On “things not subject to human government”

In Article 4 of the 93d Question of Aquinas’ “Treatise on Law,” with a class, I read the following passage: “Those things are subject to human government, which can be done by man; but what pertains to the nature of man is not subject to human government; for instance, that he should have a soul, hands, or feet.”

What’s this “things not subject to human government” about?

Is there anything not subject to human government? The examples that Aquinas uses are striking. The fact that we have souls, hands, or feet is not subject to government. These attributes or parts of what we are were not the result of human legislation. In other words, what-it-is-to-be-a-human-being is not something that the government designs or causes, but rather finds. In other words, governments are limited by what-it-is-to-be-a-human-being. They reaffirm it but do not constitute it.

The next question that arises is this: Can human legislation claim to rule things which do not belong to its competency? A common saying about the absolute sovereignty of the British Parliament, attributed to A. V. Dicey in the nineteenth century, was that a parliamentary law decreeing all blue-eyed babies to be killed would still be the law.  Obviously, the theory that allowed such a statement would elevate politics to a god-like power of deciding by itself what constitutes what a human being is.

We used to be amused by such odd theories which, to be sure, were usually designed to make a point about the location of decision-making power in a government. In this country, we caught some of the ringing rhetoric of older affirmations in our Constitution and Amendments—Congress shall make no laws in this or that area. The reason for this restriction was the what-it-it-to-be-a-human-being issue. What things were “not” subject to human government were being spelled out in rational form.

Generally speaking, it has been assumed that what-it-is-to-be-a-human-being would best be protected and fostered in a “democracy.” In this “democracy,” we would have what are called “human rights.” We would also have free markets. A written constitution would set down what governments could and could not do. To promote democracy, rights, markets, and stability, we should universalize democracy to avoid tyranny..

At first sight, this agenda sounds like the distilled wisdom of the modern world. Perhaps it is. But if it is, something has gone terribly wrong. Democracy, rights, and freedom have become the theoretic justifications given for overturning the basic dignities seen to support and ground what a human being is. Democracy now justifies whatever the majority wants. Rights mean what I want to do to reach my definition of my happiness. Freedom means that I have no restriction on my actions other than what the democracy imposes on me.

We might wonder how it came about that what were once considered vices are now legislated to be virtues. In another question (93, 6), Aquinas observes that “In the wicked, the natural inclination to virtue is corrupted by wicked habits, and, moreover, the natural knowledge of good is darkened by sin.” One has to ponder such a sentence. Translated into English it says that acts which are objectively sinful, whether we call them that or not, will so act as to impede our acknowledging what is good. We will begin to call, under various sophisticated names, what is evil to be good and good to be evil.

In a later question (94, 6), Aquinas tells us that while we still use our reason, the operation of this reason in understanding life, family, and society can be “blotted out from the human heart, either by evil persuasions…or by vicious customs and corrupt habits, as among some men, theft, and even unnatural vices were not considered sinful.” That is a rather up-to-date sentence. So if we wonder why people cannot see the logic of the order of what-it-is-to-be-a-human-being, the answer is that sins go so deep that they actually make what is good appear to be evil. This appearance does not change things in reality. The consequences of our acts remain and do their damage even if we insist on calling them virtuous.

Why go over these famous lines of Aquinas at this time? They go a long way to explain what is also the Platonic principle that the disorder of public life is first a consequence, not cause, of what goes on in private life. When enough people, as it were, “blot out” what human nature really is and stands for, then what is contrary to human nature will become the ruling ethos of the public order also.

Freedom will come to mean doing and legislating or decreeing the opposite of what reason implies. Democracy will mean allowing what is contrary to reason and disallowing what is. Rights will mean that killing babies, unnatural vices, or experiments on human persons become the norm. Such, roughly, is what happens when “what is not subject to human governance” becomes subject to human governance. Instead of knowing what-a-human-being-is from nature, we give ourselves the power to decide what he is within the polity that has no responsibility to anything but itself. What is reasonable and normal then is subject to derision and persecution.

About James V. Schall, S.J. 153 Articles
James V. Schall, S.J. taught political philosophy at Georgetown University for many years until recently retiring. He is the author of numerous books and countless essays on philosophy, theology, education, morality, and other topics. His most recent book is Reasonable Pleasures: The Strange Coherences of Catholicism (Ignatius Press). Visit his site, "Another Sort of Learning", for more about his writings and work.