The Place of Philosophy in the Moral Theology of St. Thomas Aquinas

Servais Pinckaers, O.P.

     I will begin by sharing a confidence with you: I am very satisfied with the encyclical Fides et Ratio taken as a whole; I confess, however, to being somewhat troubled by paragraph 68, which concerns moral theology, because it can easily be misinterpreted. According to this passage, moral theology has more need of philosophy than dogmatic theology does, because human life is much less regulated by prescriptions under the New Covenant than it was under the Old Covenant. Thus, while the Old Covenant contains a vast amount of moral precepts, imperatives and prohibitions, the New Covenant has far fewer, leaving much to the freedom of the Spirit. The encyclical suggests, therefore, that philosophy has an important role to play in moral theology: philosophical reflection about human nature and society can help the theologian better understand the nature of the freedom to which we are called in the Spirit. So far so good. The temptation, however, is to read paragraph 68 from within the perspective of a morality of obligations, which is the legacy of the post-Tridentine manuals of theology, or from within the perspective of a morality of duty and of imperatives such as the one proposed by Kant. From this perspective paragraph 68 is telling us that the New Covenant merely provides general principles and a new inspiration to a morality that essentially remains a natural morality. As such, according to this view, the role of philosophy is to help the theologian apply general moral principles to concrete cases.

     I can understand this perspective. It is logical from within a framework that makes morality the domain of obligatory precepts, imperatives and prohibitions. Does not St. Thomas himself say that the New Law does not add any new precepts concerning external acts, and thus does not impose any additional obligations (ST I-II 108.2)? One could conclude from this that the New Testament merely reasserts the moral teaching of the Decalogue, which is itself identified with the natural law, and that theology merely adds to moral teaching a few new sources of inspiration. As a result, morality principally becomes the concern of philosophy, and consequently the preferred name of the discipline becomes "ethics." With regard to the texts of the New Testament, such as the Sermon on the Mount and the apostolic catechesis, they retreat to the margins of moral theology properly so called, and are relegated instead to the domain of spirituality. 

     One's perspective and conclusions change, however, once one adopts the point of view of St. Thomas: in other words, the perspective changes completely once one adopts a morality of happiness and virtue that seeks excellence in action and in the moral agent himself, giving priority to interior acts, which form the virtues at the very root of one's personal actions. Once one views Christian morality from the perspective of the primary virtues, one immediately perceives the role played by theology with its virtues of faith, hope and charity; theology plays a direct role in moral analysis, but it is a role that in no way diminishes the part played by philosophy with regard to the cardinal virtues, studied with the aid of Aristotle and other philosophers. Moreover, if we turn our attention to Scripture, we find that the Decalogue is vivified and enkindled by being drawn into charity's love of God and neighbor. This aspect of Gospel morality is especially evident in the moral teaching brought together by St. Matthew in the Lord's Sermon on the Mount and ably presented in the apostolic catechesis (cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church, n. 1971). It is a morality that aims above all at the perfection of the heart and mind though a wisdom and a love that enliven the other virtues. The doctrines in the Sermon on the Mount and in the apostolic catechesis form the principal sources of the moral teaching of the Fathers and of St. Thomas in particular. 

     From this perspective, theology recovers its place and its active role in the study of the moral life; from within this perspective we are in a better position to address our question concerning the respective roles of theology and philosophy in moral science. 

     Before confronting St. Thomas with this question, it will be helpful to remember that philosophy has been a vitally important issue to Christianity since apostolic times. St. Paul poses the question dramatically in the First Letter to the Corinthians where he confronts human wisdom with the wisdom of the cross. But, Paul offers a guideline for responding to the question of philosophy in the Letter to the Philippians, where he states: "whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is just, whatever is pure, . . . if there is any virtue, if there is anything worthy of praise, consider these things" (4.8). Debate concerning the value of philosophy was continued by the Fathers of the Church. The greatest among them knew how to take up what was best and most useful in pagan philosophy, especially in the teachings of the Platonists and the of Stoics, while at the same time firmly respecting the priority of the Gospel received in faith. St. Thomas is firmly with in this positive stream of thought. Following the example of Albert the Great, he had the audacity to introduce into Christian theology Aristotelian doctrine, which had not received at that point a favorable reception. 

     We should add that since the Renaissance, modern philosophy has complicated the issue by placing its center of gravity in the human person and no longer in God, and by claiming for itself complete autonomy in the name of sovereign reason, which claims for itself the ability to understand and explain everything, including the Scriptures and Christian revelation. 

     In this debate, morality continues to be a sore point, revealing the limits of modern philosophy and the sciences to those who have eyes to see it. This is so, because even the most ordinary voluntary actions, as Maurice Blondel has demonstrated, engage the human person in his concrete totality and leave him open, through his deepest inclinations, to the fullness of reality, to a reality that is beyond we know or can know from reason alone. Moral action is, so to speak, the existential stage of philosophy and the sciences, and it puts them decisively to the test. 

    This is what makes studying the theology of St. Thomas so interesting. Thomas succeeded in constructing a theology that was in harmony with Greco-Roman philosophy and did so precisely in the area of morality. Our interest is deepened when we realize that Thomas offers us the completed version of a virtue morality inherited both from the Fathers of the Church and from ancient philosophy, while most modern philosophies and the sciences remain tied to a morality reduced to the level of imperatives and prohibitions. 

     Does theology need philosophy? What place should philosophy have in theology and what role should it play there? In a word, what interaction should philosophy have with theology in Christian moral reasoning? These are the questions we shall pose to St. Thomas. To answer them, we have chosen four structural elements of his moral theology, elements that are evident in the very plan of the Prima Secundae; we have, however, shifted the question of free choice to the end; since this question arises at the end of the process of moral reflection, it leads us to the consideration of concrete cases.

     We can reduce the essential components of Thomistic moral theology to four structural elements:

     1. The moral life is essentially a response to the question of happiness and the ultimate end of human action, a conception of the moral life that was the general view held by the philosophers of antiquity and the Fathers of the Church. This corresponds to the Treatise on Happiness and the Ultimate end. 

     2. Humans progress toward beatitude by their actions. These actions flow from two types of principles corresponding to the two parts of the human act: the interior act and the exterior act. First, there are the interior principles or personal sources of action. These are the virtues and their contrary vices and sins. 

     3. There are then the exterior or superior principles of action: law and grace. 

     4. This construction presupposes an analysis of the human person as God created him: God created him in his image with the faculties that together constitute the proper act of the human person, namely, free choice, the voluntary act. The entire goal of moral theology is to form, from universal principles, the choice that generates the concrete act.

     We note here that the thought of St. Thomas, from its study of principles all the way to its analysis of choice, is "unitive" in the sense that it emphasizes the collaboration of all human faculties under the guiding interaction of reason and will. In this way, the decision to act is constituted by a practical judgment and a free choice that are indissolubly united. The unitive character of action is also evident in the structure of the treatises concerning particular virtues. Each treatise first studies a virtue, as the interior principle of action, and then considers an associated gift caused by grace and a precept of the Decalogue, as the exterior principles of action, concluding with an
analysis of the sins opposed to the virtue. 

     We shall consider under these four points the place and role of philosophy in the moral theology of the Angelic Doctor.

1. The Treatise on Beatitude

        In the five questions that comprise the treatise on beatitude, the role of philosophy, especially of Aristotle and Boethius, seems so vast that some interpreters have regarded these questions as being purely philosophical in nature. They have not noticed, however, that the study of the ultimate end and of the different goods that present themselves to us forms a threefold way-- comparable to the "five ways" that lead us to God's existence--a threefold way that leads to the Christian response to the question of happiness. The vision of God in the next life is our ultimate end, because "God alone" can fully satisfy the human longing for happiness. To explain this conclusion, Thomas
no longer bases himself upon the Philosopher, but upon a theologian, St. Augustine. Augustine also begins his exposition of Catholic moral theology with the question of happiness, which according to Augustine all people ask themselves even before they consciously express it. The one who can fulfill this deep desire is the Trinity, revealed and made accessible in Jesus Christ. 

        We also often fail to notice that Thomas's analysis of the beatitudes in his Commentary on the Gospel of St. Matthew is an underlying source of his treatise in the Summa. In the Commentary on St. Matthew, Thomas already follows the itinerary of a progressive search for the true good--something that he will later employ in question two of the Prima Secundae--showing that Christ alone reveals perfect happiness, a happiness that none of the philosophers, not even Aristotle, were able to discover. Moreover, the treatise on beatitude is itself structurally linked to the analysis of the evangelical beatitudes in question 69. Indeed, question 69 brings the treatise on beatitude to
its completion. It is there that Thomas presents the beatitude attainable to the Christian in this life by living the virtues and the gifts. 

       Philosophy and theology, therefore, both play large roles in the treatise on beatitude, but in doing so they are not merely juxtaposed. They are connected to each other in a relationship that we could call "natural." They, in fact, respond together to a question that flows from the spiritual nature of the human person: what is the true good, what is real happiness? Enlightened by revelation, the theologian perceives that, because of the openness of the human intellect and will toward the infinite, this spontaneous desire can only be fulfilled by the vision of God. Hence, the famous argument affirming the natural desire to see God, which forms the principal wellspring underlying St. Thomas's reasoning on this point. In the face of this vocation, philosophy is both necessary and insufficient. It cannot attain, nor even imagine, such a beatitude, a beatitude that is a complete gift and properly supernatural. Yet, the theologian for his part, although by faith he knows about our call to beatitude in God, he cannot trace the ways that lead to it without the labor of reason, without engaging in philosophical reflection concerning human acts and the virtues. 

      Laid out in this way, the treatise on beatitude controls the entire moral part of theology. The relationship between philosophy and theology sketched above is maintained by Aquinas throughout the Secunda Pars. In each treatise, whether it be the treatise on the virtues, on law or on sin, the guiding principle of analysis is each thing's relationship to beatitude as the ultimate end.

      We note as well that the treatise on beatitude will disappear in the post-Tridentine manuals of moral theology, as well as in modern ethics of the Kantian variety, following the critique of eudaemonism. It has not be replaced by anything except the search for a material and sensate happiness that is prone to utilitarianism and rightly suspected of being a form of egoism. Happily, the Catechism of the Catholic Church has reintroduced the question of happiness, placing it at the beginning of its presentation of Christian morality, which it describes as a vocation to the beatitude revealed in the evangelical beatitudes (nn. 1716-1729). 

2. The Virtues and the Gifts

     The vast treatise on the habitus and the virtues is a masterpiece of Thomistic moral theology. It contains the heritage of ancient philosophy and the thought of the Fathers, both of which regard virtue as the essence of human and Christian perfection. Here again, the role of philosophy is so extensive that one might even view it as primary. Indeed, St. Thomas's teaching concerning the virtues is the result of the patient research of medieval theologians who were guided not only by St. Augustine but also by the works of Aristotle, which were progressively being rediscovered. Especially significant is Thomas's extended study of the habitus, which serves as the foundation of his treatise on the virtues. In some places, such as his treatise on prudence, Aquinas even follows the precise structure of Aristotle's analysis in close detail. Moreover, to establish the definition and division of the virtues annexed to the cardinal virtues, he draws upon the lists of virtues compiled by Cicero and Macrobius, a choice that makes it difficult for Aquinas to know where to place such Christian virtues as humility, obedience or vigilance. The impression that the treatise on the virtues is above all a philosophical treatise is accentuated by our practice of conceiving the virtues as essentially the product of human effort and as being entities acquired through repeated action.

     Yet, when one reads the treatise on the virtues in its entirety, one perceives that it is principally a work of theology. Indeed, the virtues form a living organism comparable to the human body with its organs. They do not exist or function separately, even though a structural analysis of the Summa might lead a superficial reader to conclude that they do. Instead, united in a dynamic bond established by charity and prudence, the virtues work together, like the members of our own body. 

     We see this dynamic especially present in the relationship between the theological virtues and the moral virtues. Faith, hope and charity constitute the head of the Christian organism of virtues. Like a vital energy, the theological virtues animate the human virtues from within, ordering them toward divine beatitude and even transforming them to a certain extent. St. Thomas perceived this transforming influence so strongly that he judged it necessary to add to the acquired moral virtues certain infused moral virtues in order to perfect them. Moreover, in each treatise on the moral virtues, one can detect that Thomas has made changes to the Aristotelian conception of moral virtue.  Thus, instead of courage in battle, martyrdom becomes the supreme act of fortitude, while virginity consecrated to Christ becomes the perfection of chastity. Thomas even maintains that true patience does not exist without charity, and thus not without grace (ST II-II 136.3). 

     Furthermore, and this is fundamentally important, Thomas links the virtues to the gifts of the Holy Spirit. In this way, the gifts enter into the organic life of the virtues and they perfect it. The gifts are an integral part of the Thomistic view of the moral life, in accordance with the definition of the New Law as the grace of the Spirit. For Aquinas, the gifts are a necessary part of every Christian's life. They add to the virtues a receptive dimension, which is a docility to the promptings of the Spirit. In this way, the action of the Holy Spirit can, like the virtues, permeate all the actions of a Christian. The moral life truly becomes a "life in the Spirit," as the Catechism calls it (n. 1699). We do not see here a separation between the moral life and the mystical life. Subsequent theology will regard the gifts as belonging to the mystical life and will view the mystical life as something that is reserved to a chosen few. For Aquinas, however, the gifts, like the virtues, belong to all believers. 

     In fact, under the guidance of revelation and Christian experience, the conception of virtue itself is transformed: to the acquired virtues are added the infused virtues, which are caused by the grace of Christ and no longer by mere human effort. These virtues, beginning with the theological virtues, are vitally associated with the human virtues. They animate them from within to such an extent that the acts of the virtues become the work both of God and of the human person united together in charity. 

     We note too that apostolic catechesis, notably the teachings of St. Paul about the virtues and the vices in the Letter to the Romans, was virtually forgotten by modern moralists (cf. CCC n. 1971). For St. Thomas, however, whose commentary on the Letter to the Romans was preparatory for his work in the Summa Theologiae, the apostolic catechesis was the principal source and "authority" of his teaching, in conjunction with the interpretations of this catechesis offered by the Fathers, especially by St. Augustine and St. Gregory the Great, among others. The Thomistic analysis of the virtues in this way draws together the principal streams of Scriptural, theological and
philosophical reflection.

     We find once again, therefore, that philosophy is closely associated with revelation at the very heart of theology, following the prescription of St. Paul: ". . . if there is any virtue, if there is anything worthy of praise, consider these things" (Phil. 4.8); but, at the same time we also find Aquinas asserting that the Word of God deepens philosophical knowledge and develops it beyond human hopes and expectations. 

3. Laws and Precepts

     In Christian teaching, the Decalogue has always been regarded as fundamentally important. Scholastic theology linked it to the natural law inscribed in the hearts of all people. Post-Tridentine theology made the Decalogue the cornerstone and threshold of the very structure of moral theology. Theology during this period no longer organized its material according to the virtues, as St. Thomas had done--although it still regarded Thomas as a principal authority--but instead organized it according to the ten commandants, which it interpreted as expressing obligations and prescriptions imposed upon the human person by the divine will. 

     St. Thomas also regarded the Decalogue and the natural law as fundamentally important. But he places them in a larger legislative context that makes them dependent upon Christian revelation. In his view, the laws form an organic whole that have their origin in God in the eternal law. The eternal law is made manifest to the human person first in the natural law inscribed in the heart; it serves as the foundation of human law. Divine Revelation, especially necessary because of sin, is revealed in order to bear witness to, perfect and make more precise this natural legislation. Revelation comes from God in two forms. It comes as the Old Law, concentrated in the Decalogue, and as the New or Evangelical Law, principally expounded in the Lord's Sermon on the Mount. The New Law is the sumit of the moral law and brings the divine law to perfection on earth. The Decalogue and the natural law are thus drawn into a legislative dynamic that has its source in God and that returns to him by means of the Gospel. It causes a reinterpretation of the Decalogue whereby the Decalogue becomes interiorized and is given a higher perfection through the gift of charity. For St. Thomas, the Decalogue presents the rules for exterior acts that the New Law perfects by regulating the interior acts that inspire them. The New Law does this with the aid of the virtues, especially the virtues of faith and charity. In this way the Decalogue becomes the servant of the virtues. It particularly plays a role in the first stage of the divine pedagogy, in the formation of beginners who must struggle against sin and refrain from vice. 

     The philosophical part of Christian moral teaching principally concerns its foundation, the natural law and the Decalogue that places the natural law it in the context of the Covenant. The task of the philosophical part of Christian moral teaching is to develop human and civil law through a process of deduction or addition, which is properly the work of reason. It adds to this, reflection on the nature of the virtues, something that requires experience and maturity. 

     We should note that the natural law is not a hindrance to freedom. For St. Thomas, it has a profoundly dynamic character: it flows from natural inclinations and aspirations for the good and for happiness, for the preservation of one's being, for the gift of life, for truth and for life in society, inclinations that one already finds listed in the De Officiis of Cicero (b. 1, c. 4). These inclinations are deepened by the virtues. With regard to the negative precepts, they prohibit acts that are incompatible with the formation of the virtues and by doing so the negative precepts prepare the way for the birth of the virtues. In this way, the natural law and the Decalogue can be ordered to
the Evangelical law as to a superior perfection, a complete fulfillment. In this way also theology takes up and brings to completion the investigations of philosophy. 

     Let us note also the sapiential nature of law in St. Thomas' works: Law is a work of reason; it is the product of the ordering reason of the divine or human legislator, and not of the solitary will of one in authority, as generally is the case in the modern conception of law. Thomas's view of the obedience that law requires is equally sapiential, associating the intellect with the will. The task of this wisdom is to coordinate the different levels of moral legislation, the philosophical level with the theological level.

     We should add that, for St. Thomas, philosophy also has something to say concerning the Evangelical Law. Aquinas takes up the Aristotelian division between the pleasurable life, the active life and the contemplative life, in order to explain the beatitudes and to present Christ as the true philosopher. Even more interesting, he will use the analysis of friendship in the Nicomachean Ethics in order to define charity.

4. Prudential Judgment

     The principal task of practical reason in the moral domain consists in the application of precepts to personal action in concrete circumstances. We can present this operation as a deduction from the first principles of the moral order, provided that we link these principles with the natural aspirations that are the foundation of law and the first source of human acts. These principles, therefore, are not abstract and theoretical, even if their formulation is universal and seemingly impersonal. They correspond to the sense of truth and goodness, of love of self and of neighbor, that are natural to the human person and that proceed from that spiritual spark that Thomas calls synderesis.

     The work of applying the principles of practical reason is the work of prudence integrating the input of moral science and of conscience, which is the law's interior witness. It does not limit itself to establishing what is permitted or forbidden, but tends toward quality, toward a certain perfection of action in the present situation, like an artisan who seeks to make a good work in the exercise of his craft. A work like this requires intelligence, experience, effort and vigilance. This is why moral action requires the participation of all the faculties of the subject, as well as the use of exterior contributions received from such sources as one's education. 

     Prudential judgment is distinct from other forms of judgment because it goes beyond ideas, as beautiful as they may be, and beyond intentions, counsels and commandments, as judicious as they may be. Prudential judgment goes beyond these to reach the decision to act, which engenders the act, and to its execution, which transforms the acting subject himself: it makes the subject better and enables him to grow. This is why true prudence needs the other virtues, which regulate one's affectivity. We can say that prudential judgment or choice is holistic; it engages the human person in his entirety, including the past that he has inherited, and even his subconscious. It is
from these acts that one judges the character of a person, as one judges a tree from its fruit. 

     The holistic character of concrete action requires the joint intervention of philosophy and theology, of reason and of faith in Christian moral judgment. The study of "cases," especially cannot be limited to a rational examination, nor to a material application of revealed principles. It requires that one put faith into action; by doing so, one receives the light of the Spirit, as well as the light of reason, which it reflects, and one seeks to discover concretely the best good that one should do. The Christian moral theologian should, therefore, assimilate the message of the Gospel, often quite concrete in its formulation, such as the golden rule, and employ the philosophical and scientific resources available to him as he engages in reflection. In doing so, the moral theologian recognizes that his labors will be incomplete and even in vain if he does not attempt to put his personal prudence into action, which is the only way for him to attain the experience of, and a taste for, good fruits. 

     In the First letter to the Corinthians, St. Paul offers us an excellent example of what we could call apostolic casuistry. In examining the different cases that are brought to him, his method is consistent. It is characterized by the interpenetration of two levels: first, there is the level of rational criteria as found among the philosophers and the rabbis. For example, in the case of fornication, he writes that "every other sin a person commits is outside the body, but the immoral person sins against his own body" (6.18). At the same time, St. Paul offers criteria that are taken from the level of faith: "Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? . . . Do you not know that
your body is a temple of the holy Spirit within you?" (6.15, 19) Thus, we see that there exists in St. Paul's discernment a close link between human meaning and the meaning of Christ, the one takes up and reinforces the other. But the Christian criteria become predominant, especially through the work of charity, which unites all believers as brothers and sisters, as members of one body under the impulse of the Spirit. 


     The interaction, therefore, between philosophy and theology is quite close in the moral works of St. Thomas. Far from being separated from each other, or in competition with each other, these sciences work together, because philosophy has been integrated into the work of theology, an integration that is nothing less than vital. Influenced by the work of the theologian, the philosopher begins to consider the fundamental questions concerning the goal and meaning of life, concerning good and evil, happiness and suffering, death and the afterlife, even though the philosopher recognizes that on his own he cannot offer a complete answer to these questions. The theologian, for his part, needs the philosopher. The philosopher teaches the theologian how to reason with rigor and discernment in investigating the human dimensions of action. He also provides the theologian with the categories and the language he needs to make a solid presentation of the richness of the Gospel and of Christian experience.

     This type of relationship between philosophy and theology rests upon the adage of St. Thomas: "Gratia non tolit, sed perficit naturam," which could be transcribed as:  theology does not destroy philosophy, but perfects it. In my view, however, we should not understand this principle to mean that we should first construct philosophy, the work of reason, in the expectation that its findings will subsequently be confirmed by grace. Instead, the principle implies the opposite. It implies that we must first have the audacity to believe in the Word of God and to surrender ourselves to God's grace, confident in the assurance that far from destroying what is true, good and reasonable in
philosophy, grace will teach us to make our own whatever is true and good in philosophy, to value it and to lead it to perfection, recognizing that grace reveals to us a wisdom that is deeper and more extensive than all merely human insight. Grace teaches a wisdom that comes from the Holy Spirit who unites us to the person of Christ and his cross, the Spirit that teaches us to "live in the Christ."