Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Jefferson vs. Aquinas

No great fan of Thomas Jefferson myself -- he gets my vote for history's most appalling hypocrite -- I would nonetheless say that his writings have a certain importance for any student of American history. Anybody for Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness? But during the latest outbreak of fundamentalist weirdness in America, the Texas School Board has just voted to remove Jefferson from the part of the curriculum that describes the ideas of the revolutionary period. The old language:
Explain the impact of Enlightenment ideas from John Locke, Thomas Hobbes, Voltaire, Charles de Montesquieu, Jean Jacques Rousseau, and Thomas Jefferson on political revolutions from 1750 to the present.
As amended by the board:
Explain the impact of the writings of John Locke, Thomas Hobbes, Voltaire, Charles de Montesquieu, Jean Jacques Rousseau, Thomas Aquinas, John Calvin and Sir William Blackstone.
So, no more Enlightenment, I suppose because of its anti-religious associations. And no more Jefferson, the deist who authored that famous phrase about a "wall of separation" between church and state. Instead we get John Calvin, whose signal contribution to political thought was the belief that the godly had the right to depose an ungodly government; William Blackstone, a legal writer whose ideas about political philosophy I do not know, because I have not read him; and Thomas Aquinas, a medieval theologian whose ideas about political philosophy are famous but, shall we say, obscure. I can't believe anyone who supported this change has ever tried to read him, or they would have known better. And while I have seen Blackstone's name numerous times in lists of books owned by colonial gentlemen, and I know he was cited by Revolutionary pamphleteers, I don't believe I have ever seen a single mention of Thomas Aquinas in any document from 18th-century America.

I suppose Thomas Aquinas appears here because he was a great advocate of Natural Law, which to him was equivalent to Divine Law, and he thus fits into an agenda of equating freedom and human rights with Christianity. But imagine trying to teach this to American high school students:
I answer that, As stated above (90, 1, ad 1), law, being a rule and measure, can be in a person in two ways: in one way, as in him that rules and measures; in another way, as in that which is ruled and measured, since a thing is ruled and measured, in so far as it partakes of the rule or measure. Wherefore, since all things subject to Divine Providence are ruled and measured by the eternal law, as was stated above; it is evident that all things partake somewhat of the eternal law, in so far as, namely, from its being imprinted on them, they derive their respective inclinations to their proper acts and ends. Now among all others, the rational creature is subject to Divine providence in the most excellent way, in so far as it partakes of a share of providence, by being provident both for itself and for others. Wherefore it has a share of the Eternal Reason, whereby it has a natural inclination to its proper act and end: and this participation of the eternal law in the rational creature is called the natural law. Hence the Psalmist after saying (Psalm 4:6): "Offer up the sacrifice of justice," as though someone asked what the works of justice are, adds: "Many say, Who showeth us good things?" in answer to which question he says: "The light of Thy countenance, O Lord, is signed upon us": thus implying that the light of natural reason, whereby we discern what is good and what is evil, which is the function of the natural law, is nothing else than an imprint on us of the Divine light. It is therefore evident that the natural law is nothing else than the rational creature's participation of the eternal law.
On the other hand, this item on heresy seems pretty clear:
With regard to heretics two points must be observed: one, on their own side; the other, on the side of the Church. On their own side there is the sin, whereby they deserve not only to be separated from the Church by excommunication, but also to be severed from the world by death. For it is a much graver matter to corrupt the faith which quickens the soul, than to forge money, which supports temporal life. Wherefore if forgers of money and other evil-doers are forthwith condemned to death by the secular authority, much more reason is there for heretics, as soon as they are convicted of heresy, to be not only excommunicated but even put to death.

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