Aquinas on Resisting Tyrants and Enemies of the Common Good

We are meditating on Thomas Aquinas’ teachings on the common good and  justice and how Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. invoked Aquinas’ teachings in the heart of the struggle against racial injustice in the 1960s. 

Martin Luther King Jr., speaking at Brown’s chapel, Selma, Alabama 1965. (Bob Fitch Photography Archive, Department of Special Collections, Stanford University Libraries)

Aquinas discusses how tyrants rule against justice and the common good. 

The disregard of the common good is greater under an oligarchy than under a democracy, where, after all, the welfare of the majority has been attempted. But worst of all is a tyranny where the advantage of one man is sought. As the rule of the king is best, so the rule of a tyrant is worst. 

(Aquinas lived when  King Louis of France, a rather benign ruler, reigned.  Democracy was pretty rare in the thirteenth century.)

Greed feeds a tyrant including the greed for power.  Good law, based on the common good by definition, is meant to restrict greed, including the greed for power. 

“People See Through You” – Bruce Cockburn’s classic song of resistance against modern tyranny. Original video uploaded to YouTube by ajcgn4

Security is banished and everything is uncertain when people are cut off from law and depend on the will, I would even say the greed, of another.

Much is endangered and lost by tyrannical greed for, wrote Aquinas,

a tyrant oppresses the bodies of his subjects, but what is more damnable, he threatens their spiritual growth, for he is set on his own power, not their progress. He is suspicious of any dignity that they may possess that will prejudice his own iniquitous domination.

(Notice the role that domination plays in this analysis—a word being invoked by many in our day and which we have considered in previous DMs.)

Hans Scholl, Christoph Probst, and Sophie Scholl of Munich, student leaders of the secret White Rose Society, which worked with the Allies spreading flyers calling for active resistance to the Nazi regime. The three were tried and executed by the Nazis on February 22, 1943.

Following lies an amazing insight that in my opinion explains the condemnation of 108 theologians by Cardinal Ratzinger and Pope John Paul II as well as many goings on in today’s political scene:

A tyrant is more fearful of good persons than of bad persons, for he dreads their strange virtue. 

It is certainly my experience that fear drives tyrants and especially that fear that leads to envy—which is exactly what Aquinas is talking about here.  Tyrants are bullies with power who are envious of good people.  He also says that evil persons are incapable of magnanimity.

Among the 108 censured, silenced, and/or excommunicated by the modern Inquisition: (Top, L-R) Sister Margaret McBride, Leonardo Boff, Ivone Gebara,
(Bottom, L-R) Father Robert Nugent, Rev. Christine Mayr-Lumetzberger, Ernesto Cardenal. For the full list, see The Pope’s War below.

Fearful lest they grow strong and so stout of heart as no longer to brook his wicked despotism, but resolve in companionship to enjoy the fruits of peace, a tyrant is constrained to destroy good people’s confidence in one another, lest they band together to throw off his yoke. Therefore he sows discord among them, and encourages dissensions and litigation.    

A tyrant “sows discords” and tries to divide instead of unite people.  Does that remind you of any person or persons in the public sphere today?  In the media today making lots of money on discord?  Hate?  Vitriol?  Hate radio and hate television feeding the noise of demagoguery or tyranny?

God bless Thomas Aquinas for his truth-telling.  God bless all of us for resisting.

Adapted from Matthew Fox, Sheer Joy: Conversations with Thomas Aquinas on Creation Spirituality, pp. 417f.

Banner Image: “Padre Rafael Palacios and Monseñor Oscar Romero: This mural, on the wall of the convento of El Calvario, Suchitoto, has the images of Father Rafael Palacios and Archbishop Oscar Romero, Salvadoran martyrs” Photo by John Donaghy on Flickr.

Queries for Contemplation

Does this meditation on tyranny speak to political goings-on in our time?  How so?  How best to resist?

Recommended Reading

Sheer Joy: Conversations with Thomas Aquinas on Creation Spirituality

Matthew Fox renders Thomas Aquinas accessible by interviewing him and thus descholasticizing him.  He also translated many of his works such as Biblical commentaries never before in English (or Italian or German of French).  He  gives Aquinas a forum so that he can be heard in our own time. He presents Thomas Aquinas entirely in his own words, but in a form designed to allow late 20th-century minds and hearts to hear him in a fresh way. 
“The teaching of Aquinas comes through will a fullness and an insight that has never been present in English before and [with] a vital message for the world today.” ~ Fr. Bede Griffiths (Afterword).
Foreword by Rupert Sheldrake

The Tao of Thomas Aquinas: Fierce Wisdom for Hard Times

A stunning spiritual handbook drawn from the substantive teachings of Aquinas’ mystical/prophetic genius, offering a sublime roadmap for spirituality and action.
Foreword by Ilia Delio.
“What a wonderful book!  Only Matt Fox could bring to life the wisdom and brilliance of Aquinas with so much creativity. The Tao of Thomas Aquinas is a masterpiece.”
–Caroline Myss, author of Anatomy of the Spirit

The Pope’s War: Why Ratzinger’s Secret Crusade Has Imperiled the Church and How It Can Be Saved

The Pope’s War offers a provocative look at three decades of corruption in the Catholic Church, focusing on Josef Ratzinger, Pope Benedict XVI. The final section in the book focuses on birthing a truly catholic Christianity.
“This book should be read by everybody, not only for its ferocious courage, but also for its vision for what needs to be saved from the destructive forces that threaten authentic Christianity.” ~ Andrew Harvey, author of The Hope.
“In the gripping The Pope’s War, Matthew Fox takes an unwavering look at the layers of corruption in the Catholic Church, holding moral truth against power.”   — Jason Berry, author of Vows of Silence: The Abuse of Power in the Papacy of John Paul II

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5 thoughts on “Aquinas on Resisting Tyrants and Enemies of the Common Good”

    1. Richard Reich-Kuykendall
      Richard Reich-Kuykendall

      Thank you Deirdre for your kind words. Matthew’s words are always relevant for the times we live in. So follow him through these mediations and you will be encouraged even through the hard times that will inevitably lay ahead…

  1. Avatar
    Margaret Nuccio

    Each day gets better and better Matthew. I loved today’s on the common good. Also a joy to have joined the meeting with you and others tonight.
    Thank you, Margaret

    1. Richard Reich-Kuykendall
      Richard Reich-Kuykendall

      Margaret, thank you sooo much for your comment. Matthew has an amazing ability to take the words and teachings of great mystics and prophets of the past, and apply them today’s situations. In this way we can learn from our spiritual Elders.

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