In an email response to my post on Telos, searching for the central or common core of the purpose or end for human beings, I was reminded of this lecture from Dr. Arthur Holmes, Professor of Philosophy, Wheaton College. The lecture is entitled “Aquinas' Moral Psychology and Ethics,” and it is one in a series of more than eighty lectures in his advanced philosophy course at Wheaton.
I say “reminded,” because I have already watched this lecture some time ago, and am now somewhere in the lectures on Kant. As always when regarding comments taken from video sources, I have done my best to capture the statement properly – at least the meaning, if not exact wording.
The lecture builds more foundation regarding telos; better, it provides triggers toward answering the questions raised in my previous post – it doesn’t provide answers, but clues. That will work for me.
The concept of free will since the 17th century (Ockham) is an indeterminate concept based on a mechanistic world view, operating in a causal vacuum. It is a free will not directed at, influenced by, or determined by any causal forces at all. This is the modern libertarian view. This is a billiard-ball type universe, where all that must be considered are efficient and material causes.
The material cause: what is it made of? The efficient cause: what brings the thing into being – what actualizes the potentiality? These ignore the formal and final causes, introduce by Aristotle and further developed by Aquinas.
I have written of this thinnest view of libertarianism – can we be described as “free” if living in a manner other than that according to our nature? It doesn’t make sense to me. Therefore, those who find freedom in not being limited by this nature – in other words, in not believing in or ignoring the idea that there is a final cause for man – live in a mechanistic view of liberty, a view that seems to make impossible the idea of liberty.
We are nothing more than atoms randomly smashing together – there is no formal cause, there is no purpose, there are no ends at which we are to aim. I recently saw some excerpts of Sam Harris saying exactly such a thing – and explaining why this means that we live under an illusion of free will, albeit – in his mind – a useful illusion. Like those who are trapped in the Matrix, I guess.
It is hard to imagine intelligent people, when saying such things, actually believe these things. I suspect people like Harris have found, when challenged, that maybe their made-up nonsense leads them to places from which there is no escape without dumping all justifications for anyone paying attention to them in the first place.
From Aquinas, the concept is based on intellectual inclination. The emphasis is not on choosing, in a context where there are no causes effecting the choice; but of choosing where there are causes effecting the choice. There is still choice. This is a teleological worldview, where formal cause and final cause must be considered along with efficient and material cause. The final causes lure you in a direction; there are formal causes – your own nature – inclining you in a natural direction, toward what is perceives as good. Human beings are end-oriented, with an intention and inclination native to humans.
We have free will in accord with our nature, within the context of our formal cause and our final cause. The formal cause: the form, structure, or pattern of the matter. The final cause: what is the end, goal, or purpose of the thing?
I am human; I do not have the freedom to be a planet or a bird. Of course, this starts getting a bit dangerous to woke ears. I am man; I do not have the freedom to become a woman – you know, dangerous ideas like that; in other words, many of the ideas that permeate society today.
I am made for a purpose. A lion has a purpose; why should I not have one? Me, an example of the only being on earth with the ability to consider that I have a purpose; am I not to have one? What a pathetic joke that would be. Cosmic teasing in perpetuity. How can one look at his child and wish such a thing for him?
The contrast between libertarianism and Aquinas is not the proper distinction; instead, the conflict is between the mechanistic worldview vs. the teleological worldview. Freedom is not in being in a vacuum and having to choose; it is in having an inner-directedness towards an end that you gladly, freely, spontaneously pursue.
This is the distinction: am I creature made with a purpose or telos, or am I the result of random atoms smashing together randomly. If the former, my life affords the opportunity for meaning; if the latter…what’s the point. Nihilism makes perfect sense if the latter. If life has no objective meaning, all liberties – even the liberty to violate the non-aggression principle – are open to it. If life does have objective meaning – a life aimed at final causes from which one cannot escape – then liberty cannot be defined strictly by the non-aggression principle.
So, the contrast isn’t between a strict libertarianism and Aquinas’s metaphysics. This isn’t a possible set of options. Strict libertarianism is not available to the nihilist, and strict libertarianism is insufficient for a human being with purpose.
If the ultimate end or good is God, then you have – on an Aristotelian basis – a non-Aristotelian end as the highest good. The highest good for Aristotle was the actualization of a life lived in accordance with reason. For Aquinas, the highest aim is to be like God – not a philosopher, but a saint!
Now we are getting into the part of the lecture that will offer me some clues. But so far, it is a somewhere that isn’t satisfactory given the closing of my previous post: Aquinas is bathing in a worldview that believes that man is made in God’s image; that the greatest commandment is to love God with all your heart and soul, and to love your neighbor as yourself. But must it be so?
For Aquinas, how to develop a good person – whose goodness bears resemblance to the likeness of God? He places emphasis on the Four Cardinal [Natural] Virtues. But he isn’t satisfied with these; he adds the Three Theological Virtues – dependent on Grace.
It was suggested by RMB that I look up the meaning of these virtues in the Greek. I will likely do so, but in a subsequent post; it will get too long if I include this here (I know, I just looked at one and it will take some unpacking). Let’s just say that if we are a result of random atom-smashing, none of the virtues – Cardinal included – would seem to be useful. They are only slightly useful unless considered in regard to others – let’s call this “other-regarding action. This just for a start.
Here is where his Natural Law ethic comes in to play – a teleological conception of Natural Law. The Natural Law written on the heart is written in the inclination of the heart – the natural inclinations towards…something; an ends-oriented natural law.
Our hearts are inclined toward what? Both love and murder, I suppose. From Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago:
The line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either -- but right through every human heart -- and through all human hearts.
Yet, what is it we feel at the first glimpse of our newborn child? I have to tell you, a smile comes to my face whenever I see a young couple cherishing a loved child. Why is this? Would I smile if I saw them beating the child? Why not? What of it for randomly-smashing atoms?
Returning to Holmes:
The natural law is accessible to all people. What is it? Do what is good, don’t do what is evil. There are some things to be done, and some things to be avoided. Further, what are the “good” natural inclinations: sexual intercourse, education, raising of offspring – we take these things to be good.
One can see other-regarding action in each of these examples.
Holmes goes further, offering that the Natural Virtues are somewhat impotent without the Theological Virtues.
A natural inclination to know the truth about God, to live in society: hence, we shun ignorance, avoid giving offense. Aquinas develops all of this under the rubric of Love: what does the virtue of Love require? The Theological Virtues effect the formation and exercise of the Natural Virtues.
And maybe this is the most important point. Certainly, the Four Natural Virtues can exist without Faith, Hope and Love. But will they sustain through time, from generation to generation, without Faith, Hope and Love? What does this say about any hope for sustained liberty? Interesting. I cannot even write that question without leaning on one of the Theological Virtues.
Further: I cannot put the Cardinal Virtues and my desire for liberty into practice without the Theological Virtues – why would I care about or hope for liberty sustained through time unless I possessed Faith, Hope and Love?