Volume > Issue > Briefly: December 1993

December 1993

The Moral Virtues and Theological Ethics

By Romanus Cessario

Publisher: Univer­sity of Notre Dame Press

Pages: 204

Price: $10.95

Review Author: Janice Daurio

Such is the richness of the works of St. Thomas Aquinas that they continue to be mined and not exhausted, even after seven centu­ries of commentary. Characteristic of the ethics of St. Thomas is the centrality it gives to the virtues, in contrast to those ethical systems whose foundation is action, results, rationality, or laws. This book con­tinues this Thomistic tradition in light of modern moral inquiry.

Although both Christians and non-Christians can agree that perfection or the virtuous life is the goal of morality, faith makes Christian morality distinct by in­terpreting the natural inclination to goodness as the universal call to holiness and beatitude.

A virtue is a habit one develops as a result of consistently choosing and acting on the good. The virtues affect dispositions and even human nature at a funda­mental level; “each virtue accom­plishes a modification in the char­acter of the one who possesses it.”

But a virtue is not a habit in the sense of rote, repetitious, invol­untary activity. In fact, it is only through the exercise of the virtues that one can be truly free. Cessario quotes Bishop Butler: “When virtue has become habitual, what was be­fore confinement ceases to be so, by becoming choice and delight.”

Like the virtues themselves, this book tends to moderation. It is moderate about interiority and exteriority. Although developing the virtues is primarily an interior affair, it has exterior results. Grace, being preeminent, affects every part of human nature, interior and exterior, and so “the saints express Christ on their faces.”

The book is moderate about materialism. In the Thomist tradi­tion, matter matters. “The movement toward beatitude which is the human person’s natural end re­quires the attainment of those cre­ated goods which human life needs for its proper perfection.”

The author reacquaints us with the all-important distinction between acquired and infused vir­tues, which differ in their end: membership in the earthly or the heavenly city. Cessario corrects the contemporary theological overemphasis on infused virtue at the expense of acquired virtue. Moral realism, the author’s position, gives the proper balance between grace and nature.

Cessario discusses the virtue of moderation itself, namely, pru­dence. Too many people think of prudence as disguised self-interest. But prudence is central to the vir­tuous life, because it’s not only necessary to know the good but to act on it effectively. So a true martyr is not an extremist, given the goal. Prudence, restored to its rightful place in the Christian understand­ing of the moral life, corrects the dangerous hegemony of “con­science,” as touted by some modern theologians.

Another popular miscon­ception Cessario helps rectify is the ascription to the person that he is “absolutely unique,” as if one’s value comes from this. One’s value as a human being lies just as much in what one has in common with others; “the true distinction of the human person lies in the common inbred capaci­ties proper to the species, even though each individual embodies these in different ways.”

This book does what it sets out to do: to demonstrate that the virtuous life is nothing at all unless it leads to the highest love of God.

A Case for Peace in Reason and Faith

By Monika K. Hellwig

Publisher: The Liturgical Press/Glazier

Pages: 110

Price: $6.95

Review Author: Christopher W. Decker

Monika Hellwig, professor of theology at Georgetown University, makes a strong plea to all peoples to unite under the banner of peace and justice. Her purpose is “to in­vite reflection, first by the light of reason, and then by the light of reli­gious faith, on the logic that…leads to peace.”

Hellwig is at her best when she shows the similarities in the teachings of the great religious traditions regarding peace. This strength, however, is offset by a glaring weakness. Hellwig never ac­tually defines the crucial term “peace.” Obviously, it is difficult to establish a convincing case for something one cannot define. In the end, the reader may be left won­dering whether Hellwig’s “logic” is not simply a series of platitudes.

Confrontations With the Reaper

By Fred Feldman

Publisher: Oxford Univer­sity Press

Pages: 249

Price: $24.95

Review Author: Philip E. Devine

This book is dedicated to the author’s daughter Lindsay, who died on September 7, 1987, at the age of 16. In conversations with her father during her last illness, she maintained — perhaps only to comfort him — an Epicurean view of death, according to which it “would not be such a very bad thing for her — for she would be ‘out of it,’ when it took place.” Her suffering and death provided the inspiration for this volume.

In the first part of the book, Feldman argues that death is a conceptual mystery — that it can­not be defined as the cessation of life, or in any other similar way. In making this argument, he as­sumes, as he puts it, “that there is a concept of death that has appli­cation throughout the biological realm,” even to cells as opposed to organisms. It is with death in this sense, rather than with anything unique to persons, that he is con­cerned: He has difficulty explain­ing why a mouse put into a cell separator out of which emerges a puree of mouse cells has died (and so also for human beings). He em­braces an extreme materialist con­ception — stronger than that of Lucretius, for example — accord­ing to which an organism, includ­ing a human being, is just a body of a certain sort. And an organism, including a human being, which dies in most cases continues to ex­ist as a corpse. “We buried Aunt Harriet today” is in his view no fig­ure of speech. Conceptions of the afterlife, whether involving the im­mortality of the soul or the resur­rection of the body, he simply ig­nores.

In the second part he argues against the Epicureans that death can be a great evil for those who die, because it may deprive them of the goods they would have en­joyed if they had continued to live, and, against your reviewer, that death can nonetheless be ratio­nally chosen.

The crux of Feldman’s ethical arguments is his contention that, despite the mysterious character of death, the reaper may nonethe­less be welcomed. I have argued that — supposing for the sake of argument that when I die I cease to exist forever — rational suicide, in at least one sense, is impossible. For to choose rationally requires that one know what one is choos­ing, and the annihilation of the self is opaque to deliberation. Feldman disagrees with me, but for present purposes his most important point of disagreement with me concerns death’s opacity. “Even though I cannot formulate a satisfactory philosophical analysis of the con­cept of death,” he writes, “I think I do know what it will be like for me to be dead. Here’s what it will be like: I will be lying cold and inert on a slab; I will appear grayish and pale; a kindly doctor will be saying, ‘Alas poor Feldman, I know him well.'” The outsider’s point of view on death is sufficient and decisive.

Feldman’s materialism does not resolve, but rather short-cir­cuits, the problems that appeared to have concerned him and his daughter. Unless some form of the doctrine of immortality is true, death means that an entire dimen­sion of reality — the universe as viewed from a certain point of view — has ceased to exist. Despite all his gestures in the direction of mys­tery, Feldman regards death, not as the fate of a unique individual, but, in Kierkegaard’s words, “some­thing in general.” This depersonalization of death, which Feldman carries to an extreme hitherto unheard-of in the litera­ture, invalidates all his arguments.

Exiles and Fugitives: The Letters of Jacques and Raissa Maritain, Allen Tale, and Caroline Gordon

By John M. Dunaway

Publisher: Louisiana State University Press

Pages: 108

Price: $22.50

Review Author: Carroll Kearley

The four who wrote these let­ters had significant public achieve­ments. Jacques Maritain’s influ­ence in philosophy radiated out from a Catholic center to touch a cosmos of people, secular and of many faiths, who pursued philoso­phy, theology, science, art, and politics. Raissa, his wife, who was purified in a crucible of chronic ill­ness, was a poet. She wrote two gracious books about her early life with Jacques: We Have Been Friends Together and Adventures in Grace. Allen Tate was a poet, critic, scholar, and teacher. His wife, Caroline Gordon, was a novel­ist. When the two couples were liv­ing in Princeton, New Jersey, their lives intermeshed sensitively, and they became deeply bonded in friendship.

The Maritains were exiles from France, which they fled at the beginning of the Second World War. The Totes, especially Allen, were associated with Fugitive, a journal of poetry published in Nashville in the early 1920s. The letters between the two couples show the intertwining of hearts and heads. Their writers discuss professional, private, and social matters. They were unguarded in what they said, for they were not writing for any readers other than the parties to whom the letters were addressed. The letters have none of the artistry that we find in the letters of Flannery O’Connor, who was Caroline Gordon’s younger friend. Little that is memorable in a quotable way appears in them. But they are impressive in revealing the thoughts and feelings of four people, each gifted with high in­telligence, who cared much for one another. As I have entered their circle of friendship by read­ing their correspondence, I have been especially struck by three things: Gordon’s indebtedness to Jacques’s aesthetics along with his respect for her novels, the care with which the Maritains trans­lated Tate’s “Ode to the Confeder­ate Dead” into French, and Jacques’s sensitive charity in writing to both Tate and Gordon after separation.

Jacques wrote to Caroline about his distress upon learning that she and Allen had separated. He affirmed the love that he and Raissa had for both her and Allen. Jacques wrote to Allen, “I wish you may know how dear you are to our hearts, how close we are to you.” A few months later in a letter to Allen, Jacques tried tactfully to be a mediator by saying that Caroline ex­pected Allen to come from Minneapo­lis, where he was teaching, to Princeton for the spring vacation. Allen replied that Jacques’s letter had been like a beacon in the night. He said that he was deeply grateful for the compassion and charity which do not judge. In a letter to Allen two weeks later, Jacques exclaimed, “So deep a mutual love, and such suffering at the core of it!”

These letters amplify the respect, even the reverence, I have had for Jacques Maritain. I never met him, and never heard him speak in person. But for 40 years I have had the feeling that he was a friendly presence. I sec­ond the sentiments of Tate, who wrote to John Dunaway after Jacques’s death: “Jacques was a very great man. Not only a great intellect but a warm and friendly human being who had he been a clergyman would no doubt be canonized.”

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