Angilbert (fl. ca. 840/50), On the Battle Which was Fought at Fontenoy

The Law of Christians is broken,
Blood by the hands of hell profusely shed like rain,
And the throat of Cerberus bellows songs of joy.

Angelbertus, Versus de Bella que fuit acta Fontaneto

Fracta est lex christianorum
Sanguinis proluvio, unde manus inferorum,
gaudet gula Cerberi.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

St. Thomas Aquinas: Definition of Law, Authority

THE COMMON GOOD is the "first and foremost" (primo et principaliter) ordering which underlies law. We explored this in yesterday's posting. The fact that law is ordered is toward the common good suggests that only the "whole people" (totius multitudinis) who will be governed by it. Naturally, the "whole people" can be represented by someone who acts in their place and in their interest, a "viceregent" (gerentis vicem totius multitudinis). How the authority of the "whole people" is conveyed to any particular "viceregent" is not addressed by St. Thomas in these series of questions in the Summa Theologica. But regardless, it is the publically-recognized authority that has the right to issue laws. Reason alone does not make law, and so it does not belong to an individual qua individual to make law; it must be the reason of those in authority that makes law. ST IaIIae, Q. 90, art. 3, resp.

St. Thomas agrees with Aristotle that the intention of the lawgiver ought to lead men to virtue. Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, ii.1 Though an individual man (say a teacher, or priest) can held lead a man to virtue, unlike the lawgiver he has no coercive power to create an efficacious inducement to a life of virtue. Nicomachean Ethics, x. 9. Similarly, though a father may be head of his family, and he may issue orders or commands (aliqua praecepta vel statuta), these are not properly called laws (lex). Only the whole people, or the person to whom the whole people have assented to act on their behalf, have the authority to compel obedience, and, in a manner of speaking, to lead the population to virtue. ST IaIIae, Q.90, art. 3, resp.2, 3. That authority is found in a perfect community or society (communitas perfecta). ST IaIIae, Q.90, art. 3, resp.3.


The term "perfect society" or "perfect community" referred to by St. Thomas Aquinas does not mean a utopia, such as described by St. Thomas More in his Utopia, or by Plato in his Republic. This term is used differently in this context. The concept of the "perfect society" or "perfect community" (societas or communitas perfecta) in this context is one associated with political philosophy. A perfect society is a group that is self-sufficient or independent in its realm and has all necesary resources and conditions required to achieve its purposes. A society must thus be perfect in its end and in its means. A society perfect in its end is a society with a human purpose, complete and entire, that is, within its own order, sovereign, and so not subordinate to any higher good. A society perfect in its means is a society that has within its possession and control the means by which to achieve this purpose. In both end and means, the State is a perfect society, as is the Church founded by Christ. In his Apostolic Letter issued motu proprio and entitled Sollicitudo omnium ecclesiarum (1969), Pope Paul VI gave a good summary of the concept:

It is indisputable that the ends of Church and State belong to different orders, and that both are perfect societies, that is to say, they are independent in their respective spheres of action, and have proper means to achieve those ends. They possess their proper jurisdiction and all necessary means to achieve their ends. On the other hand, it must not be overlooked that they are both aiming at a similar welfare, namely that the people of God is to obtain eternal salvation . . .

Neque est infitiandum finem Ecclesiae et Rebus Publicis propositum diversi esse ordinis, atque Ecclesiam et Civitatem, in suo cuiusque ordine, esse societates perfectas, ac propriis inde pollere iuribus et mediis, suisque uti legibus, quacumque uniuscuiusque patet provincia. At verum est etiam utramque ad communis subiecti utilitatem agere, scilicet hominis, a Deo vocati ad salutem adipiscendam aeternam . . . .

Click here for a copy of Paul VI's motu proprio, Sollicitudo Omnium Ecclesiarum.

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