Trade must not be entirely kept out of a city, since one cannot easily find any place so overflowing with the necessaries of life as not to need some commodities from other parts. Also, when there is an over-abundance of some commodities in one place, these goods would serve no purpose if they could not be carried elsewhere by professional traders. Consequently, the perfect city will make a moderate use of merchants.
However, “moderate” is the key word here. The bulk of the chapter is devoted to warnings about the negative effects of excessive reliance on trade. Aquinas begins with the material harms it entails:
There are two ways in which an abundance of foodstuffs can be supplied to a city. The first we have already mentioned, where the soil is so fertile that it amply provides for all the necessities of human life. The second is by trade, through which the necessaries of life are brought to the town in sufficient quantity from different places.
It is quite clear that the first means is better. The more dignified a thing is, the more self-sufficient it is, since whatever needs another’s help is by that fact proven to be deficient. Now the city which is supplied by the surrounding country with all its vital needs is more self-sufficient than another which must obtain those supplies by trade. A city therefore which has an abundance of food from its own territory is more dignified than one which is provisioned through trade.
It seems that self-sufficiency is also safer, for the import of supplies and the access of merchants can easily be prevented whether owing to wars or to the many hazards of the sea, and thus the city may be overcome through lack of food.
End quote. In Aristotelian-Thomistic political philosophy, the state is the perfect society in the sense that it is complete in a way smaller social units are not. For example, individual families and small villages are not able to provide for all of their needs, such as protection from invasion and the variety and amount of food they need. That is why larger social formations, united into a state, are necessary. But by the same token, a state that is less reliant on trade, especially for basic needs, is ipso facto more perfect or complete. And this is evidenced by the fact that the breakdown of supply lines, the hostility of foreign powers, economic collapse elsewhere, etc. are bound to affect the well-being of a state that is highly dependent on trade more than that of a state that is not so dependent.
But Aquinas has even more to say about the moral and spiritual harms that tend to follow from an overreliance on trade. Economic self-sufficiency, he writes:
is more conducive to the preservation of civic life. A city which must engage in much trade in order to supply its needs also has to put up with the continuous presence of foreigners. But intercourse with foreigners, according to Aristotle’s Politics, is particularly harmful to civic customs. For it is inevitable that strangers, brought up under other laws and customs, will in many cases act as the citizens are not wont to act and thus, since the citizens are drawn by their example to act likewise, their own civic life is upset.
End quote. A nation is not merely a population located in a certain geographical territory. It is united by a common history, laws, mores, and culture, and disruptions to the latter therefore threaten its unity. Aquinas thinks that “the continuous presence of foreigners” has a tendency to cause such disruption, especially insofar as citizens “are drawn by their example to act likewise,” i.e. to begin to act according to foreign norms and lose allegiance to those of their own nation.
This is related to a theme Aquinas develops elsewhere, in Summa Theologiae Of ancient Israel, he observes, approvingly, that:.
When any foreigners wished to be admitted entirely to their fellowship… a certain order was observed. For they were not at once admitted to citizenship: just as it was law with some nations that no one was deemed a citizen except after two or three generations, as the Philosopher says (Polit. iii, 1). The reason for this was that if foreigners were allowed to meddle with the affairs of a nation as soon as they settled down in its midst, many dangers might occur, since the foreigners not yet having the common good firmly at heart might attempt something hurtful to the people.
The principle here is that becoming part of a nation is, again, not merely a matter of entering into the population of some geographical territory. It also involves making one’s own the common history, laws, mores, and culture of that nation – joining the extended family, as it were. Until that happens with an incoming population, it cannot, in Aquinas’s view, be sure to have the nation’s “common good firmly at heart.”
What these passages from Aquinas imply is that too free a flow of populations across borders tends to dilute allegiance to the shared norms and culture of a nation, and thus threatens national unity. For, on the side of citizens, out of deference to foreigners they will become less attached to those norms and that culture, and thus less attached to their own nation; and on the side of foreigners, they will feel less incentive to adopt or respect the norms and culture themselves, and thus less likely to assimilate to the extended family.
So, in Aquinas’s view, excessive reliance on trade threatens the material well-being and unity of a nation. A third danger concerns the moral character of a nation. As he writes in the same section of De Regno:
Again, if the citizens themselves devote their life to matters of trade, the way will be opened to many vices. Since the foremost tendency of tradesmen is to make money, greed is awakened in the hearts of the citizens through the pursuit of trade. The result is that everything in the city will become venal; good faith will be destroyed and the way opened to all kinds of trickery; each one will work only for his own profit, despising the public good; the cultivation of virtue will fail since honour, virtue’s reward, will be bestowed upon the rich. Thus, in such a city, civic life will necessarily be corrupted.
In other words, a nation excessively concerned with commerce will begin to approximate Not only does this foster the vice of greed, it also leads to a general decadence. Aquinas observes that “tradesmen, not being used to the open air and not doing any hard work but enjoying all pleasures, grow soft in spirit.” , i.e. a society dominated by souls oriented primarily to the pursuit of wealth.
In On the one hand, he acknowledges that “since the life of man cannot endure without enjoyment,” a city needs to be pleasant. As he says at the end of the chapter, “in human intercourse it is best to have a moderate share of pleasure as a spice of life, so to speak, wherein man’s mind may find some recreation.” However, what he emphasizes is that when citizens become too concerned with pleasure-seeking, “this is most harmful to a city.” He develops the theme as follows: of De Regno, Aquinas considers the topic of decadence at length.
In the first place, when men give themselves up to pleasure their senses are dulled, since this sweetness immerses the soul in the senses so that man cannot pass free judgment on the things which cause delight. Whence, according to Aristotle’s sentence, the judgment of prudence is corrupted by pleasure.
Again, indulgence in superfluous pleasure leads from the path of virtue, for nothing conduces more easily to immoderate increase which upsets the mean of virtue, than pleasure. Pleasure is, by its very nature, greedy, and thus on a slight occasion one is precipitated into the seductions of shameful pleasures just as a little spark is sufficient to kindle dry wood; moreover, indulgence does not satisfy the appetite for the first sip only makes the thirst all the keener. Consequently, it is part of virtue’s task to lead men to refrain from pleasures. By thus avoiding any excess, the mean of virtue will be more easily attained.
Also, they who give themselves up to pleasures grow soft in spirit and become weak-minded when it is a question of tackling some difficult enterprise, enduring toil, and facing dangers…
Finally, men who have become dissolute through pleasures usually grow lazy and, neglecting necessary matters and all the pursuits that duty lays upon them, devote themselves wholly to the quest of pleasure, on which they squander all that others had so carefully amassed. Thus, reduced to poverty and yet unable to deprive themselves of their wonted pleasures, they do not shrink from stealing and robbing in order to have the wherewithal to indulge their craving for pleasure.
End quote. So, Aquinas notes, first, that pleasure can overwhelm the mind to such an extent that, the more devoted one is to pleasure-seeking, the less “critical distance” one has on the pleasures one enjoys. One is less able to think reasonably or prudently about them. (As Aquinas emphasizes elsewhere, this is especially so with pleasure taken in sexual immorality, .) Second, the more one is inclined to pleasure-seeking in general, the more likely one is to fall into immoral pleasures (as opposed to licit pleasures pursued excessively). For indulgence tends to increase rather than satisfy the appetite, making one more willing to “push the envelope” in order to sustain the same level of pleasure. Third, people excessively concerned with pleasure-seeking become soft and unable to face problems manfully. Finally, they tend also to be wasteful with wealth, and unscrupulous with regard to the means by which they would secure their pleasures.
Though Aquinas does not draw the connection in chapter 4, a commerce-oriented society is bound to be a pleasure-seeking society, given that it will be appetitive and will have the wealth to indulge its appetites. To the extent that excessive reliance on trade makes a society more commerce-oriented, then, it will thereby in turn make it also more pleasure-oriented.
Going back to chapter 3, we can note that Aquinas adduces one final consideration against excessive reliance on trade:
Finally, that city enjoys a greater measure of peace whose people are more sparsely assembled together and dwell in smaller proportion within the walls of the town, for when men are crowded together it is an occasion for quarrels and all the elements for seditious plots are provided. Hence, according to Aristotle’s doctrine, it is more profitable to have the people engaged outside the cities than for them to dwell constantly within the walls. But if a city is dependent on trade, it is of prime importance that the citizens stay within the town and there engage in trade. It is better, therefore, that the supplies of food be furnished to the city from its own fields than that it be wholly dependent on trade.
End quote. In short, excessive orientation toward trade concentrates people in cities and thereby leads to greater social strife than would exist if people were more dispersed.
What would Aquinas think of contemporary politicians and business leaders who treat commerce and pleasure-seeking as the primary social goods, enact trade agreements that undermine domestic manufacturing, implement policies favorable to multinational corporations and economic globalization, encourage multiculturalism and disdain national loyalties, favor loose immigration controls or even open borders, and take interest only in major metropolitan centers and regard the rest of the nation as “flyover country”? Would he regard them as fit to govern their fellow citizens, according to the principles of De Regno?