QUESTION 104: OF OBEDIENCE
We must now consider obedience, under which head there are six points of
(1) Whether one man is bound to obey another?
(2) Whether obedience is a special virtue?
(3) Of its comparison with other virtues;
(4) Whether God must be obeyed in all things?
(5) Whether subjects are bound to obey their superiors in all things?
(6) Whether the faithful are bound to obey the secular power?
Article 1: Whether one man is bound to obey another?
Objection 1: It seems that one man is not bound to obey another. For nothing
should be done contrary to the divine ordinance. Now God has so ordered
that man is ruled by his own counsel, according to Ecclus. 15:14, "God
made man from the beginning, and left him in the hand of his own
counsel." Therefore one man is not bound to obey another.
Objection 2: Further, if one man were bound to obey another, he would have to
look upon the will of the person commanding him, as being his rule of
conduct. Now God's will alone, which is always right, is a rule of human
conduct. Therefore man is bound to obey none but God.
Objection 3: Further, the more gratuitous the service the more is it
acceptable. Now what a man does out of duty is not gratuitous. Therefore
if a man were bound in duty to obey others in doing good deeds, for this
very reason his good deeds would be rendered less acceptable through
being done out of obedience. Therefore one man is not bound to obey
On the contrary, It is prescribed (Heb. 13:17): "Obey your prelates and
be subject to them."
I answer that, Just as the actions of natural things proceed from
natural powers, so do human actions proceed from the human will. In
natural things it behooved the higher to move the lower to their actions
by the excellence of the natural power bestowed on them by God: and so in
human affairs also the higher must move the lower by their will in virtue
of a divinely established authority. Now to move by reason and will is to
command. Wherefore just as in virtue of the divinely established natural
order the lower natural things need to be subject to the movement of the
higher, so too in human affairs, in virtue of the order of natural and
divine law, inferiors are bound to obey their superiors.
Reply to Objection 1: God left man in the hand of his own counsel, not as though
it were lawful to him to do whatever he will, but because, unlike
irrational creatures, he is not compelled by natural necessity to do what
he ought to do, but is left the free choice proceeding from his own
counsel. And just as he has to proceed on his own counsel in doing other
things, so too has he in the point of obeying his superiors. For Gregory
says (Moral. xxxv), "When we humbly give way to another's voice, we
overcome ourselves in our own hearts."
Reply to Objection 2: The will of God is the first rule whereby all rational
wills are regulated: and to this rule one will approaches more than
another, according to a divinely appointed order. Hence the will of the
one man who issues a command may be as a second rule to the will of this
other man who obeys him.
Reply to Objection 3: A thing may be deemed gratuitous in two ways. In one way on
the part of the deed itself, because, to wit, one is not bound to do it;
in another way, on the part of the doer, because he does it of his own
free will. Now a deed is rendered virtuous, praiseworthy and meritorious,
chiefly according as it proceeds from the will. Wherefore although
obedience be a duty, if one obey with a prompt will, one's merit is not
for that reason diminished, especially before God, Who sees not only the
outward deed, but also the inward will.
Article 2: Whether obedience is a special virtue?
Objection 1: It seems that obedience is not a special virtue. For disobedience
is contrary to obedience. But disobedience is a general sin, because
Ambrose says (De Parad. viii) that "sin is to disobey the divine law."
Therefore obedience is not a special virtue.
Objection 2: Further, every special virtue is either theological or moral. But
obedience is not a theological virtue, since it is not comprised under
faith, hope or charity. Nor is it a moral virtue, since it does not hold
the mean between excess and deficiency, for the more obedient one is the
more is one praised. Therefore obedience is not a special virtue.
Objection 3: Further, Gregory says (Moral. xxxv) that "obedience is the more
meritorious and praiseworthy, the less it holds its own." But every
special virtue is the more to be praised the more it holds its own,
since virtue requires a man to exercise his will and choice, as stated in
Ethic. ii, 4. Therefore obedience is not a special virtue.
Objection 4: Further, virtues differ in species according to their objects.
Now the object of obedience would seem to be the command of a superior,
of which, apparently, there are as many kinds as there are degrees of
superiority. Therefore obedience is a general virtue, comprising many
On the contrary, obedience is reckoned by some to be a part of justice,
as stated above (Question ).
I answer that, A special virtue is assigned to all good deeds that have
a special reason of praise: for it belongs properly to virtue to render a
deed good. Now obedience to a superior is due in accordance with the
divinely established order of things, as shown above (Article ), and
therefore it is a good, since good consists in mode, species and order,
as Augustine states (De Natura Boni iii) [*Cf. FP, Question , Article ]. Again, this act has a special aspect of praiseworthiness by reason of its object. For while subjects have many obligations towards their superiors, this one, that they are bound to obey their commands, stands out as special among the rest. Wherefore obedience is a special virtue, and its specific object is a command tacit or expreSS, because the superior's
will, however it become known, is a tacit precept, and a man's obedience
seems to be all the more prompt, forasmuch as by obeying he forestalls
the express command as soon as he understands his superior's will.
Reply to Objection 1: Nothing prevents the one same material object from
admitting two special aspects to which two special virtues correspond:
thus a soldier, by defending his king's fortress, fulfils both an act of
fortitude, by facing the danger of death for a good end, and an act of
justice, by rendering due service to his lord. Accordingly the aspect of
precept, which obedience considers, occurs in acts of all virtues, but
not in all acts of virtue, since not all acts of virtue are a matter of
precept, as stated above (FS, Question , Article ). Moreover, certain things are
sometimes a matter of precept, and pertain to no other virtue, such
things for instance as are not evil except because they are forbidden.
Wherefore, if obedience be taken in its proper sense, as considering
formally and intentionally the aspect of precept, it will be a special
virtue, and disobedience a special sin: because in this way it is
requisite for obedience that one perform an act of justice or of some
other virtue with the intention of fulfilling a precept; and for
disobedience that one treat the precept with actual contempt. On the
other hand, if obedience be taken in a wide sense for the performance of
any action that may be a matter of precept, and disobedience for the
omission of that action through any intention whatever, then obedience
will be a general virtue, and disobedience a general sin.
Reply to Objection 2: Obedience is not a theological virtue, for its direct
object is not God, but the precept of any superior, whether expressed or
inferred, namely, a simple word of the superior, indicating his will, and
which the obedient subject obeys promptly, according to Titus 3:1,
"Admonish them to be subject to princes, and to obey at a word," etc.
It is, however, a moral virtue, since it is a part of justice, and it observes the mean between excess and deficiency. Excess thereof is measured in respect, not of quantity, but of other circumstances, in so far as a man obeys either whom he ought not, or in matters wherein he ought not to obey, as we have stated above regarding religion (Question , Article ). We may also reply that as in justice, excess is in the person who retains another's property, and deficiency in the person who does not receive his due, according to the Philosopher (Ethic. v, 4), so too obedience observes the mean between excess on the part of him who fails to pay due obedience to his superior, since he exceeds in fulfilling his own will, and deficiency on the part of the superior, who does not receive obedience. Wherefore in this way obedience will be a mean between two forms of wickedness, as was stated above concerning justice (Question , Article ).
Reply to Objection 3: Obedience, like every virtue requires the will to be prompt
towards its proper object, but not towards that which is repugnant to it.
Now the proper object of obedience is a precept, and this proceeds from
another's will. Wherefore obedience make a man's will prompt in
fulfilling the will of another, the maker, namely, of the precept. If
that which is prescribed to him is willed by him for its own sake apart
from its being prescribed, as happens in agreeable matters, he tends
towards it at once by his own will and seems to comply, not on account of
the precept, but on account of his own will. But if that which is
prescribed is nowise willed for its own sake, but, considered in itself,
repugnant to his own will, as happens in disagreeable matters, then it is
quite evident that it is not fulfilled except on account of the precept.
Hence Gregory says (Moral. xxxv) that "obedience perishes or diminishes
when it holds its own in agreeable matters," because, to wit, one's own
will seems to tend principally, not to the accomplishment of the precept,
but to the fulfilment of one's own desire; but that "it increases in
disagreeable or difficult matters," because there one's own will tends to
nothing beside the precept. Yet this must be understood as regards
outward appearances: for, on the other hand, according to the judgment of
God, Who searches the heart, it may happen that even in agreeable matters
obedience, while holding its own, is nonetheless praiseworthy, provided
the will of him that obeys tend no less devotedly [*Cf. Question , Article ] to
the fulfilment of the precept.
Reply to Objection 4: Reverence regards directly the person that excels:
wherefore it admits a various species according to the various aspects of
excellence. Obedience, on the other hand, regards the precept of the
person that excels, and therefore admits of only one aspect. And since
obedience is due to a person's precept on account of reverence to him, it
follows that obedience to a man is of one species, though the causes from
which it proceeds differ specifically.
Article 3: Whether obedience is the greatest of the virtues?
Objection 1: It seems that obedience is the greatest of the virtues. For it is
written (1 Kgs. 15:22): "Obedience is better than sacrifices." Now the
offering of sacrifices belongs to religion, which is the greatest of all
moral virtues, as shown above (Question , Article ). Therefore obedience is the
greatest of all virtues.
Objection 2: Further, Gregory says (Moral. xxxv) that "obedience is the only
virtue that ingrafts virtues in the soul and protects them when
ingrafted." Now the cause is greater than the effect. Therefore obedience
is greater than all the virtues.
Objection 3: Further, Gregory says (Moral. xxxv) that "evil should never be
done out of obedience: yet sometimes for the sake of obedience we should
lay aside the good we are doing." Now one does not lay aside a thing
except for something better. Therefore obedience, for whose sake the good
of other virtues is set aside, is better than other virtues.
On the contrary, obedience deserves praise because it proceeds from
charity: for Gregory says (Moral. xxxv) that "obedience should be
practiced, not out of servile fear, but from a sense of charity, not
through fear of punishment, but through love of justice." Therefore
charity is a greater virtue than obedience.
I answer that, Just as sin consists in man contemning God and adhering
to mutable things, so the merit of a virtuous act consists in man
contemning created goods and adhering to God as his end. Now the end is
greater than that which is directed to the end. Therefore if a man
contemns created goods in order that he may adhere to God, his virtue
derives greater praise from his adhering to God than from his contemning
earthly things. And so those, namely the theological, virtues whereby he
adheres to God in Himself, are greater than the moral virtues, whereby he
holds in contempt some earthly thing in order to adhere to God.
Among the moral virtues, the greater the thing which a man contemns that
he may adhere to God, the greater the virtue. Now there are three kinds
of human goods that man may contemn for God's sake. The lowest of these
are external goods, the goods of the body take the middle place, and the
highest are the goods of the soul; and among these the chief, in a way,
is the will, in so far as, by his will, man makes use of all other goods.
Therefore, properly speaking, the virtue of obedience, whereby we contemn
our own will for God's sake, is more praiseworthy than the other moral
virtues, which contemn other goods for the sake of God.
Hence Gregory says (Moral. xxxv) that "obedience is rightly preferred to
sacrifices, because by sacrifices another's body is slain whereas by
obedience we slay our own will." Wherefore even any other acts of virtue
are meritorious before God through being performed out of obedience to
God's will. For were one to suffer even martyrdom, or to give all one's
goods to the poor, unless one directed these things to the fulfilment of
the divine will, which pertains directly to obedience, they could not be
meritorious: as neither would they be if they were done without charity,
which cannot exist apart from obedience. For it is written (1 Jn. 2:4,5):
"He who saith that he knoweth God, and keepeth not His commandments, is a
liar . . . but he that keepeth His word, in him in very deed the charity
of God is perfected": and this because friends have the same likes and
Reply to Objection 1: Obedience proceeds from reverence, which pays worship and
honor to a superior, and in this respect it is contained under different
virtues, although considered in itself, as regarding the aspect of
precept, it is one special virtue. Accordingly, in so far as it proceeds
from reverence for a superior, it is contained, in a way, under
observance; while in so far as it proceeds from reverence for one's
parents, it is contained under piety; and in so far as it proceeds from
reverence for God, it comes under religion, and pertains to devotion,
which is the principal act of religion. Wherefore from this point of view
it is more praiseworthy to obey God than to offer sacrifice, as well as
because, "in a sacrifice we slay another's body, whereas by obedience we
slay our own will," as Gregory says (Moral. xxxv). As to the special case
in which Samuel spoke, it would have been better for Saul to obey God
than to offer in sacrifice the fat animals of the Amalekites against the
commandment of God.
Reply to Objection 2: All acts of virtue, in so far as they come under a precept,
belong to obedience. Wherefore according as acts of virtue act causally
or dispositively towards their generation and preservation, obedience is
said to ingraft and protect all virtues. And yet it does not follow that
obedience takes precedence of all virtues absolutely, for two reasons.
First, because though an act of virtue come under a precept, one may
nevertheless perform that act of virtue without considering the aspect of
precept. Consequently, if there be any virtue, whose object is naturally
prior to the precept, that virtue is said to be naturally prior to
obedience. Such a virtue is faith, whereby we come to know the sublime
nature of divine authority, by reason of which the power to command is
competent to God. Secondly, because infusion of grace and virtues may
precede, even in point of time, all virtuous acts: and in this way
obedience is not prior to all virtues, neither in point of time nor by
Reply to Objection 3: There are two kinds of good. There is that to which we are
bound of necessity, for instance to love God, and so forth: and by no
means may such a good be set aside on account of obedience. But there is
another good to which man is not bound of necessity, and this good we
ought sometimes to set aside for the sake of obedience to which we are
bound of necessity, since we ought not to do good by falling into sin.
Yet as Gregory remarks (Moral. xxxv), "he who forbids his subjects any
single good, must needs allow them many others, lest the souls of those
who obey perish utterly from starvation, through being deprived of every
good." Thus the loss of one good may be compensated by obedience and
Article 4: Whether God ought to be obeyed in all things?
Objection 1: It seems that God need not be obeyed in all things. For it is
written (Mt. 9:30,31) that our Lord after healing the two blind men
commanded them, saying: "See that no man know this. But they going out
spread His fame abroad in all that country." Yet they are not blamed for
so doing. Therefore it seems that we are not bound to obey God in all
Objection 2: Further, no one is bound to do anything contrary to virtue. Now
we find that God commanded certain things contrary to virtue: thus He
commanded Abraham to slay his innocent son (Gn. 22); and the Jews to
steal the property of the Egyptians (Ex. 11), which things are contrary
to justice; and Osee to take to himself a woman who was an adulteress
(Osee 3), and this is contrary to chastity. Therefore God is not to be
obeyed in all things.
Objection 3: Further, whoever obeys God conforms his will to the divine will
even as to the thing willed. But we are not bound in all things to
conform our will to the divine will as to the thing willed, as stated
above (FS, Question , Article ). Therefore man is not bound to obey God in all
On the contrary, It is written (Ex. 24:7): "All things that the Lord
hath spoken we will do, and we will be obedient."
I answer that, As stated above (Article ), he who obeys is moved by the
command of the person he obeys, just as natural things are moved by their
motive causes. Now just a God is the first mover of all things that are
moved naturally, so too is He the first mover of all wills, as shown
above (FS, Question , Article ). Therefore just as all natural things are subject
to the divine motion by a natural necessity so too all wills, by a kind
of necessity of justice, are bound to obey the divine command.
Reply to Objection 1: Our Lord in telling the blind men to conceal the miracle
had no intention of binding them with the force of a divine precept, but,
as Gregory says (Moral. xix), "gave an example to His servants who follow
Him that they might wish to hide their virtue and yet that it should be
proclaimed against their will, in order that others might profit by their
Reply to Objection 2: Even as God does nothing contrary to nature (since "the
nature of a thing is what God does therein," according to a gloss on Rm.
11), and yet does certain things contrary to the wonted course of nature;
so to God can command nothing contrary to virtue since virtue and
rectitude of human will consist chiefly in conformity with God's will and
obedience to His command, although it be contrary to the wonted mode of
virtue. Accordingly, then, the command given to Abraham to slay his
innocent son was not contrary to justice, since God is the author of life
an death. Nor again was it contrary to justice that He commanded the Jews
to take things belonging to the Egyptians, because all things are His,
and He gives them to whom He will. Nor was it contrary to chastity that
Osee was commanded to take an adulteress, because God Himself is the
ordainer of human generation, and the right manner of intercourse with
woman is that which He appoints. Hence it is evident that the persons
aforesaid did not sin, either by obeying God or by willing to obey Him.
Reply to Objection 3: Though man is not always bound to will what God wills, yet
he is always bound to will what God wills him to will. This comes to
man's knowledge chiefly through God's command, wherefore man is bound to
obey God's commands in all things.
Article 5: Whether subjects are bound to obey their superiors in all things?
Objection 1: It seems that subjects are bound to obey their superiors in all
things. For the Apostle says (Col. 3:20): "Children, obey your parents in
all things," and farther on (Col. 3:22): "Servants, obey in all things
your masters according to the flesh." Therefore in like manner other
subjects are bound to obey their superiors in all things.
Objection 2: Further, superiors stand between God and their subjects,
according to Dt. 5:5, "I was the mediator and stood between the Lord and
you at that time, to show you His words." Now there is no going from
extreme to extreme, except through that which stands between. Therefore
the commands of a superior must be esteemed the commands of God,
wherefore the Apostle says (Gal. 4:14): "You . . . received me as an
angel of God, even as Christ Jesus" and (1 Thess. 2:13): "When you had
received of us the word of the hearing of God, you received it, not as
the word of men, but, as it is indeed, the word of God." Therefore as man
is bound to obey God in all things, so is he bound to obey his superiors.
Objection 3: Further, just as religious in making their profession take vows
of chastity and poverty, so do they also vow obedience. Now a religious
is bound to observe chastity and poverty in all things. Therefore he is
also bound to obey in all things.
On the contrary, It is written (Acts 5:29): "We ought to obey God rather
than men." Now sometimes the things commanded by a superior are against
God. Therefore superiors are not to be obeyed in all things.
I answer that, As stated above (Articles ,4), he who obeys is moved at the
bidding of the person who commands him, by a certain necessity of
justice, even as a natural thing is moved through the power of its mover
by a natural necessity. That a natural thing be not moved by its mover,
may happen in two ways. First, on account of a hindrance arising from
the stronger power of some other mover; thus wood is not burnt by fire if
a stronger force of water intervene. Secondly, through lack of order in
the movable with regard to its mover, since, though it is subject to the
latter's action in one respect, yet it is not subject thereto in every
respect. Thus, a humor is sometimes subject to the action of heat, as
regards being heated, but not as regards being dried up or consumed. In
like manner there are two reasons, for which a subject may not be bound
to obey his superior in all things. First on account of the command of a
higher power. For as a gloss says on Rm. 13:2, "They that resist [Vulg.:
'He that resisteth'] the power, resist the ordinance of God" (cf. St.
Augustine, De Verb. Dom. viii). "If a commissioner issue an order, are
you to comply, if it is contrary to the bidding of the proconsul? Again
if the proconsul command one thing, and the emperor another, will you
hesitate, to disregard the former and serve the latter? Therefore if the
emperor commands one thing and God another, you must disregard the former
and obey God." Secondly, a subject is not bound to obey his superior if
the latter command him to do something wherein he is not subject to him.
For Seneca says (De Beneficiis iii): "It is wrong to suppose that slavery
falls upon the whole man: for the better part of him is excepted." His
body is subjected and assigned to his master but his soul is his own.
Consequently in matters touching the internal movement of the will man is
not bound to obey his fellow-man, but God alone.
Nevertheless man is bound to obey his fellow-man in things that have to
be done externally by means of the body: and yet, since by nature all men
are equal, he is not bound to obey another man in matters touching the
nature of the body, for instance in those relating to the support of his
body or the begetting of his children. Wherefore servants are not bound
to obey their masters, nor children their parents, in the question of
contracting marriage or of remaining in the state of virginity or the
like. But in matters concerning the disposal of actions and human
affairs, a subject is bound to obey his superior within the sphere of his
authority; for instance a soldier must obey his general in matters
relating to war, a servant his master in matters touching the execution
of the duties of his service, a son his father in matters relating to the
conduct of his life and the care of the household; and so forth.
Reply to Objection 1: When the Apostle says "in all things," he refers to matters
within the sphere of a father's or master's authority.
Reply to Objection 2: Man is subject to God simply as regards all things, both
internal and external, wherefore he is bound to obey Him in all things.
On the other hand, inferiors are not subject to their superiors in all
things, but only in certain things and in a particular way, in respect of
which the superior stands between God and his subjects, whereas in
respect of other matters the subject is immediately under God, by Whom he
is taught either by the natural or by the written law.
Reply to Objection 3: Religious profess obedience as to the regular mode of life,
in respect of which they are subject to their superiors: wherefore they
are bound to obey in those matters only which may belong to the regular
mode of life, and this obedience suffices for salvation. If they be
willing to obey even in other matters, this will belong to the
superabundance of perfection; provided, however, such things be not
contrary to God or to the rule they profess, for obedience in this case
would be unlawful.
Accordingly we may distinguish a threefold obedience; one, sufficient
for salvation, and consisting in obeying when one is bound to obey:
secondly, perfect obedience, which obeys in all things lawful: thirdly,
indiscreet obedience, which obeys even in matters unlawful.
Article 6: Whether Christians are bound to obey the secular powers?
Objection 1: It seems that Christians are not bound to obey the secular power.
For a gloss on Mt. 17:25, "Then the children are free," says: "If in
every kingdom the children of the king who holds sway over that kingdom
are free, then the children of that King, under Whose sway are all
kingdoms, should be free in every kingdom." Now Christians, by their
faith in Christ, are made children of God, according to Jn. 1:12: "He
gave them power to be made the sons of God, to them that believe in His
name." Therefore they are not bound to obey the secular power.
Objection 2: Further, it is written (Rm. 7:4): "You . . . are become dead to
the law by the body of Christ," and the law mentioned here is the divine
law of the Old Testament. Now human law whereby men are subject to the
secular power is of less account than the divine law of the Old
Testament. Much more, therefore, since they have become members of
Christ's body, are men freed from the law of subjection, whereby they
were under the power of secular princes.
Objection 3: Further, men are not bound to obey robbers, who oppress them with
violence. Now, Augustine says (De Civ. Dei iv): "Without justice, what
else is a kingdom but a huge robbery?" Since therefore the authority of
secular princes is frequently exercised with injustice, or owes its
origin to some unjust usurpation, it seems that Christians ought not to
obey secular princes.
On the contrary, It is written (Titus 3:1): "Admonish them to be subject
to princes and powers," and (1 Pt. 2:13,14): "Be ye subject . . . to
every human creature for God's sake: whether it be to the king as
excelling, or to governors as sent by him."
I answer that, Faith in Christ is the origin and cause of justice,
according to Rm. 3:22, "The justice of God by faith of Jesus Christ:"
wherefore faith in Christ does not void the order of justice, but
strengthens it." Now the order of justice requires that subjects obey
their superiors, else the stability of human affairs would cease. Hence
faith in Christ does not excuse the faithful from the obligation of
obeying secular princes.
Reply to Objection 1: As stated above (Article ), subjection whereby one man is bound
to another regards the body; not the soul, which retains its liberty.
Now, in this state of life we are freed by the grace of Christ from
defects of the soul, but not from defects of the body, as the Apostle
declares by saying of himself (Rm. 7:23) that in his mind he served the
law of God, but in his flesh the law of sin. Wherefore those that are
made children of God by grace are free from the spiritual bondage of sin,
but not from the bodily bondage, whereby they are held bound to earthly
masters, as a gloss observes on 1 Tim. 6:1, "Whosoever are servants under
the yoke," etc.
Reply to Objection 2: The Old Law was a figure of the New Testament, and
therefore it had to cease on the advent of truth. And the comparison with
human law does not stand because thereby one man is subject to another.
Yet man is bound by divine law to obey his fellow-man.
Reply to Objection 3: Man is bound to obey secular princes in so far as this is
required by order of justice. Wherefore if the prince's authority is not
just but usurped, or if he commands what is unjust, his subjects are not
bound to obey him, except perhaps accidentally, in order to avoid scandal