Human Law Before Original Sin

Would the sinless be governed? The question drives a wedge between Thomas Aquinas and Augustine, according to Paul Weithman. In City of God, Augustine implies — if we follow the classic interpretation of R. A. Markus — that there would be no political in the state of original innocence (XIX, 15). Humans are by nature social, but not political. Government exists to secure earthly peace, because of original sin and our proclivity for the libido dominandi over the love of God. Even the common objects of love we share in harmony with our neighbors — Augustine breaks with Ciceronian common interest to make these the foundation of the political — are not virtuous unless directed towards God:

“Augustine locates the origins of political authority in the consequences of sin because he thinks that the moral improvement to which political subjection conduces is either remedial or illusory” (359).

Augustine seems pitched to a modern key, overcoming the classical Greek political theory that finds its consummation in Aristotle, where the polis perfects human beings in the life of virtue. The standard view of Augustinian pessimism, Jean-Bethke Elshtain points out, invites comparisons to those cardinal modern thinkers, Hobbes and Machiavelli.

But as soon as we think we’re rid of Aristotelian political theory, there is Thomism’s famous synthesis of Aristotle with the medieval body of Christian thought. For Aquinas, there is government in the state of innocence, although it’s not like any government we recognize. For Aquinas,

“Before the Fall as after, guided collective effort toward a common good produces ties of friendship among those subject to guidance. Aquinas thus takes from Aristotle the notion of civic friendship and argues that the ties of civic friendship obtain among citizens of a well-structured political society after the Fall” (374).

For Aquinas, only one of the three functions of governing occurs in the prelapsarian society. Government would not need to punish evildoers or protect society against enemies and want. But government could provide its most important function, to produce ties of civic friendship.

Is the difference as pronounced as Weithman argues? Without original sin, for Augustine, there is the social, plus a kind of paternalism that does not qualify as “political”. For Aquinas, there is the political and civic friendship. At first this might seem like a mere semantic difference. But Weithman makes clear that the difference between the Thomist and the political Augustinian is that on the Thomistic account, civic friendship is intrinsically — naturally — virtuous.


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