Writing to the King of Cyprus, St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) advises him to submit his governance to three guides: “the authority of Holy Writ,” “the teachings of the philosophers,” and “the practice of worthy princes.”
Like sailing a ship, governance is the skillful direction of a body to its “due end.” A pilot may “proceed in a right way and also in a wrong way,” and it goes without saying what we ought to do with a pilot intent on steering us into the rocks.
The primary “directive principle” given to man is “the light of reason,” by which each of us steers his own actions towards his proper end—also, of course, rightly or wrongly.
“If man were intended to live alone,” the saint continues, “each man would be a king unto himself, under God, the highest King.” God has given us reason so that we might govern ourselves freely. Though God does not endorse or (ultimately) tolerate its abuse, self-governance constitutes an inalienable feature of our humanity.
Since man, more than “any other animal,” is “social and political,” personal self-governance must take place within society. Groups of men are as much in need of direction as persons, but unlike persons, groups as groups do not possess “the light of reason.” Their direction therefore demands that certain members provide direction for the group.
Group governance properly consults the same guide as personal self-governance: “the light of reason.” And it seeks the same end: “the common good,” meaning the good of each and every member of the group. “Rulership will be right and just” when it meets this standard. When it fails to do so, it is “unjust and perverted rulership,” unsuitable for “free men.”
As “the man ruling a perfect community,” the king is the greatest of earthly rulers, but he is merely one of many rulers. Above him is the “King of Kings”; below him are the rulers of cities, trades, households—and persons, who remain, within due bounds, rulers of themselves.
To be free is to govern oneself “under God, the highest King,” and under the various earthly rulers God has placed over us. Providing always that such earthly rulers obey God, and rule in a manner “suitable to free men.”
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