Douglas Kries

Douglas Kries is the Bernard J. Coughlin, S.J., Professor of Christian Philosophy at Gonzaga University.  His principal research interests are in ancient political philosophy, medieval political philosophy, and classical French liberalism.  His most recent book is The Problem of Natural Law; his most recent article is “Tocqueville’s Unfinished Manuscript on Ireland,” which appeared in The Review of Politics.  Kries is presently working on a book on faith and reason aimed at a general audience; he is also writing on Augustine and on Robert Bellarmine.  He completed his doctorate at Boston College, where he studied Hebrew Bible and political philosophy.        

Thomas Aquinas’s Hebraic Political Philosophy

Even though Thomas Aquinas is a famous Christian philosopher and theologian, what is almost unknown—even and perhaps especially among Christian scholars—is that he was keenly interested in the Hebrew Scriptures in general and the law codes of Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy in particular. What is most striking about his understanding of the Mosaic legislation is his insistence upon its inherent reasonableness. This is especially clear with respect to those aspects of the Mosaic law dealing with divine worship and with politics. In keeping with the Shalem Center’s goal of pursuing a “Jewish philosophical theology,” and especially in keeping with the theme of this summer’s conference on human action, including justice, the paper will argue that Thomas’s writings offer a model of an Hebraic political philosophy, and that hence his work may serve as a resource for contemporary efforts in the same direction.

The argument of the proposed paper shall proceed in the following manner:

The first part of the paper shall explain at some length just why Thomas’s thought is relevant to the goals of the conference. Taking Professor Hazony’s The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture as a starting point, the paper will show how Thomas seeks to explain the Hebrew Bible not as revealed theology but as philosophy.

The second part of the paper will be the longest, and it will seek to explain Thomas’s rather complicated understanding of the Mosaic law proper. The starting point for such an explanation is Thomas’s distinction between lex indita (inner law) and lex scripta (written law). The latter is what we would normally understand as law, whereas the former is primarily a metaphorical or figurative way of speaking. This distinction between inner and written law has to be related to a second distinction, the one Christians make between the Old Law and the New. It is Thomas’s position that the Christian scriptures do not add anything significant to the written aspect of the Mosaic law. There is no developed Christian lex scripta because Jesus did not depart from Moses on this point in any important way, even in the so-called “Sermon on the Mount.” Hence, when talking about laws in the commonly-accepted sense of normative written commands or directives, the Christian Thomas Aquinas insists that it is principally the Hebrew Scriptures that must be consulted and studied.

The next step in grasping Thomas on the issue of Mosaic law is understanding his claim that the Mosaic lex scripta is inherently rational. Thomas attempts to show this by dividing the Mosaic law into moral, ceremonial, and judicial precepts. This is an old distinction hardly unique to Thomas, but what is novel is Thomas’s insistence upon the rationality of each of the three groups. This rationality, however, has to be explained differently in each of the three cases. The moral precepts are reasonable in that they are simply statements of the basic principles of ethical reasoning known, Thomas claims, by almost all human beings. The moral precepts are the dictates of conscience, knowable by the natural process of practical reasoning. In short, they are part and parcel of the natural law.

The second part of the paper will especially focus on Thomas’s explanations of the rationality of the ceremonial and judicial precepts. His treatment of the former is particularly striking because he does not follow the position of his Christian predecessors on this matter but instead follows closely—and, given the historical context, rather daringly—the views of Moses Maimonides. Indeed, Thomas even quotes the Talmudic authorities cited by Maimonides in explaining the rationale of this set of precepts, and he is especially interested in Maimonides’ use of Sabian literature to establish the reasonableness of the ceremonial precepts. Thomas’s interpretation of the judicial precepts is that their rationality is confirmed because they reach a result that corresponds almost precisely to Aristotle’s Politics. This is also a view novel to Thomas, if for no other reason than that the Politics did not circulate widely and was indeed lost to scholarship in Western Europe until late in the thirteenth century. It was his claim, though, that Moses and Aristotle agreed that the best practical regime was a mixed regime.

The third part of the paper will draw conclusions for the project of developing a Jewish philosophical theology as it pertains to human action, and especially to politics and justice. The paper will claim that Thomas offers a particularly intriguing model and resource for such a project. Whereas much contemporary Christian philosophical theology has little to do with actual biblical texts, Thomas’s approach to philosophical theology, at least with respect to politics and justice, is deeply intertwined with the Mosaic legislation that dominates the torah. At the same time, Thomas’s emphasis upon the rationality of those biblical texts makes clear that his position is in a fundamental sense “philosophical.” A developed, contemporary Jewish philosophical theology pertaining to justice and politics may well transcend Thomas; nevertheless, a useful example for such a project may be found in the Hebraic philosophical theology that Thomas develops.