Man cannot possibly be good unless he stands in the right relation to the common good,

Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica

September 8, 2011

Justice and Jurisprudence

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This will of his Maker is called the law of nature. For as God, when He created matter, and endued it with a principle of mobility, established certain rules for the perpetual direction of that motion; so, when he created man, and endued him with free will to conduct himself in all parts of life, He laid down certain immutable laws of human nature, whereby that free will is in some degree regulated and restrained, and gave him also the faculty of reason to discover the purport of those laws.

Considering the Creator only a Being of infinite power, He was able unquestionably to have prescribed whatever laws He pleased to His creature, man, however unjust or severe. But as He is also a Being of infinite wisdom, He has laid down only such laws as were founded in those relations of justice, that existed in the nature of things antecedent to any positive precept. These are the eternal, immutable laws of good and evil, to which the Creator Himself in all his dispensations conforms; and which He has enabled human reason to discover, so far as they are necessary for the conduct of human actions. Such, among others, are these principles: that we should live honestly, should hurt nobody, and should render to everyone his due; to which three general precepts Justinian has reduced the whole doctrine of law. But if the discovery of these first principles of the law of nature depended only upon the due exertion of right reason, and could not otherwise be obtained than by a chain of metaphysical disquisitions, mankind would have wanted some inducement to have quickened their inquiries, and the greater part of the world would have rested content in mental indolence, and ignorance its inseparable companion. As, therefore, the Creator is a Being, not only of infinite power, and wisdom, but also of infinite goodness, He has been pleased so to contrive the constitution and frame of humanity, that we should want no other prompter than to inquire after and pursue the rule of right, but only our own self-love, that universal principle of action. For he has so intimately connected, so inseparably interwoven the laws of eternal justice with the happiness of each individual, that the latter cannot be attained but by observing the former; and, if the former be punctually obeyed, it cannot but induce the latter. In consequence of which mutual connection of justice and human felicity, He has not perplexed the law of nature with a multitude of abstracted rules and precepts, referring merely to the fitness or unfitness of things, as some have vainly surmised; but has graciously reduced the rule of obedience to this one paternal precept, ‘that man should pursue his own true and substantial happiness.’ This is the foundation of what we call ethics, or natural law. For the several articles into which it is branched in our systems, amount to no more than demonstrating, that his or that action tends to man’s real happiness, and therefore very justly concluding that the performance of it is a part of the law of nature; or, on the other hand, that this or that action is destructive to man’s real happiness, and therefore that the law of nature forbids it.

This law of nature, being coeval with mankind and dictated by God Himself, is of course superior in obligation to any other. It is binding over all the globe in all countries, and at all times: no human laws are of any validity, if contrary to this; and such of them as are valid derive all their force, and all their authority, mediately or immediately, from this original. But in order to apply this to the particular exigencies of each individual, it is still necessary to have recourse to human reason; whose office it is to discover, as was before observed, what the law of nature directs in every circumstance of life; by considering, what method will tend most effectually to our own substantial happiness. And if our reason were always, as in our first ancestor before his transgression, clear and perfect, unruffled by passions, unclouded by prejudice, unimpaired by disease or intemperance, the task would be pleasant and easy; we should need no other guide but this. But every man now finds the contrary in his own experience; that his reason is corrupt, and his understanding full of ignorance and error.

This has given manifold occasion for the benign interposition of divine providence; which, in compassion to the frailty, the imperfection, and the blindness of human reason, hath been pleased, at sundry times and in diverse manners, to discover and enforce its laws by an immediate and direct revelation. The doctrines thus delivered we call the revealed or divine law, and they are to be found only in the Holy Scriptures. These precepts, when revealed, are found upon comparison to be really a part of the original law of nature, as they tend in all their consequences to man’s felicity. But we are not from thence to conclude that the knowledge of these truths was attainable by reason, in its present corrupted state; since we find that, until they were revealed, they were hid from the wisdom of the ages. As then the moral precepts of this law are indeed of the same original with those of the law of nature, so their intrinsic obligation is of equal strength and perpetuity. Yet undoubtedly the revealed law is of infinitely more authenticity than that moral system, which is framed by ethical writers, and denominated the natural law. Because one is the law of nature, expressly declared so to be by God Himself; the other is only what, by the assistance of human reason, we imagine to be that law. If we could be as certain of the latter as we are of the former, both would have an equal authority; but, till then, they can never be put in any competition together.

Upon these two foundations, the law of nature and the law of revelation, depend all human laws; that is to say, no human laws should be suffered to contradict these. There are, it is true, a great number of indifferent points, in which both the divine law and the natural leave a man at his own liberty; but which are found necessary for the benefit of society to be restrained within certain limits. And herein it is that human laws have their greatest force and efficacy: for, with regard to such points as are not indifferent, human laws are only declaratory of, and act in subordination to the former. To instance in the case of murder: this is expressly forbidden by the divine, and demonstrably by the natural law; and from these prohibitions arises the true unlawfulness of this crime. Those human laws that annex a punishment to it do not at all increase its moral guilt, or add any fresh obligation in foro conscientiae (in the court of conscience) to abstain from its perpetration. Nay, if any human law should allow or enjoin us to commit it, we, are bound to transgress that human law, or else we must offend both the natural and the divine. But with regard to matters that are in themselves indifferent, and are not commanded or forbidden by those superior laws; such, for instance, as exporting of wool into foreign countries; here the inferior legislature has scope and opportunity to interpose, and to make that action unlawful which before was not so. (William Blackstone, Commentaries on the Laws of England)

September 8, 2011

Nature and Freedom

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A Declaration by the Diggers of Wellingborough – 1650

A Declaration of the Grounds and Reasons why
we the

Poor Inhabitants of the Town of Wellingborrow, in the County
of Northampton, have begun and give consent to dig up,
manure and sow Corn upon the Common, and waste
ground, called Bareshanke belonging to the Inhabitants of
Wellinborrow, by those that have Subscribed and hundreds
more that give Consent.

find in the Word of God, that God made the Earth for the use and comfort of all Mankind, and set him in to till and dresse it, and said, That in the sweat of his brows he should eat his bread; and also we find, that God never gave it to any sort of people, that they should have it all to themselves, and shut out all the rest. but he saith, The Earth hath he given to the children of men, which is every man.

2. We find, that no creature that ever God made was ever deprived of the benefit of the Earth, but Mankind; and that it is nothing but covetousnesse, pride, and hardnesse of heart, that hath caused man so far to degenerate.

3. We find in the Scriptures, that the Prophets and Apostles have left it upon Record, That in the last days the oppressor and proud man shall cease, and God will restore the waste places of the Earth to the use and comfort of Man, and that none shall hurt nor destroy in all his holy Mountain.

4. We have great Encouragement from these two righteous Acts, which the Parliament of England have set forth, the one against Kingly Power, the other to make England a Free Common-wealth.

5. We are necessitated from our present necessity to do this, and we hope that our Actions will justifie us in the gate when all men shall know the truth of our necessity: we are in Wellinborrow in one Parish 1169 persons that receive Alms, as the Officers have made it appear at the Quarter Sessions last: we have made our Case known to the Justices, the Justices have given Order that the Town should raise a Stock to set us on work, and that the Hundred should be enjoyned to assist them; but as yet we see nothing is done, nor any man that goeth about it; we have spent all we have, our trading is decayed, our wives and children cry for bread, our lives are a burden to us, divers of us having in Family, and we cannot get bread for one of them by our labor, rich mens hearts are hardened, they will not give us if we beg at their doors; if we steal, the Law will end our lives, divers of the poor are starved to death already and it were better for us that are living to dye by the Sword then by Famine. And now we consider that the Earth is our Mother, and that God hath given it to the children of men, and that the common and waste Grounds belong to the poor, and that we have a right to the common ground both from the Law of the Land, Reason and Scriptures; and therefore we have begun to bestow our righteous labor upon it, and we shall trust the Spirit for a blessing upon our labor, resolving not to dig up any mans property, until they freely give us it; and truly we find great comfort already, through the goodnesse of our God, that some of those rich men amongst us, that have had the greatest profit upon the Common, have freely given us their share in it, as one Mr John Freeman, Thomas Nottingham and John Clendon, and divers others; and the Country Farmers have proffered divers of them to give us Seed to sow it, and so we find that God is perswading Japeth to dwell in the tents of Shem: and truly those that we find most against us are such as have been constant enemies to the Parliaments Cause from first to last.

Now at last our desire is, That some that approve of this work of Righteousnesse, would but spread this our Declaration before the great Councel of the Land, that so they may be pleased to give us more encouragement to go on, that so they may be found amongst the small number of those that considers the poor and needy, that so the Lord may deliver them in the time of their troubles, and then they will not be found amongst those that Solomon speaks of, which withhold the Corn (or the Land) from the Poor, which the people shall curse, but blessing shall be upon the heads of those Rulers that sell Corn, and that will let the poor labor upon the Earth to get them Corn, and our lines shall blesse them, so shall good men stand by them, and evil men shall be afraid of them, and they shall be counted the Repairers of our Breaches, and the Restorers of our Paths to dwell in. And thus we have declared the truth of our necessity; and whosoever will come in to us to labor with us, shall have part with us, and we with them, and we shall all of us endeavor to walk righteously and peaceably in the Land of our Nativity.

Richard Smith. John Avery. Thomas Fardin. Richard Pendred. James
Pitman. Roger Tuis. Joseph Hichcock. John Pye. Edward Turner.

LONDON, Printed for Giles Calvert. 1650.


September 8, 2011

Truth and Ethics

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Marcus Aurelius on Impiety Towards Nature

He who does an injury is guilty of impiety. For, since the nature of the whole has formed the rational animals for one another; each for being useful to the other according to his merit, and never hurtful; he who transgresses this her will, is thus guilty of impiety against the most ancient and venerable of the Gods. For the nature of the whole is the nature of all things which exist; and things which exist, are a-kin to their causes. Further, she is called truth; and is the first cause of all truths: He, then, who willingly lyes, is guilty of impiety, in as far as, by deceiving, he does an injury: and he, who lyes unwillingly; in as far as his voice dissents from the nature of the whole; as he is acting ungracefully, in opposing the comely order of the universe: For he fights against its nature and design, who sets himself against truth; since nature had furnished him with means for distinguishing falsehood from truth, by neglecting which he is now unable to do it. He, too, who pursues pleasure as good, and shuns pain as evil, is guilty of impiety: for such a one must needs frequently blame the common nature, as making some unworthy distributions to the bad and the good; because the bad oftimes enjoy pleasures, and possess the means of them; and the good often meet with pain, and what causes pain; besides, he who dreads pain, must sometimes dread that which must be a part of the order and beauty of the universe: this, now, is impious: and, then, he who pursues pleasures will not abstain from injury; and that is manifestly impious. But, in those things to which the common nature is indifferent, (for she had not made both, were she not indifferent to either); he who would follow nature, ought, in this too, to agree with her in his sentiments, and be indifferently dispos’d to either. Whoever, then, is not indifferently dispos’d to pain and pleasure, life and death, glory and ignominy, all which the nature of the whole regards as indifferent, it is plain he is guilty of impiety. When I say the common nature regards them as indifferent; I mean she regards their happening or not happening as indifferent events in the grand establish’d series, in which things exist, and ensue upon others, suitably to a certain ancient purpose of that providence and design, according to which, at a certain period, she set about this fair structure and arrangement of the universe; after she had conceived and fixed the plan of all that was to exist; and appointed the distinct powers which were to produce the several substances, changes, and successions. (Meditations, Book IX)

September 8, 2011

The Stoics

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Epictetus on Human and Divine Will

Whatever God wills, a man also shall will; and what God does not will, a man shall not will. How, then, shall this he done? In what other way than by examining the movements of God and his administration What has He given to me as my own and in my own power? what has He reserved to Himself? He has given to me the things which are in the power of the will: He has put them in my power free from impediment and hindrance. How was He able to make the earthly body free from hindrance? And accordingly He has subjected to the revolution of the whole, possessions, household things, house, children, wife. Why, then, do I fight against God? why do I will what does not depend on the will? why do I will to have absolutely what is not granted to man? But how ought I to will to have things? In the way in which they are given and as long as they are given. But He who has given takes away. Why then do I resist? I do not say that I shall be fool if I use force to one who is stronger, but I shall first be unjust. For whence had I things when I came into the world? My father gave them to me. And who gave them to him? and who made the sun? and who made the fruits of the earth? and who the seasons? and who made the connection of men with one another and their fellowship? (Discourses, 4.1)

September 8, 2011

The Stoics

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In De finibus, the Stoic Chrysippus explains:

For our individual natures are parts of the whole cosmos. And this is why the end may be defined as life in accordance with nature, or in other words, according to our own human nature as well as that of the cosmos, a life in which we refrain from every action forbidden by the law common to all things, that is to say, the right reason which pervades all things, and is identical with this Zeus, lord and ruler of all that is (Lives, 7. 87-88)

September 8, 2011

Divine Goodness

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Centuries of Meditations: Thomas Traherne


You never enjoy the world aright, till you see how a sand exhibiteth the wisdom and power of God: And prize in everything the service which they do you, by manifesting His glory and goodness to your Soul, far more than the visible beauty on their surface, or the material services they can do your body. Wine by its moisture quencheth my thirst, whether I consider it or no: but to see it flowing from His love who gave it unto man, quencheth the thirst even of the Holy Angels. To consider it, is to drink it spiritually. To rejoice in its diffusion is to be of a public mind. And to take pleasure in all the benefits it doth to all is Heavenly, for so they do in Heaven. To do so, is to be divine and good, and to imitate our Infinite and Eternal Father.


Your enjoyment is never right, till you esteem every Soul so great a treasure as our Saviour doth: and that the laws of God are sweeter than the honey and honeycomb because they command you to love them all in such perfect manner. For how are they God’s treasures? Are they not the riches of His love? Is it not His goodness that maketh Him glorious to them? Can the Sun or Stars serve him any other way, than by serving them? And how will you be the Son of God, but by having a great Soul like unto your Father’s? The Laws of God command you to live in His image: and to do so is to live in Heaven. God commandeth you to love all like Him, because He would have you to be His Son, all them to be your riches, you to be glorious before them, and all the creatures in serving them to be your treasures, while you are His delight, like Him in beauty, and the darling of His bosom.


But what life wouldst thou lead? And by what laws wouldst thou thyself be guided? For none are so miserable as the lawless and disobedient. Laws are the rules of blessed living. Thou must therefore be guided by some laws. What wouldst thou choose? Surely since thy nature and God’s are so excellent, the Laws of Blessedness, and the Laws of Nature are the most pleasing. God loved thee with an infinite love, and became by doing so thine infinite treasure, Thou art the end unto whom He liveth. For all the lines of His works and counsels end in thee, and in thy advancement. Wilt not thou become to Him an infinite treasure, by loving Him according to His desert? It is impossible but to love Him that loveth. Love is so amiable that it is irresistible. There is no defence against that arrow, nor any deliverance in that war, nor any safeguard from that charm. Wilt thou not live unto Him? Thou must of necessity live, unto something. And what so glorious as His infinite Love? Since therefore, laws are requisite to lead thee, what laws can thy soul desire, than those that guide thee in the most amiable paths to the highest end? By Love alone is God enjoyed, by Love alone delighted in, by Love alone approached or admired. His Nature requires Love, thy nature requires Love. The law of Nature commands thee to Love Him: the Law of His nature, and the Law of thine.

(From The First Century of Meditations)


September 7, 2011

Justice and the Good

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Society is Part of Nature

Every state is a community of some kind, and every community is established with a view to some good; for mankind always act in order to obtain that which they think good. But, if all communities aim at some good, the state or political community, which is the highest of all, and which embraces all the rest, aims, and in a greater degree than any other, at the highest good.


He who thus considers things in their first growth and origin, whether a state or anything else, will obtain the clearest view of them. In the first place (1) there must be a union of those who cannot exist without each other; for example, of male and female, that the race may continue; and this is a union which is formed, not of deliberate purpose, but because, in common with other animals and with plants, mankind have a natural desire to leave behind them an image of themselves. And (2) there must be a union of natural ruler and subject, that both may be preserved. For he who can foresee with his mind is by nature intended to be lord and master, and he who can work with his body is a subject, and by nature a slave; hence master and slave have the same interest. Nature, however, has distinguished between the female and the slave. For she is not niggardly, like the smith who fashions the Delphian knife for many uses; she makes each thing for a single use, and every instrument is best made when intended for one and not for many uses.


When several villages are united in a single community, perfect and large enough to be nearly or quite self-sufficing, the state comes into existence, originating in the bare needs of life, and continuing in existence for the sake of a good life. And therefore, if the earlier forms of society are natural, so is the state, for it is the end of them, and the [completed] nature is the end. For what each thing is when fully developed, we call its nature, whether we are speaking of a man, a horse, or a family. Besides, the final cause and end of a thing is the best, and to be self-sufficing is the end and the best.

Hence it is evident that the state is a creation of nature, and that man is by nature a political animal.


Now the reason why man is more of a political animal than bees or any other gregarious animals is evident. Nature, as we often say, makes nothing in vain , and man is the only animal whom she has endowed with the gift of speech . And whereas mere sound is but an indication of pleasure or pain, and is therefore found in other animals (for their nature attains to the perception of pleasure and pain and the intimation of them to one another, and no further), the power of speech is intended to set forth the expedient and inexpedient, and likewise the just and the unjust. And it is a characteristic of man that he alone has any sense of good and evil, of just and unjust, and the association of living beings who have this sense makes a family and a state.

Thus the state is by nature clearly prior to the family and to the individual, since the whole is of necessity prior to the part; for example, if the whole body be destroyed, there will be no foot or hand, except in an equivocal sense, as we might speak of a stone hand; for when destroyed the hand will be no better. But things are defined by their working and power; and we ought not to say that they are the same when they are no longer the same, but only that they have the same name. The proof that the state is a creation of nature and prior to the individual is that the individual, when isolated, is not self-sufficing; and therefore he is like a part in relation to the whole. But he who is unable to live in society, or who has no need because he is sufficient for himself, must be either a beast or a god: he is no part of a state. A social instinct is implanted in all men by nature, and yet he who first founded the state was the greatest of benefactors. For man, when perfected, is the best of animals, but, when separated from law and justice, he is the worst of all; since armed injustice is the more dangerous, and he is equipped at birth with the arms of intelligence and with moral qualities which he may use for the worst ends. Wherefore, if he have not virtue, he is the most unholy and the most savage of animals, and the most full of lust and gluttony. But justice is the bond of men in states, and the administration of justice, which is the determination of what is just , is the principle of order in political society. (Aristotle, Politics, Book I)

September 7, 2011

Justice and the Good

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II. Natural, Common, and Civil Law.

The law of nature is that law which nature teaches to all animals. For this law does not belong exclusively to the human race, but belongs to all animals, whether of the earth, the air, or the water. Hence comes the union of the male and female, which we term matrimony; hence the procreation and bringing up of children. We see, indeed, that all the other animals besides men are considered as having knowledge of this law.

1. Civil law is thus distinguished from the law of nations. Every community governed by laws and customs uses partly its own law, partly laws common to all mankind. The law which a people makes for its own government belongs exclusively to that state and is called the civil law, as being the law of the particular state. But the law which natural reason appoints for all mankind obtains equally among all nations, because all nations make use of it. The people of Rome, then, are governed partly by their own laws, and partly by the laws which are common to all mankind. We will take notice of this distinction as occasion may arise.

2. Civil law takes its name from the state which it governs, as, for instance, from Athens; for it would be very proper to speak of the laws of Solon or Draco as the civil law of Athens. And thus the law which the Roman people make use of is called the civil law of the Romans, or that of the Quirites; for the Romans are called Quirites from Quirinum. But whenever we speak of civil law, without adding the name of any state, we mean our own law; just as the Greeks, when “the poet” is spoken of without any name being expressed, mean the great Homer, and we Romans mean Virgil.

The law of the nations is common to all mankind, for nations have established certain laws, as occasion and the necessities of human life required. Wars arose, and in their train followed captivity and then slavery, which is contrary to the law of nature; for by that law all men are originally born free. Further, by the law of nations almost all contracts were at first introduced, as, for instance, buying and selling, letting and hiring, partnership, deposits, loans returnable in kind, and very many others.

3. Our law is written and unwritten, just as among the Greeks some of their laws were written and others were not written. The written part consists of leges (lex), plebiscita, senatusconsulta, constitutiones of emperors, edicta of magistrates, and responsa of jurisprudents [i.e., jurists].

4. A lex is that which was enacted by the Roman people on its being proposed by a senatorian magistrate, as a consul. A plebiscitum is that which was enacted by the plebs on its being proposed by a plebeian magistrate, as a tribune. The plebs differ from the people as a species from its genus, for all the citizens, including patricians and senators, are comprehended in the populi (people); but the plebs only included citizens [who were] not patricians or senators. Plebiscita, after the Hortensian law had been passed, began to have the same force as leges.

5. A senatusconsultum is that which the senate commands or appoints: for, when the Roman people was so increased that it was difficult to assemble it together to pass laws, it seemed right that the senate should be consulted in place of the people.

6. That which seems good to the emperor has also the force of law; for the people, by the Lex Regia, which is passed to confer on him his power, make over to him their whole power and authority. Therefore whatever the emperor ordains by rescript, or decides in adjudging a cause, or lays down by edict, is unquestionably law; and it is these enactments of the emperor that are called constitutiones. Of these, some are personal, and are not to be drawn into precedent, such not being the intention of the emperor. Supposing the emperor has granted a favor to any man on account of his merit, or inflicted some punishment, or granted some extraordinary relief, the application of these acts does not extend beyond the particular individual. But the other constitutiones, being general, are undoubtedly binding on all.

7. The edicts of the praetors are also of great authority. These edicts are called the ius honorarium, because those who bear honors [i.e., offices] in the state, that is, the magistrates, have given them their sanction. The curule aediles also used to publish an edict relative to certain subjects, which edict also became a part of the ius honorarium.

8. The answers of the jurisprudenti are the decisions and opinions of persons who were authorized to determine the law. For anciently it was provided that there should be persons to interpret publicly the law, who were permitted by the emperor to give answers on questions of law. They were called jurisconsulti; and the authority of their decision and opinions, when they were all unanimous, was such, that the judge could not, according to the constitutiones, refuse to be guided by their answers.

9. The unwritten law is that which usage has established; for ancient customs, being sanctioned by the consent of those who adopt them, are like laws.

10. The civil law is not improperly divided into two kinds, for the division seems to have had its origin in the customs of the two states, Athens and Lacedaemon. For in these states it used to be the case, that the Lacedaemonians rather committed to memory what they observed as law, while the Athenians rather observed as law what they had consigned to writing, and included in the body of their laws.

11. The laws of nature, which all nations observe alike, being established by a divine providence, remain ever fixed and immutable. But the laws which every state has enacted, undergo frequent changes, either by the tacit consent of the people, or by a new law being subsequently passed. (Institutes Book I)

September 7, 2011


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Are Individuals Permitted to Possess Property as Their Own?

We thus proceed to the second inquiry. It seems that individuals are not permitted to possess property as their own, for the following reasons:

Obj. 1. Everything contrary to the natural law is illicit. But all things are by the natural law common possessions, and individual ownership of possessions is indeed contrary to possession by the community. Therefore, it is illicit for human beings to appropriate external goods as their own.

Obj. 2. Basil, explaining the words of the rich man in Lk. 12:18, says: “As those who come to public events ahead of time would prevent those coming later from attending, by appropriating to themselves what is ordered to common use, so the rich think that common goods they seize before others belong to them.” But it is illicit to prevent others from possessing common goods. Therefore, it is illicit to appropriate common goods to oneself.

Obj. 3. Ambrose says, and the Decretum holds: “Let no one call one’s own what is common property.” But he calls external goods common property, as his prior remarks make clear. Therefore, it seems that no one is permitted to appropriate external goods to oneself.

On the contrary, Augustine says in his work On Heresies: “The ‘Apostolics’ have most arrogantly so designated themselves because they do not receive into their fellowship the married or those possessing their own property. (The Catholic Church likewise has very many monks and celibate clerics.)” But these heretics hold this view because, cut off from the church, they think that the married and possessors of property, which they themselves are not, have no hope of salvation. Therefore, it is false to say that human beings are not permitted to possess their own property.

I answer that two things belong to human beings regarding external goods. One is the power to manage and dispense external goods. And human beings are permitted to possess them as their own in that regard. And this is necessary for human life for three reasons. First, indeed, the power to manage and dispense external goods is necessary for human life because individuals are more careful in managing goods that belong to them alone than goods that are common to all or many. This is so because individuals, shunning work, leave common property to the care of others, as happens when there are many servants.

Second, the power of individuals to manage and dispense external goods is necessary for human life because human affairs are conducted in a more orderly fashion if the requisite care in managing external goods be entrusted to individuals. On the other hand, there would be confusion if unspecified individuals were to manage everything.

Third, the power of individuals to manage and dispense external goods is necessary for human life because human beings content with their own property live in a condition of peace. And so we observe that quarrels arise rather frequently among those who possess goods in common and not individually.

But the use of external goods is the second thing that belongs to human beings regarding the goods. And human beings in that regard should not possess external goods as their own but as common possessions, namely, in such a way that they readily share the goods when others are in need. And so the Apostle says in 1 Tim. 6:17-8: “Teach the rich of this world to distribute and share readily.”

Reply Obj. 1. The common possession of external goods is ascribed to the natural law, not because the natural law dictates that all such goods should be possessed in common, and nothing possessed as one’s own, but because there is division of possessions by human agreement, which belongs to positive law, as I have said before, rather than by the natural law. And so the individual ownership of possessions is not contrary to the natural law, although the inventiveness of human reason adds this to the natural law

Reply Obj. 2. Those who come early to public events and prepare the way for others to attend would not act illicitly, but they act illicitly if they prevent others from attending. And likewise, the rich do not act improperly if they before others take possession of property that was in the beginning common and share the property with others. But the rich sin if they indiscriminately prevent others from using the property. And so Basil says in the same place: “Why are you rich and others beggars except in order that you gain the merit of dispensing your wealth well, and that others are rewarded for their patience?”

Reply Obj. 3. When Ambrose says: “Let no one call one’s own what is common property,” he is speaking about individual ownership in regard to the use of external goods. And so he adds: “Those who spend too much are guilty of robbery.”

From Article Seven

On the contrary, all things are common property in cases of necessity. And so it does not seem to be a sin if one takes the property of another, since necessity has made the property common.

I answer that prescriptions of human law cannot derogate from natural or divine law. But the natural order established by divine providence has ordered inferior things to alleviate the necessity of human beings. And so the division and appropriation of material things, which proceeds from human law, does not preclude that such things should alleviate the necessity of human beings. And so the natural law requires that superfluous things in one’s possession be used for the sustenance of the poor. And so Ambrose says, and the Decretum maintains: “It is the bread of the hungry that you withhold; it is the garments of the naked that you hide away; the money you bury in the ground is the ransom and freedom of the unfortunate.” But because many persons are in need, and the same things cannot assist everybody, the dispensing of one’s own goods is committed to each individual, so that each may out of them assist those in need.

Still, if the necessity is so pressing and clear that one has an immediate need of things at hand (e.g., when personal danger threatens, and there is no other way to avoid it), then one may lawfully alleviate one’s necessity with the goods of another, whether one takes the goods openly or secretly. Nor does this, properly speaking, have the character of theft or robbery.

Reply Obj. 1. The decretal is talking about cases in which there is no pressing necessity.

Reply Obj. 2. Using the property of another taken in a case of extreme necessity does not have the character of theft, properly speaking. This is because such necessity makes one’s own what one takes to support one’s life.

  Reply Obj. 3. One can also in cases of like necessity secretly take the property of another in order to assist a neighbor in such need.

(ST II-II, Q 66 article 2 (Property)

May 7, 2011

Justice and Jurisprudence

Comments Off on St Basil: Homily on Psalm 14

Against Usury


1. In depicting the character of the perfect man, of him, that is, who is ordained to ascend to the life of everlasting peace, the prophet reckons among his noble deeds his never having given his money upon usury. This particular sin is condemned in many passages of Scripture. Ezekiel reckons taking usury and increase among the greatest of crimes. The law distinctly utters the prohibition ‘Thou shalt not lend upon usury to thy brother’ and to thy neighbour. Again it is said, ‘Usury upon usury; guile upon guile.’ And of the city abounding in a multitude of wickednesses, what does the Psalm say? ‘Usury and guile depart not from her streets.’ Now the prophet instances precisely the same point as characteristic of the perfect man, saying, ‘He that putteth not out his money to usury.’ For in truth it is the last pitch of inhumanity that one man, in need of the bare necessities of life, should be compelled to borrow, and another, not satisfied with the principal, should seek to make gain and profit for himself out of the calamities of the poor. The Lord gave His own injunction quite plainly in the words, ‘from him that would borrow of thee turn not thou away.’ But what of the money lover? He sees before him a man under stress of necessity bent to the ground in supplication. He sees him hesitating at no act, no words, of humiliation. He sees him suffering undeserved misfortune, but he is merciless. He does not reckon that he is a fellow-creature. He does not give in to his entreaties. He stands stiff and sour. He is moved by no prayers; his resolution is broken by no tears. He persists in refusal, invoking curses on his own head if he has any money about him, and swearing that he is himself on the lookout for a friend to furnish him a loan. He backs lies with oaths, and makes a poor addition to his stock in trade by supplementing inhumanity with perjury. Then the suppliant mentions interest, and utters the word security. All is changed. The frown is relaxed; with a genial smile he recalls old family connexion. Now it is ‘my friend.’ ‘I will see,’ says he, ‘if I have any money by me. Yes; there is that sum which a man I know has left in my hands on deposit for profit. He named very heavy interest. However, I shall certainly take something off, and give it you on better terms.’ With pretences of this kind and talk like this he fawns on the wretched victim, and induces him to swallow the bait. Then he binds him with written security, adds loss of liberty to the trouble of his pressing poverty, and is off. The man who has made himself responsible for interest which he cannot pay has accepted voluntary slavery for life. Tell me; do you expect to get money and profit out of the pauper? If he were in a position to add to your wealth, why should he come begging at your door? He came seeking an ally, and he found a foe. He was looking for medicine, and he lighted on poison. You ought to have comforted him in his distress, but in your attempt to grow fruit on the waste you are aggravating his necessity. Just as well might a physician go in to his patients, and instead of restoring them to health, rob them of the little strength they might have left. This is the way in which you try to profit by the misery of the wretched. Just as farmers pray for rain to make their fields fatter, so you are anxious for men’s need and indigence, that your money may make more. You forget that the addition which you are making to your sins is larger than the increase to your wealth which you are reckoning on getting for your usury. The seeker of the loan is helpless either way: he bethinks him of his poverty, he gives up all idea of payment as hopeless when at the need of the moment he risks the loan. The borrower bends to necessity and is beaten. The lender goes off secured by bills and bonds.


2. After he has got his money, at first a man is bright and joyous; he shines with another’s splendour, and is conspicuous by his altered mode of life. His table is lavish; his dress is most expensive. His servants appear in finer liveries; he has flatterers and boon companions; his rooms are full of drones innumerable. But the money slips away. Time as it runs on adds the interest to its tale. Now night brings him no rest; no day is joyous; no sun is bright; he is weary of his life; he hates the days that are hurrying on to the appointed period; he is afraid of the months, for they are parents of interest. Even if he sleeps, he sees the lender in his slumbers—a bad dream—standing by his pillow. If he wakes up, there is the anxiety and dread of the interest. ‘The poor and the usurer,’ he exclaims, ‘meet together: the Lord lighteneth both their eyes.’ The lender runs like a hound after the game. The borrower like a ready prey crouches at the coming catastrophe, for his penury robs him of the power of speech. Both have their ready-reckoner in their hands, the one congratulating himself as the interest mounts up, the other groaning at the growth of his calamities. ‘Drink waters out of thine own cistern.’ Look, that is to say, at your own resources; do not approach other men’s springs; provide your comforts from your own reservoirs. Have you household vessels, clothes, beast of burden, all kinds of furniture? Sell these. Rather surrender all than lose your liberty. Ah, but—he rejoins—I am ashamed to put them up for sale. What then do you think of another’s bringing them out a little later on, and crying your goods, and getting rid of them for next to nothing before your very eyes? Do not go to another man’s door. Verily ‘another man’s well is narrow.’ Better is it to relieve your necessity gradually by one contrivance after another than after being all in a moment elated by another man’s means, afterwards to be stripped at once of everything. If you have anything wherewith to pay, why do you not relieve your immediate difficulties out of these resources? If you are insolvent, you are only trying to cure ill with ill. Decline to be blockaded by an usurer. Do not suffer yourself to be sought out and tracked down like another man’s game. Usury is the origin of lying; the beginning of ingratitude, unfairness, perjury.…


4. But, you ask, how am I to live? You have hands. You have a craft. Work for wages. Go into service. There are many ways of getting a living, many kinds of resources. You are helpless? Ask those who have means. It is discreditable to ask? It will be much more discreditable to rob your creditor. I do not speak thus to lay down the law. I only wish to point out that any course is more advantageous to you than borrowing…..


5. Listen, you rich men, to the kind of advice I am giving to the poor because of your inhumanity. Far better endure under their dire straits than undergo the troubles that are bred of usury! But if you were obedient to the Lord, what need of these words? What is the advice of the Master? Lend to those from whom ye do not hope to receive. And what kind of loan is this, it is asked, from all which all idea of the expectation of repayment is withdrawn? Consider the force of the expression, and you will be amazed at the loving kindness of the legislator. When you mean to supply the need of a poor man for the Lord’s sake, the transaction is at once a gift and a loan. Because there is no expectation of reimbursement, it is a gift. Yet because of the munificence of the Master, Who repays on the recipient’s behalf *, it is a loan. ‘He that hath pity on the poor lendeth unto the Lord.’ Do you not wish the Master of the universe to be responsible for your repayment? If any wealthy man in the town promises you repayment on behalf of others, do you admit his suretyship? But you do not accept God, Who more than repays on behalf of the poor. Give the money lying useless, without weighting it with increase, and both shall be benefited. To you will accrue the security of its safe keeping. The recipients will have the advantage of its use. And if it is increase which you seek, be satisfied with that which is given by the Lord. He will pay the interest for the poor. Await the loving-kindness of Him Who is in truth most kind. “What you are taking involves the last extremity of inhumanity. You are making your profit out of misfortune; you are levying a tax upon tears. You are strangling the naked. You are dealing blows on the starving. There is no pity anywhere, no sense of your kinship to the hungry, and you call the profit you get from these sources kindly and humane! Wo unto them that ‘put bitter for sweet, and sweet for bitter,’ and call inhumanity humanity! This surpasses even the riddle which Samson proposed to his boon companions:—‘Out of the eater came forth meat, and out of the strong came forth sweetness.’ Out of the inhuman came forth humanity! Men do not gather grapes of thorns, nor figs of thistles, nor humanity of usury. A corrupt tree bringeth forth evil fruit. There are such people as twelve-per-cent-men and ten-per-cent-men: I shudder to mention their names. They are exactors by the month, like the demons who produce epilepsy, attacking the poor as the changes of the moon come round. “Here there is an evil grant to either, to giver and to recipient. To the latter, it brings ruin on his property; to the former, on his soul. The husbandman, when he has the ear in store, does not search also for the seed beneath the root; you both possess the fruit and cannot keep your hands from the principal. You plant where there is no ground. You reap where there has been no sowing. For whom you are gathering you cannot tell. The man from whom usury wrings tears is manifest enough; but it is doubtful who is destined to enjoy the results of the superfluity. You have laid up in store for yourself the trouble that results from your iniquity, but it is uncertain whether you will not leave the use of your wealth to others. Therefore, ‘from him that would borrow of thee, turn not thou away;’ and do not give your money upon usury. Learn from both Old and New Testament what is profitable for you, and so depart hence with good hope to your Lord; in Him you will receive the interest of your good deeds,—in Jesus Christ our Lord to Whom be glory and might for ever and ever, Amen.

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