Follow by Email

Thursday, 8 June 2017

A Comparative Exegesis of John Locke and Thomas Aquinas

The Laws of Nature and the Purpose of Politics in John Locke and Thomas Aquinas

John Locke
St. Thomas Aquinas

This post is composed of a brief undergrad essay I composed a number of months ago. Despite its antiquity, I feel that it neatly expresses some of the differences between the modern understanding of politics and the classical understanding of politics; this bifurcation in this instance is centred on two canonical authors in the history of political thought Thomas Aquinas and John Locke. A few brief points will aptly summarize the text for those who want a little background. 

Firstly, the focus is on the difference between the law of nature as understood by John Locke in his 'Second Treatise on Government' and Thomas Aquinas's various writings on the natural law. Despite the semantic similarities these concepts are significantly different, and often misunderstood. 

Secondly, the principle argument here is that John Locke's understanding of politics is necessarily hallow when placed in relation to the classical understanding of politics as an outgrowth of nature itself that serves as the measure of the political community and is necessarily normative. This natural law or normative law expressed through nature, the position of Thomas Aquinas, produces the individual through the emergence of politics. Meanwhile, Locke limits politics to the protection of man and his property or perhaps more properly phrased his liberties and natural rights a novel and modern concept that had no meaning to the classical thinkers. This is one of the great articulations of instrumental politics or politics at the service of the pre-political individual who contracts into society as opposed to holistically originating within it. 

Thirdly, as may not be totally clear as the essay is rather objective, I support the Thomistic position in general. My personal biases should not, however, prevent any reader from deriving their own conclusion. 


To Thomas Aquinas and John Locke, politics as they understood it, was deeply rooted in nature, both human and earthly: one sought to align human life with nature, the other sought to escape its inconveniences.[i] To Thomas Aquinas, politics could not succeed without an antecedent natural law that informed the laws of the political community, and human life in general. Alternatively, to John Locke, the law of nature, was a proscriptive fact, one that informed human beings of their natural right and placed limits upon their actions.
Accordingly, Thomas Aquinas integrated human law into the natural law and in so doing made it not just the measure of politics, but a prescriptive authority in all human life.[ii] The natural law, to Aquinas, became both a ‘rule and measure’ to inform human law and the principles of justice, and because these principles of justice existed not just to protect the polity from discord but to assist the soul in the fulfilment of the virtues the natural law then became inextricably linked to political nature.[iii] Alternatively, to John Locke, the law of nature existed to inform us of our rights, and facilitate human cooperation via reason, and in so doing provided the necessary adhesive for political communities as well as the solvent to dissolve them.[iv] This potential to dissolve the political union, and thus the potential threat to politics arose out of man's right to himself and by extension the products of his body.[v] However, the potential dissolution of the government by recourse to natural right, and the state of nature, to Locke, did not dissolve society, only government.[vi] By conceptualizing Locke’s theory of government in this way it is possible to see the law of nature as threatening to politics if the politics of Locke are measured not by his own standards but those of Aquinas in accord with his understanding of natural law.
To reach the origin of politics and establish these two different accounts it is necessary to examine the qualities of nature as understood by both Aquinas and Locke. Nature, as understood by Aquinas proceeded society, and coexists with it, or as Aquinas stated ‘regarding human affairs . . .  things are just because they are right according to the rule of reason [which] is the natural law, . . . . Every human law has as much the nature of law as it is derived from the natural law.’[vii] Society arises out of nature as it takes the precepts of natural law and uses reason, which is the unique and natural quality of man, to determine the common good:[viii] in the case of man, this is the exercise of reason amongst a community of human beings.[ix] He could establish this end because to Aquinas nature is teleological, in that things are constituted for their ends, which are understood through the natural power of reason.[x] This was the purpose of political society for Aquinas. In addition, it should be noted that Aquinas did not conceive of governments as separate from nature or society. The government is a natural outgrowth of the order of human society, originating in the rule of the household, that is itself mirrored in divine order, for both the ruler and God relate to their subjects in the form of craftsmen who impose an orderly plan.[xi]
Locke offered a radically different conception of nature, however. To Locke, nature was a state which men occupy when they share no common superior amongst them.[xii] However, to their advantage, they are perfectly free and equal, subject only to the law of nature which is reason.[xiii] This entitles individuals to a natural right in their own bodies and by extension through the mixing of their labour with the earth all associated property, which Locke defined as ‘lives, liberties, and estates’ to be disposed of as they wish.[xiv] However, this state came with numerous inconveniences three in particular which made living in nature precarious: the vulnerability of an individual person and property; the partiality of personal judgment, and associated tendency toward inequitable execution of the law of nature; and the challenge of executing the law of nature in the state of nature. The former were all consequences of absolute equality and placed the natural state of freedom in jeopardy. Meaning that though ‘in the state of nature he hath such a right, . . . the enjoyment of it is very uncertain.’[xv] Without, hopefully, lapsing too deeply into anachronism one finds a definition of state in the Canadian Oxford Dictionary as ‘The particular condition that someone or something is in at a specific time.’[xvi] Therefore, it is important to recognize that this distinction is fundamental to understanding nature and its law as interpreted by Locke. For nature is a condition, one that is defined by its temporality and its potential for withdrawal not from the law of nature but from the state of nature. Alternatively, nature, as perceived by Aquinas, is a keystone to a constant ontological whole of which the political world is a part.
These interpretations of nature in turn directed man and politics toward divergent ends. Each philosopher interpreted the limits of politics in a different fashion due to their different origins. To Aquinas, politics had its end in the common good, which mankind understood through rational principles derived from natural law in accord with the eternal law.[xvii] Natural law then served as a guide. A guide that permitted the extension of politics to the ends of man himself, and consequently, the polity had few boundaries regarding the coercive authority it could apply in the name of habituation of individuals toward living in concord with the common good.[xviii] This meant that politics embraced vice and virtue with the punishment of one and the cultivation of the other inextricable from the ends of the whole community of which the individual is subordinate. This account not only governed the multitude in a political body but the rulers as well, for ‘the best institution of rulers belongs to a city or kingdom in which one person is chosen by reason of his virtue,’ because virtue and reason were paramount to their ability to understand and direct the common good.[xix] The ruler, in fact, was defined by his relation and proximity to the will of God through a superior capacity to utilize reason to interpret and direct the community toward the common good. This was necessary because the individual emerged from the community and partook in it and only in the polity did such possibilities emerge.[xx]
Meanwhile, to Locke, the compact between peoples, created a society, and the designation of a legislature was the act whereby people enter into a political state by forming a government. This alleviated the inconveniences of nature, which were defined by the individual’s inability to protect persons and property.[xxi] Therefore, to Locke government was defined by its enforcement of the law of nature and limited by the natural right of persons. Therefore, government had a single end ‘the preservation of their property.’[xxii] Government to Locke, did not only disregard virtuous action in the traditional sense it did not even consider the character of the ruler or ruling body if such qualities are measured by those proposed by Aquinas. A good ruler, James I served as an exemplary measured by his adherence to the laws of consent and his ability to maintain the ‘wealth and property of his people’[xxiii] In this way, politics was subordinate to the individual in Locke’s political community, something that would seem unreasonable to Aquinas.
This subordination of politics to the individual in Locke’s writings can best be understood by reflecting upon the principle that brings man into the social contract and allows him to likewise leave it: consent.[xxiv] Consent was what defined the relationship between the individual and the political society. Consent existed principally in two ways, tacit and explicit, and the explicit consent of the individual is what brought him into the society; tacit consent kept both the individual and his successors within it.[xxv] Meanwhile, the society itself expressed its consent when it chose to designate a legislature or ruling body over it to execute the law of nature on its collective behalf.[xxvi] Then consenting is meaningful in that it is by definition an action and politics by extension is an activity of the individual who consented to his amalgamation within it. 
As a consequence of the limits of Locke’s political society, it sows within itself its own seeds of dissolution if its success is regarded in terms familiar to Aquinas. For politics as Locke understood it, must necessarily fail, for it did not concern itself with the ends of community and persons but rather left them indeterminate. To Locke, the state of nature was still ruled by reason, and this made it a state that remained viable to individuals, on account of their natural right, which remained their own within and outside of the political community.[xxvii] In addition, all that remained of the problem of government or politics for Locke is for the society to establish for itself a new legislature. Society could establish this new legislature by revoking the consent that it initially provided to the government. Consent, however, is binding insofar as the contract between ruler and ruled had not been violated by the ruler who placed himself in a state of war with the society when he intentionally, continually, and significantly violated the natural right to person and property afforded to each individual.[xxviii] If the ruler or ruling body acted in this fashion the constituent elements of the community had the capacity to return to the state of nature and the ability to appeal to heaven understood as violent revolution.[xxix]
Politics then, to Locke, is an instrument to man and may be reconstructed in a way that meets the criteria of rule. The law of nature then is not a threat to politics to Locke, but its measure, in that it determines the validity of the polity as constituted. This natural right did not exist to Aquinas, and therefore it was inconceivable to abandon the political state for a state with no superior authority. For human laws as Aquinas understood them do not govern all elements of life, as they did not govern conscience; however, collectively and in accord with the eternal and divine laws, they constrained man and guided his actions in a way implausible to Locke.[xxx] Likewise, Aquinas made it clear that though men were to participate in the polity, they were not able to reconstitute their government or expel unsuitable kings. He noted. ‘The division of the kingdom . . . was inflicted on the people as punishment for their many rebellions.’[xxxi]
Political society then, as Aquinas and Locke understood it was completely different. One was a part of an organic whole originating in a natural hierarchy intelligible and governed by divine will; the other was a human compact entered by individuals for the protection of their natural right to their body and the property stemming from it. Both conceptions originated in different interpretations of the essence of the natural law, one as a rational intimation of the divine will that is integral to all human beings and normative, in that it designates qualitative ends, and another which describes nature and man's relation to it through the exercise of reason. The latter then informed man of his natural right. This natural right served not as a guide to politics as Aquinas understood natural law, but rather a law of nature that persisted both before and after the institution of political society and delineated the limits of the constitution of government. In this way, by relation to a reasonable state of nature, man to Locke had recourse to that state if the authority failed to adhere to the duty of protecting those rights; in returning to the state of nature government could then be reconstituted to serve its instrumental purpose, which is the protection of property. To Aquinas, Locke’s political theory would be insubstantial, and if politics, as understood by Aquinas as a unifying and transcendent phenomenon participating in the divine, used Locke’s law of nature as its measurement it would necessarily lacking, and in this way, is not only the greatest threat to politics, but arguably not fully political at all. 



[i] Thomas Aquinas, St., Aquinas Treatise on Law, trans. Richard J. Regan (Indianapolis, IL: Hackett Publishing Company, 2000), 39, 46-47; John Locke, "The Second Treatise of Government," in John Locke Political Writings, ed. David Wootton (Indianapolis, IL: Hackett Publishing Company, 2003), §4, §6.
[ii] Aquinas, Aquinas Treatise on Law, 9,37, 55-56.
[iii] Ibid., 1-2, 72.
[iv] Locke, "The Second Treatise of Government," §6-§8,
[v] Ibid., §27-§30, §199.
[vi] Ibid., §211, §221-§222.
[vii] Aquinas, Aquinas Treatise on Law, 47.
[viii] Ibid., 6, 35, 47.
[ix] Ibid., 36.
[x] Ibid., 36.
[xi] Ibid., 5, 22-23.
[xii] Locke, "The Second Treatise of Government," §7.
[xiii] Ibid., §6.
[xiv] Ibid., §4, §27, §123.
[xv] Ibid., §123-§126.
[xvi] Katherine Barber, ed., Canadian Oxford Dictionary, 2nd ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), 1521.
[xvii] Aquinas, Aquinas Treatise on Law, 3, 6,
[xviii] Ibid., 5, 48-49, 54-56.
[xix] Ibid., 89.
[xx] Ibid., 3, 91.
[xxi] Locke, "The Second Treatise of Government,” §95, §123.
[xxii] Ibid., §124.
[xxiii] Ibid., 200.
[xxiv] Ibid., §119.
[xxv] Ibid., §119, §121.
[xxvi] Ibid., §134, §141.
[xxvii] Ibid., §88-§89.
[xxviii] Ibid., §207.
[xxix] Ibid., §241-243.
[xxx] Aquinas, Aquinas Treatise on Law, 48-49,  
[xxxi] Ibid., 59, 91.