By Alejandro A. Tagliavini

XXXVII Thomist Week – International Congress, 2012

Faculty of Philosophy and Literature – UCA (click for the original paper in Spanish)

Disclaimer: As this presentation has been written for a Catholic university, I rely on pertinent quotes, that is, from Catholic authors, but do not be confused by this, the background is scientific and could well be based on non-Catholic authors.


                           In this short essay I will limit myself to presenting, not what reality currently is, but that perfection that we must have as a horizon. The true authority (and therefore unique) is the one that leads man to Being, the one that has the real power to direct him to his perfection, and the natural (metaphysical) potency to do so: ‘moral leadership’ (‘leadership by influence’) which, contrary to what many believe, is extremely effective -it is effective- , in opposition to the physically coercive “authority” that, strictly speaking, like all violence only destroys. As an example, the USSR, the most powerful tyranny in human history was not defeated by a superior army, but because of the moral influence of people like John Paul II.


                     Aristotle distinguishes being in act and in potentiality (the possibility of becoming what is not yet). All things are in act and, at the same time, potentially in relation to another different act. The act is prior to the potency, logically, chronologically, and ontologically, because something is potentially only in function of a certain pre-existing act. Consequently, in his Physics he explains that movement is the passage from power to act.

 In the first of the Thomist ‘quinque viae’ the only immobile engine is God (perfection). Thus, in Him (the highest authority, perfection) there is no potency, because this would mean change, but it is a pure act, from which authority is an act and not power (hence that “it is preached by example” and not with words). Following the Stagirite, Saint Thomas of Aquinas reaffirms that “movement is an imperfect action and of the imperfect” (1). This is how it moves (it is moving) what is partially in power and partially in act, continues the Aquinate (2).

So, the natural order (the natural laws of the cosmos, which must be followed necessarily to convert power into act) implies, fundamentally, movement because it exists precisely for man to become. If, in addition, we consider that potency is intrinsic (and its development inevitable), it follows that man necessarily moves by natural tendencies towards the Act (perfection) and, therefore, does not need extrinsic forces to drive him.

On the other hand, Saint Thomas assures, referring to the government of the world, that “… God immediately governs all things; but as regards the execution …, God governs some things by others intermediates … Therefore, it is fitting to say that God has the essentials of government…” (3). I emphasize that it is God who has the ‘essential’ of the government of the universe in an ‘immediate’ way (through Providence) and that there is some earthly authority in as much as “God governs some things through others”. This is to say, the cosmos has its own government prior to the human being, and some things of this government are realized through others “involuntarily”, as they are simple executors of something they can not change.

The natural need for authority is easy to understand. For example, as all people have different ideas, but at the same time it is urgent to be social, they need someone who, finally, decides the way forward. If they decide to follow one together since, although, due to the social nature, at some point they will have to do so, the free agency (and the inability to always associate with everyone), forces you to decide when and with whom. On the other hand, every human action seeks to improve the situation of the person, that cannot be fully reached as an “individual” (for it implies a common good since human beings are necessarily social, since to begin, to procreate two people are needed) hence the existence of some “authority” who knows that such action will lead to a better situation and can order for this purpose. Like, for example, your tennis coach.

Let us emphasize that it is a voluntary (natural) gathering of people, because they have discovered that they can power their resources, in fact, anyone could, at any moment, withdraw from the association. Now, as Providence -the impulse to perfection- manifests through the natural reason, which supposes free will, so that there is truly a government of God (previous to human beings), ‘Delegated’, for the natural order to be respected, the government must be given, exclusively and exclusive, depending on the human free will that adhere, by personal decision and in each act, to each law.

The Catechism says that “Regimes whose nature is contrary to the natural law … and the fundamental rights of people, cannot achieve the common good” (4) and then quotes the Aquinate: “Human legislation only has the character of law when it conforms to just reason, which means that its obligation comes from the eternal law. To the extent that if deviates from reason, it would be necessary to declare it unjust, it would not verify the notion of law; but rather it would be a form of violence (S. Thomas of A., th. 1-2, 93, 3 ad 2)” (5).

Now what is it that radically contradicts the natural order? The Aquinate says: “Violence is directly opposed to the voluntary as well as to the natural, in as much as it is common to the voluntary and the natural that both come from an intrinsic principle, and the violent emanates from an extrinsic principle” (6). To the point that Etienne Gilson assures that, for the Aquinate, “The natural and the violent are mutually exclusive, and it is not conceivable that something possesses both of these characters simultaneously” (7).

In this regard, Aristotle clarifies that “it is possible to violate the animated being: For example, a horse can be forced to move away from the straight line where he runs, making him change the direction … And so, if there is a cause outside of beings that forces them to execute what is contrary to their nature or their will, it is said that these beings do by force what they do … This will be … the definition of violence and coercion: there is violence whenever the cause that forces beings to do what they do is external to them; and there is no violence from the moment that the cause is internal and that it is in the very beings that move” (8).

What has been said so far, does not suppose, on the contrary, it is opposed to the classic rationalist ‘individual freedom’ that proposes the autonomy of man from God (the creation of the cosmos and the creation of humans) and the non-existence of his authority -the previous natural order- , but it does imply, in a radical way, the non-existence of violence (coercion), as a method of ‘government’ or ‘organization’. In short, the authority it is of a natural order and, it will be such, if it is inscribed within it, because the earthly rulers are only ‘intermediaries’, who can add or change nothing to the design of the nature.

The metaphysical principle is clear: violence is extrinsic to man and contrary to his nature and will. In other words, it is contrary to life so, not only never it will have real effectiveness (as it would be a contradiction) over life, but it will destroy it.

Affirming that violence is necessary because, otherwise, authority would be illusory, is saying that moral authority does not have sufficient power, that it does not really exist. This is like saying that the natural order does not exist, since morals are the rules, human beings must follow to adapt themselves to the natural order that involves the development of human life.

It is It is true that the Aquinate wrote that the law induces us to accept what it commands through fear to penalty (9), but the real penalty, that comes from disobedience to the law, is that of distancing oneself from being, is the pain (physical and/or psychological and/or spiritual) that surges from distancing from nature. On the other hand, Leo XIII tells us that: “… as Saint Thomas teaches, fear is very thin support; and those who out of fear submit, when the opportunity to go unpunished, they rebel more ardently … excessive fear leads to despair, and it pushes man to the greatest attacks (De Regim. Princ., l. I, c. 10)” (10).

 Let us remember that morality is ‘the adaptation’ of man to the natural order (the efficiency, the movement towards being), and that we all want to achieve perfection (the last end, the good) that is the proposal of Providence. So, we will follow, with pleasure, he who best leads us to and within the natural order, he who has more moral authority. On the contrary, those who disobey (or are violent), will move away from the moral and consequently (as life develops according to the natural order), they will end disappearing and with them (spontaneously) the lack of respect for real authority.

Moral leadership has the greatest force that exists in the cosmos, which comes from Providence that, following the nature of things, will guide the human being on the path of perfection. As when being babies we follow our parents because they know about life a lot more than we do. The coercive conception of ‘authority’ is undoubtedly materialistic and, so to exercise it, it is necessary the corresponding police power, weapons, that is, pure material.

When the natural order (faith moves mountains, and it does move them) raises the opposite: authority is essentially and finally moral (what we might modernly call ‘leadership by influence’). According to Aldous Huxley, “Societies are maintained, not mainly because of the fear of the more to the coercive power of the less, but because of a widespread faith in the decency of others” (11).

 In contrast, let us look at the supposed effective power of violence. State coercive measures, laws, have been ‘made to be violated’. As soon as the coercive State censorship says that a movie is banned, it becomes the attraction of the moment. Some will say that, if a moral authority (not coercive) decided, for example, to collect taxes, a large percentage would not pay. I wonder how many pay today (tax evasion is calculated globally by about 40%). Instead, what is the most important thing in your life? If it is your family, do you take care because it is coercively imposed on you or because you love it? Most important things, actions, energies, resources and movements in societies are directed for ‘moral reasons’, while strong attempts are made to avoid actions that coercive violence seeks to impose.

One company, for example, had as a policy not to force those who, having made use of their service, did not wanted to pay. The result was that it lost about 0.8 percent of its income on non-paying customers. But this decision impressed the company such a moral level and human warmth, that customers felt it as their home and, from this situation, the company made superior profits. It is estimated that the ‘moral adherence’ of people, it meant an increase in their income of the order of 15 percent.

 Thus, if authority is real, he who should not pay taxes because to do so, for example, would imply stop feeding his family, will not pay, and no one will force him to do so. Coercion is carried out precisely to impose actions to those who did not have intentions to do so. That is, it will cause hunger in the family in question. It will be said that many who could do so, will not pay. And here it is worth remembering the serious moral fault that means consequentialism and proportionalism according to John Paul II: “… the moral norms… without exception prohibit intrinsically evil acts… (We cannot) accept the arguments of ‘teleological’, ‘consequentialist’ and ‘proportionalist’ theories that deny the existence of negative moral norms regarding particular behaviors and that are valid without exception…” (12). The moral behavior would be to let someone that, having the capability to pay does not do so, rather than forcing everyone and causing harm to innocents.

But, in addition, I insist, all empirical evidence clearly shows that, when the authority it is truly moral, it achieves much more than when it is coercive. The maximized coercive ‘government’ (communism, for example) and the minimized (the ‘Laissez faire’) differ, strictly speaking, in the degree of coercion they justify. On the one hand, the Communism legitimized any level of violence as far as it ‘came from the proletariat’. A position that today seems untenable to me. Instead, it is enlightening to discuss the idea of government that justifies only a ‘minimum’ of violence, on the part of the ‘authority’, supposedly to prevent some misfit from imposing on another individual.

Thus, Hobbes believes in the physically coercive state, since otherwise it could not exist society. That is to say, there is no natural social order prior to man, but rather that the ‘society’ must necessarily be imposed violently: “It is clear that while men live without a common power to keep them all fearful, they will be in the a condition called war … of all against all … and consequently there will be no cultivation of the land, … there will be no knowledge … there will be no society and, worst of all, there will be permanent fear and danger of violent death” (13).

Coercive ‘authority’ is made precisely to violate the natural order, as it is established precisely to ‘necessarily’ compel people even when their opposition is the result of their free will, of their moral conscience (of the natural order). The violent State is, in short, a superb invention of rationalism that seeks to impose an order by compulsion, an artificial society designed by the reasoning of some illuminated as to supplant the natural. And as the imposition must be forced because, of its own, collides with the nature of things, ends up making a true cult of violence, of the destruction of life. According to Saint Augustine “Two loves founded two cities: the selfish up to the hate of God, the earthly; God’s love, the heavenly” (14).

Montesquieu’s rationalism (the believe that human reason is absolute, can design anything and above nature) is so clear: “The law, in general, is the human reason, insofar as it governs all the peoples of the earth; and political and civilian’s laws of each nation should not be other than the particular cases of this reason” (15). On the contrary, John Paul II affirms that “the force of the law resides in its authority to impose some duties, grant some rights and sanction certain behaviors: ‘Now, all this could not occur in man if it were he himself who, as a legislator supreme, ruled the actions that should be given’”. And he concludes: ‘It follows that natural law it is the same eternal law, inherent in beings endowed with reason, that inclines them to the act and to the end that suits them; it is the same eternal reason as the Creator and Ruler of the universe’” (16).

Saint Thomas affirms that “the law is something that belongs to reason” (17) but this is not the reason of rationalism but that of the natural order that goes beyond pure egocentric reasoning. Then, “in this way it is understood that the prince’s will has the force of law: otherwise, the prince’s will would be rather iniquity than law” (18), a doctrine that It seems based on the dictation of Saint Augustine according to whom “it does not seem to be a law that is not fair” (19). And the Aquinate clarifies that “There are two kinds of justice. One is to give and receive reciprocally, which is verified in the purchase and sale and other contracts and transactions of this nature; this one, which is called by Aristotle (V Ethic., c.4, n.1) [BK 1131b25] commutative or directive of changes or negotiations, it is not up to God … another is to distribute, for which reason it is called distributive … the order of the universe, which shines in both natural and voluntary things, it is a proof of the justice of God. Which makes Dionysius say (From the names div., C.8): It is necessary to recognize justice of God, in that he grants to all beings what is proper to them according to their respective dignity, and in that he preserves the nature of each thing in the order and virtue that are proper to it” (20).

George H. Sabine, and many other authors, go so far as to affirm that “[Saint Thomas] had no general theory of the origin of political authority … his reverence for the law was such that he took it for granted that its authority was inherent in itself and did not depend on any human source” (21). The Aquinate addresses the issue of community governance in his treatise ‘Of the Government of the Prince’ (‘De regimine principum’). And he points out that “If the government, comes out of a single one, in which he sought his own comforts and not the good of the multitude who is in his charge, this Governor would call himself a tyrant…” (22). And later “… if we speak of the government by way of servile subjection, introduced was by sin … but if we speak of him insofar as it is his office to look after his subjects and direct them to the good, of this mode can be called almost natural [government]…” (23).


(1) In Metaphys. (Commentary on Aristotle’s Metaphysics), XI, 9 (2305).

(2) In Phys. (Commentary on Aristotle’s Physics), III, 2 (285).

(3) S.Th., I, q. 103, a. 6.

(4) Catechism of the Catholic Church, n. 1901.

(5) Ibid. n. 1902.

(6) S.Th., I-II, q. 6, a. 5.

(7) ‘El Tomismo’, Part Two, Chapter VIII, EUNSA, Pamplona 1989, p. 438.

(8) ‘La Gran Moral’, I, XIII (in Aristotle, ‘Moral’, Espasa-Calpe Argentina SA, Buenos Aires 1945, p. 46).

(9) S.Th., I-II, q. 92, a. 2, in c.

(10) Encyclical ‘Diuturnum Illud’, Rome 1881, nn. 28 and 29.

(11) ‘La filosofía perenne’, Ed. Sudamericana, Buenos Aires 1967, pp. 289-0.

(12) Encyclical ‘Veritatis Splendor’, Rome 1993, n. 90.

(13) ‘Leviathan’, London: Macmillan Pub., 1962, p. 100.

(14) ‘De Civitate Dei’, XIV, 28.

(15) ‘L’ Esprit des Lois’, Première Partie, Livre Premier, Chapitre III, Des Lois Positives.

(16) Encyclical ‘Veritatis Splendor’, Rome 1993, nn. 41 and 44. The quote is from Leo XIII, Encyclical ‘Libertas Praestantissimum ‘(June 20, 1888): Leonis XIII P.M. Acta VIII, Romae 1889, 219.

(17) S.Th., I-II, q. 90, a. 1.

(18) Ibid., answer to the third difficulty of this article.

(19) ‘De Libero Arbitrio’, 1.1, c. 5.

(20) S.Th., I, q. 21, a. 1.

(21) ‘Historia de la teoría política’, Fondo de Cultura Económica, México 1945, pp. 246-7.

(22) ‘Del gobierno de los príncipes’, Libro I, Capítulo I (Editora Cultural, Buenos Aires 1945, Vol. I, p. 23).

(23) Ibíd., Libro III, Capítlo IX (Vol. II, p. 10). Although this part seems to be authored by Ptolemy of Lucca, it nevertheless exactly matches the S.Th.