Aquinas’s ethics of coercion and the science of theology

by Jonathan McIntosh

The core of Aquinas’s political writings consists in three principal works: (1) his Commentary on Aristotle’s Politics, (2) his treatise On Kingship (De Regno), and (3) his so-called “Treatise on Law” and other politically relevant passages from his theological masterpiece and magnum opus, the Summa Theologiae. What follows in this series is a summary, analysis of, and commentary on those specifically political passages found in the latter work in particular. As I am here using the term, political philosophy refers specifically to that subset of ethics dealing with the moral and hence justified use of coercion or force—an understanding of political philosophy, it should be noted, and as we will soon see, that is far narrower than Aquinas himself would define it. In this study, accordingly, special attention will be given to and emphasis laid upon what I will here designate as Aquinas’s “natural law ethics of coercion.” In short, my questions throughout will be: (1) what is Aquinas’s ethics of coercion, and (2) is it self-consistent, coherent, cogent, and generally commendable as an ethics of coercion in general?

Before turning to the political passages of Aquinas’s Summa, it is important to understand just how and where these passages fit within the massive theological project of the work as a whole, and hence how, for Aquinas, the science of political philosophy in general fits within the more encompassing, master, or “queen” science that is theology herself. For Aquinas, the proper subject matter of theology is, as one might expect, God, but also everything else insofar as it relates to or is ordered towards God. As everything that is not God has been created by him, however, it follows that everything is related to him, and so it is that theology as a science or discipline necessarily touches at least to a limited degree on absolutely everything.

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