Friday, August 27, 2010

Aquinas, father of socialism

Now, according to the natural order instituted by divine providence, material goods are provided for the satisfaction of human needs. Therefore the division and appropriation of property, which proceeds from human law, must not hinder the satisfaction of man's necessity from such goods. Equally, whatever a man has in superabundance is owed, of natural right, to the poor for their sustenance. So Ambrosius says, and it is also to be found in the Decretum Graziani "The bread which you withhold belongs to the hungry; the clothing you shut away, to the naked; and the money you bury in the earth is the redemption and freedom of the penniless."

This is my favorite bit from Singer's "Famine, Affluence, and Morality", but it's not Singer. It's St. Thomas Aquinas. I guess that means that Catholicism is socialism.

Somehow this gets lost in translation. No, I don't think the passage above is any sort of evidence that Aquinas is advocating socialism. He's advocating "socialism", which, as far as I can tell, is not socialism but basically stuff that Beck doesn't like. So, it's more like goodness.


Degenerate & Close Personal Friend said...

That is also my favorite bit of FAM! Particularly effective when teaching the paper to kids at Catholic universities. . . but works elsewhere too.

Anonymous said...

Erm, maybe it's just me, but you seem to be making something like the following inference:

We ought to do X. Therefore, the state ought to do X.

But that hardly follows. Even if one agrees with Aquinas (and Jesus!) that we have serious obligations to the material needs of our fellow humans, nothing at all follows about the role of the *state* in discharging those obligations. To make any such inference is to be blind to the many options in the private sector. Like, you know, for example, maybe the church, with which Aquinas was well familiar.

I worry that this blind spot is what leads many people toward the left side of the political spectrum. "Something must be done! Therefore, the government should do something."

Anonymous said...

And, btw, the following bit only says that the state should not HINDER us discharging our obligations to our fellow humans. It doesn't say that the state should actively bring it about that we discharge our obligations:

"the division and appropriation of property, which proceeds from human law, must not hinder the satisfaction of man's necessity from such goods."

So, no, Aquinas is not the father of socialism. But that you think so tells us much about you, and the hasty inferences you're prone to make with respect to politics. ;-)

Matt said...

This is an interesting bit from Aquinas, but I'm skeptical that there's anything 'socialist' about it. In the context of the text, he's arguing that for someone in dire necessity to take from someone who has excess resources is not theft.
What, exactly, does this have to do with socialism?

Clayton said...

Dear Anon & Matt,

I thought the link to the Beck article would have made this clearer, but I don't think Aquinas is defending any form of socialism. Basically, I don't think he's doing it for the reasons you've stated _and_ I don't think he'd be doing it even if he advocated the use of the state to achieve ends he is telling us we ought to pursue. This was a poke at Beck.

Matt said...

Thanks for the clarification, Clayton, I didn't get a chance to follow the link.

Anonymous said...

Anon: The passage doesn't just say that we ought to give to the poor. It says that we *owe* what we have in abundance to them. That seems like a different claim. And the quote from Graziani explicitly says that the poor have property rights to these things. I'm not necessarily agreeing with Aquinas here, but these claims, if true, do provide grounds for state action - unlike the bare ought claim. At least, they do this if it's the state's business to secure our rights.

Anonymous said...

It is now incredibly obvious to me who Degenerate & Close Personal Friend is, but don't worry, your secret is safe with me.

What surprises me about this passage from Aquinas is that people are surprised by it. What do they think Aquinas is -- some defender of individualistic property rights? Where would anyone get this idea?

Brandon said...

Unfortunately, I'm pretty sure Beck would have no problem taking that next step; and more, no doubt, if Catholics weren't as populous as they are today. People like him didn't shy from calling Catholics Communists a couple of generations ago. Demagoguery never fundamentally changes.

On Anonymous's suggestion that Aquinas's statement here suggests state action, I'm not sure it does. The whole point arises because Aquinas (as in the passage here) holds that private property presupposes common use: everything is for everyone to use according to need. But he argues, on the basis of common use, that this common property (so to speak) is best taken care of by dividing up the responsibility for it; and this applies to distribution as well. The very next sentence after the quotation says that because there are so many in need that many different sources need to be used, the best thing is for people to be helped by the initiative of the property-holders, except in the case of urgent emergencies.

On the other hand, since Aquinas doesn't think that the purpose of the government is to secure rights but the broader end of making people virtuous to the limited extent this can be done by external sanction without causing serious problems, there is room for quite a bit of government intervention on his view, for other reasons.