Aquinas and the Value of Philosophy

Thomas Aquinas

It can be difficult to convince people to read Thomas Aquinas, arguably the greatest medieval Western philosopher. And let’s face it, the impediments are real. First, there is our culturally inherited caricature of the Middle Ages as an interregnum of intellectual darkness during which all the knowledge acquired in the ancient world was lost or actively suppressed. The fact that one is likely to get advanced degrees in philosophy without ever having read or discussed a single medieval philosopher (or even caught a whiff of medieval history!) only further entrenches these ignorant and hackneyed clichés. Second, there is the fact that Aquinas is difficult to understand. Although he famously writes at the outset of his oversized Summa Theologiae that it is intended for “beginners” one needn’t get more than a few paragraphs in to wonder just how out of touch Thomas must have been with an average student! Frankly, it’s impossible to understand much of what he is up to without some grasp of Aristotelian metaphysics. And unlike Plato or Augustine, Aquinas’s prose is technical and bereft of literary flourishes—he sticks to arguments that adhere to the rigors of logic as he understood it, which leaves some readers cold. Finally, there is the persistent and pervasive sense that it is sufficient to read Aristotle, and Aquinas is simply not worth the bother.


In an earlier post (“Why Aquinas?”), I gave some initial reasons to think that Aquinas is worth the effort. But I’d like to go further today and argue that the form and structure of the Summa is an exemplar of philosophical inquiry quite generally, and that this literary form points us not only to the true value of philosophy, but also to a better understanding of its place as the cornerstone of the liberal arts.[1]


The Summa (an unfinished work!) is divided into 512 topics (quaestiones), which are subdivided into 2, 668 articles (articuli). The fewest articles that Thomas devotes to a single topic is two, the most he devotes to a single topic is seventeen. All articles that fall under a topic also begin with a question, the determination of a further problem relating to the main topic to be addressed. For example, under the topic of Free Will, Aquinas asks: (1) Whether man has free will? (2) Whether free will is a power? (3) Whether free will is an appetite? (4) Whether free will is a power distinct from the will? But notice that not any old question will do to begin an article—it must be framed so as to admit to opposing answers, a pro and a con. Such questions are, according to Otto Bird, “formally dialectical.” A dialectical question is distinguished from all others by the fact that it leaves one free to take either side of a contradiction. [Aristotle, De Interpretatione, 20b23-30] Questions of the form, “What is the nature of X?” are not dialectical, because they admit of only one answer. For that reason, Aquinas avoids them.


Having posed a question that admits of opposing answers, which demonstrates that we are in the realm of a disputation, Aquinas proceeds to give arguments for both sides. He uses the language of “sic proceditur” which is best translated as “thus it is argued or disputed.” This signals to the reader that an answer will not simply be given to the reader, but that real work needs to be undertaken in order to reach a resolution to the problem at hand.   Notably, Aquinas always begins by giving the argument for the side he will ultimately oppose, called “objections” and he usually presents three or four of them at the start. In presenting objections to his own view, Aquinas is not simply engaging in conceptual analysis or surveying logical space. Rather, at this stage he is consulting the “authorities,” those whose opinions have been handed down to us as worthy of serious engagement. For Aquinas, these authorities are the Patristics (the “Fathers” of the early Church, both Latin and Greek), other medieval philosophers, including Jews (Maimonides) and Arabic philosophers, (Avicenna and Averroes), and of course pagan thinkers like Plato, Cicero, and most especially Aristotle, who carries such weight and authority with Aquinas that he simply refers to him as “the Philosopher.”


Following the initial set of arguments or objections we make our way to the sed contra, the arguments for the contrary view, and the one that Aquinas will ultimately favor. Having looked at arguments on both sides, the reader finds herself in a state of indetermination. She is ready to move on to the next part of the article, known as the respondeo, (“I respond thus”). The respondeo contains Aquinas’s own considered view and his arguments for it—it is his resolution of the problem at hand. The respondeo is clearly the heart of the entire article, but certainly not the whole of it. It would be a huge mistake to skip what proceeds and follows it.


It is crucial to the form of the article that it does not end with Aquinas’s arguments in favor of his own view. Instead, the article draws to a close by revisiting the initial arguments opposing those given in the respondeo. These are called the “replies to the objections” and Aquinas painstakingly goes through each objection and offers a detailed response to it. Only once his opponent has been given his full due does Aquinas move on to the next question.


The value of this method, which we may call “dialectical disputation” is that it forces the reader to actively participate in a discourse that will allow her to learn by seeing for herself how the resolution to the problem has been arrived at. In fact, the article format itself is a model of how discourse ought to operate: one begins one’s inquiry with an open ended, dialectical question, carefully considers the best arguments from renown thinkers on both sides, and then works up one’s own arguments for the view one favors. Having grasped the reasons for one’s own conclusion, one must give one’s opponent full due by responding to him in detail.


One sees that Aquinas’s method is the antithesis of what we have been conditioned to expect from a medieval thinker—it is neither dogmatic (in the negative sense), nor insular, nor ignorant, nor closed-minded. The value of the method displays the value of philosophy itself: the mind’s active and open search for truth, that good in which the mind naturally rests. This search is demanding, and it requires that we consider propositions and arguments we find deeply offensive and problematic (for instance, Aquinas constantly entertains arguments against the basic tenets of his own faith throughout the Summa). The reason Thomas must consider opposing views is that some of the best minds he knows of have reached conclusions that are opposed to his own deeply held convictions—convictions that shape his identity as a Christian friar and structure his way of life.


Aquinas’ method shows that the pursuit of truth takes diligent effort, courage, and charity. But the pursuit of truth is worth the risks and the strain, because it allows us to attain the good of the intellect, a crucial component of the good life. For this reason philosophy—the pursuit of wisdom—is the center of a liberal arts education, which, by contrast with the servile arts, aims at nothing other than human freedom and fulfillment.


Jennifer A. Frey is a principal investigator with Virtue, Happiness, and the Meaning of Life.


Further Reading

Otto Bird. “How To Read An Article of the Summa.” New Scholasticism 27(1), 1953.

McGinn, Bernard. Thomas Aquinas’s Summa Theologiae: A Biography. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2014.

Torrell, Jean-Pierre, O.P. Aquinas’s Summa: Background, Structure, and Reception. Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of American Press, 2005.

[1] For my own understanding of the structure and importance of this format, I am deeply indebted to Otto Bird’s “How To Read An Article of the Summa” New Scholasticism 27 (1), 1953. Otto Bird was the founder of Notre Dame’s Program of Liberal Studies, a “great books” program that focuses on a traditional liberal arts education.

Covering nude statues in 2016: a burning question for ethics and aesthetics

Barbarians float
From the Viareggio Carnival Parade 2016: “Barbarians” float. Photo by Fabrizia Abbate.

Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani was on an institutional visit to Rome a few weeks ago, where the Colosseum, the Capitoline Museum and the Vatican were included as part of his tour. After meeting with the Italian Prime Minister in the Capitol for a press conference, they walked together around wings of the Capitoline Museum.


We are less interested in the political and economic goals of their meeting than we are in something else that happened in those circumstances, something so serious that the international press has discussed it at length.
The fact is that at some point, an unknown “someone” decided to spare the Iranian President embarrassment by covering all the nude statues in the Museum, so that just wooden panels could be shown in those corridors. Someone unknown, because neither the Prime Minister, Matteo Renzi, nor the Italian Culture Minister, Dario Franceschini, said that the “incomprehensible” move had been authorized by them. It was confirmed by President Rouhani that Iran had not contacted Italian officials about the issue; however, he said he appreciated the welcome he had received.


More than one month has passed, and we still do not know who was effectively in charge of the official decision to cover statues. It is not institutional responsibilities that we are investigating and debating here. What we are interested in is even more serious and dangerous.

I would like to get past the most obvious and documented issues. For example: many Italians read this cover up as a form of cultural “submission”. Rouhani’s culture and religion doesn’t appreciate the portrayals of naked bodies (however, some Iranian intellectuals could deny this statement), so we cover our ancient Roman statues in order to respect his values and offer our hospitality. But what about our social identity? Having Italian identity does not simply involve citizenship, but also involves the history of the country, made by the Romans, shaped by the Middle Ages and by the Popes. All that is preserved in our artistic heritage still reveals its truth to us. Art is always the expression of the history to which we belong.

So, are we going to start covering statues with the purpose of clouding our nationality and our history? Politicians active in supporting patriotism use events like this as flags for their propaganda.


A second, less nationalist and more universal question can be asked: is it correct to take leave of the values of our classical western heritage in order to guarantee the best welcome to a different culture? It is surely one of the most disputable topics these days, and ethics and multiculturalism have much to say to each other. The effort of building healthy identities cannot overlook the comparison and the inclusion of differences, but the reverse is also true, that the effort of maintaining healthy differences cannot exclude solid identity awareness. From this point of view we can quite agree that something failed at the Capitoline Museum, and a good opportunity for dialectic reasoning was missed.


A third issue can be taken into consideration in addition to the previous ones: Firm religious beliefs always generate social representations of associated life.

When we believe differently, do we still have to to share a common social representation in order to respect each other? Is the disposition of respect as a moral essential attitude still valid when we decide to accept and keep alive different beliefs, even if we are not capable of sharing practices arising from those convictions?

Again, it seems to be a burning subject for moral philosophers. But as I wrote at the start, there is a substantial and basic issue I would like to point out. It is an aesthetic issue involved in our civilization. First of all, the idea of covering up those statues to not offend the religious perception and the moral values of the guest turned out to be a really dangerous and disastrous venture, no matter who the guests are and what they believe. It was a negative initiative by itself, because it neglected one of the greatest cultural achievements in the last two centuries.

I am talking about the autonomy of art and aesthetics.

Considering Kant’s Critique of Judgment, going through Hegel’s Aesthetics, mentioning Benedetto Croce’s The Essence of Aesthetics and his views on art and poetry (just to state relevant philosophers, but many others could be mentioned to support this debate), it becomes clear that our civilization has grown by developing a concept of freedom that is essential to art and its expression. Art has its own representations, reasons and knowledge, apart from ethics and religion, even though it always sits in a hermeneutical space shared with logic, ethics, economics and religion. If we “cover up” this freedom related to aesthetics, with such a quick unaware gesture, we must really take seriously the risk of slowly covering up a long (and eminent) history of struggle for freedom and democracy.

Fabrizia Abbate is Professor of Aesthetics in the Department of Education, at Roma Tre University of Rome. Qualified Associate Professor in Ethics in 2014. Her research studies are in Hermeneutics and Contemporary Continental Philosophy. In Fall 2014, she was a Visiting Scholar at the University of Chicago Department of Philosophy.

Virtue Talk podcast: Erik Angner on happiness research

VirtueTalklogo1Click the link below to hear our Scholar Erik Angner on happiness and the possibilities for research within this project.

Erik Angner | Virtue Talk

Erik Angner is Associate Professor of Philosophy, Economics, and Public Policy at George Mason University, where he directs the undergraduate Philosophy, Politics, and Economics (PPE) Program. As a result of serious mission creep, he holds two PhDs – one in Economics and one in History and Philosophy of Science – both from the University of Pittsburgh. He is the author of two books, Hayek and Natural Law (Routledge, 2007) and A Course in Behavioral Economics, now in its second edition (Palgrave, 2016), as well as multiple journal articles and book chapters on behavioral and experimental economics, the economics of happiness, and the history, philosophy, and methodology of contemporary economics.


Read about our new podcast “Virtue Talk”

Malcolm X: “Moderation in the Pursuit of Justice is No Virtue”

image by argumento

This week marks the 51st anniversary of the assassination of Malcolm X. It is important to remember how this great champion of civil rights was moving quickly towards a vision of universal brotherhood towards the end of his life, a vision inspired in large part by his pilgrimage to Mecca in 1964, and his sense of deep spiritual kinship with the people he met on that journey. “Never have I witnessed such sincere hospitality and overwhelming spirit of true brotherhood as it is practiced by people of all colors and races here in this Ancient Holy Land,” he wrote in his “Letter from Mecca.”  “I could see from this, that perhaps if white Americans could accept the Oneness of God, then perhaps, too, they could accept in reality the Oneness of Man—and cease to measure, and hinder, and harm others in terms of their ‘differences’ in color.”


The last speech he gave in public was his famous response in the Oxford Union Debate, December 3, 1964, on the topic “Extremism in defense of liberty is no vice, moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.” Critics liked to characterize Malcolm as a racist radical, and his support of this phrase in the debate confirmed this sense of him for his opponents, but in fact the phrase originated on the political right, first uttered by conservative Barry Goldwater in his July 16 speech that same year when he accepted the presidential nomination of the Republican Party. Most of the debaters arrayed against him at Oxford opposed the phrase, including conservative MP Humphrey Berkeley, the speaker before Malcolm, who characterized him as a segregationist champion of apartheid, and charged him with plagiarizing his adopted surname “X” from Kafka. Playing every line for laughs, Berkeley posited that the adoption by a civil rights leader like Malcolm of Goldwater’s thesis, given how Goldwater had consistently voted against civil rights, seemed to take cynicism too far.


Humphrey’s personal attack on him while playing at being the figure of civility and reason angered Malcolm (Stephen Tuck, The Night Malcolm X Spoke at the Oxford Union, p. 160 ). In response, Malcolm argued that Berkeley was the “type” of white man whose ancestors had sold Malcolm’s ancestor’s and erased their surnames, that this is why Malcolm had adopted the surname “X” in the first place, and that Berkeley’s “type” was precisely the reason why extremism in defense of liberty is no vice. Malcolm flipped the terms of the debate by suggesting that Berkeley’s masquerade of reasonableness is itself a form of extremism, and he took issue with Berkeley’s characterization of him as a racist , arguing that this misrepresentation was precisely the issue: “[W]hen a man whom they have been taught is below them has the nerve or firmness to question some of their philosophy or some of their conclusions, usually they put that label on us, a label that is only designed to project an image which the public will find distasteful.” (Link) In flipping the terms of the debate, he also forecast his larger argument, which is that the terms within which the western world understands virtue are often far more extreme than they are rational or just.

 Complete debate audio – The Oxford Union Debate

When we think of virtue, we often think in terms of moderation. Our sense of this comes largely from Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics, Book II, where he describes virtue as a mean existing between excess and deficiency, a mean determined by reason. So, for example, Aristotle might find Courage between cowardice and rashness; Patience between depression and crabbiness; and Truthfulness between understatement and boastfulness. What is important here is that virtue is a reasonable mean between extremes. In the case of vices, however, there is often no reasonable mean—these vices, Aristotle argues, are themselves bad.


Malcolm X’s defense of the Goldwater proposition insists that reason and moderation cannot operate in an upside-down world of colonial stereotypes, ambitious nation-states, and entrenched racism. These vices, he argues, are themselves bad. Instead, Malcolm is interested in moving us away from Aristotelian ideas of virtue as a mean, and towards an awareness of virtue as justice. He characterizes extremism as something relative to something or someone else rather than a fixed value, whereas justice itself is more self-evident: “Anytime anyone is enslaved or in any way deprived of his liberty, that person, as a human being, as far as I’m concerned he is justified to resort to whatever methods necessary to bring about his liberty again.”


Using the example of the Congo, whose independence movement was crushed with the aid of the U.S. military, he notes that the concept of extremism is perspectival and tinted by politics, and thus is part of a representational scheme deployed by those in power in order to justify their actions: “They take American-trained–they take pilots that they say are American-trained–and this automatically lends respectability to them, [Laughter] and then they will call them anti-Castro Cubans. And that’s supposed to add to their respectability [Laughter] and eliminate the fact that they’re dropping bombs on villages where they have no defense whatsoever against such planes, blowing to bits Black women–Congolese women, Congolese children, Congolese babies. This is extremism.” Malcolm appeals here to justice as a sense of fairness, of obligations to others, and he argues directly and by implication that real extremism lies in perpetrating injustice. If dropping bombs on villages of women and children is blatantly unjust—and it is—then defending against it cannot be seen as extremism, but as an attempt to seek justice. To characterize these kind of attacks as just, and attempts to defend against them as extremism, is to support a world where notions of virtue and vice have been turned upside down, and rendered useless.


In his bafflement that anyone could take up the cause of extremism, Humphrey Berkeley attacked Malcolm X at the Oxford Union as immoral, as against appeasement and peaceful coexistence, and therefore as someone advocating injustice. In response, Malcolm argued that he wasn’t interested in violence so much as he was interested in equality, in fair and just treatment: “I don’t encourage any acts of murder, nor do I glorify in anybody’s death, but I do think that when the white public uses its press to magnify the fact that there are the lives of white hostages at stake–they don’t say ‘hostages,’ every paper says ‘white hostages’–they give me the impression that they attach more importance to a white hostage and a white death than they do the death of a human being despite the color of his skin.” At the end of this speech, his Oxford audience shouted and stamped their feet in approval. What Malcolm X argued in his last public speech is not that extremism is better than moderation, or that moderation cannot be virtuous, but that virtue is most present when everyone is treated as equally important, no matter the color of their skin, and that the real, abiding, and most important measure of virtue is the justice owed to all.

Malcolm X. Oxford Union Debate, Dec. 3 1964 from Jason Patterson on Vimeo.

Jaime Hovey is Associate Program Director for Virtue, Happiness, & the Meaning of Life.

Our Visiting Scholar Program begins Spring 2016

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Our project will bring two visiting scholars to the University of Chicago. Anselm Mueller (emeritus, University of Trier) is our visiting scholar Spring quarter 2016, and Stephen Brock (Pontifical University of Santa Croce) will be our visiting scholar Spring quarter 2017. They will be hosted by the Neubauer Collegium for Culture and Society.

In addition to teaching a course, each visting scholar will

  • lead faculty-doctoral student reading groups, to bring some of the intensity of our summer seminars to Chicago, allowing several faculty and doctoral students to work together to build an enlarged community of inquiry;
  • give a public lecture;
  • participate in at least one meeting of one of the University of Chicago’s existing, extensive system of interdisciplinary doctoral student workshops;
  • participate in the June working group meeting in order to advance the project goals;
  • contribute to The Virtue Blog and Virtue Talk podcast;
  • attend the capstone conference at the end of the project.


Read more about the Visiting Scholars here.