Thomas Aquinas: Happiness, Desire, Virtue

An Interpretation

Essay, 2008

119 Pages, Grade: No specific grade



























APPENDIX: Eros and the Human Good


The crisis of ethics in our time calls for a synoptic view capable of kindling confident teleological motivation, in persons and societies. It is futile to search for the "clear and distinct idea" in a field of such universal importance as ethics, for which the ordinary discourse of humanity is well suited. Rather, our notions must be open, open to the analogies in things and situations, and open too to the real human situation in all its depth and breadth, such things as the desires of the human heart, the burdens of finitude, misfortune and death, the polarization of the sexes, the insights and traditions of religion, the exigences of politics, the compelling witness of the arts and of literature.

The reason for this universal importance, such that a field of discourse considered especially intractable or even, recently, "queer" (J.L. Mackie), cannot be isolated as if somehow less scientific and hence inherently problematical or "emotive", was clearly stated by Aristotle when founding this science, this theoria of praxis. It is that ethics is concerned with the nature and end of man, with man, that is, in view of his characteristic action or praxis. That is to say, to take the short way for the present, it is the science of human happiness, of how to be happy. But this is the object of all human endeavour without exception. Hence, if its content be ever identified, e.g. as the vision of God, then it will follow that this content is the ultimate aim of all our civil and social arrangements, a conclusion that St. Thomas unhesitatingly draws.[1]

Such an identification, however, before it would explain the hidden motor of society externally considered, would more proximately explain ourselves to ourselves. And so the young person reading for the first time the treatise on beatitudo in the Summa theologica is led within himself to that state of mind so habitual to, say, St. Augustine, when he said "You have made us for yourself, and our heart is restless until it finds its rest in thee."

There are any number of phrases from the Psalms of David which say the same thing. For what is here logically and metaphysically grounded by St. Thomas is actually the most natural of our inclinations, whereby we are not merely open to the transcendent but crying out for it, so that the eye looks on at the passing show of this world forever unsatisfied. The most natural of our inclinations is to the supernatural (perhaps to "knowing as we are known"), from the side of which we long for an initiative, if only we might hope for such a thing. There is no human beatitude short of that, and hence it is that when we read the touching pages of St. Thomas about the fate of infants who have died unbaptized, we find that the natural felicity which indeed he there attributes to them is ultimately a species of deprivation of the fundamental human hope.[i]

Nonetheless, to speak of the most natural of our inclinations is to concede that we have a plurality of inclinations, among which, however, there has to be a certain order, both because order itself is something to which we are clearly inclined and because that inclination to universal good (bonum in communi) which we discuss in the text, identifying it as an end with that end which in fact specifies the human will in its being as a will and indeed with God, is already sufficient to order the rest.

We might ask how it is that we can have this plurality of inclinations if inclinations are to perceived goods and "good" has the meaning of "end", such that there is just one ultimate end not only of all human life but even, St. Thomas makes clear, of each and every human action. Here already, I believe, is the place to introduce the essential notion of participation. Human beings are so situated that there are a variety of ways of participating, of taking part in, the universal goodness of beings, whether in the order of learning or in the order of desire, use and enjoyment. The basic realities of birth and education to maturity are sufficient evidence of this. Before one even asks the question why do I live, how shall I be happy, not to speak of answering it, one has lived some years with one's energies bent upon nourishment, play, the search for love, or whatever it may be. Again, after those first, typically adolescent days of spiritual enlightenment in which, it may be, one discovers one's eternal destiny and the dignity of one's own soul as a necessary being, after those intense days of conversion the exhausted spirit will be forced to remember its continuing need for, and hence inclination, at least at some level of its nature, towards those finite goods which in its ardour it had forgotten, a recurring pattern to which we must not forget to add the need for healing and forgiveness of our own wounded being.

In all these ways we participate in the ultimate good which draws us to itself, and so it is only good for us to use these other goods when they do, in the particular circumstances as evaluated by the virtue of prudence, constitute such a participation. Hence we are advised never to seek fulfilment in them on their own, and even that such a desire defiles the soul. It is possible, however, to abstract such goods in the mind for separate consideration as to what is or is not to be done with respect to each, assuming the circumstances are otherwise right, and hence we arrive at those formalities of justice which are enunciated as laws .

It is indeed characteristic of the legal mode that it be analytic, considering each element on its own. Nor is there anything wrong with such a mode. Hence if it be said that there is a law such that adultery is forbidden, then, as law, this holds without respect to circumstances of place or person. The example is Aristotle's, and we may say that the whole thrust of the Kantian ethic, for example, arises from Kant's insistence upon viewing matters of behaviour exclusively in the legal mode, this of course being in pronounced tension with his wish to deny any real role to an external legislator, so as to secure "autonomy".

The tension is pronounced because it is this external reference that specifies the legal mode itself, and which is the reason why, as we said, laws, whether moral or societal, do not in themselves reflect consideration of the total situation or intrinsic aims of those subject to these laws, this being the very ground, in fact, upon which Kant praised the dignity of duty.

It cannot be denied that this is the mode under which morality is presented to us in scripture, precisely in consideration of the infinite dignity of the law-giver. Even if we see the wisdom of a given commandment and how it will help us to attain our ultimate end, yet that is not the reason why we are to obey it, if we are religious. Justice though the heavens fall!

In this perspective the doctrine of natural law faces in both directions at once, preserving that complete reality which is deformed in one way or its opposite by the positivist theologian and philosopher of duty or by the consequentialist humanist respectively. There is no need to stress the doctrine's analogical character as a legal theory. For the claim is that our inclinations really promulgate to us laws, as arising from the reflected divine light in our immortal souls, it being through the weakness of our minds and not because of some positive open-ended quality (of the laws) that we for the most part do not, prior to metaphysical analysis, perceive them to be laws. "What is in fact law is only inferentially grasped by us as law " (L. Dewan). We simply grasp, straight off, the goodness of being, a seed in the mind which the mind, after some labour according to its own laws, will come to see as the law of loving God more than oneself, something which we in fact do without realising it in that initial grasping of the goodness of being. And so with the other laws in their proper order. An angel would know from the first that these are laws.

The strength of natural law doctrine, however, lies precisely in this internal derivation of law from inclination, since, as we have explained, law is superficially the opposite of inclination, as what comes from outside is opposed to what comes from inside. The claim is that in coming to know our own inclinations, and there is no human inclination that is not a known and indeed willed inclination, we are having the creator's law promulgated to us. We are not just using our inclinations as a way of working out what ought to be done.

In fact what Kant and St. Thomas have in common, as philosophers in the Christian tradition, is just this insight both that law must be preserved in all its dignity ("not one jot or one tittle shall pass away") and that it must and can be internalized ("I will plant my law within their hearts"). Now Kant's solution internalizes law by the simple expedient of transferring the alienation experienced by the subject of positive law into the depths of the human soul itself. So it seems, at any rate, to most interpreters, this being the effect of proposing a nobler end than human happiness to the point of an absolute altruism divorced from all inclination.

It is clear though that no other consistent outcome can be expected once one has accepted the Suarezian definition of law as something proceeding essentially from will, as a compulsion from outside (which can then only be quasi -internalized in all its externality, so that reason itself becomes the heteronomous enemy of any natural appetite). If, however, law be understood as a principle of rational order, intrinsic to reason in the first place, reason as in its own intellectual nature being the cause of the very faculty of will, then it becomes possible to understand the Thomistic and Augustinian view according to which the New Law of the Gospel is not written down but poured into the depths of our own hearts severally by the Holy Spirit. We can then understand, furthermore, in virtue of this superior vision which the Christian philosopher has at his disposal (though without needing to make formal appeal to it), how, in the very being of man himself prior to this infusion of divine law, there is implanted a law which is nothing other than a reflected divine light in our souls whereby we know good from evil just as participants in the eternal law which is God himself creating and governing his creation. It is the view of the nobility of intellect and of its potentially directive role which is paramount.

Nor is this in any sense part of a project of reducing the majesty, the uncompromising demand in particular of divine law, in general of any law. That is why we said that one should not feel bound to view natural law as an analogy, a mere way of speaking, so that we might describe natural law, with Vasquez, as lex indicans only. It is lex praecipiens; i.e. it consists of precepts and even, says St. Thomas, of enunciations, corresponding, for example, to the Ten Commandments. He adds, however, that it belongs to the very ratio or essence of a precept that it be given for some end, and this, as much as anything else, is a doctrine of God, that God is wise, good and loving, and not evil, stupid and indifferent. Indeed one might say that this is the only intelligent doctrine of God and that any other view, as history has demonstrated, is simply a camouflage of the loss of God under a cloud of theological or even merely legal language. Thus, in his discussion of the nature of law, which includes the eternal law which is God himself, St. Thomas, clearly thinking of God himself as preceptor and law-giver, writes that "it is because someone wills the end that reason ordains those things needed for the end", adding to this that "otherwise the will of the prince would more be iniquity than law."[2]

The giving of law, then, is part of God's eternal willing of himself just as universal good, in virtue of his nature as universal being, ipsum esse subsistens. A God who does not will good, not as set above him but as grounded in his very nature as end of all things, is not even a possible being.

This, indeed, is the only possible solution. Kant would seem to have enthroned law to the exclusion of God and hence of that happiness which is ultimately founded in the divine being. He could see no other way to preserve its majesty, due to the voluntarist conception of law just referred to. But then law loses the very majesty which he is emphasising, being now immanent to a human reason which stands alone, no longer reflecting the divine, and which seeks to exalt itself as an absolute end in virtue of a purely negative freedom from even the first determinations of a thing's nature. St. Thomas had stressed that just because intellect is open to all being, able to have the form as the other as other, it needs, since it is a nature, and a very exalted nature, to have, like God himself, its own natural inclination, from which proceeds the faculty of will as such and, indeed, all the inclinations of our nature.[3]

Before we were to go on to examine more closely the nature and role of the inclinations, however, it would be desirable to remove a few remaining doubts and ambiguities. It was perhaps the fear of Kant and his predecessors that the law, in Aristotelian and Thomist perspective, had been made the servant of the inclinations and of happiness in utilitarian and consequentialist fashion. There is a certain imputation of guilt by association here but in fact, and whatever the tendencies of Aristotle in this regard, St. Thomas, guided, we may suppose, by the light of revelation, is perfectly free of them, as may be seen, for example, in the different emphases in the doctrine of epieicheia as presented by the two thinkers, or in the way that St. Thomas stresses, in contrast to Aristotle, that to live well it is necessary to know what it is in which man's ultimate end consists.[4]

St. Thomas, again, is more definite about man's natural inclinations and their role, thus resolving Aristotle's circular definitions of right reason and right appetite in terms of each other merely.[5] These inclinations, consequently, are presented as a real, majestic and all-demanding law, to which, however, man is inclined in the depths of his own nature in its noblest aspect, viz. its aspect as a reflection and image of the eternal law, under which aspect, specifically, man is called upon to be a providence for himself in the freedom of individual personality.[6]

On this view of law as proceeding from the divine goodness happiness, in the sense of living well, flourishing, personal fulfilment, is in fact the highest development of life according to law and hence of morality; so it is the fulfilment of all the virtues. Hence St. Thomas will describe charity as the end of all precepts and moral life. It is a question not of being for or against the relevance of happiness in a moral context but of what view one holds of happiness, that is to say, of motivation, without which there can be no meaningful consideration of law in the first place, if law is given to agents and if indeed it is a physical truth that every agent acts for an end.

Now St. Thomas, inspired by the Gospels, holds the very highest view of happiness. To accuse him of an instrumentalist eudemonism is to miss all that he has to say about that participåatio which we mentioned earlier. St. Thomas is quite uncompromising in saying that happiness is not to be had in its perfection in this life, not even in the practice of virtue. One of the virtues, in sign of this, and indeed it is a theological virtue of the highest dignity, is hope, hope indeed of a praemium, a reward. This reward, however, is intrinsic to virtue in so far as virtue, as we know it on earth, is already an initial participation in this reward which it thus genuinely merits, as a light growing ever stronger, or rather as a sick body recovering vigour in such a way that each new access of strength is itself used to develop more of the same, the compound interest principle so to say.

Such is St. Thomas's perspective on the beatitudes of the Sermon on the Mount, which, with the gifts of the Holy Spirit, hold a central place in the Second Part of the Summa, the book of man as on the way to that same beatitude. For St. Thomas, in fact, takes his conceptions of happiness from this most Christian source, the beatitudes of the Sermon on the Mount. Once we have realised this then the strictures upon his teaching as unworthily eudemonistic appear misplaced and even uninformed.

For what we are presented with is an exact replica of the Gospel teaching upon human blessedness,[7] that same Gospel which Kant (like J.S. Mill or R.M. Hare) had claimed to translate into philosophical terms, but with lamentable effect. St. Thomas claims, in sober truth, that they are happy who are poor, meek, merciful, pure in heart, who mourn over their sins and hunger and thirst for justice, who seek to make peace and who are persecuted and reviled by the generality of men. This last characteristic, in fact, shows that it is an aristocratic account of happiness. Each person must detach himself from the crowd and enter by the narrow gate. This move in itself, however, is natural to the dignity of personality and not peculiar to the Christian dispensation in any particularist sense.

If it seems paradoxical that these categories, in various ways categories of suffering or at least of painful effort, are the categories of happiness here on earth, then this is so in proportion as it is stressed that beatitude, in which they participate, lies outside the world, simply because it lies in God, whom no man may see and live, in the kingdom of heaven, to be peopled by those who shall inherit the earth, who shall be comforted, who shall obtain mercy, who shall be filled with justice, who shall see God and be called his children and who now rejoice in being persecuted like the prophets before them as a sign, they may hope, of their predestination. In St. Thomas's conception this Christian vision follows as it were naturally upon consideration of the greatness of God in comparison to the creature, of eternity in comparison to time, considerations which of course this teaching in turn fortifies and confirms.

The idea that the purity of virtue is somehow compromised by its association with these hopes springs from that same failure to see that they are internal to virtuous living, as good and the end are internal to law. Hence indifference to hope, like despair, is a sin, a vice, sloth perhaps. Indeed, if the patristic doctrine common to St. Augustine, St. Gregory and St. Anselm, that to live according to the rule of rectitudo voluntatis propter se servata[8] is just to live "according to God" (secundum Deum), a doctrine which St. Thomas's endorsement of the eternal law shows that he too teaches, besides his explicit affirmations of it, then indeed the blessedness of divinity cannot be other than intrinsic to the moral effort, to the arrow aimed at the unseen glory above the clouds not merely at the same time but inasmuch as it is aimed at that visible point which is purity of heart. For this aim of its nature participates in the other, as was the doctrine of Cassian and St. Benedict and indeed of St. John the Apostle when he said that a man who loves God cannot be other than a man who loves his brother, whom he has seen, as well. Since he cites love of the brethren as proof of love of God[9] he cannot mean, as is sometimes supposed, that the latter could be the foundation. That desire for God is intrinsic to moral rectitude means that the latter must be understood as religious, as participating in the transcendent, or else become a form of spiritual vice. This vice indeed is present where one seeks to misrepresent these texts as primitive foreshadowings of secularist altruism in the manner of Feuerbach.

Thus St. Gregory the Great explicitly denies that there can be a rule of right which abstracts from the law, cult and love of the true God[10] while, conversely, St. Augustine states, in tune with St. Thomas's endorsement of the beatitudes, that those are happy who have wished, not merely to be happy, as do all men, but to live "rightly, i.e. according to God, as evil people do not wish to do."[11]

This is why St. Thomas says, as we noted, in correction of Aristotle, that to live well it is necessary to know in what our ultimate end consists. And this, incidentally, explains those Gospel paradoxes about losing one's life as a condition for finding it; not, be it noted, as a means to finding it since that would be the seeking to find or save it which we are told will fail, but as a participation in the new life by losing the old, something only to be explained by what God is, the total good to which one can only give oneself totally, as being the secret of one's own being ("closer to me than I am to myself"), and what we are, viz. images, reflections, of that supreme good, who find our fulfilment in the return to our common exemplar.

The Gospel, that is, never fails to promise a reward to those who live in this way and it is indeed this reward, like Christ's own resurrection, which is the essential justification of virtue, the proof that the wicked were mistaken in despising it. This reward, however, is itself, in the divine wisdom, the intrinsic flowering of the virtues, a doctrine which in some form the virtuous man is required to believe, at least through some commitment to the beauty of virtue, beauty of life being unintelligible except as some form of participation in blessedness, in that which pleases. But any such concession to the theory of fides implicita should in no way be confused with making of the religious dimension of ethics an optional superstructure. "This is perverse and repugnant to charity."[12]


This term is derived from Greek ethos, custom, corresponding to Latin mos (gen. moris), hence morals, moral philosophy.

As founded by Aristotle ethics is the science of action, of human acts (actus humani, see Chapter Two), already extensively considered in the dialogues of Plato, building upon the life and work of Socrates.

Ethics is a practical science in the sense that it aims to achieve something, viz. man's good. It does not, however, aim at secondary goods (as does, say, the science of medicine, as aiming at health), but at man's absolute good, the finis ultimus or ultimate purpose (meaning) of life. For this reason it is a part of philosophy, given that philosophy studies the first causes or highest principles of things (in so far as these belong to the natural order alone, i.e. apart from revelation).

As science ethics is a theory of practical living, however, and hence it is not essentially practical, like an art or a moral virtue. There are degrees of practicality, in other words. Ethics is imperfectly practical. It does not, for example, apply rules to practical cases; it merely supplies or provides such rules.

Hence ethics is distinct from (the virtue of) prudence. This is more clear in St. Thomas than in Aristotle (See his Commentary to Nicomachaean Ethics, Bk. 1).[13] St. Thomas agrees that ethics aims at making men good[14], but in several places in the Commentary he stresses, as Aristotle had not done, the difference between ethics as a science and practical prudence, which he says uses ethical knowledge.

Again, where Aristotle supplies a somewhat circular dialectic between right reason and right desire (each, to be right, must accord with the other), St. Thomas stresses the existence of a hierarchy of natural inclinations in human nature[15] as supplying the order of the precepts of morality, which are thus established as the natural law, a doctrine in some continuity with early Stoic doctrine, but fundamentally a development of the thought of St. Augustine, employing his doctrine of the eternal law, lex aeterna, which natural law as enunciated by human reason reflects. It is only as being this reflection that natural law can exert any authority or obligation upon us.[16]

Later moral philosophy often focussed upon this element of obligation while at the same time attempting to divorce it from its roots in the eternal law, making it a purely formal quality of reason (Kant and the rationalists; cf. the later philosophy of value). Existentialism was the reaction to this rationalist moral theory.[17]

That the material object of ethics is human actions, considered as free and deliberate, entails that ethics is in some respects subalternated to anthropology or rational (philosophical) psychology, since this studies human actions in relation to the faculties of intellect and will, viz. as part of the philosophy of nature. Ethics adds to this object the accidental difference of morality, i.e. it considers actions in relation to an actual or possible rule of behaviour, of customs.[18] The ethical thought of St. Thomas includes and is indeed indissolubly united to a considerable work of metaphysical reflection upon this, the specifically ethical situation. In this respect it is ideally suited to our times, when all foundations have been shaken, as having sought to address the most fundamental questions.

This book is principally concerned with what the scholastics call general ethics, i.e. human action as generally and directly ordained to the end or purpose of life. However it will also touch upon special ethics, which considers human acts as ordained mediately to other human beings (ius naturae).[19]


Human acts (actus humani) are those of our acts which are voluntary and deliberate or conscious. These are the acts which are proper to man (proprii hominis). They are distinguished from mere actus hominis, where we act at least to some extent involuntarily (e.g. in scratching one's chin); but the passions, which form the material of many virtues and vices, are also treated by St. Thomas under this head, viz. as actus hominis, acts common to men and other animals (qui sunt homini aliisque animalibus communes, qui dicuntur animae passiones).[20]

Such properly human acts (actus humani) proceed from intellect and will, which are powers of the rational soul proper to man, according to Aristotelian and Thomist psychology. It is because the soul is immaterial or spiritual that it is able to know and hence to love (immaterialitas est radix cognitionis[21] ). It is able to have the form or nature of the other as other, so as to identify with it. These two powers, then, are said to "flow" (fluunt) from the soul's essence.[22]

Every agent acts for an end. Omnis agens agit propter finem.[23] This is a fundamental principle, for, says St. Thomas (art. 3), it is the end (finis) which specifies the act as what it is morally, finis here being understood as end of the (human) will, which as coming to the action from outside is contrasted with the act's own proximate or natural end, also called its object.

This objectum is intrinsic to the act, and so acts which have bad or forbidden objects, e.g. the death of an innocent, cannot be justified by any good intention or end in the will whatever. Such acts are intrinsically bad. An act is an act of a certain kind before anyone's intention is brought to bear upon it. Prima bonitas actus moralis attenditur ex obiecto... primum malum in actionibus moralibus est quod est ex obiecto... Et dicitur malum ex genere, i.e. it is intrinsically or unalterably bad.[24]

At the same time St. Thomas distinguishes a twofold act in voluntary action, viz. the individual interior act of the will, of which the end (finis) is in fact also the object, and the exterior act, which, as being of a certain kind, has its own (natural) object, which the acting person's end may not contradict.[25] Parallel to this is his distinction between the finis operantis (end of the agent) and the finis operis (end of the work or thing done), or again between the remote and the proximate end. Hence the first and specific moral quality of the human act derives from the moral object; only secondarily does it derive from the circumstances and from the end intended by the agent.

As we say, stealing is stealing, and Aristotle too speaks of acts which are wicked no matter where or by whom or for what reason they are performed. If there were no such acts it would, it can be argued, prove impossible to have any ethical theory whatever.[26]

Finis and bonum are in many ways equivalent (bonum habet rationem finis, good has the meaning of end). Hence bonum is characterized by Aristotle as what all desire (sc. as end). The good of a being is explained by St. Thomas as the perfecting of a being, as what perfects it. Hence the ultimate good of any rational being, i.e. of any person, is that person's happiness, when he is all that he could wish to be.[27]

Bonum, good, is one of the transcendental predicates, ens, unum, verum, bonum, etc. Hence it is really identical with ens, being. Bonum as such is a mere ens rationis or being of reason, naming ens as considered in relation to the human will (the faculty of desire), since this takes the whole of being (as bonum in communi) for its province. Similarly, verum, true (or the true), names an ens rationis which is being as considered in relation to intellect. There is only being, but omne ens est verum.[28] This is the ultimate reason for criticizing the separation of ethics from metaphysics pretended by I. Kant.[29] The moral order is distinct from the ontological order in general but it depends upon it for its own being.[30]

It is only in the specifically moral order that anything actually existing, e.g. an action, can be characterized as totally bad. Ontologically, since being and goodness are identical, any action, insofar as it is real or occurs, is good, and what might make it bad is precisely something (especially something due) that it would lack (as a privatio boni), e.g. mercy, or justice. Hence St. Thomas says of evil in general, malum est semper in subjecto, evil is always in a subject, i.e. a good subject, as corrupting it.

In the moral order, however, the absence of one due circumstance, and still more the badness of the object (of the act), makes the act totally bad morally. All the same, moral good and evil are a species of good and evil generally, and neither radically different from nor merely analogous to other types of good and evil. For example, it is not, as Kant taught, that only the will in man can be "good without qualification". Rather, moral goodness or badness (i.e. the goodness of human acts qua human) reside in the will because of the physical (natural) circumstance that will determines the use to which everything else, e.g. every other faculty, is put. Hence St. Thomas can distinguish the proper object of the rational will, bonum in communi (sc. finis ultimus), from the proper object of each of the other faculties:

For it is not only things pertaining to the will that the will desires, but also that which pertains to each power, and to the entire man. Wherefore man wills naturally not only the object of the will, but also other things that are appropriate to the other powers; such as the knowledge of truth, which befits the intellect; and to be and to live and other like things which regard natural well-being; all of which are included in the object of the will, as so many particular goods.[31]

At the level of meaning the moral good is a good like all the other goods and vice versa. It is not sui generis as belonging to some separate realm of value, even if it is (much) more important than other goods, as D. von Hildebrand[32] rightly stresses. This is why Maritain says that

The desire to see God, for the pure philosopher, and on the pure plane of nature, is simply one of the desires which exist in us, and which can remain unsatisfied without destroying the happiness to which human life is naturally directed, since this happiness is an imperfect felicity,...[33]

a remark which can also be applied to the Kantian motive of pure duty. Plikten framför allt, duty before everything, as is still inscribed on the coins of the erstwhile Lutheran kingdom of Sweden, but that allt still exists at the natural level and includes many natural goods. In fact St. Thomas can say, indeed he insists, that two things at least stand above the moral good and virtue, viz. God and man's ultimate happiness (as ends of virtue).

This point is essential for the setting up of an order or hierarchy of moral precepts in parallel with and as based upon the order of the natural inclinations (see below).[34] Otherwise nothing would be wrong which was willed as a good, even though everything, even the most evil act, is, when committed, willed as a good (since finis habet rationem boni and omnis agens agit propter finem).

Although then the agent's end is secondary to the role played by the act's object (if this is bad the act is malum ex genere; the end, by contrast, is not of the substance of the act[35] ), yet the end is important enough to specify the act morally within this genus of good or bad acts. Thus Aristotle says that "he who steals that he may commit adultery is, strictly speaking, more adulterer than thief",[36] this being a specification between two bad acts. One reason for this importance of the agent's end is that the act's being desired, as good or end, is the main cause of the act's coming to be (performed) at all.


Granted the general truth that all action, and hence all laws and even divine commands, are for some purpose[37], it then appears that there must be some one supreme end to human living and activity.

If then there is some final purpose of the various forms of activity, which we seek for its own sake, while the others are sought only for the sake of this purpose, and if we do not make every choice with reference to a further goal (for this would be a step towards infinity, and hence an empty and meaningless striving), then it is clear that this final purpose is the Good, and indeed the highest good.[38]

A contemporary critique of the argument for this one "dominant" end[39], is that it commits the "quantifier shift fallacy", viz. that it argues as follows:

all chains of means and ends have an ultimate purpose, therefore there is some one ultimate purpose to life (cp. all roads lead somewhere, therefore there is somewhere that all roads lead to).

But this does not appear to be the way that either Aristotle or St. Thomas argues. Rather, they begin by treating life as one connected whole and then argue that it cannot have more than one ultimate purpose.[40] They (but especially St. Thomas) go on to argue that this end must be the ultimate purpose of any action whatever, i.e. not just of my activity as a whole but of each and every thing that I choose to do. This final end is identified as beatitudo or happiness (eudaimonia). St. Thomas, accepting the definition of Boethius that happiness is status omnium bonorum aggregatione perfectus[41], argues in great detail that, negatively, it cannot be had in this life or in the enjoyment of any created thing[42] and, positively, that it consists in the intellectual vision of God[43], no other good whatever being necessary to it.

This is St. Thomas's theory of what happiness consists in. All men seek happiness as such, i.e. it is the natural end of the rational will, as bonum in communi, but not all men agree as to whether or where it is realised.

We can speak of the last end in two ways: first, considering only the aspect (ratio) of last end; secondly, considering the thing in which the aspect of last end is realised.[44]

St. Thomas concludes his argument here with a comparison with the aesthetic sphere, with taste. All find what is sweet pleasant (sic), but some prefer sweet wine, others honey etc. But the best sweet will be preferred by the man or woman with the best taste. Similarly, the most perfect good is desired (as last end) only by the man with well-disposed affections. This argument echoes the Aristotelian circle of right reason and right desire. Elsewhere St. Thomas overcomes this circularity by an appeal to our natural inclinations.

For St. Thomas, as for St. Augustine (and of course Aristotle) happiness is a natural end of the will (bonum in communi) and of man as such. This means that he is not free to choose or reject it. Many later thinkers, beginning with Duns Scotus, would deny that the will is naturally bound to anything, even to happiness. But whereas for Kant happiness has nothing whatever to do with the strictly moral motive or categorical imperative, for St. Thomas it is the highest development of morality (höchste Entfaltung der Sittlichkeit).[45] It is thus internal to morality, which is therefore not a pure means to happiness, as in that utilitarianism which Kant sought to avoid. Virtuous living somehow participates in the end; it is vivere secundum Deum, living according to God, in St. Augustine's words.

It seems mistaken to prefer a philosophy of value to this ultimately eudemonistic vision. "He's a hedonist at heart," says C.S. Lewis's Screwtape of God, quoting the psalm, "At thy right hand are pleasures for evermore". Value in such systems (D. von Hildebrand's Christian Ethics, J. Seifert's writings et al.) seems to be somehow conceived of as apart from the natural universe, and as von Hildebrand himself says, St. Thomas "does not use this concept". As Etienne Gilson explains it[46] the Christians stood the old pagan philosophy of virtue (and hence of value, the bonum honestum[47] ) on its head, by making union with and enjoyment of God the end of all things (see next section). "Only this is desirable for itself, and all else for the sake of it" (St. Augustine). To this corresponds the primacy of being over the good argued for by the Christians, following Exodus, as opposed to the Neoplatonic primacy of the Form of the Good (and ultimately of the One) over being; they stressed this especially in the disputes with the Manichaeans and Albigensians. Modern thought often slips back into this worship of pure morality, altruism and so forth. But "this moral theory does not correspond to the truth about man and his freedom."[48] Here we can understand G. Marcel's remark:

I would accordingly be inclined to make the following undoubtedly paradoxical affirmation that the inroduction of the idea of value into philosophy, an idea virtually unknown to the great metaphysicians of the past, is as it were the sign of a fundamental devaluation of reality itself... It is true that we may think here of a certain compensation which, incidentally, remains imaginary which seeks in an ideal manner, i.e. basically in the imagination, to find again that which on the level of reality one has a tendency to do away with.[49]

The Thomistic philosophy is personalistic as giving to each man an eternal destiny, in contrast to any political arrangement. So for the Christians ethics could not merely form part of politics, as seems the case with Aristotle. Thus St. Thomas states that all social and political arrangements are for the sake of the eternal fulfilment of the person, at the same time as he agrees with Aristotle that it is natural to man to be born into a political state, something At. Augustine had seen, on a par with slavery, as a mere necessity attributable to the effects of sin.

And so, if things are considered aright, it will be seen that all human states and occupations serve as means to the contemplation of truth.[50]

The virtues are thus habits which man needs to acquire so as to attain his end, and in his theology St. Thomas develops further this philosophical doctrine into a general teaching concerning supernatural wisdom (theological virtues, beatitudes, gifts and fruits of the Holy Spirit). This personalist doctrine, however, is wholly distinct from individualism, which has no doctrine of the common good (bonum commune). It is precisely because certain actions, e.g. offences against justice committed for utilitarian motives, harm the common good which justice enshrines that the person responsible of necessity turns away from his own ultimate and personal good in so acting.

This philosophical doctrine of the ultimate end is not the same as the "one thing needful" as interpreted in the mystical tradition, for example. Bonum in communi is the good of the will, and hence of the man. Yet the various faculties have each their own particular goods which it is natural for man to desire as well as the bonum in communi as such. As Maritain says, again, the natural desire for God is just one of man's desires. There is a hierarchy of the natural inclinations, from which indeed the order of the precepts of the natural law is derived (Ia-IIae 94, 2). Man has, for example, a natural desire to marry, to live in political society and so on. On the other hand, the (supernatural) doctrine of "using the world as though one used it not" seems prefigured in statements by Plato and Aristotle such as when the latter says that just a little of the contemplation of divine truth is worth more than all the other goods together and that the wise person should practise death (athanatizein) in relation to these things for the sake of gaining wisdom.

This Aristotelian ideal of scientific study, knowledge in this world, as being the finis ultimus, is knowingly transposed by St. Thomas into a doctrine of divine vision only to be realised in eternity. Yet, and again in contrast to Aristotle, he states that it is necessary to know what the end is in order to live well.


De ratione praecepti est quod importet ordinem ad finem, inquantum scilicet illud praecipitur quod est necessarium vel expediens ad finem.[51]

I.e. it is of the very meaning of a precept that it involves an ordering to an end, inasmuch, namely, as those things are made obligatory or commanded which are necessary or expedient for a given end.

This is a basic principle for St. Thomas. He argues like this: the precept of the law, since it is obligatory, concerns something which ought to be done. But that something ought to be done arises from the necessity of some end. In other words, he has absolutely nothing to do with any theory of pure duty or obligation, duty, that is, as divorced from any good to be sought. This is not to deny that duty can indeed receive a sacred character, as being divinely commanded, but one must consider that in the divine wisdom it is given to us as essentially a means to an end, at least in the general sense of propter finem.

For this is so even if the behaviour commanded (e.g. love) is already some kind of participation in the end. In that case it is a necessary condition for the end, i.e. for beatitudo, happiness. Love one another. Why? Because then you will be children of God, like him, and so all will be well (cp. the beatitudes: happy are the pure of heart etc.). So to give oneself up to love is to understand that this is the way to life and joy. If one did not believe this, then to proclaim that one "lives for others" would seem merely perverse. Why do it, if no good comes of it (cp. bonum habet rationem finis)? It is only the good coming from it that makes love itself intrinsically good, i.e. the end is internal to the act (in this case, love) as specifying it as what it is.

The whole philosophy of pure duty as found in Kant and some other writers might thus seem to be a mistake. Its roots can be traced back to those fourteenth century theologians who argued that the divine commands had to be arbitrary in order to safeguard the freedom and absolute power of God (potentia absoluta Dei). One must only obey, and not pretend to understand what has no foundation other than the infinite divine liberty. But this seems to destroy any definite idea of God. One should rather see the divine commands and teaching as expressing how God is (cp. St. John: "God is love"). That, after all, is why they are put forward as a divine pedagogy, teaching man the way to God.

Thus ethics is explained as essentially teleological, related to the ends and purposes of life, to the element of purpose in natural reality. Aristotelian ethics is built up by analogy (or even in univocal conformity) with the rest of nature, which is seen as ordered to an end, ultimately to God. Hence, for example, St. Thomas's fifth argument (via quinta) for God's existence argues from the element of order, and hence of order to an end, in nature to the existence of an ordering intelligence as cause of that order.

Thus Aristotle argues that men, too, like everything else, must be ordered to an end, for the sake of which the various moral precepts, and the corresponding need to develop virtues, impose themselves. Around the seventeenth century, however, this teleological view of nature became obscured, being replaced by a mechanist view which explained things in terms of efficient causality only. Final causality was denied, or at least regarded as unknowable. The bird flies because it has wings (efficient causality); it does not have wings in order to fly (finality).

This development could only weaken the traditional explanation of moral reality as needed for the good life[52], leading either to empiricist utilitarianism (Bentham, Mill) or to rationalist formalism (Kant), both of which agree in denying the existence of real or natural ethical laws. Thus Kant's categorical imperative tells us to adopt principles which we could wish were universal laws. The imperative is itself a merely formal, a priori requirement of reasoning, but why such consistency should be preferred above the other goods of life is not made clear.

For in this rationalist philosophy (of the time of the Enlightenment) no reason is given for human dignity sufficient for making obligatory any duty of acting according to reason, while the Kantian notion of freedom consists in a purely negative freedom of constraint from any kind of determinate human nature. That this negativity does not itself imply any kind of dignity is clearly brought out by Sartre, who uses the same negative concept of freedom and whose book, Being and Nothingness, ends with the statement that "man is a useless passion", since, he claims, "man is what he makes himself and nothing else."[53] For St. Thomas and the tradition it is necessary to show the spirituality of reason, and even that it is a reflection of the divine reality (this is how St. Thomas defines natural law, which is only law on this supposition), if one is metaphysically to guarantee the possibility of any truth at all (veritas est in mente) and hence establish the dignity of the human soul or mind.[54]

Today, in any case, there is a move to reinstate teleology in nature, as would implicitly be required by a natural law or teleological ethics. Meanwhile the name of teleology has been misappropriated by theologians calling themselves "consequentialists" or "proportionalists" who teach what is really a variety of utilitarianism in the sense of a refusal to admit moral absolutes referred to external human acts (cf. John Paul II's Veritatis splendor, nn. 74-83, for a discerning critique of these theories).

True teleology, on the other hand, does not require us to deny that there are intrinsically evil acts. For these are acts which will never lead to the end, which of themselves avert us from the end, from God, on account of their objects. In traditional theological terminology, they are materially sinful, whatever is to be added concerning the degree of culpability of the agent.[55]

Hence a justification of moral principles in terms of man's ultimate end is compatible with the defence of the existence of intrinsically evil acts and of absolute (deontological) moral principles.[56] One recognizes the traditional Christian scheme.

(T)he Christian moralists sought first to attach all moral worth to the voluntary act as its root; ... at the same time they gathered up the concepts of the beauty and honour of human acts into a concept still more comprehensive, that, namely, of the good; then referred the good to a transcendent principle worthy of all honour in itself and absolutely, more truly even than virtue, which is only honourable on account of this. They regarded the soul of a just man as beautiful and worthy of honour because virtuous, but virtue itself as honourable only because it leads man to God. It is therefore not the supreme good, the nec plus ultra that it was to the Greeks, the all-sufficient unconditioned condition of all morality.[57]

This might seem to contradict, at least in emphasis, Maritain's notion[58] of moral value. A careful reading of Maritain, however, shows underlying agreement with Gilson (cp. Maritain pp.28-43, esp. 42-43; also pp. 20-24).


It is strange that a basic Thomistic text such as Maritain's Introduction to the Basic Problems of Moral Philosophy (1950) has so little to say about the virtues, speaking instead about value judgements, right, obligation and the last end: strange, because St. Thomas himself not only had so much to say about the virtues but presented by far the greater part of his moral philosophy in terms of them.[59]

Thus he treats of man (in the Summa Theologica) as having free will and power over his actions.[60] This leads him to begin the Pars Secunda (of the Summa) with a treatise on the ultimate purpose of life, since all action is for a purpose.

He then (Q6) treats of human acts, by which we attain (or miss) the last end. Action and operation is always individual or particular, he says; first, however, we must consider action generally (in universali: this will take up the whole of Ia-IIae), before considering human acts in individual detail (IIa-IIae, where all action is considered under the headings of various virtues and vices).

As far as the general treatment (Ia-IIae) is concerned, he first takes human acts themselves (QQ6-48), secondly their causes or principia (Q49-end). Here the virtues come in, as we shall now explain.

Of human acts themselves, some are proper to man, some are common to us and other animals. The first are more closely connected with the attainment of happiness since this is man's proper good. The second, common type of act are called collectively, as we have already noted, the passions of the soul.[61]

So under the first type, viz. human acts properly so called, which are voluntary, he treats of the voluntary in relation to the involuntary, of the goodness or badness of such acts and of the properties which result from that, viz. uprightness or sinfulness, praiseworthiness or culpability, merit or demerit.

Then he comes to those acts common to us and animals, viz. the passions, which he treats first in general, then in particular (the concupiscible, viz. love, hate, desire, flight, delight, sadness: the irascible, viz. hope, despair, fear, boldness, anger). As irrational, the passions do not have moral goodness or badness; this resides rather in the reason as governing or failing to govern them (Q 24, art.2).

This concludes the treatment of human acts in themselves. He now comes to the principles (causes) of such acts, which are either intrinsic to man (QQ49-89), viz. the powers of the soul (already treated of in the Prima Pars of the Summa) and its habits, or they are extrinsic to him, viz. the Devil (Ia, Q114) or God, who, as moving to good, instructs us by law (QQ90-108) and helps us by grace (QQ109-114).

So even though the natural law might seem to be intrinsic to human nature, yet St. Thomas treats it as (exterior) divine instruction, in contrast to good habits (virtues), which are intrinsic to us. Is this arbitrary? We don't think so. There is a long tradition which holds that in acknowledging this law in conscience (treated in Ia) we are responding to the voice of God[62], i.e. to an extrinsic principle. This is at the root of the controversy about whether a morality of obligation presupposes a divine law-giver[63]. As is well known, Kant wished to deny this, making of reason as such an empowered legislator.[64]

As P.T. Geach puts it, "for some time.. moral philosophers rather neglected the virtues". He refers to Philippa Foot's contribution to British moral philosophy as reviving the virtues, in reaction to R.M. Hare's approach.[65] She attacks the stress on principles and values, putting forward her idea of a "background".[66] This is the tradition of virtues and vices which she refers to somewhat too blithely as a "collection", serving to give moral discourse a descriptive and cognitive reference, rather than the emotive prescriptiveness favoured by Hare. She concludes:

For this reason understanding what someone says about what is right and wrong is not like understanding an order.

Behind this lies the whole debate about fact and value.[67] But for the present we return to St. Thomas so as to complete our account of the place of virtue in his scheme. Virtues come under habits, habit being the second intrinsic principle of human acts (after the powers of the soul). St. Thomas treats first of habits in general, saying that they are qualities (dispositions) ordering us to certain types of action. They are necessary, and their subject is the soul. This distinguishes them from instincts (or vires sensitivae)[68] There are habits of intellect (the intellectual virtues, e.g. knowledge, understanding, wisdom, prudence, art) and of will (the moral virtues and vices).[69] These are habits by which the will is well disposed to its proper act.

St. Thomas then asks a few questions about the causes of habits, e.g. if we can have them by nature (Q 51, 1, very important), or as a result of actions, as well as whether they can be infused by God, increased, corrupted, lost. He asks about distinctions between habits, e.g. according to good and bad (virtues and vices).

Thus we come to the virtues (QQ 55-67), their essence or definition, viz.: bona qualitas mentis, qua recte vivitur, qua nullus male utitur (55, 4, obj.1: a good quality of mind by which one lives rightly and which no one can use badly). This applies to both acquired and infused virtues. He treats firstly of the intellectual virtues (57), especially the role of prudence, then of the moral virtues, in relation to the passions and to one another, first the cardinal and then the theological virtues.

He then discusses the causes of virtue, such as nature, effort, infusion. The virtues are not by nature perfected in us. We have only natural seeds of virtue (63, 1). Next he discusses the idea of virtue as a mean between two evils, and the relative importance of the various virtues, their unity and whether they remain after this life.

As a theologian he comes then to the gifts and fruits of the Holy Spirit and to the Beatitudes (Sermon on the Mount),[70] before discussing bad habits or vices and sin (QQ 71-89). Only after that does he come to God and the Devil (the extrinsic causes of human acts) and hence to law and grace, as we said above. In the long IIa-IIae which follows he treats of virtues and vices in particular, as well, finally, as of prophecy, of different types of life (active, contemplative etc.) and of offices and states (episcopal, monastic etc.). These last three divisions are intended to cover things pertaining to the habits and acts of the rational soul which are nonetheless only relevant to some men, or which (types of life) differ from man to man, or woman. Virtues and vices, by contrast, pertain to the conditions and states (conditiones et status) of all men.[71] This conclusion of the Pars Secunda serves to remind us that what is treated here is, in the vision of St. Thomas, not virtues and vices as such, but these as, together with the gifts, the beatitudes[72], and now prophecy and types and states of life, falling under human acts (actus humani). Thus he refers to the beatitudes as distinguished from the virtues and the gifts (of the Spirit) "as acts are distinguished from habits".[73] We cannot ignore this if we wish to know how he understood the moral life. Whether as instrumental or as essential condition it is related to the good life as part to whole. Our present day political arrangements and laicist frame of mind can lead us all too easily to pass over this essential fact.


We saw how for St. Thomas the virtues, good habits, are intrinsic principles of good action; laws are extrinsic principles, as given to us by God (or the government!), even when we find them at the heart of our being.[74] They presuppose a divine lawgiver. One should perhaps not press this distinction too far however. It is true that St. Thomas denies that natural law is a habit[75], as are the virtues (one reason for his denial is that it is not always used, e.g. in babies or the damned). Yet he asserts that there is a habit of the principles of natural law, called synderesis (compared to conscience as habit to act), which is naturally inborn.[76]

The duty that these God-given laws create has therefore a kind of religious colouring. It is in fact analogous to religion. Now St. Thomas explains religion as itself a virtue which is part of the more general virtue of justice, since it consists in paying back to higher, invisible powers what is due to them (praise, thanks etc.).[77] Religio, the word, is explained from ligare, to bind. Like duty, it binds. And thus a person motivated by pure duty is at least similar to a religious person as paying an invisible debt (debitum, from which the word "duty", i.e. something owed, comes).

We have our duties to one another in just this way; we speak of our duties to society, and we can indeed ask whether it makes sense even to speak of a duty, "pure" duty, which is not a duty to someone or something. Thus in response to a statement that someone acted thus because it was his duty we can always ask "Duty to whom (or what)?"

We have spoken of Kant as the philosopher of duty[78], but duty as such is a basic traditional notion which Kant in fact rather distorts, so that conscience itself can protest against Kant's view of things, according to which the individual will is dominant, pretending to make law instead of humbling itself before an existing duty ("So act that you can will that your principle be a universal law." This principle, the categorical imperative, contains an implicit denial that any law already exists).

This contrasts with the view of St. Anselm, for example, who defines moral goodness, justitia[79], as rectitudo voluntatis propter se servata[80], i.e. uprightness (or straightness) of the will preserved for its own sake. In that propter se we have the notion of pure duty. But the difference from Kant lies in Anselm's notion of rectitudo. Such uprightness is essentially measured by that subsisting goodness which is God. Thus his predecessor in this Augustinian tradition, St. Gregory the Great, states that it would be wrong to think oneself morally upright if one departed from, ignored or did not know "the rule of the highest righteousness" (regulam summae Rectitudinis). This is just what Kant seems to do. The subject measures himself purely by his own reason, itself made into the plaything of the will.

Thus Anselm links his concept of rectitudo with theoretical truth, which he defines as rectitudo mente sola perceptibilis. The practical sphere thus preserves its rational character, as it does not do in Kant, who separates it entirely from theoretical reason.[81] For Kant the truths of morality are all derived from so-called "practical postulates" (God, the soul, judgment) which cannot be proved. We have to act as if we knew we were immortal. All that supports Kant in this are his strong moral intuitions. It is even doubtful whether any deliverances of his practical reason (which he virtually equates with the will), such as moral principles, can be properly called true or false.

The tradition in which Anselm stands presents morality as a matter of fulfilling duties (ultimately to God) out of love. "The lot marked out for me is my delight" (Psalm XV, 6, Vulg.). Vivere secundum Deum, to live according to God, is, we noted above, how Augustine describes the virtuous life. We will see how in the tradition there is a definite link of the moral life with spiritual life in the thought of the Church Fathers, such as the Desert Father Cassian, who links purity of heart and the overcoming of the Seven Deadly Sins with the attainment of divine blessedness. It is in this Patristic tradition of biblical commentary that St. Thomas ultimately stands.[82]

Against Kant we can say that unless there is a real law there is no real duty in the strict sense. So if in practice we find we cannot deny duty then we have to find a philosophy that makes it possible to admit the existence of a real law which we did not create for ourselves.[83]


The Dominican, G.M. Manser, located the great error in Kant's ethics in his separation (Trennung) of morals from metaphysics:

We find in Kant the separation (divorce) of ethics and metaphysics... In contrast to Kant the true Aristotelian extracts from the flux of sense-experience something permanent, the essential, without which there could be no flux, even. He abstracts all ideas from experience. Thus they keep the content of the world of sense, even the highest transcendental concepts do, which in the form of principles of proof support the practical and moral life, there being no divorce of the speculative and the prac­tical order. With that ethics is based on metaphysics and the existence of God becomes speculatively demonstrable, i.e. it is not just a postulate of practical reason. Thus the moral-practical life receives its measure from outside through things, from above through the unchange­able speculative principles and finally from God: thus it escapes the continuous variability of daily life. The doctrine of duty keeps its necessity beside that of freedom.[84]

This separation found expression in later ethical theory chiefly in the assertion of a deep-lying difference between statements of fact and statements of value, a linguistic difference in the sense of a logical difference. This is the end-result of Kant's view of practical reason as constituting a different faculty from theoreti­cal reason. For the tradition, on the other hand, reason is normally theoretical or speculative, i.e. focussed upon being, and only becomes practical by extension, when it is brought to bear upon action, upon something which is to be done (faciendum, the gerundive[85] ).

Here it is most important to note St. Thomas's teaching that reason, not will, orders, also in the sense of commanding (imperare est actus rationis, ST Ia-IIae, 17, 1), even of commanding someone (alicui). We order or command ourselves by reason, and thus also St. Thomas will teach that law, as an ordinance given to others, is also an ordinance given to others by or according to reason, not will[86], even though reason gets its motive power in general from the will. Will without reason, even of a prince, "would be more iniquity than law".

Now value, properly understood, ranges over the whole of reality, in so far as everything has some value (or disvalue). It is misused when it is given only a subjective application, as contrasted with the objectivity of pure fact. Talk of such "value-free" facts, "value-free" science, naturally devalues reality. We found Gabriel Marcel, above, making the same point.[87]

Thus the tendency among linguistic analysts (and those, such as empirical scientists in the field, who use the language and concepts created by them) is to divide statements up into state­ments of fact and statements of value. This is false to our language and thinking, however, since the factual-theoretical and the evaluative aspects are almost always intertwined in one and the same statement. This, of course, is what one would expect if one has understood that the good is ultimately being (i.e. being understood as presented to the rational will). Thus calling someone a communist may be pure statement of fact or it may be an entirely emotive term of abuse, depending on context.

Similarly, the judgment that an argument is valid in logic would seem entirely factual and, so to say, mathematical. Yet "valid" is clearly an evaluative term. For to call an argument valid is to commend it as good and, in general, validity (of arguments) is for the sake of reaching truth, i.e. it is teleological. If we had no interest in truth we would be indifferent to the validity of arguments.

The attempt to separate values from the real world of science just will not work. R.M. Hare makes the same kind of mistake, with his theory of two different types of meaning, viz. descriptive and prescriptive.[88] Actually it is because the analysts fail to see that statements of fact are substantial or real that they think that serious moral statements must be of a different logical type, thus cutting the ground from under their own feet.


[1] Summa contra gentiles III 37.

[2] Ia-IIae 90, 1 ad 3um.

[3] Cf. QD de veritate 22, 10 ad 4um; Summa theol. Ia-IIae 9, 1 ad 2um; 49, 4 ad 2um.

[4] Cf. Aquinas, Sententia libri Ethicorum, Rome 1969, Bk. I, lesson 2, p.8, ll.52-71.

[5] Ibid. Bk. VI, lesson 2, p.337, ll. 109-127.

[6] See the Prologue to Pars IIa of the Summa, and the treatise on prudence in general.

[7] Ia-IIae 69, 2.

[8] St. Anselm's definition of justice. St. Thomas corrects it at Ia-IIae 58, 1 ad 2um: rectitudo is what the habit of justice, the will to give each his own, attains, as giving a straight course (recte) to the ultimate end, the common good (bonum in communi possessed as bonum commune), for which justice, as an initial participation in it, is required.

[9] I John 3, 14.

[10] Moralia 5, 37.

[11] St. Augustine, On Free Choice of the Will I 14, The City of God XIV 9; cf. St. Anselm, Letter 156: "the things that are done in God are done according to God, that is, they are done recte". To translate by rightly would be misleading, as if Anselm were a moralist of the order of Kant or Sir David Ross. Recte has ultimately to do with the divine government of the world and the ordering of things to their final end, which those pursue recte, on a straight course, who live secundum Deum, being already, by participation, in Deo.

[12] IIa-IIae 25, 8.

[13] Cf. Leo Elders, "St. Thomas Aquinas' Commentary on the Nicomachaean Ethics", Autour de Saint Thomas d'Aquin I, Bruges 1987.

[14] NE 1103b 27.

[15] Cf. Summa Theologica Ia-IIae 94, 2.

[16] Cf. G.E.M. Anscombe, "Modern Moral Philosophy", Philosophy (London), 1958; S. Theron, Morals as Founded on Natural Law, Frankfurt 1987-8, ch. V.

[17] For the history of this development away from Aristotelian Thomist teleology one may profitably consult A.C. MacIntyre's writings, principally After Virtue, London 1981, Whose Justice, which Rationality? Notre Dame 1988.

[18] So one can also say that ethics treats of virtues and vices, as habits (rules?) of action, the matter of which, in turn, are the passions.

[19] Cf. J. Gredt, Elementa Philosophiae Aristotelico-Thomisticae, Freiburg 1929, Vol. II, p. 297, paragraph 880.

[20] Summa Theologica Ia-IIae, VI (Prol.).

[21] Ibid. Ia 14, 1 et al. One should not underestimate the role played by a positive doctrine of the spiritual soul in St. Thomas's ethics.

[22] Ibid. Ia 77, 6. Cf. Lawrence Dewan, "The Real Distinction between Intellect and Will", Angelicum LVII (1980), pp. 557-593.

[23] Ibid. Ia-IIae, 1, 1.

[24] Ibid. Ia-IIae 18, 2. "The primary goodness of the moral act derives from its object... the primary evil in moral actions from their object. When this is evil the actions are called generically or intrinsically evil." Cp. Pope John Paul II, Veritatis Splendor, Rome 1993: "The reason why a good intention is not itself sufficient, but a correct choice of actions is also needed, is that the human act depends on its object, whether that object is capable or not of being ordered to God... and thus brings about the perfection of the person... Christian ethics, which pays particular attention to the moral object, does not refuse to consider the inner "teleology" of acting, inasmuch as it is directed to promoting the true good of the person; but it recognizes that it is really pursued only when the esesential elements of human nature are respected."

[25] Ibid., 18, 6.

[26] Cf. John Paul II (Karol Wojtyla), Veritatis Splendor, especially Chapter Two, section IV, "The Moral Act".

[27] Cf. Summa Theol. Ia, Q5, De bono in communi.

[28] Cp. St. Thomas, QD de Potentia IX, 7 ad 6um; Theron, The Recovery of Purpose, Frankfurt 1993, pp. 108-109; J. Pieper, Die Wirklichkeit und das Gute, Munich 1963, or other (translated) texts of this author.

[29] Cf. G.M. Manser O.P., Das Naturrecht in thomistischer Beleuchtung, Freiburg in der Schweitz, 1944; Theron, op. cit., pp. 31, 91 et passim.

[30] Cf. J. Maritain, Introduction to the Basic Problems of Moral Philosophy, Albany NY, 1990 (Magi Books), ch. 2.

[31] St. Thomas, Summa Theol. Ia-IIae, 10, 1.

[32] Christian Ethics, London 1953.

[33] Maritain, op. cit. p.111.

[34] St. Thomas, ibid. Ia-IIae 94, 2.

[35] de substantia actus: Ia-IIae 7, 1 ad 2um.

[36] Aristotle NE V, 2.

[37] Such laws would be part of some purpose that God has given to us, since he himself, as omnipotent, needs no means to his end.

[38] Aristotle NE I,1; cp. St. Thomas, Summa Theol. Ia-IIae I, 4.

[39] G.E.M. Anscombe, "Aristotle", in Three Philosophers, Oxford 1967,

[40] Cf. S. Theron, "Happiness and Transcendent Happiness", Religious Studies 21 (1985), pp.349-367.

[41] Boethius, On the Consolations of Philosophy III, cf. St. Thomas op. cit. Ia-IIae 2, 1, obj.2.

[42] St. Thomas, ibid. Q2.

[43] Ibid. QQ 3-5.

[44] The whole of this question 1, article 7, should be studied and reflected upon.

[45] M. Grabmann S.J., Thomas von Aquin, Munich 1959.

[46] E. Gilson, The Spirit of Medieval Philosophy, New York 1940, pp. 325, 473.

[47] But see in this connection the final chapter of this present work, on temperance.

[48] Pope John Paul II, Veritatis splendor, Rome 1993, 48.

[49] G. Marcel, Les hommes contre l'humain, Paris 1951, p.127. Cf. Leo Elders, The Metaphysics of Being of St. Thomas Aquinas, Leyden (Brill), 1993, p.76f.

[50] St. Thomas, Summa contra Gentes III 37.

[51] St. Thomas, Summa Theologiae Ia-IIae 99, 1.

[52] Cf. A.C. MacIntyre, After Virtue, London 1981.

[53] From Sartre's Existentialism is a Humanism.

[54] This is a profound question. Cf. the argument of C.S. Lewis in his Miracles against materialist "naturalism" (what is at stake is the question of truth, sabotaged in much of contemporary philosophy). But if there is no argument for human dignity then there is no binding argument against the absolute wrongness of murder, as Robert Spaemann has well shown (e.g. in "Ueber den Begriff der Menschenwuerde", Scheidewege 15, 1985/86, p.25ff.). One is thrown back upon ethical intuitionism.

[55] Cf. S. Theron, "Consequentialism and Natural Law", in Persona, Verità e Morale, Atti del Congresso Internazionale di Teologia Morale, Rome, 7-12 April 1986, pp. 177-195.

[56] Cf. Theron, Morals as Founded on Natural Law, Frankfurt 1987, IIiv; VI iii, xi-xiv.

[57] E. Gilson, op. cit. p.325. Cf. p. 473, note 4.

[58] J. Maritain, op. cit.

[59] Among moral theologians Servais Pinckaers O.P. has lately much emphasised this point.

[60] Cf. Prologue to Ia-IIae.

[61] We should here recall the distinction between actus humanus and actus hominis, bearing in mind also that actus has a wider meaning than the English "action". The soul, for example, is for Aristotle an actus (of the body).

[62] Cf. especially Cardinal Newman's (1801-1890) writings on this topic, in The Grammar of Assent and elsewhere.

[63] G.E.M. Anscombe argues thus, in "Modern Moral Philosophy", Philosophy (London) 1958.

[64] Cf. S. Theron, "Does Reason Legislate?" The Downside Review 1983.

[65] Cf. Theron, op. cit. ch.1, where R.M. Hare's Freedom and Reason (Oxford 1952) is discussed.

[66] Cf. Philippa Foot, "When is a Principle a Moral Principle?" Aristotelian Society Supplement XXVIII, 1954.

[67] Mrs. Foot's collection is at least as much a fact as Lockean secondary qualities, conceived of as essentially rooted in human responses. This, however, need not be a qualification (of their factuality), but rather a specification of it as to do with man (and not just with some Lebenswelt) and his rational life rather than with, say, elephants.

[68] Cf. Ia-IIae 50, 3.

[69] Prudence, according to St. Thomas, is essentially, as recta ratio agibilium (right reasoning about things to be done), a virtue of the practical intellect. With regard to its matter, however, viz. actions, it is a moral virtue as requiring right desire and purpose (Ia-IIae 58, 3 ad 1um).

[70] But he comes to them just here because, theological or not, infused or not, they are conceived of as acts and habits of the rational soul.

[71] IIa-IIae, Q 171, Prol.

[72] Not to be confused with beatitude (beatitudo) in general as treated of in the preliminary treatise (QQ1-5) on the ultimate purpose of human life (finis ultimus). All the same one should argue that St. Thomas implies a close connection between these Beatitudes, so paradoxical to human nature, and ultimate beatitude, in that those who live according to them are following the way to participate in beatitudo as much as one may under conditions of temporal corruptibility. This imperfect, graced participation in perfect happiness is clearly distinguishable from the Aristotelian doctrine, which St. Thomas endorses, of imperfect happiness, proper to this life alone and in principle attainable without special divine help (grace). Hence St. Thomas envisages infused moral virtues (e.g. of temperance) alongside but different (in object and end) from the acquired moral virtues (see Ia-IIae 63, 4).

[73] Ia-IIae, 69, 1.

[74] There is an analogy with grace here, also an extrinsic principle of action. Cf. St. Paul's "I live yet not I..."

[75] Ia-IIae 94, 1.

[76] Ia 79, 12 & 13.

[77] It is a potential part (pars potentialis) of justice (see Chapter 19 for explanation of the different ways in which one virtue can participate in another). Cf. IIa-IIae 81 et seq.

[78] See his Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysic of Morals (tr. Abbott), New York 1949 (orig. Grundlegung zur Metaphysik der Sitten, 1785).

[79] Justice is often a generic name for righteousness in general, this in itself showing what a central notion duty is, too important to leave to Kant. St. Thomas, for his part, concludes his treatment of each virtue (in IIa-IIae) with a section on the precepts or duties (debita) proper to that virtue, which in the case of justice itself are, in fact, all the ten precepts of the Decalogue. For it is only through justice that any precepts at all are attached to the other virtues (when they are), since justice is the virtue which is other-directed (ad alterum) and this relation is the essence (ratio) of debt or obligation. But this must be supplemented by St. Thomas's teaching, in the same treatise, on charity as the form and end of all the virtues (23, 8) and on the two precepts of charity whereby the order of charity falls under a precept of the law (44, 8). Cf. 122, 1, ad 4um: the precepts of the Decalogue belong to charity as to their end, but to justice immediately.

[80] St. Anselm, De Veritate XII.

[81] For St. Thomas practical reason is not a separate faculty from theoretical reason, but is defined as reason directed to action (ordinata ad opus). Cf. Summa Theol. Ia 79, 11.

[82] Cf. Ia-IIae QQ68-70, on the beatitudes, gifts and fruits of the Spirit. Cf. S. Theron, The Recovery of Purpose, Frankfurt 1993, Chapter Five, "Relating to the Religious Tradition".

[83] This was the argument of C.S. Lewis in Mere Christianity, London 1952 (Fontana). Cf. Theron, Morals as Founded on Natural Law, ch. 2 et passim.

[84] G.M. Manser, op. cit. p. 139 (author's translation).

[85] The gerundive is not to be conflated with the imperative (Ia-IIae 17, 1), even though the latter also be finally an act of reason, the will's act being presupposed (as might not be the case with the gerundive or absolute form of practical intimation, when as it were "loosed from" a resolve to act, e.g. in an ethics class).

[86] Ia-IIae, 90, 1: "Whether law is something belonging to reason".

[87] Cf. also S. Theron, Philosophy or Dialectic, Frankfurt 1994, pp.96-101.

[88] R.M. Hare, The Language of Morals, Oxford 1952; Freedom and Reason, 1974.

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Thomas Aquinas: Happiness, Desire, Virtue
An Interpretation
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This text relates directly to contemporary discussions in ethics, e.g. the interpretations of Aquinas centering around discussion of work by J. Finnis, G. Grisez, A. MacIntyre, et al. It is also of interest in relation to other publications by the author.
Happiness, Desire, Virtue, Aquinas, Ethics
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Dr. Stephen Theron (Author), 2008, Thomas Aquinas: Happiness, Desire, Virtue, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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