Thomism and Political Liberalism, Part 1

Joseph G. Trabbic is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Ave Maria University and is the assistant editor of, a website for the academic study of St. Thomas Aquinas. Professor Trabbic earned his doctorate from Fordham University in 2008.

Why do we – or better: why should we – live together in communities, make laws, and appoint leaders to govern us?

(Image: Katie Moum/

The Catholic debate about the value of political and economic liberalism ebbs and flows. In the past few years in the U.S. it has become particularly public and intense. One of the highlights of this latest phase of the debate was the publication last year of Patrick Deneen’s Why Liberalism Failed. Although Deneen doesn’t address a specifically Catholic audience in his book, he is a Catholic thinker and Why Liberalism Failed has been widely discussed in Catholic circles.

My next three columns will be forays into this debate as it touches on political liberalism. In this column and the next one I’m going to discuss the point of politics. Why do we – or better: why should we – live together in communities, make laws, and appoint leaders to govern us? This is, of course, a big question. But like most big questions it’s an important and existential one, and so it’s worth thinking about.

Since I’m approaching this question in the context of an intra-Catholic debate, I’m assuming a Catholic understanding of the Church, the human person, the common good, and so on. It will be essential to keep this in mind in what follows. I plan to work through some of these things in a strictly philosophical way in the future but here the philosophizing will presuppose a general Catholic framework.

Freedom above all

The way that we commonly use the term “liberal” in popular American political discourse only partially overlaps with the “liberalism” that is the subject of the debate that I mention above. In fact, the “liberals” who we contrast with the “conservatives” in our popular discourse often both subscribe to some version of the liberalism that is being debated. The political form of this liberalism counts among its foremost theorists John Locke, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Immanuel Kant, and John Stuart Mill, together, more recently, with Isaiah Berlin, John Rawls, and Richard Rorty. This tradition has had a major (but certainly not exclusive) hand in shaping our political system in the U.S.

On one standard interpretation, one of the important features of political liberalism is its view of liberty – freedom – as the highest political good (although liberal theorists may not use that sort of language). On this view, the reason why we form political communities is to protect and promote our freedom. “Freedom is the chief goal of social organization,” says Rorty. And Locke, in his Second Treatise of Civil Government, writes:

[T]he end of law is not to abolish or restrain, but to preserve and enlarge freedom: for in all the states of created beings capable of laws, where there is no law, there is no freedom: for liberty is, to be free from restraint and violence from others; which cannot be, where there is no law.

The freedom with which liberal theorists are typically concerned and the one that Rorty and Locke are talking about is our freedom as individual persons.

As Locke implies, and as many (probably most) liberal theorists would agree, freedom has its limits. In general, those limits are set by the right that others have to freedom. To put it briefly: I don’t have freedom to interfere with your freedom. Thus, according to Rawls, “liberty can be restricted only for the sake of liberty.” Likewise Kant: “[E]ach may seek his happiness in whatever way he sees fit, so long as he does not infringe upon the freedom of others to pursue a similar end.” Let’s call this the “freedom of others proviso” or FOP. One of the main challenges of liberal political theory, then, is to develop a system in which conflicts between competing freedoms can be successfully managed and minimized.

Without a doubt there are wide and substantive differences between the theorists of the liberal political tradition I have named. But the centrality of personal freedom, as I am describing it, seems to be a definite point of convergence. While they see this as the highest political good, they may not all see it as the highest good overall. In other words, some might distinguish what we can or should pursue as members of a political community from what we can or should pursue as human persons, which is something that transcends the political.

What can or should we pursue as members of a liberal political community living in accordance with FOP? Quite often the answer from our theorists is: whatever we want. This seems to be the view expressed in the quote from Kant above. It would seem to be Locke’s view too. The freedom that we have under the laws of a political community is, for Locke, each person’s freedom “to dispose and order as he lists, his person, actions, possessions, and his whole property.” According to Mill, in a political community, the “only freedom that deserves the name is that of pursuing our own good in our own way, so long as we do not attempt to deprive others of theirs, or impede their efforts to obtain it.” “Each,” he says, “is the proper guardian of his own health, whether bodily, or mental and spiritual.”

In a liberal legal regime, therefore, it is not the case that everything is permitted, or at least it isn’t without qualification. People can do whatever they want together or separately provided that FOP is duly respected.

The implementation of the ideas of political liberalism so construed can have many advantages. But here I only have space to identify a few.

Having a broad freedom to live as we please certainly gives us the opportunity to fashion ourselves into moral degenerates but it also gives us the opportunity to do the opposite. A certain amount of external freedom can be conducive to human flourishing.

The liberal emphasis on personal freedom has led in some cases to limiting the legal oversight of a central government and this has in some countries given the Church, families, and individual persons the space they need to exercise the self-rule that is appropriate to them. This has been historically true in the U.S.

Finally, in pluralistic societies, such as those that characterize much of the modern West, a practical liberalism (and perhaps even a principled one) may be one of the few plausible options for maintaining a semblance of tranquillitas ordinis or peace of order, which is rightly seen as a crucial condition for human flourishing.

But these positive aspects of political liberalism aren’t restricted to it. They can and do figure in other political theories.

Now, you might have a problem with the interpretation of political liberalism that I have laid out. For one thing you might see it as an oversimplification. Perhaps it is. For another thing you might suppose that it lumps together theorists who should be kept apart. Perhaps it does. Whatever the case may be, I welcome objections. To me the interpretation is quite defensible; still I am open to reconsidering its defensibility should I be shown persuasive reasons to reject it. But please also bear in mind that here I’m not trying to give a complete and nuanced account of political liberalism. I’m only trying to sketch quickly something of what I see as its core.

St. Thomas, a proto-liberal?

In my first column, I spent some time discussing Leo XIII’s “Thomistic” encyclical Aeterni Patris (1879). As I made clear there, Aeterni Patris is not a papal “one-off,” so to speak, but carries with it the weight of a long history of magisterial promotion of Thomistic teaching, which Leo himself is careful to draw our attention to in the central paragraphs of the document. As I also explained, in Aeterni Patris Leo focuses on St. Thomas’s “philosophy.” He urges us to take it as our guide not only in a general way but on some very specific points. These include social and political questions.

Leo is troubled (as were his immediate predecessors) by the growing dominance of political liberalism (in both its rabidly anti-Catholic and friendlier forms) in Europe and the Americas. So, in recommending Thomas’s social and political teaching in Aeterni Patris, it’s no surprise that he should make reference to the question of freedom. Here are the pope’s own words:

Family and civil society too, which, as all see, are exposed to great danger from this plague of perverse opinions, would certainly enjoy a far more peaceful and secure existence if a more wholesome doctrine were taught in the academies and schools – one more in conformity with the teaching of the Church, such as is contained in the works of Thomas Aquinas. For, the teachings of Thomas on the true nature of freedom, which at this time is running into license, on the divine origin of all authority, on laws and their force, on the paternal and just rule of princes, on obedience to the higher powers, on mutual charity one toward another – on all of these and related subjects – have very great and invincible force to overturn those principles of the new juridical order which are well known to be dangerous to the peaceful order of things and to public well-being.

Does Thomas’s teaching offer us an alternative to political liberalism? Some people would counsel us against too hastily making that judgment. One case I would like to consider is the late Michael Novak’s.

Once upon a time, Novak endeavored to reinterpret Thomas as a proto-liberal of the Whig school, taking him to share certain important views with thinkers like Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Edmund Burke, Lord Acton, Jacques Maritain, F.A. Hayek, John Courtney Murray, et al. As Novak informs us, in bringing Thomas into this group, he is further developing a proposal of Acton and Hayek.

The Whigs, as a political movement and later a political party, were a liberalizing force that originated in Great Britain in the late seventeenth century. From Novak’s list we see that their ideas spread across the Atlantic. Many contemporary thinkers – Novak, for example – continue to defend these ideas today. Novak regards the Whigs as, first of all, champions of liberty. For them, Novak tells us, “the key to the history of humankind is human liberty.”x But Whigs also respect tradition as a source of wisdom patiently built up over time. And yet they are open to creativity and the possibility of constructing better institutions, ones “more consonant with the dignity of free men and women.”

Novak contends that there are six Thomistic theses that confirm the Angelic Doctor as a forerunner of Whiggish political liberalism: (1) Civilization is constituted by reasoned conversation. (2) The human being is free because he can reflect and choose. (3) Civilized political institutions respect reflection and choice. (4) True liberty is ordered liberty. (5) Human beings are self-determined persons, not mere individuals or group members. (6) To guard against abuses, the regime worthiest of the human person mixes elements of monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy.

None of these theses can be found verbatim in Thomas’s texts and some of their language isn’t exactly Thomistic. Nevertheless, I think he would agree with all of them in some respect. Thesis (6) about the mixed regime, for instance, reflects something Thomas argues in the Summa and elsewhere but I do not find him justifying this regime as the one “worthiest of the human person.” In any event, does Thomas’s qualified agreement with these theses make him a political liberal whether of the Whiggish or another variety? It might if these six theses captured what is most important for Thomas in the political sphere. They do articulate some truths that are essential to his political theory but there are other even more important truths that they leave out.

A different political vision

Pierre Manent, responding to Novak’s revisionist reading of Thomas’s political theory, frankly insists that “it is not possible to describe Thomas Aquinas as a liberal.” I agree with Manent.

In Thomas’s view the political community, alongside the family and Church, is (in the way appropriate to it) a school of natural and supernatural virtue, its institutions support the practice of the contemplative life, and its governing authority, the potestas saecularis (“worldly” or “temporal power”), is formally subordinated to the potestas spiritualis (“spiritual power”) exercised by the Church in what is appropriate to her. And Thomas thinks that there are good philosophical reasons (and, of course, theological ones too) behind this way of looking at things, a way of looking at things that is decidedly un-liberal.

On the Thomist view, the institutions of political communities for the most part function as mechanisms for maintaining and perfecting cultures and although there is circular causality between the political community and the culture, the latter has the primacy. So there needs to be an organic “fit” between the two and prudence – the political virtue par excellence – helps to determine this. It would seem that today the Thomistic political vision is culturally homeless. What it requires isn’t, literally speaking, a mediaeval culture. What it requires in its essence is a Christian culture.

Philippe Bénéton, speaking of the nineteenth French anti-liberal tradition, writes:

Counter-revolutionary thought had for its chief error the complete rejection of the modern world. The symmetrical error would be to reject all counter-revolutionary thought. We must make distinctions. We must, as much as possible, sort out what is good in modernity and what is good in counter-revolutionary thinking.

Bénéton is not a Thomist but I think Thomists would agree with his approach to political liberalism. Although Thomistic political theory is, as I have just noted, very un-liberal in important respects, it isn’t simply closed to the ideas of political liberalism. It is ready to acknowledge and promote whatever truth it finds in them. In that regard, it differs from the anti-liberals Bénéton is speaking about.

I will expand on what I have said in these last few paragraphs in my next column. Stay tuned!