Thomas Aquinas was born of an aristocratic family in the town of Aquino in northern Italy. He early entered the Dominican order and received his doctorate in theology at the University of Paris in 1257. His contributions to scholastic philosophy were of such significance that his philosophical views were to dominate Catholic thinking and continue to do so even today, some three quarters of a millennium later. He was canonized in 1323. Lord Acton dubbed Aquinas “the first Whig” owing to his emphasis on the rights of conscience. If conscience tells us that human laws are unjust, then such laws “do not bind in conscience” and may be disobeyed.

Equally important for the development of libertarian theory was Aquinas’s distinction between a good citizen and a good man. One can possess the virtues necessary for citizenship (e.g., one can abstain from theft) while being morally deficient in other respects. Although Aristotle was the source of this distinction, Aquinas drew conclusions from it that Aristotle had not. It became the foundation for a sphere of individual autonomy, in which the state is forbidden to interfere.

The proper purpose of human laws is to preserve social order. Such laws, he held, are necessary to regulate external behavior, but they cannot affect man’s moral agency. As Aquinas put it in his Summa Contra Gentiles, human laws cannot create virtuous men “since the main thing in virtue is choice, which cannot be present without voluntariness to which violence is opposed.” Similarly, in the Summa Theologica, Aquinas argues that “human laws do not forbid all vices, from which the virtuous abstain, but only the more grievous vices … without the prohibition of which human society could not be maintained; thus human law prohibits murder, theft and the like.”

Individuals, therefore, have a private “sphere of action which is distinct from that of the whole.” This private sphere should be left to voluntary choice, although vice may be the consequence. In the words of one commentator, for Aquinas, human laws “did not make men good but rather established the outward conditions in which a good life can be lived.” Rather than prescribe a uniform goal for everyone, human laws should prescribe rules of external conduct that enable individuals to pursue their separate goals.

Further Readings

Acton, John Edward Emerich Dalberg‐​Acton, Baron. “The History of Freedom in Christianity.” The History of Freedom and Other Essays. John Neville Figgis, ed. London: Macmillan, 1907.

Aquinas, Thomas. On the Truth of the Catholic Faith. Garden City, NY: Image Books, 1957.

———. Summa Theologica, Vol. 28 (1a2ae, 90–97). Dominican Fathers, trans. London: R&T Washbourne, 1923–1925.

George H. Smith
Originally published