the notion of subsidiarity — a key element of the Church’s social teaching — is found in the writings of Aquinas. Without the teaching on subsidiarity one will likely mistake Aquinas’s notion of the common good as totalitarian or collectivist.

Aquinas on the Political Common Good

To understand the nature of the common good we need to be clear about the nature of the good simply. Aquinas is fond of quoting the Aristotelian formulation, “The good is what all things desire.”1 The formula manifests that the good as such has the notion of an end or final cause since it is the goal of some kind of appetite.2 The first thing to notice about the common good, then, is that it is common precisely as a good. The common good is a common end, not a good that is common by predication.3 I might be tempted to describe health as a “common good” since everyone desires to be healthy. When I desire to be healthy, however, I am not seeking the same thing that you are when you seek to be healthy; what I seek is the health of my body whereas what you seek is the health of your body. Of course, when you and I say that we seek to be healthy, the predicate “healthy” shares something in common in both cases, but what is common here is only specifically the same. But for Aquinas, the common good is “common, not by the community of genus or species, but the community of final cause.”4 A common good, then, is a single end — one in number — that is able to be pursued or enjoyed by many.

When we say that the common good is able to be pursued or enjoyed by many, however, we mean that the common good as such is not diminished by being shared. Although we speak about sharing a bottle of wine, it is not strictly speaking a common good, since the wine in my glass is not the very same wine that is in your glass — my glass of wine and your glass of wine differ numerically. Consequently, the more wine you take the less there is for me. I do not mean to say that sharing a bottle of wine is not a good thing for friends to do. Indeed, it might greatly contribute to the pursuit or enjoyment of some higher good that is truly shared in common, such as the good of truth — thus the phrase in vino veritas — but the wine as such is not a common good. Or, to take another example, the books in the library are meant for common benefit, but if I borrow a book from the library, that precludes you from using the book at the same time. A truly common good, however, is as able to be pursued and enjoyed by many at the same time because as such it is capable of common enjoyment. Thus, the bottle of wine and the library book are not strictly speaking common goods.

The common good, then, is a single end pursued and enjoyed by a multitude of individuals. What are some examples of genuine common goods? Common goods are most readily seen where we find many individuals working together for the sake of a single end or goal. The soldiers in an army all work together for the sake of victory. Or the sailors on a ship all work together to bring the ship safely to port. Or to use an example closer to home, children are a common good of the family. In these examples we have a single end that is pursued and enjoyed by many. The soldiers delight in victory, sailors delight in the ship’s safe arrival, and parents delight when their children grow up into healthy and mature adults [and to move out of the house]. We might add that insofar as many individuals work together for the sake of a common goal they can be said to form a community and to act in common. To sum up: The common good is a good that is one in number and is able to be shared by many without being diminished.

Having arrived at a working definition of the common good, let us now turn to the political common good. We have noted that the notion of a common good is applicable to the common goal of any kind of community, but Aquinas also has a more restrictive notion of the common good as the end of a perfect community. Thus, although in one sense we can speak of the common good of an army, or of sailors on a ship, or of the members of a family, the common good of the political community is higher and more perfect. Indeed, the political community is the only perfect human community in the natural order. I add this last qualification because Aquinas will speak of other perfect communities, such as the community of the whole universe ordered to God as a final end and the community of God and the blessed otherwise known as the City of God. What, then, does Thomas mean by calling the political community a perfect community?

Thomas, following Aristotle, argues that the city is the perfect human community because of its self-sufficiency:

[Aristotle] says that the city is a perfect community; and this he proves from this, since every association among all men is ordered to something necessary for life, that community will be perfect which is ordered to this, that man have sufficiently whatever is necessary for life. Such a community is the city [civitas]. For it is of the nature of the city that in it should be found everything sufficient for human life … for it is originally made for living, namely, that men might find sufficiently that from which they might be able to live; but from its existence it comes about that men not only live but that they live well insofar as by the laws of the city human life is ordered to the virtues.5

The perfect human community, then, is self-sufficient not only because it allows men to flourish materially, but, more importantly, because it makes the good life possible by ordering men toward the life of virtue. This is one among many passages where Aquinas faithfully represents and endorses Aristotle’s view that man by nature is a political animal, that he reaches his natural perfection by participating in the civitas.6

Aquinas presents this same teaching in the Summa theologiae and in [his book On Kingship] the De regno.7 We can see from the very beginning of the treatise on law — where Aquinas aims to give a definition of law — that Aquinas is explicitly following the teaching of Aristotle. Having argued in q. 90, a. 1 that law is a work of reason because it is proper to reason to order things toward an end, he then asks in q. 90, a. 2 whether law is always ordered toward the common good. Here is the key part of his reply:

Now the first principle in practical matters — those things pertaining to practical reason — is the ultimate end. The ultimate end of human life is happiness or beatitude as stated above. Whence it is necessary that law most of all [maxime] should look to the ordination toward beatitude. Moreover, since every part is ordered toward the whole as imperfect to perfect; and since one man is a part of the perfect community, it is necessary that law properly [proprie] should look to the ordination toward communal happiness [felicitatem communem]. Whence, the Philosopher, in the definition of legal matters mentions both happiness and the political community. For he says, in Ethics V.1, that “we call those legal matters just that produce and preserve happiness and its parts for the political community,” since the civitas is a perfect community as is said in Politics I.1.8

So we see that by definition law must be ordered toward the ultimate end, happiness. When Aquinas says that law properly (proprie) looks to communal happiness he is identifying happiness as the proper end or purpose of law. And when he asserts that law most of all (maxime) looks to the ultimate end, to happiness, he is clearly asserting that the ultimate end is the principal concern of law, not a matter of remote, or secondary interest.

Aquinas also makes a second point in the text of q. 90, a. 2: not only is happiness the ultimate end of law, it is an end that can only be attained by participating in the political community. Man is ordered to the city as part to whole, because it is only by participating in political life that he can be happy. The end of law is communal happiness because the good life, the life of virtue, is a life shared in common by the political community. This is why Aquinas will later say that “the principal intention of human law is to establish friendship between man and man.”9

One might be tempted to say that “communal happiness” is something common by way of predication, that the common good is simply the greatest good of the greatest number. As we have previously shown, however, what Aquinas means by the term “common good” is a single end pursued and enjoyed in common. Indeed, it is in response to one of the objections in this very article that Aquinas makes clear that a common good is “common, not by the community of genus or species, but the community of final cause.”10 Thomas can only mean that man achieves happiness as a part of the civitas, by participating in the political common good precisely as a common end, not as an instrumental good ordered toward the private pursuit of happiness. The civitas does more than simply provide safety and security, and material prosperity. It is ordered toward the good life, the life of virtue lived in common with other members of the city.

The Need for Human Law

Having shown that the common good is shared happiness, or the virtuous life of the political multitude, let us turn to Aquinas’s treatment of the need for human law. One might be tempted to say that law is not needed as a moral teacher or guide, since this can be provided by the family, but is necessary only as a safeguard against violence and crime. But Aquinas repeatedly insists on the role of human law as a guide to virtue.

To see this we have to understand that law functions in different ways depending on the persons on whom it is imposed. Aquinas points out that law is imposed on two kinds of men and moves them in different ways. Consider the following texts:

Every law is imposed on two kinds of men. For it is imposed on certain men that are obstinate and proud, who are restrained and tamed by the law; it is also imposed on good men who, instructed by the law, are helped to accomplish what they aspire to do.11

Every law is given to some people. But in the people are contained two kinds of men: some prone to evil, who must be coerced by the precepts of the law, as stated above, some having an inclination to the good, either from nature, or from custom, or rather from grace; and such men must be taught and moved toward better things, by the precept of law.12

In addition to restraining those who are unruly, the law serves as a moral teacher to those who are well disposed. One might be tempted to put the emphasis on the need for the coercive power of law to restrain the violent or unruly. This is obviously important and necessary, but for Aquinas law is principally a work of reason: it belongs to the very definition of law to be a work of reason, whereas coercive power is something secondary, made necessary by those who do not cooperate with the intention of the legislator.13

Aquinas stresses the rational character of human law when he first discusses human law in q. 91, a. 3, where he draws a parallel between the speculative and practical reason in order to manifest the nature and necessity of human law:

Just as in the speculative reason, from naturally known indemonstrable principles are brought forth the conclusions of the various sciences, the knowledge of which is not imparted to us by nature but discovered through the efforts of reason, so also from the precepts of the natural law, as from general and indemonstrable principles, it is necessary that human reason proceed toward certain more particular arrangements. These particular arrangements [particulares dispositiones], devised by human reason, are called human laws, provided the other essential conditions of law be observed, as stated above.

Just as the sciences develop over time as a work of human reason, so is human law a work of reason. No science is developed, no art perfected, in a single generation, by one man alone. The development of the arts and sciences requires the cooperation of a multitude of men working together, each man passing on what he has learned to the next generation. It also requires the efforts of those who are wise to synthesize the collective experience of prior generations so that the arts and sciences can be perfected. The collective effort required for the development of the arts and sciences is, for Aquinas, one of the reasons why man is a political animal.14 But the same is true of human law: it a collective effort requiring experience and time, and the wisdom of the wise. Just as men perfect the arts and sciences as part of a community, so do men perfect their knowledge of the natural moral law by participating in the civitas.

Human law is essential for living the good life because it makes the general precepts of the natural law more specific. Moreover, the specifications of the natural moral law that human law provides are by no means obvious or self-evident, but are the work of experience and time, and are perfected by the prudence or practical wisdom of the legislator. Indeed, Aquinas asserts that law is the work of a special kind of prudence, what he calls “regnative prudence,” and this virtue is the most perfect kind prudence.15

The prudence or practical wisdom embodied in the law can be easily overlooked, and this is where the parallel between human law and the development of the arts and sciences is especially helpful. We tend to take for granted many of the moral precepts of the natural law as if they were self-evident, but we fail to notice that these precepts came to be known slowly over time by the development of human law. Most men now consider it evident that slavery, polygamy, and infanticide are morally wrong, but these very things were almost universally accepted and practiced in the ancient world. This is similar to the way we now accept as obvious scientific conclusions that were centuries in the making, for example, that the earth revolves around the sun and is not at rest at the center of the world, that the motion of the tides is caused by the moon, and that light travels. Hence, it may seem that the moral law is sufficiently evident that individuals and families can pursue the life of virtue on their own, but this view fails to consider that the moral principles adopted by individuals and families are largely the result of the moral direction provided by human law. Indeed, the insufficiency of the family to live the virtuous life apart from the civitas is perhaps most apparent when we consider the harmful consequences that result from the corruption of human law. The deleterious effects of no-fault divorce and legalized abortion show that the family cannot sustain itself without the direction provided by rightly ordered human law. It is often said that the family is the building block of society, and so it is, but the family on its own is not sufficient to live the good life apart from the moral foundation provided by human law.

One might object, however, to this conclusion. If, as we have argued, the knowledge of the natural law depends on human legislators, have we not vitiated the natural law? Isn’t the whole point of natural law that the practical principles of the moral life are available to everyone and that those who are well-intentioned can simply be guided by the natural law in their own private lives and have no need for human law and government as a moral guide?

According to Aquinas, most men left to themselves are capable of seeing only the most general precepts of the natural law and must rely on others, those who are wise, to know the remote conclusions of the natural law. Most men, for example, are capable of knowing the precepts of the Decalogue, for example, Honor thy father and thy mother, Thou shalt not kill, and Thou shalt not steal, since the reason of everyone judges at once that these sorts of things should be done, or not done, and Aquinas says that these things “belong to the law of nature absolutely.”16 But some moral matters are more difficult to see, and require wisdom and careful reflection: “The judgment of some matters requires much consideration of diverse circumstances, and not just anyone can carefully consider these things, but only the wise, just as it does not belong to everyone to consider the particular conclusions of the sciences, but only to the philosophers.”17

Hence, these more remote conclusions of the natural law derived by the wise must be taught to the less wise: “There are certain precepts which the wise, after a careful consideration of reason, judge should be observed. And these things belong to the law of nature, yet they require teaching, the wise teaching the less wise, such as Rise up before the hoary head, and honor the person of the aged man, and other such things.”18 For Aquinas, it is part of God’s providence that men are instructed in the natural law by means of the wise, by human legislators.19 The natural law is in principle knowable by reason even though the more remote conclusions can only be grasped by the wise after careful reflection, and are then communicated to the rest of mankind by means of human law. And since the natural law is “nothing other than the rational creature’s participation in the eternal law,”20 we might say that the highest function of human law is to enable every member of the civitas to participate more fully in the divine government. Indeed, this explains why Aquinas insists that human law and government would have been natural to man even apart from original sin, since even in his prelapsarian state men would have been unequal in knowledge and virtue and those who were wiser would have ruled their inferiors.21

While the role of law as a moral teacher is essential to law, it is not the only or even the most obvious reason why men need human law and government. This is why Aquinas also emphasizes the need for law to restrain the passions of those who are unruly. In q. 95, a. 1, he argues that parental authority is insufficient to lead men to virtue because some juvenile children are beyond the disciplinary power of their parents and need to be restrained by the coercive power of law:

As to those young men [iuvenes] who are inclined to acts of virtue by a good natural disposition, or by custom, or rather by a divine gift, paternal discipline suffices, which is by admonitions. But because some are found to be depraved, and prone to vice, and not easily moved by words, it was necessary that they be restrained from evil by force and fear, in order that at least they might desist from doing evil, and grant others a quiet life, and that they themselves, by being habituated in this way, might be led to do willingly what before they did from fear, and thus become virtuous. Now this kind of discipline, which coerces through fear of punishment, is the discipline of laws [disciplina legum]. Whence it was necessary for peace and virtue that laws be framed since, as the Philosopher says (Polit. I, 2), “as man, if he be perfect in virtue, is the most noble of animals, so, if he be separated from law and justice, he is the worst of all.”22

According to Aquinas, the discipline of laws is necessary to address a problem internal to the family, the insufficiency of paternal power to restrain the passions of youth. The young not only have strong concupiscible appetites inclining them to pleasure, they also have intense irascible appetites that incline them to be insolent or rebellious.23 Therefore, there needs to be some authority that inspires a kind of awe beyond paternal authority to restrain the passions of youth and to move them toward virtue.

Aquinas will note later that because the majority of men are imperfect, human law must move men toward virtue gradually, focusing especially on restraining or prohibiting those vicious actions that harm others and threaten to disturb the peace.24 The discipline or moral training provided by human law is a lengthy process. So the necessity of the coercive power of law to restrain the young, or those moved by their passions, is not a temporary or limited problem. The battle with concupiscence and the irascible appetite begins with puberty, but it does not disappear once children pass through the teenage years. Thus, the need for human law stems from the nearly universal difficulty of taming the passions, and the insufficiency of paternal discipline to cope with this problem. Hence, we see that the family is not self-sufficient with regard to living the life of virtue since paternal power is incapable of directing all men toward virtue.

Granted the insufficiency of paternal power to restrain the passions of youth, one might be tempted to place the emphasis in this passage on the need to use coercive power to maintain peace. Aquinas certainly makes that point, but his main point is that the moral training within the family is insufficient, and that the fear of civic punishment is necessary to lead the young toward virtue. The discipline of laws, therefore, has a twofold purpose. The ultimate end is to produce virtue, but it is also ordered toward a more proximate or intermediate end, to maintain peace.

We have shown that for Aquinas the wisdom and experience embodied in human law functions as a moral teacher for those who are well-intentioned, communicating a more detailed knowledge of the natural moral law that is necessary for the perfection of virtue; and the discipline of law restrains and tames those who are passionate and unruly, moving them gradually toward virtue and keeping the peace. The well-being of the family, then, depends on the existence of law and the larger more complete community of the civitas.

Justice and the Common Good

We have shown that Aquinas identifies the political common good as the virtuous life of the civitas, and have shown the indispensable role of law as a guide to virtue, but we have yet to see how the exercise of the moral virtues is essentially political in nature. To do this we need to turn to the virtue of justice, the virtue by which a man is disposed to act well in relation to other men within a political community.

Aquinas begins his treatment of justice in the Summa theologiae by noting that justice, unlike the other moral virtues, perfects a man’s relations to other men: “It is proper to justice, compared to the other moral virtues, to order a man in those things that are toward another…The other virtues, however, perfect a man only in those things that belong to him according to himself.”25 Since justice perfects a man in relation to others it has a special ordination toward external actions and external things, e.g., paying a man his wage, or performing a civic duty. Hence, “justice is properly distinguished from the other moral virtues according to its object, which is called the just [iustus], and this indeed is right [ius].”26 Accordingly, Aquinas defines justice as “the habit by which a man gives to each one his right [ius] by a constant and perpetual will.”27 Aquinas’s point in defining justice in terms of its object — namely, ius — is not that the virtue of justice is exclusively concerned with external actions (as opposed to interior operations), but that justice is ultimately ordered toward, and defined by, the good of another, and this represents an additional perfection beyond the other moral virtues. Note, however, that because justice is concerned with the good of another, justice simply speaking is not found within the family or household because there isn’t sufficient otherness: a son is to a certain degree (quodammodo) a part of his father, and a wife also belongs to her husband because she is compared to him as his own body as St. Paul says in Ephesians 5:28.28 This is not say there is not a right way and a wrong way to treat one’s children or one’s wife, but this is to speak of justice in a qualified way. Hence, the additional perfection that belongs to justice as a moral virtue is found most fully in one’s relation to others beyond the family, in the political community.

For Aquinas, all the moral virtues (as opposed to the intellectual virtues) are perfections of some appetitive power of the soul, and justice is no exception. The virtue of justice is a moral virtue because it is a perfection of the rational appetite, the will. This is why Aquinas’s definition of justice includes the phrase “by a constant and perpetual will.” It is because the rational appetite follows the apprehension of reason that the will can desire the good of another. Hence, although the virtue of justice is principally concerned with the good of another, and therefore with external action, it presupposes a rectitude in the rational appetite. Justice perfects the will. It perfects the will, however, not simply because the just man chooses the just action, but because he chooses it for its own sake. He rests in it as an end. The just man, the man who acts out of the virtue of justice, not only renders to each his own, but delights in doing so and this delight belongs to the will.29

We have spoken so far of justice in very general terms, as ordered toward the good of another, and perfective of the will. Aquinas will argue that for both of these reasons the virtue of justice is superior to the other moral virtues. On the part of its subject, justice is in the more excellent part of the soul, the rational appetite; and on the part of its object, justice is superior because it does not simply perfect a man in relation to himself but orders him toward the good of another.30 But there is an added complexity in Aquinas’s account of justice. Following the teaching of Aristotle, Thomas divides justice into two kinds. One kind of justice, which he calls “particular justice,” directs a man in relation to individual men, especially with regard to external goods that can be exchanged or distributed.

Particular justice is the virtue that inclines a man to pay his debts, or to sell something at a fair price. It is also the virtue by which a public person exercises restorative justice or makes a fair distribution of the benefits and burdens of public life, e.g., distributing honors, dispensing monies from the public treasury, levying taxes, or conscripting soldiers. We usually call those who exhibit the virtue of particular justice “honest” or “fair” because they are concerned with a just exchange or distribution rather than in securing their own profit. This virtue is called “particular justice” because it has a restricted or limited focus: it is concerned with the distribution or exchange of external goods, not with the full range of human activities that relate to other men.

There is another kind of justice called “general justice” or “legal justice” that is comprehensive or all-inclusive because it orders the acts of all the virtues toward the political common good. This kind of justice orders a man’s actions toward the good of another not as an individual but as a part contained within a whole, as a member of the political community:

Justice, as stated above, orders a man in relation to another. This can happen in two ways: in one way, to another considered as an individual, in another way, to another in common, insofar as he who serves some community, serves all the men who are contained in that community. In both of these ways, justice is used in its proper sense. Now it is manifest that all who are contained in some community are compared to that community as parts to a whole. But a part is that which belongs to the whole, so that whatever is the good of a part is orderable to the good of the whole. It follows therefore that the good of any virtue, whether it orders a man toward his very self, or orders him toward some other individual persons, is referable to the common good, to which justice is ordered. And according to this the acts of every virtue can belong to justice insofar as it orders a man toward the common good. It is in this sense that justice is called “general virtue.” And since it belongs to law to order to the common good, as stated above, whence it is that such justice, said in a way to be “general,” is called “legal justice,” because through it a man harmonizes with the law ordering the acts of all the virtues to the common good.31

The virtue of legal justice aims at the good of the whole political community and thereby serves all those who participate in that whole. Because it orders or directs all the other moral virtues, legal justice is called “general virtue” (virtus generalis), and the actions of all the other virtues are said to belong to justice, to become in some sense acts of justice. While the virtue of “particular justice” is limited or restricted to certain kinds of actions, “general justice” pertains to the full range of human actions by ordering the actions of all the other virtues to the common good. It is also called “legal justice” because it harmonizes with the law, and the intention of the legislator, in aiming at the political common good. This is an important point because it manifests that “general justice” is a specifically political virtue.

Aquinas goes on to compare legal justice to charity, both of which are described as general virtues. The parallel between justice and charity is a sign of the excellence of legal justice as a moral virtue since justice is the closest equivalent to charity in the natural order. Justice and charity are general virtues because they order the acts of all the other moral virtues toward a higher end: “Just as charity can be called a general virtue insofar as it orders the acts of all the virtues to the divine good, so also is legal justice insofar as it orders the acts of all the virtues to the common good. Therefore, just as charity, which regards the divine good as its proper object is a special virtue according to its essence, so also legal justice is a special virtue according to its essence insofar as it regards the common good as its proper object.”32 Just as legal justice directs the acts of all the virtues toward the communal happiness of the civitas, so charity directs the acts of all the virtues toward the divine good, which is nothing other than God as the supernatural common good of the heavenly civitas.33 Charity as a special virtue is defined by its proper object, the supernatural common good, in the same way that legal justice is defined by its ordination to the political common good; and both justice and charity direct the acts of the other moral virtues by a movement of the will, by a command.

Not only does Aquinas make clear that legal justice is an all-round virtue, a comprehensive virtue, he also argues for the superiority of justice in relation to all the other virtues. As we have already seen, the virtue of justice, whether general or particular, surpasses the other moral virtues because it perfects a higher power of the soul, the will, and because it is ordered toward a more perfect object, the good of another. But legal justice is “foremost among all the moral virtues insofar as the common good transcends the singular good of one person.”34 The virtue of legal justice is the moral virtue par excellence because it perfects man’s rational nature by ordering the rational appetite toward the common good, and it perfects his social nature by ordering him toward the perfect human community of the civitas.

One might raise an objection, however, to the position of Aquinas that legal justice is the perfection of all the moral virtues. We have already noted in the previous section that human law must move men toward virtue gradually because the majority of men are imperfect, and that human law should not attempt to forbid every vicious action, but should focus on forbidding those actions that are most hurtful to other men.35 Given this prudential limitation of human law, one might wonder about Aquinas’s assertion that legal justice is an all-inclusive virtue, or that it is the highest of all the moral virtues in the natural order. Can it really be that the perfection of the moral life is attained precisely by participating in the directive or ordering power of human law? To answer this objection we need to make an important distinction between the letter of the law, the precepts of the law that prescribe or forbid particular acts, and the intention of the legislator, especially his intention of the common good. As Aquinas notes, the perfection of legal justice includes epikeia, the virtue by which one corrects or supplements the letter of the law by looking toward the end intended by the legislator.36 The perfectly just man sees the end intended by the legislator and is moved by a love for the common good to perform acts of virtue that go beyond what is strictly required by the letter of the law.

Although the law does not prohibit every act of vice or prescribe every act of virtue by an obligation of precept, the very end intended by the legislator has the power to oblige a man to avoid vicious actions and pursue those virtuous actions that are required by the common good. This is because, as Aquinas notes, the very ordination toward the common good is law to the maximum degree.37 So when a soldier on the battlefield risks his life in an act of courage that goes above and beyond the call of duty, he is acting according to the virtue of legal justice because he recognizes that the common good in some sense obliges him to act. In a similar way, an unjust human law in itself lacks the power to bind a man in the forum of conscience, but the common good may require him to obey such a law to prevent scandal or social unrest.38 Or, to take another example, the common good may require a man to act contrary to the letter of the law when, by some extraordinary circumstance, following the letter of the law will be extremely harmful to the common good.39 The point is that the truly just man not only follows the letter of the law, but looks especially toward the common good.

It is only by participating in the civitas, by ordering himself toward the political common good, that man can live the good life. This is why Aquinas asserts that man by nature is a political animal, and why he calls the moral virtues that are in man according to the condition of his nature “political virtues,” because they are ordered by the virtue of legal justice toward the political common good.40 Note, however, that we are speaking of what belongs to man by nature, not what belongs to man according to the order of grace. Through grace, and the supernatural virtue of charity, the moral virtues are further ordered toward a more perfect common good, the divine good as the end of the City of God. The virtue of legal justice, then, is the most perfect of all the moral virtues in the natural order and serves as a model and foundation for the virtue of charity.41

Family and Subsidiarity

One might object at this point that Aquinas’s position threatens to undermine the natural authority of parents over their children, and to minimize the importance of the family in the moral formation of children. Indeed, some of you may be wondering whether the very idea of subordinating the family to the political community threatens to weaken, perhaps even destroy, the family, a society that is older than any city, and instituted in the beginning by God Himself. To answer this objection, we need to turn to the principle of subsidiarity, one of the key principles of the Church’s social teaching that developed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries in response to communism and the modern state.42

What is the principle of subsidiarity? The simplest description of “subsidiarity” — which comes from the Latin word “subsidium,” meaning “help” or “aid” — is found in Pius XI’s social encyclical Quadragesimo Anno: “The true aim of political life is to help individual members of the political community, not to destroy or absorb them.”43 Subsidiarity is the principle that the higher order, i.e., political order, is meant to help individuals and families (and other associations within the civitas) to participate in the common good in a way that does not absorb or destroy these lower orders. At the very least, this means that functions that can be done more efficiently at a lower level should not be absorbed or taken over by a higher level, by a higher authority. Again, I quote from Pius XI: “it is an injustice, a grave evil and a disturbance of right order for a larger and higher organization to arrogate to itself functions which can be performed efficiently by smaller and lower bodies.”44 Still, this description of subsidiarity can be misleading insofar as it suggests that efficiency is the governing principle. It is better, I think, to say that subsidiarity entails the recognition that the political community contains individual members and smaller communities that have their own proper goods, their own proper functions, that cannot be performed by a higher order. This is especially pertinent to the family. It is not just that the family can raise children more efficiently than the political community; raising children is proper to the family. So the principle of subsidiarity presupposes that there is a graded hierarchy among human communities or associations, and that the lower communities are subordinate to the higher in a way that does not deprive the lower communities of those functions that are proper to it.

Hearing this summary of the principle of subsidiarity, one might wonder whether one can find the principle of subsidiarity in Aquinas. I argue that we can find a fairly robust notion of subsidiarity in both Aristotle and Aquinas even though they do not use the term “subsidiarity.” First, both Thomas and Aristotle insist that the family exists prior to the civitas and that man is more naturally a conjugal animal than a political animal.45 This is one reason why Aquinas will often describe man as a “social animal” rather than simply a “political animal.” Of course, the pre-political family — the family as it is found in primitive human societies — is imperfect because it exists apart from human law and government. The model of the pre-political family for St. Thomas, as it was for Aristotle, is that of the Cyclops in Homer’s Odyssey.46 And the cyclops were savages — cannibals — who lived with their own families apart from any larger community, the father exercising unlimited authority over his own wife and children. Once the city comes into existence, however, the family is elevated by its participation in the political community, by being ordered towards the life of virtue. It becomes civilized. But because man by nature is a political animal, because he is perfected by participating in the civitas, the civilized family is the truly human family, it is what the family was meant to be all along.

Second, the natural priority of the family in some sense remains even after the city comes to be insofar as the natural authority of parents over their children remains. For St. Thomas, the authority of parents over their children is natural because it flows from the reality that parents are causes of the coming into being of the children, and children are therefore an extension of their parents. According to Aquinas, before a child reaches the age of reason, he is governed solely by parental authority because a child is by nature an extension of his parents.47 It is through the medium of the family that children enter into and participate in the political community. Aquinas suggests that after the age of reason parental authority is qualified to some degree, but he still regards parents as the principal agents in the moral formation of their children. Indeed, Aquinas argues that fornication is against the natural law, and that marriage is natural, because raising human offspring requires moral instruction and discipline and this is a task that requires both a mother and a father.48 Indeed, Aquinas suggests that the moral training and instruction provided by parents is in some sense more natural than the discipline of laws because “children love their parents and are readily obedient out of natural affection.”49 Hence, “although the royal decree is more powerful by way of fear, nevertheless the paternal precept is more powerful by way of love.”50 So for those children who are inclined to virtue by a good natural disposition, or by divine grace, paternal authority is the better way, the more natural way. Human law and government still functions in this case as a moral teacher and guide, but its instruction is mediated by the parents. Indeed, this is why raising children is considered by St. Thomas to be a public office, a civic duty. One might say that morality is legislated by human government, but the execution or administration of the law is carried out by the family. For Aquinas, the recognition of the priority of the political common good is not meant to suggest that human government replace, or absorb, the traditional role of the family. The point is to see that law and government are a necessary aid to the family.


If Aquinas is right that the life of virtue can only be achieved by participating in the civitas, then the primacy of the political common good, at least insofar as it pertains to temporal happiness, should caution us against diminishing the importance of virtue as the ultimate end of political life. The deficiencies of our own political order, or any other political order, should not lead us to overlook the transcendence of the political common good, or to withdraw from the civitas in pursuit of a private happiness that will ultimately fail to satisfy our natural inclination to live in society with other men.



1 The formula is taken from the opening lines of the Nicomachean Ethics. See ST I, q. 5, a.1 for an example of how Aquinas makes use of the formula.
2 One should note that to speak of the good as the goal of appetite should not be taken to mean that appetite makes the good to be good. Rather, it is of the very nature of the good that it be a terminus of appetite, that it is the sort of thing that incites desire. Something is good not because it is desired, it is desired because it is good. See De veritate, q. 21, a.1.
3 For a helpful discussion of this distinction, see Gregory Froelich, “The Equivocal Status of the Bonum Commune,” New Scholasticism 63.1 (Winter 1989): 38–57.
4 ST I-II, q. 90, a. 2, ad 3.
5 Aquinas, Pol. I, lect. 1, n. 23.
6 See, for example, Ethic. I, lect. 1, n. 4.
7 Ibid., 222–231.
8 Summa theologiae (ST) I-II, q. 90, a. 2.
9 ST I-II, q. 99, a. 2.
10 ST I-II q. 90, a. 2, ad 2.
11 ST I-II, q. 98, a. 6.
12 Ibid., q. 101, a. 3.
13 Coercive power is not included in the very definition of law, but is a kind of per se property belonging to the person with the authority to make law. See ST I-II, q. 90, a. 3, ad 2; q. 92, a. 2; and q. 96, a. 5.
14 “It is natural for man, more than for any other animal, to be a social and political animal, living in a multitude….other animals are able to discern, by inborn skill, what is useful and what is injurious, even as the sheep naturally discerns that the wolf is an enemy. Some animals also recognize by natural skill certain medicinal herbs and other things necessary for their life. Man, however, has a natural knowledge of those things which are necessary for his life only in a general way, inasmuch as he is able to attain knowledge of the particular things necessary for human life by reasoning from universal principles. But it is not possible for one man to arrive at a knowledge of all these things by his own individual reason. It is therefore necessary for man to live in a multitude so that one man may be helped by another, and different men may be occupied by their reason with discovering different things, for example, one in medicine, another in this, and another in that.” De regno, I.1.
15 “Now it is manifest that in him who has to govern not only himself but also the perfect community of a city or kingdom there is found a special and perfect kind of governance; because a government is more perfect to the degree that it is more universal, extends to more matters, and attains a higher end. Therefore prudence according to a special and most perfect sense belongs to a king to whom it belongs to govern a city or kingdom. And because of this a species of prudence is deemed regnative.” ST II-II, q. 50, a. 1.
16 ST I-II, q. 100, a. 1.
17 Ibid.
18 Ibid. For Aquinas, Moses is the paradigmatic example of the wise human legislator.
19 Ibid., q. 100, a. 3.
20 Ibid., q. 91, a. 2.
21 See ST I, q. 96, a. 4. One might object that the kind of rule that Aquinas envisions in an earthly paradise is not specifically political in its nature. It is not clear, however, why the rule of the wise would not consist principally in framing laws since law is essentially a work of reason and only secondarily and derivatively an exercise of coercive power.
22 ST I-II, q. 95, a.1.
23 On the need for law to regulate concupiscible appetite, see Ethic. X, lect. 14, n. 13. On the need for law to restrain irascible appetite, see Ethic. I, lect. 1, n. 4; and ST I-II, q. 105, a. 4, ad 5.
24 ST I-II, q. 96, a. 2.
25 ST II-II, q. 57, a. 1.
26 Ibid., q. 57, a. 1. Note that the Latin “ius” is often translated with the English word “right,” but this translation can be misleading since it does not necessarily imply the modern notion of rights, the notion of rights that we find enshrined in the Declaration of Independence or the Bill of Rights to the US Constitution. “Rights” in the modern sense are fundamental, or inalienable, liberties that belong to the individual. For Aquinas, ius simply means what rightly belongs to someone, his due. If a man works his shift, wages are his due, his right.
27 Ibid., q. 58, a. 1.
28 Ibid., q. 57, a. 4.
29 ST I-II, q. 59, a. 5.
30 ST II-II, q. 58, a. 12; and I-II, q. 66, a. 4.
31 Ibid., q. 58, a. 5.
32 Ibid.
33 Ibid., q. 26, a. 3; Aquinas, De caritate, a. 2; a. 4, ad 2.
34 Ibid., q. 58, a. 12.
35 See ST I-II q. 96, a. 2, ad 2.
36 ST II-II, q. 120, a. 2, ad 2.
37 ST I-II, q. 90, a. 2. See also I-II, q. 96, a. 6; and I-II, q. 99, a. 5.
38 Ibid., q. 96, a. 5.
39 Ibid., q. 96, a. 6.
40 Ibid., q. 61, a. 5. The virtues that are in man according to the condition of his nature are the virtues acquired by habituation rather than infused directly in the soul by the grace of God. For a discussion of the distinction between the acquired and infused moral virtues see ST I-II, q. 63, aa. 1–4.
41 ST II-II, q. 26, a. 3; De caritate, a. 2.
42 On the development of the principle of subsidiarity as part of the Church’s social teaching, see Russell Hittinger, “The Coherence of the Four Basic Principles of Catholic Social Doctrine: An Interpretation,” in Pursuing the Common Good, edited by Margaret S. Archer and Pierpaolo Donati, Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences, Acta 14 (Città Del Vaticano, 2008), 75-123.
43 Quadragesimo Anno, 79.
44 Ibid.
45 Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, 1162a16-19; Aquinas, Ethic. VIII, lect. 12, n. 19.
46 Aristotle, Politics 1252b22-23; Aquinas, Pol. I, lect. 1, n. 15.
47 ST II-II, q. 10, a. 12.
48 Summa Contra Gentiles III, ch. 123, n. 8.
49 Aquinas, Ethic. X, lect. 15, n. 5.
50 Ibid.