Thomas Aquinas displayed remarkable acumen in his early education and, to the dismay of his parents, resolved to embrace the religious life. He received the Order of Saint Dominic sometime between 1240 and 1243, and continued studying under Europe’s greatest scholars, including Albertus Magnus. Aquinas spent his life teaching, traveling, preaching, and writing, until a powerful religious experience at Naples in 1273 caused him to put down his pen forever. His masterpiece, the Summa Theologica, a culmination of his attempt to synthesize Aristotelian philosophy with Christian theology, was left unfinished. He died on March 7, 1274.
Aquinas’s economic thought is inseparable from his understanding of natural law. In his view, natural law is an ethic derived from observing the fundamental norms of human nature. These norms can be understood as the will of God for creation. An unlawful act is that which perverts God’s design for a particular part of His creation. Economic transactions, according to Aquinas, should be considered within this framework, since they occur as human attempts to obtain materials provided by nature to achieve certain ends.
Private property is a desirable economic institution because it complements man’s internal desire for order. “Hence the ownership of possessions is not contrary to the natural law,” Aquinas writes in the Summa Theologica, “but an addition thereto devised by human reason.” The state, however, has the authority to maintain a legal framework for commercial life, such as enforcing rules prohibiting theft, force, and fraud. In this way, civil law is a reflection of the natural law. Further, Aquinas believed that private ownership of property is the best guarantee of a peaceful and orderly society, for it provides maximum incentive for the responsible stewardship of property.
Aquinas helped relax the traditionally negative view of mercantile trade that figured prominently in, for example, Patristic thought. For Aquinas, trade itself is not evil; rather, its moral worth depends on the motive and conduct of the trader. In addition, the risk associated with bringing goods from where they are abundant to where they are scarce justifies mercantile profit. The merchant, however, must direct his profits toward virtuous ends.