Politics, the domination of nature, and prudence. UPDATED

In a recent analysis of Obama’s inaugural address, Patrick Dandeen shows how both the Machiavellian and Kantian notions of government coalesce in the idea of man’s need to master and dominate nature (ht). I’ll take the idea of dominating nature as a point of departure.

The first principle that Aristotle lays down in the study of nature is “some things come to be by nature, others by art, others by chance (Physics, Bk. II chap. 1)” . By “nature” we first mean those things that arise neither by our own designs, nor sheerly by accident. We see nature as what acts “on its own”. Water doesn’t freeze in winter because we designed it to, and fish don’t live in water because we put them there.  Natural activity involves a determination and  intention towards certain ends. This inner determination is not always self-actualizing. Water does not freeze by itself in the sense of freezing by its own agency, but only in a response to its environment. At the same time, this very response is determined towards certain ends which the water tends towards- it forms ice crystals with a lesser density than water and not, say, an ice sculpture of a swan.

While nature differs from art in that nature happens apart from human intention, nature differs from chance in that it tends toward the result that occurs. Consider an obviously chance event- like a tree falling in the forest and killing a deer.  The activity is outside clearly outside any determination and intention of anything involved. However, this activity could result from some intention, e.g. the tree might be pushed over by a hunter in order to catch the deer. In this case, the nature of the tree and the nature of its fall become the instruments of another nature. Now to make something an instrument is certainly to dominate it, since instruments as such do exactly what the principal agent tells them to do.

Isn’t this simply what “mastery and domination of nature” mean? The domination of nature is simply art! Why is Mr. Dandeen objecting to art? Can anyone really claim that Machiavelli and Kant were the first to speak of art? What’s wrong with an art of politics?

Mr. Dandeen’s point is right, but his point is that a politics that seeks to dominate nature makes politics an art when it should be based on prudence. Technology and practical science, as everyone admits, are not the problem, but they become extreme problems when they are viewed as somehow substitutes for prudence. The difference between the two is immense, and dealt with perfectly here (skip to the text on the second page), but I only point out one crucial difference: while both prudence and art perform an action, prudence seeks the perfection of the agent performing the action, and art does not. A carpenter doesn’t do his job to become a better man, but to make a house- and so far as he does build the house to become a better man (grow in discipline, provide for his family, or to grow in happiness etc.) then it is a work of prudence and not of art. The two activities are very different- we cannot look at how well a house was constructed and know if it was built by a prudent man or an imprudent one. Any hints we may get are more or less accidental.

The ultimate horror of a politics that seeks to base itself on art is that it forgets about the one thing needful- the perfection of the various political beings involved. Politics misconstrued as an art certainly can  “get things done” and it can even be a “government that works”, but it is no longer performing an activity ordered to the perfection of human beings.  In an artistic view of government, we no longer care if our politicians are good men, but only whether they can get things done. Who cares if a politician is a good man? What can “being a good man” possibly have to do with being a good politician? When we get to the point where asking this seems reasonable, any real politics is all or mostly dead.

The cause of this death of real government is perhaps more profound thanany of the works of  Machiavelli or Kant. There is a deep thorn in our heart that rebels against prudence. Isn’t to admit the reality of prudence to confess that we are not all we should be, that we need to become more perfect? Even if we admit our lives need work, we might still balk at the idea of a truly prudent government. Why should the government be involved in making people virtuous? What a stupid idea! I want government to leave me alone so I can do what I want! Why not create a perfect system so that we won’t need prudent men any more? We’ll just replace the need for prudence! Who even knows what a perfect man is anyway? Prudence is impossible, it seems, only a political art is of any value. These sorts of argument, which we can feel the pull of in our own hearts, are the real “texts” of modern political philosophy.


  1. Brandon said,

    January 25, 2009 at 6:31 am

    “Why should men love the Church? Why should they love her laws?
    She tells them of Life and Death, and of all that they would forget.
    She is tender where they would be hard, and hard where they like to be soft.
    She tells them of Evil and Sin, and other unpleasant facts.
    They constantly try to escape
    By dreaming of systems so perfect that no one will need to be good.
    But the man that is will shadow
    The man that pretends to be.”

    T.S. Eliot, “The Rock”

  2. Peeping Thomist (not good ole Ralph M.) said,

    January 26, 2009 at 1:49 pm

    The Rock, although it does not quite work for me as poetry per se (maybe per accidens), rocks. He distills several of the central problems of our age into lines that are simply so succinct and true that his lines seem like cliches the moment you read them. They are cliches among our crowd in part because he put the words together so well.

  3. Sean said,

    January 27, 2009 at 9:30 am

    Can you give a concrete example of a government cultivating virtue amongst its citizens? Paint a picture of the U.S. Federal Government’s Prudence cultivation program.

    Cultivation of virtue belongs to parents. Prudence should not be replaced by anything, it just has nothing to do with government.

  4. Brandon said,

    January 27, 2009 at 8:10 pm


    It seems a little implausible to argue that we shouldn’t have politicians who are prudent, or that it would not be worthwhile to insist that they be good and practically wise, rather than merely effective in achieving their goals.

  5. Peter said,

    January 28, 2009 at 6:40 am


    I understand where you are coming from with your objection, but I think you will see the truth of what James said (following Aristotle and St. Thomas) if you take a more comprehensive view. Consider that a virtue is merely a good habit. And a good habit is one that leads us to our end, namely, happiness. Moreover, habits are created through repeated actions of a given kind. Also consider that the purpose of law is to promote [good, virtuous] actions, as St. Thomas says: “it is evident that the proper effect of law is to lead its subjects to their proper virtue: and since virtue is “that which makes its subject good,” it follows that the proper effect of law is to make those to whom it is given, good, either simply or in some particular respect.”

    So, let’s take a real-world example. It is conducive to my happiness (as well as that of the other citizens of the U.S.) that when I drive down the street I don’t smash into another car and kill somebody. A habit of good driving — a virtue! — is created by laws (and punishments for those who violate those laws) that habituate us to drive on one side of the yellow lines. This law (and our repeated action of following it) makes us virtuous . . . at least in so far as we are drivers. Our government, then, despite its many vicious policies and vast amounts of absurd ineptitude, is involved in making its citizenry virtuous. Strip away everything else, and you have to at least have this.

    And from the side of the law-maker, in addition to what Brandon said, if we take James’ succinct definition above — “Prudence is the habitual correct choice of the means to happiness” — it could also be argued that, if politics shouldn’t be concerned with the correct choice of the means to happiness, then what the heck should it be concerned with? The means to our un-happiness?

    Happy feast day of St. Thomas!

  6. Peeping Thomist (not good ole Ralph M.) said,

    January 28, 2009 at 8:44 am

    Sean–laws against murder, theft, rape, etc. that are properly applied and written to achieve their ends in our time and place are the obvious examples. Drug laws and laws that send people to rehab are another. They reveal that, even if you didn’t hurt anyone else, as a society we don’t think the way of life of the heroin addict living as an addict alone in his room is the sort of life that human beings should life. Local laws about everything from lawn care to posting campaign signs are no less cultivators of habit.

    Also, what government rewards is another example. Who receives all the awards given out from the government? This is another cultivation of certain habits over others.

    From looking at any nation’s laws, and the absence thereof, one gets an idea of the sort of life they think one should live.

    How exactly one creates the laws and applies them is another question, and an act also requiring a great deal of prudence.

    What is government trying to by governing? What is its end, its goal? By its definition, by what it does that makes it a government, it will promote certain ways of life, and therefore certain habits of soul, or virtues, over others.

  7. Sean said,

    January 28, 2009 at 9:20 am

    Thank you and Happy Feast of the Good Doctor to you as well! I respond thusly:

    In I-II 96.2 St. Thomas says:

    “Now human law is framed for a number of human beings, the majority of whom are not perfect in virtue. Wherefore human laws do not forbid all vices, from which the virtuous abstain, but only the more grievous vices, from which it is possible for the majority to abstain; and chiefly those that are to the hurt of others, without the prohibition of which human society could not be maintained: thus human law prohibits murder, theft and such like.”

    I agree that government shapes its citizens, but only in an extremely vague way that, at the end of the day, has nothing to do with any kind of substantial virtue or happiness. Any wretched asshole can avoid stealing and murdering. Your example of traffic laws is good, but to make a jump from those to virtues like prudence and temperance, let alone any kind of intellectual virtue, is perpostrous.

    What is the purpose of government then? I don’t know, but it isn’t to make citizens happy or virtuous. When it tries to it will always fail miserably (and goes against the wisdom of St. Thomas in the quote above). Does that mean government makes them unhappy or unvirtuous? No, just so they don’t kill, steal, and rape one another….there’s a kind of happiness in that I guess. The job of teaching virtue is best kept to parents, churches, etc. These are groups that are part of the life of the citizens.

    Re: government rewards. Just remember that government doesn’t create any wealth, it takes from those who do, whether by direct taxation or inflation through a central bank. So if government is rewarding one group, it is simultaneously stealing from another. I think the founders had it right when they advocated only indirect taxation. There was a reason they did that.

  8. Peter said,

    January 28, 2009 at 11:05 am

    There are as many virtues as there are objects of good habits. That is, there are many, many, many ways in which we can be virtuous; many, many, many things that contribute to our happiness (which comes through virtue). No one — certainly not me — said the state could or should legislate all of them. The state is not sufficient for the perfect virtue of its citizens. That would be preposterous. It should foster those that pertain primarily to the common good, as opposed to the individual and domestic goods, which, as you correctly said, are best fostered through parents and the church. Just because law makes its citizens virtuous only incompletely does not mean that it does not make its citizens virtuous at all.

    And, if you accept St. Thomas’ authority, why not then simply agree, and take to studying him on the matter? His Commentary on the Ethics and Politics are good places to deepen our understanding, but he makes these points in many places, for example: http://www.newadvent.org/summa/2095.htm#article1
    For the point at hand, he says: “The species of virtues are distinguished by their objects, as explained above (54, 2; 60, 1; 62, 2). Now all the objects of virtues can be referred either to the private good of an individual, or to the common good of the multitude: thus matters of fortitude may be achieved either for the safety of the state, or for upholding the rights of a friend, and in like manner with the other virtues. But law, as stated above (Question 90, Article 2) is ordained to the common good. Wherefore there is no virtue whose acts cannot be prescribed by the law. Nevertheless human law does not prescribe concerning all the acts of every virtue: but only in regard to those that are ordainable to the common good–either immediately, as when certain things are done directly for the common good–or mediately, as when a lawgiver prescribes certain things pertaining to good order, whereby the citizens are directed in the upholding of the common good of justice and peace.”

    I would say more, but I have a cold with its accompanying splitting headache. (Perhaps someone else here could take this up and explain it better?) Besides, we are getting off course from the intention of the original post, which touched on making citizens virtuous only lightly.

  9. Sean said,

    January 28, 2009 at 1:58 pm

    Thanks Peter, I’ll take a look at these articles.

  10. Peeping Thomist said,

    January 28, 2009 at 3:23 pm

    I’ll try to add a little to Peter’s comment, which I agree with wholeheartedly.

    First, to clarify, when I mentioned awards I meant things like the Medal of Honor, or even other positive promotion tools like tax write offs for charities and churches, or child tax credits. But this ought to include government handouts as well. (As far as the “stealing” goes, I think I agree with you more often than not, but keep in mind that since we do have elected officials here, who operate in accord with the rule of law for the most part, and some sort of public consent to the laws, no one is technically stealing as far as taxes are concerned, except rhetorically…we may consider it stealing because of the partisan issues of the day…I’ve used the word myself in this fashion, but anyhow this gets us into another thicket).

    The argument here is broader than that of the day-to-day concerns of, say, American politics today. More to follow.

  11. Peeping Thomist said,

    January 28, 2009 at 3:52 pm

    A few lines down from the same article you cite, in reply to the second objection, St. Thomas says:

    “The purpose of human law is to lead men to virtue, not suddenly, but gradually.”

    As you are aware, law doesn’t lead men to virtue in any fast, obvious way. The end of law is virtue/happiness, although as Peter points out government shoots for this but can only achieve so much, which as you point should be pretty clear to everyone (well, maybe not some intellectual types—heh). In this article, St. Thomas is saying the limit of human law is based on what the people for whom the law is written can handle. In other words, the law should do as much as possible to promote virtue (believe me, I know why this line grates on you, but we are using it here in a broader way than you are conceiving of, I think), but what it can do to promote virtue is limited based on the virtue of the people it is made for.

    The paragraph before the one you cite:

    “I answer that, As stated above Question [90], Articles [1],2), law is framed as a rule or measure of human acts. Now a measure should be homogeneous with that which it measures, as stated in Metaph. x, text. 3,4, since different things are measured by different measures. Wherefore laws imposed on men should also be in keeping with their condition, for, as Isidore says (Etym. v, 21), law should be “possible both according to nature, and according to the customs of the country.” Now possibility or faculty of action is due to an interior habit or disposition: since the same thing is not possible to one who has not a virtuous habit, as is possible to one who has. Thus the same is not possible to a child as to a full-grown man: for which reason the law for children is not the same as for adults, since many things are permitted to children, which in an adult are punished by law or at any rate are open to blame. In like manner many things are permissible to men not perfect in virtue, which would be intolerable in a virtuous man.”

    So again, the point here is to say that law, in promoting virtue, must take into account the virtue of the people it is made for.

  12. Peeping Thomist said,

    January 28, 2009 at 4:14 pm

    This could all be said better above and below, but I have not time for polish.

    “Any wretched asshole can avoid stealing and murdering.”

    Well, lots of people don’t avoid such things. First, think of all the laws relating to murder and violence against others. This is an enormous body of law, and it is present for a reason. Think also of theft, which runs the gamut from purse snatching to highly complicated financial transactions/promises to me downloading mp3s off the internet. We have all these laws, and a legal system, because many people do not avoid doing these things. We make laws about, say illegal downloading (forget for moment if this makes sense or not, that’s not the issue) in order to shape habits. In any body of law you will find plenty of things that substantial number of people are tempted to but avoid because of the law. That’s why we make laws. It is a well known fact that criminals will seek to commit crimes in certain locales as opposed to others in order to escape harsher punishments.

    So there is plenty that law deals with that shapes the habits of more than wretched assholes.

    But even more significantly, without preventing the serious, obvious crimes and all their attendant smaller ones, there is no basis for virtue. Can most people avoid murdering someone? Sure. But without preventing murder and punishing it justly and promptly can you have a virtuous society? No. And the less you punish it, the more it will happen. Hobbes isn’t all wrong. Without fear of punishment due to the law, murders will rise dramatically. People will become worse as the bad are emboldened, and it is easier for the almost bad to go downwards rather than upwards.

    So it is no small thing for law/government to stop heinous acts and all the lesser attendant ones in order to promote virtue. At the extremes the very good are thereby allowed to be good without fear, and progress forwards, the bad are reigned in.

    Another example on the same point. Where I currently live, on the border of two states, there are two small towns on either side of the border and a road connecting them. Both towns have a speed limit of 35 mph or some such. On one town, everyone knows this speed limit is enforced (not very often, but often enough). In the other town, the speed limit is not enforced at all. You can guess what the results are. Writ large, virtues are habits, and human beings are not very good at establishing habits on their own without some negative and positive help from outside themselves.

    You are right that other communities help perfect human virtue. But consider that all those communities (even the Church, in a temporal way) exist within government in a sense. Government is what allows them all to be. They exist on their own in an organic sense, but government is greenhouse in which they grow and flourish. Without government, the vikings can show up and ravage the countryside. Without government, the people divide into tribes and roaming bands of brigands. With the just order government provides, families and churches can’t inculcate the young. Etc., etc.,

    All of which is to say that the general, vague way in which government promotes virtue is the sine qua non of the success of all the other institutions you speak of.

  13. Peeping Thomist said,

    January 28, 2009 at 4:28 pm

    Finally for tonight, albeit briefly. The founders of this country repeatedly referred to a common good and happiness as being the ultimate end of government as well as rights (see the Declaration and the preamble to the Constitution), and they worried about the virtue of the people. Freedom, of course, is necessary for virtue, so I would say that freedom is a goal of all just government. But this does not exclude or negate the fact that ultimately, freedom and all else government aims at is for the sake of making human beings happy in common. Taken as a group, what is our good, what makes us happy. Whether they realize it or not, this is what politics is about.

    For starters, and that’s really the main place in which government operates (the beginning, the basics) we need an ordered society that takes care of the usual big problems human nature runs into. You can then go as far as the virtue of the people you are dealing with (which is the same in our case as the virtue of our leaders, since they come out of the people) can take you, which usually isn’t very far (the point of St. Thomas’ article above). Heh. We have met the enemy, and he is us.

    At a certain point, once the temporal needs are taken care of, human government is less and less effective and sort of drifts off. Ideally, it ought to promote church and family and the right sort of education at its highest reaches to promote virtue and happiness and accomplish its ends. For Catholics, and in a different way for Protestants, the human nature is ultimately perfected via the supernatural, via what is added to nature, through the church. On a natural level, families do this and other cultural institutions (educational and other orgs)…but government is the umbrella within which all these things live and breath. Because without it protecting and promoting them, none of these institutions can live well.

  14. Peeping Thomist said,

    January 28, 2009 at 4:28 pm

    Okay…dissatisfied with my one-offs above but that’s enough for now.

  15. Sean said,

    January 29, 2009 at 8:48 am

    Peeper, it’s a hard thing to be satisfied with internet discussions. I’m reflecting on what you’re saying and I’m thinking of a busy ice skating rink. There are very few rules and yet the flow of the rink, despite skaters of different size and ability, goes by amazingly smoothly. Why is that? Is it the basic rules posted before the entrance to the rink? I think that is part of it but there’s obviously more to it than that (I think this is a great illustration of how markets work without central planners, but that’s another story). In the state that doesn’t enforce the speed limit, I’m sure people drive faster, but are they automatically more vicious?

    You say societies need government armies to fight off raping bandits but I have to disagree. Giving the citizens the right to bear arms is all that is really needed. Look at how long the Vietnamese farmers fought against the most powerful army in the world (they essentially defeated us). Look at what a thorn in the side of our Will the insurgents are in Iraq. The reason for our right to bear arms, in my opinion is to protect the people not only from roving bandits, but also from the government.

    I think the founders were much more concerned about being slaves than virtue, and that is why they declared liberty and independence and not virtue. Governments aim is to promote virtue (virtues associated with common goods), but it can never do that. King George couldn’t and our government can’t. It is much better at destroying the family than promoting it. Most Catholics want the government to push a family agenda a Christian agenda, but that cannot work. We are about to witness a catastrophe in our country and it has nothing to do with a political agenda but with the uncontrolled power of the state. The unbridled power of the state is its act. The blood of tyrants and patriots really is the only way to stop it.

    I agree with what you’re saying in theory. We’ll probably never see directly eye to eye on this (although I’m resolved to spend more of my time studying the classical position on these questions), so I’ll just end with a question because I’m curious to see what you have to say. I recall in one of our previous discussions you warned of the libertarian position is conceiving the state as “out there and abstract.” I view the state as entirely concrete…a veritable theft and killing machine (much like the founder’s viewed their previous government). What is the classical political philosophy’s answer to rebellion against a state that oppresses its citizens and does things that suffocate the family and basic rights of its citizens? Seems to me the founder’s rebellion was based on a political philosophy based on Locke and Hobbes and only very incidentally to classical political philosophy.

  16. Peeping Thomist (not good ole Ralph M.) said,

    January 29, 2009 at 9:08 am


  17. Peeping Thomist (not good ole Ralph M.) said,

    January 29, 2009 at 9:33 am

    John Stossel tries to use that example as well, and I think it’s ridiculous.

    Not only do ice skating rinks have rules, which negates your point, they nearly always have people who enforce them. This completely negates your point.

    And people have years of custom and experience (formed by…wait for it…THE RULES) so that they know what to do on the rink because of those rules they were taught growing up. They have learned a habit through the rules of the rink, which are easy to see as beneficial to all concerned, and most people abide by them and help promote them while on the rink. Just like society writ large. Most people aren’t criminals. Take away the rules, however, and their enforcement, and you will see a different story. The article above shows you what happens in a culture unformed by rule of law. Lots of weapons on the streets of Detroit. Not a lot of law enforcement.

    Anyhow, besides all this, I would bet that in countries wherein the rule of law is not the same as here in the general culture things would be very different in the rink (assuming that they had no promulgated rules and no enforcement of them, which I highly doubt most any place would). Just ask James about people forming and cutting lines in Italy–all of which comes from habits cultivated by law (and culture, which both causes law to be what it is and is formed by law). So much of libertarianism in the extreme is likely because its proponents are breathing the air of the fruits of good government (in the broad, comparative sense–regardless of whether or not we are getting progressively worse).

    Your problem, if you adopt this view, is not with government, but with human nature itself. Governments are composed of people. In this country, these people come from the general population–more so than in most others you will find throughout history. So how does government become such a grotesque monster in your view? The power of the state here is not unbridled. It comes from elected officials that the people voted for, and this power is checked in myriad ways by popular opinion, by the various branches of government, but various departments within the branches, by the media, by the political parties warring against each other, by factions within the parties warring against each other, etc., etc. You want to revolt against the current state of things? Get people to agree with you and vote likewise. You are more free and more powerful to do so than the vast, vast majority of all people who have been born into this world. No blood is needed, just your ability to persuade those around you. I would submit that people disagree with libertarians, which is why they have never succeeded as a viable party, because most people have a sense that at its extreme the doctrine is profoundly wrong. Most people know that government ought to look out for the common good, and by its nature promotes certain ways of life over others. That is why we fight in politics about all the issues we do.

    You can sit around and decry government, but you are really decrying those who make it up–people who have families, belong to churches and are a part of all the things you rightly think are good. Government can be evil because people can be evil, and misuse power. That does not mean that government is intrinsically evil or unnecessary.

    The founders did not think that government was an intrinsic evil. Just because they were against one government does not mean they thought all government was evil. They certainly weren’t against government armies. George Washington could attest to that.

    I mean, you honestly are arguing that organized armies are not necessary to defend nations from attack? I don’t even think that merits a response. Yes, there are situations where the home team wins, but seriously? How do you think Iraq was created originally–why are all those tribes forced to live under one roof? How do you think the South fared against the North in Vietnam?

    Try going over to some regions of Africa, where even little kids have guns, and government is non-existent and see how great things are for families and churches. Don’t get me wrong, I am all for the individual’s freedom to own guns, and it was partly in the Bill of Rights for the reasons you cite above. My point is there is no law enforcement in many regions of the world, and no established government other than thugs with better weapons than everyone else’s. Maybe you would simply call that a government too. If so, you have to tell me what your utopia is, where on earth was government the best you think it could be, and at what time and place?

    Again, government is the sine qua non of all the things you desire. You either have government, or you have the rule of the stronger.

    More on your question later.

  18. Peeping Thomist (not good ole Ralph M.) said,

    January 29, 2009 at 9:35 am

    Here’s what classical thought would say to the Founders:

    Whether human law binds a man in conscience?

    Objection 1: It would seem that human law does not bind man in conscience. For an inferior power has no jurisdiction in a court of higher power. But the power of man, which frames human law, is beneath the Divine power. Therefore human law cannot impose its precept in a Divine court, such as is the court of conscience.

    Objection 2: Further, the judgment of conscience depends chiefly on the commandments of God. But sometimes God’s commandments are made void by human laws, according to Mt. 15:6: “You have made void the commandment of God for your tradition.” Therefore human law does not bind a man in conscience.

    Objection 3: Further, human laws often bring loss of character and injury on man, according to Is. 10:1 et seqq.: “Woe to them that make wicked laws, and when they write, write injustice; to oppress the poor in judgment, and do violence to the cause of the humble of My people.” But it is lawful for anyone to avoid oppression and violence. Therefore human laws do not bind man in conscience.

    On the contrary, It is written (1 Pt. 2:19): “This is thankworthy, if the conscience . . . a man endure sorrows, suffering wrongfully.”

    I answer that, Laws framed by man are either just or unjust. If they be just, they have the power of binding in conscience, from the eternal law whence they are derived, according to Prov. 8:15: “By Me kings reign, and lawgivers decree just things.” Now laws are said to be just, both from the end, when, to wit, they are ordained to the common good—and from their author, that is to say, when the law that is made does not exceed the power of the lawgiver—and from their form, when, to wit, burdens are laid on the subjects, according to an equality of proportion and with a view to the common good. For, since one man is a part of the community, each man in all that he is and has, belongs to the community; just as a part, in all that it is, belongs to the whole; wherefore nature inflicts a loss on the part, in order to save the whole: so that on this account, such laws as these, which impose proportionate burdens, are just and binding in conscience, and are legal laws.

    On the other hand laws may be unjust in two ways: first, by being contrary to human good, through being opposed to the things mentioned above—either in respect of the end, as when an authority imposes on his subjects burdensome laws, conducive, not to the common good, but rather to his own cupidity or vainglory—or in respect of the author, as when a man makes a law that goes beyond the power committed to him—or in respect of the form, as when burdens are imposed unequally on the community, although with a view to the common good. The like are acts of violence rather than laws; because, as Augustine says (De Lib. Arb. i, 5), “a law that is not just, seems to be no law at all.” Wherefore such laws do not bind in conscience, except perhaps in order to avoid scandal or disturbance, for which cause a man should even yield his right, according to Mt. 5:40,41: “If a man . . . take away thy coat, let go thy cloak also unto him; and whosoever will force thee one mile, go with him other two.”

    Secondly, laws may be unjust through being opposed to the Divine good: such are the laws of tyrants inducing to idolatry, or to anything else contrary to the Divine law: and laws of this kind must nowise be observed, because, as stated in Acts 5:29, “we ought to obey God rather than man.”

    Reply to Objection 1: As the Apostle says (Rm. 13:1,2), all human power is from God . . . “therefore he that resisteth the power,” in matters that are within its scope, “resisteth the ordinance of God”; so that he becomes guilty according to his conscience.

    Reply to Objection 2: This argument is true of laws that are contrary to the commandments of God, which is beyond the scope of (human) power. Wherefore in such matters human law should not be obeyed.

    Reply to Objection 3: This argument is true of a law that inflicts unjust hurt on its subjects. The power that man holds from God does not extend to this: wherefore neither in such matters is man bound to obey the law, provided he avoid giving scandal or inflicting a more grievous hurt.

  19. Peeping Thomist (not good ole Ralph M.) said,

    January 29, 2009 at 9:38 am

    The right of revolution of the founders is derived from Locke, but as the Founders use it is it is compatible with article above:


  20. Brandon said,

    January 29, 2009 at 9:38 am

    I think the founders were much more concerned about being slaves than virtue, and that is why they declared liberty and independence and not virtue. Governments aim is to promote virtue (virtues associated with common goods), but it can never do that.

    But the Founders did think that government was concerned with virtue (Washington’s first inaugural gives a good summary of this line of thought in the Founders; the idea comes from Montesquieu, who argued that this is a distinction between republics and monarchies: monarchies work by policy independently of virtue, while democracies work by virtue, albeit of a very limited political form. Similar things can be found elsewhere. Jefferson somewhere argues that we should have republican government precisely because it is the form that has the fewest impediments to encouraging virtue and talent; etc. The Founders pretty regularly link liberty and virtue as essential to each other.)

    Note that promoting virtue is not the same as imposing it; sometimes the best way to promote virtue will be by not passing laws you might be tempted to pass, for instance. If family is the primary school of virtue,a good government will pass laws that protect the family insofar as it is such a school and avoid laws that would interfere with it unnecessarily. And so it will be everywhere else. Likewise, one sign of a bad law is that it encourages corruption and vice, and one sign of a good law is that it makes it easier for virtuous people to do their thing. It is clear that laws can do both; and so it’s simply a fact that laws can be either vice-promoting or virtue-promoting.

  21. Peeping Thomist (not good ole Ralph M.) said,

    January 29, 2009 at 9:52 am

    “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”

    Nota bene–GOVERNMENT IS NECESSARY TO SECURE THESE RIGHTS. That’s right: government.

    “That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.”

    Nota bene–happiness is referenced here and in the preceding line. The goal of government is happiness. Not just any happiness, but the happiness of the people. The goal of government is MORE than safety, which is also mentioned. One could read this and wonder whether this is the same as St. Thomas says above. What prevents people from just up and leaving (like the “right” of secession, which is pretended by some libertarians to be part of the founder’s thought). Well, let us look to the next line:

    “Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed.”

    Aha. So the part of the whole reason for the Declaration, then…a central part of why “a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that [the founders] should declare the causes which impel them to the separation” is precisely because this isn’t something to be taken lightly. It may be better to grin and bear it, as St. Thomas says, in order to “avoid giving scandal or inflicting a more grievous hurt.” Notice that the basis for this principle is PRUDENCE.

    So they continue:

    “But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security. — Such has been the patient sufferance of these Colonies; and such is now the necessity which constrains them to alter their former Systems of Government. The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States. To prove this, let Facts be submitted to a candid world.”

    Overall they make an argument that can be squared with both of St. Thomas’ requirements above. (Based on the fact they see their rights as coming from Nature and Nature’s God, that both kinds of unjust laws (against God and the common good) are taking place.

    For instance, what is the FIRST complaint of the founders in their following list against King George????


    Nota bene–the complaint is that he hasn’t allowed them to make law. Law that is necessary for the common good.

    I think your real complaints are with government as you see it today in American on a day to day level, but I think you are flirting with an underlying political philosophy in the face of those real complaints that does disservice to you and your very real arguments about politics today.

  22. Peeping Thomist (not good ole Ralph M.) said,

    January 29, 2009 at 12:52 pm

    I agree with Brandon as well. Check this article out for a lengthier answer to your question–it can lead you into St. Thomas on the matter:


    Aquinas’s “natural-law doctrine,” then, does not subscribe to the principle (advocated, according to Kelsen, by all leading representatives of the natural-law doctrine) which “deprives of any effect” conflicts between positive and natural law “which could be dangerous to the established legal authority.” Although Aquinas does not treat the right of revolution in the face of tyranny as absolute, he plainly does not embrace Kelsen’s alleged “dogma that under the law of nature there is no or only a restricted right of resistance.” Tyrants—not least those who came to power by legal means and govern by issuing and enforcing laws (lex tyrannica)[90]—must look elsewhere than to Aquinas for moral arguments designed to insulate them from insurrection and punishment for their misrule. Nothing in his thought merges natural and positive law in such a way as to confer upon positive law an automatic conformity to the requirements of natural law. On the contrary, according to Aquinas, the positive law of any regime, and those rulers who create and enforce it, stand under the judgment of natural law. Tyrannical rule is a “perversion” of law,[91] and, as such, far from creating a duty of obedience, gives rise to a (prima facie) right of resistance to the uttermost.

  23. Sean said,

    January 29, 2009 at 1:03 pm

    i don’t know, it seems like there are some areas where st. thomas harmonizes with the founding fathers, so you are therefore trying to baptize them.

    brandon-your quotes from jeffereson point to what i’m getting at…but i think its foolish for government to impose any such virtue, even if its good, because then you have given that power to the government and it will inevitably rot. hasn’t history shown us this? the answer is to not give the government that kind of power at all, whether its used for good or bad.

    MP-i think stossel’s point applies to planners, which is different than law and its enforcement. when looked at in that light it isn’t ridiculous at all. i mentioned the fact that there are basic rules and that those do account for some of the order that goes on. again, i’m not against laws or a republic.

    i’ll read through this a few more times and think about it.

  24. Peeping Thomist (not good ole Ralph M.) said,

    January 30, 2009 at 7:07 am

    Not trying to baptize or reach in anything I said. It just doesn’t seem to me that the founder’s revolution is incompatible with what St. Thomas says, or at least there is a strong case to be made that it isn’t.

    Government has the power you are talking to Brandon about whether you like it or now. If there is law that is enforced, it has that power. Law legislates morality, regardless of the absurd tropes of people today. The founders of this country, then (who lived at a time when social issues were regulated far more than today–obscenity laws were in full effect in the state, and you should read what Jefferson thought the law should be re homosexuality and bestiality) realized of course such power was dangerous, and the constitution is in part an answer to the problem (while at the same time trying to make government more powerful, which is why they got rid of the weak Articles of Confederation).

    Fair enough about Stossel’s point. I think it shows what I say above as well, and if he is talking about urban planners and the like than it makes more sense. The way government promotes virtue is not, as Brandon says, to impose it in some heavyhanded counter productive way. But to promote it, by, say, putting up a few simple rules that make sense given the situation, take human nature into account, and are enforced. In order to make such rules, ideally you would have people who understand human nature well, have prudence in order to apply this knowledge, and are good people who will use this knowledge to promote the common good and not their own will or the will of a faction. This applies in micro to the ice rink.

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