Subsidiarity in the Writings of Aristotle and Aquinas

  • Nicholas AroneyEmail author
Part of the Ius Gentium: Comparative Perspectives on Law and Justice book series (IUSGENT, volume 37)


The philosophical origins of the principle of subsidiarity must be understood historically. This chapter argues that the critical point for the emergence of the principle lay in Thomas Aquinas’s theological interpretation of Aristotle’s political philosophy and his application of it to the institutional pluralism of medieval Europe. From Aristotle, Aquinas developed the idea that human societies naturally progress from families, through villages to entire city-states, but he recognised that what Aristotle said of city-states could be applied not only to cities but even more emphatically to political communities on the scale of provinces, kingdoms and (perhaps even) empires. Moreover, for Aquinas, the civil order was not the only ‘perfect community’ in Aristotle’s sense: there was also the church in all of its many grades and jurisdictions, alongside the many different religious orders and fraternities of medieval Europe, some of them also organised into their own graded hierarchies. Reflecting on the complexity of the society surrounding him, Aquinas acknowledged the many and various purposes for which various associations and forms of human community exist and are formed, giving rise to a whole host of familial, geographical, professional, mercantile, scholarly and other specialised societies. All of these groups and groupings, from the smallest to the largest, have their place and their proper function, according to Aquinas, and each should to be allowed to make its unique and special contribution as a means to integral human fulfillment, without undue interference from any others, including the state.


Philosophy Origins Subsidiarity Aristotle Aquinas Province Kingdom Empire 


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© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2014

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.TC Beirne School of LawUniversity of QueenslandBrisbaneAustralia

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