Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Aquinas:"First Whig?" - Novak's Catholic Whig Tradition

The debate which is the focus of this website is often characterized as one between "Whig-Thomists" and "Augustinian-Thomists." Given that "Whig-Thomist" is a label commonly applied (usually in a derogative manner, although not quite as maliciously as "neocon") to the Catholic philosopher Michael Novak, I'd like to devote a post to the origins and history of the term, as it originates in Lord Acton and later in the "Catholic Whig" proposal of Michael Novak.

Lord Acton, Thomas Aquinas and the "Whig Theory of Revolution"

The meaning of the term "Whig-Thomist" is originally derived from a passage from Lord Acton's famous speech "The History of Freedom in Christianity" delivered to the members of the Bridgemouth Institute on May 28, 1877, in which he credits St. Thomas Aquinas with having proposed an early form of "The Whig theory of revolution":

Here are the sentiments of the most celebrated of all the Guelphic writers: -- "A King who is unfaithful to his duty forfeits his claim to obedience. It is not rebellion to depose him, for he is himself a rebel whom the nation has a right to put down. But it is better to abridge his power, that he may be unable to abuse it. For this purpose, the whole nation ought to have a share in governing itself; the constitution ought to combine a limited and elective monarchy, with an aristocracy of merit, and such an admixture of democracy as shall admit all classes to office, by popular election. No government has a right to levy taxes beyond the limit determined by the people. All political authority is derived from popular suffrage, and all laws must be made by the people or their representatives. There is no security for us as long as we depend on the will of another man." This language, which contains the earliest exposition of the Whig theory of the revolution, is taken from the works of St. Thomas Aquinas, of whom Lord Bacon says that he had the largest heart of the school divines. And it is worth while to observe that he wrote at the very moment when Simon de Montfort summoned the Commons; and that the politics of the Neapolitan friar are centuries in advance of the English statesman’s.

In "Was Aquinas a Whig? St. Thomas and Regime" (Faith & Reason Fall 1994), Kenneth Craycraft, Assistant Professor of Theology at St. Mary's University (San Antonio, TX), challenges Lord Acton's interpretation / summary of Aquinas. "While language similar to some of that which Acton attributes to Thomas may be found at various places in Aquinas," Craycraft notes, "the 'quote' is at best an interpolation, at worst a fabrication." With respect to Acton's reading of Aquinas itself:

Though Acton does faithfully convey part of Aquinas' thought, he ignores the very "un-Whigish" premise of the passage, as well as an important qualification to the right to depose the tyrant. First, Aquinas, unlike Acton or any other liberal, advocates the rule of one man as "the best" and "to be preferred." Aquinas would not remove the king in order to establish liberal democracy, but rather in order to establish another (just) king.

Craycraft goes on to note points of similarity and discrepancy between Acton's paraphrasing of Aquinas and direct passages from Aquinas himself:

. . . for the Whig Acton, no political good is higher than individual freedom. "Liberty is not a means to a higher political end," he asserts. Liberty "is itself the highest political end. It is not for the sake of a good public administration that it is required, but for security in the pursuit" of individual preference. ["History of Freedom in Antiquity", 1877]. For Acton liberal democracy, not monarchy, is the best "regime." Still less could one ever argue that tyranny ought to be endured under some circumstances.

For Aquinas, though, liberty is not the highest good, political or otherwise, and democracy is not the best regime. Though giving carefully qualified grounds for deposing the tyrant, Aquinas affirms two very un-Whigish political doctrines: monarchy as superior to democracy, and order as precedent to liberty. "The more efficacious . . . a government is in keeping the unity of peace, the more useful it will be," explains St. Thomas. "For we call that more useful which leads the better to the end. Now it is manifest that what is itself one can more efficaciously bring about unity than several. . . . Therefore the rule of one man is more useful than the rule of many."

Craycraft concludes:

Acton's quilted paraphrase, while containing some authentic echoes of Thomas' writing, clearly cannot be called a quote. Moreover, the meaning Acton tries to convey by the paragraph is clearly a departure from Thomas' own thought. While one may or may not conclude that Thomas' thought was a precursor to liberalism, he certainly advocates nothing like a liberal theory of revolution, nor can he be called a Whig. The essential point of Acton and the Whig theory he represents is that liberal democracy is not the least imperfect option among many, but that it is the best regime (or, rather, non-regime), in accord with man and his nature. The more refined is liberalism the more just the system; the less pure the less just. Thought of as a continuum, monarchy is the least just regime.

But for Aquinas, rule by one wise man is the best regime, both because it is consistent with nature and it works best. Since no man is sufficiently wise or above temptation toward evil, other types of regime are mixed with the best regime to arrive at the most workable. But the essential point is that the regime is closest to being most natural when it is headed by the single wise king. For Aquinas, the best regime is monarchy; democracy and aristocracy are mixed with monarchy only because of the possible failure of the king to remain just. Thus to call St. Thomas a Whig is to ascribe to him exactly the opposite opinion of the just regime.

and closes with a citation from Pierre Manent:

Despite the authority of Lord Acton, it is not possible to describe Thomas Aquinas as a liberal. Saint Thomas was not a liberal. Nor was he anti-liberal, which goes without saying. He described, analyzed, and pronounced what appeared to him to be the objective order of things and the nature of man, founded on an objective hierarchy of what was good. Now, it was such a "dogmatic" presupposition that was rejected by those authors who developed the liberal viewpoint. The starting point of the idea and of the liberal undertaking was skepticism: the idea of what was good is an uncertain one and that is why men fight. As Hobbes and Locke took pleasure in proclaiming, there is no summum bonum. . . . It is certain that, by radically criticizing the idea of good, the idea of conscience, and the idea of an objective morality, they undermined a vital presupposition of Christian doctrine.
(Which, of course, raises the separate issue of what kind of liberalism is being advocated by the "Whig-Thomists" -- but that's another debate for another time).

I thought it best to open up with Craycraft's critique, just so we will have no illusions that there is a "direct line" of development between St. Thomas Aquinas and liberal or constitutional democracy, as envisioned by Lord Acton. As we'll see, I think it would likewise be deliberately misleading -- that is to say, a "straw man" -- to assume that Novak is arguing for such a "direct line" or a literal understanding of Aquinas as "The first Whig." A plain reading of Novak indicates otherwise.

From Acton to Hayek, Murray, Novak

According to Craycraft, Lord Acton's assertion was "approvingly cited" by Friedrich Hayek ("In some respects Lord Acton was not being altogether paradoxical when he described Thomas Aquinas as the first Whig" - The Constitution of Liberty U of Chicago Press, 1960, p. 457, fn 4) and John Courtney Murray ("‘A free people under a limited government' . . . is a phrase that would have satisfied the first Whig St. Thomas Aquinas" - We Hold These Truths, Sheed & Ward, 2nd ed., 1986, p. 32).

Novak calls Aquinas the "first Whig," and lists Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Adam Smith, Lord Acton and Friedrich von Hayek as representatives of this political philosophy. See Novak, This Hemisphere of Liberty (Washington, DC: The AEI Press, 1990), pp. 107ff.; "The Return of the Catholic Whig," , No. 1 (March 1990): 38-42; "Thomas Aquinas, the First Whig," Crisis, October 1990: pp. 31-38; and Free Persons and the Common Good (Lanham, MD: Madison Books, 1988), pp. 29-30; 80.

Novak Makes His Case for "Catholic Whiggery"

The Hemisphere of Liberty is the key text for an explication of what Novak means by "Catholic Whiggism". Novak provides the following summary of his book on his website (

Lord Acton called Thomas Aquinas the first Whig. The ancient Whig pedigree, far older than the now defunct British and American parties of that name, includes Bellarmine, Alexis de Tocqueville, Acton himself, Jacques Maritain, Yves R. Simon, and others. Catholic Whigs, like Progressives, believe in the dignity of the human person, in human liberty, in institutional reform, in gradual progress. But they also have a deep respect for language, law, liturgy, custom, habit, and tradition that marks them, simultaneously, as conservatives. With the conservatives, the Catholic Whigs have an awareness of the force of cultural habit and the role of passion and sin in human affairs. With the liberals, they give central importance to human liberty, especially the slow building of institutions of liberty. The Catholic Whigs see liberty as ordered liberty – [quoting Lord Acton] not the liberty to do what one wishes, but the liberty to do what one ought.

In an appendix to This Hemisphere of Liberty, Novak lays out his case for dubbing Thomas Aquinas "The First Whig" ("Thomas Aquinas: The First Whig, pp. 107-123). He begins by noting some of the contexts in which we recognize Aquinas' philosophy -- from courts of law to international relations, in the distinction of the sacred from the secular, the use of concepts like 'secular,' 'conscience,' 'will' and 'person'; in the poetry of Dante and the mysticism of St. John of the Cross,

"The Western Tradition rests upon Aquinas as the sturdy bridge from the ancients (Moses and the prophets, the Greeks, Jesus, Cicero and the Church Fathers) to the modern age . . . remove Aquinas, and that bridge falls. Unlike Descartes, Hobbes, and other moderns, he really knew his ancients. A greater sophistication on their part might have saved generations of elementary confusions about the senses, the passions, the virtues, reason and the like.

The 'Integral Humanism' of St. Thomas Aquinas'

In spite of the dour time in which Aquinas lived ("to describe men as they actually behaved in the 13th century was not to hold an excessively optimistic view of human virtue", Novak quips), Aquinas possessed a positive vision of his fellow man and an "uncommon capacity for the dispassionate assessment of evidence." Through his discovery and analysis of accurate Latin translations of Aristotle's Ethics and Politics, Aquinas came to appreciate what man could discover by reason and reflection, independently of divine revelation:

Aristotle showed how humans might follow the imperatives written in their nature to become good men, and good citizens. Seeing that, Aquinas "saw that it was good." . . . If it was good for the Creator, that was plenty good for him -- not sufficient, perhaps, for all purposes, but legitimately and fully good, and to be praised, as far as it went.

In other words, Aquinas distinguished "good" from "saved." He wished to honor the work of the Creator, and by no means at the expense of the Redeemer. It is the advantage of Jews and Christians, Aquinas argued, that "their God is reasonable." . . .

This is the proudest boast of the Catholic intellectual tradition: through Thomas Aquinas it legitimated, within a Christian vision, all that is good about human nature and its strivings. . . . This Christian humanism, "integral humanism" as Jacques Maritain called it, is by no means blind to the weakness, sinfulness, and full capacities of evil in the human breast. This humanism nonetheless shares in the satisfaction the Creator took in his creation and, especially, his most beloved creature, man. The most realistic humanism, without illusions, is quite resolute against the nostalgia about the past or utopianism about the future. And it may also be the humanism least closed to the transcendent and most aware of the judgement of God. But humanism it most assuredly is.

According to Novak, the achievement of this particular kind of humanism "is the first sense in which it is legitimate to speak of Thomas Aquinas as 'the first Whig.'"

Hayek's "triple test" for Whiggery

Novak moves on to examine Friedrich von Hayek's "triple test" in defining the term "Whig" -- 1) a commitment to liberty; 2) a love for tradition ("Whigs place considerable weight the lessons of experience, on things tried and proved, on . . . values learned organically, implicitly, and often below the level of verbal articulation"); 3) a sense of realistic hope and modest progress -- that we can learn from the past, can "nudge human institutions to more tolerable practices". Lest their be any misunderstanding over the term progress, Novak clarifies:

As Hayek argues so poignantly [in "Why I am Not a Conservative", Constitution of Liberty pp. 397-411], to call one's self "progressive" these days is to be enrolled against one's will under a banner that is the euphemism given by the Left to sinister dreams of domination. By comparison with the progressives of today's Left, the Whigs have too much respect for tradition to fall into neodoxy, the doctrine that the unproved new is better. Still, on their other flank, believing in the free polity, the free economy, and the moral and cultural ideal of ordered freedom, contemporary Whigs can scarcely call themselves (in the colloquial sense) "conservatives"; the free society is always, under the inspiration of liberty, open to creativity. Thus, their conservatism is tempered by the desire to test new spirits, to prove the good results of experiments, and -- even when experimenting -- to provide many checks and balances against abiding tendencies to self-aggrandizement.

It is in the second sense, that Aquinas possessed "a zeal to vindicate these three principles of orientation," that he was a Whig. But of course, Novak admits, this is not enough.

Practical Principles for a "Catholic Whig" Political Vision

Novak agrees with Craycraft (or rather, anticipates Craycraft's rebuke):

It is, of course, misleading to treat a historical figure outside his context. By no means would it be legitimate to ask if Thomas Aquinas were a Whig in the same sense as Thomas Jefferson, James Madision, Edmund Burke, Adam Smith, Lord Acton, or Friedrich von Hayek. The more exact question is: What did Thomas Aquinas hold that might embolden those who today cherish the Whig tradition to count him in their number?
The answer, says Novak, is that Aquinas' political vision "laid down specific practical principles that were to be useful to later generations of Whigs, in the construction of new institutions of political liberty." Novak devotes the latter part of his appendix to laying down these (six) principles "that seem compelling to the Whig temper."
  1. Civilization is constituted by reasoned conversation - Thomas Gilby , O.P., and John Courtney Murray, S.J., offer the following summary of Aquinas: "Civilization is formed by men locked together in argument. From this dialogue the community becomes a political community." For Aquinas, the most decisive human trait is that we are truth-seeking animals -- free, reasoning, inquiring animals. They ought to be moved by rational persuasion, not by force -- and not by demagogy or seduction, either. . . . That regime is the more civilized which relies less on coercion and more on rational persuasion.

  2. The human being is free because he can reflect and choose Thomas Jefferson said "The God who gave us life gave us liberty." ("A Summary View of the Rights of British America"); According to Novak, the words are Jefferson's, but the thesis is that of Aquinas, as expressed in the following:
    "A special rule [of Divine providence] applies where intelligent creatures are involved. For they excel all others in the perfection of their nature and the dignity of their end; they are masters of their activity and act freely, while others are more acted on than acting.
    (Thomas Gilby, OP, St. Thomas Aquinas: Philosophical Texts pp. 355-356). God blessed man with the ability to reflect and to choose among ends proposed to us, and the means to those ends (the chief end being, of course, to love Him). In this lies our dignity as human beings.

  3. Civilized political institutions respect reflection and choice - Monarchs are judged by Aquinas according to the degree to which their regimes rule their subjects tyranically or through their consent. Novak grants that "to argue that Aquinas, before Montesquieu and Madison, foretold the shape of the practical institutions that might allow for the routine and regular expression of such consent by the governed would be to overreach." Nonetheless, Novak maintains that St. Thomas validated the search for such institutions":
    He announced their first principles. He insisted upon their proper measure: the more worthy institutions are of the human person's capacity to reflect and to choose, the more civilized they are. If institutions violate that capacity, they are by that much deformed."

    Furthermore, Novak maintains, while Aquinas did not yet speak of "inalienable rights," he recognized "indelible laws in man's being that command the respect of all, agencies of the state included" -- natural law as the criteria for the legitimacy of positive law. Temporal authority, then, should appeal to our inherent rational nature:

    For Aquinas, the foundation of law is the human capacity for reflection and choice: man's reasoning nature. On the one hand, to violate that capacity in the name of law is to empty law of its inherent claim to respect and obedience. On the other hand, civilized life demands order. Without authority, common life falls into listlessness, an incapacity for community action, and ultimately chaos. Order there must be, but not just any kind of order. Only a reasonable order does justice to the dignity of its citizens.

  4. True liberty is ordered liberty A genuine exercise of liberty should be unimpeded from within, resting upon "command of the passions, a sense of proportion, correctives against personal weaknesses." Liberty is attained through moral virtue:
    "Temperance, fortitude, a sense of proportion (justice), and practical wisdom . . . these cardinal habits give order to our capacity for human freedom. They are not easy to develop; they are partly a gift and partly earned by repeated effort. Thus, the conquest of personal liberty requires self-education in the virtues necessary to ordered liberty: no such habits, no actual liberty."

  5. Humans are self-determined persons, not mere individuals -- As individuals, we are only part of the whole and in this respect may be obliged to subordinate ourselves, even to the point of sacrificing our lives, for the whole. As persons, we are autonomous subjects participating in liberty proper to the Creator. For Aquinas,
    the internal capacities of the person transcend the purposes and limited powers of the state. From a purely philosophical point of view, each person has a responsibility to direct his own destiny. From a theological point of view, each person has been created to share in the life of God. . . .

    No matter how famous, successful, or wealthy a person may become, each person has been made to be restless until he rests in God, and each society stands under God's judgement. No state or no law is legitimate that blocks the free exercise of this quest for God."

  6. The regime worthiest of the human person mixes elements of monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy - Here Novak refers to the passage from Aquinas' Summa Theologica Ia-2ae, cv. I:
    Two points should be observed concerning the healthy constitution of a state or nation. One is that all should play a responsible part in the governing: this ensures peace, and the arrangement is liked and maintained by all. The other concerns the type of government; on this head the best arrangement for a state or government is for one to be placed in command, presiding by authority over all, while under him are others with administrative powers, yet for the rulers to belong to all because they are elected by and from all. Such is the best polity, well combined from the different strains of monarchy, since there is one at the head; of aristocracy, since many are given responsibility; and of democracy, since the rulers are chosen from and by the people.

For Aquinas, it is these six theses that justified the inclination of Lord Acton and Friedrich von Hayek to labelAquinas "The First Whig" -- "in principle, not in institutional detail."

Where did it go wrong?

But that is not the end of the story. Novak goes on to note that "in the actual course of Western history, in the great historical experiments that led to our modern liberal societies, direct intellectual links with these six theses of Aquinas were broken" -- pointing to the neglect of Aquinas by Hobbes, Montesquieu, Locke, Rosseau, and others. For Novak, this intellectual rupture with Thomistic thought has had disasterous consequences for our culture, among them the failure of Enlightenment project to establish an ethic based on modern conceptions of reason (here Novak joins others in praising Alisdair MacIntyre's groundbreaking analysis After Virtue); the split between secular philosophy and religion which has "marooned the majority of churchgoers and isolated the academics and intellectuals."

Novak concludes:

In calling Aquinas with propriety the first Whig, therefore it would be wrong to derogate from the full, practical originality of the Whigs who appeared in history some four or more centuries later than he did. They had plenty to invent and to achieve on their own. So it would not do to give Aquinas more credit than he deserves -- or less. He helped to establish, and to justify in the Christian world, the Whig values of liberty, tradition and institutional progress. He paid high honor to the political vocation. He held together concepts that many later thinkers treat as dichotomies -- concepts such as freedom and order, person and community, knowledge through the senses and intelligence, passion and virtue, tradition and progress, the evil in man and the good, nature and grace, faith and inquiry On each of these matters, he may have been the deepest thinker in the Whig tradition. In trying to deepen the philosophical formulations of that tradition, and in particular to build a bridge between the philosophical and the religious ways of addressing questions of liberty, one could do worse than to seek some fresh starting points in Aquinas. [p. 122]

Related Links on "Whig-Thomism", Pro / Con

  • "Aquinas and the Heretics", by Michael Novak. First Things 58 (December 1995): 33-38. A rich essay in which Novak addresses Aquinas' professed intolerance of heresy in Secunda Secundae as a challenge to his Whig-Thomist proposition, since it "reinforces the views of those who believe that Catholic teaching is inherently intolerant."

  • In On Two Wings: "Ten Questions about the Founding" [pp. 120-123], Novak devotes a chapter to some brief Q&A on his premises, one of which is: "If Aquinas was the 'First Whig', why did it take so long for the right to religious liberty to become an operative part in political constitutions?" -- Novak responds by articulating the necessary social advances that must be achieved before a political regime of religious liberty can be established: 1) differentiation of the sphere of the state from society and the relevant authorities of each; 2) differentiation of the sphere of culture from politics, in such a way that loyalty to the state does not require unity of thought and belief"; 3) a theory of rights that sees justice (jus, right) inhering not only in things, but in persons -- "that rights inhere in subjects, not things."

    Novak credits the work of Brian Tierney (The Idea of Natural Rights: Studies on Natural Rights, Natural Law, and Church Law 1150 - 1625 Eerdmans, 1997) for pointing out that

    . . . while it is not likely that Aquinas had reached the subjective idea of natural right . . . what Aquinas did do is develop the idea of personal liberty in exquisite analytical detail, with precisions beyond the ken of earlier writers concerning such concepts as will, practical wisdom, liberum arbitrium, conscience, synderesis, and other aspects of liberty.
    Canonists would further develop Aquinas' thought on these matters, bringing it to bear in their own historical circumstances, "[leading] them to adapt the Thomastic language they inherited to new uses, beyond those employed by Thomas himself but -- so some canonists argue -- entirely consistent with his approach." Against the mistaken notion that modern rights theories are derived entirely from Hobbes, Tierney demonstrates "the history of the concept of jus naturale before the seventeenth century."

  • Two scholars have written detailed book-length critiques/rebuttals of the "Whig Thomist" proposition -- Robert Kraynak's Christian Faith and Modern Democracy: God & Politics in the Fallen World U. of Notre Dame Press (September 2001); and Dr. Tracy Rowland's The Culture and Thomist Tradition After Vatican II Routledge; 1 edition (April 1, 2003) - click the links for further information and reviews. (They're currently on my "must-read" list, so I'm refraining from further commentary until I've actually perused them).

    Readers can get a sense of Rowland's approach in Part II of an interview with Zenit News Service, "Benedict XVI, Thomism, and Liberal Culture" (July 25, 2005), in which she lays out the points of dispute between the "Whig" and "Augustinian" Thomists. Lest anyone have any illusions regarding how she feels about Whig-Thomism: "While the Whigs argue that liberalism is the logical outgrowth of the classical-theistic synthesis, the Augustinian Thomists argue that the liberal tradition represents its mutation and heretical reconstruction, and they tend to agree with Samuel Johnson that the devil -- not Thomas Aquinas -- was the first Whig."

  • The Social Order As Community, by Thomas Storck. Caelum Et Terra Vol 6 no 4 Fall 1996 -- in which a section is devoted to the question: "Is there a 'Catholic Whig Tradition?'", with specific reference to the "6 theses" of Aquinas which are compatible with Whiggery. Stork concludes:
    In his attempt to justify Aquinas's standing as a Whig, Novak has to fudge a good deal. . . . Most of these six theses are not peculiar to the Whig tradition, number six, for example, has been a staple of political philosophers since pagan antiquity, and numbers two, four and five are likewise hardly peculiar to the Whigs. But in fact Novak does not really attempt to make a serious argument here. He does not attempt to show that these theses are uniquely Whig, nor that, to the extent St. Thomas held any of them, this fact should make us "count him" in the same tradition as John Locke. By Novak's method of reasoning, almost every classical political philosopher could be counted as a Whig.

Novak can be commended for crediting St. Thomas for his (howbeit long-term) contributions to liberal/Whig political philosophy, and the "Whig Pedigree" is useful for charting similarities among a range of scholars. Novak lists the model thinkers of the Whig tradition as Robert Bellarmine, Richard Hooker, the Jesuits of Salamanca, and Lord Acton; the recent exponents are Don Luigi Sturzo, Jacques Maritain, Yves R. Simon, John Courtney Murray, SJ, Friedrich von Hayek and his country man Wilhelm Roepke, among others.

At the same time, as Craycraft and Storck demonstrate, the claim that Aquinas was the "first Whig" contains great potential for confusion and misinterpretation (due to its ambiguity), and any reference would best be accompanied by further clarification.