Thomas Aquinas on Property

Property in general: Do human beings have the right to use the natural world in any way?

Thomas Aquinas writes of property as a theologian. He approaches property in discussing the decalogue, the command that "Thou shalt not steal" . The discussion concerning stealing is to be found in the Summa Theologica, II-II q. 66. Thomas, as usual, is very thorough. Stealing is taking the property of another, whether secretly by theft (furtus) or openly by robbery (rapina). Before he discusses stealing as such, he gets to the roots of the issue. Before we can determine what stealing is, or why it is wrong, we must first look at property. What is a man's claim to property? Why must others respect a man's claim to something as his own?

The first article is the following: whether the possession of exterior goods is natural to man. The first point Thomas makes is that God has possession over all things in a primary sense. Things by their nature obey God, since their nature comes from God himself. Man's ownership of things is over the use of things. Man can use things for his own good. Lower things are for the sake of higher things, and so the things of nature are for the sake of man to use for his own good. Thomas cites Aristotle's Politics: that the possession of exterior things is natural to man.

Aristotle's Politics (Book I, chapter 3) contains in investigation into the nature of various kinds of property. Different tribes of men have different ways of life. Some are nomads, and they follow their herds from one grazing ground to another. Others survive by hunting and others survive by brigandage. But the largest class of men, he says, live from the land and the fruits of cultivation. Aristotle says "Property of this sort then seems to be bestowed by nature herself upon all, as immediately upon their first coming into existence."

We may note at this time that Thomas, and Aristotle, have not even gotten to the question of whether one man may lay claim to something against all other men, but merely whether men have the right to use the earth in any way at all. Perhaps we could put it this way. If we find a wilderness, do we as men have the right to use it? Aristotle's arguments, repeated by Saint Thomas, are that just like other animals, man needs certain things to live. Nature provides young birds with the yolk of their eggs, young mammals are provided with milk, and man also looks in his own way to nature for sustenance. Thomas writes that man, by using his reason and will, can use exterior things for his own utility, as if they had been made for his sake, for the less perfect things have been created for the sake of more perfect things. Aristotle notes (in the same chapter) that just as the mother provides milk for her offspring, so nature in a broader sense provides food for the adult animal. We see in nature that plants exist for the sake of animals, and that other animals exist for the sake of man. Thomas, of course, as a Christian mentions in his argument that these natural things are made, that is, created by God (facta). While Aristotle had no philosophical conviction concerning whether the world was created from nothing, and tended to see God not as creator, but as keeping the world in order and motion, also has a deep vision that the natural world is completely orderly and that all nature is guided by purpose. Aristotle writes: "If therefore nature makes nothing without purpose or in vain, it follows that nature has made all the animals for the sake of men.

After Thomas cites Aristotle, he looks to the Sacred Scripture, the book of Genesis (I, 26). The natural dominion of man over other creatures, which belongs to man in keeping with his reason, is manifested in the creation of man: "Let us make man to our image and likeness, and he will be lord over the fishes of the sea, etc...

Thomas wrote by presenting arguments and counterarguments. The arguments are called objections, then he presents what he thinks if the correct line of reasoning, and finally, he answers the objections. Without going in detail into the objections (the reader can find them by consulting the original text), in his answers he makes the following points. It is God who has first dominion or ownership of all things, and by his providence he ordered some things for man's sustenance. So, we find a world ready and provided for us with food, or at least with the raw materials to produce food, and so we have a natural dominion over these things, that is, the right to use them. At the same time, we must remember that things primarily belong to the Creator.

Let us present this thought in picture form. We find ourselves in a large room. We understand that we have been placed in that room by a generous host. We find food and beds and other things that we need. Our needs have obviously been anticipated, and we may assume that we are expected to make ourselves at home. So it is that we find ourselves in the natural world.

The first article, whether we have any right at all to use the things of nature to survive, might seem trivial. However, there are possibly two extremes. One extreme is that we have the right to do whatever we want with the natural world. However, that is to forget that it is not principally ours, but God's, and it is not merely given to us, but given to us for our proper needs, and we must use our reason. To apply this, if indeed it is true that the vast number of automobiles are creating clouds of smoke that will change the weather, which will in turn make life difficult for the next generation, then we may conclude that an individual does not have the absolute right to use an automobile without limit. Does this seem radical? I could think of another example. Suppose, a man in a city has a yard full of trees. Does he have the right to set all his trees on fire, simply because fire amuses him? The other extreme is that nature itself has rights on its own, without respect to man. According to this view, we have no right to change the wilderness. Building a dam for hydroelectric power might disrupt the habitat for certain species, which we have no right to do. This is an extreme position. First of all, unless we simply decided as humans to go out of existence, we must accept that everything we do changes the natural environment. If building a hydroelectric dam makes life difficult for some species, it provides a new habitat for other species. The biggest problem with the radical environmental position is that man is not allowed to do even what other living creatures do. Other living creatures use other plants and animals for food, and man likewise uses them. The radical environmental position, while claiming that man must rediscover his place as part of nature, actually conclude by banishing man from the natural world and its ways. Other animals may do what they must to survive, but man alone, they would say, does not have the right. However, we must be careful not to ascribe this extreme position to legitimate environmentalists, who simply state that if we are to survive, we must be careful stewards in our use of nature. Also, while we use the things of nature, it is wrong to wantonly destroy them. In the Old Testament, in the Book of Deuteronomy, we read: If, while walking along, you chance upon a bird's nest with young birds or eggs in it, in any tree or on the ground, and the mother bird is sitting on them, you shall not take away the mother bird along with her brood; you shall let her go, although you may take her brood away.(Deuteronomy 22:6) It is thus that you shall have propserity and a long life. Another expression of concern for the preservation of the natural world is found in the practice of the Sabbatical year. Every seventh year, the Mosaic Law commanded the Israelites to let their land lie fallow. This, of course, is good farming practice in any case. The law also states the reason for this practice:While the land has its sabbath, all its produce wil be food equally for you yourself and for your male and female slaves, for your hired help and the tenants who live with you, and likewise for your livestock and for the wild animals on your land.

Owning Things: Private Property

The second article concerns private property as such. There are two aspects of ownership. First, to power to take ownership or give ownership of things. The second, the use of the things.

With regard to the first, man has the moral right to take possession of things. The right is based on necessity or need. The power to take possession of things is necessary to human life for three reasons:

  1. Each person is more concerned about procuring something that will belong to him alone and something that will belong to many or to all. If something belongs to all, then each man will shirk his labor and will tend to leave to others that which concerns the whole community. This is the case in a household where there are many servants. It is also the case in a bureaucracy. The individual bureaucrat has no reason to take on more work than he has, and he has no personal stake in being more diligent about public property.
  2. Human affairs are handled in a more orderly manner when each man takes care of procuring something as his own.
  3. Men live better in peace when each individual is content with his own things. When a group of people own something in common and without any division, there are frequent quarrels.

With regard to the use of things, while each man has the right to take possession of things, he does not have the right to use these things with no regard to others. Man should not possess exterior things as if they were solely his own, but as if they were common. For example, he should share them willingly when others are in need. Thomas quotes the Apostle Paul: (First Letter to Timothy, 6: 17-19):Charge the rich of this world not to be proud, or to trust in the uncertainty of riches, but in God, who provides all things in abundance for our enjoyment. Let them do good and be rich in good works, giving readily, sharing with others, and thus providing for themselves a good foundation against the time to come, in order that they may lay hold on the true life..

We can draw out the following conclusions. First, private property is a relative, not an absolute right. Property is for the sake of man's needs. It is good as a way of ensuring a peaceful society, and as the best way (in general) of managing the goods of the earth. Thomas does not approve of ownership for the sake of ownership. Second, since private property is a good thing, it is good that all, or many, own property. If part of the justification of private ownership is that then men are contented, and so society is peaceful, we cannot extend his arguments for the legitimacy of property to cases where a few own everything to the detriment of the many.

Both in the writings of Aristotle and in the Sacred Scripture we can find the idea that it is hurtful to society when all the land is in the hands of a few. Aristotle wrote with approval of Greek lawmakers who limited the size of estates in various ways. He cites Plato: Plato, when writing the Laws, thought that up to a certain point inequality ought to be allowed, but that no citizen should be permitted to acquire more land than would make his estate five times the size of the smallest.(Aristotle, Politics, II, iv) There were many various laws in the Greek states that aimed at preventing too great an imbalance in the sizes of estates, and Aristotle admits that there were many practical problems. Perhaps, while he approved the aim behind such laws, he thought that laws alone were not enough. Aristotle writes: And again, even if one prescribed a moderate property for all, it would be of no avail, since it is more needful to level men's desires than their properties, and this can only be done by an adequate system of education enforced by law. We are left with this, that the ideal situation is that all families should own property, but there is no perfect legislative means to bring this about. To come close to meeting this goal, people must have formed the right character, and that is something very difficult to guarantee on a vast scale.

While the New Testament exhorts the rich to be generous, and warns that if they do not heed the needs of the needy and unfortunate they face eternal punishment, the Old Testament formulated very specific laws. In the Law of Moses we read: If you lend money to one of your poor neighbours among my people, you shall not act like an extortioner toward him by demanding interest from him. If you take your neighbour's cloak as a pledge, you shall return it to him before sunset; for this cloak of his is the only covering he has for his body. What else has hew to sleep in? If he cries out to me, I will be compassionate.(Exodus 22:24-26). This describes the basic minimum of property. Any other legal claim notwithstanding, no man had any moral right to take from another the minimum property needed to stay alive. The Old Testament also described the Jubilee year, when a family which was forced to sell its property could buy it back at the same price for which it was sold, and the person who had bought it could not refuse to sell it back.(Leviticus 25) The principle underlying this was also stated by Saint Thomas. The Scripture tells us the reason for this law:The land shall not be sold in perpetuity; for the land is mine, and you are but aliens who have become my tenants.(Leviticus 25:23) Another law also is based on the principle that the use of private property is the benefit of all. When a farmer harvests his fields, he is not to go over them a second time, but he should leave what was missed for the orphans, widows and aliens who pass by. (Deuteronomy 24: 19-22)

I will respond to some possible objections at this point. First, someone may object that the modern state is a commonwealth of both believers and non-believers, and among the believers there are very many differences of opinion. If so, then a line of argument taken from the Sacred Scriptures of the Jews and Christians holds no weight. The second objection is based on the Christian scriptures, namely, that Jesus Christ abolished the Old Law when he came, and that Christians do not need to pay any heed to the Old Testament. The answer to both can be found in the words of Vincent McNabb, O.P:

This Jewish law consisted of general precepts and particular precepts. The general precepts were a fundamental ethic code. They were called the Decalogue or Ten Commandments. By later writers they were called the Moral Precepts. This fundamental ethical code of moral precepts contained only the general, as distinct from the particular, duties of man to God, and of man to his fellow-men.

To these general moral precepts were added particular precepts:
  1. The ceremonial precepts dealing with man's duties to God; and
  2. The social orjudicial precepts, delaing with man's duties to his fellow men

We need not remark that the fundamental ethical code was unchangeable. But the ceremonial precepts, which were preparatory for the coming of the Messiah, were unchangeable only until he came. His coming would necessarily make their continuance an untruth.

Again, the social precepts, which were laws made for the civic life of the Jewish people, and therefore not adapted to every people, had neither the essential continuance of the moral precepts nor the essential discontinuance of the ceremonial precepts, but might or might not be continued according to the will of a people.(Vincent McNabb, A Life of Our Lord, Sheed and Ward, London, 1938, ch. 5, p. 92-93)
It is, then, in this spirit that we cite passages from the Law of Moses. They are based on unchanging moral principles, and represent practical measures suited for a certain time and place. The moral principles they embody are universal, and so with some effort, a person who takes a philosophical approach to moral principles, even without resorting to religious belief, will agree with them. Whether these particular laws are the most apt measures for our day is another matter. We might achieve the same social ends by other laws and measures. However, as Vincent McNabb also states in a footnote:
There are those who think, in these days of super-empires, that the most stable social unit is the small, self-conscious, self-supporting and self-governing unit. If this is true, it may be found useful to study in great detail the social precepts of the Jewish Law.(ibid.)
With this I agree. Even the particular measures cited in the Old Testament often compare favorably with the laws under which we live today. Thomas Aquinas often cites these particular social precepts to support his arguments in moral matters, although he never uses these particular laws as the main premise of an argument. So I use them. It is possible to argue backwards from the law to the principle it embodies.