Jacques Maritain Center: Ethics Without God?

Antonio Donato

Contemplation As The End of Human Nature

in Aquinas Sententia libri Ethicorum


Contemporary scholars traditionally tend to consider Aquinas ethics as fundamentally Aristotelian. Although it is generally agreed that Aquinas introduces some typical Christian features within Aristotle’s ethics, as far as the backgourd is concerned, Aquinas’ ethics is conceived as essentially Aristotelian. Scholars appear to have very little considered the relevance of Neoplatonic doctrines as sources of Aquinas’ ethics. Thus, it may be suggested that Aquinas ethics appears to be the result of a dialogue between different philosophical traditions rather than the evolution of just one. This could be supported by the historical fact that to assimilate the old established ethical views of the Patristic Philosophy with the Aristotelian ethics, which appeared on the scene of Western philosophy only towards the end of the twelfth century, was one of the major philosophical challenges for Aquinas and his predecessors.

The point of this paper is to try to display the diversity between Aristotle’s and Aquinas’ ethics on one crucial doctrine, i. e. the theory of contemplation as the happiest human activity and consequently the supreme end of human nature. In studying this topic, I shall focus on the Sententia libri Ethicorum since in this text seems easier to detect Aquinas’ difference from the Aristotle and the presence of some Neoplatonic theories.

The outline of this study will proceed as follows. In the first part, it will be provided an explanation of how different are, despite the apparent similarity, Aquinas and Aristotle doctrines of contemplation as the end of human nature. The task undertaken in the second part is to illustrate the opinions of contemporary interpreters who are mainly convinced that Aquinas difference from Aristotle is due to his theological believes. A third section will focus on some texts of the Sententia libri Ethicorum to see which steps Aquinas does to turn Aristotle’s theory of contemplation into his view. Finally, I shall argue that Aquinas changes Aristotle also because of his familiarity with some Neoplatonic doctrines. To this end, I shall analyse some texts of Augustine, Pseudo-Dionysius and the Liber De Causis.

I) How Aristotle’s Theoria Differs from Aquinas’ Visio Beatifica

In 1246-7 the simultaneous appearance of the Latin translation of the Nicomachean Ethics by Robert Grosseteste and of some Greek commentaries on it, developed an increasing interest for Aristotle’s ethics. Aquinas become acquainted with the Nicomachean Ethics during his studies in Cologne (1248-52) under the guide of Albert the Great, and later on advanced his own original interpretation of Aristotle’s ethics. The peculiarity of Aquinas’ reading may be considered his stress on the theoretical nature of Aristotelian ethics.

Among the philosophers of the XIII century, Aquinas was one of the first to emphasise the importance of a key doctrine of the Nicomachean Ethics mostly underestimated by other philosophers, i. e. the contemplative activity. Aquinas put forward an intellectualist reading of the Aristotelian ethics, according to which the happiest human activity and, consequently the end of human nature is contemplation. However, although Aquinas was correct in showing the intellectualist character of Aristotelian ethics, he seems to have both overemphasised the importance of contemplation and to have proposed a notion of contemplation not totally Aristotelian. A careful comparison between a relevant passage of chapter 7 of book X of the Nicomachean Ethics and some crucial texts of Aquinas’ corpus appears to suggest that, despite the similarity that an initial analysis may suggest, Aquinas turns Aristotle’s theory of theoria (contemplation) into a new one.

Aristotle in the Nicomachean Ethics identifies theoria as the end of human nature:

If happiness is an activity in accordance with virtue, it is reasonable that it should be in accordance with the highest virtue; and this will be the virtue of the best part in us. Whether this part be the intellect or something else that seems to rule and control us by nature and to understand noble and divine things, whether it be itself divine or the most divine element in us, the activity of this part in accordance with its proper virtue will constitute perfect happiness. Now we have already said that this activity is contemplative--a conclusion in harmony both with our previous discussion and with the truth. For contemplation is the highest operation, since the intellect is the best element in us and the objects of the intellect are the best of the things that can be known. (Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, X, 7, 1177a 10-20, rec. I. Bywater, OCT, Oxford, 1895).

Here, Aristotle relying on his theory according to which the end of human nature is happiness, intended as the performance of the most virtuous activity, considers the case of theoria (contemplation). Theoria may be considered a good candidate for being the end of human nature both because of its nature and its objects.

Firstly, he claims that theoria is the acme of happiness and the end of human nature because of the kind of activity it involves. However, it is not immediately clear what is the actual nature of theoria.. An option could be to regard theoria as the activity of searching the truths of some theoretical discipline. e. g. mathematics or philosophy. Hence, theoria would be an exercise of discursive reasoning, an intellectual research which logically moves from known premises to hitherto unknown conclusions. Thus, the pleasure of this activity would consists in conducting research hoping in some discoveries in the broad field of knowledge and in rejoicing in each advance that it is made. Another possible reading would be to interpret theoria as the process of reflection on a system of truths already discovered. Evidence of this interpretation might be found in the terminological difference between episteme and theoria. For episteme indicates the mere possession of correct conclusions and the ability to see how some individual items of knowledge would fit with the whole systematic context in which they are embedded. Conversely, theoria expresses the attitude of someone who enjoys the clear overview of the knowledge he possess. Thus, according to this view, theoria is the appreciation of the knowledge already acquired.

The choice between these two possible readings is for Aristotle’s scholars still object of discussion. Nevertheless, what may be relevant in this context is that both the interpretation of theoria emphasise its rational nature excluding any kind of mystical interpretation of it. Thus, the theoria which Aristotle may have in mind is not a mystical status whose calmness is contrasted with the exercise of reason.

Secondly, Aristotle describes the object of theoria as what is divine. It seems that traditionally scholars have overemphasised this claim, suggesting that since the best object of theoria is the divine, theoria consists only in the reflection on theological or astronomical proposing and their proofs. This interpretation may be exposed to two risks. First, to interpret theoria as close to a religious experience which does not seem to be what Aristotle has in mind. Second, to restrict theoria only to theology and astronomy, excluding all the other theoretical sciences. On the contrary, it appears plausible that Aristotle here does not imply any precise or technical theory of God or of the divine; rather, he relies on the intuition that the object of theoria is what is noblest and most true. This interpretation has also a twofold advantage. One, to provide a broader notion of theoria suitable to include all the theoretical sciences. Two, to interpret theoria in a metaphysical rather than a strictly theological sense: so, the object of theoria is not the divine in any technical sense but, more generally, the supreme truth. In the light of that, Aristotle’s claim at line 1170 a 16 that theoria is the "most divine element in us" may be express not that human beings have something which actually is related to God or which possess a divine nature. It rather may be considered a way to emphasise how the intellectual activity is the exercise of the noblest part of a human being.

Therefore, it may be concluded that according to Aristotle theoria is the end of human nature since it is the activity which leads to happiness. Theoria, indeed, consists in performing the best activity, contemplating the divine and driving the human nature in its full realisation.

Considering now Aquinas’ own doctrine, it may be observed that he adopted an eudaemonological and teleological standpoint as well as an intellectualist theory of the end of human nature very close to Aristotle’s views. Nevertheless, some crucial texts of Aquinas’ corpus imply a significant diversity between Aquinas’ and Aristotle’s theory.

Respondeo dicendum quod nomine beatitudinis intelligitur ultima perfectio rationalis seu intellectualis naturae, et inde est quod naturaliter desideratur, quia unumquodque naturaliter desiderat suam ultimam perfectionem. Ultima autem perfectio rationalis seu intellectualis naturae est duplex. Una quidem, quam potest assequi virtute suae naturae, et haec quodammodo beatitudo vel felicitas dicitur. Unde et Aristoteles perfectissimam hominis contemplationem, qua optimum intelligibile, quod est Deus, contemplari potest in hac vita, dicit esse ultimam hominis felicitatem. Sed super hanc felicitatem est alia felicitas, quam in futuro expectamus, qua videbimus Deum sicuti est. Quod quidem est supra cuiuslibet intellectus creati naturam, ut supra ostensum est.

Ad hujus evidentiam sciendum est, quod omnes qui recte senserunt posuerunt finem humanae vitae Dei contemplationem. Contemplatio autem Dei est dupliciter. Una per creaturas, quae imperfecta est, ratione jam dicta, in qua contemplatione philosophus, felicitatem contemplativam posuit, quae tamen est felicitas viae; et ad hanc ordinatur tota cognitio philosophica, quae ex rationibus creaturarum procedit. Est alia Dei contemplatio, qua videtur immediate per suam essentiam; et haec perfecta est, quae erit in patria et est homini possibilis secundum fidei suppositionem. Unde oportet ut ea quae sunt ad finem proportionentur fini, quatenus homo manuducatur ad illam contemplationem in statu viae per cognitionem non a creaturis sumptam, sed immediate ex divino lumine inspiratam; et haec est doctrina theologiae. Ex hoc possumus habere duas conclusiones.

These texts illustrate how Aquinas turns step by step Aristotle’s doctrine into a different one. Aquinas introduces a distinction between two kinds of contemplation, an imperfect one, attainable in this life, which is accomplished by the considerations of speculative sciences and a perfect one, possible only in the afterlife, consisting in the vision of God. Aquinas in the passage of the Summa Theologiae attributes to Aristotle the notion of imperfect contemplation, which is neither mentioned or implied by Aristotle. Hence, Aquinas regards Aristotle’s contemplation as imperfect and introduces a new kind of contemplation, unknown to Aristotle, that he considers the perfect one and, consequently, the end of human nature. The distinction between the two kinds of contemplation is necessary, first because Aquinas’ view of perfect contemplation consists in the uninterrupted vision of God unaccompanied by other activities, and this is not possible in this life. Second, for Aquinas in this life man can only attain and imperfect and analogical notion of God’s nature, whilst in the afterlife he can acquire the perfect vision of God which is the end that fully satisfy man, i. e. perfect happiness.

Nevertheless, one could argue that Aquinas does not differ substantially from Aristotle since, although Aquinas puts forward the distinction between two different kinds of contemplation, this does not imply a doctrine different from Aristotle’s one. The two kinds of contemplation, indeed, simply distinguish two different aspects Aristotle’s theoria. But, this argument does not appear to work too well since one might agree on the similarity of Aristotle’s theoria with Aquinas’ imperfect contemplation, but not with Aquinas perfect contemplation. This theory, indeed, seems to diverge from Aristotle on three crucial respects: the nature, the kind of activity and the content of contemplation.

First, it seems difficult to consider Aquinas’ pure contemplation as perfectly corresponding to Aristotle’s theoria, rather they may be regarded as two different kinds of activities. Aquinas’ pure contemplation, indeed, is not the philosophical contemplation of the supreme truth, but rather a vision which outstrips the resources of metaphysical knowledge: actually, it is the immediate cognitive awareness of God, who transcends the entire order of the universe.. Evidence of that is that Aquinas sometime defines the end of human nature by the more technical formula visio beatifica which makes clearer which kind of activity it is.

Secondly, Aquinas’ visio beatifica and Aristotle’s theoria could be considered different also far their nature is concerned. Aquinas maintains that the end of human nature is the fulfilment of man natural desire, i. e. the vision of God, that can be attained only in the next world. On the contrary, theoria consists in performing the most virtuous and enjoyable activity. In Aristotle, indeed, theoria is the source of happiness because is the kind of activity that it is most proper to human being. Aristotle does not conceive, not even vaguely, that man’s purpose is the vision of God in the next world. This kind of consideration seems to excess the realm of Aristotle’s’ theory.

Thirdly, Aquinas visio beatifica may imply a difference from Aristotle’s theoria also concerning its content. In Aristotle, indeed, the content of theoria is the divine in a very extended sense. What Aristotle seems to have in mind are the supreme truths, the celestial bodies and the Gods, in other words, theoria consists in the contemplation of the upper world. Conversely, in Aquinas the content of the visio beatifica seems to have a much more precise target, namely the vision of God. The difference, hence, may be that Aristotle is speaking of the activity of contemplating the noblest beings in the world, whilst Aquinas refers to the principle and the source of everything.

In conclusion, the study of some Aristotle’s and Aquinas’ crucial texts has permitted the determination of the difference between their notions of contemplation. However, the comparison is not enough to see why this diversity emerges. The analysis of most of the opinions of major scholars on the topic and the careful consideration of their arguments may be relevant to a better understanding of the complexity and articulation of the problem.

II) Status Quaestionis on The Way in Which

Aristotle’s theoria Turned into Aquinas visio beatifica

The analysis of Aquinas’ texts carried out in the last chapter seems to lead to the conclusion that in the development of Aquinas’ theory of contemplation Aristotle’s doctrine of theoria plays a key role. However, Aquinas reading of Aristotle appears to presents a radical change from the original view. In order to understand this change two related problems should be taken into account, i. e. what issues drive Aquinas to change Aristotle, what is Aquinas attitude towards Aristotle’s text. Traditionally, scholars agree that the reason why Aquinas modifies Aristotle’s view is grounded on his way of interpreting the Greek philosophy.

The attempt to explain Aquinas’ change of Aristotle’s theory has lead scholars to two rather different interpretations which could be labelled as philosophical and theological.. According to the theological one - supported by Copleston, Jaffa, Gauthier, Owens, Wieland, Jordan, Thiry, Torrell and Bradley - Aquinas modification is due to his theological attitude of presupposing the supernatural order and of interpreting Aristotle in the light of Christian believes.. In contrast, the second thesis - put forward by Elders, Kleber and Doing - suggests Aquinas changes Aristotle on a purely philosophical base following the intentio auctoris, namely trying to explicit Aristotle’s intent.

The philosophical interpretation is well supported by a recent work of Doig. He proposes that Aquinas has completed, although in a way Aristotle never intended, the doctrine of contemplation as the ultimate end of human nature attempting, however, to explicate the intentio auctoris.. To illustrate his view Doig argues that when Aristotle in the Nicomachean Ethics I. 10 considers whether someone can be considered happy while still alive he advances a doctrine very similar to Aquinas’ one. Hence, Aristotle when observes that someone is called "blessed" he refers to means that men can be blessed but only "as men". In Doig reading this implies that Aristotle himself recognise that this worldly happiness, based on contemplation, is imperfect. Given that way of interpreting Aristotle, Doig can then easily show that Aquinas’ theory of the two kinds of contemplation is only a rather natural development of Aristotle. Therefore, he can conclude that:

By tracing Aquinas use of the expression (blessed as men) we discovered that he completed Aristotle’s doctrine of human happiness, not by interjection of some Christian belief, but by addition of his own philosophically argued convinction that perfect happiness is open to man after death.

Similarly, Kleber holds that Aquinas attributes to Aristotle some new philosophical principles. This seems to be part of Aquinas’ approach to endeavouring to discover the intentio auctoris, while always keeping in mind the veritas rei. In order to support this view Kleber distinguishes between insights of theology and insights due to the knowledge of revelation and implies that the latter are responsible of the development of Aquinas theory of two kind of happiness.

The views of the interprets who sustain the theological interpretation are not homogeneous like those of the scholars in favour of the philosophical one. For that matter it should be distinguished two quite different views: an extreme and a moderate one. The moderate view (Copleston, Jaffa, Wieland and Thiry) proposes that Aquinas’ change of Aristotle is due to both philosophical and theological reasons as well as to his "apostolic prospective" in reading Aristotle. On the other hand, the extreme view (Gauthier, Owens, Jordan, Torrell and Bradley) maintains that Aquinas’ change is due to theological reasons only, totally extraneous to Aristotle.

One of the most exhaustive account of the extreme view may be found in Bradley. He underlines that if human nature is studied in the light of its orientation toward its ultimate end, i. e. the vision of God in another life, then Aquinas ethics is fundamentally theological. Thus, Aquinas’ theory is the result of his theological beliefs and, as a Christian philosopher, Aquinas has to offer a doctrine of the end of human nature based on a prospective aided by faith.

Among the supports of the extreme view, Owens’ reading was one of the first and most influential. He remarks that the Aristotelian ethics, in describing happiness an intellectual activity, offers a good means to express the theological doctrine of the visio beatifica. However, the relevance that Aristotle gives to the requirement for theoria - friends, affluence, good looks honour, etc. - could not apply to the Christian ultimate end. Hence, Aquinas has to regard Aristotelian contemplation as an imperfect one which needs to be completed by a higher one, the perfect contemplation, which is the proper end of human nature. Therefore, Aquinas has to put within an Aristotelian framework the believes of the Christian tradition to which he belongs. Owens stresses the theological direction of Aquinas’ reading of Aristotle noticing :

These considerations (theological) dominate Thomistic interpretation of Aristotle [...] They seem to generate theology, not philosophy. These purpose is to defend revealed truth, not just Christian philosophical truth.

One of the best representative of the moderate view is Jaffa who advances the argument that Aquinas, although maintaining Aristotle’s doctrine, proposes a development of Aristotle’s doctrine that is Christian and theological.. Jaffa, moreover, considers the problem of how Aquinas can introduce the doctrine of the kinds of contemplation taking into account the same Aristotelian text studied by Doig. Differently from Doig, he does not think that the formula "blessed as men" can be interpreted in Aquinas’ sense. This would be to not consider the context in which this discussion is contained. In these lines of the book I, indeed, Aristotle is discussing the characteristics of the moral life and its peculiarity, whilst the contemplative life will be considered only later.. Hence, the use of the formula "blessed as men" by Aquinas is done to have room for the doctrine of the two kinds contemplation which adds something to the text. Thus, in Jaffa’s view, this is a clear case in which Aquinas has to change Aristotle’s prospective because of his Christian principle. He says:

We conclude then that Thomas’ assumption as to harmony of natural and revelated doctrine, at least in so far as Aristotle is to be considered a representative of the former, is entirely unwarranted. Thomas’ "success" in creating the appearance of such harmony, is due, we believed, entirely to his imputation to Aristotle of such non-Aristotelian principles.

In a like manner, Copleston takes the view that, although Aquinas’ conception has in common with Aristotle both the intellectualist and the theological approach, he considerably varies Aristotle’s notion of the end of human nature. In order to do that, Copleston emphasis, Aquinas acted as a theologian and a philosophers combined, this is presupposing some theological doctrines and trying to make them fit in his Aristotelian framework.

In the light of this, it may be pointed out that, however, the three main solutions on how Aquinas turns Aristotle theoria into his, may involve some difficulties.

The philosophical interpretation holds that Aquinas introduces ideas extraneous to Aristotle but only due to philosophical reasons. However, this may be not too easy to see since these scholars admit that the ideas mentioned (perfect happiness, beatitudo, vision of God) and the change inserted (the two kinds of contemplation) are understandable within a theological framework. In much the same way, also the theological reading, in both his extreme and moderate version is not totally free of difficulties. Firstly, it is not too convincing to claim, as the extreme view does, that Aquinas modifies Aristotle on a purely theological basis without the effort to try to colour his theological believes with a philosophical prospective. Secondly, the exponents of moderate view should have devoted a little more of explanation of how Aquinas behaves both as a philosopher and as a theologian.

More generally, following the different intepretantions is not totally evident how Aquinas could possibly introduce his Christian principles without substantially modifying Aristotle’s theory. In conclusion, the indication that derives from the difficulties involved in these studies may be evidence of the importance of trying to consider other factors that could have played a role in Aquinas’ thought.

III) Aquinas’ Theory of The Visio Beatifica in the Sententia libri Ethicorum

The theory of the visio beatifica is traditionally believed to be the result of a modification of Aristotle’s doctrine of theoria on quite specific points. This difference seems to be the result of the insert of some doctrines, extraneous to Aristotle, within the Aristotelian prospective. Hence, these new elements appear only to adjusts and partially modify a philosophical prospective which, however, remains basically Aristotelian. Moreover, these few insights, either philosophical or theological, Aquinas introduces are nor necessarily related to each other.

Nevertheless, this reading of Aquinas’ difference does not appear to be totally persuasive. Firstly, as already noted, it is difficult to demonstrate that Aristotle’s ethics could have been the starting point for philosophers of the XIII century. Secondly, to claim that Aquinas’ view is the consequence of a revision of Aristotle’s perspective in the light of some new doctrines may make the visio beatifica appear more like a patchwork rather than a unitarian and coherent prospective.

Therefore, given the difficulties of the traditional interpretations, it may be more plausible to support a diverse view. Aquinas’ theory seems to be grounded on a philosophical view coherent and alternative to Aristotle’s one, which possibly emerges quite clearly in the Sententia libri Ethicorum (henceforth SLE).

The relevance of the SLE as one of the crucial texts to look at to catch the peculiarity of Aquinas’ view is suggested by several evidences. The first is the composition. According to Gauthier the SLE was composed in 1272-73, thus it is a rather mature work and it was written after Summa Theologiae Primae Secundae. As a later work, it constitutes a quite good evidence of what it should be the definite version of Aquinas’ view. Furthermore, as it is conceived after Summa Theologiae Primae Secundae, it supports the idea that Aquinas intended to present the ethical view of the SLE as valuable in its own right. Thus, after having developed his own view presumably, Aquinas was interested in discussing systematically Aristotle’s one.

The second evidence of the importance of the SLE are its textual characteristics. The nature of a commentary makes the text particularly suitable to illustrate how and when Aquinas modifies Aristotle for two reasons. Firstly, because Aquinas’ goal to explain Aristotle, it is easier to detect when he moves away from the text. Secondly, since, being a commentary, Aquinas cannot oppose his doctrine of the visio beatifica to theoria, like in other texts, but he has to try to harmonise them. This results in Aquinas’ introduction of several steps which make the change of one doctrine into the other seem quite natural.

The impression that visio beatifica is a doctrine alternative to Aristotle’s theoria and not just its evolution or updated version, is enforced by its being grounded on a rather different philosophical view. More precisely, a diverse understanding of the nature of ethics.

Aquinas provides a very intellectualist interpretation of ethics significantly different not only form Aristotle but also from the most common view of the XIII century. On one hand, Aquinas differs from Aristotle since he allows only a single goal for human life, i. e. contemplation. Consequently he considers the political life as directed towards the theoretical one. Aquinas seems to imply, indeed, that not only the best decision in every situation is that which most conduces to contemplation but also that the exercise of practical virtue is good as a means towards contemplation. Aristotle, by contrast, highly regard both political and contemplative life as end of human life. Furthermore, Aristotle does not commit himself with Aquinas’ view that actions are valuable as they promote contemplation or that practical decisions are determined by the promotion of contemplation. On the other hand, Aquinas is also in contrast with the established view supported by Eustratius, Averroes and Albert. For, despite their differences, they all emphasise the role of political life since consider social living what is proper to a human agent. On the contrary, they dismiss the contemplative life as solitary, more divine than human and less appropriate to what is the proper of man.

Therefore, given the difference between Aquinas and Aristotle’s view, it is hard to see how can the doctrine of the visio beatifica fit with Aristotle’s theoria giving the impression of not a radical change but rather of a natural development. The study of SLE should illustrate the four steps in which Aquinas carries out this enterprise.

The first step consists in making room for his doctrine of the visio beatifica. Starting from Aristotle’s idea that contemplation is the end of human life and consequently the happiest activity, Aquinas introduces a problem unknown to Aristotle, i. e. prefect happiness do not appear to be possible.

Loquitur enim in hoc libro philosophus de felicitate, qualis in hac vita potest haberi. Nam felicitas alterius vitae omnem investigationem rationis excedit.

Aquinas indicates that complete happiness is not achievable in this life because the full contemplation of God, that is perfect happiness, it is not possible to human being in this life. Aquinas’ view is grounded on his theory of the impossibility of knowing the essence of God. This is due mainly to the idea that God himself is infinite knowledge, whereas created intellect has but a limited capacity to know. This view relies on the principle according to which the object of knowledge, in so far as it is to be known, has to be in due proportion to the cognitive capacity of the knower. Our knowledge is commensurate with finite realities and cannot attain the infinity of God.. Furthermore, the essential dependence of human knowledge of bodily capabilities makes the vision of the divine essence impossible under the conditions of this life. It may be concluded that since in this life our knowledge of God is imperfect, he can be known only indirectly. Therefore, perfect contemplation and complete happiness cannot be attained in this life..

Nevertheless, since every human beings desire to see God in his essence, this desire cannot be frustrated by the impossibility of natural capacity of man to reach God. Otherwise the absurd conclusion should be drawn that human beings are created to achieve an end, visio beatifica, that is unreachable, i. e. to wish what is impossible. In order to overcome this difficulty, Aquinas introduces an element extraneous to Aristotle, namely the doctrine of the two kinds of happiness and contemplation. Thus, Aquinas’ second step is to insinuate the need of the visio beatifica.

Sed quia ista videntur non usquequaque attingere ad conditiones supra de felicitate positas, subdit quod tales dicimus beatos sicut homines, qui in hac vita mutabilitati subiecta non possunt perfectam beatitudinem habere. Et quia non est inane naturae desiderium, recte aestimari potest quod reservatur homini perfecta beatitudo post hanc vitam. Ultimo epilogat dicens, quod de his in tantum dictum sit.

This text suggests how, although human beings can contemplate God, however, under the conditions of the present life this contemplation is neither permanent nor simple since it is repeatedly interrupted and has always to newly begin. Complete contemplation cannot exist in the present life, but God promises this to us in a future life. To hold this doctrine Aquinas suggests Aristotle’s theory to be a description of the kind of contemplation possible under human conditions. Then, Aquinas fills the gap left by Aristotle’ view which does not give a description of complete contemplation.

The discussion of the two kinds of contemplation relies on Aquinas’ idea that happiness consists more in the speculative than in the practical activity. For, if the vision of God is the final end of human life, then the best activity can only consist in contemplation, that is in an activity of the speculative intellect. Hence, the activity of the practical intellect can be the end of a person only in so far as it provides the proper conditions to be then involved in contemplation.

Aquinas’ third step is to suggest that the visio beatifica is the supreme end of human life through the emphasis on the intellectual life and the consequent underestimation of the political ones. This result in a radical change of one of the key theory of Aristotle’s ethics, i. e. phronesis.. In Aquinas’ interpretation, indeed, phronesis loses not only the crucial role but also the high status among the other virtues that it has in Aristotle’s ethics.

Firstly, the privation of the privileged role of phronesis is due to the idea that the supreme end of human life is only contemplation and hence the knowledge of the end can be attained only by the highest intellectual virtue, i. e. wisdom. By contrast, in Aristotle - where both the contemplative and political life are end of human life - phronesis is as important as wisdom. For, the knowledge of the end of political life is due to the practical intellect, phronesis, whilst wisdom cannot reach the knowledge of this end. Thus, in Aristotle phronesis guides the political life, while wisdom the contemplative. Differently, in Aquinas life is ordered towards its end by wisdom only.

Secondly, consequent to Aquinas’ having absorbed the political dimension into the speculative one and to the predominant role given to wisdom, is the change of the characteristics of phronesis which intellectual dimension is radically diminished.

Deinde cum dicit: videtur autem etc., agit de prudentia. Et primo ostendit quae dicatur prudentia. Secundo infert quoddam corollarium ex dictis, ibi, species quidem igitur et cetera. Dicit ergo primo, quod quamvis politica tam legis positiva quam executiva sit prudentia, tamen maxime videtur esse prudentia quae est circa unum tantum, scilicet circa seipsum. Et talis ratio suiipsius gubernativa retinet sibi commune nomen prudentiae; quia aliae partes prudentiae habent propria nomina, quibus nominantur.

Thirdly, in Aquinas’ view phronesis has not the task of choosing the end of human action but only to recognise the proper means to attain these ends. Consequently, Aristotle’ view according to which phronesis is the intellectual virtue enables us to choose the right end of our life appears to be completely lost. Aquinas claims:

Et dicit, quod ex quo prudentia non est scientia, quae est habitus demonstrativus circa necessaria; et non est ars, quae est habitus cum ratione factivus; relinquitur, quod prudentia sit habitus cum vera ratione activus, non quidem circa factibilia, quae sunt extra hominem, sed circa bona et mala ipsius hominis.

This change is due Aquinas’ introduction of a new element totally extraneous to Aristotle’s, i. e. synderesis. Synderesis is the natural reason which appoints the end to moral virtues. Phronesis is what perfects synderesis determining and pursuing the means necessary for human actions and it is not any more the intellectual virtue that appoints the moral virtues since this role is played by synderesis. Consequently, the only function left for phronesis is to be the heuristic principle which regulates and directs the activity of virtue toward the end. Thus, it is rather clear that Aristotelian idea of phronesis as the intellectual virtue, the principal of decision and of what grounds the human actions is lost.

In conclusion, because of the introduction of synderesis and consequently of the modifications of the nature of phronesis, the Aristotelian idea of the predominant position of phronesis is totally changed. In Aquinas’ new hierarchy of virtues phronesis has, indeed, a secondary role after synderesis.

This intellectualist approach towards ethics Aquinas carries out needs a strong ground which allows this theory to be fully justified. This ground is given by the notion of the intellect as a sort of spiritual substance. In the SLE, through a radical and extremist interpretation of some passages, Aquinas illustrates the spiritual nature of human intellect focusing on its nature, its ontological status and its activity. Thus, Aquinas’ fourth step is to suggest why visio beatifica is possible for human intellect.

Firstly, Aquinas takes full advantage of Aristotle’s qualification of human intellect as "divine" to claim that the human intellect has the same nature of separate substances.

Secundo vero, ponit signa excellentiae intellectus per comparationem ad superiora, scilicet ad res divinas, ad quas dupliciter comparatur. Uno modo secundum habitudinem, quasi ad obiecta. Solus enim intellectus habet intelligentiam de rebus essentialiter bonis, quae sunt res divinae. Alio modo comparatur intellectus humanus ad res divinas, secundum connaturalitatem ad ipsas, diversimode quidem secundum diversorum sententias.

The signs of the excellence of the intellect are shown by a comparison with higher being, namely divine beings. Thanks to this correlation it emerges that the human intellect is compared with divine things because it shares a common nature with them. However, this does not mean that human intellect is identical with divine beings, but rather that the intellect is both proportionate to the divine and its activity it is directed towards it.

Afterward, Aquinas is more precise on how it should be understood the claim about the divinity of the intellect:

Alii vero intellectum partem animae posuerunt, sicut Aristoteles. Et secundum hoc intellectus non est simpliciter quiddam divinum, sed est divinissimum inter omnia quae in nobis, propter maiorem convenientiam quam habet cum substantiis separatis, secundum quod eius operatio est sine organo corporeo.

The intellect is not simply divine but it is the most divine thing in us since, like separate substances, its operation takes place without any corporeal organ. Thus, Aquinas’ second move is to illustrate that the human soul may be regarded as a spiritual substance because of the characteristics of its best activity. According to Aquinas the human soul is, indeed, on the borderline between corporeal and separated [that is, purely spiritual] substances. Like angels, it engages in contemplation; but, like lower beings it busies itself with bodily activities. The human soul has, indeed, a double character. First, differently from the lower beings, due to its intellectual nature can give itself to the contemplation of truth as do purely immaterial angels. Second, like any corporeal beings, it is involved in more practical activities. However, this view does not seem to be Aristotelian. The point Aristotle makes, indeed, is to emphasise the excellence of the intellect. Hence, in saying that the intellect is "divine" Aristotle is not interested in suggesting any ontological similarity between the human intellect and separate substances as Aquinas does.

Finally, focusing on the activity of the intellect Aquinas introduces the notion of the participation of the intellect with the separate substances, which prepares and renders more plausible the visio beatifica.

Et ideo manifestans quod dictum est, subdit quod homo sic vivens, scilicet vacando contemplationi, non vivit secundum quod homo, qui est compositus ex diversis, sed secundum quod aliquid divinum in ipso existit, prout scilicet secundum intellectum divinam similitudinem participat.

In these lines it is suggested that our knowledge of divine realties is not by abstraction, like in the case of sensible things, but rather by participation. Our intellect, indeed, participates in the intellectual power of the divine and in contemplating God becomes in a sense one with him, is assimilated to him, being "informed" by him. In other words, Aquinas expresses this relation in terms of his own noetic, relying on his view that the intellect in act is in a way identical with the object of knowledge as it is actually known. The diversity with Aristotle is clear since he never refer either to a common nature or to a participation between human beings and the divine.

The analysis of some texts of the SLE has shown that Aquinas’ transformation of Aristotle’s theoria into a different doctrine is grounded on rather diverse philosophical prospective. This process is articulated in four related steps which do not make appear Aquinas’ change as radical as it actually is. I shall turn to consider the philosophical views which influenced Aquinas and inspired him in developing the theory of the visio beatifica.

IV) The Neoplatonic Sources of Aquinas’ Theory

The analysis carried out so far has demonstrated Aquinas’ theory of the visio beatifica to be neither only a development of Aristotle’ doctrine of theoria, nor an adjustment of the Aristotelian prospective in the light of some new philosophical or theological believes. However, this does not mean that Aquinas’ visio beatifica is a brand new theory totally unrelated to the philosophical discussion of the XIII century. The starting point of Aquinas’ visio beatifica may be Augustine’s principle - very common in Medieval ethical discussion - of the impossibility of happiness in this life. Then, due to his intellectualistic approach towards ethics and his idea of the correspondence between happiness and contemplation, Aquinas introduces the doctrines of the unknowability of God and of the divine nature of human soul. These theories are the outcome of an intense dialogue with Pseudo-Dionysius and of the Liber de Causis. Therefore, Aquinas’ visio beatifica appears to be the result of an original and personal dialogue with different authors deeply influenced by the Neoplatonic prospective, i. e. Augustine, Pseudo-Dionysius and the Liber de Causis.

I am not going to provide a full and definitive account of how Aquinas reads and interprets the Neoplatonic doctrines he uses. My goal is, indeed, just to outline how some Neoplatonic view may have played a significant role in the development of Aquinas’ visio beatifica. However, my aim is not to claim that Aquinas’ visio beatifica is a Neoplatonic doctrine, but rather that its differences with Aristotle’s theoria may be better understood through reference to the some philosophical views of Augustine, Pseudo-Dionysius and the Liber de Causis.

The premises and the ground from which moves Aquinas’ visio beatifica is Augustine’s doctrine that there is no happiness in this world and that, consequently, true happiness is to be found only in the enjoyment of the contemplation of God in the world to come. Book IX, 15 of the City of God and Retractationes 4, 3 and I, 14, 2 provide a very good illustration of this theory:

Si autem, quod multo credibilius et probabilius disputatur, omnes homines, quamdiu mortales sunt, etiam miseri sint necesse est.

Si illi qui iam inuenerunt, quos in ipsa possessione iam esse diximus, sic accipiantur beatissimi, ut non hac vita, sed in ea quam speramus et ad quam per fidei viam tendimus sint, non habet iste sensus errorem. Ipsi enim iudicandi sunt quod quaerendum est invenisse, qui iam ibi sunt quo nos quarendo et credendo, id est viam fidei tenendo, cupimus pervenire. Si autem in hac vita putantur esse isti vel fuisse, id verum esse non mihi videtur, non quia in hac vita nihil omnino inveniri potest, quod mente cernatur non fide credatur, sed quia tantum est quidquid est, ut non faciat beatissimos. [...] In hac enim vita, quantumcumque id sciatur, nondum est beatissimum, quoniam inconparabiliter longe est amplius quod inde nescitur.

These texts suggest that perfect virtue cannot be attained in this life but only in the next and that happiness in this life depends strictly on the state of one’s soul, so that a wise man is happy regardless of the condition of his body. For the only life deservedly called happy is one where the body cannot suffer or die and obeys the mind without resistance. Hence, even a life devoted to philosophy cannot give the complete knowledge of God and the true happiness, whilst the total happiness which consists in the perfect knowledge of God is attainable in the future life.

The claim of the impossibility of happiness in this life view should be supported, according to Aquinas’, by a further philosophical point able to fully justify this position. Aquinas finds in the Neoplatonic doctrine of the unknowability of God, supported by both Pseudo-Dionysius and the Liber de Causis, the argument able to provide the evidence he needs.

In the Commentary on Pseudo-Dionysius’ De Divinis Nominibus, Aquinas depicts with approval Pseudo-Dionysius’ theory according to which God is beyond all the we can apprehend by intellect. For only created and finite beings fall within the realm of our intellect, while God who is uncreated and infinite transcends our intellectual capabilities:

Deus est potior omni nostra locutione et omni cognitione et non solum excedit nostram locutionem et cognitionem, sed universaliter collocatur super omnem mentem etiam angelicam et super omnem substantiam.

In these lines Aquinas, following Pseudo-Dionysius, holds that the God is completely unknowable since only created and finite beings fall within the realm of our intellect, while God who is uncreated and infinite transcends our intellectual capabilities. Then he holds that is impossible to speak about him since all the words we may use express a definite manner of being which, limited and separated, is inappropriate of God in whom all perfections are unified with his essence. Furthermore, our inability to speak truthfully of God is also due to the characteristics of our language which goals is to describe finite things and is not appropriate for the infinity of God.

The idea that God is unknowable is found by Aquinas also in the Liber de Causis. In the commentary on the proposition 6 of the Liber de Causis Thomas reports with agreement the theory according to which God is totally unknowable.

Sed illlud quod est primum simpliciter, quod secundum Platonicos est ipsa essentia bonitatis, est penitus ignotum, quia non habet aliquid supra se quod possit ipsum cognoscere et hoc significat quod dictum amethectum idest non post existens alicui.

Aquinas shares with the author of the Liber de Causis the doctrine that God is unknowable in so far as his nature transcends what is finite: since the proper object of human intellect is the what is finite, is not possible to have any form of knowledge of an object which transcends what is finite. Then, following the author of the Liber de Causis, Aquinas indicates "being" is understood in a different way, when it is said of God and creatures: when it is said of God, it implies infinity transcendence. Therefore, the difference lies in the dichotomy between a finite being we are proportioned to and an infinite being to which we cannot refer. This prevents human beings from reaching God through creatures, for the sense in which creatures "are", is diverse from that of God. Hence, no speech can be possible about God and he will not be attainable rationally for human beings.

As it was already underlined in chapter three, the strong intellectualistic approach towards ethics proposed by Aquinas’ is grounded on his doctrine of the soul. Aquinas shows, indeed, that the soul may be considered "divine" for two reasons.. First, since its best activity, the intellectual one, is similar to that of separate substances. Second, because the human soul by participation in the intellectual power of God becomes one with him. Aquinas has encountered and studied both these doctrines in his commentary on Liber de Causis.

The former doctrine, occurs in proposition 13 where the author of the Liber de Causis holds that in every soul there is an identity between the knower and the known object:

Et ideo ad probandum hanc propositionem, primo hic inducitur quod intelligens et intellectum in intellectibus separatis sunt simul, in quantum scilicet secundum substantiam suam non solum sunt intellectus sed intelligibiles, utpote propinquissime participantes primum intellectum. Unde concludit quod intelligentia intelligit essentiam suam; et quia essentia sua est essentia intelligentis, sequitur quod, intelligendo essentiam suam, intelligat se intelligere essentiam suam.

The idea, shared by Aquinas, appears to be that when the intellect knows it becomes in a way identical with what it is knowing. Hence, the human intellect when it is involved in the contemplation of God is how some identical with him.

The latter is studied in proposition 9 where Aquinas agrees with the author of the Liber de Causis that if the activity proper of one thing has to found in another this is due to the participation of the former to the latter:

Et consistit vis suae probationis in hoc quia, si alicuius rei propria operatio inveniatur in re alia, oportet ex necessitate quod res illa habeat ex participatione alterius hanc operationem sicut effectus habet aliquid a causa.

Aquinas, like the author of the Liber de Causis, seems to suggest that the human soul becomes one with God through its most proper activity. It is, indeed, due to the intellectual activity that human soul participates in God because as in God the intellectual activity is found at the highest degree the human soul can perform it only by participation.

The study of the role of some Neoplatonic doctrines in Aquinas’ view should have demonstrated that the doctrine of the visio beatifica is the original result of the dialogue with different philosophical traditions. Aquinas develops a view which tries to befit Augustine’s idea of the impossibility of happiness in this life with Aristotle’s theoria.

Without wishing to suggest that such an interpretation is more than a hypothesis, it has to be pointed out that the current interpretations seem to overlook the role played by Neoplatonic sources in Aquinas’ theory of visio beatifica.. I think that only after an extensive analysis of all the relevant texts of Aquinas it will be possible to full evaluate the relevance of Neoplatonic sources. Nevertheless, I think that the interpretation I propose is a good starting point to study the other texts in which Aquinas addresses this problem.


To sum up, we can see that the theory of the visio beatifica appears to be the result of Aquinas an extensive dialogue with both the Aristotelian and the Neoplatonic philosophical tradition. More precisely, Aquinas tries to harmonise the Neoplatonic idea that happiness involves an element that transcends human capacity and Aristotelian understanding of happiness as the perfection of human nature. Firstly, on a general level, Aquinas puts forwards a very intellectualist interpretation of ethics. Secondly, he overemphasises the importance of contemplation drastically reducing the relevance that political life have in Aristotelian ethics. Finally, through the four steps I analysed in chapter three, Aquinas articulates a theory, visio beatifica which may be rather well illustrated as a sort of bridge between Neoplatonic and Aristotelian theory of happiness


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