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St. Augustine & Thomas Aquinas' Political Philosophies

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  • 0:03 Politics, Religion, and War
  • 0:50 Saint Augustine
  • 2:33 Thomas Aquinas
  • 4:10 Philosophy and War
  • 6:03 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Can war be morally justified? It's a difficult question. In this lesson, we'll consult the works of two of Western history's most influential thinkers and see their views on this question.

Politics, Religion, and War

It's been said that the best way to avoid offending anyone is to steer clear of three topics: politics, religion, and war. So, what happens when you combine them? While these ideas may be uncomfortable for some people to discuss, they are major parts of Western philosophy and history.

They're also topics heavily covered by two of Western history's greatest minds: Saint Augustine and Thomas Aquinas. Both of these men were associated with the Christian Church and sought to reconcile Greek and Roman political philosophies within Christian theology, laying the groundwork for much of modern Western thought. This extended to political philosophy as well. For them, politics, religion, and war were topics that simply could not be avoided.

Saint Augustine

Let's start with St. Augustine, a bishop in Roman Algeria, who lived from 354 to 430 CE. St. Augustine was not a strict political theorist; what we have on his political ideas was taken from larger writings but mostly revolves around the concept of the Two Cities. On one hand there is the Earthly City, defined by earthly desires and actions. The other is the City of God, defined by spiritual pursuits. Humans could only be citizens of one city, and their natural default was to live in the earthly city (as a result of the Fall of Man).

From the start, we see something important in St. Augustine's philosophical worldview: the world is imperfect. Even those who strive to live in the City of God must contend with the realities of an imperfect world. The best they can do is to strive towards justice, an ultimate Augustinian ideal. True justice defines the City of God, but earthly cities should be as just as is possible considering the imperfect realities of their lives. As St. Augustine once wrote: ''Remove justice, and what are kingdoms but gangs of criminals on a large scale?''

So, political states are imperfect, but they do serve a higher purpose. By creating laws and maintaining order, they serve a divine mandate to protect humanity from chaos. Rulers, therefore, have a natural right to create laws and punish law-breakers, and citizens have a natural obligation to obey their rulers absolutely. But what if the ruler is unjust? Citizens still must obey but must not contradict the laws of God. If an earthly law contradicts a heavenly law, humans must break it, but still must accept the earthly punishment for doing so.

Thomas Aquinas

Centuries later, St. Augustine's views were developed further by Italian theologian Thomas Aquinas, who lived from 1225 to 1274. Aquinas was the one to really bring Aristotelian philosophy in line with Christian teachings, emphasizing that all things have a divine nature, purpose, or essence which was evident through natural inclinations. He called these eternal laws, and they could not be disobeyed because they were not a matter of choice: they were instinct. Humans were the exception, unique due to free will. Thus, humans had eternal laws but could choose to ignore them, so Aquinas instead calls humans' divine inclinations natural laws.

For Aquinas, one of the foundational natural laws for humans is the desire to congregate and build political societies. To him, humans could not fulfill their ideal philosophical or spiritual potential without political societies, and in particular, cities. As with St. Augustine, the concept of the city as an ideal human institution is important. To Aquinas, the political city is simply an expression of human nature.

Aquinas was also obsessed with the concept of justice, stating that the just political regime is one which protects the common good. But what was the common good? Natural law encouraged humans to create political societies, but the actual details of daily administration could only be defined by individual rationalism and logic. Thus, humans had the right to create their own laws, so long as those laws remained just and focused on the common good.

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