Aquinas on the Natural Possession of External Things

May 25, 2015

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

Aquinas conceptually separates the question of natural possession and private property. In this first article, we consider Aquinas’s views of why it is natural for humans to possess external things. This is the continuation of my discussion of Aquinas on private property rights. ST II-II, 66, 1 (Summa Theologiae, Part II of Part II, Question 66, Article 1.)

The Full Text
Prologue / Beginning
Article 1 On the Naturalness of Possessions (current post)
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

Article 2 on Private Property


ST II-II Q 66, 1
(Summa Theologiae , Part II of Section II, Question 66, Article 1)

In the previous discussion, Aquinas framed the questions that he wished to address regarding whether it is natural for human beings to possess external things and to have property. We now take up the first of his two questions.

ARTICLE 1. Whether it is natural for man to possess external things?

My commentary:
The question Aquinas asks here is whether human beings may use and consume things from nature, such as creatures and the land, and one might include as well, the water and air. Aquinas’s answer will be “yes.” The word “possess” here is intended to signify appropriation and use, as when a person takes, holds, and uses something from nature. Taking acorns from a tree (to use a later Lockean example), or fish from a stream, would fall into this category.

This type of appropriation and use is, at least conceptually, different than having “private property,” since what one takes and uses is “common” and something that someone else can also have access to and use as well. For example, both of us can use a stream for drinking and both of us can agree to share a plot of land for herding. My use of nature does not necessarily have to exclude your use, at least in certain situations. To be sure, taking something from nature can at times exclude your use, as, for example, when I catch a fish and eat it. Though we can both use the stream, you can no longer use the fish once I eat it, and, in that case, as Locke will later point out, I have in essence appropriated something from nature and in effect made it my own. Locke will later argue that use and property are not distinguishable as they are here with Aquinas.

But Aquinas here is not worried about that problem and is focused on whether we have a human right to appropriate and use nature. In his language, the question is whether it is “natural” to possess external things. Today we would ask, “Do we ‘have a right’ to do so.” In Aquinas, being natural means that it is reasonable, right, in accord with God’s will and aligned with Scripture. His answer to the question whether it is natural for man to possess things, will be “yes.” But before he presents his own view on this question, he will consider objections that others have or might have made. In asking whether possessing things is natural, Aquinas is alluding back to his whole theory of natural law as well as his reading of Scripture, God’s word. If the answer is “yes,” as he believes it is, then he must show that humans are authorized to use external things both from Scripture and from nature and reason. As we shall see, he draws on Aristotle, who is one of his sources on what’s natural and reasonable.

Next part of the discussion: Objection 1.


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