Virtue and the Common Good in Aristotle and Aquinas

SPAIN – CIRCA 1986: stamp printed by Spain, shows Aristotle, text from De Cielo et Mundo, circa 1986.

Aristotle thought that work on virtue had a profoundly political aspect. According to Aristotle our capacity to perceive good and bad is inextricably linked to the complexities of our sociality, and it is hard to imagine a sound reading of Aristotle (or any other good philosopher) on topics such as virtue and practical reason that did not involve our capacity to distinguish good from bad. Human beings, Aristotle thought, are at home in ordered communities, and our capacity to track practical good and bad and right and wrong (even to engage in means-end reasoning, interestingly) are capacities properly exercised in society:

…it is evident that the state is a creation of nature, and that man is by nature a political Bust of Aristotle (Greece 1978)animal. And he who by nature and not by mere accident is without a state is either a bad man or… he is like the ‘Tribeless, lawless, hearthless one,’ whom Homer denounces—the natural outcast…. Nature, as we often say, makes nothing in vain, and man is the only animal who has the gift of speech. And whereas mere voice is but an indication of pleasure and pain, and is therefore found in other animals…the power of speech is intended to set forth the expedient and inexpedient, and therefore likewise the just and unjust. And it is a characteristic of man that he alone has any sense of good and evil, of just and unjust, and the like, and the association of living beings who have this sense makes a family and a state.[1]

Further, according to Aristotle, individual human beings develop their understanding of good, bad, right, and wrong by criticizing their fellows’ bad conduct in light of community standards.[2]

"School of Athens" by Raphael (Greece 1978)The polis is the natural setting for virtuous activity in Aristotle, and even though there is no question that Aristotle sees virtuous citizens as working for the good of the polis, it is not clear how far Aristotle’s understanding of virtue and sound practical reason locates these excellences as aimed, first and foremost, at the good of the community rather than at the virtuous person’s own good (even if participation in ordered community life is required if individuals are to thrive). It is one thing to hold that an individual human being’s good cannot be understood in isolation from that individual’s participation in an ordered community. As near as I can tell, Aristotle thought as much. It is quite another to treat the proper end of virtuous activity as the common good understood very broadly—as extending, for example, beyond the boundaries of the polis, of political friendships, of a community ordered by shared customs or rules, of humans who share a common language, beyond, even the reach of norms enjoining hospitality. Notoriously, Aristotle has little to offer on the question of how individuals who are in these respects strangers to one another are capable of doing right or wrong by each other.[3]

In short, Aristotle’s understanding of the point or target or end of virtuous activity certainly transcends the apparent limits of love of self far enough to encompass love of neighbor. Aristotle’s insistence on the centrality of communities ordered by shared customs and rules shows us this much. But the circle of those who will count as my neighbors is rather narrower than contemporary ethicists might have hoped.

Postage stamp Spain 1962 Apotheosis of St. Thomas Aquinas
SPAIN – CIRCA 1962: a stamp printed in the Spain shows The Apotheosis of St. Thomas Aquinas, Painting by Zurbaran, circa 1962

Aquinas understands virtue as directed to the common good in much more expansive terms. Aquinas takes up Aristotle’s stress on our sociality, together with the thought that human beings are the only animals who will develop an articulate sense of good and bad (if all goes as it should go in their lives). Aquinas also moves arm-in-arm with Aristotle in focusing on the importance of an ordered community to an understanding of the kind of common good at issue in the exercise of virtue. For all that, Aquinas’s account of the extent of the ordered community served by virtuous activity, and the kind of order at issue in the community, grows beyond any Aristotelian root.

Full discussion of the sort of order at issue in Aquinas’s account of the common good (for the sake of which we cultivate and exercise acquired virtue) requires entering into the difficult territory of Aquinas’s undeniably theological account of natural law.[4] Discussion of Aquinas on the character of natural law is beyond the scope of this essay. Suffice to say that the boundaries that delimit any distinct human community—the polis, say, or nation, or state, or club, or group of people with shared customs, or religious group, or group of users of one or more human languages—do not circumscribe virtue’s arena on Aquinas’s account. The kind of transcendence of personal good at issue in Aquinas’s understanding outstrips the sort associated with the political and social dimensions of virtue in Aristotle.

Laws associated with natures are operative in the whole of creation on Aquinas’s view.

Postage stamp Italy 1974 St. Thomas Aquinas, by Francesco Traini
ITALY – CIRCA 1974: a stamp printed in the Italy shows St. Thomas Aquinas, by Francesco Traini, Scholastic Philosopher, 700th Death Anniversary, circa 1974

Still, it won’t do to treat the breadth of Aquinas’s understanding of the good at issue in the cultivation and exercise of virtue by postulating a shapeless, all-inclusive, creation-sized “bigger and better than I am” good as the backbone for an interesting variety of virtue ethics. On the face of it, a spiritual exercise that primarily serves to give me a sense of oneness with the Pacific Ocean will not count as an exercise of virtue. Attempting to view myself as at once noble and charged with responsibility for helping to maintain all that sustains life because I, too, am made of stardust likewise has nothing to do with the cultivation or exercise of virtue. Instead, Aquinas understands acquired virtue as a cultivated strength of character that fosters the cooperative operations of reason and emotion, perception and volition, thought and feeling, attraction and aversion in the service of reasonable pursuit of human good.

Editor’s note: This piece continues tomorrow with the post Transcendence in Positive Psychology.

[1] Politics 1.2, 1253a2-18, B. Jowett, translator, in Jonathan Barnes, editor, The Complete Works of Aristotle, Vol. 2 (Oxford: Princeton University Press, 1984), pp. 1987-88.

[2] See, e.g., Nicomachean Ethics I.13, 1102b 33-35.

[3] For some discussion of the difficulty here, see Michael Thompson, “What is it to Wrong Someone? A Puzzle about Justice,” in R. Jay Wallace, Philip Pettit, Samuel Scheffler, and Michael Smith, editors, Reason and Value: Themes from the Moral Philosophy of Joseph Raz, (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2004), pp. 338-339.

[4] I share many readers’ deep dissatisfaction with the so-called “new natural law” theories associated with work by John Finnis and Germain Grisez. The reading of Aquinas on the character of natural law in the background of this essay is rooted in Stephen Brock’s The Legal Character of Natural Law According to St. Thomas Aquinas (PhD thesis, University of Toronto, 1988) [stable URL: <>%5D.

Candace Vogler is the David B. and Clara E. Stern Professor of Philosophy and Professor in the College at the University of Chicago, and Director and Principal Investigator for Virtue, Happiness, & the Meaning of Life.