Thomas Aquinas, The Summa Theologica and Capitalism – Part 1

Thomas Aquinas is probably the most important theologian in all of history. In his Summa Theologica he covers almost every subject that a theology could touch on, from the nature of the divine, to individual ethics, to law, to the incarnation, to theories on angels and so on. Being a critic of Capitalism I thought that it would be interesting to see if anything this towering figure of Theology wrote would touch on something relevant to a discussion of Capitalism. Given that his theology touches on almost everything, it’s not surprising that quite a bit of what he wrote would be applicable to a discussion of Capitalism and its justification or condemnation as a system.

The modern Capitalist system, I would argue, is founded on a few basic foundational principles.

  1. The absolute right to hold private property, meaning the right of the owner over that property is axiomatic, it’s primary.
  2. The right to a return on Capital, i.e. lending money for a higher Return.

I think those 2 things, and perhaps some others, such as the primacy of markets for determining distribution, a role of government that is primarily only to maintain markets, and enforce contract, not to actually produce and distribute, and perhaps the Capitalist mode of production (as described by Marx as the Worker/Capitalist relationship) would be sufficient to describe the foundational aspects of a Capitalist system.

I think a good place to start would be on Thomas Aquinas’ view of property, given that the view of property would be the start of a discussion on any economic system, who gets to have a say over what resources. In the second part of the second part of the Summa Thomas deals with questions about Theft in Q66, in that discussion he goes over the nature of property, actually defending the concept of property, but in reply to this objection:

It would seem unlawful for a man to possess a thing as his own. For whatever is contrary to the natural law is unlawful. Now according to the natural law all things are common property: and the possession of property is contrary to this community of goods. Therefore it is unlawful for any man to appropriate any external thing to himself.

Thomas Aquinas says:

Community of goods is ascribed to the natural law, not that the natural law dictates that all things should be possessed in common and that nothing should be possessed as one’s own: but because the division of possessions is not according to the natural law, but rather arose from human agreement which belongs to positive law, as stated above (Q[57], AA[2],3). Hence the ownership of possessions is not contrary to the natural law, but an addition thereto devised by human reason.

The Objector argues, that in a state of nature, according to natural law (which for Thomas Aquinas means what one would come to using reason and a correct understanding of human nature) all things are in the commons, so privatization goes against natural law. Aquinas’ reply is a peculiar one, he agrees that the commons are according to natural law, however he says that it doesn’t follow from that that individual possessions are contrary to that law. He takes it as legitimate that humans, be agreement, divide property on the basis of positive law as described in the second part of the second part of the Summa Q57:

The human will can, by common agreement, make a thing to be just provided it be not, of itself, contrary to natural justice, and it is in such matters that positive right has its place.

Now notice the care here. Aquinas is not saying that all privatization is fine, it must be first, by common agreement, and second not contrary to other natural laws, which include the common good. The common good is talked about in the first part of the second part of the Summa, in many different places, including in Q96:

Now the end of law is the common good; because, as Isidore says (Etym. v, 21) that “law should be framed, not for any private benefit, but for the common good of all the citizens.” Hence human laws should be proportionate to the common good. Now the common good comprises many things. Wherefore law should take account of many things, as to persons, as to matters, and as to times. Because the community of the state is composed of many persons; and its good is procured by many actions; nor is it established to endure for only a short time, but to last for all time by the citizens succeeding one another, as Augustine says (De Civ. Dei ii, 21; xxii, 6).

So privatization has to fit 2 criteria. First it has to be by common agreement, and second it has to be in line with natural law, including the common good. People need to more or less agree that something should be privately owned, also the private ownership should benefit the community as a whole primarily.

This concept of privatization undermines our modern notion of Capitalism. Capitalism assumes that private property is the state of nature, and does not need justification. For Capitalism to work, it requires that the main resources be in private hands arbitrarily. If what was and was not private was based on common agreement on the basis of the common good, it is very likely that many things that could gain a Capitalist large amounts of profit would not be allowed to be private. It’s very difficult to argue on the basis of the “common good” that, for example, Oil should be privately controlled, given that most everyone in modern society uses it, it has serious environmental externalities, and its availability is limited. Yet much of the Oil Industry In modern Capitalist societies is privately controlled, simply because the rights of private property are not subject to the common good and common agreement, which are the criteria which Thomas Aquinas believes would have to be met to justify private ownership.

But this is not the end of the story, because Thomas Aquinas has a little bit of a different view of what the rights of property consists of compared to the common view of modern Capitalism, continuing in Q66 in the second part of the second part of the Summa the Objector says:

Further, Basil in expounding the words of the rich man quoted above (A[1], OBJ[2]), says: “The rich who deem as their own property the common goods they have seized upon, are like to those who by going beforehand to the play prevent others from coming, and appropriate to themselves what is intended for common use.” Now it would be unlawful to prevent others from obtaining possession of common goods. Therefore it is unlawful to appropriate to oneself what belongs to the community.

And Thomas replies:

A man would not act unlawfully if by going beforehand to the play he prepared the way for others: but he acts unlawfully if by so doing he hinders others from going. In like manner a rich man does not act unlawfully if he anticipates someone in taking possession of something which at first was common property, and gives others a share: but he sins if he excludes others indiscriminately from using it. Hence Basil says (Hom. in Luc. xii, 18): “Why are you rich while another is poor, unless it be that you may have the merit of a good stewardship, and he the reward of patience?”

And further:

When Ambrose says: “Let no man call his own that which is common,” he is speaking of ownership as regards use, wherefore he adds: “He who spends too much is a robber.”

So here we have a limit on what the rights of property would entail. One could not lawfully prevent others from using something which was made private property. So one would not be allowed to, for example, prevent someone from picking an apple from a tree growing on his land. This is very important, because it radically alters the notion of property, property is not the right to exclude access to resources, as it is in Capitalism. In a Capitalist system, the Capitalist owns the land and thus can exclude others from picking apples on the land, he can then hire workers, who are in need of a job, to pick the apples, and then he can sell the apples to others for a profit. In Aquinas’ system of property that would be impossible, given that the Capitalist would not be allowed to arbitrarily exclude others from taking and eating the apples on the land when they needed apples.

Further in Q66 he talks about theft, where it interests the topic at hand is when he discusses theft done through stress of need, he puts it bluntly:

In cases of need all things are common property, so that there would seem to be no sin in taking another’s property, for need has made it common.

He continues:

Things which are of human right cannot derogate from natural right or Divine right. Now according to the natural order established by Divine Providence, inferior things are ordained for the purpose of succoring man’s needs by their means. Wherefore the division and appropriation of things which are based on human law, do not preclude the fact that man’s needs have to be remedied by means of these very things.

So, according to Thomas Aquinas, your property rights end where the pressing need of your neighbour begins. So if, your neighbour is in desperate need of food, shelter or clothing, and you are restricting access based on a claim to private property to something which they could use to alleviate that need, that ‘something’ becomes common property.

This significantly undermines the logic of Capitalism. People will work at the Capitalists apple farm because they need food, the Capitalist can sell his apples because the people who buy them need food. If the Capitalists right to privately own the land is undone by the needs of people needing to eat, the system falls apart. So private property remains common property at the level of needs.

I think Thomas Aquinas’ theory of property is abundantly rational, and in line with the basic principles of scripture, however it is not compatible with modern the principles underlying modern Capitalism. If someone were to take Thomas’ Theology seriously one would necessarily have to question the ethical standing of Capitalism. In the Next post we’ll go over Thomas Aquinas’ view of market exchange and credit.

Read Part 2 here.

Thomas Aquinas, The Summa Theologica and Capitalism – Part 1

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