The Mayflower Compact: Happy Thanksgiving!

This week, I decided to do a short Thanksgiving blog on what is known as, “The Mayflower Compact.” Most Americans know something about the journey to America by the Pilgrims and their ship, Mayflower. [1] The Pilgrims initially set sail from England in July 1620 together with its sister ship, Speedwell. Eventually, because of issues with the Speedwell’s seaworthiness, it was left behind, and the Mayflower traveled alone on its long journey across the North Atlantic. The journey was long and difficult. Many people suffered from sea sickness and the close quarters below the Mayflower deck.

After over two months at sea, the Pilgrims arrived at Cape Cod on November 11, 1620. The trip had exposed differences and divisions among the various seafarers. There were differences between the Pilgrims who had left England in search of religious liberty and those who had left only seeking a better life. There were those in the group who desired to enter into the New World without any firm governmental authority.

Originally, the Mayflower was to land in Virginia, an area governed under a Crown Charter given to the Virginia Company. That area was clearly a colony of Great Britain and had a defined form of government. Unfortunately, the Mayflower landed north of the land controlled by the Virginia Company near what is today, Plymouth Massachusetts.  Within this legally uncertain situation, friction arose between the Pilgrims and the rest of the travelers, with some of the latter threatening to leave the group and settle on their own.

There were those who felt that they were free of any agreement or laws that had been imposed upon them in order to travel to Virginia. In order to create some kind of order and avoid chaos, the leaders of the group drafted the Mayflower Compact, which was signed by the travelers before going ashore.

The Mayflower Compact is only 200 words long, and reads as follows:

In the name of God, Amen. We whose names are underwritten, the loyal subjects of our dread Sovereign Lord King James, by the Grace of God of Great Britain, France, and Ireland King, Defender of the Faith, etc.

 Having undertaken for the Glory of God and advancement of the Christian Faith and Honour of our King and Country, a Voyage to plant the First Colony in the Northern Parts of Virginia, do by these presents solemnly and mutually in the presence of God and one of another, Covenant and Combine ourselves together in a Civil Body Politic, for our better ordering and preservation and furtherance of the ends aforesaid; and by virtue hereof to enact, constitute and frame such just and equal Laws, Ordinances, Acts, Constitutions and Offices from time to time, as shall be thought most meet and convenient for the general good of the Colony, unto which we promise all due submission and obedience. In witness whereof we have hereunder subscribed our names at Cape Cod, the 11th of November, in the year of the reign of our Sovereign Lord King James, of England, France and Ireland the eighteenth, and of Scotland the fifty-fourth. Anno Domini 1620.

There are aspects of the Mayflower Compact that are interesting to any person with an understanding of what is known as “Puritan Covenant Theology” and anyone familiar with John Locke and the Contract theory of Government.

  1. Although the Separatists were not technically Puritans, they had much in common. While the group the Pilgrims represented (“Separatists”) separated entirely from the Church of England, the Puritans felt that they could remain within and reform the English church. Nevertheless, they had certain beliefs in common, one of which was a theological understanding of the term “Covenant” in the Old Testament. The idea of the Bible as characterized by Covenants, agreements and promises between God and human beings, was the central idea of Puritan theology. This Puritan “Covenant” theology was held by many New England colonial leaders.
  2. Covenant theology naturally found application in the notion of a “social contract,” which it did. The Pilgrims, Puritans, and others found a connection between the kinds of covenants that God creates with the human race in the Bible and the social covenants that human beings enter into with a lawful governing authority. It was natural, therefore, for the Pilgrims to enter into a social contract to guide their initial entrance into the New World.
  3. When the Pilgrims landed, they were not within the boundaries of any established colonies, therefore, they were not within the boundary of an existing or what might be called “naturally evolved” state. Therefore, they had to determine whether to go ashore without any form of political organization or to create one, “for our better ordering and preservation.” They understood, as more romantic contemporary people sometimes do not that a “state of nature” where no authority exists is likely to be a form of social chaos. They chose order over chaos.
  4. In creating their social contract, the Pilgrims acknowledged their existing religious and political alignments. They had undertaken the journey for the glory of God and as subjects of the British monarch, whom they acknowledged in the compact. The Mayflower Compact was an evolutionary document, not a revolutionary document. They signers recognized their dependence on the stream of history of which they were a part. They were about do something new, but there was continuity as well as change in the establishment of their new colonial settlement.
  5. There is no “iron wall of separation” between church and state in the Mayflower Compact. Religious and political ideas and necessities combine to form one harmonious whole. There is no indication that the Pilgrims intended to form a theocracy. They speak of “such just and equal Laws, Ordinances, Acts, Constitutions and Offices from time to time, as shall be thought most meet and convenient for the general good of the Colony” These just and equal laws, ordinances, constitutions, and officers are not described in theocratic terms, but in those terms that acknowledge a sphere of activity in which human reason is left to operate under the guidance of practical wisdom.

As I wish all my readers a Happy Thanksgiving with hopes that my articles might encourage wise and honorable government and some degree of change in the volatile political environment we enjoy today, it is enough to encourage a sense of common destiny among all Americans. We may not be voyaging over the North Atlantic Ocean in a wooden boat, but we are clearly on a voyage into a new era in American political life. We can hope that the end of our journey will be what Lincoln called, “a birth of freedom” in a postmodern age.

Oh, beautiful for pilgrim feet, whose stern, impassioned stress
A thoroughfare for freedom 
beat across the wilderness
America! America! God mend thine every flaw
Confirm thy soul in self-control, thy liberty in law

Copyright 2020, G. Christopher Scruggs

[1] The Pilgrims were what are called “Separatists.” The Separatists were a group of English protestants Christians who separated themselves from the worship of the church of England and instead held services in their homes and in other places outside of the official churches of the Church of England. This was not legal under the laws of England at the time. (In this way, England under James I was not unlike Iran and China and other nations today that do not allow house churches not recognized by the state. This seems unusual to Americans, but it is not so unusual in those areas where the state has always regulated religious observances.

A Gentle Soul: Erasmus of Rotterdam

Desiderius Erasmus (1468-1536) was a leading figure of the European Renaissance and contemporary of Martin Luther. Erasmus was born in the city of Rotterdam, orphaned at an early age, and educated by the Brothers of the Common Life. He became an Augustinian monk in 1486. Eventually, Erasmus moved to Paris, where he met William Blount, who introduced him to his friend, Sir Thomas More (who we will look at after Thanksgiving), a. leader of the English Renaissance. Erasmus was instrumental in creating a new, standard Greek New Testament. [1] Though he admired Luther, he refused to join the Protestant Reformation. During the Reformation, Erasmus engaged in a controversy with Martin Luther concerning free will and predestination, which had negative consequences for their friendship.

At this point, I want to relate a personal experience. In the late 1980’s, our church in Houston went through a divisive vote concerning leaving a mainline denomination. Many people spent a long time reading various study papers on the situation. I began my own thinking by reading Luther’s Bondage of the Will and Erasmus’ reply. I could never overcome the notion that, as impressive as Luther was in argument, Erasmus might have the better view. In the end (after a lot of study of the issues), Kathy and I formed a group that simply tried to keep our local congregation intact. Years later, we ended up leading a congregation that departed the same mainline denomination, but we did not leave with the kind of anger that characterized many departures. I credit God’s grace for this (not Erasmus), but the figure of Erasmus is one I have long admired and his example one that our society might embrace. His example has been a source of guidance more than once—and may be again.

This blog is not as detailed as some previous blogs. I decided that I would experiment with a different format. This post is largely a dialogue between Erasmus and a figure I have called, “Socrates” in honor of the dialogues of Plato in which Socrates plays such an important role.

Erasmus as a Renaissance Humanist

Socrates: My dear Erasmus: It is good to see you, for I have long desired to know more about your teaching. I understand that, like me, many people do not consider you as a technical philosopher, and systematic theologian, but as a brilliant a dilatant with an agreeable personality. In my case, many people thought me a busybody for the trouble I caused! They even put me to death! Yet, I was and am a searcher for truth, not necessarily a possessor of it.

Erasmus: I am so glad to meet you, Founder of Philosophy: My critics are correct. I was not a systematic philosophical thinker. Instead, I was what is sometimes called a “Man of Letters.” I wrote no technical philosophical treatise in either philosophy or theology. I was a Biblical Scholar, monk, moral writer, and wise counselor throughout my active life. Because of my pleasing personality and wit, I made friends easily and was an advisor to many influential people, most particularly Sir. Thomas More, who I understand will be reviewed in a following blog. In other words, like you I was a simple searcher for truth, not necessarily its possessor. Like you and your pupil, Plato, I also felt that living a set of beliefs was just as important as having them.

The Philosopher King

Socrates: I am glad to have learned a bit more about you—and I hope to understand a bit more as our conversation continues. In 1516, you published a work known as “The Education of a Christian Prince,” dedicating the treatise to Charles, King of Spain, who succeeded his grandfather Maximilian as Holy Roman Emperor, as Emperor Charles V. [2] I love the book because in it you evoke my most famous student, Plato, and the idea that no government is fortunate unless and until philosophers are kings or their kings embrace philosophy. [3] Tell me more about it!

Erasmus: I certainly will. However, to begin with by “philosophy,” I did not mean the technical disciplines of metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, aesthetics, and the like, that modern people call “philosophy.”  Instead, I meant that a good king should be a lover of wisdom with the practical ability to govern wisely after the model of Christ. The figure of Marcus Aurelius is more what I had in mind than Thomas Aquinas or even my great student Plato.

Socrates: So, my friend, what did you believe was necessary in a good governmental leader?

Erasmus: Like Luther, I was Augustinian in my education. It is not surprising, therefore, that I believed that the state cannot be governed without justice and that a true commonwealth must somehow reflect the will of the people in order to be rightly and justly administered, whether by one monarch, by a few, or by the many. I was also aware, from City of God and other readings, that earthly kingdoms do not approach the perfections of Christ. [4]Nevertheless, I believed that rulers could and should emulate Christ. [5]

Socrates: I suppose you know that this idea that a prince in this world should emulate The Prince of Heaven has caused many to ignore and criticize your writing. How could any earthly ruler, for example, “turn the other cheek” to the invasion of his or her nation? This, and other advice of the New Testament, seems foolish indeed to those with a practical or skeptical frame of mind.

Erasmus: I have heard and pondered this critique. I think I can give two responses in my defense:

  1. First of all, I did not say, nor do I believe, that a Christian Prince inside of human history can perfectly perform all the teachings of Christ in the New Testament. In fact, the New Testament and the Gospels are designed to show human beings that they cannot achieve justice on their own and need a savior. This includes those who have political authority.
  2. Second, to say that something is impossible to achieve is not to say that it should not be attempted. In fact, the greatest virtues of the human soul cannot be fully achieved in this life, but these values, like Justice, continue to drive us towards a better perfection. Princes may not be able to perfectly follow Christ, but they can endeavor to do so.

Socrates: Say more about this.

Erasmus: I was a Christian, and I believed then and now that even a Christian prince should seek to emulate Christ in all things. In this you may also see my background at work and my early education among the Brothers of the Common Life. [6] They were devoted to Christ and to following Christ in all things.

The basic teaching of the New Testament concerning leadership is found in the synoptic gospels in this form:

Jesus called them together and said, “You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:42-45).

I knew this passage well, for I was a student of the Greek and a translator of the New Testament. Our Lord made it clear that the standards of this world would not be the standards of his kingdom, as this passage indicates. Nevertheless, Christians (even leaders) are called to undertake to conform our lives so much as we can to the teachings of the Lord. To give you another example, although perfect peace may not be possible in this world, Christian Princes should be peacemakers.

Consensus and Peace

Socrates: Indeed, one aspect of your thought that many people fail to understand is your devotion to consensus and your opposition to war, if indeed you were opposed to war. This is another area in which those of a more practical mind cannot understand your thinking.

Erasmus: In my writings, I suggest that rulers should set out to rule by discussion and consensus and seek arbitration when disputes could not otherwise be settled. As I ponder the democracies of the modern world, I think that they would do well to set out to limit conflict as much as possible and to dialogue instead of engaging in constant political debate and combat. I hope to see David Bohm in Eternity, who also believed this, and learn more about his ideas. [7]

Socrates: It is easy to see that the world would be a better place if conflict could be avoided and rulers would seek consensus. Nevertheless, I was a soldier in the wars of Athens, and so have many other people been over the years. War, it seems, will always be with us. As my pupil Plato says, “Only the dead will never know war again.” [8] I find it hard to understand your thought in this area. Can enlighten me”

Erasmus:  As you have said, my thought about war was dominated by a vision of universal peace. My pacifism is well-documented in my writings and I even wrote a treatise on the subject. Perhaps it will be easier for you to understand my thinking about war and peace if you remember my life as an Augustinian monk. St. Augustine taught that the goal of all government is peace. The goal of all conflict is peace. Even earthly rulers seek peace even as they engage in war. The Christ is referred to as “The Prince of Peace.” Therefore, it seemed to me that Christian Princes and followers of Christ should seek a kind of universal peace, even though we understand that war is inevitable.

Socrates: Why, therefore, did you not simply endorse a kind of Just War theory, as did Augustine and Aquinas?

Erasmus: My critics often mention my stated belief that some wars are justified. Where there is danger to the state or to freedom of Christian faith, my views were that war was justified. For example, in my day, the Muslim nations were seeking to invade Europe, and I justified those wars to prevent a military conquest of our homeland by a foreign religion. I am not sure how this would be applied to circumstances beyond my times.

I would say that I am something like a “Just War Pacifist.” War is and evil to be avoided if at all possible, and Christian leaders should be willing to take risks to avoid war. However, if the survival of the state and its central institutions is at risk, then war may be justified if all reasonable alternatives to war are exhausted. I know that this position will not satisfy my pacifist critics, but it is the best way to understand my thought, I think.

In my thinking about war, there is a subtle, but important, difference between my thought and that of St. Thomas and Augustine. In my mind, the great division between the kingdoms of this world and the Ruler of Heaven, which Augustine and Luther maintained, was a mistake. You might say that it was my belief that, in the persons of Christians and the Christian Prince, some small part of the heavenly kingdom was to be brought upon the earth.


Socrates: This might be a good place to stop, for our discussion has gone on longer than I imagined. However, I wonder if you might answer one more question: You agreed with much of the critique of the Catholic Church by Martin Luther, yet you were never willing to leave it. Can give us some reason why?

Erasmus: As you know, I was a critic of the church of my day, just as I would be a critic of the church of any period of human history. Some might think my unwillingness to leave the mother church was because I was an orphan and the church was my home, and so it was. More importantly, I was wise enough to see that all human institutions are imperfect. This alone, however, does not mean that good men and women should not work to improve them rather than destroy them. In my mind, my calling was to renew and restore not to tear down and rebuild. This is the best defense I can make of my thinking. Others have felt and acted differently, and I respect them all. In the place where we now dwell, Martin Luther and I have renewed our friendship, for the battles of your world are now long behind us.

Socrates: Thank you for this time we have had together today. Eternity is a big place, but I hope we will see each other again.

Copyright 2020, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] On March 1, 1516, Desiderius Erasmus published the Greek New Testament’s first ever “critical edition”—a version that drew from all available Greek manuscripts to compile a text with wording as close as possible to that of the original inspired authors. That work, which went through four revisions, was the first published Greek text available to the public. It is credited with changing Bible translation, preaching and even the course of church history. David Rouch How Erasmus’ Greek New Testament Changed History” Western Recorder (March 22, 2016, downloaded November 17, 2020).

[2] Erasmus, The Education of a Christian Prince ed. Lisa Jardine, tr. Lisa Jardine (Cambridge: University of Cambridge Press, 1997).

[3] “Desiderius Erasmus” in The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy (downloaded November 9, 2020. This section is based upon this article.  See, Plato. Republic. From Book VII.” Morality and the Good Life: An Introduction to Ethics through the Classical Sources. 5th ed. Eds. Robert C. Solomon, Clancy W. Martin, and Wayne Vaught. Trans. G.M.A. Grube. Boston: McGraw-Hill, 2009 for further information about the notion of the Philosopher King.

[4] St. Augustine, City of God tr. Gerald G. Walsh, S.J. et all, abridged ed. (Garden City, NY: Image Books, 1958)

[5] Avinish, Erasmus’ The Education of a Christian Prince (August 21, 2016) found at (Downloaded November 9, 2020).

[6] The Brethren of the Common Life was a Roman Catholic pietist religious community founded in the Netherlands in the 14th century by Gerard Groote, a secular educator who had had a religious experience and preached a life of simple devotion to Jesus Christ. Without taking up irrevocable vows, the Brethren banded together in communities, giving up their worldly goods to live chaste and strictly regulated lives in common houses, devoting every waking hour to attending divine service, reading and preaching of sermons, laboring productively, and taking meals in common that were accompanied by the reading aloud of Scripture. Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia November 12, 2020).

[7] The thought of David Bohm will be the subject of a later blog. I am much indebted to David Bohm and especially to the digest of his thought published as On Dialogue (New York, NY: Routledge, 1996).

[8] This quote appears in movies like “Patton” and “Black Hawk Down”. Douglas MacArthur attributed the quote to Plato in his famous “Long Grey Line” speech at West Point. It was used by George Santayana and is found in the British War Museum, all attributed to Plato. However, scholars have difficulty actually finding then quote in Plato.

Aquinas on Practical Wisdom and Government

Each week, I try to let readers know just a bit about the person I’m reviewing. Last week, I introduced St. Thomas Aquinas to readers. Thomas was born in 1225 at Roccasecca, midway between Rome and Naples. [1] At the age of five, he was entered at the monastery at Montecassino where his studies began. When the monastery became a battle site (as it was in the Second World War), Thomas was sent by his family to the University of Naples. There that he came into contact with Christian interpretations of Aristotle and the Order of Preachers or Dominicans. Aquinas became a Dominican over the protests of his family and eventually went into Northern Europe to study, in t Paris and at Cologne with Albert the Great. Returned to Paris, he completed his studies, became a Master and for three years occupied one of the Dominican chairs in the Faculty of Theology. He spent the next decade in Italy.

Physically, Aquinas was a large man quiet and soft-spoken man, earning him the nickname “the Dumb Ox” by his classmates. The “dumb” part was clearly foolish, as he is one of the most brilliant philosophers and theologians of human history.  In 1274, on his way to the Council of Lyon, he fell ill and died on March 7 in the Cistercian abbey at Fossanova, near Roccasecca where he was born. Before Thomas died, he had a vision, which caused him to remark, “I can write no more. I have seen things which make all my writings like straw.”

Natural Law

Last week, we focused our attention on Aquinas’ notion of “natural law.” The idea of “natural law” is difficult for modern people to grasp. The reason for this is the difference in the way people see reality in the contemporary West and the way in which Thomas would have seen the world. Modern people think of two kinds of laws, mathematical laws, which are deductively certain and scientific laws, which are verified by scientific inquiry. Mathematical laws are certain because they are a matter of mathematical logic. Scientific laws are certain in a different way, they are certain as verified by experiment until disconfirming evidence is discovered, as it sometimes is. To the modern mind, the word “natural” implies “physical and susceptible to scientific analysis. Neither modern idea of certainty involves the kind of reason applicable in natural law theory. Natural law theory is a matter of practical reason.

Practical Wisdom and Government

In order to understand the notion of natural law, it helps to understand a distinction Aquinas makes between theoretical and practical reason. Theoretical reason proceeds from given hypotheses and reaches necessary conclusions. An example of this would be mathematical systems. Practical reason, on the other hand reasons from general principles, but deals with contingent things, like the probable result of some human action (ST I-II, Q 94).

As human reason considers precepts of natural law, it develops the habit of possessing them, so that natural law becomes a matter of character (ST I-II, Q 94, First Article). Thus, natural law is primarily a matter of rule of reason resulting in a habit of action developed by the exercise of practical reason (ST I-II, Q 94, Second Article).

This means that the truth that obtains from practical reason is of a different type altogether from the truth deduced in the process of theoretical or scientific reason. According to Aquinas, in the case of practical reason, its general principles are true for all people, but the conclusions are not. Thus, the certainty of natural law is never the same kind of certainty one has for mathematical or scientific law. The question for practical reason is, “Does this rule of action lead to the attainment of the objective that reason dictates in this situation?”

To make this a bit clearer, let us take a principle like, “It can be dangerous to borrow money.” It is a well-known fact of human existence that people who borrow too much can get into a lot of trouble. In every case, human experience shows that one who borrows money must abide by certain limitations on his or her actions set by the lender. These may be reasonable and achievable or otherwise depending upon he circumstances. It is also true that economic circumstances may change and an inability pay and even bankruptcy may result. On the other hand, in many circumstances, including to build a business or buy a home, it may be necessary to borrow money. The principle is true for all people, but the conclusions differ from person to person.

Government as a Matter of Practical Reason

Government is a practical, not a theoretical enterprise, which is why it should be conducted by persons of significant practical wisdom and experience.  The evolution, design, and conduct of government and law is not, for Aquinas, a theoretical matter. It is practical and requires skill gained by the practical exercise of wisdom. Those that govern must have sufficient practical wisdom that they can apply principles of practical reason to differing circumstances and achieve a just result for the society that they are governing.

The necessity for practical wisdom and experience flows from Aquinas’ observation that truth as to matters of practical reason is only true for human beings as to general principles (like “borrowing money is dangerous”) not as regards particular conclusions (“Our government needs to borrow money to offset the impact of Covid19”). This means that the conclusions of practical reason (unlike mathematics) will always be provisional and subject to change (ST I-II, Q 94, Fourth Article). This is very important for all governments, but perhaps especially important to understand for democratic republics like the United States of America. Without leadership with proven practical wisdom, important and damaging mistakes are bound to be made.

As to practical reason Aquinas concludes “… the truth or rectitude regarding particular conclusions of practical reason is neither the same for all persons or known in equal measure even by those for which it is the same” (ST I-II, Q 94, Fourth Article). The more complex the issue, and the more factors which practical reason must include in its pondering, the more exceptions and differences of opinion that will emerge to any inquirer (ST I-II, Q 94, Fourth Article).

In the case of a wise and well led polity, rules seek the good for the people and avoid laws and policies that are unwise or unjust. They seek the good of the entire society of which they have been made leaders. The laws of the society are not directed towards the good of a single individual (as in tyranny), or a few (as in an oligarchy), or the majority (as in a decadent democracy), but towards ideals of the public good and social peace and good order. That is to say, in a well led polity, the leaders direct their government according to wise precepts of natural law.

The Problem of Unjust Rule

As mentioned above, kings may become tyrants, democratic societies mobs, an elite and oligarchy. If a those in charge of a society make unjust laws, that is laws consistently contrary to nature, they have led their society outside of the boundaries of law and of order towards a common good. For Aquinas, whatever the form of government, the making of unnatural or unjust laws creates a form of tyranny. Tyranny is an unjust form of government, and its laws are not really laws at all (ST I-II, Q 95).

At this point, Aquinas takes a position that would have been nearly unknown and even revolutionary in the Middle Ages, and which anticipates modern developments: In the case of an unjust, tyrannical government, the subjects of such tyranny can, under some circumstances revolt and change their government. Aquinas was not inclined to justify rebellion just because a people felt one or a few proclamations of a lawful authority to be wrong.

As a general matter, however, the subjects of a lawful power owe to their government a duty of loyalty and obedience (ST I-II, Q 104). Thus, “…the order of justice requires that subjects obey their superiors, since stability in human affairs could not be otherwise maintained….”) (ST I-II, Q 104, 183). However, while human beings are morally obligated to obey God in all things, the same is not true of human rulers (ST I-II, Q 104). “Human beings are obligated to obey secular rulers insofar as the order of justice requires. And so, if secular rulers have usurped power, and therefore have no just authority, or if secular rules command unjust things, subjects are not obligated to obey them, except perhaps incidentally in order to avoid scandal or danger.” (ST I-II, Q 104, 183). Thus, an unjust, tyrannical government may be replaced.

The Role of Morality and Virtue in Government

For Aquinas, it is possible to divide the virtues into three main categories: intellectual, moral, and theological. One can easily see that the focus of character development for leaders is upon the second category, which virtues can only be developed by the exercise of practical wisdom. A wise government is oriented towards the achievement of justice and social harmony and has the wisdom and ability to achieve it.

The very use of works like “just” imply that for a government to avoid evil and destructive actions, those that govern must have a set of habits (virtues) that enable them to decide and act wisely. It is not likely that a leader can act justly in the common good without the virtue of Justice. As a result, Aquinas deals with this virtue in his Summa Theologica.

Because of the importance of virtue in leaders, a wise society encourages the development of moral virtue in those who will lead. In this regard, Thomas recovers against the modern world the notion that rulers must be morally prepared by education and the experience of life for the positions that they will have in adulthood. In point of fact, the wisdom to rule wisely is the most complete form of practical wisdom and its wise exercise the pinnacle of the life of practical reason (ST I-II, Q 50 First Article, 201).

Just War

One obvious principle of natural law with which most people agree is that violence and killing are wrong. Thus, war as a human activity is morally and practically suspect as an activity. As, Plato observed, “Every legislator will aim at the greatest good, and the greatest good is not victory in war, whether civil or external, but mutual peace and good-will, as in the body health is preferable to “the purgation of disease. He who makes war his object instead of peace, or who pursues war except for the sake of peace, is not a true statesman” [2]

Despite the universal hatred of war by right thinking humans, it is also a fact of human history and human life. Therefore, one obvious requirement for a wise ruler of practical wisdom is understanding the circumstances that might permit a war to be fought with justice.  War, if it is to be conducted at all, must be conducted with great practical wisdom and a degree of moral restraint. Otherwise, it is injustice on a vast scale.

Aquinas developed the theory of “just war” and gave it its classic form (ST I-II, Q 4, 165). For a war to be just, three conditions must be met:

  1. The ruler must have the authority to declare war. There can be no private just war.
  2. There must be a just cause for hostilities, that is to say that there must be some wrong that committed or threatened great enough to justify war. The wrong must be real and not just a pretext for going to war on other grounds.
  3. Finally, there must be a rightful intention on the part of the one commencing hostilities to promote good or avoid evil. A war designed for gain, such as to control oil fields, would not be just.

This classic statement of the basic conditions for a just war has been much developed but still influences thinkers and actors in the area of war.


As mentioned last week, Aquinas is a most difficult writer for a modern reader who is not trained in philosophy to read. His work is vast and complex. It would take a good deal more time than I have devoted to his work to more than “scratch the surface” of his thought. This week, we have expanded on his thinking about natural law, bringing into the conversation both the nature of the kind of practical reason that a wise governor needs and the characteristic virtues that a leader requires. Finally, we looked briefly at the way in which Aquinas articulates just war theory.

Copyright 2020, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved.

[1] This is taken from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, (Downloaded November 9, 2020).

[2] Plato, Laws Tr. Jowett (Downloaded November 12, 2012).


The Greatest Doctor of the Church Speaks: Thomas Aquinas

Thomas Aquinas (1235-1274) was born into a minor Italian noble family. He entered the Dominican Order early in life. Aquinas attended the University of Naples, where he first encountered the writings of Aristotle, which had been preserved by the Muslims and recently rediscovered in the West. In 1245, Aquinas traveled to the University of Paris where he studied under Albert the Great, who attempted to reconcile Aristotle’s view of the world with that of Christianity. Following Albert, Aquinas spent a good bit of his life working on his master work, The Summa Theologica, in which he created a powerful unification of Aristotle and Christian thought. Eventually, Aquinas became a Dominican teacher at the University of Paris and in Italy. He continued to study the works of Aristotle and the Muslim commentaries on them. Aquinas wrote his own commentaries on Aristotle, including one on Aristotle’s Politics.

Root of Human Government

Like Aristotle and ancient writers generally, Aquinas believed that human beings are by nature social animals and created to live in society with one another as a matter of their innate nature. Human beings also by nature seek both their own good and a common good, both of which require social interaction and some kind of public order. Thus, Aquinas believes that “there can be no good of one’s own apart from the common good, whether the common good of a household or a city or a kingdom.” [1]

Aquinas, like Aristotle, believes human society has an organic or natural origin in human nature in the family and in small villages and communities, not a contractual origin. Human families, communities, kingdoms and empires represent the gradual development of human society and polity over the course of time. Thus, contractual agreements between persons and governments are not a primary but a secondary, emergent phenomenon as regards government.

Given the diversity of human societies, it is not surprising that there are varieties of ways in which human sociality organizes itself. Aquinas, as a student of Aristotle, adopts the same typology has Plato, Aristotle, and Cicero in developing his theory of human government. Aquinas holds that are three basic types of human government, rule by the many, rule by the few, and rule by a single individual. Each of these three typologies have manifestations that reflect human goodness and potential and human sin and failure. Democracy can become mob rule, rule by the wise can become rule by the wealthy or the powerful. Rule by one wise ruler can become a government of tyranny. Although there is some dispute over which form Aquinas prefers, it seems that he, like many ancients, felt that the rule of one with a degree of mixture of the forms is the best and most stable form of government. Thus, Aquinas supports kingship, but with an element of checks and balances.

Nature of Law

The basic institution of society is the rule of law. Without law, it is impossible to organize a peaceful society. Without law, violence would be the only arbiter of disputes. Aquinas outlines four basic categories of law:

  1. Eternal lawis God’s divine order, not fully knowable to humans (ST I-II, Q 92, Third Article). This eternal law determines creation, the way things such as animals and planets behave, and how people should The Word of God expresses the Eternal Word (ST I-II, Q 93, First Article). “And so, eternal law is simply the plan of divine wisdom that directs the actions and movement of created things” (ST I-II, Q 93, First Article).
  2. Divine law is that divine law promulgated by the Bible, which orders the way in which individuals seek and find a relationship with God and orders their search for ultimate ends (ST I-II, Q 91, Fourth Article). The Divine Law also gives guidance to human beings as to moral matters which human limitations find difficult to observe (ST I-II, Q 91, Fourth Article).
  3. Natural law is that law that is implanted in human nature and guides human beings in their day to day activities as they exercise their reason and conscience (ST I-II, Q 94, First Article). This law is related to practical reason, which I will deal with later in this essay.
  4. Human lawis very much like what we would call “positive law.”  It is a law promulgated by a lawful authority and varies with time, place, and circumstance. Aquinas defined this last type of law as “an ordinance of reason for the common good” made and enforced by a ruler or government (ST I-II, Q 95, First Article).

The modern world tends to ignore the first three categories and focus only on the final category of law—positive law. What Aquinas calls “eternal law” survives in secular culture only in the form of what we would term “physical law,” and even that category of law has come under attack by post-modern absolute relativists. [2] Divine law no longer has relevance in most secular discourse. For example, the fact that the Bible condemns certain sexual or other actions is not deemed to be relevant for most political discourse. The relevance of natural law is often questioned in the modern world and will be dealt with in an entire section below.

This leaves human or positive law as the only category of law remaining to impact government in its activities, except insofar as physical law might make some laws simply impossible. In addition, “human law” has come increasingly to mean “the preferences of the majority or those powerful enough to impose their will on society.” Once again, in this turn we see the power focus of modernity at work.

Aristotle would not have thought that human or positive law as simply what the majority desired to enact at any particular point in history. Again, a law promulgated by a majority that did not seek the common good, but only the good of a bare majority for the benefit only of the majority would not be a desirable law, for the law was enacted by the action of a mob not of a majority of people seeking the common good. This idea that what legislators do or should do is seek the common good is a good bridge to the idea of natural law.

Natural Law

Natural law as a moral and natural foundation for law is not widely supported by legal theorists or political philosophers. However, there is no element of Aquinas’s system more important than his theory of natural law, which is an important foundation of natural law thinking even today. Understanding Aquinas is foundational to understanding any other proposal for natural law thinking. Therefore, this week’s blog focuses on this aspect of Aquinas’ thought.

As previously indicated, the mere sociability of human beings causes human beings to create governments (ST I-II, Question 95). Human nature inclines human beings to certain kinds of actions and disinclines them from other actions, and the things to which human beings are inclined constitute the natural law (ST I-II, Q 94). Just as human beings seek their own personal good, the sociability of human beings leads human societies to seek some kind of common good, and that common good allows human society to be naturally ordered towards what is best for society as a whole (ST I-II, Q 94). This natural law is a matter of human reason, for human reason properly used seeks a common good that will properly order society towards a common good.

Natural law is not a matter of specific legislation found either in nature or divine revelation. It is a set of general principles that order a society, i.e. general ideas that most human beings would agree upon as natural to organize their society (ST I-II, Q 94, 50). Aquinas realized that not all human beings could or would agree upon these principles, for among other matters, people can simply close their hearts and minds to the natural law, which I would argue our own society has done. By habit, twisted persons do not seek the common good but only their own good or the good only of their particular group. These people have lost the ability to discern the natural law, which requires one be able to seek a common good for everyone. Finally, human beings are finite and can make mistakes and misunderstand what is best for the common good. Thus, what any given human thinks at any given time is not determinative of whether natural law exists or what its precise content might include.

Basic Principle of Natural Law

Aquinas fundamentally sees the natural law as habits of human reason that reflect the rational nature of human beings to seek virtue and goodness (ST I-II, Q 94, First Article). C. S. Lewis describes the ultimate moral and spiritual content of the natural law as follows:

It is Nature, the Way, and the Road. It is the Way in which the universe goes on, the way in which things everlasting emerge, stilly and tranquilly, into space and time. It is also the Way which every human being should tread in imitation of that cosmic and super-cosmic progression, conforming all activities to that great exemplar.” [3]

What Lewis describes in mystical terms as the “Tao” is very much like what in Christian terms we might call “the ultimate content of Natural Law”.

According to Aquinas, the basic principle of natural law is “…that we should do and seek good and shun evil. All the other precepts of that natural law are based on that precept….” (ST I-II, Q 94, Second Article). Thus, Aquinas believes that the basic idea of the natural law is that human beings should seek the common good as well as their own good and avoid those things that impair individual and common good. The kinds of things that can be incorporated into the idea of natural law are (i) actions resulting from the human natural inclination to do good, (ii) natural inclinations leading to actions that humans share with animals, and (iii) inclinations to the good that are part of our reasonable nature (ST I-II, Q 94, Second Article).

Before looking at objections to natural law theory, it is important to ponder its strengths. Most human beings do not think that cold blooded murder, stealing, violence, deceit, failure to pay debts, and a variety of other actions are conducive to their own or the common good. Looking at the categories of governmental types listed earlier, most people do not think that tyranny, rule of the few for their private benefit, or mob rule are conducive to their private or the public good. In some sense it is “natural” for human beings to reject such things as a part of their social order.

In Western societies, we tend to look at the areas of disagreement about natural law and forget that there are a great many matters about which almost everyone does agree. This indicates that there are some things that most people think are right and wrong—a strong indication that there are certain notions of the public good that are universal (or nearly so) among human beings.

Modern thinkers have not been inclined to see the idea of natural law mentioned above to be self-evident. For example, many thinkers, including some Christian thinkers, do not think that there is a “natural good” that humans seek by nature. Our natural inclinations, for example sexual relations between men and women are no longer viewed as “natural” by many people. Finally, while our reason does incline human beings to ordered society, as indicated above, there are vast differences in what people think that rational order might be.

There are no easy answers to these objections. One place to begin is the notion that the fact that a particular aspect of law fails to command universal consent does not mean that it is not something that might well violate natural law. For example, I have many friends that do not think that the activities of some investment banking firms in the mortgage backed bond crisis acted in an improper manner, even when they sold their clients securities that they knew were highly dangerous and unlikely to be paid in full. Under the impact of a kind of radical free market ideal, they see nothing wrong with this kind of behavior. On the other hand, no society can really hold together when investors cannot trust their own financial intermediaries. It is my view that there is something wrong with the views of my friends, something they cannot see because of an ideological prejudice.

For Christians, the notion that all persons are blinded by sin to see the perfect content of truth and some people are blinded by persistent sin explains both the difficulty all people find in perceiving what might be the natural common good for their society and their own personal good as human beings. Finally, the fact that we human beings are finite and often err in what we believe and do, sometimes for long periods of time warns that error can and often does persist for long periods of time until human experience reveals the best content of law.


This is not the end of my time examining Thomas Aquinas. Next week, we are going to look at the role practical reason in this thought and some specific issues, such as his just war theory. This week, we have just covered the surface of his work on politics, the nature of political communities, the nature of law, and the potential of natural law theory to provide a way for human societies to seek the common good.

I want to leave readers with one aspect of Aquinas that we have lost in our society—the idea that human beings are naturally rational and sociable, and therefore are able to discern a good for themselves and a common good for their society. The notion of the common good as something we must seek to the exclusion of power is important to recover in our society.

Copyright 2020, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] Thomas Aquinas, On Law, Morality and Politics Translated by Richard J. Regan, Edited by William P. Baumgarth and Richard J. Regan, Second Edition (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing, 2002), 198. The quote is from the Summa Theologica (hereafter “ST”), ST: Q 47 Tenth Article.

[2] I may return to the potential relevance of this notion of eternal law in a future blog. One interesting proposal in modern physics is the idea of David Bohm that the order we see in the universe (the explicate order) is the “unfolded form” of an “implicate order” that is beyond human perception until and unless it is unfolded” into physical reality. Similarly, one might consider that the eternal order of God, physical, moral, and spiritual, including natural law, is enfolded and implicate in the undivided wholeness of the universe and the transcendent being of God until unfolded by the progress of human society and disciplined philosophical, moral and legal inquiry in response to human contact with an emerging social and intellectual reality. See, David Bohm, Wholeness and Implicate Order (London and New York, NY: Routledge, 1980).

[3] C. S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man (New York, Collier Books, a division of Macmillan, 1955): 28.