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Aquinas on Justifying Civil Disobedience

Info: 2440 words (10 pages) Law Essay
Published: 5th Aug 2019

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While Thomas Aquinas firmly believed that citizens should obey those in authority, he justifies civil disobedience under two circumstances; civilians can disobey during the reign of a tyrant or when the government enforces unjust laws. Disobeying a tyrant can be justified because the argument can be proven as both valid and sound. The argument is as follows: (a) civil disobedience is justified if a tyrant is unjust; (b) the tyrant is unjust; (c) therefore, civil disobedience is justified. The justification for disobeying unjust laws can also be proven as both valid and sound: (a) civil disobedience is justified if the law is unjust; (b) the law is unjust; (c) therefore, civil disobedience is justified. The overarching theme for both arguments’ centres around the common good of the state. Since that is the case, it is important to prove how the two exceptions benefit the common good of the people to successfully defend this case.

When reading books written by Thomas Aquinas, seven key terms make a regular appearance: divine law, natural law, common good, just and unjust laws, civil disobedience, and tyrant.

Divine law is a law that is created by a superior, divine being that is authoritative and obstinate. It transcends history and time, and humans are exposed to it through religious writings (Floyd, n.d., par 13). Aquinas believes that God, a spirit who is omnipresent, omnipotent and omniscient, created the divine law. Humans are exposed to this law through the Christian Holy Writings, which is the Bible, and it is a perfect and trustworthy source (2005, p.11).

Natural law is an objective moral standard that governs all human behaviour throughout history and past geographical boundaries. When someone breaks a natural law, the person becomes a morally deviant member of society. We see in cases where someone gets convicted for murder: they get sentenced to prison for a considerable amount of them. The reason we separate them from the rest of the population is because they deviated from the natural law enforced through societal norms. According to Aquinas (2005), we base our actions on certain principles that we have always known naturally (p.1334). The function of natural law then is to direct a rational human being towards God’s divine law (p.1336). However, natural law cannot be applied to all people the same way, because people are different from one another (1358). Different kinds of law emerge from different outlooks of natural law that is individualistic to the different states that created them; these are called positive laws (3675). They are laws that are enforced by a state and is only specific to that one state, like civil law (1360). For example, at a particular time in history, slavery was an acceptable practice in the United States. According to natural law, slavery violated the right to equality for all peoples; slaveowners rejected the rights of African Americans to be autonomous human beings, claiming some races were more equal than others. Slavery eventually got abolished in America using the argument that slavery violated a person’s natural right.

The common good, in general terms, is a decision that is beneficial to all members of a particular group. Aquinas would agree with that definition; common good is a significant component of his reasonings. It is often the deciding factor on whether an action or thought was just or worth pursuing in Summa Theologica.

A just law is a human-made law that abides by moral principle; it can vary depending on historical periods and places. An unjust law is then simply the opposite: it is a human-made law that does not abide by moral principle. In the Summa Theologica, Aquinas (2005) divides laws made by men into two categories, just and unjust laws. Just laws focus on the common good, it is proportional to each member in the community, and it does not exceed the power of those who created it. Unjust laws are split into two sub-categories: first being laws that are contrary to the common good, and second being laws that are opposed to the divine good. An authority that imposes unequal and burdensome laws to satisfy their greed, and ego, act contradictory to the common good (p. 1366). Aquinas compares unjust laws to illegitimate acts of violence. Laws that oppose the divine good also is contrary to the divine law and deters from natural law (p. 1358,1366); these include, but are not limited to, laws of tyrants and idolatry. Rules that do not follow the guidance of natural law is “no longer a law but a perversion of law” (p. 1358).

Civil disobedience occurs when citizens of a state refuse to comply with the given laws. For Aquinas (2005), civil disobedience is disobeying those in governmental authority (p. 2202). Aquinas believes civil disobedience is unacceptable as it prevents the “unity in law and the common good” (p. 1822); he argues that disobedience in itself is unjust. The common good is disturbed when the rejection of a tyrannical government begins to cause division amongst citizens; while some citizens would want the ruling power to remain, others want to dethrone the tyrant (p. 1821-1822). So, in order to preserve peace in society, obedience to the government is expected of all citizens.

Aquinas believed that a good life was one filled with happiness, stemming from God, through friendships, and even in the afterlife. As a Christian, his belief centred on that fact that God was the source of all happiness because he was happiness personified. Aquinas (2005) explained his perspective as the following:

God is happiness by His Essence: for He is happy not by acquisition or participation of something else, but by His Essence. On the other hand, men are happy by participation; just as they are called “gods,” by participation. And this participation of happiness, in respect of which man is said to be happy, is something created (p. 794).

God is the Essence of Happiness, and people achieve happiness through participation, so for people to truly experience happiness, they must understand God. The most reliable medium for a person to seek divine law, which can be found in the Bible, because it was God’s preferred way of revealing himself to humans.

While we do not require any other relationships to receive happiness, because God is perfect Happiness, friendships are essentially for nurturing the well-being of our happiness (p. 811). Friends can rejoice in God with one another by building God-focused relationships. Aquinas agrees that friends are essential to living a happy life, but not because of what a person can gain from them, instead, it is for what they can give to them. Friends should not be as a stepping stool in order to achieve humanly desires, because a happy person is one that is self-sufficient; moreover, a person should not look to their friends to find happiness, because only God can provide that (p. 811). Instead, friends are necessary, so the individual can treat them well, encouraging them to treat others well, and to help the individual do good works for others (p. 811). Relationships are supposed to be selfless in order to nurture a person’s desire to look beyond them and towards God.

Happiness carries on to the afterlife based on how the person lived their life on earth. Good people receive happiness as a reward, while bad people receive unhappiness as their unpunishment in their afterlife (p. 3957). The message this sends is for people to be good on earth, living justly according to the natural and divine laws. For Christians, it is not only someone’s soul that gets punished with unhappiness but so does their body (p. 3957). So, the punishment for living an unjust life just as much a spiritual consequence as it is physical.

However, it is important to keep in mind the context in which Aquinas (2005) discourages disobedience; he requires that all those in power should be just so that those who disobey would be unjust. Ideally, God did not want to give kings unrestricted power; instead, he created the role of judges and governors in the king’s place to provide a system of checks and balances (p.1462). Having judges and governors, instead of a king, would create a system where no one person could rule without accountability. However, the public opposed God’s will and instead asked for a single ruler, which he unwillingly provided (p. 1462). It should not be surprising to anyone if a king falls into worldly temptations, because just like everyone else, a ruler is a person who also requires divine guidance; that is why God did not intend for this role to be created.

Nevertheless, God set standards of how a good ruler should act. Above all, a good ruler must act in a godly fashion, obeying and revering God (Aquinas, 2005, p. 1463). He must follow and govern according to the divine law, which is always just. He also has to be a man of integrity to avoid falling into the temptation that comes with material prosperity (p.1462). Aquinas admits only a few individuals possess these characteristics, but even a good ruler can fall, for humanly desires can turn a good leader into a tyrant (2005, p. 1462).

A tyrant is a ruler that does not abide or rule by God’s divine law, which makes him unjust (Aquinas, 2005, p. 2263). His greed for money and other human desires makes him use violence upon his citizens, disregarding the common good of his people. Tyrants lack integrity and fall easily into temptation because of his desire to be wealthier causing him to be an unjust ruler (p. 1462). Since a tyrant fails to fulfill his role as a just ruler, he becomes the cause instability and disharmony. The laws he creates are unjust, as it ignores the divine law, and through his ungodly actions he leads his people astray, which is a sin. Aquinas acknowledges that in order to overthrow a tyrannical government, people must disobey the unjust tyrant (2005, p. 1822). Aquinas (2000) uses an example of the early Christians martyrs who were living under a tyrannical Roman emperor who enforced human-made laws that went against the divine law (p. 26). The harm caused by his tyrannical rule, by creating laws that went against the divine law, was significantly higher than the harm caused by civil disobedience, which is martyrdom for the Christians. By disobeying the tyrant’s laws, they became martyrs, a title revered by Christians; Aquinas even praises them saying, “a certain beauty will shine in them, a beauty though in the body, yet not of the body but of virtue” (Aquinas, 2005, p. 3871). Based on the admiration Aquinas shows to martyrs, he views civil disobedience as justifiable during the rule of an unjust government.

Civil disobedience is also justifiable if the laws of a government are unjust. Aquinas (2005) states in Summa Theologica that God has given authority figures the ability to create rules they are competent to judge; rulers are only qualified to make laws that judge the exterior behaviour so that it contributes to the common good (p. 1336). Since authority, and power, were given to the ruler by God, citizens are obligated to obey the laws made by the ruler. However, the laws rulers create must be based on natural law, which in turn in based on divine law (p. 1358). This is to ensure the laws are just. In Canada, the law that criminalizes homicide is grounded on the belief that we have a right to life; and, the Bible, which is the divine law, affirms that law because only God has the power to give and take life.

According to Aquinas (2005), if any existent law goes against the natural law, it is considered unjust and has no binding power (p. 1932). Although people must obey those who are put in positions of power by God, they must always pick the higher authority, which is always God, over the lower authority (p. 2202). Take the Holocaust as an example: Nazis were committing mass genocide of the Jews, which is an act deviant from natural law, and they passed laws that made it illegal for Germans to hide Jews in their homes. According to Aquinas, since their human-made law was opposed entirely to natural law, the German people did not have to obey them since they are to value the divine law over human law. Divine law always trumps human law in every situation since it is “more grievous to disobey God than man” (p. 2202).

Disobedience of unjust laws is not just an option; it is essential to disobey unjust laws. If someone knowingly defends, or follow, an unjust law they commit a serious offence against God (1998). The lawgiver oversteps his authority and disregards his responsibilities when creating an unjust law. When a person knowingly obeys an unjust law, they are also complicit in disregarding God’s authority (1365). If a German citizen, during the Nazi reign, refused to hide Jews or exposed hidden Jews to the Nazis, they are blatantly disobeying God. So, in cases like this civil disobedience is a moral obligation because the human laws harm the common good of the people, so it is justified.

While Aquinas supported the belief that citizens must obey their superior and the laws they create, he was not oblivious to the worldly corruptions. In both circumstances where Aquinas allows for justifications for civil disobedience, his arguments are based on how the action would impact the common good of the state. A tyrant, whose ruling is self-interested, neglects the common good of his people. This causes the tyrant to rule unjustly, so the citizens are allowed to disobey his commands. Similarly, unjust laws do not benefit the common good of the people, and because of that civilians are allowed to disobey them. Overall, discernment is the most valuable tool in distinguishing what counts as justified disobedience, but that knowledge only comes from knowing God’s divine law.


  • Aquinas, T. (2000). On Kingship to the King of Cyprus (G. B. Phelan, Trans.; I. T. Eschmann,
  • Ed.). Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies.
  • Aquinas, T. (2005). The Summa Theologica. Christian Classics Ethereal Library. Retrieved
  • December 2, 2018, from http://www.ccel.org/ccel/aquinas/summa.html
  • Floyd, S. (n.d.). Aquinas: Philosophical Theology. Retrieved December 1, 2018, from https://www.iep.utm.edu/aq-ph-th/

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