Front Page Titles (by Subject) QUESTION C.: OF THE MORAL PRECEPTS OF THE OLD LAW. - Aquinas Ethicus: or, the Moral Teaching of St. Thomas, vol. 1 (Summa Theologica - Prima Secundae, Secunda Secundae Pt.1)
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QUESTION C.: OF THE MORAL PRECEPTS OF THE OLD LAW. - St. Thomas Aquinas, Aquinas Ethicus: or, the Moral Teaching of St. Thomas, vol. 1 (Summa Theologica - Prima Secundae, Secunda Secundae Pt.1) 
Aquinas Ethicus: or, the Moral Teaching of St. Thomas. A Translation of the Principal Portions of the Second part of the Summa Theologica, with Notes by Joseph Rickaby, S.J. (London: Burns and Oates, 1892).
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OF THE MORAL PRECEPTS OF THE OLD LAW.
Article II.—Do the moral precepts of the Old Law prescribe all acts of virtue?
R. Since the precepts of law are ordained to the common good, these precepts must be different according to the different kinds of communities that they are given to. Now the kind of community for which human law is meant is different from that for which divine law is meant. Human law is meant for the civil community of man with man. Now men are put in mutual relation by outward acts, or dealings with one another. These dealings are matter of justice, which is the proper guiding principle of a human community. And therefore human law proposes no precepts except of acts of justice; or if it does enjoin acts of other virtues, that is only inasmuch as they assume the character of justice. But the community to which the divine law refers is that of men with God, either in the present or in the future life. And therefore the divine law proposes precepts of all those things whereby men are duly led on to hold communion with God. But this is done by acts of all the virtues. And therefore the divine law proposes precepts of the acts of all virtues, yet so that some things, without which the order of virtue, which is the order of reason, cannot be observed, fall under an obligation of precept; while other things, which belong to the well-being of perfect virtue, fall under an admonition of counsel.
Article V.—Is the decalogue a suitable enumeration of precepts?
R. As the precepts of human law adapt man to a human community, so the precepts of divine law adapt him to a community or commonwealth of men under God. Now two things are requisite for any person to dwell to advantage in a community: the first is that he should behave well to the head of the community; the second is that he should behave well to the rest, his associates and partners in the community. There must then in the divine law be enacted, first, some precepts directing a man in his behaviour towards God; and after that, other precepts directing a man in his behaviour towards other men his neighbours, living with him under God. Now to the Sovereign of the community man owes three things: first, fidelity; secondly, reverence; thirdly, service. Fidelity to his Lord consists in this, that he should not pay sovereign honours to any other; and this is the idea of the first commandment, when it is said, Thou shalt not have strange gods. Reverence to his Lord requires that he should do no injurious act towards Him; and such is the import of the second commandment, which is, Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain. Service is due to the Lord in recompense for the benefits which His subjects receive from Him; and to this belongs the third commandment, of the sanctification of the Sabbath in memory of the creation of the world. To his neighbours a man has to behave well both in particular and in general. In particular towards those to whom he is indebted, to pay them the debt; and in this light is to be taken the commandment of honouring parents. In general towards all men, to hurt none, whether in deed, word, or desire. A neighbour is hurt in deed, sometimes in his own person as to the continuance of that person; and this hurt is prohibited by the utterance, Thou shalt not kill: sometimes in a person allied to him as to the propagation of offspring; and this hurt is prohibited when it is said, Thou shalt not commit adultery: sometimes again in his possessions, which are directed both to the good of his own person and to that of persons allied to him; and in respect of these it is said, Thou shalt not steal. Hurt in word is prohibited when it is said, Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour. Hurt in desire is prohibited when it is said, Thou shalt not covet.
Article VIII.—Do the commandments of the decalogue admit of dispensation?
R. A dispensation from precepts ought then to be given when there occurs some particular case in which, if the letter of the law were observed, the intention of the legislator would be defeated. Now the intention of every legislator is directed first and foremost to the general good; secondly to the order of justice and virtue whereby the general good is preserved and attained. If therefore any precepts be given which contain precisely the preservation of the general good, or precisely the order of justice and virtue, such precepts contain the intention of the legislator, and therefore admit of no dispensation. But if, subordinate to these precepts, other precepts were given determining special modes of procedure, in such precepts a dispensation would be possible, since from the omission of these precepts in certain cases no prejudice would ensue to the primary precepts, which contain the intention of the legislator. For instance, if it were enacted in any city for the preservation of the common weal, that out of every ward some persons should keep watch as sentries in a siege, some might be dispensed from this in view of a greater utility.
Now the commandments of the decalogue contain precisely the intention of the lawgiver, who is God. For the commandments of the first table, which refer to God, contain precisely the order that leads to the general and final good, God; while the precepts of the second table contain the order of justice to be observed amongst men, that nothing undue be done to any man, and that to every man may be rendered his due. And therefore the precepts of the decalogue are altogether beyond dispensation.
§ 3. The killing of a man is prohibited in the decalogue in so far as it bears the character of an undue act: for thus understood, the commandment contains the essential idea of justice. Human law cannot allow as lawful the killing of a man unduly. But there is nothing undue in the killing of male-factors or enemies of the commonwealth. Hence such killing is not the murder that is forbidden by the decalogue. Therefore also when any one has that which was his own taken away from him, if it was due that he should lose it, that is not the theft or robbery forbidden in the decalogue.1 And therefore when the children of Israel by God’s command took the spoils of the Egyptians, that was not theft, because what they took was due to them by the sentence of God. In like manner when Abraham consented to slay his son, he did not consent to murder, because it was due for that son to be slain by the command of God, who is Lord of life and death; for He it is who inflicts the punishment of death on all men, just and unjust, for the sin of their first parent; and if a man by divine authority shall be the executor of this sentence, he shall be no murderer, no more than God is. And in like manner also Osee, taking to himself a wife of fornications, or an adulterous woman, committed neither adultery nor fornication, because he took her to himself by the command of God, who is the author of the institution of marriage.1 Thus then the commandments of the decalogue, for the essence of justice that they contain, are unchangeable in themselves; but for the way that they are determined by application to particular acts—as that this or that should be murder, theft, or adultery, or not—that is a thing changeable, sometimes by divine authority alone, in points which are of purely divine institution, as marriage, and the like; sometimes also by human authority in matters committed to human jurisdiction; for herein men hold the place of God, but not for all purposes.
Article IX.—Does the mode of virtue fall under the precept of the law?2
R. That falls properly under the precept of the law, for which the penalty of the law is inflicted. Now the penalty of the law is inflicted only for what the legislator is competent to judge of: for law punishes in pursuance of a judicial sentence. Now man, the legislator of human law, can judge only of overt acts, “for man seeth those things that appear.”3 It is for God alone, the legislator of the divine law, to judge of the interior motions of wills,—“God searcher of hearts and reins.”1 Thereupon it is to be said that the mode of virtue is in some sort regarded both by human and divine law; in some sort again by divine law, but not by human law; and lastly in some sort neither by human law nor divine law.
The first point of the mode of virtue, that the agent should have knowledge of what he is doing, comes under the judgment of both divine and human law: for in both courts the question of ignorance is gone into for infliction of penalty or admission of excuse. The second point, that the agent should act by choice, and by choice for the proper motives of the virtue, is regarded by the divine law only, for human law does not punish the mere wish to murder.2 The third point, that the agent should act steadily and resolutely, which steadiness properly belongs to the habit of virtue, and means action proceeding from a rooted habit, this point falls under the precept of neither law; for neither by man nor by God is he punished as an offender who pays due honour to his parents, albeit he has not the habit of filial piety.
§ 4. If the mode of virtue fell under precept, it would follow that he who had not the habit of virtue would deserve punishment, whatever he did, as not fulfilling the mode which is impossible without the habit.
Article XI.—Is it well to specify other moral precepts of the law, besides the decalogue?
R. The judicial and ceremonial precepts of the law1 have force only by positive institution; prior to that, it might not appear to matter whether the thing in question were done one way or another. Moral precepts have validity from the mere dictate of natural reason, even if they were nowhere enacted in the law. Of these there are three grades. Some are of the widest generality, and so plain as to need no publishing, as the commandments of the love of God and our neighbour; over these no man’s rational judgment can err. Some precepts go more into detail: any ordinary man can at once see the reason of them; and yet because in some exceptional cases human judgment happens to go astray on them, precepts like these require publishing: such are the precepts of the decalogue. Some precepts there are again, the reason of which is not so manifest to every one, but only to the wise; and these are moral precepts superadded to the decalogue; they were taught by God to the people through Moses and Aaron. But because the truths that are manifest are principles leading to the knowledge of others not manifest, these other moral precepts superadded to the decalogue are reducible to the decalogue as corollaries thereto.2
Second Division, or Secunda Secundæ.
[1 ]A further consideration, not noticed here, but insisted on (II-II. q. 64. art. 3.), is whether the taking away of life or property is due, not merely in itself, but as an act coming from you. (Trl.)
[1 ]Cf. II-II. q. 104. art. 4. § 2. These difficulties cannot be fairly dealt with by any one who is unacquainted with the difference between a dispensation, strictly so called, and a change in the matter of the law; and between God’s power of dominion, and His power of jurisdiction. See Suarez, De Legibus, l. ii. c. 15; Ethics and Natural Law, pp. 128, 129. n. 2. (Trl.)
[2 ]The mode of virtue is, “first, if the agent have knowledge of what he is doing: secondly, if he do it by choice, and by choice for the proper motives of the virtue; thirdly, if he do it steadily and resolutely.” Aristotle, Ethics, II. iv. 3. (Trl.)
[3 ]1 Kings xvi. 7.
[1 ]Psalm vii. 10.
[2 ]Human law does not punish the absence of a virtuous intention, where the exterior conduct is correct; nor the presence of a vicious intention, that does not proceed to any overt act. (Trl.)
[1 ]The judicial and ceremonial precepts of the Old Law regulated by positive enactment civil procedure and divine worship respectively. (Trl.)
[2 ]The remainder of the Prima Secundæ is scriptural and theological. (Trl.)