Appeared in Fall 1994, Vol. XX, No. 3 Download PDF here

Michael Novak has recently been making the improbable claim that liberalism and Catholicism are not only compatible, but in many important respects essentially the same. To illustrate this, he is fond of asserting that St. Thomas Aquinas is the first liberal.1Novak takes his cue from Friedrich Hayek,2 who approvingly cites Lord Acton’s assertion that St. Thomas (in a long quotation which Acton attributes to Thomas) put forward “the earliest exposition of the Whig theory of revolution.”3Thus, Novak calls St. Thomas a proto-liberal, and calls for a return of the “Catholic Whig.4

Two problems arise in this procedure. First, while language similar to some of that which Acton attributes to Thomas may be found at various places in Aquinas, the “quote” is at best an interpolation, at worst a fabrication. Second, Novak has a great deal of theological, philosophical and historical revisionism to do in order to say that Aquinas would even understand the language of liberalism, much less hold the ideas which Novak attributes to him.

Acton puts the following in quotation marks, and credits “this language” to “the most celebrated of all the Guelphic writers,” St. Thomas Aquinas:

A king who is unfaithful to his duty forfeits his claim to obedience. It is not rebellion to depose him, for he is himself a rebel whom the nation has a right to put down. But it is better to abridge his power, that he may be unable to abuse it. For this purpose, the whole nation ought to have a share in governing itself; the Constitution ought to combine a limited and elective monarchy, with an aristocracy of merit, and such an admixture of democracy as shall admit all classes to office, by popular election. No government has a right to levy taxes beyond the limit

determined by the people. All political authority is derived from popular suffrage, and all laws must be made by the people or their representatives. There is no security for us as long as we depend on the will of another man.5


Nowhere in the Aquinas oeuvre can such a passage be found, though some similar sentences and phrases do appear at various places.6Acton’s intended meaning of the passage, however, is foreign to Aquinas’ thought.

The first three sentences of Acton’s passage echo Aquinas’ words in De Regno. In book one, chapter six, St. Thomas says that the best rule is the rule of one man: a king. But since this is also easily abused, rule by a king ought to be arranged such that the danger of tyranny is mitigated as much as possible. Thomas says, “Once the king is established, the government of the kingdom must be so arranged that opportunity to tyrannize be removed. At the same time his power should be so tempered that he cannot easily fall into tyranny.”7

And if, despite the safeguards, the king becomes a tyrant, it is not unjust to depose him. Aquinas explains:

If to provide itself with a king belong to the right of any multitude, it is not unjust that the king set up by that multitude be destroyed or his power restricted, if he tyrannically abuse the royal power. It must not be thought that such a multitude is acting unfaithfully in deposing the tyrant;… because he himself has deserved that the covenant with his subjects should not be kept, since, in ruling the multitude, he did not act faithfully as the office of a king demands.8   

Though Acton does faithfully convey part of Aquinas’ thought, he ignores the very “un-Whigish” premise of the passage, as well as an important qualification to the right to depose the tyrant. First, Aquinas, unlike Acton or any other liberal,9advocates the rule of one man as “the best” and “to be preferred.” Aquinas would not remove the king in order to establish liberal democracy, but rather in order to establish another (just) king.

Second, the tyrant should not necessarily be deposed. “He should be tolerated even in his tyranny on account of the greater evil to be avoided.”10And even if the tyrant can be overthrown, “from this fact itself very grave dissensions among the people frequently ensue: the multitude may be broken up by factions either during their revolt against the tyrant, or, concerning the organization of the government, after the tyrant has been overthrown.”11The disorder of a fractured political community is a greater evil than some kinds of tyranny. In many conceivable cases, “danger to the people from the loss of their king would be more imminent than relief through the removal of the tyrant.”12