The Structural Significance of Pagan Virtue


We’re presenting a short series of abstracts of the work-in-progress our scholars presented and discussed at their June 2017 Working Group Meeting.

Angela Knobel is Associate Professor of Philosophy at the School of Philosophy at The Catholic University of America.


Augustine is supposed to have said that the virtues of the pagans were no more than ‘splendid vices’. Whether he actually made such a claim and what he meant by it is the subject of much debate.  But on one reasonable interpretation of that claim, Augustine believed that non-Christians could not possess any genuine virtues at all.  Several recent scholars have argued that this was not only Augustine’s view, but Aquinas’s as well.  Many of the scholars who make this claim do so in the context of emphasizing the importance of Aquinas’s (often overlooked) theory of infused moral virtue.  In this paper, I argue that Aquinas not only recognizes the possibility of genuine virtue in non-believers, but that that recognition plays a crucial structural role in his broader account of virtue.  We cannot truly appreciate his theory of infused virtue, that is  to say, unless we see it as building on and presupposing the possibility of pagan virtue.  I conclude by offering a hypothesis about a likely source of contemporary Thomist suspicion of pagan virtue.