What Does Aquinas Have to Say About Egypt?

Jim, over at Zwinglius Redivivus, has a post entitled “Egypt Burns, and the Theologians and Biblical Scholars Remain Silent.” He writes,

Nothing really needs to be added to that title except one blazingly evident fact: too many are so involved in pointless pursuits and the useless drivel and dreck of their own limited interests that they are blind to what’s going on around them and voiceless.

Therefore they are, as far as I am concerned, worthless. If the teaching of Scripture isn’t applied to real life (as opposed to attempting to apply it to sci-fi and other stupidities) and theologians and biblical scholars have nothing to say to or about events such as we are presently witnessing, I think they have proven themselves unworthy of the title they bear and no longer relevant to anything, for anything at all.

I don’t normally read his blog (I found this post through a link on another blog), but Jim has a point. What say we blogger theologians about the events unfolding in the largest country in the Middle East?

Aquinas, following Aristotle, is clearly a supporter of a people’s right to rise up against an unjust tyrant. He writes in “On Kingship”

If to provide itself with a king belongs to the right of a given multitude, it is not unjust that the king be deposed or have his power restricted by that same multitude if, becoming a tyrant, he abuses the royal power. It must not be thought that such a multitude is acting unfaithfully in deposing the tyrant, even though it had previously subjected itself to him in perpetuity, 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.

He is also wary of civil unrest. He goes on in “On Kingship” to say, “The welfare and safety of a multitude formed into a society lies in the preservation of its unity, which is called peace.” However, his more systematic response to the disorder caused by political revolution is in the Summa, in the treatise on sedition (contained within the larger treatise on charity, not justice, as you may be surprised to know). In II-II 42.1, Aquinas identifies sedition (“when one state rises in tumult against another part”) as a sin “opposed to a special kind of good, namely the unity and peeace of a people.” In 42.2, he cites Augustine (De Civ. Dei ii, 21) that “‘wise men understand the word ‘people’ to designate not any crowd of person, but the assembly of those who are united together in fellowship recognized by law and for the common good.’ Wherefore it is evident that the unity to which sedition is opposed is the unity of law and common good: whence it follows manifestly that sedition is opposed to justice and the common good.”

Aquinas’ comments on sedition in the Summa are not opposed to what he says in “On Kingship.” In “On Kingship,” the overthrow of an unjust tyrant is an expression of unity on behalf of the common good. He confirms this in 42.2 ad. 1: “It is lawful to fight, provided it be for the common good. But sedition runs counter to the common good of the multitude, so that it is always a mortal sin.” And in the same article ad. 3, he says even more explicitly:

A tyrannical government is not just, because it is directed, not to the common good, but to the private good of the ruler, as the Philosopher states (Polit. iii, 5; Ethic. viii, 10). Consequently there is no sedition in disturbing a government of this kind, unless indeed the tyrant’s rule be disturbed so inordinately, that his subjects suffer greater harm from the consequent disturbance than from the tyrant’s government. Ondeed it is the tyrant rather that is guilty of sedition, since he encourages discord and sedition among his subjects, that he may lord over them more securely; for this is tyranny, being conducive to the private good of the ruler, and to the injury of the multitude.

In other words, Aquinas would probably say that a lawful uprising in accord with the common good simply is not sedition, in the same way that taking food from another when one’s life is in danger is not stealing (II-II, 66.7). Since neither are opposed to the common good, neither are sins.

So this brings us to Egypt. There is some fear among US onlookers that the uprising is the work of the Muslim Brotherhood, which could potentially be contrary to the common good (especially the small group of Egyptian Coptics). But Egypt’s Islamist opposition has vowed to “respect the will of the Egyptian people” if Mubarak is disposed. Moreover, the uprising is more eclectic than merely the Muslim Brotherhood, as the Guardian notes:

“There is widespread exaggeration about the role of the Brotherhood in Egyptian society, and I think these demonstrations have exposed that,” said Khalil al-Anani, an expert on Egypt’s political Islamists at Durham University. “At first the movement showed little interest in the protests and announced they weren’t going to participate; later they were overtaken by events and forced to get involved or risk losing all credibility.” . . .

. . . Even on Friday, when the Brotherhood finally threw its weight behind efforts to bring down the government – a stance its leadership initially held back from – Islamist slogans were noticeable by their absence, and the formal contribution of the movement remained limited.

The Egyptian revolution, therefore, does not seem to fit the criteria for sedition. Rather, it seems the whole nation, and especially the youth, are rising collectively to challenge the injustices of a tyrant. Still, the unrest in the country definitely endangers the common good, and needs to be settled as quickly as possible.

Paul VI wrote in Populorum Progressio in 1967, keeping largely with the Thomistic tradition, “We know . . . that a revolutionary uprising–save where there is a manifest, long-standing tyranny which would do great damage to fundamental personal rights and dangerous harm to the common good of the country–produces new injustices, throws more elements out of balance and brings on new disasters. A real evil should not be fought against as the cost of greater misery.”

Although the mood is celebratory, the violence can escalate rapidly. Nik Kristof blogs from Cairo

The people I talked to mostly insisted that the army would never open fire on civilians. I hope they’re right. To me, the scene here is eerily like that of Tiananmen Square in the first week or so after martial law was declared on May 20, 1989, when soldiers and citizens cooperated closely. But then the Chinese government issued live ammunition and ordered troops to open fire, and on the night of June 3 to 4, they did – and the result was a massacre.

In the past, the army famously refused President Sadat’s order to crack down on bread riots, and maybe they won’t crack down this time. But I’ve seen this kind of scenario unfolding before in Indonesia, South Korea, Mongolia, Thailand, Taiwan and China, and the truth is that sometimes troops open fire and sometimes they don’t. As far as I can see, Mubarak’s only chance to stay in power is a violent crackdown – otherwise, he has zero chance of remaining president. And he’s a stubborn old guy: he may well choose to crack heads; of course, whether the army would follow orders to do so is very uncertain. The army is one of the few highly regarded institutions in Egyptian society, and massacres would end that forever.

One troubling sign is that the government isn’t showing signs of backing down. It used fighter planes to buzz Tahrir, in what surely seems an effort to intimidate protesters. It moved the curfew even earlier today, to 3 pm. It has sent the police back into some areas. The Internet remains shut off. And the state media continue to be full of lies. None of that sounds like a government preparing to bow to the power of the people.

It seems clear that Mubarak needs to go, but his overthrow will only be moral so long as the scale tips in balance of the common good.

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