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date: 20 August 2019

Turning to Aquinas on Virtue

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter provides a sketch of Aquinas’s understanding of the nature of virtue and its role in human life, stressing some of the advantages Aquinas's account has over Aristotle’s and touching on such matters as the distinction between acquired and infused virtues, the essentially corrective character of virtue on Aquinas’s account, and some ways in which his undeniably theological account might nevertheless be useful for non-theistic moral philosophers. The chapter favors a reading of Aquinas on human nature emphasizing the sense in which humans are meant to pursue good and avoid bad reasonably, even though we are rarely entirely well governed in this sense. In different ways, both acquired and infused virtue help human beings to order themselves and their lives, enabling smoother, wiser, and less fraught lives.

Keywords: Aquinas, Aristotle, infused virtue, postlapsarian, reason, guise of the good, human powers, practical wisdom, cardinal virtues, secondary virtues

I. Introductory

Thomas Aquinas took much of the direction of his work on virtue from his understanding of Aristotle, but Aquinas had some challenges (or advantages) that Aristotle did not.1 Aquinas had Augustine as an important predecessor, and in Augustine we confront an extraordinary thinker who was already intellectually and psychologically mature before the conversion experience that altered his understanding of good and bad in human life fairly dramatically. Although Aquinas recognizes the importance of childhood moral education, he can’t hold that our characters are going to be pretty well set for us by the time we are young adults, partly because conversion experiences remain a possibility for us. But Aquinas’s divergence from Aristotle on thought about when character is fully developed also stems from his sense that, quite apart from dramatic turning points, character development is an ongoing process for us: our very nature is such that even an adult human being with a full complement of acquired virtue is likely to err sometimes, and likely to have reason to regret some things she did or failed to do, said or failed to say, and thought or failed to think. The business of cultivating good character was, in Aquinas’s view, ongoing and never entirely completed in an individual human lifetime. Finally, Aquinas recognized some God-given virtues, and there is no reason to suppose that God will time His gifts to line up with stages of life familiar from various literatures on moral development. In other ways besides these, Aquinas was painting on a broader canvas than Aristotle’s. The cast of variously morally exemplary figures available to Aquinas included a great many saints who were neither especially privileged nor especially intellectually inclined. In all of these respects, Aquinas’s understanding of virtue comes closer to some aspects of contemporary understandings of the challenge of the ethical than did Aristotle’s.

(p. 225) Aquinas’s work on virtue is of a piece with his theology, and this is part of the reason that he has received less attention than Aristotle from those studying virtue outside the confines of specifically Christian intellectual work. But Aquinas’s understanding of what a virtue is and what a virtue does is helpful even if we do not share his faith, and his work on the nature and structure of the virtues takes us beyond what we have in Aristotle, even though Aristotle’s work provides much of the material from which Aquinas develops his understanding.2

As a starting point for considering Aquinas’s approach to virtue, consider the phrase “darkened intellect, disturbed passions, and disordered will”3 as a description of how things are for human beings generally. For some, the phrase has theological significance and points to the fall from grace. For others who occasionally read the newspaper, watch television, or lament things that family members, friends, neighbors, civic leaders, or other people do, the phrase may be no more than a concise description of our lot.

It is often hard for us to direct our energies toward long-term, lasting good when doing so would prevent us from pursuing more immediate gains, or toward the common good when that looks to be at odds with private advantage. This is a way of summarizing the trouble not just when we lie, cheat, steal, or commit acts like murder, rape, fraud, or torture (on however grand a scale), but also in the thousand small occasions when we are impatient, selfish, moody, dishonest, ungenerous, or foolish. Don’t focus on the breathtaking commonality of bad judgment, bad responses, bad habits, and bad deeds. Focus instead on the extraordinary fact that perfectly ordinary people know better. We may not put this knowledge to good use. We may not seek to improve our own characters and actions. But we know better. And because we know better, we also know to be struck by our fellows’ patience, kindness, justice, honesty, and courage. Given that one can notice the descriptive accuracy of the phrase “darkened intellect, disturbed passions, and disordered will” without adverting to revealed knowledge about God’s acts, the fact that we know better should be striking.

It could be objected that this is a merely conceptual point. The phrase is about privation. It is not possible to understand privation without trying to frame some account of the good that is blocked, impeded, or otherwise made less by privation. Perhaps people just pick up on the implicit contrast. That could be. Picking up on the implicit contrast could even be how we know what to criticize in others and ourselves. Anyone who has deployed such material self-critically will understand the peculiar form of apparently self-generated humility that comes of vivid appreciation of her or his own failings.

The obvious way to make sense of this experience is to suppose that we are not utterly benighted. Some spark, some bright corner carries an understanding of the way in which we are, frankly, a mess by carrying some sense of what things might be if we were well ordered. Assuming, as seems plausible, that none of us has much experience with an entirely well-governed human being, we should be at least as struck by the fact that we know better as we are by the fact that we fall short. For Aquinas, cultivation of virtue helps to remedy disorder in our lives, and even though very few of us will develop harmonious reasonable practical orientations directed at good with or without discipline and training, Aquinas, like Aristotle, takes it that we are nevertheless drawn that way. (p. 226) Fundamentally, we seek to pursue good and avoid bad,4 which is why we have it in us to work to improve ourselves in the first place.

II. Before and After

For Aquinas, human nature as we know it is fallen nature—we are, he thinks, operating at a loss. Aquinas thought that original sin deprived humankind of original justice (as he says, over and over again).5

How did things stand for us before the fall, according to Aquinas?

Eileen Sweeney puts it this way: “What is strange about Aquinas’s view is that a purely ‘natural state’ of humankind has strictly speaking never existed; before the fall nature had a kind of supernatural strength, and after that, nature is somewhat, though not radically, depleted.”6

The “supernatural strength” in original justice was a matter of orientation and governance: the human’s higher powers were subject to God, the lower powers to the higher powers, and the body to the soul.7 In the prelapsarian condition, perfect rectitude of the will was possible. In the prelapsarian condition, humans could act on their innate love of God without impeding themselves. This is the sense in which the gift of original justice perfects human nature: it places our powers in proper order, given the kind of creatures we are.

Now, if we are committed to working on virtue without adverting to any tendentious religious views, it may seem that we should ignore work on fallen human nature—we do not think that there was any prior state of grace from which we fell. We do not think that being able to act from love of God without impediment constitutes the appropriate condition for a human being. Leaving God to the side, however, we could notice that, as far as we know, humans are the most powerful and psychologically complex animals—animals capable of so altering the world in which they find themselves that they change the climate, of finding themselves volitionally and emotionally frozen in the face of a thought, or filled with joy or sorrow or fear over a movie, a story, a song, or the view. Why wouldn’t such organisms find self-governance and an overall orderly, positive practical direction hard to achieve, quite apart from the vicissitudes of fortune?

In Aquinas’s view, order is what was lost to the species at its ancestral source through original sin. It seems plausible to suggest that, apart from revelation, there is no reason to think that perfect order was ever our ordinary condition.

If we find ourselves with a darkened intellect, disturbed passions, and a disordered will, our powers are not properly arranged or aligned. Now, it could be argued that inordinate inclinations or passions cloud the intellect seriously enough to pervert judgment, and so make the intellect dark. Those clouds are the source of the darkness. Perhaps this is what disorders the will. There are passages in Aquinas that suggest this, and certainly a lot of the symptoms that point to the disarray at issue in the phrase look to involve (p. 227) excessive or deficient passions or inclinations. I will urge a slightly different interpretation of Aquinas’s map of where we land after the fall.

The interpretation is fairly simple—what is lost is original justice; original justice is an ordering of mentality and will that allows us to direct ourselves to good appropriately; the darkening of the intellect consists in our finding ourselves in a situation where intellect is no longer directed to good, the lower powers are no longer subject to intellect, and the body is no longer subject to the mind. Just as the first is the most important in original justice, its loss is the most important loss incurred through original sin. Perception, emotion, inclination, passion, and volition no longer effectively operate in and from practical wisdom. Because of this, the passions are disturbed. Although it is most common to emphasize the ramifications of the loss of original justice in terms of the loss of the downward subjections—intellect to good, lower powers to higher powers, body to soul—one could just as easily emphasize the upward inclination toward good that is impeded by the loss of original justice. Impediment, notice, is not the same as obliteration.8 The corrective supplied by virtues like temperance, fortitude, justice, and prudence (practical wisdom) is meant to address the loss of the kind of governance proper to our natures, given the kind of creatures that we are, and to begin to reintegrate our powers—or at least to foster cooperation among them—in a way that helps to rectify the will. In effect, for our kind of intellect—the sort that an animal can embody—and for our kind of animal—the sort endowed with intellect as such oriented to the highest good possible for us—the darkening of the intellect is the loss of the order in inclination and governance that helps us to direct ourselves to the goods it belongs to us to pursue.

III. Higher and Lower Creatures

According to Aquinas, the complexity of human nature as we know it is such that we share some tendencies with other animals and other tendencies with angels. Aquinas, for example, quotes Gregory with approval: “man senses in common with the brutes, and understands with the angels.”9 But in trying to get a grip on this and many other passages, it is tremendously important to pin down what is supposed to be shared across diverse kinds of creatures, and how. And here, I think, the fact that Aquinas recognizes more than one kind of cognition is a tremendous philosophical advantage.

Now, most contemporary philosophers use the terms reason and rational to cover many aspects of specifically and distinctively human mentality. That is, the term covers at least the whole of what gets translated as reason, understanding, and intellect in Aquinas. The standard philosophical view has it that many species of animals have fundamentally similar powers of sense and appetite, but that humans have an extra power—reason—that is, as it were, added onto the animal to give us the human.10 Many of us nowadays reject this thought because we think that it is a mistake to treat reason as though it were, in Matthew Boyle’s phrase, an “add on.” Boyle distinguishes what he calls “additive” accounts of reason from “transformative” accounts. He writes,

(p. 228)

The crucial difference between additive and transformative theorists is not that additive theorists admit, whereas transformative theorists deny, that the minds of rational and nonrational creatures have something in common …. Additive theorists advocate a certain way of understanding what we have in common with nonrational animals: they hold that there must be a distinguishable factor in rational powers of perception and action which is of the very same kind as the factor which wholly constitutes merely animal powers of perception and action. Transformative theorists, by contrast, locate the similarity between rational and nonrational mentality in a different sort of explanatory structure. They hold that rational mentality and nonrational mentality are different species of the genus of animal mentality. What the two “have in common,” on this view, is not a separable factor that is present in both, but a generic structure that is realized in fundamentally different ways in the two cases. Rational and nonrational animals do not share in the sensory and conative powers of nonrational animals; they share in the sensory and conative powers of animals, where this is a generic category of power that admits of two fundamentally different sorts of realization.11

This is a very different understanding of the way in which we “sense with the brutes” from the way that holds that the cats and humans who live in my apartment have the same animal mentality, but that the humans have reason added on top of this in some way that accounts for the difference between ordering a burger at the restaurant and meowing when hungry.

There are passages in Aquinas that look to be amenable to an “additive” interpretation of Aquinas’s account of human mentality. But crucial passages resist this reading. Some of the clearest are in Aquinas’s discussion of why Christ was a human being but not a human person. Aquinas writes,

[F]rom the union of the soul and the body in Christ a new hypostasis or person does not result, but what is composed of them is united to the already existing hypostasis or Person. Nor does it therefore follow that the union of the soul and body in Christ is of less effect than in us, for its union with something nobler does not lessen but increases its virtue and worth; just as the sensitive soul in animals constitutes the species, as being considered the ultimate form, yet it does not do so in man, although it is of greater effect and dignity, and this because of its union with a further and nobler perfection, viz. the rational soul ….12

And when Aquinas discusses, for example, the powers of the soul, it is fairly clear that his focus is on what Boyle calls “generic categories” that admit of fundamentally different kinds of realization. Consider, for example, the varieties of realization at issue in inclination or tendency or appetite for Aquinas. Even if, as Anthony Kenny recommends,13 we confine our attention to Aquinas’s thought about living things and reject the Aristotelian metaphysics that gives us fire tending toward heaven and stones tending toward earth—and it is not clear to me that any account of movement or change involving middle-sized physical objects can dispense with tendencies, even if we recognize different tendencies than Aristotle did—Aquinas seems to have what Boyle calls general (p. 229) categories of processes in view, and to be alive to radical differences in the ways these are realized in different kinds of creatures.

Aquinas even has the material necessary to hold that reason (as contemporary philosophers use the term) is also a category that admits of what Boyle calls “fundamentally different sorts of realization.” Angelic intellect, for example, is fundamentally different from human intellect in Aquinas,14 and Aquinas allows for varieties of nonhuman animal reason as well.15 Angels may be the only nonhuman creatures endowed with what Aquinas calls intellect, and are certainly the only nonhuman creatures he credits with free will, but they are not the only cognitively complex nonhuman creatures.

It is not that our somehow nonhuman modes of appetite and sense took the reins through original sin, and so clouded the clean, cool operations of our distinctively human reason. I may become ferocious over some things, but my fury is human fury, not the ferocity of a mother bear protecting her cubs. On the transformative interpretation, if I am by turns cowardly and foolishly bold, I am experiencing and acting from specifically human cowardice and specifically human rashness. Notice that what counts as cowardly in one of us may have no counterpart among other animals. Consider: adult human beings can make themselves sick with worry over the prospect of hurting someone’s feelings, or can convince themselves that the need to avoid such a calamity is reason enough to tell lies. Even if other kinds of animals sometimes deliberately mislead, it is hard to imagine a nonhuman animal doing so for fear of hurting someone’s feelings.

I have focused on inordinate irascibility. The same holds true, I think, for inordinate concupiscence. Narrowly, on the best account I can see of it, and the one frequently at work in Aquinas, concupiscence concerns the appetite for delight as such, with special emphasis on sensual delight. It helps to remember that temperance is supposed to moderate sense appetite, not obliterate it, just as fortitude is supposed to moderate irascibility rather than destroy it. Aquinas takes it that there cannot be such a thing as a natural inclination toward good or away from bad that is somehow inherently wicked. Concupiscence and irascibility are inclinations toward good, away from or against bad (especially sensible good and bad, but on a transformative interpretation, these will be inflected by reason, even if they are not obedient to reason).

On the transformative interpretation, the force of inordinate in discussions of passions and actions is disorderly, given the kind of creatures that we are. The point of calling some aspects of our nature “higher” and others “lower,” on the transformative interpretation, is to signal that some aspects of our nature are supposed to at once regulate and attract other aspects. So, for us, qua intellectual creatures, the practical requirement to pursue good and avoid bad points to the need to direct ourselves toward what will perfect creatures of our kind, as best we can understand that. Like all organisms, we need to maintain ourselves and to reproduce; like all mammals, we need to care for our offspring (appropriately regulated human desire ought to direct us toward what conduces to these things, and turn us away from or against what blocks or impedes them). As human beings, we need the society of our fellow human beings (again, reason and desire suitably directed by justice ought to enable us to enjoy well-ordered human society). As intellectual creatures, we need what reason shows us is the highest good, and (p. 230) this need is meant to help us regulate, order, and coordinate our activities and pursuits. It is not a separate need that sits off at a distance from the others. All of these needs are the needs of imperfect beings for what will complete or perfect them. What will complete or perfect any imperfect being just is what will complete or perfect a being of its kind. The striving toward perfection is not obliterated by original sin. What is lost is, instead, original justice as the condition in which the human’s longing for its own fulfillment and completion governed the whole of its operations. The unity of the virtues, on this view, follows straightforwardly from the qualities needed to unify and order human life in pursuit of good.

On the transformative reading of Aquinas, the job of the virtues is to foster cooperation of the specifically human being’s higher and lower powers in an overall pursuit of specifically human good, and so offer a partial correction for our disordered mentality, will, and acts. Seven virtues are the most important for Aquinas—four cardinal virtues (practical wisdom/prudence, justice, temperance, and courage), together with three theological virtues (faith, hope, and charity). For non-theist neo-Aristotelian virtue theorists, the cardinal virtues will be the more interesting.

IV. Cardinal Virtues

Aquinas offers an account of four acquired virtues as the principal virtues: practical wisdom/prudence,16 justice,17 courage,18 and temperance.19 Aquinas spells out in some detail why these are cardinal virtues and how we need all of them to act well without impeding ourselves.

Following Aristotle broadly, Aquinas takes it that a virtue brings the full and appropriate actualization of a human power—one that allows for both the upward inclination of passions and appetite toward reason and the downward governance of passion and appetite by reason actualized in overall pursuit of the good. Michael Pakaluk puts the point this way:

A virtue is a trait that … makes someone such that his activity—what he does, what he is responsible for—is reasonable. But there are four basic types of such activity: his thinking itself, as practical and directed at action; his actions ordinarily so-called … ; and how he is affected. This last category splits into two, Aquinas thinks, on the grounds that acting reasonably in the realm of the passions involves regulating both the passions by which we are drawn to something and the passions by which we are repulsed from something. These two sorts of passions imply two sorts of tasks or achievements … which the ordinary distinction between the virtues of temperance and courage confirms (ST I-2.61.2 resp.).20

Aquinas’s account of virtue relies heavily on these points from Aristotle. Aristotle’s work is broadly consistent with treating practical wisdom (“prudence” in Aquinas’s terminology) as the virtue responsible for sound practical thinking and judgment—it is a virtue (p. 231) of the intellect directed to the will. Justice (for Aquinas) is a virtue of the will directed at extra-mental actions—primarily those that concern giving each his due.21 Jean Porter underscores this point and urges taking its full generality seriously:

As a virtue of the will, justice is the only cardinal virtue which directly concerns the distinctively human capacity for rational desire. Moreover, it is the cardinal virtue directly concerned with external actions, and as such, it includes most of the norms of nonmaleficence and respect for others ….22

As Pakuluk noted, temperance and courage are virtues of passions: temperance renders attractions to desirable things reasonable, and courage is charged with reasonable aversion—principally, with controlling our fear so that we can be appropriately steadfast. Crudely, then, prudence corrects for darkened intellect in the practical sphere, temperance and courage for disturbed passions, and justice for a disordered will. Aquinas thinks that he takes from Aristotle an understanding of practical wisdom, justice, temperance, and courage as the four cardinal, principal virtues, all of which must be cultivated if one is to lead a good human life.23

V. Secondary Virtue

Now, contemporary virtue theorists recognize many virtues that played no part in Aristotle’s work—hope, for example, and humility and gratitude. For Aquinas, hope as a virtue belongs among those strengths of character that are divinely infused. Accordingly, I will leave hope to the side for the moment. Humility and gratitude, however, can count as acquired secondary virtues in Aquinas. Secondary virtues are annexed to cardinal virtues to fortify and assist the operation of the cardinal virtues. For example, at the most general level of description, justice renders external actions (actions that are not merely mental actions) reasonable, especially as these concern giving others their due. A secondary virtue like gratitude disposes me to be alert to what I owe to others, and so helps to focus justice in practice by highlighting a distinctive aspect in which I owe things to others—I owe some recognition of what they have done for me quite apart from the kinds of owing familiar from promises and contracts. In this sense, cultivating gratitude helps to strengthen and focus one aspect of justice in me, by making others’ work on my behalf salient for me, and so helping me to cultivate a broader and more nuanced understanding of their due. All acquired virtues—cardinal and secondary—have their source in our efforts to build good character, their object in the proper order of human mentality and action, and their end is a good individual human life, and any quality that counts as a virtue (acquired or infused) counts because it tends to perfect our powers (where perfecting a power is a matter of strengthening it in a way that allows it to work in coordination with other powers toward our good). For Aquinas, all of the acquired virtues (cardinal and secondary) enable their bearer to participate effectively and appropriately (p. 232) in pursuit of common good. This is how Aquinas takes up Aristotle’s point that acquired virtues are political.24

Unsurprisingly, Aquinas treats gratitude as properly annexed to justice.25 The virtue that we name humility involves aspects of justice that Aquinas treats under the headings of religion, piety, and respectfulness for those in authority.26 Again, humility helps to direct my sense of what others are due by informing my relationship to my religious community, to God, and to those who have legitimate authority over me, imbuing my understanding of plain duties of obedience with a sense of my proper strengths and limitations in these spheres, and of what I owe to those who give me a place to work, a way to engage in a community of worship and the very stuff of that worship, and, most generally, the natural and supernatural good that may be possible for me. All of these belong to the virtue that directs me to give others their due. But the secondary virtues help to focus, specify, and direct distinctive aspects of my character as it directs me to give others their due, partly by helping me to develop a more fine-grained understanding of the kinds of things that I owe to others and by helping me develop the habits and emotional responses that enable me to honor these things in practice.

As is true for hope in Aquinas, and for any acquired virtue on his scheme, gratitude and humility also may be treated as virtues that go beyond anything we can conjure on our own through discipline and training, and beyond a strength directed at a good life for an individual human being. They may be treated as virtues whose object and aims involve goods beyond temporal happiness. Such are the infused virtues in Aquinas. Hope is an infused virtue for Aquinas—a gift from God, with God as its object and source and with beatitude as its end.27

All of the acquired cardinal virtues have infused counterparts in Aquinas’s scheme. This aspect of Aquinas’s thought has been the subject of tremendous controversy, even among scholars friendly to Aquinas’s work in general.28 I agree with those who argue that infused virtues are indispensable for Aquinas. Given the object, source, and end of infused virtues, non-theist moral philosophy cannot simply adopt Aquinas’s work on the topic.

VI. Infused Virtue

Aquinas has several ways of distinguishing between habits that tend to foster coordination of our powers in pursuit of human good. He notices isolated dispositions to good actions that need not be connected with other such dispositions—good qualities that are not connected in the way that proper virtues are. Think here of the difference between strength-training regimes that result in especially powerful targeted muscle groups without tending to produce overall bodily health and strength. Isolated dispositions to good action are like bulging biceps in an otherwise weak body. Proper virtues, however, are connected in ways that tend to overall strength of character, that is, to coordinated and cooperative powers working harmoniously to guide our pursuit of human (p. 233) good.29 Acquired moral virtues are governed by, and inclined to be governed by, prudence/practical wisdom. Virtuous dispositions in this sort of case work together—they are connected and coordinated, jointly equipping us for reasonable pursuit of temporal good. Infused virtues, on the other hand, order mentality, will, and actions to supernatural good—to beatific union with God in a resurrected life, to totious vitae (eternal life in union with God).

Isolated good habits are imperfect virtues on this scheme. Coordinated, unified good habits governed by prudence/practical wisdom are proper, acquired virtues, and acquired virtues equip us to act from and in accordance with appropriate standards governing reasonable pursuit of temporal good under the circumstances we face, in light of the particular skills and such that we bring to the challenge of leading good lives. Aquinas further distinguished acquired from infused virtue by pointing to the different rules governing human action at issue in the operations of the two sorts of virtue. Angela McKay (Knobel) puts the point this way:

Whereas Aquinas’s first distinction has to do with whether or not a virtue brings man into conformity with a rule, his second concerns with which standard of action the virtue brings man into conformity. Virtue can either bring man into conformity with the rule of action “homogenea et propria homini”—namely, into conformity with right reason—or it can bring man into conformity with a higher rule, “prima mensura transcendens, quod est Deus.” The two “rules” correspond to the distinction between infused and acquired virtue. Aquinas consistently bases the distinction between infused and acquired virtue on the fact that man needs different virtues insofar as he is brought into conformity with different “rules” or standards of action …. The virtues that perfect man in a manner commensurate with his created nature are acquired virtues, while those that bring man into conformity with the “prima mensura transcendens quod est Deus” must be infused by God. Only the latter, Aquinas states, are virtues simpliciter perfectae. The former are perfect only in a sense, insofar as they bring man into conformity with the good commensurate to his nature.30

Some scholars hold that Aquinas has, as Denis Bradley put it, a twofold understanding of human good.31 There is the good at issue in the non-accidentally sound production and reproduction of human social life—the good at issue in acquired virtue. Then there is the good made possible by grace through salvation—the eternal good of union with God in a resurrected life. Through the joint operation of acquired and infused virtue, the acquired virtues are, as it were, elevated by contributing to directing individuals to temporal good while keeping eyes fixed on the highest good possible—only made possible for us by the grace of God. Infused virtues are coordinated by caritas—God’s love. In this sense, caritas unites all of our powers and efforts by orienting them to the highest good there is for human beings.

Caritas is often translated as “charity,” but charity has come to mean something like giving to those in need—a kind of generosity. Caritas is God’s love, and if I am blessed with caritas, I become capable of getting myself far enough out of the way for God’s love (p. 234) to work through me toward others. This could, of course, inspire me to make donations to the Red Cross or volunteer in a soup kitchen, but ordinary benevolence or generosity could do that. Caritas is wider and deeper. In caritas, something of God’s love for his creatures can move through me, creating a situation in which God’s love embraces me and others all at once. For example, there are some kinds of forgiveness that look more like the work of caritas than the products of human restraint and generosity, and a gift of caritas may be what makes it possible for otherwise ordinary human beings to show utter commitment to the lives and well-being of perfect strangers—strangers who are not in any way especially remarkable or attractive, but who have deep need for more than ordinary exercises of compassion, devotion, and love. Although, if you believe in caritas, it is easiest to suspect its workings in these circumstances, the gift of caritas orders all of the other virtues, giving all of them a source in God’s love for creation.

Think back for a moment on the image of human life before the fall when lower powers were subject to (and inclined to be subject to) higher powers, and higher powers were subject to (and inclined to be subject to) God. Caritas restores something of this kind of order and coordination in our intellectual, emotional, volitional, and active lives. Human beings can work to become good vessels for God’s love, but caritas remains entirely gratuitous.

An admittedly inadequate pedestrian example might help here. Consider a man who volunteers a lot of his time working with at-risk children in his community, and suppose that he works from cultivated justice, temperance, courage, and a measure of practical wisdom. He sees the children as his fellow human beings, and has deep convictions about the importance of helping our fellow human beings make their way in the world, especially when they are struggling with very difficult circumstances. And when the children are difficult (as children often are), he draws on a reserve of patience and understanding of the things that can make it hard to work with children in tough circumstances to get him through, even when he knows full well that it is highly unlikely that all of his charges will have good, solid, productive lives, no matter what he does with or for them. Our man’s acquired virtue enables his work.

Suppose, now, that our man is a Christian and not only has a cultivated good character, but divine gifts of faith, hope, and caritas that jointly imbue his good character with transcendent focus and direction. He and the children are fellow creatures. Every human being he meets is a person for whom Jesus died. Through prayer, communal sacramental practices, and the like, he comes to see the children he helps as people given into his care by God, and senses that these are eternal beings—that he owes them not just the kind of respect owed to all human beings as such, but the subtle shift in respect for dignity that comes of an appreciation of the sanctity of human life. His hope for his charges is infused hope, not just a kind of optimism that some of them might beat the odds and have good lives. He seeks guidance in prayer. And, on the whole, even though he may, in some sense, do many of the same things that any virtuous person might do for the children under the circumstances, he sees his work with the children as expressive of his faith and answerable to a very high standard—a standard that none of us could meet without significant help from God. And something of the state of his own soul is at risk (p. 235) in his work with the children—he needs to be especially honest, open to correction, fair, wise, and so on because the work has the character of a vocation.

Given Aquinas’s understanding of the operation, aim, and source of infused virtue, it is difficult to bring Aquinas’s discussion of infused virtue into contact with contemporary non-theistic virtue ethics. I suspect that one aspect of the gratuitous work done for us through infused virtue, however, can find a home in standardly non-theist virtue theory by a kind of rough analogy.

VII. Higher Good

Return, for a moment, to Aquinas on the loss of original justice. In the more-than-merely-natural state of original justice, all the powers characteristic of human nature were well ordered, and this affected all the operations of the thereby integrated human being. I take it that the chief sense in which our intellect is darkened through original sin is just this: original sin impedes the ordering of reason to good. As such, it impedes the coordinated operations of all other aspects of human mentality in the service of genuine good. Infused virtue is a gift from God that takes God as its object and union with God as its end. Put into the terms of what Thomists treat as temporal life—human life as we know it and live it—some virtues are oriented to higher goods—goods that go beyond the flourishing, even the capacities, of an individual human being, goods that are inherently transcendent, although only in terms of temporal good.

In this sense, acquired gratitude will focus on the goods we have as specific benefits given to us, personally, by other people. For example, recent empirical research on gratitude treats gratitude as personal and triadic—I owe some specific benefactor gratitude for a specific benefit intended for me in particular.32 The Thomistic framework covers triadic, personal gratitude as an aspect of acquired justice. But the basic framework will also cover cases in which I am grateful for the opportunities that I enjoy because members of past generations made good possible for my generation. This form of gratitude—transpersonal gratitude—finds cognitive, emotional, motivational, and behavioral expressions in my work on behalf of future generations and my understanding that other people whose names I may never know made possible the good that I enjoy. The Thomistic understanding of justice will explain how transpersonal gratitude contributes to my interest in amplifying and carrying forward the good I enjoy because of others’ struggles.

Nothing I do can transform acquired virtue into infused virtue. In this sense, there is no link between exceptional, transpersonal, and cross-generationally focused acquired gratitude and infused gratitude. But acquired virtue can be enlarged in its scope and deepened at its foundation in such a way that it exceeds the limits of triadic gratitude without thereby losing all focus on the specific detail and texture of human life as I live it. The enlargement mimics in an incomplete and worldly way the kind of breadth and power that come with gifts in infused virtue. Looking for these kinds of admittedly flawed analogies could provide a useful shift in focus for non-theist virtue ethicists, (p. 236) perhaps the only thing a non-theist virtue ethicist could gain from thought about infused virtue in Aquinas.

VIII. By Way of a Conclusion

I began by pointing out that one didn’t need revealed knowledge about God’s acts in order to appreciate the descriptive accuracy of the phrase “darkened intellect, disturbed passions, disordered will” as a reasonable diagnosis of how things are with us. I mentioned that I thought that when we make errors in thought, action, judgment, and response, we very often know better, and that the fact that we somehow know better is at least as interesting as the fact that we fail. In this very brief and rapid tour through some of Aquinas’s work, I have attempted to use a transformative interpretation of Aquinas on intellect as a way to begin to get at the sense in which we know better, even if the many errors that we make are made routinely by most of the other people with whom we interact. Given this picture of temporal human life, Aquinas develops a strongly corrective account of virtue. I think that since even atheistic philosophers can embrace the catchphrase diagnosis of the human condition, and since we understand the whole human person as directed to good, we ought to embrace a corrective account of virtue. One other obvious alternative is to follow Aristotle even more closely than we like and to emphasize that only a handful of exceptionally privileged men can even hope to attain virtue anyway, so widespread disorder is of no great importance. Very few contemporary theorists of virtue are willing to follow Aristotle there.

The monumental task for mainstream neo-Aristotelian ethics will come in giving some account of the nature of the good that is supposed to orient the whole human being, and of how it is that something of this good makes itself felt in beings who find themselves in the kind of mess and muddle that apparently is our lot. It is one thing to point out that we see in ourselves an apparently insatiable appetite for some kind of fulfillment that appears to be forever just out of reach. Nothing is easier than amassing anecdotal evidence for some such point. But it is another thing entirely to give an account of the good at issue that is meant to unify both the person and those specific virtues that help to steady her aim at this good. The challenge of doing so without adverting to divinity is immense.


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(1.) I am grateful to Hank Vogler and Jay Schleusener for discussion of earlier drafts of much of the material in this chapter. Variously altered partial drafts of the chapter were read at the 2015 annual conference of the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues in Oxford, to the Departments of Philosophy at the University of St. Paul and Wheaton College, and at the Metaphysics of Morals Conference at the New York University Catholic Center in winter and spring of 2015. Audiences at those events helped me to shape and revise some of the material in this chapter.

(2.) In what follows, I will make reference to various of Aquinas’s works: Sent: Commentary on the Sentences of Peter Lombard (Scriptum super libros Sentiarum) (1252–1256); SCG: Summa Contra Gentiles (Tractatus de fide catholica, contra Gentiles [contra errors infidelium]) (1261–1263); ST: Summa Theologiae (1265–1273); De Malo (Questiones disputatae de malo) (ca. 1272); SLE: Nicomachean Ethics (Sententia libri Ethicorum) (1271–1272); Exposito in Epist. Ad Roman: Commentary on the Book of Romans (Exposito in s. Pauli Epistolas) (ca. 1273); Compendium Theologiae (Compendium theologiae ad fratrem Reginaldum socium suum carissimum) (ca. 1273).

(3.) The phrase has something of the status of a slogan these days. It may have appeared initially as a distillation of some of the phrases used by St. John of the Cross (1542–1591) to describe the soul’s journey, but St. John of the Cross was likely drawing on turns of phrase already familiar in the early sixteenth century.

(4.) See, for example, Aquinas, Nicomachean Ethics, Book I, lect. 1; and Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, q. 94, a. 2.

(5.) According to M. Grabmann’s chronology (Die Werke des Hl. Thomas von Aquin, 2nd ed. [Beträge zur Geschichte der Philosophie und Theologie des Mittelalters, Band XX, 1–2, (Münster: Aschendorff, 1931)]), the order of the chief texts in support of the view that the fall deprived us of original justice is the following: (1) II Sent., d. 20, q. 2, a. 3; d. 29, q. 1, a. 2; d. 32, q. 1, a. 1, ad 1; (2) IV SCG, c. 52; (3) ST., I, q. 95, a. 1, c and ad 5; q. 100, a. 1, c and ad 2; (4) De Malo, q. 4, a. 2, c and ad 1 and 2 (e tertia serie obi.); q. 5, a. 1; (5) ST I-II, q. 82, a. 3; (6) Expositio in Epist. ad Roman, c. 5, lect. 3; 7) Compendium Theologiae, c. 186, c. 192, and c. 196. See De Letter, “Original Sin, Privation of Original Justice,” Thomist 17 (1954): 469–509, for a strong defense of this claim that Aquinas held that original sin deprives the human being of original justice. Some newer translations of the Summa Theologiae render iustitia originalis as “original righteousness” rather than “original justice.” And, in a move that may have nothing to do with Aquinas, the Catholic Church now teaches that original sin deprives humankind of sanctifying grace. These points may well be connected (“righteousness” sounds like something that belongs to an individual person, and sanctifying grace is a personal gratuity). I will work with the older translation.

(6.) Eileen Sweeney, “Vice and Sin (Ia IIae, qq. 71–89),” in The Ethics of Aquinas, edited by Stephen J. Pope (Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 2002), 158.

(7.) Aquinas, II Sent. d. 20, q. 2, a. 3; IV SCG, c. 52; De Malo, q. 4 & 5; ST I, q. 95, a. 1, q. 100, a. 1; ST I–II, q. 82, a. 3. Aquinas adds a fourth subjection in his commentary on Romans: before the fall, exterior things were subject to humankind such that they served the human and the human was not harmed by them (Expositio in Epist. ad Roman, c. 5, lect. 3).

(8.) I am grateful to Jay Schleusener for pressing me on this point.

(9.) Aquinas, ST I, q. 54, a. 5: Homo sentit cum pecoribus, et intelligit cum angelis.

(10.) Anselm Winfried Müller calls this kind of view “the new dualism.” See Müller, The Concept of a Person in Bioethics,” in Philosophy and Medicine, 2011, Vol. 111, Pt. I: 85–100.

(11.) Boyle, “Additive Theories of Rationality: A Critique,” September 2011 manuscript, 6–7. An earlier draft of the manuscript circulated under the title “Tack-On Theories of Rationality.”

(13.) Kenny, Aquinas on Mind (London: Routledge, 1993), 59–63.

(14.) See, for example, Aquinas, Summa Theologica, qq. 54–58.

(15.) See, for example, the sketch of brute animal judgment and how it differs from human judgment, Aquinas, Summa Theologica, qq. 83.

(16.) See Aquinas, Summa Theologica, qq. 47–56.

(17.) See Aquinas, Summa Theologica, qq. 57–122.

(18.) See Aquinas, Summa Theologica, qq. 123–140.

(19.) See Aquinas, Summa Theologica, qq. 141–170.

(20.) Michael Pakaluk, “Structure and Method in Aquinas’s Appropriation of Aristotelian Ethical Theory,” in Aquinas and the Nicomachean Ethics, edited by Tobias Hoffmann, Jörn Müller, and Matthias Perkams (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), 39.

(21.) As in scholarship on Aristotle’s treatments of justice, scholarship on Aquinas’s attempts to develop Aristotle’s work on justice is deeply divided and controversial. For a good survey of the relevant fields of dispute, see Jeffrey Hause, “Aquinas on Aristotelian Justice: Defender, destroyer, subverter, or surveyor?” in Aquinas and the Nicomachean Ethics, edited by Tobias Hoffmann, Jörn Müller, and Matthias Perkams, editors (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), 146–164.

(22.) Jean Porter, “The Virtue of Justice (IIa IIae, qq. 58-122)” in The Ethics of Aquinas, edited by Stephen Pope (Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 2002), 272.

(23.) For detailed discussion of Aquinas’s reading of Aristotle, see, for example, T. H. Irwin, “Historical Accuracy in Aquinas’s Commentary on the Ethics,” in Tobias Hoffmann, Jörn Müller, and Matthias Perkams, editors, Aquinas and the Nicomachean Ethics, 13–32.

(24.) For an excellent discussion of Aquinas and Aristotle on this point, see Brian J. Shanley, O.P., “Aquinas on Pagan Virtue,” The Thomist 63 (1999): 553–577.

(25.) Aquinas, Summa Theologica, qq. 106–107.

(27.) For an excellent historical discussion of the detail of Aquinas’s categorization of the virtues in terms of their objects, their sources, and their ends, see William C. Mattison III, “Thomas’s Categorizations of Virtue: Historical background and contemporary significance,” The Thomist 74 (2010): 189–235.

(28.) For a good summary of the controversies surrounding discussions of the relation between infused and acquired virtue in Aquinas, see Angela McKay Knobel, “Two Theories of Christian Virtue,” American Catholic Philosophical Quarterly 84(3) (2010): 599–618. See Michael S. Sherwin, “Infused Virtue and the Effects of Acquired Vice,” The Thomist 73 (2009):29–52, for a defense of the claim that Aquinas is importantly committed to the view that there must be infused counterparts to acquired cardinal virtues.

(29.) For a discussion of this point in connection with understanding Aristotle on the mean and on unity of the virtues, see Anselm Winfried Müller, “Aristotle’s Conception of Natural and Ethical Virtue: How the Unity Thesis Sheds Light on the Doctrine of the Mean,” in Was ist das für den Menschen Gute?, edited by Jan Szaif and Matthias Lutz-Bachmann (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 2004), 18–53.

(30.) Angela McKay, “Prudence and Acquired Moral Virtue,” The Thomist 69 (2005): 535–555.

(31.) See Denis J. M. Bradley, Aquinas on the Twofold Human Good (Washington, DC: The Catholic University of America Press, 1997).

(32.) See, for example, J. B. L. Feitas, M. A. M. Pieta, and J. H. R. Tudge, “Beyond Politeness: The Expression of Gratitude in Children and Adolescents,” Psychologia 24 (2011): 757–764.