In the previous posting in this series we saw that Aristotelian philosophy and Christianity came into conflict in the 12th century when the philosophy of Aristotle was "rediscovered" in Europe. As far as we are concerned for the purposes of this series of postings, the most important point of conflict was Aristotle's belief that each human being had a different capacity to acquire and develop virtue, versus the Christian belief that every human being has the same capacity to acquire and develop virtue as everyone else.
Thomas Aquinas resolved this conflict in an unusual way, an extremely subtle technique by means of which he didn't disagree with Aristotle directly. Instead, Aquinas carefully avoided undermining Aristotle's authority by explaining what Aristotle really meant by a passage that appeared to be in conflict with essential Christian precepts.
For example, Aristotle was rather clear what he meant when he said that some human-appearing creatures lack all capacity to acquire and develop virtue, and are thus "natural slaves." In the Summa, however, Aquinas explained that what Aristotle really meant is that there are some people, such as criminals, who (due to some accident in their makeup or their upbringing) are not adequately realizing their analogously complete capacity to acquire and develop virtue. They are dangers to themselves and to society, and are therefore in need of training and correction so that they can be fitted to reenter civil society.
Thus (so Aquinas claimed) what Aristotle really meant when he said that some men are "natural slaves" what something different from what we might suppose. Aquinas explained that what Aristotle meant is that, when someone is clearly in need of correction and rehabilitation in order to be able to function adequately in society, it is natural that such an individual be deprived of the exercise of rights and put in the care of a master — the State or a private individual. The master is responsible for undertaking the task of rehabilitating the criminal and training him or her to reenter society. In this way Aquinas managed to maintain the Judeo-Christian belief in the analogously complete capacity to acquire and develop virtue that every human being possesses, but without appearing to contradict Aristotle's natural slave argument.
Aquinas did something similar with legal justice. In the treatise on law in the Summa, the "Angelic Doctor" laid out Aristotle's argument on legal justice. Aquinas carefully explained how legal justice is a general, not a particular virtue. Thus, while legal justice has the common good as its object, the common good is not the directed object of legal justice. That would be impossible, for legal justice is a general justice, and therefore cannot have a particular, that is, a directed act. Instead, the quasi-act of legal justice consists of the indirect beneficial effect that the acquisition and development of other virtues has on the common good.
So far, so good. Aquinas was evidently in full agreement with Aristotle. As we have seen, however, implicit in Aristotle's analysis (and thus in Aquinas's apparent agreement with Aristotle) is the presumption that, if the virtue that has the common good as its object — legal justice — is and can only be indirect, then two conclusions are inevitable. One, human beings do not have analogously complete capacities to acquire and develop virtue, and therefore do not have equal rights. Two, no one has direct access to the common good, that complex network of institutions within which we acquire and develop virtue, and the social order is therefore a given. For both reasons individuals are helpless to effect changes directly for good or ill in the social order.
The individualist resolves this conflict by rejecting the social order as a positive good in conformity with nature. At best, the individualist tolerates the State as a necessary evil, as prudential matter, but only up to the point where infringement of individual rights becomes intolerable.
The collectivist takes the opposite approach. He or she resolves the conflict by rejecting individual rights as positive goods in conformity with nature. At best, the collectivist tolerates individual rights as necessary evils, as prudential matter, up to the point where the exercise of individual rights becomes intolerable.
Aquinas presented us with a different solution, as Father William Ferree, S.M., Ph.D., points out in The Act of Social Justice (1943). What Aquinas did was extremely subtle, and appears to have been missed for eight centuries. Of course, we also have to consider the possibility that Aquinas's solution might be in a section of the Summa that Aquinas did not complete, and may be one of the passages "filled in" by his students from his notes. It might therefore be not so much subtle as too brief, coming across as a simple unimportant assertion without explanation.
Whatever the reason, after presenting Aristotle's classic analysis of legal justice in the Summa (keep in mind that Aristotle's main point is that legal justice is a general virtue and can only affect the common good indirectly) Aquinas makes the single — and astounding — statement, "Legal justice alone looks directly to the common good." (Ia IIae q. 61 5, 4m) The implications of this brief statement are profound and yet have been largely ignored since Aquinas made it.
It is not just that Aquinas seems to have contradicted everything he had just said with respect to legal justice. If legal justice looks directly to the common good, then much of what Aristotle concluded about how people participate in the common good is wrong. Instead of having no power to affect the institutions of the social order, or being forced to relegate all power over the common good to the State or an economic or political elite, the common good is, on the contrary, directly accessible by every single human being.
Who, then, is correct? Aristotle, who claimed that some people are only partially human (and some not human at all), and that in consequence the common good is not directly accessible by anyone? Or is Aquinas correct — Aquinas, who contradicted Aristotle's idea that some people could be less than human, but then agreed with Aristotle about legal justice and the inability of anyone to have direct access to the common good . . . and then seems to have turned around and contradicted himself?
There is a way to resolve this new problem, which we will look at in the next posting in this series.