St. Bonaventure’s Tripartite Division of Society

St. Bonaventure on Society“The social nature of man is rooted in two fundamental characteristics: affection and dependency. We see this fundamental fact in that man possesses a social affection by which he desires the companionship of fellow human beings. Man is a rational animal, but one that is dependent; he needs the help of other human beings. Bonaventure sees this affection and dependency functioning in three social orders – the conjugal, the domestic, and the civil. Each is a true society possessing its own proper authority: matrimonial (of husband over wife), parental (of parents over children), and civil (of superior over subordinates).

The dependency of the human being is found at the most basic level in the fact that the continuation of the species requires the cooperation of a man and woman in a union of common purpose and mutual aid. The marital state is necessary for the procreation and education of offspring. Husband and wife need each other to provide mutual help for this task. In attempting to fulfill this task, they develop a common will or unity of purpose – ‘a conformity of will’. Furthermore, such a union, in order to fulfill its task, must be permanent and exclusive. Hence, we find Bonaventure’s teaching on man’s social nature presented in his discussion of marriage as the foundational relationship of human society.

What is true of marriage and the family is also true of society. Society too requires mutual help and a common will. Goods received should be shared, whatever these may be. A society has a unity of nature, purpose, and activity. This threefold unity of society is built on that of the marital union and family. There is thus an organic unity to society from the most basic of its units to its wholeness. Indeed, a society is like a living organism in which the members depend on each other for mutual aid and common purpose.

In the body politic, there is a diversity of members. There are three main groups amidst this diversity in any society: those who work, those who fight, and those who pray. Bonaventure’s tripartite division of society was commonplace in medieval thought; it was believed that each had its own unique role in the larger society. And society, as an organic body, must have an order in which each part is delineated, and ordered within the whole. Without order, there could be no common life.

Furthermore, this order necessarily requires a hierarchy of members. Indeed, the hierarchy of human society simply reflects, and is part of, the other hierarchies of the universe. Bonaventure thinks that there are three main hierarchies in reality: (1) the divine hierarchy (the Trinity), (2) the angelic, and (3) ‘the ecclesiastical’ or human. This universal ‘ecclesiastical’ hierarchy is, in turn, made up of three orders: (1) the monastic, that is, those who live the purely contemplative life; (2) the clerical, or those living both the active and the contemplative life; and (3) the lay, or those living the active life. The lay order of the hierarchy includes three other hierarchies: rulers, ministers, and the people. The hierarchies of this lay order concern themselves with temporal affairs, that is, with the goods of nature, the fortunes of private individuals, and the commonwealth, respectively.”

– Christopher M. Cullen, Great Medieval Thinkers: Bonaventure


– Lucas G. Westman

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