Are You Sure You Understand Thomas Aquinas?

St. Thomas Aquinas

Yesterday, Paul Ryan recanted his adoration of the Rand in favor of a love of St. Thomas Aquinas.  Now anyone will tell you that, as an atheist, I don’t hold with a lot of what religion has to say or what it’s done, especially Christianity.

But I do appreciate a good dose of hypocrisy from those who profess that they do.  Like Paul Ryan!  And, unbeknownst to Mr. Ryan, apparently, Old St. Thomas Aquinas had some really nice things to say about the poor (kind of the way Jesus wasn’t all about making money).

I’m not sure Ryan actually, you know, read St. Thomas Aquinas.  Seriously.

Things which are of human right cannot derogate from natural right or Divine right. Now according to the natural order established by Divine Providence, inferior things are ordained for the purpose of succoring man’s needs by their means. Wherefore the division and appropriation of things which are based on human law, do not preclude the fact that man’s needs have to be remedied by means of these very things. Hence whatever certain people have in superabundance is due, by natural law, to the purpose of succoring the poor. For this reason Ambrose [Loc. cit., 2, Objection 3] says, and his words are embodied in the Decretals(Dist. xlvii, can. Sicut ii): “It is the hungry man’s bread that you withhold, the naked man’s cloak that you store away, the money that you bury in the earth is the price of the poor man’s ransom and freedom.” (Question 66, Article 7.)

St. Thomas wants you to pay higher taxes and succor the poor, Mr. Ryan.  How do you read it?

23 comments to Are You Sure You Understand Thomas Aquinas?

  • Aaron RODRIGUEZ

    You have it half-right. Aquinas supposes that one man’s wealth exists to help those who are deprived of it. In that sense, you are right. However, Aquinas does not suppose that government is the medium of insuring that wealth is redistributed to the poor. Knowing what I know about Aquinas, he is likely to say that the Church has a role in the redistribution – and not necessarily a mandatory role either.

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    • You have it half-right. Aquinas supposes that one man’s wealth exists to help those who are deprived of it. In that sense, you are right.

      Ok…

      However, Aquinas does not suppose that government is the medium of insuring that wealth is redistributed to the poor.

      Really? I’d think that Aquinas would welcome any mechanism which would facilitate the relief of the poor.

      Knowing what I know about Aquinas, he is likely to say that the Church has a role in the redistribution – and not necessarily a mandatory role either.

      How so? Chapter and verse please!

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    • The following paragraph (which I didn’t include) seems to indicate the St. Thomas Aquinas is OK with taking without permission to succor the poor.

      Since, however, there are many who are in need, while it is impossible for all to be succored by means of the same thing, each one is entrusted with the stewardship of his own things, so that out of them he may come to the aid of those who are in need. Nevertheless, if the need be so manifest and urgent, that it is evident that the present need must be remedied by whatever means be at hand (for instance when a person is in some imminent danger, and there is no other possible remedy), then it is lawful for a man to succor his own need by means of another’s property, by taking it either openly or secretly: nor is this properly speaking theft or robbery.

      Since taxes are, in general, referred to by conservatives as confiscatory and/or theft, it seem to me that Aquinas would be OK with that in the interest of the general welfare.

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  • Aaron RODRIGUEZ

    You may be seeing what you want to see. The analogy that many use of a poor and hungry person wondering onto a farmer’s land to eat some his produce would probably closer to what Aquinas had in mind.

    Aquinas said that a person is the steward of his own belongings. He did not qualify WHO – other than the person in direct need – was authorized to succor a person’s holdings. Government is not described by Aquinas as the entity in dire need.

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    • You may be seeing what you want to see.

      Right back at’cha!

      In another section, Aquinas talks about alms and the obligation to pay alms. He calls them a “precept.”

      A precept (from the Latin: præcipere, to teach) is a commandment, instruction, or order intended as an authoritative rule of action.

      This means that one can be compelled by authority to pay alms, they are not strictly voluntary. Sounds a lot like taxes. Aquinas writes

      Since, however, precepts are about acts of virtue, it follows that all almsgiving must be a matter of precept, in so far as it is necessary to virtue, namely, in so far as it is demanded by right reason. Now right reason demands that we should take into consideration something on the part of the giver, and something on the part of the recipient. On the part of the giver, it must be noted that he should give of his surplus, according to Luke 11:41: “That which remaineth, give alms.” This surplus is to be taken in reference not only to himself, so as to denote what is unnecessary to the individual, but also in reference to those of whom he has charge (in which case we have the expression “necessary to the person” [The official necessities of a person in position] taking the word “person” as expressive of dignity). Because each one must first of all look after himself and then after those over whom he has charge, and afterwards with what remains relieve the needs of others. Thus nature first, by its nutritive power, takes what it requires for the upkeep of one’s own body, and afterwards yields the residue for the formation of another by the power of generation.

      He also argues that princes may use violence if necessary to enforce these extractions if they are for common good

      It is no robbery if princes exact from their subjects that which is due to them for the safe-guarding of the common good, even if they use violence in so doing.

      It seems to me that Aquinas was a big believer in the redistribution of wealth…

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  • Aaron RODRIGUEZ

    Again, you are urgently trying to make Aquinas into a liberal, which if you understood his theology, he would know he was quite conservative.

    A precept is a doctrine, a rule of action. You chose the definition of precept that best fit your predisposition to tax. Aquinas was saying that almsgiving – redistributing to the poor – was a matter of doctrine, was a matter of scriptural teaching. He proves this point by quoting the gospel of Luke. A precept is a teaching, at least in this context.

    Also, princes were to use whatever means to take what was due for the “safeguarding” of the common good. In today’s political environment, this could mean pretty much anything without more context. I could interpret it as protecting life and property; and you could interpret it as the redistribution of wealth. Sorry, no smoking gun.

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  • A precept is a doctrine, a rule of action. You chose the definition of precept that best fit your predisposition to tax. Aquinas was saying that almsgiving – redistributing to the poor – was a matter of doctrine, was a matter of scriptural teaching. He proves this point by quoting the gospel of Luke. A precept is a teaching, at least in this context.

    No, I simply took the definition from Wikipedia… But perhaps you’d prefer the definition from The Code of Canon Law:

    Can. 49 A singular precept is a decree which directly and legitimately enjoins a specific person or persons to do or omit something, especially in order to urge the observance of law.

    A precept is much more than a “teaching.” It’s a rule… A commandment if you will. Almsgiving is a commandment, not a teaching. Aquinas is saying that almsgiving is required to be virtuous and a prince may command it in the context of ensuring the common good.

    Why do you consider “safeguarding the common good” any more vague than any other part? Is it because to acknowledge that paying alms (or taxes) in the service of the common good is a duty?

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  • Aaron RODRIGUEZ

    I thought I was clear that a precept is a rule of action when I said it was a rule of action. When the scripture (teaching) says to give to the poor, then it’s a commandment or precept – it makes no difference. Where we part is over who gets to compel the wealthy to give alms. You say it’s the government; I say it’s a matter of scriptural obedience via the guidance of a spiritual leader. Nowhere, in scripture or in Aquinas, have you shown where government should be the mechanism of compelling the wealthy to give to the poor.

    You also make presuppositions about the meaning of alms that stretch it beyond the dictionary definition. Taxes are imposed on citizens for more than just helping the poor. Therefore, a tax is not equivalent to paying alms. Second, in the bible, a tithe was a tax. Giving alms was not a tithe, but was rather an additional obligation to the tithe. You presume these are interchangeable terms. They are not.

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    • Let me try a different tack. I think we can agree that neither of us live in 13th century Europe. We’re not bound by Canon Law (at least not involuntarily) and we don’t really know what it was like to live under the church and the state at that time. So understanding Aquinas now requires us to to some sociocultural translation. To get at what he meant means putting an effort into mapping his ancient words to modern ideas.

      So, in order for Aquinas’s words to any make sense to us, to derive value from them for our world, we must put them in the context of a 21st century secular society. We must attempt to glean intent from his words. When I read the passages I’ve cited here, I attempt to understand what Aquinas meant by “alms” in the context of today and how it would apply to us now.

      Can we start with that? Or am I wasting my breath? :-)

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      • Aaron RODRIGUEZ

        Phil,

        What you state is a common impediment in scriptural exegesis. I would ordinarily say it was fortunate that Aquinas quoted scripture, which in ordinary cases would aid our understanding; but he quoted one of the more unclear passages in scripture. I would give you my interpretation, but then I would be speculating as much as you, which wouldn’t help us out.

        Bottom line, alms is not a tax. The good Lord instructed us to pay alms to the poor, which most reasonable people – understanding the times – would take to mean directly giving to a needy person. Having government mandate a general tax does not fit that description.

        Also, a tax is used for a multiplicity of things including wasteful spending, which scripture condemns – not the tax, but the wasteful spending. A tax in the OT was a tithe – 10% of all you produced; this could include your wages, food, or cattle. A tithe was mandated by government, alms were not.

        In conclusion, Paul Ryan is a strong and intelligent Catholic. My bet is that if he wants to be compared to Aquinas, be probably understands Aquinas’ theology, epistemology, and general philosophy of the world.

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        • The good Lord instructed us to pay alms to the poor, which most reasonable people – understanding the times – would take to mean directly giving to a needy person. Having government mandate a general tax does not fit that description.

          That, my friend, is an interpretation. To claim the mantle of “reasonable people” is to speak to a personal interpretation. I disagree that that is what “reasonable people” would assume. Reasonable people would assume that, in our civil society, based on the words of the constitution which states we should “promote the general welfare” indicates that, in our society, we use the government and not religion to care for the poor an indigent. And as Aquinas points out, the “prince” may compel the collection of taxes. In our society, those taxes are used, among other things, in the way alms were used in the 13th century.

          So let me ask you this. How do you (or Paul Ryan) care to respond to this?

          To take usury for money lent is unjust in itself, because this is to sell what does not exist, and this evidently leads to inequality which is contrary to justice. On order to make this evident, we must observe that there are certain things the use of which consists in their consumption: thus we consume wine when we use it for drink and we consume wheat when we use it for food. Wherefore in such like things the use of the thing must not be reckoned apart from the thing itself, and whoever is granted the use of the thing, is granted the thing itself and for this reason, to lend things of this kin is to transfer the ownership. Accordingly if a man wanted to sell wine separately from the use of the wine, he would be selling the same thing twice, or he would be selling what does not exist, wherefore he would evidently commit a sin of injustice. On like manner he commits an injustice who lends wine or wheat, and asks for double payment, viz. one, the return of the thing in equal measure, the other, the price of the use, which is called usury.

          This kind of eliminates modern banking…

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          • Aaron RODRIGUEZ

            Again, if you were familiar with the bible, you would know that alms is not the same at taxation. Although scripture instructs individuals to give alms, it leaves the final decision to the individual. The tithe, however, was enforced by government. This clarification deconstructs your argument.

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            • Again, that is your interpretation, nothing more… No QED possible. Sorry.

              What Aquinas actually writes is

              it follows that all almsgiving must be a matter of precept, in so far as it is necessary to virtue, namely, in so far as it is demanded by right reason.

              And, as we know according to Church Canon Law, a precept is a command.

              A precept (from the Latin: præcipere, to teach) is a commandment, instruction, or order intended as an authoritative rule of action.

              While alms may not be the same as a tithe, they are both taxes.

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              • Aaron RODRIGUEZ

                Whether a precept is suggestive or required is not relevant if a government entity is not mentioned. You assume a government must do the collecting if a precept is a command. The NT scripture makes all sorts of moral commands and requires requires no authority – save God Himself at the day of judgment – to exact penalties if such commands are not met. Not all commands require a government entity to follow up on the obedience of commands.

                Also, a tax is collected. By whom are alms collected in the NT?

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            • Aaron, you make the single biggest mistaken assumption about atheists, knowledge of the bible. Trust me, most atheists know far more about the bible than the craziest adherents you can find. Trust me, you don’t want to use a bible against an atheist. You will lose. Every time.

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              • Aaron RODRIGUEZ

                Rich, that’s quite the broad brush you’re using there. Don’t think because Phil is an atheist that I automatically thought he didn’t understand the bible. I’ve debated a lot of atheists that were knowledgeable of the bible. In fact, him being an atheist had little to do with my comment. I thought he didn’t understand the parts of the bible that spoke of alms giving, not the bible in general.

                Also, I will take you up on that bet that atheists are far more biblically knowledgeable than the craziest adherents – which I presume you mean fundamentalists. I’ve seen enough debates online to know that isn’t the case. Some atheists are very knowledgeable about the bible, but that is not the rule of thumb. I think in general that atheists tend to be more educated, but that’s not the same as being knowledgeable of the bible.

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        • The priests at Georgetown instructed Paul Ryan to consult the COMPENDIUM OF THE SOCIAL DOCTRINE OF THE CHURCH compiled by Pope John Paul II. In it, we find this interesting passage:

          195. The principle of solidarity requires that men and women of our day cultivate a greater awareness that they are debtors of the society of which they have become part. They are debtors because of those conditions that make human existence liveable, and because of the indivisible and indispensable legacy constituted by culture, scientific and technical knowledge, material and immaterial goods and by all that the human condition has produced. A similar debt must be recognized in the various forms of social interaction, so that humanity’s journey will not be interrupted but remain open to present and future generations, all of them called together to share the same gift in solidarity.

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  • Other Side

    Aquinas says “… all almsgiving must be a matter of precept.” Seems clear to me he was referring to any means possible.

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  • Other Side

    @Phil: Only if you’re using an oxygen tank.

    It’s late.

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  • PJ

    Phil’s redirect to a 21st century context is appropriate. Not wasting breath. After all, it is Paul Ryan’s contextualization at issue when he insisted, “If somebody is going to try to to paste a person’s view on epistemology to me, then give me Thomas Aquinas…”

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  • Cat Kin

    The reason that the Church is so troubling to liberals like you and many within her consort is that they appear, especially in Rome and bishopric seats, not to have follow these precepts of St. Thomas Acquinas and other Church theologians. They have the Republican malady in that they seem to think that by extolling these virtues in others they are following them. IMHO.

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  • Cat Kin

    My thanks to Phil and Aaron for illuminating the issues of alms giving relative to taxes and the redistribution of wealth.

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