Aquinas, Plato, and their arguments for state religious intolerance

both Plato and saint. Thomas Aquinas offered arguments for state intolerance of all religion except that officially favored by the state. both arguments rest upon two key foundations: first, that the state has a positive duty in this regard, and second, that those who govern the state will not make mistakes in the implementation of this duty.

Plato thought that the state has a duty to seek the good of all citizens in every way. but he never offers a clear reason why. some goods, to be sure, can only be secured by the state. his argument focuses only on the state, arguing that because it is essential to the procurement of some goods, it is necessary to the good, and therefore to every particular good.

when one thinks of the good as a single unity in the fashion of Plato, this line of reasoning becomes very seductive. He begins how shall we order our commonwealth? and concludes that all the order of the commonwealth should be specified by law and backed up by force. he is writing as the author of a city, and therefore in his vision, he has control over every element of it. naturally, he extends that control (in a literary fashion) by translating it into laws for the inhabitants.

saint Thomas reaches a very similar place from a more familiar and more clearly presented argument. for Thomas, the state has a positive duty to prohibit sin. any sinful action should be, in general, prohibited by the state. while this appears purely negative, and thus more limited than Plato's state's duty to secure all goods, it is really just as strong a force for state intervention in every aspect of a citizen's life.

absent strong offsetting factors, the rites of unbelievers are to be prohibited in Thomas's state for the simple reason that they are sinful. heretics who don't really intellectually understand or conceive their heresy are pardoned, provided they are not contumate, because they are not liable—because they have not sinned. again and again, Thomas bases his theory of state action upon the putative duty of the state to inhibit its citizens from sinning.

the second foundational position behind Plato's and Thomas's arguments is more implicit in both—that the rulers of the state will not make mistakes when they act intolerantly. this is necessary because they are being actively protected from criticism. As Karl Popper points out in the open society and its enemies, criticism is an essential part of reaching the truth for one who is not possessed of total knowledge. a perfectly knowledgeable person would not need criticism, Plato and saint Thomas reply, and they are correct.

this means that Plato and Thomas must argue for the absence from error of their rulers. for Thomas, this is based upon the subjection of the state to the church. the church, he believes, has divine warrant to discover and establish truth, and once it has spoken, the state may confidently proceed to enforce the church's knowledge. the state, according to Thomas, has confident knowledge of which things are sins, because the church has told it, and then the state may confidently act to proscribe those sins.

for Plato, the rulers must be wise philosophers—something he is very clear about. and he believes, in the laws at least, that while the rulers might not be perfectly wise, they have the laws of the city to supply the want. if we consider the author of the laws together with the rulers, then, the same need for total reason is found, and asserted, by Plato. but we are safe, says Plato, because once we have made sure that our state is ruled by perfectly rational people.

these two suppositions found all of Plato's and saint Thomas's reasoning about state intolerance of divergent religions. having concluded that their preferred religion is true, and that the rulers of the state may trust its truth, and that the state has a duty to enforce its truth, one immediately gets to the conclusion they draw.

how may we criticize Plato's opinions here? first, the state is simply not the only organization which can pursue goods. the reconstruction of Plato's reasoning above would apply to any other organization. for example, one could say that the family is essential to the pursuit of some goods, and therefore the good, therefore all goods, and thus the family ought to seek total control.

once one realizes that there are other organs that can pursue goods, Plato's argument loses cogency. the state, by not pursuing a certain good, is no longer leaving that good unattained. a city involves more than laws and force, and if one is planning a city de novo, one might plan other social institutions as well.

second, some goods depend on not being coerced. some things are, for example, more beautiful when free. again, the good of knowledge exceeds that of true belief. but coercion might poison someone's mind against knowledge. again, the virtue of loyalty is impossible without a real option of disloyalty.

third, the rulers' reason is of course not infallible. neither the lawgiver nor the nocturnal council of the laws nor the philosopher-kings of the republic are possessed of unerring reason. even if they are the most rational people available, it does not follow that the humblest slave might not have the crucial brainstorm to solve a particular situation or improve the rulers' understanding in some respect. Popper's criticism here is, i believe, decisive.

saint Thomas, of course, comes with his own set of flaws. he has no grounding for his statement that the state has a duty to prohibit sin wherever possible. private citizens, for example, have no such duty. the scriptural and patristic sources of his doctrine only support state force in defense of common order, yet not all sins are damaging to common order.

the techniques that Thomas urges upon the state might themselves involve the state in sin. who of us today would not regard torture as morally wrong? only by an amazing absolutist leap would argue that such acts are not sinful when they are part of the state's program to eliminate sin. it seems there must be strong limits here to the state's authority, and the heirs of Thomas today do not see any longer the same justification for state coercion and intolerance, for this reason if for no other.

and finally, as with Plato, the rulers of Thomas's state are not immune from error either. the church had changed its opinions before, and would surely do so again. many of the opinions Thomas holds in great respect were reached after great controversy and much searching on all sides. any justification of repressive measures would be based upon the relative harm, but as one's certainty drops, one's willingness to abuse others should drop accordingly.

for both saint Thomas and Plato, then, there are two central errors, corresponding to the crucial points in their arguments i outlined above.

first, the state's duty to enforce reason and prohibit sin is not clear. neither has offered a good explanation for why this duty should be as overarching as they take it. neither justifies the use of force in this regard, nor does either offer a suitable defense of the points where they do not think force is permissible.

neither offers any reason why this duty devolves upon the state, but both clearly think it does. both simply look always and only to the state as the solution of social ills, concluding that the state must therefore cure the ills in question.

second, both fail to account for the frailty of human reason. both should surely be aware of the temporary and tendentious nature of our knowledge. even allowing for great certainty of their core beliefs, their justification of such harsh measures to suppress religious diversity depends on a great many more considerations.

there is potential for great harm if the state is given such a large stick. the weapons available to the state need to be more sharply limited once we realize that—of necessity—those wielding them will not be totally disinterested seekers of truth and justice, but will pursue at least to some extent limited and idiosyncratic goals. once a state like Plato's or saint Thomas's begins such a downward slide, it is hard to see what, if anything, can rescue it.

one final note: carefully constructed and elaborate arguments for toleration are dangerous in exactly the same way. if one's toleration is truly based upon such arguments, then one's commitment to tolerance is likely to waver once the arguments begin to topple. political theory is not sufficiently solid, i contend, to build a stable political foundation upon. perhaps, after all, we do need Plato's pleasing myths with which to convince ourselves of the truth of our actions. ironically, it may be Plato's dishonest method of manipulating people here that is his one most useful legacy in political theory.

things i wrote for my b.a.