Podcast: “Revelations of Love in John Steinbeck” | Sacred & Profane Love, Episode 9

Download Episode 9: “Revelations of Love in John Steinbeck”


In Episode 9 of Sacred & Profane Love “Revelations of Love in John Steinbeck,” Philosopher Jennifer A. Frey speaks with Thomist Theologian, Fr Michael Sherwin, OP, about John Steinbeck’s secular understanding of Christian caritas (charity) and how Steinbeck captures the beauty and power of love in the simple act of sharing breakfast with strangers. Their conversation tackles the nature of divine love as understood by Augustine and Aquinas.


Rev. Prof. Michael Sherwin OP, was one of our faculty for our 2016 Summer Session “Virtue & Happiness”, and is Professor of Fundamental Moral Theology at the University of Fribourg, Switzerland. Fr. Sherwin is director of the Saint Thomas Aquinas Institute for Theology and Culture and of the Pinckaers Archives.  Author of articles on the psychology of love, virtue ethics and moral development, his monograph, By Knowledge and By Love: Charity and Knowledge in the Moral Theology of St. Thomas Aquinas (CUA Press, 2005) has been reissued in paperback.


Jennifer A. Frey is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the University of South Carolina. Prior to joining the philosophy faculty at USC, she was a Collegiate Assistant Professor of Humanities at the University of Chicago, where she was a member of the Society of Fellows in the Liberal Arts and an affiliated faculty in the philosophy department.  She earned her PhD in philosophy at the University of Pittsburgh, and her B.A. in Philosophy and Medieval Studies (with Classics minor) at Indiana University-Bloomington. Her research lies at the intersection of philosophy of action and ethics, with a particular focus on the Aristotelian-Thomist tradition.


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This podcast is a project of Virtue, Happiness, & the Meaning of Life, and is made possible through a generous grant from the John Templeton Foundation.

Content copyright the University of South Carolina and the University of Chicago.

Music credits, “Help me Somebody,” by Brian Eno and David Byrne, licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.5.

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.

Lumen Christi Institute Events – Winter 2017

Founded in 1997 by Catholic Scholars at the University of Chicago, The Lumen Christi Institute brings together thoughtful Catholics and others interested in the Catholic tradition and makes available to them the wisdom of the Catholic spiritual, intellectual, and cultural heritage. Lumen Christi is a partner with our project and we’re pleased to share their  upcoming events for Spring 2017.

Thursday, February 16, 4:30pm-6:00pm

with Sarah Byers (Boston College)
“What does it Mean to Say the Son of God is ‘Consubstantial’ with the Father? New Insights into Augustine’s Debt to Aristotle” 

Harper Memorial Library 130: 1116 East 59th Street
Cosponsored by the Department of Philosophy 
Register here.

Friday, February 17, 2:00pm-5:00pm
with Sarah Byers (Boston College)

Master Class: Augustine on Human Freedom and Divine Grace: What is Really Going on in the ‘Conversion Scene’ in Augustine’s Confessions?”

Gavin House: 1220 E 58th Street, Chicago, IL 60637
Open to graduate and undergraduate students, including non-University of Chicago students. Space is limited and offered on a first-come, first-served basis. Copies of the readings will be made available online to all participants. 
Register here.
Thursday, February 23, 4:30-6:00pm
Lecture by Celia Deane-Drummond (Notre Dame) 
“Tracing our Shared Deep History: Evolutionary Anthropology and Theo-Drama” 
Social Sciences, Room 122: 1126 E 59th Street, Chicago, IL 60637
Register here.

Religion and Happiness

Candace Vogler, at the debate with Jennifer A. Frey and Fr. Thomas Joseph White  on the topic “Happiness without Religion?” at the Catholic Center of NYU in September 2016.

This week we post the three arguments presented at the debate “Happiness Without Religion”, hosted by First Things and the Thomistic Institute at the Catholic Center of NYU. Today is part 3 of 3 featuring Candace Vogler. The accompanying audio of the debate (below) was recorded by the Thomistic Institute.


I am doubly disadvantaged in a debate about happiness and religion and what, if anything, the two have to do with one another. First off, the term religion may cover a lot of very different forms of organized human activity, and I don’t know much about most of them. I know something about some forms of Christianity. I know a little about Judaism. I know a little about Afro-Caribbean and Afro-Brazilian syncretic religious practices, a tiny bit about a handful of Native American religious practices, and a very little bit about very small areas of Islam. I don’t know how to give a properly philosophical characterization of the nature of religion that seems applicable to all of these. And so, largely from ignorance, in discussing religion I will have in mind socially organized spiritual practice that tends to be monotheistic, whether or not it operates with a shared body of doctrine and whether or not its practitioners produce theology or philosophy in connection with their religious practices. The second place that I have a hitch is around questions about happiness.


Our topic is whether a (presumably mature) human being (presumably with her wits about her) needs religion in order to be happy—at least, happy in her embodied mortal life.


Now, happiness, as Philippa Foot once put it, “is a protean concept, appearing now in one way and now in another.”[1] So, having first restricted our constituency to mature and sane human beings, and having restricted my attention to the span between early adulthood and such time at the end of life as might be happy, it helps to try to wrestle happiness into a more definite sort of shape.


These days it is common among Anglophone philosophers to distinguish accounts of happiness that treat happiness as a psychological concept—perhaps having to do with positively charged emotional states, or with an overall sense of satisfaction with one’s life, or with a tendency to enjoy things, or with some favored combination of these—from accounts of happiness that stress human flourishing or thriving, which may or may not be associated with contentment or satisfaction, and need not involve any particularly sunny affective or emotional tone. Although thinkers far greater than I have held that people in general pursue happiness, it is not clear what sorts of things might be involved in pursuing happiness understood in any of the usual psychological senses (one worries that the quickest line of pursuit will be pharmacological). Neither is it clear that flourishing accounts are picking out a single sort of target to home in on. Suppose that I think that no one should be satisfied when much of her community is torn by violence and sunk in poverty. Flourishing, I think, will require engaging with my community in ways that are likely to be uncomfortable, unsatisfying, and possibly perilous as well. It could be objected that I have it all wrong about flourishing, but it is hard to deny that mine could be a good human life in the end—a life well-spent; a life well worth living. If so, then people can flourish without having a whole lot of feel-good.


In the more distant past, European philosophers have varied wildly in their accounts what happiness might be, on the understanding that happiness is supposed to serve as a name for what makes life good. Health, wealth, honor, sybaritic delight, ethically permissible satisfaction of all and only those of my desires that I welcome, internally peaceful and socially harmonious participation in pursuit of common good, faring well to exactly the extent to which I am acting well—all of these and more have been offered up as the kind of happiness that makes an adult human being’s life good.


Some will argue (with Aquinas and Augustine, and Fr. Thomas Joseph White) that health, wealth, honor, and sensual delight cannot possibly be the stuff of the kind of happiness that makes human life good. It has been common to insist that going for these things is a matter of failing to side with reason and become exactly like nonhuman animals. I think it’s a mistake to equate human sensuality with nonhuman animal experience. We should be so lucky! Our sensual lives are not easily separated from our lot as intellectual animals. Be that as it may, we are in the same boat with other animals in at least this sense: the goods of this world are transitory and contingent. According to authoritative sources that I respect, in seeking happiness, we humans seek something stable and lasting that cannot be taken from us.


As far as I know, when one is inclined to make this argument one discounts both a venerable Spartan sort of thought about it being a fine thing to go out in a blaze of glory on the battlefield, thereby securing one’s memory for all time, and also the less venerable idea that there’s a lot to be said for living fast and dying young. I am willing to bite those bullets.


Sticking to a different, venerable kind of thought, one might ask: What does it profit a man if he wins major athletic competitions (without doping), gains lucrative endorsements, fame, and ample opportunity for pleasure but loses his soul? The answer is supposed to be that it profits him not at all. But it is surely understandable that gaining what counts for someone as “the world” through sustained and persistent effort against significant odds will not look like nothing. And health, wealth, honor, and sensual delight have been human pursuits for a very long time.


Worse, if your way of making sense of why it is that people go for anything in a serious way is that they think that they are going for what will bring happiness—a Jeremy Bentham sort of thought that has been re-packaged by some contemporary neo-Aristotelians—then the fact of serious pursuit on the part of many people at least suggests that worldly goods have been the substance of a lot of actual pursuit of happiness. Worse yet, the witnesses to these supposedly vain efforts have not exactly turned away from such things in disgust upon seeing what happens when people get them. Yes—trying to be as shiny and pretty and well-liked as possible for as long as possible is hard work and the passage of time is never your best friend, but that all by itself shouldn’t suggest that people who are pretty and shiny and adored are going for the wrong thing. Serious scholarship, science, and work for social justice also take a lot of time and effort and never feel complete or lasting. That hasn’t made people turn up their noses at these pursuits, even though everyone in these areas knows that they are spending their lives going for stuff has a shelf life and seeking goals that they cannot achieve under their own steam.


Now, viewed through the lenses of even the kind of potted histories that I know, any tie that has connected health, wealth, honor, and sensual delight—or science, scholarship, and social justice, for that matter—to religious practice seems at best coincidental. It isn’t impossible that these things might line up. Take bliss, for instance. I could have ecstatic mystic experience that healed my body and brought wealth and honor and knowledge my way and put me in an excellent position to inspire collective work for common good in whichever field of human activity you favor. But I will be dancing in a fool’s paradise if I expect these things to come of my graceful, whirling acts of worship.


Let us leave ordinary health, sensuality, intellectual or social pursuits, and the stuff of worldly success to one side (noticing that, in doing so, we rule out things that many people have regarded as crucial for happiness in this life). Allow that, not only does it feel like there has to be more than finding a place for myself in a complex world, more than finding productive and rewarding outlets for my talents, more than any health or wealth or recognition that I might enjoy, more than success, more than friends and family—basically, more than the things that my people take to be worth having. Suppose that there really is more than this. And suppose that I want whatever that more is.


Is there a way to the elusive more through religious practice?


Obviously, the answer will depend upon the variety of religious practice in question and the character of the elusive more. Take Christianity, for instance. By the lights of the varieties of Christian religious practice familiar to me, it would be a strange thing to turn to Christianity for temporal happiness. In the revealed literature, followers are frequently told to expect to be reviled for their faith. All are charged with obedience to commandments that are hard to obey. All are charged with loving neighbors who are inconvenient and needy. All are expected to fail in doing what they are supposed to do, individually and collectively. And none are supposed to be content with failure. Religious practice is supposed to help nourish and build the faith that anyone will need if she decides to go in for Christianity in a serious way, and, in the early days, at least, there was not an obvious casual way offered for ordinary people who were understandably concerned about the more strenuous side of what was just called the way.


Now, I of course agree with Fr. Thomas Joseph that there is a crucial link between this kind of religion and happiness, and that if you accept the points of the linkage, you ought to conclude that it is, in fact, crucial for happiness. I am going to lay out the points a bit differently.


  • Human beings are intellectual, social animals and creatures in the first instance.
  • As intellectual, social animals they are, for whatever reason, disordered—what they seek they seek because it appears as a kind of thing it will be good to go for (as something that is good for a human being), their urges and feelings and appetites want to be reasonable, but rarely are; they want their lives, individually and socially, to make a kind of sense that lives rarely do; they cannot live long or well without significant social cooperation; they often find themselves at odds with their fellows; even when they agree that a way of addressing social tensions is desirable, they need not share a vision about how to order their social lives and pursuits to make things better.
  • As creatures, they have deep need not only to make sense of themselves, their lives, and each other, not only to find ways of discerning and pursuing genuine human good and avoiding what is genuinely bad—that is, to be right with themselves and right with each other on however large or small a scale you care to mention—but also to be right with the divine source of their lives and world.
  • Religious practice aims at providing established channels for helping people be right with themselves, with each other, and with divinity. Sound religious practice provides channels through which to pursue harmony in all of these relations but, insofar as religious practices are human institutions carried, held, transmitted, and engaged by human beings, they are not free of the kinds of disorder that marks human life generally.
  • For all that, religion is what we have to pursue the kind of harmony with each other and divinity that is a core human need, and seeking happiness in some way that cuts divinity out of the picture is going to be seeking one or another kind of fulfillment that will leave the spiritual need unsatisfied.


Basically, if you do not think that there is a core need to be right with divinity built into human life, and you notice that religious practice can be very hard and can make you unpopular, it is hard to see the link between religion and happiness, at least in terms of the varieties of religious practice I have encountered.


So you’ll notice that I am with Fr. Thomas Joseph and Aquinas, but with a couple of caveats for folks who are turned away from seeing any role for an essential tie to the sacred or divine in human life.


[1] Philippa Foot, Natural Goodness, (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2001), p. 97.

 Listen to a recording of this event’s arguments and critiques on the Thomistic Institute’s SoundCloud.

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.

No Happiness without Religion (and even only imperfect happiness with true Religion)

Fr. Thomas Joseph White, Jennifer A. Frey; debating with Candace Vogler (not pictured) the topic “Happiness without Religion?” at the Catholic Center of NYU in September 2016.

This week we post the three arguments presented at the debate “Happiness Without Religion”, hosted by First Things and the Thomistic Institute at the Catholic Center of NYU. Today is part 2 of 3 featuring Fr. Thomas Joseph White. The accompanying audio of the debate was recorded by the Thomistic Institute.


Consider the non-rational animals. Can they be said to be happy or unhappy? In an analogical sense, yes, insofar as they experience wellbeing of a physical or even emotional sort. Augustine notes that the non-rational animals “desire nothing beyond the proper arrangement of the parts of the body and the satisfaction of the appetites, [that is to say] bodily comfort and the [right measure of] pleasures, that the peace of the body might contribute to the peace of the soul…Animals, by shunning pain, show that they love bodily peace…their shrinking from death is a sufficient indication of their intense love of that peace which binds soul and body in close alliance.” (City of God XIX, 14) And of course we might add with Aristotle that they instinctively desire the good of their species, and seek to perpetuate it. This form of happiness may be modest but it is real, just as living things that are not human are real and are subject to flourishing.


We are different from these creatures because we avidly pursue happiness, through rational deliberation, even in all our free actions. This is different from saying that we understand well what happiness is, or know well how to procure it. Augustine underscores how fragile human happiness is in this world: Elusive, ephemeral and limited. On the one hand our desire for happiness is inextinguishable and vivid. On the other hand, it is often a source of disquiet or even torment. The desire for happiness frequently gives rise to serious disappointment. It can even humiliate us as we become worried or convinced that we have failed in life to be genuinely happy, whereas others have succeeded.


So the desire to be happy and appear happy gives rise to various forms of ambition and self-deception. Augustine notes that we tell ourselves and others lies, or half truths about how we happy we really are, and that we seek to demonstrate this through various mediums, from philosophical arguments to external postures, like Facebook posts or annual family Christmas letters. [No one ever writes in the annual Christmas letter, “This year Alice had a serious operation and had to confront for the first time her genuine fear of death. She is currently anti-anxiety medication and is in counseling.”] Instead, we take refuge in the public vanities of career or the accomplishments of children, of the private distractions of pleasure and leisure, claiming that we have fulfilled the canonical obligations that make us successfully happy. We settle for too little, and conceal our deeper unresolved-frustrations. This act of self-deception in fact suggests a profound form of self-antipathy, or self-refusal, insofar as we resist confronting our deeper more genuinely fractured selves.


Blaise Pascal writes about the positive benefits of admitting the deep imperfection and limits of our happiness in this world. Our failure to find anything other than very imperfect, unsatisfying forms of happiness in creatures is the negative side of very good news. If we admit this truth, we can begin to acknowledge the possibility of genuine happiness with God. Pascal argues in response to Montagne that the religionist is not the person who is naïve and escapist, but the only person who is actually in the end being a realist. We do genuinely wish to be happy, so let us be realists, and long for something we can actually have: life with God, and friendship with God. This is an existential possibility, by the grace of Christ, and it can endure forever, because God is eternal, and the soul is immaterial and lives on after death.


Of course here we might cough politely like Prufrock, and think quietly to ourselves: “that is not realistic. That is not worth the risk.” Or by contrast, we might briefly consider Aquinas’ version of this Augustinian argument.


Negatively Aquinas argues thus, in summary form: Wealth cannot be what makes us happy, because we procure wealth as a means not an end. Wealth provides a horizon of possibilities, but forces us to ask anew: ok, now what do we do with our money? Glory and fame cannot make us happy. They are radically contingent goods that by their very nature are transitory, and unstable. To be famous you need other people to agree to look at you a certain way continually, so as to procure satisfaction for your vanity or self-love. The problem is they might stop paying attention to you at any moment. (This is why famous people need twitter accounts.) Power is not a good candidate, because power is morally indifferent. A person can have a great deal of power, and do great wickedness with it. So it is like wealth: more a means than an end.


 Listen to a recording of this event’s arguments and critiques on the Thomistic Institute’s SoundCloud.


What about the physical good of the body? Will the perfect diet and exercise routine finally make me happy? No, for if that were the case people would be content simply with being healthy and no healthy person would be unhappy. This is clearly not the case. What about pleasure as the source of happiness? Ah, pleasure! Now that seems like a good candidate. Pleasures make us happy. Yes, but here Aquinas qualifies. Pleasures of the senses give temporary joy and rest to our sensate animal life, our felt psychology, you might say. But human beings also aspire to other forms of goods that are not simply sensible: friendship, love and appreciation, justice, and also truth, authentic perspective on the meaning of things, artistic skill, and practical wisdom. So reducing all of that down to sensate pleasures is not just un-reasonable; it’s impossible.


This means we are getting close–true happiness consists in the stable possession of various forms of authentic goods, like those just listed: true friendship, a life of personal love, justice etc. This is a life of virtue, toward which the health of the body and the pleasures of senses can oriented, as when parents nourish their children (as one animal to another) but do so motivated by personal love as well as a sense of justice. Notice what we need to make appeals to happiness: a certain intensity of human flourishing and a certain stability of possession, and to have an authentic good and have it in a lasting way. But what such higher good or goods can we pursue virtuously that really provide us with genuine lasting happiness, a happiness that will really satiate our desires, so that we are not subject to misery? Friendship? Marriage? Career? Children? Aquinas says: No, none of these really grants us either sufficient intensity of fulfillment or perennial possession, that is to say stable freedom from systemic disenchantment. He even concludes that no created good really suffices in the end. And this is very good news.


The reason has to do with the positive side of Aquinas’ argument. The human animal is different from the other animals because we have a spiritual intellect. That is to say, we are open to the universal horizon of being, to all that exists. Likewise we are also capable of loving all that is exists insofar as it is in some way good. This argument has several steps but basically Aquinas argues that if we are able to know and love all finite being, this is because on a deeper level we are open intellectually not only to what is finite but also the transcendent and infinite, God the author of all that exists. God is the perfectly intensive infinite good, and since we are structurally capax dei, or capable of God, we are likewise structurally incapable of ever being fully satisfied by the finite good.


To conclude we might note a final objection: I cannot cross the abyss that stands between me and the unsolvable enigma of God, if God exists. Given this fact, the desire for God is a pointless want. Smart people confine themselves to the humble cell of agnosticism. To which the follower of Christ responds: No, that is not true. The human being can come to know God by grace, and in grace, can come to recognize true happiness, or the invitation to true happiness, which begins in friendship with God, the love of God poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit. The contemplative discovery of God is the beginning of true peace that gives genuine rest to the soul. That is a religious answer to a philosophical question. But of course, if human beings cannot achieve their true happiness without God, then the religious answer is precisely what is needed.


“If we were irrational animals, we should desire nothing beyond the proper arrangement of the parts of the body and the satisfaction of the appetites,— nothing, therefore, but bodily comfort and [a right measure] of pleasures, that the peace of the body might contribute to the peace of the soul.…Animals, by shunning pain, show that they love bodily peace, and…their shrinking from death is a sufficient indication of their intense love of that peace which binds soul and body in close alliance. But, as man has a rational soul, he subordinates all this which he has in common with the beasts to the peace of his rational soul, that his intellect may have free play and may regulate his actions, and that he may thus enjoy the well-ordered harmony of knowledge and action which constitutes, as we have said, the peace of the rational soul. And for this purpose he must desire to be neither molested by pain, nor disturbed by desire, nor extinguished by death, that he may arrive at some useful knowledge by which he may regulate his life and manners. But, owing to the liability of the human mind to fall into mistakes, this very pursuit of knowledge may be a snare to him unless he has a divine Master, whom he may obey without misgiving, and who may at the same time give him such help as to preserve his own freedom. And because, so long as he is in this mortal body, he is a stranger to God, he walks by faith, not by sight; and he therefore refers all peace, bodily or spiritual or both, to that peace which mortal man has with the immortal God, so that he exhibits the well-ordered obedience of faith to eternal law.” Augustine, City of God, XIX, c. 14.

“But, in that final peace to which all our righteousness has reference, and for the sake of which it is maintained, as our nature shall enjoy a sound immortality and incorruption, and shall have no more vices, and as we shall experience no resistance either from ourselves or from others, it will not be necessary that reason should rule vices which no longer exist, but God shall rule the man, and the soul shall rule the body, with a sweetness and facility suitable to the felicity of a life which is done with bondage. And this condition shall there be eternal, and we shall be assured of its eternity; and thus the peace of this blessedness and the blessedness of this peace shall be the supreme good.” Augustine, City of God, XIX, c. 27


210: The last act is tragic, however happy all the rest of the play is; at the last a little earth is thrown upon our head, and that is the end for ever.

257: There are only three kinds of persons; those who serve God, having found Him; others who are occupied in seeking Him, not having found Him; while the remainder live without seeking Him, and without having found Him. The first are reasonable and happy, the last are foolish and unhappy; those between are unhappy and reasonable.

438: If man is not made for God, why is he only happy in God? If man is made for God, why is he so opposed to God?

540: None is so happy as a true Christian, nor so reasonable, virtuous, or amiable.

785: Jesus Christ is an obscurity (according to what the world calls obscurity), such that historians, writing only of important matters of states, have hardly noticed Him.

Pascal, Pensees

Here is a place of disaffection
Time before and time after
In a dim light: neither daylight
Investing form with lucid stillness
Turning shadow into transient beauty
With slow rotation suggesting permanence
Nor darkness to purify the soul
Emptying the sensual with deprivation
Cleansing affection from the temporal.
Neither plentitude nor vacancy. Only a flicker
Over the strained time-ridden faces
Distracted from distraction by distraction
Filled with fancies and empty of meaning
Tumid apathy with no concentration
Men and bits of paper, whirled by the cold wind
That blows before and after time,
Wind in and out of unwholesome lungs
Time before and time after.
Eructation of unhealthy souls
Into the faded air, the torpid
Driven on the wind that sweeps the gloomy hills of London,
Hampstead and Clerkenwell, Campden and Putney,
Highgate, Primrose and Ludgate. Not here
Not here the darkness, in this twittering world.

From T.S. Eliot, Burnt Norton

Fr. Thomas Joseph White is Associate Professor of Systematic Theology, Pontifical Faculty of the Immaculate Conception at the Dominican House of Studies, and Scholar with Virtue, Happiness, & the Meaning of Life.

On Truth and the Foundational Role of Precepts

Fresco Saint Thomas Aquinas
Fresco Saint Thomas Aquinas


(repeated for context, from yesterday’s Part 1 of this 2-part series)

The birth of the “new natural law theory”—whose two primary exponents are Germain Grisez and John Finnis—can be dated with some plausibility to 1965, the year in which Grisez’s article on the first principle of practical reason appeared in the journal then called Natural Law Forum. Over these fifty plus years, these two scholars have associated the theory with the thought of the Angelic Doctor with varying degrees of insistence. The article just mentioned calls itself a commentary on the relevant article in the Summa Theologiae of Thomas Aquinasand the first two—and most theoretical—volumes of Grisez’s now three-volume work The Way of the Lord Jesus both contain separate indexes to the works of St. Thomas, the first with over 650 entries. Finnis has published fairly recently a substantial volume entitled Aquinas: Moral, political, and legal theory, and the longest entry in the index of his more recent Collected Essays is dedicated to Aquinas. (Coming in at a close second is Aristotle, and this pair leave the rest of the field far behind.)


But, although certainly neither Grisez nor Finnis would ever reject out of hand a thesis proposed by Aquinas, they have both quite candidly declined to follow him in some important—even central—regards. Grisez, for instance, is critical of Thomas’s way of conceiving man’s ultimate end and Finnis maintains that “Aquinas’ efforts to follow Aristotle in classifying types of justice—its species, parts, and associated forms—yield no really clear and stable analytical pattern.”


Given, then, this situation, the present excerpt from a longer essay delivered at the Symposium Thomisticum in Paris, June 2016, does not address directly the question whether the new natural law theory as a whole is genuinely Thomistic: both Grisez and Finnis would be happy to acknowledge that, in certain regards, they depart from Thomas’s teaching. It considers rather specific interpretations of Thomas by Grisez and/or Finnis which the present author believes are mistaken. Showing that these interpretations are not consistent with Thomas’s thought is to present strong evidence that the new natural law theory ought not to be considered Thomistic. Here in this excerpt I briefly consider article 7 of question 64 of the secunda secundae, about “whether it is licit for someone to kill someone in self-defense.”


 On Truth and the Foundational Role of Precepts

(Part 2 of 2)

But, importantly for our larger argument, what makes the species of act identified as ‘telling the truth about oneself itself’—but not every act in that species—a good thing to do is its correspondence to the moral precept enjoining telling the truth (which is founded upon the natural inclination to tell the truth). As Thomas says in ST 2-2.64.7—quite nearly quoting ST 1-2.94.2—what makes the species ‘defending oneself’ (but not every act in that species) good is the fact that “it is natural to whatever thing to conserve itself in being as far as possible.” By virtue of this inclination, says Thomas in ST 1-2.94.2, “those things by which the life of a man is conserved and the contrary impeded pertain to the natural law.”


The rest of ST 2-2.64.7c follows this same pattern of citing precepts of the law in order to justify the theses put forward. For instance, as mentioned above, after his initial remarks about what gives species to acts of personal self-defense, Thomas says that even some acts of that species are illicit, for instance, when the agent uses more violence than is appropriate. Thomas then says that, if the self-defender “should repel a force moderately, the defense will be lawful, for, according to law, it is licit ‘to repel force by force,” provided it is “with the moderation of blameless self-protection.'” These latter two phrases—vim vi repellere and cum moderamine inculpatae tutelae—are both taken from a canon in Gregory IX’s Decretalium Collectiones.3 Thomas would not have maintained that this canon, qua canon in the Decretals, belonged to the natural law; but he would certainly have regarded it as consistent with the natural law, which itself (following Augustine) he recognized as consistent with the eternal law.


Thomas also finds support for his position regarding “the soldier fighting against foes” and “the minister of a judge fighting against a thief” in law: that is, in precepts. In the section of ST 2-2.64.7c where these officials are mentioned, he does not indicate this legal basis, but only because he has indicated it just previously, in ST 2-2.64.3, where he quotes in this regard a passage attributed to Augustine which found its way into a canon in the Decretum of Gratian.


The foundational role of precepts is also apparent in the objections and responses of ST 2-2.64.7. One example will suffice to make the point. The first objection quotes a letter by Augustine, although Thomas is apparently taking the quotation (again) from the Gratian’s Decretum, for it begins where the canon in Gratian begins, which is not the beginning of the letter. The objection cites the beginning of the canon in favor of its position that it is illicit for anyone to kill in self-defense. Writes Augustine:


Regarding the killing of men lest someone be killed by them, the suggestion that it is licit does not sit well with me, unless perhaps the person is a soldier or obliged by virtue of a public function, so that he would not do this on his own behalf but for others or for the city in which he finds himself, having acquired the proper authority, if it accords with his person.


The objection uses the canon in order to argue not just that personal but also that public self- defense is immoral, finding particular weight in Augustine’s point that even one who has the proper authority cannot kill “on his own behalf” [pro se].


In his response, Thomas ignores the suggestion that Augustine’s words might be used in favor of the thesis that even public killing in self-defense is immoral. He says simply: “the authority of Augustine is to be understood as applying to that case in which someone intends to kill a man in order to free himself from death” [ut seipsum a morte liberet] (as when a man plans to kill his neighbor because he fears that in the future he may be killed by him). He might have added that a person killing in self-defense on behalf of the public good and with public authority is (per se) not doing so in order to free himself from possible death. But he does not go into this: he simply explains how the relevant law (deriving its authority from Augustine) is to be understood.


Thomas, of course, does not believe that every law proposed by human legislators or by custom is good law. He holds to Augustine’s adage that an unjust law is no law at all. Good human law is law that is consistent with the natural law and with eternal law. But determining what is consistent with natural and eternal law is not—or not simply—a matter of considering the goods that human beings pursue; and determining what is an act in accordance with natural and eternal law is not—or not solely—a matter of considering what an agent intends in performing an act. One comes to understand what is good law by immersing oneself or being immersed, preferably from youth onwards, in a healthy moral culture, and assimilating—not uncritically—its laws and customs by performing actions in accordance with them. If one is a scholar, even a pale imitation of Thomas Aquinas, one will want to study the legal tradition and (especially) its sounder interpreters in order to be able to recognize instinctively what is consistent with the higher law and to reject what is inconsistent.


1Modern editions of the Summa theologiae direct readers to ST 2-2.43.3 and 1-2.72.1.

2John Finnis, Germain Grisez, and Joseph Boyle, “‘Direct and ‘indirect’: A reply to critics of our action theory,” Thomist 65 (2001): 18-19. They also say in the same place that “it is not surprising to find Aquinas [in ST 2-2.64.7] framing his solution to that problem in terms of ‘intention’ rather than ‘object.'”

3Aemilius Ludovicus Richter and Aemilius Friedberg, edd, Decretalium Collectiones, vol. 2 of Corpus Iuris Canonici (Leipzig: B. Tauchnitz, 1881), Decretal. Gregor. (col.800-801).

Rev. Kevin Flannery , S.J., is Professor of the History of Ancient Philosophy, Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome, and Scholar with Virtue, Happiness, & the Meaning of Life.