Is private property like someone taking too many seats in the theater? Aquinas here answers the second objection to private property brought from the thinking of St. Basil.
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 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 (this post) 12) Reply to Objection 3: Over consumption is robbery
Reply to Objection 2: A man would not act unlawfully if by going beforehand to the play he prepared the way for others: but he acts unlawfully if by so doing he hinders others from going. In like manner a rich man does not act unlawfully if he anticipates someone in taking possession of something which at first was common property, and gives others a share: but he sins if he excludes others indiscriminately from using it. Hence Basil says (Hom. in Luc. xii, 18): “Why are you rich while another is poor, unless it be that you may have the merit of a good stewardship, and he the reward of patience?”
Aquinas responds to Objection 2, which was the analogy of the theater from St. Basil. We discussed this analogy already in Article 1, Objection 2 where Aquinas considers objections to the natural possession of external things. Recall that St. Basil had said that the rich who deem common goods as their own property are like those who go early to the theater and prevent others from attending. The implication is that such people are doing something unfair if not illicit and wrong when they take from the commons and make it their own property.
Aquinas now explains this is not the case nor the point of St. Basil. The saint was distinguishing between, on the one hand, a situation involving those who prevent others from attending the theater, and on the other hand, a situation where those who go early get it ready for those who come later (in the evening or another day?). One is only acting illicitly if one prevents others from coming to the theater. But if one goes to the theater and prepares the way for others, that person does not act unlawfully.
The same Aquinas says applies to what is common. The rich who take possession of common goods are not doing anything illicit if they make it ready for others and share it later. They are only doing something licit if they do not share it. Thus Aquinas seems to be arguing, that by taking what is common, and “preparing it,” presumably by making it better through cultivation or commerce, one is “preparing the way” for others to follow. That is arguably not only permissible but even good, as long as one shares it. One can possibly see here, though it is not yet fully explicit or articulated, an idea that later will be developed by John Locke, that by developing what’s common, one expands the pie for everyone.
Now there are a number of questions and objections one can raise against Aquinas’s view here. For if things are in common, and one takes them from the commons, one can argue that one has necessarily reduced what is available for others, an argument I have elsewhere with respect to Locke. For example, if there are five hundred acres of land available and fifty people each take one hundred acres a piece, then the next fifty people have no land to cultivate and must work for those who come later. Aquinas, like Locke does later, could argue and is seeming to imply here that one increases the output of the land by acquiring it and developing it. Aquinas puts forward the view that as long as one shares the output with those who come later then one has “prepared the theater” for them and not illicitly taken what belongs to them. But this position seems to assume that either there is always more land and resources to be shared or that the productivity itself is limitless.I have criticized both these assumptions in my book Beyond Liberty Alone, Chapter 6
One is also left wondering, from this discussion, why Aquinas thinks poverty occurs? Was poverty a result of sin and private property or something else? Or was poverty in some sense envisioned by God at creation? Had sin not occurred would everyone have lived off the trees in Paradise? Would there have been private property in paradise? This topic is beyond the present discussion but these questions that arises from Aquinas’s views of property and ones we shall come back to in synthesizing our insights from this commentary.
In addition to these questions, one can argue that Aquinas seemingly has turned the meaning of St. Basil on its head or at least softened its critical thrust. Aquinas makes it seem that St. Basil’s only worries about taking what’s common and then not sharing it. And there are statements in Basil that could suggest that interpretation. For example, “Why then are you wealthy while another is poor? Why else, but so that you might might receive the reward of benevolence and faithful stewardship while the poor are honored for patient endurance of their struggles. ((“I Will Tear Down” 7, Kindle loc 1168)) In this statement, Basil seems to suggest that people are rich so that they can be benevolent and act as stewards for what is common on behalf of others. This would align with the interpretation Aquinas is suggesting. But Basil also seems to suggest that one can’t take more than one needs. Here again is the full text from Basil that Aquinas is quoting from. The first two sentences support Aquinas’s reading, but not the third sentence:
It is as if someone were to take the first seat in the theatre, then bar everyone else from attending, so that one person alone enjoys what is offered for the benefit of all in common—this is what the rich do. They seize common goods before others have the opportunity, then claim them as their own by right of preemption. For if we all took only what was necessary to satisfy our own needs, giving the rest to those who lack, no one would be rich, no one would be poor, and no one would be in need.” “I Will Tear Down” 7, Kindle Loc 1162
The third sentence here suggests that Basil has a more radical view than Aquinas and that Aquinas is taming Basil’s more pointed critique. Basil seems to be suggesting that the rich have no right to take or hold / hoard what they don’t need, just as the Luke parable on the rich fool suggests. Thus while Aquinas is suggesting that one may make private property of what’s common, for all the reasons given before, Basil is suggesting that one may only act as stewards for anything that one does not need. Private property does not apply to what is common beyond what one needs.
Aquinas has softened that critique by ignoring the last sentence of Basil and making it seem as if Basil believes the rich can take more than they need as private property as long as they prepare it for those who follow. Holding more seats in the theater is fine as long as one gives them away later.
Similarly, Basil writes:
“Who are the greedy? Those who are not satisfied with what suffices for their own needs. Who are the robbers? Those who take for themselves what rightfully belongs to everyone. And you, are you not greedy? Are you not a robber? The things you received in trust as a stewardship, have you not appropriated them for yourself? “I Will Tear Down” 7, Kindle loc 1168
It is possible thus to read Basil as saying that one who takes more than he needs may not make it his private property but must hold it only temporarily in trust for others. Aquinas seems to be saying that one may take more than one needs as private property because by treating something as one’s own, one is more likely to care for it and thus be a better steward of it for others.