Aquinas on Tyrannical Government

St. Thomas Aquinas, II-II, Question 42:

Tyrannical governance is unjust, since it is ordered to the private good of the ruler, not to the common good, as the Philosopher makes clear in the Politics and the Ethics. And so disturbances of such governance does not have the character or rebellion, except, perhaps, in cases where the tyrant’s governance is so inordinately disturbed that the subject people suffer greater harm from the resulting disturbance than from the tyrant’s governance. Rather, tyrants, who by seeking greater domination incite discontent and rebellion in the people subject to them, are the rebels. For governance is tyrannical when ordered to the ruler’s own good to the detriment of the people.

Bishops must Rebuke Emperors

In the Year of our Lord 390, the Roman Emperor Theodosius I exacted retribution on the citizens of Thessalonica for an uprising. The Church Father Theodoret recounts what happened:

The emperor was fired with anger when he heard the news, and unable to endure the rush of his passion, did not even check its onset by the curb of reason, but allowed his rage to be the minister of his vengeance. When the imperial passion had received its authority, as though itself an independent prince, it broke the bonds and yoke of reason, unsheathed swords of injustice right and left without distinction, and slew innocent and guilty together. No trial preceded the sentence. No condemnation was passed on the perpetrators of the crimes. Multitudes were mowed down like ears of grain in harvest-tide. It is said that seven thousand perished.

St. Ambrose of Milan heard of the massacre and forbid the Emperor from entering the Church. The entire account can be found in Theodoret, but in part he says:

Fired with divine zeal the holy Ambrosius exclaimed “Rufinus, I tell you beforehand; I shall prevent him from crossing the sacred threshold. If he is for changing his sovereign power into that of a tyrant I too will gladly submit to a violent death.” On this Rufinus sent a messenger to inform the emperor in what mind the archbishop was, and exhorted him to remain within the palace. Theodosius had already reached the middle of the forum when he received the message. “I will go,” said he, “and accept the disgrace I deserve.” He advanced to the sacred precincts but did not enter the holy building. The archbishop was seated in the house of salutation and there the emperor approached him and besought that his bonds might be loosed.

“Your coming” said Ambrose “is the coming of a tyrant. You are raging against God; you are trampling on his laws.” “No,” said Theodosius, “I do not attack laws laid down, I do not seek wrongfully to cross the sacred threshold; but I ask you to loose my bond, to take into account the mercy of our common Lord, and not to shut against me a door which our master has opened for all them that repent.” The archbishop replied “What repentance have you shown since your tremendous crime? You have inflicted wounds right hard to heal; what salve have you applied?”“Yours” said the emperor “is the duty alike of pointing out and of mixing the salve. It is for me to receive what is given me.” Then said the divine Ambrosius “You let your passion minister justice, your passion not your reason gives judgment. Put forth therefore an edict which shall make the sentence of your passion null and void; let the sentences which have been published inflicting death or confiscation be suspended for thirty days awaiting the judgment of reason. When the days shall have elapsed let them that wrote the sentences exhibit their orders, and then, and not till then, when passion has calmed down, reason acting as sole judge shall examine the sentences and will see whether they be right or wrong. If it find them wrong it will cancel the deeds; if they be righteous it will confirm them, and the interval of time will inflict no wrong on them that have been rightly condemned.”

In a letter to the Emperor, St. Ambrose says:

Should I keep silence? But then my conscience would be bound, my utterance taken away, which would be the most wretched condition of all. And where would be that text? If the priest speak not to him that erreth, he who errs shall die in his sin, and the priest shall be liable to the penalty because he warned not the erring.

Ambrose believed that it is the duty of a priest to correct all those in error, up to and including the Emperor of Rome, lest the priest become responsible for not speaking the truth to him. He is referring to Ezekiel 3.18:

If I say to the wicked, ‘You shall surely die,’ and you give him no warning, nor speak to warn the wicked from his wicked way, in order to save his life, that wicked person shall die for his iniquity, but his blood I will require at your hand.

This is the testimony and example of the ancient Church handed down to us as a pattern of how to deal with tyrants who massacre their own people.

Totalitarianism was Supported by the Masses

In her book The Origins of Totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt says that that the Soviet and Nazi totalitarian systems rested on mass support:

No doubt, the fact that totalitarian government, its open criminality notwithstanding, rests on mass support is very disquieting. It is therefore hardly surprising that scholars as well as statesmen often refuse to recognize it, the former by believing in the magic of propaganda and brainwashing, the latter by simply denying it…A recent publication of secret reports on German public opinion during the war (from 1939 to 1944), issued by the Security Service of the SS, is very revealing in this respect. It shows, first, that the population was remarkably well informed about all so-called secrets – massacres of Jews in Poland, preparation of the attack on Russia, etc. – and second, the “extent to which the the victims of propaganda had remained able to form independent opinions.” However, the point of the matter is that this did not in the least weaken the general support of the Hitler regime. It is quite obvious that mass support for totalitarianism comes neither from ignorance nor from brainwashing.

The Failure of the West

The impending collapse of Western governments and of the social order can be traced to a failure to embrace the ethical norms that God has revealed to us in the Scripture. An overall greed and lack of self control have contributed heavily to our living far beyond our means. Spending on military domination and the impossible schemes of the Welfare State have bankrupted our governments.
The entities that arise from the wreckage of the coming cataclysm will have to embrace frugality, restraint and prudence. The best way to achieve these virtues is the way of submission to God and new life in Him.