Laws for Virtue

There’s something that I find really striking about Thomistic legal theory — that is, about St. Thomas Aquinas’s teaching about positive law, the law prescribed by the state.

St. Thomas holds that laws exist to help people become more virtuous.

Isn’t that kind of wild? I suspect that that is, for the most part, far, far away from the way most of us tend to think of the law today.

Here, take a look at what he actually says:

The purpose of human law is to lead men to virtue, not suddenly, but gradually. Wherefore it does not lay upon the multitude of imperfect men the burdens of those who are already virtuous, viz. that they should abstain from all evil. Otherwise these imperfect ones, being unable to bear such precepts, would break out into yet greater evils.

ST I-II q. 96, a. 2.

You’ll note in the first place that this is clearly not the teaching of some sort of Puritanical bigot, who wants to put to the torch anyone who has the slightest hint of sin or impropriety. That’s a very important point.

You’ll notice also, however, how Aquinas begins that passage: “The purpose of human law is to lead men to virtue”!

(N.B. that “men” here is of course “homines” in the Latin, rather than the specifically masculine “vir,” and so a more modern translation would properly render it as “people,” or “humans,” or something along those lines.)

I don’t want to overstate my point. Obviously people today will understand the law to have some role in funnelling citizens toward a life of virtue, insofar as we believe in anything in the ballpark of virtue. For instance, we generally want the law to help the impoverished become hard-working wage-earners, rather than listless beneficiaries of government handouts.

However, I don’t believe that is the central way that we think of the law today. To our minds, the law protects us. It keeps our society orderly, and minimizes the crimes that would interfere with the peaceful living of our lives. For us, law essentially provides the framework within which capitalism and governmental support can function most efficiently, in a way that is least destructive of human wellbeing.

St. Thomas has a much more exalted view of human law. I think it wouldn’t be too much of an exaggeration to say that he sees law as a civilizational road to sainthood. The true goal of a good law is to increase human virtue in the world.

The increase of human virtue is more important than an improvement of the economy, or an increase of knowledge, or an expansion of power. Human virtue is the central purpose of the law, and also of the government, and of the economy, and of our educational institutions. Everything is oriented toward virtue, or it is pointless.

Don’t think that this is a sectarian or fundamentalist approach to society, either. St. Thomas gets this from his philosophical guide, Aristotle. He appeals to the Nicomachean Ethics, book five, where Aristotle is discussing the different meanings of justice, and brings in the question of the relationship of law and virtue.

What if we recalibrated our world to begin thinking in these ways again? I wish there were a political party that thought in this way. Both the political right and the political left today claim to care about good and evil, and both try to smear their opponents as amoralists.

The right says that they represent morality, and religious freedom, and that the left is trying to destroy every last vestige of our capacity to discriminate between good and bad.

The left says that they are the ones who stand up for what is good for people, as opposed to the conservatives who only care about corporations and power and military might and financial profits.

Both are correct in their denunciations of the other side, as far as I can tell. I do not have confidence, however, that either tells the truth when it is praising itself.

I wish there were a political party that would say, we care most of all about good and bad, right and wrong, virtue and vice, and we want to structure society to help people become the best they can be.

If such a party existed, then I could get excited about partisan politics.

Until then, I will try to do the best I can, at least, for myself and my family and my friends.

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