Thomas Aquinas: Moral Philosopher or Moral Teacher?

Prof. Dr. Anthony J. Celano, Stonehill College N. Easton, MA, USA

With the revival of Thomistic thought in the late 19th century came two distinct views of its significance. Theologians, impressed by the vision of God and the human desire for union with the Creator, have noted that Thomas did not consider himself a philosopher, but was concerned primarily with explicating the ‘truth of sacred doctrine’. Philosophers, attracted by the thorough investigations of the nature of reality and the foundation of rational actions and law, have argued that fully developed philosophical doctrines are articulated in his works. While Thomas thought no truth discovered rationally could ever contradict scriptural verity, his philosophical doctrines of human virtue and human purpose seem unrelated to the moral ideas expressed in his sermons and collationes (discussions of topics taken from the gospels for the benfit of young Dominicans). The philosophical notion of happiness (eudaimonia or felicitas) with its foundation in the habitual exercise of intellectual and moral virtues remains untreated in the twenty-five sermons known to be authentic. In these works Thomas’ moral teachings are derived from the writings of Paul and Augustine, and owe nothing at all to the works of Aristotle. For Thomas, as for all Christian moralists, the primary question must be what does a human being contribute to the attainment of eternal beatitude. The doctrines of grace and of the necessity for divine intervention in the acquisition of the moral end seem to undermine the philosophical ideal of the gradual repetetive acquisition of virtue. Thomas is certainly aware of the examples of morally reprehensible human beings, who had developed no virtuous habits whatsoever, but were granted eternal beatitude, or moral perfection, in a single act. The most compelling example of such an occurrence is that of the good thief. The sinner on the cross, whose life was one of crime and ignorance, attains moral perfection through the single act of recognition of Christ’s divinity (Luke, 23, 42-43). The account of the thief’s transformation may bring hope to even the most vile sinner, but it also minimizes the accomplishments of those who have dedicated their lives to the pursuit of virtue. Thomas alludes to the example of the thief when he considers the passion of Christ in his Collationes on the Creed. In language similar to that of Bonaventure and Eckhart, he speaks of the corruption of human nature and its propensity to error. (Unde cum primus homo peccavit, nostra natura fuit debilita et corrupta, et ex tunc pronior ad peccandum, et peccatum est magis dominativum homini. Collatio VI in The Sermon-Conferences of St. Thomas Aquinas on the Apostles’ Creed, tr. & ed. by N. Ayo (Notre Dame, 1988), p. 68). Both in his sermons and in his Summa theologiae, Thomas emphasizes human frailty and the human inability to accomplish good actions through their own means (Dicendum quod etiam verum non potest homo cognoscere sine auxilio divino… Et tamen magis est natura corrupta per peccatum quantum ad appetitum boni quam quantum ad cognitionem veri. Summa theol. I-II, 109, 2 ad 3. Dicendum quod homo nullo modo potest resurgere a peccato per seipsum sine auxilio gratiae. Summa theol. I-II, 109, 7.). Christ’s passion does not end human weakness, but is necessary to atone for the errors of mankind. Thomas regards Christ during the passion as a moral exemplar who demonstrtates the need for the virtues of love, patience, humility and contempt for the world. The moral Christian has little in common with the eudaimon, who achieves his state through the exercise of practical and intellectual wisdom (phronêsis and sophia). Thomas concludes that the blessed thief with his passive reception of grace is morally superior to the philosopher’s phronimos or sophos.

In another sermon in the same collection, Thomas specifically rejects the moral philosophy of Aristotle when he states that the faith teaches everything necessary for ‘living well’ (bene vivendum). Because the term ‘bene vivendum’ and its variants were customarily used as a synonym for Aristotle’s concept of eudaimonia (see for example Robert Kilwardby’s Supra libros ethicorum: Philosophi loquentes de felicitate posuerunt eam esse vitam aliquam bonam et operacionem bonam, quia dixerunt eam esse idem quod bene vivere et bene operari. Ms. Cambridge Peterhouse, 206, f. 290vb), Thomas is referring here to the philosophical notion of moral perfection. Thomas often asserts the superiority of Christian moral teaching in his sermons. In a surprising passage, he dismisses all the moral wisdom of the ancient philosophers: ‘The faith teaches all that is necessary for living well… this is obvious because none of the philosophers before the coming of Christ with all their efforts could know as much about God and what is necessary for life than an old woman knows through faith after his arrival.’ (Fides autem docet omnia necessaria ad bene vivendum… Hoc etiam patet quia nullus philosophus ante adventum Christi cum toto conatu suo potuit tantum scire de Deo et necessariis ad vitam, quantum post adventum Christi scit una vetula per fidem …’ Collatio I, ed. Ayo , p. 20). An old woman knows more about God and what is necessary for life than any of the ancients, including Aristotle, because she has the truer moral wisdom of Scripture. The implied references to the doctrine of happiness in Nicomachean Ethics (living well and knowledge of God) make it clear that Thomas is rejecting the rationally based notion of the moral end. Quoting Job 36, 28, Thomas criticizes the vanity of human sciences and the belief in the human intellect to discover truth: ‘If the intellect is so weak, is it not foolish to want to believe only those things which a human being can know through himself? “Behold the Great God who overcomes our knowledge”.’ (Collatio I, ed. Ayo, pp.20-22).

Thomas’ emphasis on the weakness of human nature and its inabilty to reach its moral end through rational means forces him place the cause of goodness in an external cause. The intellect must be elevated by the light of grace to a supra-rational knowledge, which is best expressed through the love of, and hope in, God (Compendium theologiae, c. 143, S. Thomae de Aquino Opera omnia, v. 42 (Rome, 1979), p. 136). No human being can attain the moral goal without the gift of faith: ‘No one can attain beatitude, which is the true cognition of god, unless one knows God primarily through faith.’ (Collatio I, ed. Ayo, p. 18).

In his sermons on the Decalogue, Thomas offers a moral theory consistent with that found in the Collationes on the Creed. While not so contemptuous of philosophical knowledge, Thomas argues that the destructive force of human desire requires a human being to develop above all the virtue of charity. The new foundation of all moral actions is found in the brief law (lex brevis) of divine love: ‘So any human act is right and virtuous when it is in accordance with divine love, and when it is not in accordance with the rule of charity it is not good, right or perfect.’ (Sic etiam quodlibet humanum opus rectum est et virtuousum quando regule divine dilectionis concordat; quando vero a regula caritatis discordat tunc non est bonum rectum nec perfectum. Collatio II, ed. J.-P. Torrell, “Les Collationes in decem preceptis de Saint Thomas d’Aquin,” Revue des sciences philosophiques et théologiques, 69 (1985), p. 26). The philosophical virtues are dismissed by Thomas as non-essential to the pursuit of the moral end: ‘Only to those having charity is eternal beatitude promised. Everything else without charity is insufficient (Collatio II, ed. Torrell, p.28). One who has developed the habitual virtues described by the ancient philosophers may, or may not, be saved, as is clear from the identification of those who were most charitable. They were not the phronimoi or the sophoi, but rather simple men called to be Christ’s disciples: ‘There were many who were more abstinent than the apostles, but they (apostles) exceed all others in beatitude because the difference in beatitude is caused by a difference in charity.’ (Multi magis abstinentes fuerunt quam apostoli, set ipsi in beatitudine omnes alios excellunt propter excellentiam caritatis… Unde differentia beatitudinis ex differentia caritatis causatur. Coll. II, ed. Torrell, p. 28). The minimal impact of virtue (magis abstinentes) on the apostle’s moral perfection (beatitudo) raises the question of how Thomas regarded the virtuous life and its impact on the moral good. Did his acknowledgment of the moral perfection of the good thief and the disciples lead to a morality which is essentially passive and dependent upon the external agency of divine grace? To answer the question simply, one must reply affirmatively. But Thomas rarely discusses the question of the relation between the philosophical moral end (felicitas) and the theologian’s ideal of beatitude. He notes cryptically that happiness, or imperfect beatitude, participates somehow (aliqualiter) in perfect beatitude. He rejects the idea that human nature is sufficiently equipped for the attainment of the moral end If he were to argue that virtuous actions make the agent more likely to receive beatitude, he would stray perilously close to the heresy of the Pelagians, who ‘believe that without grace a human being can fulfill every divine command.’ (S.th I-II, 109, 2 contra). The ‘participation’ of happiness in beatitude depends solely upon the object desired, and not upon the human operation. The two moral ends are connected by the object of intellectual knowledge that all seek. Both for philosophers and for believers this object is God. Although the manner and way in which God is known differ in the two areas of faith and reason, the ‘end of which’ (finis cuius) is exactly the same. It is the manner by which God is known (finis quo) that presents the Christian moral teacher with his greatest difficulty. The theologian has no possible method to connect the morally virtuous person’s reward with the beatific vision expected by the faithful Christian. A lifetime of virtue is no guarantee that its practioner attains moral perfection, as described by the Scriptures. A single act may, however, bring eternal salvation to a sinner like the good thief. The doctrine of grace and the idea of the ‘finis quo’ may seem inequitable or destructive of moral instruction., but they seem to reflect the authentic moral teaching of Thomas, who found no way to reconcile the Ethics of Aristotle with the moral doctrines of his faith. In his sermons he rejects the idea of the active moral agent who develops the soul’s potentialities in order to become morally good in favor of the passive recipient of infused grace. If it seems unfair, Thomas might argue that many human accomplishments are not fairly attained, as when a prodigy learns difficult elements of music or mathematics in a single setting, while another may never master their intricacies despite tedious study. Thomas rejects the philosophically based ethcs in favor of a morality, which places moral perfection beyond human capabilities. Like his predecessors and contemporaries, he is a Christian moral teacher, and not a rational ethicist.

The final question concerns Thomas’career as a master at the University and a Dominican preacher. If his rejection of Aristotle’s Ethics represents an aspect of his true doctrine, why did he spend so much time and effort explicating philosophical texts and clarifying issues in ethics? As J. Weisheipl indicates in his Friar Thomas d’Aquino (Washington,1983), Thomas thought it essential to explain properly the meaning and importance of philosophy to his young students. Through a thorough understanding of philosophy, a Christian thinker could note the contibution of rational science to theology, but also comprehend its limitations. Without further research into this area, a definite answer cannot be given, but it remains clear that when faced with the choice between the conclusions of moral philosophy and the tenets of the faith, Thomas chose the latter. The theology of Paul and Augustine represents to him a more adequate explanation of the nature and goal of human actions than all the philosophers with all their efforts. The incompatibiltiy of Christian moral teaching with the rational ethics of the ancients continues to present two different pictures of the ‘morality’ of Thomas Aquinas, but there is no doubt whatsoever which doctrine he ultimately accepted as true.

3.882 Abrufe