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Abellanosa: Aquinas on monarchy

Fringes and frontiers

MUCH has been said about governments and governance. Political scientists have been looking for ways not only to understand but also improve the act of “governing.”

Influenced by Positivism, these so-called social scientists have made us believe that the empirical analysis of political life makes the world a better place to live in.

This is true and valid to some extent but dangerous if insisted as the absolute truth. We have seen in situations through time that politics in general and governance in particular has a lot of “human” factors. As such, they cannot be separated from virtue or treated in a vacuum without consideration for ethics.

My thoughts on this, developed randomly when I remembered that it’s the feast of St. Thomas Aquinas (January 28 to be exact). Although more known for his two “Summas” (Theologiae and Contra Gentiles), the great Dominican philosopher and theologian actually wrote a treatise on governance. Titled “De Regno”, he sought to answer the question, in a way philosophical, “what is the best form of government?”

One would understand that his answer speaks of the medieval socio-political context: “the rule of one” is the best form of governance. Many, through centuries, have taken this to mean Aquinas’ preference for “monarchy.”

The title after all is no less suggestive: “On Kingship” (De Regno). We would miss essential points though if we entirely dismiss the treatise just because monarchies in most states have become titular.

We have forgotten though that there is something essentially enduring in his reflections on kingship and thus of governance. At the core of the discussion is actually the message that whoever governs should have unity in mind and will. He who governs after all does so for a desired end, i.e. an objective.

Governance without an objective is in essence and form - no governance at all. This in fact is not new because St. Augustine centuries earlier insisted that politics should have an ultimate criterion which is justice. Without the achievement of which politicians are nothing but an “organized robbers or thieves.”

Thus, Aquinas’ message outlives his intentions. Even in an age where monarchies are diminishing, governments are reminded that at the end of the day there can be no true and genuine political exercise without this unity in direction. This is where democracies have to be checked. It is not because democracy is evil or not good. If democracy is basically “for the people” then the “for” must be the end of the “of and by” (the people).

Sadly, we have countries like ours or even the United States that are democracies in form but nonetheless corrupted and degenerated like the system of the Dark Ages. When the greed of the “interested many” influences the presidency – Aquinas is vindicated: we “are torn with dissensions and tossed about without peace.”

We know though why at the back of our mind we are cautious with a one-man rule. We have seen the horrors of dictatorships and tyrannies.

Singular names of dictators and fascists all remind us of the crimes that were committed against humanity. But we should not be quick in attributing all evil to the dictator. A much deeper analysis of the lives of Stalin, Hitler, and even Marcos would tell us that they were never alone. They stayed in power and to some extent succeeded because they have had supporters and willing cooperators. In the end, tyrants and dictators are not alone in the planning and execution of their evil desires.

In the final analysis politics is tied to virtue. Governance is directionless if it does not move forward towards a desired “good.” Even if in seeking this we involve many people or even everyone still there is a need to harmonize our mind and will. Notice that we are a democracy but still we speak of that “one nation under (one) God.”

Governance, though, isn’t just about the number of the ruler but also of his quality. Kingship, according to St. Thomas, is a better option because the king is in essence, a benevolent and conscientious leader. He wields power, absolute it may be, but he knows that it has a purpose and must be exercised for such.

Governance and thus politics isn’t just a matter of system, technique and practice. Knowledge of these is essential but when given to someone who has more vices than virtues, that is – to someone who is “corrupt” then that so-called leader, king or president “cannot” unite – he cannot lead.

To lead after all is to convert and, using St. Thomas of Aquinas’ words on this: to convert (the people), you (the leader) have to go and take him (or them) by the hand and guide him (or them).


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