Monday, June 23, 2014

Review: Treatise on Law: Summa Theologica, Questions 90-97 by Thomas Aquinas

Treatise on Law: Summa Theoligiae by Thomas Aquinas
First Published: 1274
Published: September 1, 1996
Publisher: Gateway Editions
Pages: 116

St. Thomas's Summa theologiae is often compared to a medieval cathedral because of its sublime construction both as a work of logic and literary architecture.

Here is a mere tip of one of the spires, summarizing the great Saint's views on the nature and structure of law.

Believing that law achieves its results by imposing moral obligations rather than outright force, St. Thomas defines the Christian view of liberty.
And he asks - and answers - the deep questions: What are the roots of law? What are the limits within which men may exercise their power? Aquinas addresses issues that perplex Americans - and their courts - to this day.
This is my third time reading Aquinas. The first time was my senior year of high school, and it was terribly difficult. The discussion that followed in which the teacher explained Aquinas' format, and what he said was amazing. But actually reading the material and trying to infer what Aquinas was saying was an experience. 
Jump ahead a year, and I read him again for a college class. This time, I find it bearable. I maybe understood a quarter of the small portion we read. Again, the points he make are brilliant, once I understand what they are. 

Now, about four months later from when I last read him, I encounter him again in my summer course - this time for 116 pages, the longest excerpt I've read from the Summa Theolgiae. For the first time, I felt as if I actually followed, if somewhat brokenly, what Aquinas was saying. It's actually a nice feeling knowing that your reading level can always improve, no matter how long or how much you've read. My point is, if you're going to read Aquinas, first do so research on his dissertation style. Then, begin to read him in experts. For the first few, find some people (or the Internet) to help explain what they are about. As you go along, I promise it get's easier, and it's well worth the time.


The content of this book was very interesting. I've been taught in classes about the definitions and workings of Natural and Divine Law, but I quickly realized how limited that knowledge was. After Aquinas explains the definition and nature of Law, the rest of the book is spent exploring, mainly, Eternal, Natural, and Human Law. And I like it. Aquinas in general is still too tedious for me to really enjoy his writings, but his mind was so brilliant that it's hard to pass him over for writing in a style sometimes difficult to read, and almost always difficult to understand - because the content is that good.


Aquinas spends the beginning explaining the definition of Law and its relation to reason. Here we quickly realize that Aquinas uses the same word in different senses. Whether this is a result of the translation or Aquinas is difficult to say. But it makes the reading sometimes difficult, and almost always confusing if one does not catch the subtle differences. In his discussion of reason and Law, it is the Divine Reason that is crucial to Law, which is very different from the human reason that allows us to understand and extrapolate on ideas. Another subtlety that makes the reading difficult is the change of one word in different definitions. In the first article of the first question, when describing how law may be in something, he says there are two possibilities : "as in that which measures and rules" and "as in that which is measured and ruled." It takes careful reading to catch the difference, and then multiple rereadings to understand it. So it is writing subtleties such as these that add difficulty to the text. Outside a classroom setting, I'd argue that a single reading would understand much less than a group, simply because a group is going to catch more intricacies and offer more explanations for what they mean. A single person could, understandably, miss only a few, and consequently misunderstand a few crucial points.


My favorite part of the text was the explanation of Divine, Eternal, Natural, and Human Law, especially how they all connect. This is also where the absence of God would have the biggest impact. Yes, Aquinas established the existence of a God in the beginning of the text, amongst other things. However, he does not entertain the idea of a non-believer ruling. The rules and laws he shows us are of a perfect, God believing, world. What he believed realistically, I will not venture to say. That would require more information than this text shows. However, realistically, his ideas of Divine, Eternal, Natural, and Human law do not hold up without a God. Divine Law disappears altogether, and eternal and natural law are left without an end, since they are no longer the product of Divine Reason. That they are still present, though, can be argued, and has been, from a non-theological standpoint. Human law, however, is left at the mercy of the ruler. Under a God-fearing man, human law is ended towards the divine. Without God in the equation, it becomes ended towards whatever the ruler desires, whether that be fear, love, efficiency, money, or any such thing. This results in a human law that is  perhaps not virtuous or binding in conscience (as Aquinas claims will occur under a human law ended towards the divine). 


Another point to discuss is the curious absence of human rights. Aquinas instead describes the life of a human within a community, and a community as subject to the will of God. This is the most perfect scenario. There is no discussion of freedom of speech, press, religion, petition, and assembly. However, I do not believe that in Aquinas' time people were rallying to the streets to protest the abuse of their rights - or that they even had a concept of rights. Aquinas does believe in the free will to love God, but at the same time, his image of God is almighty and awfully controlling. Or perhaps a better word is "ordered." Everything is ordered towards and by this God, and this is what directs and steers society in a correct government. 


This section might not be made of the prowess found in his five proofs for God, but there is a beauty in its simplicity. He still argues and pushes the boundaries, but it is on matters that are apart of every society. Not many would argue against his explanations of Law and how it presents itself. That it is a variable subject is clear. But Aquinas' logic to build his laws is sound and difficult to dispute (in most cases). And that is a refreshing thing.