In my last post, I introduced the person of Thomas Aquinas, a thirteenth century theologian and mendicant friar in the newly formed Order of Preachers. Today I want to outline my own reasons for agreeing with the eminent moral theorist, Philippa Foot, who writes: “It is my opinion that the Summa Theologica is one of the best sources we have for moral philosophy, and moreover that St. Thomas’s ethical writings are as useful to the atheist as to the Catholic or other Christian believer.” Why would Foot, an avowed atheist who is said not to have had a religious bone in her body, counsel us to turn to a medieval theologian for answers about the good life? Why doesn’t she just stick with the more familiar and accepted Aristotelian source material?
I will supply four reasons for my own agreement with Foot about the importance of Aquinas for contemporary moral theory. First and foremost, Aquinas has a theory of action, will, and practical reason that is more developed and sophisticated than what we find in Aristotle, and much better equipped to serve as a foundation for an ethics of virtue (I will say much more about this in future posts).
Second, Aquinas’s moral psychology is closer to the reality of the human condition as we experience it than Aristotle’s, which is more idealized and optimistic. Aquinas understood that virtue is a hard road to travel and that none of us, not even the saints, are perfectly virtuous. Perhaps because of all the time he spent hearing confessions, Aquinas was keenly aware of the fact that we constantly struggle against ourselves as we seek to live virtuous lives. He saw that we are often our own worst enemies. His theory of the human person acknowledges the ways that our passions, appetites, and limited capacity to judge can trip us up. Even the luckiest in life, those who are healthy, materially secure, raised in the right way in a good home, and who have not suffered egregious physical or emotional harms of any kind, find it difficult to do what virtue demands.
Third, Aquinas has a more expansive vision of the moral life than Aristotle does. Aristotle believed that only wealthy Athenian men could be virtuous (women and slaves were a bit like children in that they are cut off from practical wisdom, which means cut out of the account of virtue developed in his ethical writings). For Aquinas, on the other hand, the fullness of human happiness and flourishing as exemplified by the life of virtue is open to all of us regardless of class status, gender, or even our intellectual or physical capacities. Unlike Aristotle, Aquinas thinks there is still hope for those of us who were not raised especially well or equipped with the stuff of an obviously bright future; in his view one can be radically transformed from a life of vice and misery to virtue. No one is hopeless.
Finally, Aquinas has a less excessively virile or hyper-masculine account of the virtues than Aristotle. This is especially clear when we look at the virtues that Aquinas puts forward that Aristotle’s theory lacked: mercy, faith, hope, love, and humility. These virtues are grounded in the recognition that we are limited in what we can achieve through our own efforts, because we are vulnerable, weak, and interdependent. Aquinas is especially sensitive to the fact that we humans need to stay focused on what we call self-transcendent goods: those goods and ends that we cannot attain solely through the disciplined cultivation of our own powers and whose benefit goes well beyond considerations of individual welfare. Examples of such self-transcendent goods—family, political society, friendships, religion, and knowledge—lie at the heart of his vision of the happy and meaningful human life. For Aquinas, love (caritas) is the form of the virtues and the center of practical philosophy, because without love at the center of all we do, we can never be fulfilled and complete.
So although it is true that Aquinas adopts Aristotle’s conceptual framework to ground his ethical theory, he has a profoundly different moral vision than Aristotle, one that rewards careful reflection and deserves our engagement.
Jennifer A. Frey is a Principal Investigator with Virtue, Happiness, & the Meaning of Life, and Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the University of South Carolina.