Should human law suppress all vices?
It seems that human law should suppress
(cohibere) all vices:
Objection 1: In
Etymologia Isidore says, “Laws have been made in
order that boldness might be held in check by fear of
them.” But boldness would not be adequately held
in check if not every evil were prohibited by the law.
Therefore, human law should suppress every evil.
The lawmaker’s intention is to make the citizens
virtuous. But no one can be virtuous unless he is held
back from all vices. Therefore, human law should suppress
As was explained above (q. 95, a. 2), human law stems from
the natural law. But all vices are opposed to the law of
nature. Therefore, human law should suppress all vices.
But contrary to this:
De Libero Arbitrio 1 says, “It seems to me that the
law written for ruling the people rightly permits those
things and that God’s providence punishes them.” But
God’s providence does not punish anything except vices.
Therefore, human law rightly permits certain vices by not
As has already been explained (q. 90, a. 1-2), law is
posited as a certain rule or measure of human acts.
Now as Metaphysics 10 says, a measure must homogenous
with what it measures, since diverse things are measured
by diverse measures. Hence, it must also be the
case that laws are imposed on men according to their
condition. For as Isidore says, “The law must
be possible both according to nature and also according
to the customs of the country.”
Now the power or ability to act proceeds from an interior
habit or disposition, and it is not the case that the
same thing is possible for both someone who is virtuous
and someone who lacks the habit of the virtue, just
as it is not the case that the same thing is possible
for both a boy and a grown man. It is for this
reason that the law made for children is not the same
as the law made for adults; for many things are permitted
to children which are punished by law or even vilified
in adults. Similarly, many things are permitted
to men who are not perfected in virtue which would not
tolerable in virtuous men.
human law is made for the multitude of men, and the
greater part of this multitude consists of men who are
not perfected in virtue. And so not all the vices
from which virtuous men abstain are prohibited by human
law. Instead, the only vices prohibited are the
more serious ones, which it is possible for the greater
part of the multitude to abstain from—especially those
vices which are harmful to others and without the prohibition
of which human society could not be conserved.
For instance, homicide and theft and other vices of
this sort are prohibited by human law.
Reply to objection 1:
‘Boldness’ here has to do, it seems, with attacks against
others. Hence, it mainly oncerns those sins by which
injury is inflicted on one’s neighbors. As has been
explained, these are the sins prohibited by human law.
Reply to objection 2:
Human law has the intention of leading men to virtue—but
leading them gradually and not all at once. And so it
does not immediately impose upon the multitude of
imperfect men what is already characteristic of virtuous,
viz., that they abstain from every evil. Otherwise, those
who are imperfect, unable to bear precepts of the sort in
question, would erupt into worse evils—this according to
Proverbs 30:33 (“He who violently blows his nose brings
forth blood”) and Matthew 9:17 (“If new wine” (read:
the precepts of the perfect life) “is put into old
wineskins” (read: into imperfect men), “then the
wineskins burst and the wine runs out” (read: the
precepts are despised and out of contempt the men erupt
into worse evils).)
Reply to objection 3:
The natural law exists in us as a certain participation in
the eternal law, but human law falls short of the eternal
law. For in De Libero Arbitrio 1 Augustine says,
“This law which is imposed to rule the civil communities
allows and leaves unpunished many things that will be
punished by God’s providence. Nor is it the case that
because this law does not do all things, it should be
blamed for the things it does do.” Hence, human law
likewise cannot prohibit everything that the law of nature