Reassessing Aquinas

January-February 1993By Mary Beth Ingham

Sr. Mary Beth Ingham is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles.

The Primacy of Love: An In­troduction to the Ethics of Thomas Aquinas.  By Paul J. Wadell. Paulist Press. 162 pages. $11.95.

The Priority of Prudence: Vir­tue and Natural Law in Thom­as Aquinas and the Implica­tions for Modern Ethics.  By Daniel Mark Nelson. Pennsylvania State University Press. 164 pages. $28.50.

These two books attempt a reassessment of Thomas Aquinas for today's contempo­rary ethical concerns. But why would someone at the close of the 20th century want to learn more about a thinker who died in 1274? What has Aquinas to say to Christians today? There are at least a couple reasons for a rediscovery of Aquinas. First, Aquinas wrote at a time of cultural interaction and dia­logue among Christians, Mus­lims, and Jews. Today we live in a multicultural global "vil­lage." Yet, even with our advanced technology, we don't seem to be able to communi­cate very well. Thomas tried to bring worlds together in his writings and we could learn from his effort. Second, Thom­as lived at the height of medieval scholasticism, when old paradigms were beginning to give way to newer philo­sophical and cosmological dis­coveries. A new era was being born that would culminate in the Renaissance and Early Modern periods. Today we find ourselves at the close of a period in history. Old paradigms are giving way. What will replace them? Perhaps this is an appropriate moment to look back into the Christian tradition. We might discover new ways to deal with value questions in a "post-Christian" world.

In The Primacy of Love Paul Wadell, C.P., attempts to in­troduce the literate non-special­ist to the richness of Thomas's ethical vision. This short work offers a different reading of Aquinas from the one to which most of us are accustomed: Love, not knowledge, emerges as Aquinas's central concern, both in its manifestation in charity (as the heart of the moral life) and its culmination in friendship with God (as the ultimate human goal).

Wadell seeks to penetrate the "well-known" texts of Aquinas in order to reach the spirit of the man, which has been lost in an abundance of commentaries. Wadell asserts that Aquinas's moral teaching is the "hidden treasure of Catholic moral tradition…be­cause it has not been sufficient­ly appreciated. Too often Aquinas's ethics are presented as being overly rationalistic, excessively formal, and too scholastic to be of use to us today. But that is a disservice to Aquinas and a loss as well. The core of Thomistic ethics is not the natural law, but the virtues, and the virtues are best understood not as acts of reason, but as strategies of love whereby those devoted to God are transformed in God's goodness."

Here is an introduction to Aquinas's moral thinking that avoids natural law. Rather, it concentrates on the goal of all human behavior (happiness), the importance of love and friendship with God (charity), the role of passions and af­fections that offer support and energy for ethical living, and the centrality of virtue in guiding us to the fullness of life. The study culminates in the discussion of giftedness and the importance of a God of love, and closes with a reflection on the significance of Aquinas for contemporary ethical discussion.

In The Priority of Prudence Daniel Mark Nelson presents a critical assessment of Thomas as a "natural-law thinker." Like Wadell, Nelson argues that Aquinas's thought has been misrepresented as overly legal­istic and absolutist. Nelson argues that Aquinas is not a natural-law theorist at all, but rather a virtue-based thinker for whom prudence (right rea­soning) and the other cardinal virtues (justice, courage, and temperance) hold center stage. In Thomas's texts, Nelson maintains, natural law func­tions as explanation rather than guide for moral reason­ing.

Nelson, whose book is directed at scholars, begins with a clear and precise account of the interpretation of Aquinas found in the natural-law tradi­tion. By itself, this first chapter is exceptional for the breadth and depth of the discussion of this tradition, from its Stoic origins through Suarez, Pufendorf, and Kant. The develop­ment is completed with con­temporary positions, including those of Rahner, Finnis, Arm­strong, and MacIntyre.

Against this historical background, Nelson presents the philosophical context for prudence, arguing that natural law is not central to the Dominican's thinking. "Thom­as' major discussion of ethics…neither begins nor culmi­nates in a discussion of natural law…." In addition, the trea­tises on happiness and the passions do not provide ap­propriate foundations for na­tural-law theory. In order to make Thomas a natural-law theorist, one must remove his discussion of law from its context within the Summa and consider it alone.

Nelson turns next to the priority of prudence within an ethics of virtue. Because our powers of will and intellect are not geared to specific ends, "they need to be ordered and perfected with respect to their proper good by virtuous hab­its." Prudence, the central in­tellectual virtue, is "right rea­soning about what is to be done." Central to Nelson's in­terpretation is the understand­ing that prudence involves practical concerns and thus must be acquired over time. "One does not become prudent by memorizing a set of principles."

Of special interest is the discussion of whether or not Thomas provides for natural reason's access to independent standards of judgment (outside of divine law). Nelson main­tains he does not. Thomas's teaching on natural law is not the examination of absolute moral norms, but rather an in­vestigation of the sources for practical reasoning and the conditions that make moral consensus possible. Thus, Thomas offers no "absolute" philosophical basis for moral judgments. Natural law ex­plains why we hold to certain values (e.g., truth and life), but "natural law does not provide moral guidance."

Nelson has hit upon something very important here. There is often the expec­tation that a moral theory will tell us exactly what to do in any circumstance, or at least give us a technique whereby we can figure the matter out for ourselves. Nelson is saying that Aquinas is not providing us with such moral certainty in his teaching on natural law. This means we must find another basis upon which to base our moral decisions. This other basis is virtue, or moral habit, which forms character over time, rather than giving precise information about decision making. Nelson's ap­proach frees Thomas from a too "absolutist" or "legalistic" interpretation, and opens his thought up to contemporary moral reflection. With this new assessment, we might see Thomas's position in light of recent works such as Habits of the Heart, in which Robert Bellah and his co-authors consider our modern moral and social crises as a function of excessive in­dividualism.

Nelson pursues his discussion of natural law by reconsidering what it means within a virtue context. Here he addresses some particular objections to his own position, specifically in Thomas's discus­sion of "sins against nature." This is perhaps the weakest portion of his work. Nelson seems to fit Aquinas into his own interpretation, charging him with inconsistency rather than entertaining the possibili­ty that Thomas might be more of an "objectivist" than Nelson cares to admit. On this point, I would question a key premise of the book: that a thinker falls either into a virtue or natural-law paradigm, but not both. Nelson seeks to identify Aquinas with the former par­adigm, and rightly so. However, in doing so, he excludes any influence by the natural-law position, and here he fragments what Aquinas seeks to unify. It is an unfortunate aspect of contemporary moral discussion that virtue seems to be in competition with princi­ple. Aquinas may in fact offer a presentation in which virtue and principle in tandem form moral character.

In the final chapter, Nel­son addresses the implications of his interpretation of Aquinas for modern ethics. He focuses on the manner in which his perspective on Aquinas avoids both the absolutist position and the situationalist perspective. He notes that "one can accept much of Thomas' teaching about the cardinal virtues, for example, without sharing his beliefs about God, the end for which God created the world, or Thomas' vision of ultimate human beatitude." This may be true, but how would this differ from the very misinter­pretation by natural-law theo­rists that Nelson criticizes? They removed a section of Aquinas's teaching from the whole, just as anyone would who emphasized the cardinal virtues in the absence of the ultimate end (beatitude).

Nelson's study is valuable insofar as he attempts to re­claim the centrality of virtue in Aquinas. He may go too far, for he seems to be overreacting to the exclusive use of Aquinas as a natural-law thinker. Prin­ciple and character should not, I believe, launch opposing moral traditions. If Nelson's study calls forth a discussion between virtue-based and prin­ciple-based thinkers, it will provide a significant contribution to the reintegration of moral discourse.

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