According to St. Thomas Aquinas, the purpose of authority is to help each and every member of a community achieve happiness.
For human beings, happiness consists in a life tending toward the perfection of a nature whose fundamental needs include: every “means of preserving human life”; the generation and “education of offspring”; the pursuit of “the truth about God” (including his creation); and all that is necessary “to live in society.”
Conscience—the voice of reason within our souls—prompts us to obey human authority whenever it promotes the above goods. Though as rational animals we are kings unto ourselves, God has placed each of us within communities whose rules, essential as they are to our survival and flourishing, cannot be of our individual making.
Legitimate human authority has a broad scope. “In matters concerning the disposal of actions and human affairs, a subject is bound to obey his superior within the sphere of his authority.” “A soldier must obey his general in matters relating to war”; “a servant his master” in business matters; and “a son his father” when it comes to “the conduct of life and the care of the household.”
It would be misleading to say that Aquinas “endorses” slavery. He does explore its limits, however. Citing Seneca with approbation, he notes that “the better part” of a man is always “excepted” from even the most comprehensive of earthly authorities. The slave’s body may be “subjected and assigned to his master,” but “his soul is his own.”
As a result, “in matters touching the internal movement of the will”—for example, in the finer points of practicing virtue, or the discernment of one’s vocation—“man is not bound to obey his fellow man, but God alone.”
Even the body of a rational agent cannot wholly be subjugated. “Since by nature all men are equal,” one “is not bound to obey another man in matters touching the nature of the body.” For instance, a man cannot be obstructed from seeking, by his own lights, things “relating to the support of his body or the begetting of his children.”
When it comes to the perfection of one’s nature, body and soul, an indiscriminate respect for human authority may be every bit as dangerous as its opposite.
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