The Notion of Civil Rights in Society: Thomas Aquinas vs. the Marxists

The Notion of Civil Rights in Society: Thomas Aquinas vs. the Marxists

Man has a right to do what it is right for him to do. So where do we find the objectivity of this “right,” and how are man’s “rights” based off of “right?” Is there an objectivity to man or not?  The underlying principle will be whether or not there is a god.

For Thomas Aquinas, who answers yes, man’s rights will be grounded in his being the imago Dei, the image of God.  For Karl Marx and his followers, who generally answer no, man’s rights must be viewed from a materialist and utilitarian perspective.

We will begin, then, at looking at man without God.  In other words, once the “opium of the masses” is removed and man stands as the highest entity, where will man’s rights be based? If the good of the many exceeds the good of the few, then political fiat will be what determines the ground of man’s rights.  “Man” will be seen primarily as the species of man, with little regard for the rights of “men” as individuals.

“Undoubtedly,” it will be said, “religious, moral, philosophical, and juridical ideas have been modified in the course of historical development. But religion, morality, philosophy, political science, and law, constantly survived this change…There are, besides, eternal truths, such as Freedom, Justice, etc., that are common to all states of society. But Communism abolishes eternal truths, it abolishes all religion and all morality, instead of constituting them on a new basis; it therefore acts in contradiction to all past historical experience.”  (Marx, pg. 92)

No doubt Marx ideas are a radical change from the ancient and classical view; he says so clearly himself.  Indeed he says that his system “abolishes eternal truths, it abolishes all religion and all morality.” The previous sentence, then, which spoke of “Freedom, Justice, etc” as eternal truths he no doubt rejects.

A rejection of a true objective Justice but one based rather on political fiat reminds us, no doubt, of Thomas Hobbes.  “For where no covenant hath preceded, there hath no right been transferred, and every man has right to everything and consequently, no action can be unjust…” (Hobbes).

Both Marx and Hobbes are, of course, materialists, and therefore, reductionists. If we are “nothing but” matter, then the greater the amount of matter, the more important it will be.  Quantity seems to be the one way for materialists to measure anything. This materialism is certainly not the only way in which Hobbes’ influence can be seen in Marx.  Both are determinists as well.  Of course, determinism can be said to be a logical derivative of their materialism.

In reality the question is ultimately defined by our understanding of the human person. If the person is mere matter or if the person is somehow ultimate (which it would be hard to see how a person can be both the same time) will be the fulcrum on which we base our hierarchy.  If merely material being, it would be hard to justify “less material” being primary over “more matter.” Quantity would rightly be seen as the primary determinant; more in the material sense would be more in every sense. If man is somehow ultimate then the mere idea of grouping man together, although important, would not thereby be superior to him. Thomas Aquinas’ view of man as ultimate places the state at the service of man. The view of Karl Marx, rather, understands man as merely a part of the bigger political picture.

Marx can therefore say “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.” Marx’ understanding of needs, however, should not be confused in a way that would seem to make this compatible with authentic Catholic social teaching.  Of course, liberation theology and Marxism have often crossed paths, distorting the true good of each man as primarily eternal and not temporal.

When man and his rights as an individual are properly understood, temporal needs are not neglected but are placed properly below his eternal good. For Marx, of course, there is no such good.  Therefore, Marx teaching of “each according to his ability to each according to his need” is one of utilitarianism and not one of true charity.  It is one where the state has replaced God and utility has replaced love.

If our 80 or 90 years on earth is all we have, then perhaps, like the beasts, the continuation of the species becomes primary.  For a beast or a plant, it goes beyond itself by the succession of its kind, but in no other way. Once man is reduced to nothing but matter, chemicals and atoms and neurons, the goal shifts from the eternal good of “each man” to the overall temporal good of humanity, which itself can be reduced to Mill’s greatest pleasure and least suffering. It becomes a math equation that is certainly hard even on a purely material level to quantify. J.S. Mill’s and those he influenced, which must include Marx, have ever struggled to find an agreeable “equation” to determine just when this “total good” would be reached.

Indeed, returning to a view of man as similar to a herd of cattle, the continuation of the species of cattle is primary, as each head of cattle is merely a part of the big picture, spread out over time. It may be expedient for some cattle to be put down, so that the others may thrive, lest the whole group starve, for example.  This would be necessary for the preservation of the (temporal) whole, which is superior.

But what if man is different?  What if each man is something (or rather someone) that persists and has an utmost importance in his own right (even though this “right” is a gift)?  Viewed in this way, could we really treat the community of men as the herd of cattle?  No, because each man is not for the sake of the community, but rather, the community serves the ends of man. Or rather, the community serves the ends of “men,” each as unique person, rather than “man” in the abstract.

“Since something of the glory of God shines on the face of every person, the dignity of every person before God is the basis of the dignity of man before other men.” (Guadium et Spes) This statement from the Second Vatican Council’s Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World can be taken as a one sentence definition of the position of Thomas Aquinas on the rights of man and their metaphysical grounds.

The passage above is quoted in The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church in the chapter The Human Person and Human Rights, which rightly precedes the chapter on family and political society.  We must understand man in himself before we can understand what a rightly ordered society, which is for the purpose of man, should look like.

In the Summa Contra Gentiles, Book II, St. Thomas states that

“Furthermore, no one owes anything to another except because he depends on him in some way, or receives something either from him or from someone else, on whose account he is indebted to that other person; a son is a debtor to his father, because he receives being from him; a master to his servant, because he receives from him the services he requires; and every man is a debtor to his neighbor, on God’s account, from whom we have received all good things. God, however, depends on nothing, nor does He stand in need of anything that He may receive from another, as things previously said make perfectly clear. Hence, it was from no debt of justice that God brought things into being.”

Thomas is here speaking of creation and justice, and his main point is that God did not owe, out of any justice, to create anything.  The title of this chapter is usually rendered as “How Dueness is Entailed in the Production of Things.” We see that, in creation, there will be a certain dueness of one thing to another, on account of their having been made by God. The argument itself follows the premise that “every man is a debtor to his neighbor, on God’s account, from whom we have received all good things.”

Clearly, for St. Thomas, human rights are grounded in the truth of creation.  We have rights as a gift from God, who strictly owes nothing and cannot owe anything to anyone.  In creating us, however, in His image and likeness, we are “the only creature who God created for its own sake,” and as we are not our own, but were “purchased for a price,” our rights before other men and our obligations to them stem ultimately from the fact that we belong to God.  We therefore must respect what is not our own but rather God’s, and this includes our own self, all other men, and in fact all of creation. Human rights are grounded in their being a pure gift of God, whose first gift is our existence itself.

One may, at a superficial level, try to say that Aristotle could be considered as having said that the political end was the ultimate end of man.  Aristotle, in his Nichomachean Ethics, says that “Political science…embraces the ends of the other practical sciences. For these reasons, then, this end will be the good of man… even if the end is the same for a single man and for a state, that of the state seems at all events something greater and more complete whether to attain or to preserve; though it is worthwhile to attain the end merely for one man, it is finer and more godlike to attain it for a nation or for city-states.” (EN, Book I, ch.2)

In commenting on this, St. Thomas says that “we should note that he says political science is the most important, not simply, but in that division of practical sciences which are concerned with human things, the ultimate end of which political science considers. The ultimate end of the whole universe is considered in theology which is the most important without qualification.”

In fact, Aristotle certainly was of the opinion that metaphysics was in some way man’s highest good, that is, to consider the ultimate causes.  Apart from the revelation of grace, however, and without a clear teaching on the eternity of the individual human soul, it was impossible for him to know how to reconcile this.

No matter, the position of St. Thomas is clearly that man, as a creature made by and for God, is, as individual, primary.  While even Thomas Aquinas would say that the state is a perfect society, this is said, as above, “in that division of practical sciences which are concerned with human [temporal] things.” In temporal things, in fact, the community is indeed higher than the individuals.

But man is not temporal, but rather eternal, and so all temporal things must be viewed in keeping with the eternal.  This is simply in live with the teleological teachings of St. Thomas.  What man is “for” will determine how he should act, and this includes how he should act towards other men.  As human rights were viewed from a greater perspective of obligation in antiquity, for Thomas, human rights found their basis here. Men are obligated to treat other men as creatures created by and loved by God.

This returns us to our basic statement of the position of St. Thomas on the origin of man’s rights: “Since something of the glory of God shines on the face of every person, the dignity of every person before God is the basis of the dignity of man before other men.”

Political society certainly has its place for Thomas Aquinas, and when it is understood correctly, this view of the state as at the service of man, not only glorifies man, but also increases the validity and dignity of the state.  Grace does not destroy nature, but rather perfects it.  When the state’s role is properly seen as an instrument to lead man to his ultimate end, which is the beatific vision, the state itself is elevated far beyond the mundane utilitarian and materialist view of Karl Marx.

All things can be properly understood only in the context of the whole, and this whole begins with the Creator of all that exists.  Aristotle would certainly agree, and it is in his “Politics” itself that he says “The mistake lies in the beginning- as the proverb says- ‘Well begun is half done’; so an error at the beginning, though quite small, bears the same ratio to the errors in the other parts.”

I would contend that, to view man or the state with the mistake that there is no God is “an error at the beginning,” but cannot conclude that it is “quite small.”

Bibliography of Sources Referenced:

Thomas Aquinas, Commentary on Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics, 1964 reprinted Notre Dame, Indiana 1993

Thomas Aquinas, Summa Contra Gentiles, Bk II at

Aristotle, The Complete Works Volume I and II, Princeton, Edited by Jonathan Barnes, NJ 1984

Peter Kreeft, Socrates Meets Marx, San Francisco, California, 2003

Jacques Maritain, Man and the State, Chicago, 1951

Jacques Maritain, The Person and the Common Good, Notre Dame, Indiana, 1966

Marx and Engels, The Communist Manifesto, 1848, Broadway, NY, 1964

Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church USCCB Publishing, Washington, DC 2005


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