“A Multitude of Servants”: Aquinas’s critique of communism

Thomas Aquinas was the youngest son of a wealthy, powerful, highly connected family and was sent as an oblate at the age of five or six to the influential Benedictine Abbey at Monte Casino (where his uncle was abbot, a position some speculate Thomas was destined for). Yet he decisively turned his back on a life of pomp and affluence when he decided (against his families opposition) to join the recently formed Dominicans, an order of mendicant friars committed, in part, to individual poverty. What did this man, who once said that he would willingly trade the city of Paris for Chrysostom’s homilies on the Gospel of Matthew, think about communism as a universal form for society? In Summa Theologiae 2-2.66.2, “Whether it is lawful for anyone to possess something as his own,” Thomas gives three reasons why it “is necessary to human life” that a man, in general, should indeed possess property:

First, because everyone is more diligent in procuring something for himself than something which is to belong to all or many; for each one, avoiding labour, would leave to someone else [the procuring of] that which was to belong to all in common, which is what happens where there is a multitude of servants. Second, because human affairs are conducted in a more orderly manner if each man is responsible for the care of something which is his own, whereas there would be confusion if everyone were responsible for everything in general. Third, because a more peaceful state of things is preserved for mankind if each is contented with his own. Hence we see that quarrels arise more frequently between those who hold property in common and where there is no division of the things possessed.

Indolence, confusion, and quarrelsomeness–Thomas’s threefold indictment of communism. His illustration of a property-less community is also telling–“a multitude of servants.” When it comes, however, to the question, not of the possession of property, but as to its use, Thomas, citing 1 Timothy 6:17 (“Charge them that are rich in this world that they be ready to distribute, willing to communicate”), says that a “man ought to hold external things not as his own, but as common: that is, in such a way that he is ready to share them with others in the event of need.”

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2 thoughts on ““A Multitude of Servants”: Aquinas’s critique of communism

  1. Of course it is easy for us (unless, of course, brainwashed by propaganda – as most intellectuals are – including, ironically, many/ most of the modern Dominicans, guardians of Aquinas’s heritage) to see that Communism is anti-Christian, indeed primarily anti-Christian and the most highly developed anti-Christian ideology – responsible for the deaths of more Christians than anything else by far.

    (The full scope of the Soviet crushing of Christianity is barely known – despite Solzhenitsyn’s work – it was *at least* on the scale of the Nazi Holocaust, but lasted much longer. Fr Seraphim Rose collected a lot of material on this – http://russiascatacombsaints.blogspot.co.uk/)

    But one aspect that is quite striking nowadays is that Leftism makes Charity less and less possible as the State coercively extracts (almost) all resources and distributes them by ideological formula (without Love) and crowds-out voluntary alms-giving with inferior – indeed destructive – State provision.

    This is why it is (IMHO) such a profound error for modern Churches to emphasize their social activities as much as they do – since they merely appear to be acting as a supplementary and subordinate branch of the State welfare system.

    Indeed, many Church leaders (who are almost all on the Left) agitate to have their own activities replaced by greater levels of State provision (necessarily implying greater levels of coercive state extraction of resources from the population, including the Churches).

    (I believe that the Mormons are the real experts at ‘good works’ in modern America – totally out-performing the state in terms of disaster relief – but what good does it do them? They are still utterly loathed by the Left. The Left is much more devoted to destroying Christianity in all its forms than in accomplishing effective charity.)

    • Thanks for the post, Bruce. In keeping with your point about Leftism making charity increasingly impossible is the way St. Thomas’s above statement, that a man ought to hold things not as his own but as common, seems to presuppose rather than deny private property. We must first own things if we are to “disown” them (as it were) through giving.

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