The Moral Order


At the outset of his commentary on Aristotle's Ethics Saint Thomas recalls a maxim: Sapientis est ordinare. It is the mark of the wise man to order. And then he goes on to speak of a number of different orders. He is doing this to locate the studies that he's commenting on, the Ethics of Aristotle, in a wider array of disciplines. Let me read from the passage in which he distinguishes four orders. He says:
There is one order that reason does not establish but only beholds, such as the order of things in nature. There is a second order that reason establishes in its own act and consideration, for example when it arranges concepts among themselves and the signs of concepts as well, because words express the meanings of the concept. There is a third order that reason in deliberating establishes in the operations of the will. And there is a fourth order that reason in planning establishes in the external thing which it causes, such as a chest or a house.


Now these four orders are respectively the order of the natural world, which would include all theoretical philosophy. The second order, the arrangement in our concepts and so forth, that's the logical order. The third, that reason by deliberating establishes in the operations of the will, is the moral order. And the fourth is of course that of art in the broad sense of construction.

What is morality, the moral order, concerned with? Order that reason in deliberating establishes in the operations of the will. If we had to give a simple response to the question what is the subject matter of moral philosophy? the simple answer would be human action. A mark of the moral is that we are answerable for what we do. We're responsible for our deeds. The question why did you do that? is the mark of that particular feature of moral action. Why would we askwhy did you do that? unless there were a possibility that one would have acted otherwise and that he is answerable for the way in which he did act? So freedom is the presupposition here, as I mentioned earlier. This is not something that has to be proved; rather attacks on it have to be disproved.

When Thomas takes up the moral order, having said that human acts are the subject matter of moral philosophy, anticipating a difficulty, he makes a distinction between what he calls human acts which are going to be our interest on the one hand and what he calls acts of a man. What he means by the second phrase is those activities or occurrences, operations or processes which go on in us which are not peculiar to us. Man is a microcosm. There is a sense in which the cosmos is summed up in him. He can be weighed like a rock, he takes nourishment and grows like a plant, he has sense perception and emotion in the manner of the crude animal, and he has, besides that, reason. That is the mark of man, that is the character of him. While it's true to say so and so is digesting, or so and so is growing (or shrinking as the case may be), these true statements about something going on in a human being do not point to human acts. Why? Because we are not answerable for that. We don't get credit for having a digestive system. We don't get credit or blame for responding emotionally to certain perceived objects. When we see a menacing object we instinctively feel fright; we want to withdraw. Something attractive, there is an impulse towards it. This just happens in us in the way in which it does in animals. Morally considered, insofar as those things can come under the sway of reason, they too will enter into the moral order. But the mark of them all is that which sets man off from all other things, which characterizes human actions as human -- that is, those activities found in us and no other cosmic creature: rational, conscious, deliberate, voluntary action.

Voluntary action of course can sometimes mean simply the act of the will itself. Moving my hand: is that a voluntary action? Well, it's the act, you might say, of my hand, not of my will, but it is an activity which is in response to my rational and deliberate voluntary direction. So it's voluntary in a secondary sense. Thomas will distinguish these as elicited acts of the will, acts of the will as such, and commanded acts of the will. That will become important when we look at his analysis of human action.

There is a puzzle that Thomas does not address at this point but which will occur to you, of course. All human actions are moral. Thomas will make that equation: human actions and moral actions and visa versa. So it is an identity statement. Now you are going to say, wait a minute, golfing is a human action. And when I say that someone golfs, I don't seem to be saying that is a good person. I mean, you could conceivably be a bad person and a good golfer, or more likely a good person and a bad golfer. But there are human acts like golfing or building a house, walking, and so forth which we might say you do it well or badly, but it's not a moral appraisal. And yet these are acts of a human being: these are deliberate, rational, and so forth. Nobody golfs unconsciously, except when he gets a hole in one, probably. But when we go out to golf this is something we set out to do. We have to set aside a certain number of hours in order to go around, and if someone asks what are you doing? you say I'm golfingWhy are you doing that? and you give some kind of reason.

What's my point? There are certain appraisals of human actions, golfing, banking, building a house, and so forth, where we say it's being done well and we don't think of it as a moral appraisal. So what is Thomas's response, what would be his response to that? That's an important question, because if this question cannot be answered satisfactorily the identification of human act and moral act will seem on the face of it rather bizarre. Who would want to say that golfing is a moral act? Thomas, I think, would say we will distinguish. Obviously there is a way of appraising the activity of golfing in terms of doing it well or badly which is a different appraisal from a moral appraisal. But, he would argue, it's also appraisable in a moral way. That is we can blame a good golfer for playing if we think of certain circumstances, if he is neglecting his family, if he's lying about his score, if he's kicking the ball out of the rough and so forth, these are against the rules of the game but also we would think it's a breach of trust between him and others with whom he is playing golf. So the point would be this, while it is the case, and it's important to realize it, that there are technical appraisals of human acts such as golfing, banking, building and so forth, all of those can be appraised in a moral way as well. And a moral appraisal of them is more profound and pervasive. Not every human act is subject to a technical appraisal but all human acts are subject to a moral appraisal. So while this is a very important and interesting objection or difficulty, it doesn't shape the identification that Thomas is proposing, namely that all human acts are moral acts. All moral acts are human acts.

When he turns to the structure of human action, what makes up a human action, Thomas gets rather complicated andtalks about a series of will-acts that bear on the end, and then a series of will-acts that bear on the means to the end. Hespeaks of our recognizing something as good, as effective, and responding to it voluntarily in an initial and primary way. And he calls this willing it, or volunta in the Latin. He uses the term of the capacity or faculty for this first most primary act of the will. We might dwell then on the thing that has attracted us and has elicited this act of volunta, and we might delight in considering the thing that is presenting itself, and we might then go on to intend to bring it about or to pursue it or to get it. And if that is the case then we would turn, Thomas says, to a consideration of the means, and after deliberation we might find a number of means which are congenial to us, and then we would have to choose among them. If there is only one means to the end, of course, the choice would be the next act, and then finally we're moving out of what Thomas calls the order of intention. This is all antecedent to overt behavior, and we then use our body or other faculties in order to execute the plan that has been arrived at in the order of intention by way of deliberation and so forth.

We may find this baroque and fantastic to think of any human act as being made up of all of these elements, and indeed most human actions take place in such a way that we are in no conscious way aware of these steps that Thomas is talking about. But there is a way in which we can see that these are indeed constituents or elements of any complete human action -- by noticing that a human act can be interrupted at any one of these points. As we go through the day any number of things present themselves to us as attractive and we notice that and that's the end of it, we go on. Sometimes we dwell on the attractiveness of particular objects for a greater or lesser time, and this is more than simply being attracted by them, but that might be the end of it. We go on in some cases to say, I want that. I'm going to tend towards it, I'm going to intend it. Then one might be interrupted and that would be the end of the action. So when reflecting on it you could say, yes, I intended it but I became distracted and other things came up I just forgot about that. But say you didn't, and you go on, and you start thinking of ways in which that good or end could be achieved. As I suggested, Thomas is saying that when you come upon ways in which you could achieve the end they present themselves to you as attractive. There might be several of them, and then you have to puzzle over which would be the best way to achieve the end, and you choose that. Here too there could be an interruption of the action prior to anything like a choice. The choice then might be made and you might be prevented from actually executing a plan that you have put together.

Now we have some idea of Thomas's sense of the structure of the human act, of the complete human act. Obviously the interrupted human act is a human act at that point, and it is possible consequently for there to be sins of thought. If we dwell on an object the pursuit of which would be reprehensible, of course we would begin to be tainted by that kind of fantasizing. It is furthermore the mark of a human act that it is undertaken for the sake of an end. Why are you doing that? is in effect asking what was the object, what was the end, what good did you have in mind when you acted? For Thomas, as for all right thinking individuals, finality is the universal fact of the cosmos. Everything in the cosmos is acting for the sake of an end. Its nature is such that it has a particular function that it plays within the order of the universe as a whole.

But of course most things, cosmic things other than man, are simply being propelled to their end by the nature that they have. There is no question of their deliberating about it or being held responsible for it. We don't blame rocks for falling or dogs for barking. We try to train them not to, but we're not really thinking that we're training them in a moral way, so that from now on on their own they will consider whether or not it's wise to bark. When we turn to finality in human beings we have this deliberate conscious directing of ourselves to our end. There are many functions in man insofar as he is a microcosm which have their ends in the natural way our digestive or reproductive or respiratory system functions. We know how to appraise their functioning well or badly. But again that is not a moral appraisal. In the case of human action what we are doing is deliberately setting a goal and directing ourselves to a conscious deliberate voluntary activity.

So finality in human beings is not a special case in one sense, in that every agent in the universe acts for the sake of an end, and it's unique in another, because man alone among cosmic creatures knows what his end is and directs himself freely and voluntarily to it so that he can do well or badly in a way that is blameworthy or praiseworthy. Praise and blame are other marks of the moral action. If we say then, as we can truly say, that every act that we undertake is undertaken for the sake of some end, can we turn that around and say there is some single end for the sake of which every act is undertaken? This is the question that animated the Greek moralists, Plato, Aristotle: they want to know what is the good for man -- not this good that good and the other good, but what is the comprehensive or overall good for a human being, that which will constitute his fulfillment, his perfection or happiness.

In what does human happiness consist? This was the great quest of classical moral philosophy, as it is indeed of Thomas Aquinas's moral philosophy. But how do you get from every act is undertaken for the sake of an end to there is some end for the sake of which every act is undertaken? It's not arrived at simply by converting, logically speaking, the first proposition that every agent acts for some end. You're not going to just turn that around and say therefore there must be some end for the sake of all agents. I mention that because very often Aristotle and Saint Thomas are thought to have made this elementary logical mistake. I suppose it's a rule of reading philosophy that when you come upon an absolutely elementary mistake in the writings of a philosopher worthy enough to be read, you have to at least entertain the possibility that there is some misunderstanding on your part rather than that he is the village idiot. This is not the way in which Thomas or Aristotle hold that there is an overall comprehensive end for the sake of which we do anything that we do.

How do they arrive at it if not by way of this logical fallacy they're accused of committing? What Aristotle does is a beautiful analysis as to how you can get to how do we know that so and so is a good human being? How do we know that this is a good man? Aristotle proposes this. He says: how do we go about saying that someone is a good golfer? We could say, if he golfs well. What does that mean? What is golfing? Someone who drives well, who uses his irons well, who chips well, who putts well, and knows how to add, that person will be a good golfer. And we can have better and not so good in terms of whether one fulfills all or some of those functions. So it can sometimes be a kind of a fine-grained complicated thing to say of someone he's a good golfer or he's a good bank teller, he's a good chef, and so forth. But we know how to do it. All we have to do is say what do we mean by being a chef? Aristotle said we should understand what the function is, and once we've got that we have the criteria for appraising it being done well or badly. And so too we can judge as Aristotle would the functioning of the respiratory system, or an eye. Once you know what an eye is for, you know whether it's operating or acting well. Once you know what the respiratory system is for, you know when it's failing or doing its job. When the doctor says you are in good health, that's of course what he is saying.

These are commonplace things, and this is the merit of the kind of philosophizing that we are being introduced to by Thomas Aquinas, because it's not afraid of being obvious. It's not afraid of starting with the simple, and so too here the remark about the good golfer. How would you go about saying that someone is a good golfer? Or for that matter if someone says that's a good car. You want to know does it do the sort of things that a car is supposed to do. If you bought a car and when you drove out of the lot the wheels rolled off and the doors fell off and the motor dropped onto the road, you would probably go back rather indignant to the dealer and say why did you sell me that car -- you said it was a good car. We would feel we had been defrauded. In calling it a good car we are assuming he's saying that it does the sort of thing you expect a car to do. If there is not enough air in the rear left tire, we can get that fixed, we're not going to think we've been defrauded, but if it behaves in the way in which I indicated, this is a bad car. This doesn't even rise to the level of being a lemon.

Then Aristotle says this: this is the move that he makes. If there is a function of the human being as such then performing that function well would be the basis for saying this is a good human being. And we say that's right, that's the analogy -- just as we do in the case of the golfer, the chef, the builder. If man has a function, his performing that well would constitute being a good man. Aristotle then says: but he does have a function. And what is that function? He's looking here for the mark that sets the human agent off from every other agent, and we know what it's going to be. Rational activity. So at this point in Aristotle's argument, on the basis of the analogy with the golfer and the appraisal of the golfer, it looks as if he can now say man's function is rational activity. Acting rationally well is what makes a human being a good human being.

Aristotle is quick to remind us that rational activity has a number of meanings. It's not a univocal term. It is, as a matter of fact, what we learned from Thomas to call an analogous term. There is an ordered set of meanings for rational activity. It can mean the activity of theoretical reasoning, knowing. It can mean using our mind to direct activities other than reasoning, practical reasoning. And it can mean the way in which our emotions, for example, can participate in reason insofar as they are directed by us, so that in temperence our desire for sense pleasure is brought under the control and direction of reason, so that the pursuit of pleasure contributes to our overall end. And in the case of courage or fortitude our quite natural and instinctive fear when confronted by menacing objects is brought under the control of reason, so despite feeling fear we act well, rationally, in those circumstances, so that there is participated rational activity. Our fears and hopes, our desires can be brought under the sway of reason and contribute rather than disrupt our integral good.

If this is true, if there are at least these three senses of rational activity, theoretical reasoning, practical reasoning, participated reasoning, then we might say it looks as if we are going to have to have three virtues in order to talk about a human being as a good human being. Much of Aristotle's analysis in moral philosophy is coming up with any number of virtues that fall under each of those categories and considering them. So what do we end up with for Aristotle is that towards which we tend and which will constitute our fulfillment or perfection, our ultimate end. What is it going to be for Aristotle? It's going to be a set of virtues. It's not going to be a single virtue. Any more than we can say that there is a single skill that the golfer performs that would lead us to call him a good golfer. He has to be able to do a number of things well, and then that set of good performances would lead us to say he's a scratch golfer, he's a good golfer. In the case of the human rational agent, there is a cluster or set of virtues which will be constitutive of the good for man of that which we are pursuing as our fulfillment. And there is a sense in which the coming together of the moral order and ofmetaphysics can be seen.

Contemplation is what Aristotle says is the virtue which most perfectly fulfills us. Could it possibly be the only one? We'll come back to that particular argument. This at any rate is Aristotle's way of coming at what he means by the goodfor man. What is the good we are driving at? He uses the function analysis. Yes, that's very useful. He applies it to man and gets the initial conclusion: if man has a function, performing it well is the basis for our saying that a person is a good human agent. Then we notice that that function, rational activity, has a variety of meanings that leads to the realization that our end or happiness or good is constituted by a cluster of virtues. Then the question arises what is the order among that set of virtues? For Aristotle, as indeed for Thomas, that virtue of contemplation of the theoretical intellect is the most perfect embodiment of the human good -- but not the exclusive embodiment.

We can see similarities and dissimilarities when we turn to Thomas Aquinas's treatment of the notion of an ultimate and overall purpose of whatever we do. And in many respects, although it's a variation on Aristotle, it's got a simplicity about it that commends it. Thomas puts it this way. Any action that we undertake is undertaken for the sake of some good.This then is a particular good, so it shares in some way in goodness but does not exhaust it. To go for anything whatsoever, any concrete object, any particular objective is to see it under the aegis or the umbrella of goodness. We're saying it is good, it's a good thing; it's not goodness but it is a good thing. So you have to see it, as he puts it, sub ratione boni. You have to see it under the umbrella of goodness as sharing in it in order to pursue it at all. So the question then is what could we come up with that would fulfill in a complete way this notion of what's object of pursuit. Could we say they are such that their attainment would be indeed the fulfillment of all of our desires. And if we can find that, of course, we would have ultimate end in two senses.

What does that mean? Thomas when he asks the question does everybody pursue the same ultimate end? says yes, but it's a qualified yes. He says yes insofar as anyone in acting is pursuing what he pursues on the implicit assumption that the having of it either constitutes or is conducive to his overall happiness. So that's the lens, so to speak, through which we see any particular object that we pursue. The question is: do the things that we actually pursue rightly come under that umbrella? Are they really or only apparently conducive to our fulfillment in our perfection? In one sense everybody -- good, bad, indifferent people -- whatever they do they're doing implicitly out of a desire for their fulfillment as such, their perfection, their happiness. The question then arises: are they doing it in such a way that what they are pursuing truly would lead to their happiness? So there is a distinction made between apparent goods and true goods. The task of moral philosophy then becomes what deservedly is pursued as that which will be fulfilling of it. The concrete embodiment of this notion of that which is fulfilling, perfective, completed of us -- that is ultimate end in the more concrete sense.

We have the notion of ultimate end and those things which are thought to fulfill the notion of ultimate end. Everyone is pursuing an end no matter what he does, good or bad, on the assumption that the having of it would be better for him than the not having of it, better for him over all. That is the formality of ultimate end. But we want to know in what does the ultimate end truly consist in these objects as opposed to those. You can see what Thomas is going to suggest here as a theologian. When we act and choose this good or that good or the other good, we want them insofar as they share in goodness. And if there should be some object of will which is not only a good thing but is goodness itself, that would be the answer to all of our desires.

Remember Augustine's remark at the outset of the Confessions where he is addressing God: Thou made us for Thyself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in Thee. When God is said to be the ultimate end of human action, this is what is meant. The goodness that we seek in a shared and participated way in particular objects is in God identical with what He is. He is goodness. When we see God, there will be no question whatsoever of our loving Him. No deliberations will be necessary at all. Goodness itself presented to us is necessarily going to attract us. That would be the fulfillment of our freedom, Thomas would say.

This notion of ultimate end, as Thomas talks about it, requires us to be able to distinguish between apparent goods and real goods. Where do we look for criteria for distinguishing the true good? I want to say a few words here about what Thomas calls Natural Law. Natural Law is the starting point of moral appraisal. These are judgments that anyone makes in acting, most fundamental judgments, implicit, embedded judgments in any of our actions which are the ultimate guidelines for what we ought to do and what we ought not to do.

At the end of the last lecture I quoted a passage from paragraph four of Fides et Ratio in which John Paul II is talking about implicit philosophy. He speaks there of there being certain truths, about how we ought to act and the distinction between good and evil , that everyone knows. So too when Thomas talks about Natural Law he is referring to the fact that every human being is capable quite naturally of distinguishing between good and evil. The most basic precept or guideline for human action will be what? Do good and avoid evil. Often when people hear that they say: good grief, what kind of advice is that? It doesn't seem to tell me what to do at all. It's just a truism. But this is the way in which Thomas proceeds. He wants to start at the beginning. He wants to start with something that no one is likely to deny. The reaction to do good and avoid evil is not that one wants to reject it, but that it seems so obvious you wonder why anyone should mention it.

What Thomas does when he talks about Natural Law in the practical order is analogous to what goes on in the theoretical order. Obviously there are certain things that come first there that are embedded in any of our thinking. The first thing that the human mind grasps, he says, is that there is being. And by this he means you grasp anything that you do, you understand anything that you do, as some thing, as some being. Obvious? Of course it's obvious. What is the first judgment that we make in theoretical reasoning? That it is impossible for something to be and not to be at the same time in the same respect -- the principle of contradiction, another of the things that John Paul II mentioned as a constituent of implicit philosophy. Who is going to deny that? Answer, no one. If someone denies it he is going to be caught in an incoherence because he will have to invoke it in order to deny it. Either his denial is meant seriously or it isn't, and then the affirmation, the contradictory of it, is equally tenable for it can't be avoided.

Why do we mention these things? Because reasoning starts out both in the theoretical order and in the practical order with a primary judgment that no one could gainsay, no one could deny. We move on from there. This anchors us. Of course we do want to know the other guidelines for human action, for the appraisal of human action, other than do good and avoid evil. Thomas gives us a little help here. He alludes, he points to what he calls natural inclination. We are back to man as a microcosm -- that is man as summing up all of the levels of being in the cosmos and adding to them his distinctive mark. So Thomas ticks off these natural inclinations. There is one, he says, that is so basic we share it with everything in the cosmos. That is the instinct or inclination to preserve ourselves in existence. In our case, of course, that's going to be not just warding off dangers but eating and drinking. That's the way we preserve ourselves in existence, and these too are instinctive or natural desires. We have other desires that we share with animals -- to mate and so forth, to raise our young. Finally there is the natural inclination which is peculiar to us, namely to live in society and to pursue the truth, and ultimately truth about God.

Are these inclinations meant to be guidelines for action as if eat and drink would have the same status as do good and avoid evil? Obviously not. What Thomas gives us as the summary statement here is this: all those things to which we have a natural inclination reason naturally judges to be good. The pursuit of these objects of our natural inclination is moral only to the degree that it comes under the sway and the direction of reason. While Thomas doesn't lay out a number of precepts here in the manner of the decalogue or the Ten Commandments, he will see those coming very rapidly after what he is talking about here. What we can surmise, he is saying, is this. Our pursuit of food and drink has to be such that it is directed by reason to our overall good. The way in which we mate has to be directed by reason and to our good and to the good of others, and so too with respect to our instinctive desire to live in society. This can be done well or badly. So only as it comes under the direction of reason will it count as a moral act.

So while these natural inclinations provide, so to speak, the material that he wants to talk about when he talks about guidelines for action, what we would get out of this is: pursue food and drink in such a way that this is conducive to your overall good; pursue sexual congress to a degree that this is directed by reason for your overall good. So the mark of it is rational direction, and that's what makes these to be moral. These are self-evidently true. For a human being it's self-evidently true that his pursuit of food and drink ought not to be just pell-mell or instinctive, but it has to be brought under the sway of reason. We're going to say: why did you eat that whole pizza? It's not going to be enough to say: it was there. Perhaps some animals will just eat everything that's put in front of them. We're not going to blame them for it. But if you do it, it's not going to be enough to say: I have this natural inclination to eat. Of course you do; everyone does. But in a human life that has to be brought within the context of the sway of reason in our overall good.

So there are these self-evident truths. It is what we read in the Declaration of Independence: We hold these truths to be self-evident. That's a Natural Law view. Thomas is willing to make very obvious remarks to get us going, to set, let us say, the parameters of the moral order. And then we can proceed toward more and more concrete advice as to how we have to act.

I ended the last lecture by referring to an encyclical of John Paul II, and I can move into the finale of this lecture by referring to another encyclical of his called Veritatis Splendor (The Splendor of Truth), in which notably the Holy Father uses this analysis, this action that I am trying to sketch for you from Thomas Aquinas, and acknowledges that this is what he's doing. If you read that encyclical and you've listened to these lucid lectures, you are going to sense a certain compatibility between what he says there and what I'm referring you to here in Thomas Aquinas. In Veritatis Splendorthe Holy Father is answering certain difficulties that have been raised or mistakes that have been made by Catholic moralists in recent years. He reminds us that the appraisal of the human action is in terms of the object of the action, the end for the sake of which the action is undertaken, and the circumstances in which the act is performed. All of those have to meet the requirements of reason if the action is going to be a good action. It is not sufficient to say that what I am doing is a good thing to do, I'm giving alms to the poor, if my motive, my end in doing that, is vainglory. If we are tinkling a bell to call attention to the fact that we are giving alms, or perhaps at the entrance of a campus we put up a big thermometer indicating how much money we're donating to the United Way, we might say this deprives the action of any kind of generosity. We are thumping our chests.

It would be possible to do a good deed for the wrong reason. Remember Murder in the Cathedral: the last temptation is the greatest treason, to do the right deed for the wrong reason. And so you could give alms for the wrong reason out of vainglory. You could do the wrong thing, you could steal money to give to the poor. Robin Hood. You might do something which is not a bad action in its kind and have a good intention, but the circumstances in which you do it would rescind the action. We say that's not an appropriate way for human beings to act. If spouses engaged in the activity in which they rightly engage in the middle of the street, we are going to say: wait a minute -- this is reprehensible. You are not saying what they are doing as spouses is wrong, or their intention in doing it immediately is wrong. But this is not the place for that sort of thing. That is a vivid example of the way in which the circumstances can vitiate an action even though the object, the thing that we are doing, and the aim or purpose for which we are doing it are without fault.

You can't just have one of those three fonts of morality and say that's sufficient for calling an action good. Many of the things that the pope is worried about confronting in Veritatis Splendor are an effect of moral theories of that kind. If your intention is good, don't worry too much about what you are doing. Or if what you are doing is good, don't worry too much. It's usually the first one, as if your intentions trump any negative judgment that would be made about what you are doing. He is saying that's not the case, and he reminds us of the analysis that we find in Thomas Aquinas. It's not peculiar to him of course: it's part of the very patrimony of Christian morality. And the Pope is rightly worried that some people speak on behalf of Christianity who are undermining this very fundamental notion of how we appraise human action.

Without getting our own house in order, so to speak, not much else is likely to happen in terms of moral efflorescence and fulfillment. We can always be undone by our appetites if they are not brought under the sway of reason. That's what we mean by moral virtue: these participated rational acts whereby our emotional life contributes to our overall good rather than disrupts it and ruins our project. The moral virtues consequently are more necessary and more obviously necessary than the other virtues, but they are not the most important ones. For Aristotle as for Thomas the point of moral virtue is to get our personal house in order and the civic house in order so that we can turn our minds to things which are beyond the merely practical. This is why Aristotle will say at the end of his magnificent Nicomachean Ethics that contemplation is the ultimate and the most perfect expression of our ultimate end. The well-ordered person in a well-ordered society can devote himself to contemplation of the Divine.

That might seem a little récherché to us, as though it's merely conducive to the activity of an elite people who do metaphysics, or people who do philosophy. And we think of the great mass of human beings, and we say: are they likely to get into that? There are several ways of handling that as a matter of Aristotelian interpretation, or just talking, as we are here. Practical happiness is constituted by the civic virtues, by the moral virtues, and that's not nothing. Those virtues may not be ultimate perfection if Aristotle and Thomas are right in saying that contemplation is. But that doesn't mean these don't make one fulfilled and happy and so forth. There is just more to the story. And we might say most people are so caught up, necessarily so, in practical activity that doing those well is a great thing, and it's in that that their moral fulfillment will consist.

But that still has an elitist tone to it. There are a few people who have the leisure, and they can devote themselves to contemplation. Once in thinking about this I was reminded of well preserved Greek cities in Southern Italy, one of which was the native place of the Greek philosopher Empedocles. If you go there now there is the Porto Empedocles -- the port is still named after this ancient Greek philosopher. As I walked around the ruins of the ancient city, the thing that struck me was the theater. This was obviously a central civic event, to go to the theater, and it dawned on me that there is a way in which not only ordinary people but philosophers too require this kind of depiction of human action in terms of a transcendent type of judgment of them in order to feel in tune with the cosmos.

This is a very complicated way of saying that there is a contemplative dimension to our response to great art. And here we are talking about Greek tragedy, and think of what the themes and morals of Greek tragedies are. I mean the contemplation of what it is to be a human agent in this cosmos. The mystery of human action was somehow reconciled to that by way of the play, and we come away with a sense that we are in tune with the universe. That's a contemplative moment. While there is a difference between going to the theater and doing the sort of thing that Aristotle does in theMetaphysics, it's pleasant to think that he went to the theater too. He wrote the Poetics, after all, the first close analysis of Greek tragedy, and clearly took it to be enormously important in understanding what human life is all about.


__________________________________________________________________________________________

Purchase This Course                               << Previous               Next >>                                   Return to Top