Thomas Aquinas and the Shape of Law

Recovering a more capacious social topology from the Thomist theology that modern Western philosophy supplanted.

By Dr. Scott Ferguson
Co-Director, Film and New Media Studies Track
University of South Florida

Titled Declarations of Dependence: Money, Aesthetics, and the Politics of Care(University of Nebraska Press, July 2018) my recent book develops the insights of Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) for critical theory and aesthetics. While the modern Liberal imagination treats money as a finite, private and decentralized exchange instrument that seems incapable of serving all, MMT’s state or “chartalist” approach to political economy insists that money is an inalienable public utility that can always be mobilized to meet social and ecological needs. In Declarations, I trace the historical repression of chartalist ideas to the rise of modern Western metaphysics through the negation of the medieval Scholasticism of Thomas Aquinas. I uncover the impoverished social topology upon which both Liberal modernity and critical aesthetics have historically relied. Ultimately, I labor to redeem critical theory and aesthetics by recovering a more capacious social topology from the Thomist theology that modern Western philosophy supplanted.

Here, I would like to extend this project by complicating the Westphalian model of sovereignty, which MMT’s state theory of money presumes. My contention is not that international finance, supply chains, and NGOs somehow render the modern-nation state powerless or passé, as theorists of globalization regularly claim. Rather, I contend that the metaphysical suppositions behind modern Westphalian sovereignty obscure globalization’s interdependent legal architecture, while simultaneously naturalizing a politics of irresponsibility. In response, I argue, MMT would do well to return to a Thomistic topology of law and politics, which figures law as the center of global interdependence and governance as unavoidably answerable to all worldly forms.

That MMT sounds foreign to contemporary ears owes to the fact that it unwittingly conjures a whole topological and causal background, which modern Western metaphysics long ago rejected. During Europe’s High Middle Ages, however, a similar social topology became legible in the scholastic theology centered around the Dominican friar Thomas Aquinas.

Writing during the great political and economic expansion of the High Middle Ages, Thomas argued that Being takes the shape of a centralizing, inalienable, and inescapably interdependent cascade. While no doubt reliant upon the contiguous comings and goings of individual creatures and things, this cascade realizes the broad labor of Creation all at once via its entire mediating infrastructure. Emblematized by the miraculously inexhaustible transubstantiation of the Eucharist on disparate altars, Thomas’s metaphysics sought to make sense of the mystery of the late medieval period’s ballooning political economy and converging heterogenous cultures. What is more, his topology served as the basis for legal conceptions of the fiscal apparatus or treasury, what contemporary jurists from Bracton to Accursius referred to as the “most holy fisc.”  

During the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, however, Franciscan theologians such as Duns Scotus and William of Ockham and humanists from Petrarch to Erasmus challenged the Thomistic synthesis with a new metaphysics and a recognizably modern social topology. This metaphysical topos decentered Thomism’s boundless cascade, reconstituting the Christian God as an absolute and immediate willing power in a definitively contiguous world. In so doing, the Franciscans and humanists variously contracted Creation’s wide causal breadth into a contiguous and alienable “thisness,” which Scotus famously dubbed “haecceity.” As a consequence, this new topology reduced causality to a series of proximate relations and deemed anything like concurrent mediation at a distance either unnecessary, artificial, or impossible.

Over time, the topos of haecceity became the unquestioned metaphysical backdrop for an ascendant Westphalian modernity. It enabled influential Franciscans and humanists to reject Thomist visions of an incorruptible sacred fisc and to re-envision money as an alienable medium of exchange well before the likes of John Locke. It also gave rise to Reformation conceptions of the Almighty as an immediately willing God which, in turn, perpetuated destructive wars of religion and the rise of a Westphalian system of fiscally-strapped sovereign states.

The problem with modernity’s contracted haecceity metaphysics is that it grounds human relationality upon a primary unboundedness or non-relationality, which externalizes the question of relationality from the start. Beginning from this lethal premise, modern metaphysics thereby envisions the central challenge of collective belonging not as governing an always-already interdependent and bounded reality, but as finding means to unify ontologically disaggregated beings into some kind of coherent and legitimate whole. Far from natural, this seemingly primordial difficulty is metaphysically spurious, thoroughly modern, and exceedingly political.

Liberal money is the most salient expression of this fantasmatic non-relationality, and money appears non-relational because the modern metaphysics of haecceity has inscribed estrangement into the heart of law and politics. To put a finer point on it, this originary alienation weaves itself into how Western modernity figures the topological relation between law and politics. In the eyes of Westphalian modernity, or if one prefers, Jean Bodin or Thomas Hobbes, sovereignty is exclusive and primary, and law is an extension of sovereign power. Should law spill over sovereignty’s jurisdiction, it is characterized either as geopolitical domination, a compact between sovereign wills, or wishful thinking.

On my reading, such a topology turns the relationship between law and politics disastrously inside-out and the modern Liberal money form is the result. This modern view of law and politics casts money as a decentered global exchange relation for which no governing body is ultimately responsible. It exculpates modern governance from perpetual legal entanglements in what are characterized as external social and ecological problems.

I would like to recast this inside-out relation between law and politics from the vantage of the Thomist metaphysics that modern thought has rejected. Thomas’s understanding of law and politics is most discernable in his philosophy of “natural law.” In Thomism, natural law is mostly empty of positive precepts and commandments. Instead, natural law marks the ineludible riddle of social and material interdependence from the widest to the smallest scales. This riddle knows no outside. It assumes a tiered, heterogenous, and overlapping structure. But it traces no external bounds. Natural law, according to Thomas, is the basis for the various positive laws that organize a given social order. Yet, for Thomas, just like the natural law it realizes, positive law forever mediates the many from one, ex uno plura, rather than tenuously forging one from many, e pluribus unum.

Having predicated law in an ineluctable dependence, Thomas then characterizes the rapport between human governance and law via the scholastic method of analogy. He begins with the broader relation between God and what he calls “eternal law,” a kind of cosmic or supranatural interdependence that forms the mysterious basis of all order in the universe. Articulating this relationship, Thomas once again proves perplexing since, for him, God is both an infinite font of Creation and a legally bounded subject of His own created order. On Thomas’s reasoning, that is, God is the boundless and omnipresent center of Being’s continual Creation, not the absolute power or unbounded will characteristic of post-Reformation divinity. Yet at the same time, God’s infinitude is ineluctably restricted by eternal law’s own sublime interdependence. As a result, law appears simultaneously to proceed from God’s boundless creativity and to hold sway over Creation in ways that no divine agent can instantly dismantle. Therefore, God is nothing like an absolute will or power, Thomas concludes, precisely because the Divine remains forever indebted to the order to which divinity gives rise.

We discover a similarly paradoxical topology in Thomas’s theorization of the rapport between human governance and law. A governing institution is a site and source of social provisioning which, as every MMTer knows, must remain indebted to a particular society in the long run if that society is to continue to reproduce itself. To do so, a governing institution wields law’s infinite capacities to organize a certain scale of social and material creation. Yet Thomas argues that law as suchalways traces wider, narrower, and overlapping scales of interdependence than any particular governing institution can possibly oversee. Demarcated by neither territory nor sovereign will, these many scales of interdependence meet at Creation’s widest circumference and encircle each particular governing institution on all sides. It is therefore impossible for any governing institution to operate either before or outside law. Governing institutions can contest, suspend, or overturn specific instances of positive law. They may collapse in revolution or war. But, for Thomas, even states of exception and political chaos never fully circumvent the abiding quandary of social and material interdependence.

Today, I think it can equally be said that nothing escapes law’s interdependent causal horizon and charge. Law’s purview weds the present-day nation-state to cities, unemployed persons, and territorial resources as well as to other polities, stateless peoples, and the challenges of global climate change. Thomist legal and political philosophy makes these elementary connections freshly perceptible by folding the relationship between governance and law radically outside-in. At the same time, Thomas’s insistence that this legal relationality leans on a boundless center lifts the fiscal ceiling that presently prevents governing institutions from meeting social and ecological needs.

In this way, Thomism appears to both buttress MMT’s political economy and to problematize its still-unreflected attachments to the language of modern sovereignty. The resulting MMT-inspired approach to law and politics would neither subordinate jurisprudence to the problem of sovereignty nor pit universal beneficence against the evils of political and economic power. Instead, a Thomistic MMT would re-imagine the originary shape of law and turn the terms of political contestation irreversibly outside-in.

This essay is based on an oral presentation delivered at Law in Global Political Economy: Heterodoxy Now, a conference organized by the Institute for Global Law and Policy at Harvard University, June 2–3, 2018.

Originally published by Arcade: Literature, the Humanities, and the World, 06.02.2018, under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 United States license.