Front Page Titles (by Subject) QUESTION CIV.: OF OBEDIENCE. - Aquinas Ethicus: or, the Moral Teaching of St. Thomas, vol. 2 (Summa Theologica - Secunda Secundae Pt.2)
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QUESTION CIV.: OF OBEDIENCE. - St. Thomas Aquinas, Aquinas Ethicus: or, the Moral Teaching of St. Thomas, vol. 2 (Summa Theologica - Secunda Secundae Pt.2) 
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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Article II.—Is obedience a special virtue?
R. A special virtue is set and appointed for all good works that have a special character of praiseworthiness: for it is the proper function of virtue to render a work good. Now to obey a superior is due according to the divine order laid down in creation, and consequently is a good thing, since goodness consists in measure, decency, and order, as Augustine says. This act has a special character of praiseworthiness from having a special object. For among the many other things that inferiors are bound to render to their superiors, this is one thing special, that they are bound to obey their commands. Hence obedience is a special virtue, and its special object is a command, tacit or express; for the will of a superior, in whatsoever way it becomes known, is a sort of tacit command, and the obedience seems all the readier when, understanding the superior’s will, it forestalls any express command.
§ 1. Two special ideas, regarded by two special virtues, may easily meet in one and the same material object. Thus a soldier defending a royal fortress performs at once a work of fortitude, in not shrinking from the danger of death in a good cause; and a work of justice, in yielding due service to his Sovereign. So then the idea which obedience fixes upon, that of a command, goes along with acts of all virtues, but not with all acts of virtue, because not all acts of virtue are enjoined under a command. In like manner also some things fall under a command which belong to no other virtue but obedience, as is clear in things that are not evil except for their being forbidden. Thus then if obedience is taken in its proper sense, as regarding and going upon the precise idea of a command, it will be a special virtue, and disobedience a special sin: for, taking it in this way, it is requisite for obedience that one should perform an act of justice, or of any other virtue, with the intention of accomplishing a command; and for disobedience it is requisite that one should actually set at nought a command.
§ 3. Obedience, like any other virtue, ought to have a ready will for its own proper object, and not for anything inconsistent with that object. But the proper object of obedience is a command, proceeding from the will of another. Hence obedience renders a man’s will prompt and ready to fulfil the will of another commanding him. But if what is commanded him is something willed on its own account, apart from any idea of a command, as happens in prosperity, he is already tending to it of his own will, and seems to accomplish it, not for the command, but for the gratification of his own will. But when what is commanded is in no way willed of itself, but, looked at in itself, is repugnant to the person’s own will, as happens in hard times, then it is quite clear that the thing is done only on account of the command. And therefore Gregory says that “the obedience that has something of its own in prosperity, is either no obedience at all, or is of inferior degree; but in adversity or difficulty the obedience is greater.”1 This however is to be understood, judging by external appearances. But in the judgment of God, who searches hearts, it may happen that, even in prosperity, obedience, having something of the man’s own about it, may not be on this account less praiseworthy, if the man’s own will does none the less devoutly tend to the accomplishment of the precept.
Article III.—Is obedience the greatest of virtues?
R. As sin consists in man’s cleaving to changeable goods, to the contempt of God; so the merit of a virtuous act consists in man’s cleaving to God, as to his last end, to the contempt of created goods. But the end has the preference over the means to the end. If then created goods are contemned in order that the soul may cleave to God, it is greater praise of a virtue to say that it cleaves to God than to say that it contemns earthly goods. And therefore those virtues which of themselves make the soul cleave to God, namely, the theological virtues, have the preference over the moral virtues, by which some earthly object is contemned in order that the soul may cleave to God. But among moral virtues a virtue has the preference, the greater the object that it contemns in order to cleave to God. Now there are three kinds of human goods which a man may contemn for God’s sake. The lowest of the three are external goods; intermediate are goods of the body; and highest of all are goods of the soul. Of these last chiefest in one way is the will, inasmuch as by the will it is that a man uses all other goods. And therefore, ordinarily speaking, the virtue of obedience, which contemns the man’s own will for God’s sake, is more praiseworthy than the other moral virtues, which contemn for God’s sake sundry other goods. Hence also all other works of virtue are meritorious with God as being done in obedience to the divine will. For if one even were to endure martyrdom, or had distributed all his goods to the poor, unless he referred it to the fulfilment of the divine will, which reference belongs directly to obedience, there could be no merit in such acts, no more than if they were done without charity; and indeed charity cannot be without obedience, for it is said: “He that keepeth his word, in him in very deed the charity of God is perfected;”1 and that because friendship makes identity in willing and willing not.
§ 3. Good is of two sorts: one sort which a man is necessarily bound to do, as to love God; and such good nowise ought to be omitted for obedience. There is another sort of good which a man is not necessarily bound to do; and such good a man ought at times to omit for the obedience to which he is necessarily bound, because one ought not to incur any fault in doing good; and yet, as Gregory says: “He who forbids his subjects any one good deed, must needs allow them many others, lest the spirit of him who obeys die out entirely, if he is kept fasting and quite turned away from all good deeds.” And thus by obedience and other good exercises the loss of one good exercise may be made up.
§ 2. As God works no effect against nature, because “that is the nature of everything, which God works in the thing,” as the gloss says, quoting Augustine; and yet He works sundry effects against the usual course of nature: so God can command nothing against virtue, because virtue and the rectitude of the human will consist principally in conformity to the will of God and compliance with His command, though that command be against the usual manner of virtue.1 Thus then the command given to Abraham to slay his innocent son was not against justice, because God is the author of life and death.
Article V.—Are subjects bound to obey their superiors in all things?
R. It may happen on two grounds that a subject is not bound to obey his superior in all things. One ground is the commandment of a higher authority to the contrary. Another ground is in the case of a command being given in a matter in which the receiver of the command is not subject to the authority from which the command proceeds. For Seneca says: “It is a mistake to suppose that slavery descends upon the whole man; the better part of the man remains free: bodies are liable to ownership and are made over as property, but the mind is its own master.”1 And therefore in what concerns the inward motion of the will man is not bound to obey man, but only God. Still man is bound to obey man in what has to be done externally by the body. Yet even here man is not bound to obey man, but only God, in what belongs to the nature and physical being of the body, because in the physical order all men are equal,2 as touching the nourishment of the body and the begetting of offspring. Hence neither slaves are bound to obey their masters, nor children their parents, about contracting marriage, or preserving virginity, or anything of that kind. But in the laying out of his day and the transaction of business the subject is bound to obey his superior according to the character of his superiority, a soldier his commanding officer in matters of war, a slave his master in doing slave’s work, a son his father in conduct of life and household management, and so of the rest.
§ 2. Man is subject to God absolutely in all respects both within and without, and therefore he is bound to obey Him in all things. But inferiors are subject to their superiors, not in all things, but in certain matters of limited range; and in those matters superiors are intermediaries between God and their subjects: in other matters the latter are subject immediately to God, by whom they are instructed through the natural or the written law.
§ 3. Religious profess obedience according to regular observance, in which they are subject to their superiors; and therefore they are bound to obey in those points only which can form a part of regular observance; and this is obedience sufficient for salvation. But if they choose to obey in other matters also, that will be carrying perfection to a height; provided the things enjoined be not against God, nor against the perfection of the rule, because such obedience would be unlawful. Thus then we may distinguish three degrees of obedience: one sufficient for salvation, which obeys in what it is obliged to; another, perfect obedience, which obeys in all things lawful; a third, indiscreet, which obeys even in things unlawful.
Article VI.—Are Christians bound to obey civil authority?
R. The faith of Christ is the principle and cause of justice, according to the text: “The justice of God by the faith of Jesus Christ;”1 and therefore by the faith of Jesus Christ the order of justice is not taken away, but is rather confirmed. But the order of justice requires that inferiors obey their superiors: otherwise the state and condition of human society could not be preserved. And therefore the faith of Christ does not excuse the faithful from the duty of obedience to secular princes.2
§ 1. The slavery by which man is subject to man reaches to the body, not to the soul, which remains free. But in the present state of this life we are set free by the grace of Christ from the defects of the soul, but not from the defects of the body, as is clear by the Apostle, who says of himself: “With the mind I serve the law of God, but with the flesh the law of sin.”3 And therefore they who become the children of God by grace are free from the spiritual slavery of sin, but not from the slavery of the body, by which they are bound over to temporal masters.
[1 ]See St. Francis of Sales, On the Love of God, ix. 2. (Trl.)
[1 ]1 St. John ii. 5.
[1 ]On this delicate question, see Ethics and Natural Law, p 131, n. 6; p. 149, n. 3; and the references to Suarez given p. 152. Suarez holds that God, as Master, can alter the matter of the law, but He cannot as Lawgiver alter or dispense from the law itself. And this accords well with St. Thomas, II-II. q. 88. art. 10. § 2.; q. 89. art. 9. § 1. Cf. also I-II. q. 100. art. 8. (Trl.)
[1 ]Christianity allowed the slave-owner’s property, not in the man himself whom he called his slave, but in all the man’s labour. He was a slave-labour-owner. (Trl.)
[2 ]Such is the true meaning of omnes homines natura sunt pares, a maxim borrowed by St. Thomas from the Roman jurists. (Trl.)
[1 ]Romans iii. 22.
[2 ]Cf. I-II. q. 96. art. 5. § 2. (Trl.)
[3 ]Romans vii. 25.