Aquinas on what to do when ruled by Tyrants

Reading Thomas Aquinas’s unfinished treatise on kingship “De Regno”, I was struck by his section on what to do when ruled over by a tyrant. This is what he says at the end of this section (emphasis mine):

[51] Should no human aid whatsoever against a tyrant be forthcoming, recourse must be had to God, the King of all, Who is a helper in due time in tribulation. For it lies in his power to turn the cruel heart of the tyrant to mildness. According to Solomon [Prov 21:1]: “The heart of the king is in the hand of the Lord, withersoever He will He shall turn it.” He it was who turned into mildness the cruelty of King Assuerus, who was preparing death for the Jews. He it was who so filled the cruel king Nabuchodonosor with piety that he became a proclaimer of the divine power. “Therefore,” he said, “I, Nabuchodonosor do now praise and magnify and glorify the King of Heaven; because all His works are true and His ways judgments, and they that walk in pride He is able to abase” (Dan 4:34). Those tyrants, however, whom he deems unworthy of conversion, he is able to put out of the way or to degrade, according to the words of the Wise Man [Sirach 10:17]: “God has overturned the thrones of proud princes and has set up the meek in their stead.” He it was who, seeing the affliction of his people in Egypt and hearing their cry, hurled Pharaoh, a tyrant over God’s people, with all his army into the sea. He it was who not only banished from his kingly throne the above-mentioned Nabuchodonosor because of his former pride, but also cast him from the fellowship of men and changed him into the likeness of a beast. Indeed, his hand is not shortened that He cannot free His people from tyrants. For by Isaiah (14:3) He promised to give his people rest from their labours and lashings and harsh slavery in which they had formerly served; and by Ezekiel (34:10) He says: “I will deliver my flock from their mouth,” i.e. from the mouth of shepherds who feed themselves.

[52] But to deserve to secure this benefit from God, the people must desist from sin, for it is by divine permission that wicked men receive power to rule as a punishment for sin, as the Lord says by the Prophet Hosea [13:11]: “I will give you a king in my wrath” and it is said in Job (34:30) that he “makes a man that is a hypocrite to reign for the sins of the people.” Sin must therefore be done away with in order that the scourge of tyrants may cease.

There are some crucial points to be taken out of this passage:

  1. It is completely possible that a people can be in a situation where there is no human aid possible when living in a tyranny. Keep that in mind when discussing options with people. Saint Thomas Aquinas considers it a legitimate possibility that there are literally no good options for human beings.
  2. If we want God’s help, we have to desist from sin. If there is no human aid possible, then we need the help of God. But God won’t help a sinful people. So that’s the concrete action we need to take: We must repent.
  3. It is absolutely not impossible that God can turn things around. That is the flip side of the prior point: If we DO repent, things CAN change even if it seems hopeless.

This is crucial to keep in mind in the days after election day. It is possible that there is no human action that can help us. And that’s okay. The work to be done is on the moral level.

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