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(Trans. Alfred J. Freddoso)


The Moral Precepts of the Old Law



Are the precepts of the Decalogue correctly ordered?


It seems that the precepts of the Decalogue (see Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5:7-22) are not correctly ordered:


Objection 1:  Love of neighbor seems to be prior to love of God, since our neighbor is better known to us than God is—this according to 1 John 4:20 (“If one does not love his brother whom he sees, how can he love God whom he sees not?”).  But the first three precepts have to do with love of God, whereas the other seven have to do with love of neighbor.  Therefore, the precepts of the Decalogue are incorrectly ordered.


Objection 2:  Acts of the virtues are commanded by the affirmative precepts, whereas acts of the vices are prohibited by the negative precepts.  But according to Boethius in his commentary on the Categories, the vices must first be rooted out before the virtues are planted.  Therefore, among the precepts having to do with our neighbor, the negative precepts, rather than the affirmative precepts, should have come first.


Objection 3:  The precepts of the Law are given with respect to human acts.  But the act of the heart comes before the act of the mouth or the exterior deed.  Therefore, it is incorrect for the precepts to be ordered in such a way that the ones having to do with not coveting, which pertain to the heart, come last.


But contrary to this:  In Romans 13:1 the Apostle says, “The things that are from God are orderly (ordinata).”  But as has been explained (a. 3), the precepts of the Decalogue are directly from God.  Therefore, they are in the correct order.


I respond:  As has been explained (a. 5, ad 1), the precepts of the Decalogue are given with respect to those things that the human mind grasps immediately and quickly.  But it is clear that something is better grasped by reason to the extent that its contrary has a greater and more serious (gravius) opposition to reason.
Now it is clear that since reason’s ordering takes its inception from the end, it is maximally opposed to reason that a man should find himself disordered with respect to his end.  But the end of human life and society is God.  And so man had to be ordered by the precepts of the Decalogue first toward God, since the contrary of being ordered to God is the most serious of all contraries—just as in an army, which is ordered toward the general as an end, the soldier first of all submits himself to the general—and the contrary of this is the most serious of all—whereas, second, he is coordinated with the other soldiers.
Now among the steps by which we are ordered toward God, the first is that a man faithfully submit himself to God and that he have no commerce (habens nullam participationem) with God’s rivals.  The second step is that he show respect (reverentia) for Him, whereas the third is that he offer Him his service.  In an army, it is a greater sin if a soldier, acting unfaithfully, makes a pact with the enemy than if he does something disrespectful to the general, and the latter is more serious than if he is found deficient in some matter of obedience (obsequium).
On the other hand, among the precepts ordering one toward his neighbor, it is clear that it is more repugnant to reason, and a graver sin, if a man does not observe the due ordering to those persons whom he is more indebted to.  And so among the precepts that order one toward his neighbor, the first to be posited is the precept having to do with one’s parents.  Among the other precepts there is likewise an ordering that corresponds to the gravity of the sins.  For it is more grave, and more repugnant to reason, to sin by a deed than to sin with one’s mouth, and it is more grave to sin with one’s mouth than in one’s heart.  Furthermore, among the sins that involve deeds, homicide, by which an already existing man’s life is taken, is graver than adultery, which undermines certitude about the children who are to be born; and adultery is graver than theft, which has to do with external goods.


Reply to objection 1:  Even though our neighbor is better know to us than God according to the way of the senses, love of God is nonetheless the reason for love of neighbor.  This will be explained below (ST 2-2, q. 25, a. 1).  And so the precepts ordering one toward God had to placed ahead of the others.


Reply to objection 2:  Just as God is the universal principle of esse for all things, so too the father is a certain principle of esse for his child.  And so it is appropriate that after the precepts having to do with God, there should be a precept having to do with one’s parents.
Now the argument [contained in objection 2] goes through when the affirmative and negative precepts in question have to do with the same genus of action—although even then the argument does not have complete efficacy.  For even if, in the order of execution, vices must be uprooted before virtues are planted—this according to Psalm 33:15 (“Turn away from evil and do good”) and Isaiah 1:16‑17 (“Cease to act perversely, learn to act well”)—still, virtue is cognitively prior to sin, since, as De Anima 1 says, it is through what is straight that one comes to know what is slanted.  As Romans 3:20 puts it, “By the Law is knowledge of sin.”
According to this last argument, it was right for the affirmative precept to have come first.  Still, this is not the reason for the ordering [we have]; rather, the reason is the one set forth [at the beginning of this reply].  For in the precepts having to do with God, which are on the first tablet, the affirmative precept comes last, since transgressing it produces a less grievous sin (inducit minorem reatum).


Reply to objection 3:  Even if the sin of the heart is prior in execution, nonetheless, the prohibition of it comes later in [the order of] reason.





I-II, q. 90, The Essence of Law

I-II, q. 91, The Different Kinds of Law

I-II, q. 92, The Effects of Law


Eternal law

I-II, q. 93, Eternal Law

Natural law

I-II, q. 94, The Natural Law

Human law

I-II, q. 95, Human Law

I-II, q. 96, The Force of Human Law

I-II, q. 97, Changes in Human Law

The old law

I-II, q. 98, The Old Law

I-II, q. 99, The Precepts of the Old Law

I-II, q. 100, The Moral Precepts of the Old Law

I-II, q. 101, The Ceremonial Precepts of the Old Law in Themselves

I-II, q. 102, The Causes of the Ceremonial Precepts

I-II, q. 103, The Duration of the Ceremonial Precepts

I-II, q. 104, The Judicial Precepts of the Old Law

I-II, q. 105, The Nature of the Judicial Precepts

The new law

I-II, q. 106, The Law of the Gospel, called the New Law, in Itself

I-II, q. 107, The Relation between the Old Law and the New Law

I-II, q. 108, The Contents of the New Law