"The punishments of the present life are not sought for their own sake, because this is not the time of final retribution; but they are sought insofar as they are medicinal, aiding either the correction of the sinning person, or the good of the republic, whose tranquility is procured by the punishment of people who sin." (ST II-II, q. 68, a. 1)

I didn't understand well why human punishments should only intend the "medicinal" aspect of the penalty. Does St. Thomas Aquinas explain this better elsewhere?

  • IMO the key-point is the comparison of "mundane" punishments vs final retribution. The "real" punishment is the second one, while the first one is needed only for the correct functioning of society and community. Oct 26, 2022 at 13:40
  • The moral system of Christianity has a retributive aspect. This is greatly complicated by the doctrine of grace and difficulties like Esau vs. Jacob and the parable of the potter and the clay, but there is a strong influence of a moral balance that must be maintained. People must suffer or be rewarded in keeping with their evil and good deeds. Aquinas seems to be saying that this balancing is only properly done after death by the direct judgment of God, and can't be done properly on this earth. Oct 26, 2022 at 19:46

1 Answer 1


You might be interested in the book Thomas Aquinas and the Philosophy of Punishment (2011) by Peter Koritansky. The basic idea is rooted in Thomas' natural law ethics; as he says:

[The] natural inclination of man is to repress those who rise up against him. Now it is evident that all things contained in an order, are, in a manner, one, in relation to the principle of that order. Consequently, whatever rises up against an order, is put down by that order or by the principle thereof. And because sin is an inordinate act, it is evident that whoever sins, commits an offense against an order: wherefore he is put down, in consequence, by that same order, which repression is punishment. (ST I-II, q. 87, a. 1)

Hence, the purpose of punishment is rooted in the natural law, which includes the natural order of the human community. When somebody rises up against that order, the natural response is to discipline them, in order to bring them back in line.

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