Written by St. Thomas Aquinas
Reviewed by Colin Kerr
This may sound a little obvious for a Catholic book review journal, kind of like reviewing the Bible. But sometimes the most obvious things are overlooked: like that love of neighbor actually includes your next-door neighbor.
I am reading ‘Part Two’ of the ‘Second Part’ of St. Thomas Aquinas’ greatest work, the Summa Theologica. This large volume (just shy of 600 pp) is dedicated to the virtues. It is just about as perfect as a book gets. Thomas was certainly the Mozart of theologians: technically, he admits no comparisons. (For the record, Augustine would be the Bach – his equal, but not a twin by any means.)
The Summa Theologica is as perfect as theology gets. The Second Part of the Second Part is as perfect as moral theology gets. It owes a great deal to Aristotle’s Ethics – the greatest work of moral philosophy – but it is Christian through and through, owing, as it does, so much also to Augustine, St. John Damascene, St. Gregory the Great, etc., too.
But, it is hard. It is technical. It is complex. Just like Mozart’s works. And yet, like that great composer, even if one falls short, and one will far short, of appreciating every nuance – every note or word, whatever the case may be – it will never fail to delight both mind and heart. I have been reading and teaching Aquinas for many years, and would still consider myself far from an expert. I take him slow, but never, ever read him without profit.
This part – abbreviated as IIa IIae – is devoted to a consideration of the moral virtues, and their corresponding vices. It is arranged around the theological or supernatural virtues – faith, hope and charity, and the cardinal or moral virtues – prudence, justice, fortitude and temperance. There is a last section devoted to “acts which pertain especially to certain men. There he discusses things like prophecy, speaking in tongues, religious life, etc., not the sacramental vocations, like marriage and priesthood. Those are saved for Part Three of the Summa.
Since Vatican II there has been a tendency to view moral theology in the way Aquinas does as bunk. I could not disagree more. It has been trendy to see moral theology as a sub-section of Scripture study. I think this is a mistake, based as it is upon, or I should say, coincident as it is with, Protestant theological presuppositions: that Church tradition contributes nothing significant to Christian life, that reason itself advances our understanding of Revelation not a bit, and that every thing one needs to know in life can be gained through individual study of the Bible. Though Aquinas didn’t know anything about Protestants, he thought that the Church and its tradition were of fundamental importance to the moral life and to salvation.
Let me cast this difference into more concrete terms: the benefit of contemplating the moral life through a close contemplation of the virtues. Aquinas is both abstract and concrete or practical in his contemplation of the virtues. At times he can get quite abstract, but this is never without some kind of benefit. If you do not agree with him that man is both an affective (Aquinas calls it appetitive) as well as intellectual being, you will not be capable of gaining any profit from these passages. But everyone can and should expand themselves somewhat. The chance to see ‘ordinary things’ in a new way is always of benefit.
Let’s give an example. Here’s his definition of patience:
the moral virtues are directed to the good, inasmuch as they safeguard the good of reason against the impulse of the passions. Now among the passions sorrow is strong to hinder the good of reason, according to 2 Corinthians 7:10… and Sirach 30:25… Hence the necessity for a virtue to safeguard the good of reason against sorrow, lest reason give way to sorrow: and this patience does. Wherefore Augustine says… “A man’s patience it is whereby he bears evil with an equal mind,” i.e. without being disturbed by sorrow, “lest he abandon with an unequal mind the goods whereby he may advance to better things.”
Would you have defined it this way? What would you have come up with?
Now, if you have the above definition down, you are ready for the next step. He asked if patience is a part of fortitude:
Patience is a quasi-potential part of fortitude, because it is annexed thereto as secondary to principal virtue. For it belongs to patience “to suffer with an equal mind the evils inflicted by others,” as Gregory says in a homily. Now of those evils that are inflicted by others, foremost and most difficult to endure are those that are connected with the danger of death, and about these evils fortitude is concerned. Hence it is clear that in this matter fortitude has the principal place, and that it lays claim to that which is principal in this matter. Wherefore patience is annexed to fortitude as secondary to principal virtue, for which reason Prosper calls patience brave…
Not too difficult, but what have you gained? He told us in the first quote that sorrow is a real difficultly in the moral life. In this second quote he told us that fear of death is basic to the human condition. It stands to reason then that our sorrows are a part of the finiteness of our existence, and thus, we need to have a realistic sense of life if we are to be good people.
Now, we have all heard about patience and some idea of what it is. Fortitude many of us might not know, but as a synonym for courage, sure we do. But what about these virtues he considers: epikeia and affability? Is prodigality a virtue? What about shamefacedness? Here is what he says about it:
Virtue is taken in two ways, in a strict sense and in a broad sense. Taken strictly virtue is a perfection… Wherefore anything that is inconsistent with perfection, though it be good, falls short of the notion of virtue. Now shamefacedness is inconsistent with perfection, because it is the fear of something base, namely of that which is disgraceful. Hence Damascene says that “shamefacedness is fear of a base action.” Now just as hope is about a possible and difficult good, so is fear about a possible and arduous evil, as stated above, when we were treating of the passions. But one who is perfect as to a virtuous habit, does not apprehend that which would be disgraceful and base to do, as being possible and arduous, that is to say difficult for him to avoid; nor does he actually do anything base, so as to be in fear of disgrace. Therefore shamefacedness, properly speaking, is not a virtue, since it falls short of the perfection of virtue.
Taken, however, in a broad sense virtue denotes whatever is good and praiseworthy in human acts or passions; and in this way shamefacedness is sometimes called a virtue, since it is a praiseworthy passion.
I am certain that in every case Aquinas is a great and dependable teacher. I know that the many different cultures and social strata have their own moral views, but I would much rather heed Aquinas than I would any of these, or even myself. In this way, the IIa IIae is a perfect remedy for our short cultural horizons that keep us from contemplating the true good.
What are generosity, piety, and courage. What are your real responsibilities to God and man, anyway? I can think of no greater subjects for consideration over Lent. These are the subjects of this ingenious part of the Summa Theologica. Your can find it online in a number of places: I usually read it here.