Aquinas’s Third Objection to Private Property: Let no man call his own that which is common property

June 29, 2015

Latest Thinking, Natural Rights / Rights, Philosophy of Rights, Political Philosophy, Private Property Rights

Aquinas now poses the third objection to private property appealing to St. Ambrose.

This is a continuation of my commentary on Thomas Aquinas’s  views of private property in Article 2, Question 66 of Summa Theologiæ.  ST II-II, 66, 2 [ST 2a2æ 66, 2]. The posts in sequence are: 1)  Article 1 Text and Commentary 2) Article 2 Text and Prologue 3) Objection 1 to Private Property 4) On relationship of Natural Law and Human Law 5) Objection 2 to Private Property 6) Objection 3 to Private Property (this post) 7) Aquinas’s Views of Private Property 8) The First Human Competence: Care and Commerce 9) The Three Reasons Private Property is Necessary 10) The Second Human Competence 11) Reply to Objection 1: All Things in Common  12) Reply to Objection 2: Analogy of the Theater 12) Reply to Objection 3: Over consumption is robbery


 

Objection 3: Further, Ambrose says [Serm. lxiv, de temp.], and his words are quoted in the Decretals [Dist. xlvii., Can. Sicut hi.]: “Let no man call his own that which is common property”: and by “common” he means external things, as is clear from the context. Therefore it seems unlawful for a man to appropriate an external thing to himself.

Aquinas comes back to St. Ambrose again, as he did in Article 1, Objection 3, and here attributes to him the view that one can’t call one’s own what is common property. In our discussion there, we have already seen, in fact, that Ambrose in fact does articulate such a position in his On the Clergy. We can thus pass over the problem noted in translations about what the source of this statement is. 1)There is some dispute in the commentaries about what the source of this view is, a problem that we had in the previous Article 1 as well. Here Aquinas ascribes Ambrose’s quote to Gratian’s Decretum, a collection of Canon law compiled and written in the 12th century as a legal textbook by the jurist known as Gratian. The Blackfriars translation ascribes it to Rufinus’s Latin translation of St Basil. Vol. 38, 66: “Alike in this objection and in objection 2 of the following art., it is on the authority of Gratian (Decretum I, 47, 8) that the text quoted is attributed to St. Ambrose. In fact it comes from Rufinus’s Latin translation of St Basil’s sermon, In illud Lucæ: Cujusdam divitis, for which there is no original Greek text extant; see PG 31, 1752.

For convenience I have reproduced the St. Ambrose quote from On the Clergy here again:

Next they [the Stoics] considered it consonant with justice that one should treat common, that is, public property as public, and private as private. But this is not even in accord with nature, for nature has poured forth all things for all men for common use. God has ordered all things to be produced, so that there should be food in common to all, and that the earth should be a common possession for all. Nature, therefore, has produced a common right for all, but greed has made it a right for a few. Here, too, we are told that the Stoics taught that all things which are produced on the earth are created for the use of men, but that men are born for the sake of men, so that mutually one may be of advantage to another. [Cic de Off. I. 9.] 2)I found the relevant statement of Cicero in I.7 in Marcus Tullius Cicero, On Moral Duties (De Officiis). Online Library of Liberty. Translated with an Introduction and Notes by Andrew P. Peabody (Boston: Little, Brown, and Co., 1887). You can also find this online Tullius Cicero, De Officiis, Walter Miller, : http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A2007.01.0048%3Abook%3D1%3Asection%3D20

For a more detailed discussion of this text, you can refer back to my discussion in Article 1.

Briefly, Aquinas is here invoking St. Ambrose as an authority for the position that what was given in common should not be made private property. Aquinas does not quote the rationale for Ambrose’s position but we can assume that Aquinas is offering St. Ambrose as another authority for the position defined in Objections 1 and 2 and perhaps he is also alluding to Ambrose’s reasons for this view. From Ambrose’s own statement, we know he holds a view like that outlined in the two prior objections:  since God gave the world in common that no one has a right to make private property at all. In fact, Ambrose assumes that greed brought private property into the world.

To summarize, we have seen three objections to the idea that private property is lawful or licit, all of which evoke variations of the same essential idea. The first states plainly that since the natural law gives everything in common that private property must be unlawful or perhaps unnatural. The second objection from St. Basil develops the same idea leveraging the metaphor of the theater: While one can take the seat one needs, one has no right to take more than one needs from what is common and prevent others from taking what they need. The third objection simply reiterates the same point invoking the authority of Ambrose and Gratian’s Decretum as authoritative support.

References   [ + ]

1.There is some dispute in the commentaries about what the source of this view is, a problem that we had in the previous Article 1 as well. Here Aquinas ascribes Ambrose’s quote to Gratian’s Decretum, a collection of Canon law compiled and written in the 12th century as a legal textbook by the jurist known as Gratian. The Blackfriars translation ascribes it to Rufinus’s Latin translation of St Basil. Vol. 38, 66: “Alike in this objection and in objection 2 of the following art., it is on the authority of Gratian (Decretum I, 47, 8) that the text quoted is attributed to St. Ambrose. In fact it comes from Rufinus’s Latin translation of St Basil’s sermon, In illud Lucæ: Cujusdam divitis, for which there is no original Greek text extant; see PG 31, 1752.
2.I found the relevant statement of Cicero in I.7 in Marcus Tullius Cicero, On Moral Duties (De Officiis). Online Library of Liberty. Translated with an Introduction and Notes by Andrew P. Peabody (Boston: Little, Brown, and Co., 1887). You can also find this online Tullius Cicero, De Officiis, Walter Miller, : http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A2007.01.0048%3Abook%3D1%3Asection%3D20

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