Thomas Aquinas

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What was St. Thomas Aquinas's view on the role of the state?

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Aquinas takes his cue from Augustine in regarding the state as a necessary evil. Given that human beings are innately sinful, they need secular authorities as well as the Church to protect them from themselves and each other. In keeping with his Neo-Aristiotelian philosophy, Aquinas sees political society as having a specific telos, or end. That end is the flourishing of each and every human being. In that sense, one could say that, for Aquinas, the state expresses a human need in itself rather than simply being an instrument for serving other needs.

Once established, the state must enjoy a legal monopoly of violence, which it uses to maintain social order. Indeed, for Aquinas, social order is unthinkable without the state, as it's the state and its institutions that are responsible for creating the unalloyed good of social order in the first place.

Although the state must be strong, there are nonetheless limits to its power. This is because in Aquinas's day each functionary of the state was also a member of the Church, and in Aquinas's political philosophy, the Church limits the absolute power of the state (and vice versa).

Aquinas also looks upon the state in moral terms. Its laws must be consistent with natural law—unchanging moral standards derived from God's eternal law—that are universally applicable. If the state passes laws that are not consistent with natural law, then such laws do not earn the right to be called law: they are law in name only. That's not to say that Aquinas endorses rebellion against the state authorities; instead, he argues that citizens should simply withhold obedience from immoral laws.

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One interesting role for the state that Thomas Aquinas advocated was capital punishment. His position was that the state is obligated, by its basic nature, to protect its citizens from all threats and enemies, including those present in the citizenry itself. Aquinas saw human law, created in response to crime, as an extension of natural law; in this view, the state is appointed by the people to enforce both human and natural law. This entitles the state to take action in the pursuit of justice within human and natural (moral) law, including the execution of criminals if their crime is severe. This allows the state to protect its citizens by removing the possibility of threat from within; Aquinas saw execution as morally defensible as long as it was in response to an appropriately immoral crime.

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St. Thomas Aquinas believed that the state, like the church, was a complete community, both of which, together with the larger community, should function to promote the common good. Aquinas believed that the state was subject to moral laws and justice. For Aquinas, there is a difference between the secular state and the Church, but this distinction is not always clear. 

Aquinas theorized about a government mixed with monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy; a monarch and a cabinet whom should be chosen democratically. No one, even the monarch, is above the law unless it serves the moral/common good. If a ruler becomes a dictator, the people could depose him. 

The state should defend its people from criminals and potential enemies in the case of invasion or war. The state's role is to suppress any external factors that might infringe upon a citizen's freedom or will. The state should suppress anything that threatens the common good of the state. Aquinas states: 

For human law's purpose is the temporal tranquility of the state, a purpose which the law attains by coercively prohibiting external acts to the extent that those are evils which can disturb the state's peaceful condition. 

In other words, the state prohibits any outward behavior that threatens the peaceful state of the community. 

Even if the government is run by a king with absolute power, as opposed to a ruler or group with limited powers, the people have an assumed covenant with their rulers that if that ruler/rulers violate laws and/or the peace of the state, the people have the right to resist this government. 

Although political authority is derived from divine morals, the state is not a divine authority. The state guides its citizens, through enforcement of laws, to be virtuous but the state can only instruct external behavior. Internal or mental instruction is more under the guidance of the Church, spiritual revelation, and God. This is one of the main differences between the two authoritative communities (the State instructs natural, outward behavior and the Church instructs spiritual knowledge). The Church has no jurisdiction over the State and the State has no direction over the Church unless the peace of the community is threatened. Although this seems like an early version of "the separation of church and state, Aquinas is less clear about how much influence the Church has on the State and vice versa. 

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