In Book Two,
Chapter 3
of his little work De
(or On Kingship), Thomas
Aquinas addresses matters of trade and its effect on the material and spiritual
well-being of a nation.  On the one hand,
and at the end of the chapter, he allows that:

Trade must not be entirely kept out
of a city, since one cannot easily find any place so overflowing with the
necessaries of life as not to need some commodities from other parts.  Also, when there is an over-abundance of some
commodities in one place, these goods would serve no purpose if they could not
be carried elsewhere by professional traders.  Consequently, the perfect city will make a
moderate use of merchants

However, “moderate”
is the key word here.  The bulk of the
chapter is devoted to warnings about the negative effects of excessive reliance
on trade.  Aquinas begins with the
material harms it entails:

There are two ways in which an
abundance of foodstuffs can be supplied to a city.  The first we have already mentioned, where
the soil is so fertile that it amply provides for all the necessities of human
life.  The second is by trade, through which
the necessaries of life are brought to the town in sufficient quantity from
different places.

It is quite clear that the first
means is better.  The more dignified a
thing is, the more self-sufficient it is, since whatever needs another’s help
is by that fact proven to be deficient.  Now
the city which is supplied by the surrounding country with all its vital needs
is more self-sufficient than another which must obtain those supplies by trade.
 A city therefore which has an abundance
of food from its own territory is more dignified than one which is provisioned
through trade.

It seems that self-sufficiency is
also safer, for the import of supplies and the access of merchants can easily
be prevented whether owing to wars or to the many hazards of the sea, and thus
the city may be overcome through lack of food.

quote.  In Aristotelian-Thomistic
political philosophy, the state is the perfect society in the sense that it is complete in a way smaller social units
are not.  For example, individual
families and small villages are not able to provide for all of their needs,
such as protection from invasion and the variety and amount of food they
need.  That is why larger social formations,
united into a state, are necessary.  But
by the same token, a state that is less reliant on trade, especially for basic
needs, is ipso facto more perfect or
complete.  And this is evidenced by the
fact that the breakdown of supply lines, the hostility of foreign powers,
economic collapse elsewhere, etc. are bound to affect the well-being of a state
that is highly dependent on trade more than that of a state that is not so

But Aquinas
has even more to say about the moral and
harms that tend to follow from an overreliance on trade.  Economic self-sufficiency, he writes:

is more conducive to the preservation
of civic life.  A city which must engage
in much trade in order to supply its needs also has to put up with the
continuous presence of foreigners.  But
intercourse with foreigners, according to Aristotle’s 
Politics, is particularly harmful to civic customs.  For it is inevitable that strangers, brought
up under other laws and customs, will in many cases act as the citizens are not
wont to act and thus, since the citizens are drawn by their example to act
likewise, their own civic life is upset.

quote.  A nation is not merely a
population located in a certain geographical territory.  It is united by a common history, laws,
mores, and culture, and disruptions to the latter therefore threaten its
unity.  Aquinas thinks that “the
continuous presence of foreigners” has a tendency to cause such disruption, especially
insofar as citizens “are drawn by their example to act likewise,” i.e. to begin
to act according to foreign norms and lose allegiance to those of their own

This is related
to a theme Aquinas develops elsewhere, in Summa
I-II.105.3.  Of ancient Israel, he observes, approvingly,

When any foreigners wished to be
admitted entirely to their fellowship… a certain order was observed.  For they were not at once admitted to
citizenship: just as it was law with some nations that no one was deemed a
citizen except after two or three generations, as the Philosopher says (Polit.
iii, 1).  The reason for this was that if
foreigners were allowed to meddle with the affairs of a nation as soon as they
settled down in its midst, many dangers might occur, since the foreigners not
yet having the common good firmly at heart might attempt something hurtful to
the people

principle here is that becoming part of a nation is, again, not merely a matter
of entering into the population of some geographical territory.  It also involves making one’s own the common
history, laws, mores, and culture of that nation – joining the extended family,
as it were.  Until that happens with an
incoming population, it cannot, in Aquinas’s view, be sure to have the nation’s
“common good firmly at heart.” 

What these
passages from Aquinas imply is that too free a flow of populations across
borders tends to dilute allegiance to the shared norms and culture of a nation,
and thus threatens national unity.  For,
on the side of citizens, out of deference to foreigners they will become less
attached to those norms and that culture, and thus less attached to their own
nation; and on the side of foreigners, they will feel less incentive to adopt
or respect the norms and culture themselves, and thus less likely to assimilate
to the extended family.

So, in
Aquinas’s view, excessive reliance on trade threatens the material well-being and unity
of a nation.  A third danger concerns the
moral character of a nation.  As he writes in the same section of De Regno:

Again, if the citizens themselves
devote their life to matters of trade, the way will be opened to many vices.  Since the foremost tendency of tradesmen is to
make money, greed is awakened in the hearts of the citizens through the pursuit
of trade.  The result is that everything
in the city will become venal; good faith will be destroyed and the way opened
to all kinds of trickery; each one will work only for his own profit, despising
the public good; the cultivation of virtue will fail since honour, virtue’s
reward, will be bestowed upon the rich.  Thus,
in such a city, civic life will necessarily be corrupted

In other
words, a nation excessively concerned with commerce will begin to approximate Plato’s
conception of oligarchy
i.e. a society dominated by souls oriented primarily to the pursuit of
wealth.  Not only does this foster the
vice of greed, it also leads to a general decadence.  Aquinas observes that “tradesmen, not being
used to the open air and not doing any hard work but enjoying all pleasures,
grow soft in spirit.” 

In Book
Two, Chapter 4
of De Regno,
Aquinas considers the topic of decadence at length.  On the one hand, he acknowledges that “since
the life of man cannot endure without enjoyment,” a city needs to be
pleasant.  As he says at the end of the
chapter, “in human intercourse it is best to have a moderate share of pleasure
as a spice of life, so to speak, wherein man’s mind may find some recreation.”  However, what he emphasizes is that when
citizens become too concerned with
pleasure-seeking, “this is most harmful to a city.”  He develops the theme as follows:

In the first place, when men give
themselves up to pleasure their senses are dulled, since this sweetness
immerses the soul in the senses so that man cannot pass free judgment on the
things which cause delight.  Whence, according
to Aristotle’s sentence, the judgment of prudence is corrupted by pleasure

Again, indulgence in superfluous
pleasure leads from the path of virtue, for nothing conduces more easily to
immoderate increase which upsets the mean of virtue, than pleasure.  Pleasure is, by its very nature, greedy, and
thus on a slight occasion one is precipitated into the seductions of shameful
pleasures just as a little spark is sufficient to kindle dry wood; moreover,
indulgence does not satisfy the appetite for the first sip only makes the
thirst all the keener.  Consequently, it
is part of virtue’s task to lead men to refrain from pleasures.  By thus avoiding any excess, the mean of
virtue will be more easily attained

Also, they who give themselves up to
pleasures grow soft in spirit and become weak-minded when it is a question of
tackling some difficult enterprise, enduring toil, and facing dangers

Finally, men who have become
dissolute through pleasures usually grow lazy and, neglecting necessary matters
and all the pursuits that duty lays upon them, devote themselves wholly to the
quest of pleasure, on which they squander all that others had so carefully
amassed.  Thus, reduced to poverty and
yet unable to deprive themselves of their wonted pleasures, they do not shrink
from stealing and robbing in order to have the wherewithal to indulge their
craving for pleasure

quote.  So, Aquinas notes, first, that
pleasure can overwhelm the mind to such an extent that, the more devoted one is
to pleasure-seeking, the less “critical distance” one has on the pleasures one
enjoys.  One is less able to think
reasonably or prudently about them.  (As
Aquinas emphasizes elsewhere, this is especially so with pleasure taken in
sexual immorality, which
has a tendency to blind the intellect
.)  Second, the more one is inclined to
pleasure-seeking in general, the more likely one is to fall into immoral pleasures (as opposed to licit
pleasures pursued excessively).  For
indulgence tends to increase rather than satisfy the appetite, making one more
willing to “push the envelope” in order to sustain the same level of pleasure.  Third, people excessively concerned with
pleasure-seeking become soft and unable to face problems manfully.  Finally, they tend also to be wasteful with
wealth, and unscrupulous with regard to the means by which they would secure
their pleasures.

Aquinas does not draw the connection in chapter 4, a commerce-oriented society
is bound to be a pleasure-seeking society, given that it will be appetitive and
will have the wealth to indulge its appetites. 
To the extent that excessive reliance on trade makes a society more
commerce-oriented, then, it will thereby in turn make it also more

Going back
to chapter 3, we can note that Aquinas adduces one final consideration against
excessive reliance on trade:

Finally, that city enjoys a greater
measure of peace whose people are more sparsely assembled together and dwell in
smaller proportion within the walls of the town, for when men are crowded
together it is an occasion for quarrels and all the elements for seditious
plots are provided.  Hence, according to
Aristotle’s doctrine, it is more profitable to have the people engaged
outside the cities than for them to dwell constantly within the walls.  But if a city is dependent on trade, it is of
prime importance that the citizens stay within the town and there engage in
trade.  It is better, therefore, that the
supplies of food be furnished to the city from its own fields than that it be
wholly dependent on trade

End quote.  In short, excessive orientation toward trade
concentrates people in cities and thereby leads to greater social strife than
would exist if people were more dispersed.

What would
Aquinas think of contemporary politicians and business leaders who treat commerce
and pleasure-seeking as the primary social goods, enact trade agreements that
undermine domestic manufacturing, implement policies favorable to multinational
corporations and economic globalization, encourage multiculturalism and disdain
national loyalties, favor loose immigration controls or even open borders, and take
interest only in major metropolitan centers and regard the rest of the nation
as “flyover country”?  Would he regard
them as fit to govern their fellow citizens, according to the principles of De Regno? 


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