The Moral Virtues and Theological Ethics
By Romanus Cessario
Publisher: University of Notre Dame Press
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
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
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
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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