Thomas Aquinas Was No Citizen of the World
The theologian understood there must be a localism to our loves, lest they deteriorate into abstract sentiment.
“We are citizens of the world. The tragedy of our times is that we do not know this.” So said Woodrow Wilson, whose 14 Point Plan sought to realize this vision by remaking the European continent in the image of America.
Our 28th president would perhaps smile upon learning that about 100 years after he uttered these words, a significant percentage of the world’s people see themselves more as global citizens than denizens of their own countries. It has become commonplace among the technocratic elites of the West to speak this way, and they’ve disseminated such thinking through the institutions they control.
Yet as the lustrous novelty of global citizenship wears off, many are coming to realize that such a Fukuyaman post-history paradigm is really just a self-congratulatory master narrative to justify the aggrandizement of wealthy, post-national everywheres at the expense of poorer, provincial somewheres. Nationalist movements, whatever their flaws, perceive rightly that global citizenship, often united with unfettered transnational capitalism, identity politics, and libertarian individualism, represents a frontal assault on ancient, venerable, and particularist ways of life. The great constellation of human communal expression—manifested in, among other things, language, tradition, and religious belief—must all be leveled to make way for the global melting pot of post-patriarchal liberalism.
Distaste for this monolithic juggernaut is more than just cranky resentment over the loss of what once was. It reflects, albeit often inchoately, an appreciation for an ordering of one’s responsibilities in human society that is varied and hierarchical rather than homogenous and egalitarian. There is a peculiar givenness to human experience and social relationships that no state-imposed program can eradicate, as even the Soviets learned. Men and women are born to specific parents who assert primary responsibility for their care and upbringing. Their children, in turn, understand both naturally and through lived experience that they owe a singular loyalty to those parents and their wider family networks.
Medieval theologian and philosopher Thomas Aquinas—building upon certain Aristotelian precepts—called these concentric circles of responsibilities the “Order of Charity.” The explication for this can be found in Question 26 of the Secunda Secundae of his Summa Theologiae. By “charity,” Aquinas means love, understood not in a romantic sense, but in the broader, transcendent senses of devotion, duty, and self-gift. There must be a hierarchy of how one expresses these manifold qualities of love, says Aquinas, because “wherever there is a principle, there must necessarily also be order of some kind…. Consequently there must necessarily be some order in things loved out of charity.”
As a Catholic theologian, Aquinas unsurprisingly identifies God as the preeminent object of man’s love. But this hierarchy also has broad implications for the ordering of society, beginning with the family and working outwards. Aquinas proposes two general principles for making determinations in reference to charity: from the object loved and from the union caused. He writes: “a thing is loved more in two ways: first because it has the character of a more excellent good, secondly by reason of a closer connection.” In other words, we love certain persons more either because of the nature of who or what they are, or because we enjoy with them some deeper union. We love the virtuous person more than the scoundrel, and we love our parents, our spouses, and our children over strangers, because we share deep, close bonds with them.
We love our parents because it’s from them that we originate. We love our children because they are a very part of ourselves. We love our spouses because of the intensity and proximity of our union with them. And so on. As Aquinas argues, “the friendship of kindred is more stable, since it is more natural, and preponderates over others in matters touching nature: consequently we are more beholden to them in the providing of necessaries.” This is why, explains Aristotle in his Ethics, we first invite relations to a wedding, and ensure the welfare of our parents in their elder years.
From the family, we can apply the Order of Charity outwards. Aristotle observes: “it is our duty to render to each class of people such respect as is natural and appropriate.” Aquinas assents: “we ought to love some neighbors more than others.” For example, “some neighbors are connected with us by their natural origin, a connection which cannot be severed, since that origin makes them to be what they are.” Just as there is an indelible givenness to our family, so there is with members of our communities and our nation that require the prioritization of our affections. Aquinas says, “Since our neighbor is more visible to us, he is the first lovable object we meet with.” In other words, because of his proximity to us in time and space, we love our fellow countryman before citizens of other nations. Thus, “in matters concerning relations between citizens, we should prefer our fellow-citizens, and on the battlefield our fellow-soldiers.”
Yet one might ask: doesn’t the Christian religion—as well as the secular humanism that often unknowingly derives many of its ethical principles thereof—teach that we should love all our neighbors equally? Not so fast. While we can love all persons with “one same generic good, namely everlasting happiness,” it is impossible to love all people equally. Says Aquinas: “we are bound to observe this inequality [of love], because we cannot do good to all.” As finite beings, we must daily make choices that demonstrate a prioritization of our loves and duties, even if unintentionally. Furthermore, because our love is inherently tied to intensity, attempting an equality of love is both unnatural and societally disastrous. Imagine a culture where husbands loved other men’s wives as much as their own, fathers loved other people’s children as much as their own, and workers loved their professional competitors as much as their own employers, and you’ll appreciate why.
By extension, the Order of Charity can be applied to domestic politics. Citizens should rank their civic responsibilities by prioritizing the needs of their neighbors in their communities, counties, and states. This also applies to foreign policy. As Orestes Brownson observes in The American Republic: “Nations are only individuals on a larger scale. They have a life, an individuality, a reason, a conscience, and instincts of their own, and have the same general laws of development and growth, and perhaps, of decay, as the individual man.” We should have greater responsibilities to our immediate national neighbors than to countries on the other side of the globe. We should also prioritize those nations with whom we share more in common and with whom we have enjoyed longer mutual benefit. Says Aquinas, quoting the book of Sirach 9:14: “Forsake not an old friend, for the new will not be like to him.”
In 2016, then-British Prime Minister Theresa May famously declared: “But if you believe you’re a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere.” She’s right. There are certainly some well-intentioned post-nationalist globetrotters who seek to epitomize a sacrificial love that transcends all nations, cultures, and languages. But for many—I would speculate most—“world citizenship” actually equates to the dominance of a different culture, one defined by technocratic trans-globalist elites. That or it means ineffectual, vainglorious social media campaigns that perpetuate self-delusions of participation in international causes. Either way, the critical needs of those of our immediate communities go ignored, if not derided.
Aristotle and Aquinas have offered us a better, if harder way, one that involves sacrifices and self-gift to our first neighbors. It is the Order of Charity, not global citizenship, that will restore our souls and the welfare of our communities.
Casey Chalk covers religion and other issues for The American Conservative and is a senior writer for Crisis Magazine. He has degrees in history and teaching from the University of Virginia, and a masters in theology from Christendom College.