Tyranny looms like a tower over human history, manifesting itself most brutally as laws that violate the conscience. In contemporary times, China censors its press and places heavy limits on religious freedom. Other regimes have further brutalized their nations: Stalin’s great purge, the Cambodian genocide, and the Holocaust all testify to the potential cruelty that laws can inflict.
What can we do in the face of atrocities? One answer comes from Thomas Aquinas, a medieval Christian theologian and philosopher.
When Law Ceases to Be Law
For Aquinas, law is derived from reasoning. Its purpose is twofold: to inspire virtue in individuals and to promote the common good. Consequently, “law is nothing else than an ordinance of reason for the common good, promulgated by him who has the care of the community.”
In Aquinas’s model, sovereigns possess considerable discretion, but within certain limitations. When law fails to meet the above qualifications, it ceases to be law. Thus, a law designed to serve the sovereign’s ego is no law at all. Furthermore, one has no obligation to follow laws which violate one’s conscience. Aquinas argues that such laws are illegitimate and should not be obeyed.
Sophocles’s Antigone depicts an example of a brave individual defying the illegitimate laws of her society. This Greek tragedy recounts how the titular character chooses to bury her brother, a defeated rebel, despite the dictates of the law. When confronted by Creon, the king, Antigone boldly asserts that she had a sacred duty to honor her conscience:
It was not God’s proclamation. That final Justice
That rules the world below makes no such laws.
Your edict, King, was strong,
But all your strength is weakness itself against
The immortal unrecorded laws of God.
They are not merely now: they were, and shall be,
Operative for ever, beyond man utterly.
Antigone appeals not to a human law but to a natural law. She reasons that Creon’s edict is not in accord with this natural law. Is it not natural to express reverence for the dead? Does not this reverence instill a sense of virtue, a sense of humility before death’s inevitability? Denying a relative’s right to properly bury her dead serves to inspire terror, not happiness.
The Cause of Collapse
When a state is faced with the “immortal unrecorded laws of God,” what should it do? One choice is to assert that the state must enforce its own laws even if they violate its citizens’ consciences. The apparent alternative is to permit the state to descend into terrifying disorder, as Creon argues:
Anarchy, anarchy! Show me a greater evil!
This is why cities tumble and the great houses rain down,
This is what scatters armies!
In Creon’s mind, his actions are for the common good. By denying a rebel a proper burial, the law delivers a severe warning towards those who would undermine the state’s foundations. Moreover, this warning appears to inspire virtue: disloyalty is evidently a vice that the city cannot tolerate.
Where does Creon’s law fail? According to Aquinas’s diagnosis, it fails because it serves not the state, but Creon’s ego. Despite his own son’s pleadings to spare Antigone’s life, Creon proceeds to execute her.
In a foreshadowing of Louis XIV, Creon stubbornly asserts that the state is the king. His own words condemn him in his pride. The king is no longer the state’s servant or its caretaker; its laws now exist to serve the king’s pride. Whatever Creon’s intentions, in his pride, he is now a tyrant.
Nevertheless, Creon’s forebodings are justified. One of his city’s great houses does collapse. Ironically, it is his own. Both his son and his wife commit suicide in their grief, and his abuse of state power is the cause. Creon, the seemingly stoic leader, is left broken by the play’s conclusion: undone by his own insistence that the city’s laws are above the divine law.
An Invitation to Resist
Who is to blame for this, Creon or Antigone? Sophocles’s tragedy illustrates that when a state violates the individual’s sovereignty, it invites its citizens to resist its power. In such a situation, resistance is not only reasonable, but necessary to assert one’s personal dignity. This is the conclusion that Aquinas reaches: “Natural law is promulgated by the very fact that God instilled it into man’s mind so as to be known by him naturally.”
Aquinas argues that human reasoning gravitates towards noble ideals; when a man or woman rebels against tyrants, he or she is acting on a universal imperative. Consequently, while we may or may not agree with Antigone’s actions, we can empathize with them; we intuitively understand why one may choose to follow one’s conscience rather than submit to the state.
Thomas Aquinas’s theory of natural law will be relevant as long as tyranny persists. Natural law theory acknowledges that citizens such as Antigone have a right to follow their consciences. If the state does not respect this right, they may justifiably rebel against it.
In both contemporary and historical circumstances, it is tyrants, not the rebels who oppose them, who trample upon the stability of their societies. What ought we to do, then, with tyranny? Aquinas and Sophocles present the answer clearly: Tear down the tower and rebuild on the principles of natural law.