Topic: St. Thomas Aquinas

Br. Bradley Thomas Elliott, O.P.'s picture

Aquinas on Virtue (Part 1)

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"Morality" and "moral rules" tend to bring up hot topics in our current culture. Thomas Aquinas, though, highlights the role of "virtue" in the moral life as the key to happiness. In this series of instructional videos, I will explore, question by question, St. Thomas's treatises on the virtues in the Summa Theologiae that lay out the basic foundations for Aquinas's notion of virtue. The first installment centers on the first question in the treatise, which deals with the definition of virtue. I explain how St. Thomas uses Aristotle's "four causes" to flesh out the essential notion of what a virtue is. As we will see throughout the series, practicing virtue does involve our feelings and emotions, but only insofar as they are ordered by the mind and our reason...

 

Br. Pius Youn, O.P.'s picture

Understanding Who We Are Through Thomistic Anthropology

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Truth escorts us to freedom. In the Gospel of John, Jesus tells the Jews who believe in him, “If you remain in my word, you will truly be my disciples, and you will come to know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 32:14-15). Christ strengthens us with his promise in these verses. In our daily lives, however, false notions of truth lead us away from the promises of Christ. For instance, there is the drive for success in the American culture. We often hear success stories that promote "positive thinking" influenced by pop psychology, or a well-packaged six-step program for achieving perfect happiness. Can “Just Do It,” a motto by Nike Corporation, set us free? Jesus, of course, has something to say about truth performing that function. Amidst the smorgasbord of conflicting principles our society proposes for our attention, have any freed us? Truth that is revealed to us through Christ is evident in the philosophy of Thomas Aquinas.

The Catholic Church does not dogmatically ascribe to one specific philosophy, but she holds up Thomistic philosophy as the model to be taught in Catholic seminaries and institutions (see Leo XIII's Aeterni Patris; John Paul II's Fides et Ratio, 43-44; and the Code of Canon Law, 252.3). Thomas's "perennial philosophy" had fallen into widespread disuse by the 1800s in Catholic theological circles. Leo XIII penned Aeterni Patris to revive it. But in spite of this, a dominant stream working from modernity's presuppositions has continued to react against Thomas throughout the 20th century and down to today. One way of putting the animus against the Angelic Doctor is that many feel his scholastic technical language, and immense rational systemization of theology, is too abstract and disconnected from the "real world." 

For a number of years, I also felt that Thomistic philosophy was dull and perhaps irrevocably constrained within scholastic categories which did not apply to today. Since then, and having become a Dominican, I have discovered not only immense riches in Aquinas, but discerned a positive and pressing need for Thomistic philosophy in the world: it leads people to truth and freedom. Freedom, in this context, derives from knowing ourselves in a way not bounded by the "status quo," or by whatever particular job or surrounding environment we find ourselves in at a given time. The fact that someone is a well-read professor, a rich businessman, or a rocking pop artist, does not reveal the essence of one's identity. What we do is always subordinate to who we are, our actions rooted in our being.  Christian freedom, then, blossoms when we are more deeply rooted in the truth that God has placed within us.  

 

There are many disparate, often conflicting, ways to understand man. Thomistic philosophical anthropology proposes that man becomes more himself as he grows in moral virtue, producing a harmony between reason and emotion within his soul. Thomas, following the Aristotelian tradition, states that human beings have higher cognitive faculties than plants and animals. Due to man's cognitive power, his emotional life is likewise more sophisticated. Through the power of imagination and memory, emotions can be unpredictably triggered from a past sequence of events. But Thomas asserts that reason and will are distinct faculties and that we can choose to use reason to influence our emotions.

 

There are two mistakes we can make when it comes to the relation of reason and emotion. One is to let emotions fly loose and our passions govern us—this only leads to unstable behavior and unhappiness, since our lives will not be rooted in the truth. If we simply follow our passions as they lead, we will find ourselves more and more unable to make lasting commitments based in the truth. The other mistake is the opposite: to employ our reason as a tyrant over our emotions, trying to suppress them altogether at any hint of their operation. Aquinas offers a different way.

 

Harmony between reason and will leads to a healthy emotional life, which is essential to knowing who we are as persons. Disorder between them may be the leading cause of why commitments are so often not made in today’s world. The philosophy of "voluntarism" is one way of pinpointing the problem. While a Thomistic approach looks at reason as the supreme faculty that guides will and emotion, voluntaristic philosophy holds up the will as more superior to reason and emotion. Voluntaristic philosophy encourages a person to will the good with self-control and effort, even if a person dislikes doing it. The moral act of willing without the proper use of reason sets one up for irrational decisions. If a person is constantly willing without the guidance of reason, he or she may eventually be bombarded with unstable emotions --- depression, feelings of guilt, obsessive compulsion, etc.  

 

What saddens me is how much voluntaristic philosophy has influenced our society. I sense that actions based on this philosophy lead a person away from living an authentic moral life. The reasons for high divorce rates, low number of vocations to the priesthood and the religious life, and lack of commitments made in our daily lives may derive, in many ways, from this philosophy. 

 

While false notions of truth have influenced our society, St. Thomas Aquinas and the teachings of the Church give us hope. For people who have been living with disharmony of reason, will, and emotion, the Thomistic view of man can powerfully re-order a dysfunctional state of life into a one that is meaningful. Reason that guides the will and emotions, rather than the reverse, frees people from a gloomy life filled with emotional disturbances. Christ himself experienced emotions such as desire and aversion to despair and fear, but he had virtuous responses to these appetites. For Thomas, continual perfection of the virtues results in stronger passions --- through our striving for a virtuous life, we begin to be more Christ-like. The reason for studying the scriptures, philosophy, and theology is that our faith becomes intelligible (fides et ratio, "faith and reason"—both are important), and that our contemplation of the truth guides our will and emotions. 

 

Popular principles and philosophies have misguided us. Many philosophies, especially the voluntaristic philosophy, have influenced our society with unreliable truths and defense mechanisms in dealing with ourselves. But have these given us truth about man? Have these philosophies and the principles given us the “truth” and the “freedom” that Jesus talks about in the Gospel of John? The Thomistic understanding of man sets us free, for it teaches the truth of man. If you desire to live a virtuous life that is guided by reason, Thomas’ inspired philosophy will lead you to fulfillment. Let us live by the truth and do all we can to show others this path, which leads to freedom. Showing others this path of truth, reaching out to people facing any number of personal and situation problems, can help salvage their genuine commitments, as reason guides the will and emotion into a genuine human freedom.