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.

Dispatches from last day of our final working group meeting

(from left: Josef Stern, Heather C Lench, Candace Vogler, Talbot Brewer, Stephen Brock, Jennifer A. Frey, Jean Porter, Matthias Haase, Erik Angner, Thomas Joseph White, Michael Gorman, Katherine Kinzler, Kevin Flannery, Reinhard Huetter, Robert C. Roberts, Anselm Mueller (not pictured but in attendence: Tahera Qutbuddin, Angela Knobel, David Shatz)

Not on Twitter? Here’s a sampling of our live-tweeting from our final day:

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Photos from Jean Porter’s Keynote, “What do we fear? Courage and cowardice in public life”

Moral theologian Jean Porter gave the talk “What should we fear? Courage and cowardice in public life” on Monday, June 5, 2017 at 7pm in the Swift Hall 3rd Floor Lecture Hall at the University of Chicago, followed by a lovely audience Q&A and reception. The talk will be posted on our website once it has been close-captioned.




Abstract from talk:

“Courage is pre-eminently an individual virtue. Yet we can also describe a community or a nation as courageous in its response to a threat or an attack. To take one well-known example, the behavior and attitudes of the English during the Blitz of 1940-41 offers an outstanding example of collective public courage. Somewhat to the surprise of government officials, the civilians subjected to intensive German bombing were not only relatively free of trauma, they were able to carry on with their lives, and even to be cheerful in the face of repeated attacks. The collective courage of the English under the Blitz was of course dependent on the courage of countless individuals, and yet it cannot be reduced to the sum of so many courageous acts and lives. The government promoted, and individuals cooperated in creating a set of practices and expectations that encouraged bravery and perseverance. At this point, England was a brave society, which both drew its courage from individuals and communicated it back to them.In my remarks this evening, I want to examine another example of public courage and public cowardice, which began to develop within the memory of many of us and is still unfolding today.  I am referring to public reactions to the threat of terrorism since the attacks of 9/11.  During and immediately after the attacks themselves, the men and women at the scene, together with the police, fire fighters, and medical personnel, behaved with exemplary bravery in the face of an unimaginable danger.  These clear, unambiguous examples of courage do not call for extended analysis. However, at another level, public reactions to the threat of terrorist attacks present a more complex and ambiguous example.  I want to suggest that we as a nation responded initially to terrorist assaults and the threat of further attacks with another kind of courage, not physical bravery but a firm resolve to hold onto central values, including equality, tolerance, and respect for the rule of law. However, over the past fifteen years, our attitudes as a civic society, as expressed by the actions taken in our name, reflect a growing unwillingness to live with risk and, correspondingly, a willingness to do almost anything to our supposed enemies, in order to secure our own safety.  In other words, we as a nation have moved from courage to a kind of cowardice when it comes to our attitudes towards these threats. I will consider some of the possible causes of this development, and suggest some ways in which we might reclaim our initial courage.”

MONDAY: Jean Porter, “What should we fear? Courage and cowardice in public life”

We hope to see you Monday evening for Jean Porter’s talk and the reception to follow with the scholars of the Virtue, Happiness, & Meaning of Life project, who are in town for their Spring meeting.

If you’re unable to attend, you can live-stream the talk on our website.

For more information and to RSVP or live-stream, go to

Monday, June 5, 2017 at 7pm in the Swift Hall 3rd Floor Lecture Hall, University of Chicago. An audience Q & A will be followed by a reception in the Swift Hall Common Room. This talk is free and open to the public.


General Justice and the Common Good

We’re presenting a short series of abstracts of the work-in-progress our scholars will present and discuss at their June 2017 Working Group Meeting.  Jean Porter is the John A. O’Brien Professor of Theological Ethics at the University of Notre Dame and scholar with Virtue, Happiness, & the Meaning of Life.
Porter will present the Keynote for our June 2017 Working Group Meeting, “What should we fear? Courage and cowardice in public life” on June 5, 2017. Click here for more information and to rsvp.
According to Aquinas, the common good is the formal object of a virtue, namely, the virtue of general justice.  It is initially difficult to know what to make of this claim.  We are accustomed to think of the common good as a political or social ideal, to be pursued through collective political actions.  Aquinas himself, together with most of his interlocutors, regards the common good as a principle of legitimation, which justifies political rule and legislative authority.   It is difficult to see how a virtue-oriented analysis of the common good can add to our overall understanding of a social ideal or a juridical principle. There is something admittedly attractive in the ideal of the virtuous ruler, reliably guided in the exercise of rule by wisdom, informed by good and honorable motivations.  But wise and virtuous sovereigns are not so common these days, and at any rate, this seductive ideal can easily be abused.  At any rate, Aquinas himself does not claim that virtues are sufficient, or indeed necessary to guide public officials in the exercise of their duties. I want to suggest that when Aquinas identifies the common good as the object of a particular virtue, he is not so much making a point about qualifications for rule – rather, he is making a point about the presuppositions and possibilities for the morally legitimate exercise of power.  The point at stake is not so much that a good ruler must be morally good,  but rather, and more fundamentally, a good ruler can be morally good.  Aquinas’ claims about general justice and the common good presuppose the moral legitimacy of political rule and the possibility of living a virtuous life in public office.  At the same time, his analysis of the common good as the object of a virtue is intertwined with his analysis of the common good as a principle of political legitimation.  The moral possibilities for political action and public service presuppose the moral legitimacy of political rule and the institutions set up to carry it out.   For this reason, reflection on general justice and its object, the common good, has something to teach us about the moral legitimacy of political authority and the conditions for exercising power in a morally admirable way.