Volume > Issue > Briefly: March 2015

March 2015

Ethics as a Work of Charity: Thomas Aquinas and Pagan Virtue

By David Decosimo

Publisher: Stanford University Press

Pages: 354

Price: $65

Review Author: David C. Paternostro, S.J.

In the past half century, the Church has had to grapple more and more with the problem of how to view and address society as it becomes less and less religious. Following the emergence of the New Atheism in the early 2000s and what has been termed “the rise of the nones” among millennials, the question of moral goodness apart from revelation has become even more pronounced. Authors have proposed a variety of stances ranging from a general affirmation of social trends (or, at the least, general affirmation of non-religious pursuit of the good in the absence of religious belief) to a general rejection of social trends or attempts to cultivate virtue apart from a system of religious belief. Ethics as a Work of Charity attempts to bridge these stances, and although the book affirms the necessity of grace, it also affirms the virtues that non-Christians can attain.

Decosimo states that the purpose of the book is to “elucidate Thomas Aquinas’s conception of pagan virtue — to explain just what that vision is and how it relates to both the substance of his ethics and his way of doing moral theology.” In the introduction, Decosimo distinguishes his position from two opposing camps. On the one hand are “hyper-Augustinian” Thomists, such as Alasdair MacIntyre, who would doubt the possibility of pagan virtue. On the other hand are “public reason” Thomists, such as John Finnis, who would see virtue as something generally accessible. It is worth noting that, while Decosimo does not label them as such, the “public reason” Thomists are all proponents of New Natural Law, a theory, formulated by Germain Grisez and defended by the likes of Princeton’s Robert P. George, of “practical reasoning” that moves men to honor “basic human goods.”

Decosimo rightly places the ethical debate within the larger debate of Aquinas’s Aristotelian and Augustinian commitments. Decosimo, however, denies that Aristotle and Augustine are to be pitted against each other — or, at the very least, that Aquinas denies this. Decosimo states that Aquinas is “striving to be Aristotelian by being Augustinian, and vice versa” — a phrase one encounters regularly throughout the book. Decosimo sees much overlap in the worldviews of Augustine and Aristotle. Though they may not say the same things, they do talk about different things with a compatible tone, and Decosimo demonstrates how Aquinas takes the statements of each to form a far more complete picture of the world than would be possible by using only one.

“Ethics as a Work of Faith,” the first of the book’s three parts, lays out the fundamentals. Chapter two is a particular highlight: Decosimo provides an excellent treatment of the basics of Aquinas’s ethical thought that is, overall, comparable to the late Ralph McInerny’s Ethica Thomistica in its ability to lay out clearly the teleological and perfective character of virtue in Aquinas’s thought. Decosimo notes that “for Thomas, everyone seeks God. And the God whom all seek is the Son, in the Spirit, for the Father.” He shows how Aquinas unites Aristotle’s notion that all seek goodness and Augustine’s notion that all are restless until resting in God, and begins the examination of Aquinas’s ethics by showing how Aristotle and Augustine may not be an either/or proposition.

Following chapters on habit (in which we see how Aquinas uses Aristotle’s notion of habit to clarify Augustine’s definition of virtue) and distinguishing intellectual from moral virtues, we come to Part II, “Ethics and the Things of This World.” Here Decosimo mostly responds to the concerns of the hyper-Augustinians. Generally speaking, the arguments they provide against non-Christians attaining virtue revolve around the unity of the virtues — so that the acquired virtues are not “true” virtues unless infused virtues are also present — and whether the end of virtue, the union of the agent with God, is possible without charity. Chapter five looks at the distinction between infused and acquired virtues, using Aquinas’s treatment of prudence as a critical example. Chapters six, seven, and eight build upon one another, beginning with a distinction between proximate ends and the ultimate end, beatitude, moving into a discussion of how proximate ends (unlike merely useful things) may be loved for their own sake, and then finally dealing with what Decosimo terms “Final End Conceptions” (or FECs). These FECs, which in all people are marked by complexity and degrees of incompleteness, have varying levels of relevance as a motive for any given action. Thus we may say, for example, that there are occasions when Christopher Hitchens acted virtuously, though he vigorously denied the existence of God, particularly when the atheist component of his FEC was not especially relevant.

If in Part II Decosimo sets himself against hyper-Augustinian Thomists, in Part III he critiques the public-reason Thomists. The chapters on sin and grace are short but effective presentations of how sin (including original sin) wounds men, and how charity heals these wounds and gives even greater unity to the acquired virtues than would be otherwise possible. We see clearly how Aquinas affirms the pervasiveness and inevitability of sin, and how absolutely necessary grace is to overcome sin.

These reflections culminate in a moving section in the final chapter on friendship with God. As Decosimo notes, a major argument of public-reason Thomists is that the moral law must be knowable and doable by all, because a thing’s end (in this case, God) is always attainable by the normal operations of the thing. Taking Aristotle’s notion that what is done by a friend is, in a sense, done by oneself, Decosimo argues that friendship with God is thus necessary for our salvation — a wonderful demonstration of how Aquinas honors fully his commitments to both Aristotle and Augustine.

Decosimo justifies his project and casts the affirmation of pagan virtue as a necessary feature of Christian virtue because “charity seeks the good wherever it may be found.” Ethics as a Work of Charity is Thomistic and Catholic in the best sense of the terms. Although it does not pretend that pagan virtue is perfect, it does acknowledge that there is legitimate goodness to be found outside of Christianity. Moreover, this goodness, along with its practitioners, ought to be welcomed into Christianity. This book is an excellent starting point for the attitude Christians ought to take toward outsiders: affirming the goodness already present in them, and offering them the means to complete that goodness.

The Dark Night of the Body: Why Reverence Comes First in Intimate Relations

By Alice von Hildebrand

Publisher: Roman Catholic Books

Pages: 116

Price: $14.50

Review Author: Stephen J. Kovacs

The Dark Night of the Body is a collection of previously published articles on the subject of human sexuality by Catholic philosopher Alice von Hildebrand. Although the intriguing title is, unfortunately, never explained or clearly developed, the book offers valuable wisdom on how to correctly approach the mystery of the sexual domain, which von Hildebrand refers to as “the intimate sphere.”

A common theme running through the articles — which are divided into chapters — is that the intimate sphere, being most private and sacred, must be treated, above all else, with reverence. This virtue is necessary primarily because sexuality is a mysterious gift from God and central to the human person, but also because the intimate sphere has been wounded by original sin and is extremely vulnerable to perversion. Von Hildebrand explains that reverence in this matter requires a proper disposition toward sexuality (what the French call pudeur — a “holy bashfulness”) so that our words and behaviors are marked by modesty, which upholds the dignity of sex and avoids a vulgarization that distorts the true nature of sex and stirs up concupiscence.

In recent years, von Hildebrand has singled out Christopher West, who is generally credited with popularizing Pope St. John Paul II’s “theology of the body” in the U.S., as being a prominent offender of this rule of reverence. Von Hildebrand made headlines in the Catholic world when she joined other Catholic scholars in critiquing West’s controversial presentations and writings, which she argued were “hyper-sexualized” and in need of correction. Much of Dark Night of the Body is made up of the articles in which she publicly critiqued West’s approach and contrasted it with that of her late husband, the philosopher Dietrich von Hildebrand, who she said demonstrated greater outward reverence toward the intimate sphere. Although these particular articles themselves have been challenged — most notably by Catholic moral theologian Janet Smith, whose response to von Hildebrand deserves consideration — and the debate over West’s approach has died down to an extent, von Hildebrand’s articles nevertheless give important insights by which to properly understand and discuss the delicate topic of sexuality.

One such insight worth highlighting has to do with the use of language when speaking about the intimate sphere. Von Hildebrand explains that the human body, being that of a human person — an embodied spirit — has a dignity far above that of the body of any animal. In the English word body there is no difference between the body of humans and the body of animals, and so this important philosophical distinction is missed. In German, however, there are two separate words for body: Leib, for the body of a person, and Koerper, for the body of an animal. This linguistic difference “makes it clear that a human body should be personified and that every single bodily activity of Man should be elevated to a degree of nobility not given to animals.” In our culture, which so degrades the human body, it is crucial that we speak of it in a way that recognizes its intrinsic value and avoids its objectification.

Von Hildebrand proves to have a keen ability to identify current moral dangers that threaten the integrity of the intimate sphere and to know the necessary responses. Of all the modern problems she addresses, she reserves her strongest words for pornography, which she calls “the number one moral cancer affecting our society.” Pornography has “conquered” the technological realm, which now serves largely as a vehicle for spreading pornography’s “gospel of moral death.” The statistics von Hildebrand cites tragically confirm this, and the result of the proliferation of pornographic images is that our culture is so saturated with these “devilish icons” that the general public has all but lost a healthy sense of the intimate sphere. “If angels can cry, they should be sobbing,” von Hildebrand says, and she calls for a “holy iconoclasm” to be waged against pornography, and for prayers on behalf of the poor souls caught in its mire.

The last two chapters of the book are devoted to profound discussions about the objectivity and universality of truth. Although these chapters pertain to the intimate sphere, they do not relate as directly as do the other chapters of the book. Instead, they serve more as a precursor to a correct philosophical discussion of the intimate sphere, providing a solid ontological basis from which to begin. For this reason, these chapters would have been better placed at the beginning of the book, rather than at the end. Nevertheless, the insights conveyed regarding the hierarchy and interrelatedness of truths, among others, are philosophical treasures that our relativistic world desperately lacks. Relativism in modern times has caused a radical breakdown in relationships, especially those involving the intimate sphere, and only truth can restore the communion for which we were created. As von Hildebrand states, “Truth alone can unify mankind.”

The Dark Night of the Body provides convenient access to some of Alice von Hildebrand’s best writings on the topic of the intimate sphere. At a time when the unadulterated truth about sex is sorely needed, she has generously used her talents to teach us this very truth.

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