Wednesday, June 19, 2019

The Search for Liberty; Chapter Five: Thomistic Metaphysics

[Thomas’s] question is Aristotle's: is there any science beyond natural science and mathematics? If to be and to be material are identical, then the science of being as being will be identical with the science of material being.

We will recall that Aristotle rejects this notion:

…Aristotle’s description does not involve two things— (1) a study and (2) a subject matter (being qua being)—for he did not think that there is any such subject matter as ‘being qua being’. Rather, his description involves three things: (1) a study, (2) a subject matter (being), and (3) a manner in which the subject matter is studied (qua being).

Returning to the encyclopedia:

If the activity of intellect provides a basis for saying that, while the human soul is the substantial form of the body, it can exist apart from the body, that is, survive death, it is an immaterial existent.

The rubber existed before the ball was formed; it will exist after the ball no longer exists.  The human soul – one thing that makes humans distinct from all other animals on earth – existed before the body was formed and will exist after the body no longer exists.

It is in the course of doing natural philosophy that one gains certain knowledge that not everything that is is material.

This is first offered in Aristotle’s Prime Mover – the first, unmoved mover, which had to be inherently immaterial.

What follows is a long discussion regarding Thomas’s proof of God, his well-known Five Ways.  This, of course, makes an interesting study on its own, but is tangential to my purposes in the present. 

In explaining Thomas’s moral doctrine, the authors offer:

Thomas argues that there is one single end for all human beings, and that it is happiness.

Well, this is quite a curve ball.

The activity that sets the human agent apart from all others is rational activity. The human agent acts knowingly-willingly. If this is the human function, the human being who performs it well will be a good person and be happy.

Rational activity sets the human agent apart from all others.  We will recall that rationality is found in the Logos, and we know from John 1 that the Logos is Christ – who was there in the beginning, with God and He was God.  I don’t recall that Christ’s focus was “happiness,” not as we currently understand the word.  There must be more.

…There is one single ultimate human good that provides an ordering of all other human goods as partial in relation to it, namely, happiness or better in the Latin beatitudo.

It is better in the Latin.  Happiness is really a poor translation.  Let’s try to do better:

Beatitudo: supreme happiness, blessedness, a blessed condition, beatitude

Better, but not yet enough.  From the Four Levels of Happiness, level three on the list:

Beatitudo: (Beatitudo = happiness or blessedness). The happiness that comes from seeing the good in others and doing the good for others. It is, in essence, other-regarding action.

It kind of throws a wrench into any modern concept of happiness, or the idea that the modern concept of happiness is the objective that humans are meant to strive for.  As an aside, the modern concept of happiness is captured in level one on the list:

laetus: Happiness in a thing. Thus, "I see the linguini, I eat the linguini, it makes me feel good, I am happy."

We know of the passage in the Bible commonly referred to as the Beatitudes: blessed are the poor in spirit, the meek, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, etc.  Keeping in mind that this is Jesus talking – the earthly manifestation of the Form of the Good that is God – perhaps it is worth considering even a higher level of happiness than Beatitudo as our end or purpose; the fourth of the four levels:

Sublime Beatitudo: (sublime = "to lift up or elevate"). This category, the most difficult to describe, encompasses a reach for fullness and perfection of happiness. The fullness, therefore, of goodness, beauty, truth and love. So we recognize in this category, those things that are, in a sense, beyond what we are capable of doing purely on our own.

Now we have something; as close to the Form of the Good we might be able to comprehend.  It seems to me that this sublime beatitudo captures Plato’s Form of the Good for humans; through the life of Jesus, we have been given the perfect example, one that humans can see, touch, and hear – just as Aristotle required.  It is a category “beyond what we are capable of doing purely on our own,” yet we can approach beatitudo.  In this (and not linguini), we find happiness.

So, when Thomas offers “that there is one single end for all human beings, and that it is happiness,” it seems to me that this is what he is after.  The authors of the encyclopedia do not quite conclude this:

However, that is a formal description of the end, leaving open the material specification of just what that happiness is for a human being.

The specification is to be found in Jesus.  The authors suggest that this specification is only available through revelation – it is not clear to me where this leaves Jesus in their eyes.  Natural theology attempts to find God, hence Jesus, through means that exclude revelation.  A good series of talks on this matter is offered by N.T. Wright.

Which brings us to Thomas’s views on human acts: an act “which proceeds from and is under the control of reason and will.”

Since the human act by definition is the pursuit of a known good, the question arises as to the relationship between the objects of the myriad acts that humans perform. Is there some over-all good sought by human agents? Is there an ultimate end of human action?

Could it be the happiness that linguini offers, or is there something more?

Any action aims at some good. A particular good by definition shares in and is not identical with goodness itself. What binds together all the acts that humans perform is the overarching goodness they seek in this, that, and the other thing. That overarching goodness, what Thomas calls the ratio bonitatis, is the ultimate end.  It follows that anything a human agent does is done for the sake of the ultimate end.

Wait a minute.  Not everything that is done is done for the sake of the ultimate end as I understand it – if Jesus represents the Form of the Good made manifest.  Everyone has their own view on “good.”  Can each of these visions of “good” withstand scrutiny?

For this, Thomas introduces virtues, but his virtues represent a broader field than those offered by Aristotle.  Thomas sees the imperfect virtue we can achieve as humans; he also sees the perfect beatitudo of the next life – which seems to me to be something approaching the sublime beatitude.

The cardinal natural virtues are Prudence, Justice, Courage, and Temperance. … The theological virtues are Faith, Hope, and Love.

But we see all of these in the life of Christ.  Even non-Christians will say of Jesus that he was a wise, good, and moral man.  We need not look elsewhere for the perfect example of “good.”

That Thomas makes a distinction between “infused natural virtues” (theological, and instilled by God’s grace but can be improved by human effort) and “acquired natural virtues” (cardinal, and can be acquired by human effort alone) does not alter the fact that all are visible to us in Jesus.

This brings us to the examination of Thomistic Natural Law by the authors of this encyclopedia.  But I will save this for the next chapter.


  1. In Muslim Ash'arite (c. 874–936) theology, all acts come from God. The servants acquire the acts based on their nature. This doctrine preserves both divine sovereignty and human responsibility.

    I believe Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274) took his ideas on free will from Al-Ash'ari, i.e., there are no human acts, only divine acts.

    Quoting for Wikipedia:

    Aquinas argues that there is no contradiction between God's providence and human free will:

    ... just as by moving natural causes [God] does not prevent their acts being natural, so by moving voluntary causes He does not deprive their actions of being voluntary: but rather is He the cause of this very thing in them; for He operates in each thing according to its own nature.
    — Summa, I., Q.83, art.1.

  2. Or he could have just got it from the Bible (2000 BC-65AD). Same issues are dealt with.