Aquinas on (dis)obeying authority
Anarchist appropriations of Aquinas
St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), arguably the greatest medieval theologian of the West, is probably not very well-known for his political philosophy. Even so, this part of his thought is elaborate and balanced, and goes a long way to integrate the notion of society as a rational order striving towards a common good, with the specific Christian understanding of the last end of mankind, individually and collectively.
The notion of a clearly discernible common good is key to his political analyses, and arguably to any meaningful political philosophy whatsoever. This, in concert with his Catholic exclusivism and positive view of the state, allows him to ascribe a pretty extensive mandate to the worldly political order. Nonetheless, he clearly defines the circumstances under which the citizen has a duty to resist it.
On that note, here follows some excerpts which specifically relate to the notion of proper authority of government, and indirectly, under what circumstances purported authority can (and ought to be) opposed.
… laws may be unjust in two ways. In one way, by being contrary to the human good because in opposition to the things mentioned above: either from their end, as when some ruler imposes on his subjects burdensome laws which pertain not to the common good, but rather to his own greed or glory; or from their author, as when someone makes a law which goes beyond the power committed to him; or from their form, as when burdens are imposed unequally on the community even if they are directed to the common good.
Laws of this kind are more acts of violence than laws; because, as Augustine says in the book De libero arbitrio, ‘a law that is not just seems to be no law at all’. Hence such laws do not bind in the court of conscience, except perhaps in order to avoid scandal or disturbance, for which cause a man should give up even what is rightfully his, according to Matthew 5:40f: ‘If a man take away thy coat, let him have thy cloak also; and whosoever shall compel thee to go a mile, go with him twain (Summa theologiae, IaIIae 96, “Of the power of human law”, art. IV).’
Similarly, it may come about in two ways that a subject is not bound to obey his superior in all things. In one way, because of the command of a higher power. For as a gloss on Romans 13:2, ‘Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God’ … (Summma theologiae, IIaIIae 104, “On Obedience”, art. V).
The good constrains the legitimacy of authority. If someone in power over you tells you to boil a baby or torture the innocent, you resist. If authority tells lies, you proclaim and hold fast to what is true.
Ad 1: When the Apostle says ‘in all things’, this is to be understood as meaning in all those things which rightfully belong to the power of a father or master.
Ad 2: Man is subject to God absolutely, in all things both inward and outward, and so is bound to obey Him in all things. But subjects are not subject to their superiors in all things absolutely, but only in particular things and in a determinate way. With respect to such things, the superior stands between God and his subjects; but in other things the subject is under God immediately, by Whom he is instructed either by the natural or the written law (ibid.).
(Dong Jianhua, Berserk fan art. This is probably Griffith.)
In other words, there is a common good (ultimately identified with the immutable Divine) which sets the limit of what proper authority is. You can frame it as the ruling powers (of any form, from kings to federation councils) having dispositive and absolute duties toward those governed, with their authority ending the very moment those duties have been set aside in whatever way:
Man is bound to obey secular princes insofar as the order of justice requires it. And so if princes have a ruling power which is not just but usurped, or if they command that which is unjust, their subjects are not bound to obey them, except perhaps accidentally, in order to avoid scandal or peril (Summma theologiae, IIaIIae 104, “On Obedience”, art. VI).
In that case, they can in principle be rightly opposed, even by direct action:
As Augustine says: ‘He “takes the sword” who arms himself to shed another’s blood without the command or permission of a superior or lawful power.’ But one who, as a private person, makes use of the sword by the authority of the prince or judge, or, as a public person, through zeal for justice, as if by the authority of God, does not ‘take the sword’, but uses it as one commissioned by another, and so does not deserve to suffer punishment (Summa theologiae, IIaIIae 40, “On War”, art. I).
First of all, in cases where it belongs by right to a community to provide a ruler for itself, that community can without injustice depose or restrain a king whom it has appointed, if he should abuse royal power tyrannically. Nor should such a community be thought disloyal if it acts to depose a tyrant even if the community has already pledged itself to him in perpetuity; for the tyrant who has failed to govern the community faithfully, as the office of king requires, has deserved to be treated in this way.
Thus the Romans who had accepted Tarquin the Proud as their king, then ejected him from the kingship because of his and his sons’ tyranny, and substituted a lesser power, that is, the consulate (De regimine principum, Book I).
Tyrannical rule is not just, because it is not directed to the common good but to the private good of the ruler, as the Philosopher shows at Politics III and Ethics VIII. Disruption of such a government therefore does not have the character of sedition, unless perhaps the tyrant’s rule is disrupted so inordinately that the community subject to it suffers greater detriment from the ensuing disorder than it did from the tyrannical government itself.
Indeed it is the tyrant who is guilty of sedition, since he nourishes discord and sedition among his subjects in order to be able to dominate them more securely.
For this is tyranny: a form of government directed to the private good of the ruler and the injury of the community (Summa theologiae IIaIIae 42: “On sedition”, art. II).