Lesson 1: Ethics and the Catholic Philosopher

This is an introduction to moral philosophy on the graduate level. There are a number of ways in which such a course might be taught.

* A series of real or fictional scenarios which pose a problem as to how one ought to act could be developed and discussed, with the principles of moral appraisal arising out of the analysis of them. This method has the merit of keeping moral philosophy closely tied to its ostensible purpose, namely, to be of help to us in the solving of moral problems. Its drawback is that we can get so caught up in the details of a problem that such theory as emerges may seem random and ad hoc.

* Several of the most important moral philosophers could be studied. For example, Plato, Aristotle, Abelard, Kant, Mill. The advantage of this is that it provides an opportunity to reflect on texts of the best of the best. The disadvantage might be that we end up with merely a variety of theories and the specifically philosophical question -- which if any of these men is a good guide in moral matters? Which of the positions is true? -- is postponed. We have knowledge about, but not knowledge of, moral philosophy.

* Or we might consider types of theory: Utilitarianism, Deontological Ethics, Pragmatism. The advantage is that we would be spending time on the principal rivals for dominance in modern society, but the disadvantage is much the same as with a course based on major figures. We would know how a Utilitarian would handle a problem and how a Deontologist would but leave unanswered the question as to which if either of these methods is true or adequate.

* Finally, moral philosophy might be taught from out of a particular tradition which the teacher holds and wishes to persuade his students to adopt. Thus, Kantian ethics might be taught not simply in order to get it right about what Kant taught, but also as the best way of handling moral problems. Such a course has the best chance, perhaps, of giving the student an opportunity to do moral philosophy, to engage in it, and not simply learn about it.

This course is an instance of this last method.

This is a course in Thomistic ethics.

St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) is the first among Catholic thinkers, both theologians and philosophers. For centuries the Church has recommended him to Catholics as their master in philosophy, arguing that following his lead will bring us more swiftly and surely to the goal of philosophizing, namely, the truth. In recent times, this recommendation has been repeated with vigor. Leo XIII in 1879 issued the encyclical Aeterni Patris (often translated as On Christian Philosophy) and the modern revival of Thomism can be dated from that moment.

It will of course seem odd that a medieval friar is proposed as a guide to aspiring philosophers in the late twentieth century. Many of the specific moral problems people in the thirteenth century faced are all but unimaginable to us. And, as we are even more likely to think, they could not begin to foresee the complexities of modern society. But whatever the changes over time and however different one era is from another, there is the undeniable fact that our minds and imaginations reach across the ages and make contact with distant minds and imaginations. In the late twentieth century audiences respond to Medea and young men and women on campuses across the world read Plato and follow the intricacies of a Socratic argument. The differences are undeniable and real; but the thread of continuity of experience and thought are inescapable.

There is nothing, then, that makes it in principle impossible for us to understand a medieval author. But it is not simply our common humanity that makes this possible; there is also the Catholic faith we share with Thomas Aquinas. Much as in reading Dante or Chaucer, our shared faith provides a bridge across the ages, so too is it with Thomas Aquinas. Indeed, he is the preeminent interpreter of the contents of the faith. The Church calls him the Doctor Communis -- the universal teacher of the faith. Other Doctors of the Church are noteworthy in this area or that of Christian doctrine, but Thomas covers the gamut. But what has this to do with moral philosophy?

In the first video tape, you will have followed a discussion of the nature of philosophy and the way it is distinguished from theology. Theology was explained to be that intellectual inquiry which takes its rise from the faith, from believed truths, and brings to bear on them whatever seems relevant of human thought and culture. The aim is not to prove the truth of what God has revealed but to attain some understanding of it. Such an inquiry will interest those who share the faith of the inquirer. Theology is, to that degree, an in-house enterprise, the reflection of believers on their faith.

Philosophy, on the other hand, bases itself on what is in the public domain. It begins from what every human person can be presumed to know. As it progresses, Philosophy must always relate new claims to old, to those common principles everyone knows. This kind of inquiry is common to believer and non-believer; it is a discussion that goes on in terms of the shared experience and knowledge of human beings as human.

If the truths of faith could be established as true by appealing to nothing more than what everyone already knows, the whole of faith would be reduced to philosophy. But of course faith is the substance of things hoped for, it is the acceptance as true of a revelation beyond our comprehension. To accept as true that Jesus Christ is both God and Man is to rely on the veracity of God. I believe this because I cannot know it. So too with the Trinity of Persons in the Godhead. Each time we make the sign of the cross, we remind ourselves of this unfathomable mystery which we accept because God himself has revealed it to us.

Thomas Aquinas was a theologian. He was born in Roccasecca, south of Rome, in 1225, was schooled at Montecassino and then at Naples, where he first encountered members of St. Dominic's Order of Preachers. He joined the order and eventually was sent north to study, Paris, Cologne, Paris again, where he became a master of theology and, from 1256-1259, was regent master of theology. From 1259 through 1268 he was in Italy, Orvieto, Viterbo, Rome, and then returned to Paris for another three year stint as regent master. This unusual return was explained by a controversy that was raging over the thought of Aristotle. This Greek pagan philosopher, student of Plato, flourished in the mid-fourth century B.C. During Hellenistic times, his works faded from consciousness among the Greeks and in the Latin West, Greek became a rare accomplishment. From the Patristic period and through the Dark ages, a Christian culture had been slowly developed, reaching its fruition in the twelfth century. Some knowledge of pagan antiquity was had and became a component of Christian culture, the names of Plato and Aristotle were known, but their writings were not. That began to change in the twelfth century.

In various places, in Sicily, at Venice, in Spain, translations of Aristotle from Arabic into Latin began to be made. (Obviously, Aristotle had already found his way from Greek into Arabic.) First a few titles appeared in Latin and became known in the Christian schools, and then it became a flood. The University of Paris is usually dated from the year 1200, and it may be said that it was in the thirteenth century and in the university that the great task of reconciling Aristotle and Christian culture began.

From the outset of his career, first at Naples, then at Cologne where he studied with Albert the Great, Thomas saw in Aristotle a tremendous intellectual asset. Furthermore, we can say that for Thomas, Aristotle represented what the human mind can achieve independently of faith and revelation. A believer might imagine what the world looks like to an unbeliever, but how would he know for sure? In Aristotle, Thomas saw a man of towering intellect whose writings had a breathtaking range.

Others were more conscious of the difficulties. The errors of Aristotle began to be listed. And by error was meant a teaching of Aristotle that was in conflict with the Christian faith. In the beginning God created heaven and earth. But Aristotle taught that the world of change had always existed. His eye is on the sparrow; the very hairs of your head are numbered. But Aristotle described God as Thought Thinking Itself, as if it would be demeaning of God to notice sparrows and human pates. Furthermore, Averroes, a Muslim who was born in Cordova in Spain, in commenting on Aristotle, said that Aristotle does not teach personal immortality. What survives us is a separate intelligence that thinks through this human person and that, but when they are gone, it continues, thinking through future generations. But Christianity is meaningless if death is the end. If Christ is not risen, our faith is in vain.

Thomas's treatment of each of these "errors" was benign. We hold on faith that the world had a beginning in time; on the basis of science alone, we cannot prove it, one way or the other. God could have created an eternal universe. Therefore, Aristotle adopted a plausible view, but one the believer knows to be false, not because he disproves it, but because it conflicts with what God has revealed. Aristotle was unaware of Genesis. And so on. As for the other "errors" mentioned, Thomas saw them as misreadings of Aristotle.

This receptivity brought Thomas into the target area when some bumptious young masters in the Faculty of Arts at Paris, with Siger of Brabant as their paladin, began to teach as true, and as Aristotelian, doctrines in conflict with the faith. They did not deny the faith; they seemed to think that something could be philosophically true while in conflict with a revealed truth. This position was called Latin Averroism, and it focused on the question of personal immortality. Thomas wrote a polemical refutation of Latin Averroism and sought to rescue Aristotle from distorted readings. A true reading of Aristotle, Thomas was convinced, provided a support of and complement to Revelation.

Thomas provides a model of the Christian believer confronted with philosophy. His serene conviction is that there is no possible conflict between the truths that can be attained by the human mind and those truths which God in his mercy has revealed to us. Sometimes they seem to conflict, but knowing that they cannot, the believer seeks to show their compatibility. Sometimes, what had seemed a proven truth shows itself not to be, and the possible conflict evaporates. Sometimes, a solid truth is thought to have implications destructive of the faith, and it is on those supposed implications that the Christian thinker will concentrate.

Obviously, to do this one must be a philosopher as well as a theologian. The theologian, it can be said, is a philosopher plus. He must have in his intellectual repertoire philosophical methods and achievements; only thus can the believer converse with the non-believer on common ground. The common ground, recall, is the shared experience and knowledge of the race.

In the area of morality, Thomas wrote both as a theologian and as a philosopher. Of course, his conception of theology involved incorporating philosophy into theological inquiry. But in order to be incorporated into theology, philosophy first had to exist. This is why we have such works as Thomas's Commentary on the Ethics of Aristotle, on the one hand, and the moral part (Part Two) of the Summa theologiae, as well as a host of other works. Many philosophical arguments occur within the theological writings, and while in the context they are put to a specifically theological purposes, taken as such they remain philosophical arguments.

The significance of this for our course is obvious. In conveying the moral philosophy of Thomas, we will mine the theological writings. But Thomas's philosophy meets the requirements of philosophy as set forth above and in the first video-taped lecture.

A word on the role Thomas plays for the Catholic philosopher. The fact that the Church has given advice on the best way to proceed in philosophy can only surprise if we imagine that philosophy and theology are not mutually important. Thomas's policy, mentioned above, is the assumption of the Church as well. Reason can never lead to conflict with the faith. Still, it would be naive to overlook the fact that many philosophers have adopted a hostile attitude toward religious belief. If you were about to begin the study of philosophy, and you were to pick such a mentor as, say, Bertrand Russell, you would be reading many things which, covertly or overtly, are in conflict with Christian belief. If they are, and if the faith is true, the conflicting philosophical position is false. But showing this can be a difficult matter. But if we should begin our study of philosophy with such a one as Bertrand Russell, we would not become equipped with the needful knowledge to counter the drift of Russell.

The danger is that we might become fideists. That is, adopt the view that there is simply no relation between what we believe and what we do in philosophy. This was the error of Latin Averroism.

A worse danger is that, confronted with so many difficulties for the faith and unequipped to counter them, one might lose his faith.

It is because reason rightly used both complements and supports the faith, that the Church is interested in our getting off on the right foot. Starting with Thomas Aquinas is the right foot. Far from being embarrassed by the Church's guidance in this matter, we should both celebrate and be thankful for it. The Church's only motive is that we should arrive at the truth. A good beginning is more than half the journey in philosophy as in anything else. So, in this course, we follow the Church's guidance and take Thomas as our teacher.

Reading Assignment

Read the Introduction to the Penguin Selected Writings of Thomas Aquinas

You might read either Jacques Maritain, The Angelic Doctor or Josef Pieper's Guide to Thomas Aquinas if you can find them in a library -- or used bookstore. 

There will be an entry on Aquinas in the Standford University online Encyclopedia of Philosophy at http://plato.stanford.edu.

Writing Assignment

Write a memo to yourself on the major writings of Thomas Aquinas relevant for his moral thought.


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