Aquinas Replies to Objections on Possession of External Things

June 12, 2015

Latest Thinking, Philosophy of Rights, Political Philosophy

 This is a continuation of my commentary on Aquinas on private property rights.

ST II-II, 66, 1 or ST 2a2ae. 66, 1 (Summa Theologiæ, Part II of Part II, Question 66)

The Full Text
Prologue / Beginning
Article 1 On the Naturalness of Possessions
Objection 1:Not Natural to Possess External Things
Objection 2: The Wealthy Don’t Own What They Produce
Objection 3: Only God Has Dominion
Aquinas’s Answer, Part I
Aquinas’s Answer, Part II. Aquinas, Aristotle and the Naturalness of Sustenance
Reply to Objections (this post)

Article 2 on Private Property


Having offered his own view of why it is natural for humans to have possessions, Aquinas now proceeds to show he has answered all the objections he previously raised.

Reply to Objection 1: God has sovereign dominion over all things: and He, according to His providence, directed certain things to the sustenance of man’s body. For this reason man has a natural dominion over things, as regards the power to make use of them.

Objection 1 had suggested that everything belonged to God, and raised the question how could humans have dominion too. Aquinas has answered that question already, as we saw above. The answer is that God granted to human beings a dominion of a different sort, namely the ability to have experiential knowledge of the creatures. Whereas God has power to control the very nature of all things, humans are granted a more limited dominion, which included the ability to command the creatures.

Reply to Objection 2: The rich man is reproved for deeming external things to belong to him principally, as though he had not received them from another, namely from God.

We recall that Objection 2 originated with St. Basil who had argued that the rich fool (in Luke 12.18) doesn’t really own the abundance that is produced. Basil thus implied that one could naturally use only what was needed, but not claim or keep the superabundance, which belonged to God.

Aquinas now explains the parable of the rich fool in Luke quite differently and tames St. Basil’s more radical thrust. The rich fool is not being told that he can’t naturally own external things that he does not need. Rather, he is being criticized for ignoring God’s role in their creation, and acting as if everything he alone was responsible for the production of everything.

In answering this way, Aquinas is offering a different interpretation of Luke 12.18 than St. Basil. Basil’s interpretation suggested that one may only naturally possess (or own) what one needs, but anything beyond that, which one doesn’t need, is still common and must be shared. Aquinas says no, this is not the meaning of the Luke parable. The rich fool is at fault, not for keeping the surplus, but for thinking the surplus was all due to his own labor and forgetting the role of God. Aquinas has thus softened the more radical critique implicit in Basil’s interpretation. For on Basil’s interpretation, the rich fool did not in fact own the surplus because he was not responsible for its creation. Aquinas seems to be imply here that one may take as much from what’s common and what is shared as one wants, whether or not one needs it, as long as one recognizes God’s role and dominion. In other words, there seems to be no limits on what one may possess.

There is a deeper question here that arises which naturally carries us into the discussion of private property as well, which is Aquinas next topic. And that question is what role does human labor play in making something one’s own. If God has ultimate dominion, why can humans use, possess and even consume to destruction that which God has made? Aquinas has not yet answered this question in this section of Summa Theologiæ.

Thus Aquinas has turned the parable of the rich fool into a story about the importance of realizing God’s role in producing abundance. And in this way he returns to the theme of his reply to objection 1 and reminds us that God ultimately has dominion.

Reply to Objection 3: This argument considers the dominion over external things as regards their nature. Such a dominion belongs to God alone, as stated above.

Aquinas has already answered objection three in the course of his own reply. Objection 3 was attributed to St. Ambrose and has been discussed previously. Aquinas ascribes to Ambrose the view that dominion means power to fundamentally change the nature of a thing. Since only God has that kind of power, then only God can have dominion. But Aquinas has suggested above that there are two kinds of dominion and the one being spoken about by Ambrose is the kind of dominion God has. Humans have a different kind of dominion that includes knowledge over objects the ability to command the animals and have experiential knowledge over them. After the fall, human dominion would include the right to possess them as well. All of these are of a different sort of dominion than God has.

Next we turn to Aquinas’s discussion of how and why private property arises.


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