Reflections on Thomas Aquinas’ “Treatise on Law”: What is the law?

I’m reading sections of Thomas Aquinas’ “Treatise on Law”. In the first section of the text, Aquinas defines the law as “a rule or measure of action by which one is led to action or restrained from acting”. The law by its very nature “binds one to act” hence the Latin lex is derived from ligare (to bind). Reason is the rule and measure of action and indeed for Aquinas constitutes the “first principle of human action” because it possesses the power to move the will in the pursuit of some desired end. Law, in other words, is intimately connected to if not inseparable from reason. The law, if it is to possess the character (or force) of law, must be informed by some kind reason.

Although I’m drawn to the image Aquinas paints of the law as something that binds citizen to state–like a ligature–I have not encountered a definition of reason free of circularity in what I’ve read of Aquinas thus far. Reason is defined as the rule and measure of action, but what is the rule and measure of action? But this text has got me thinking about what theoretical definition I would give to law.  Provisionally, I would argue that the law is the set of constructible and deconstructible un/written codes through which the state’s monopoly on the legitimate use of violence and distribution of citizen-rights is exercised (often arbitrarily). These codes govern the procedures through which justice is administered and are used to guide the resolution of conflict amongst private individuals and between citizens and the state.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *