Jacques Maritain Center : A First Glance at St. Thomas Aquinas / by Ralph McInerny


Thomas Aquinas saw the meaning of life in the dramatic terms of his faith. By Original Sin the race has fallen from a primordial innocence and bliss. God promises a redeemer and at long last, in the fullness of time, Christ is born, true God and true man. His sacrifice is the redemption of mankind, making possible an eternal happiness with God. Christ is the way, the truth, and the life. An eternal happiness with God is our destiny. La sua voluntad e nostra pace.

This is the truth about the human situation. It tells us what the human good is. How then could Thomas possibly be interested in what pagan philosophers thought about the matter? Wouldn't their answers to the question, "What does it all mean?" inevitably be false?

This is no small question. If Plato and Aristotle ask what the human good is, what fulfills and perfects the human agent, in what does our happiness consist, and they say something different from the Christian -- as they must -- how can what they say fail to be false, if the Christian answer is the right one -- as Thomas firmly believed?

There is another possibility. The philosophical answer may be inadequate but not false. If the right answer is such that we need revelation to know it, no pagan philosopher is going to come up with it. But if the right answer contains what the pagan philosopher says and more besides, the relation between the two is not that of true to false.

The parallel is this. Just as Thomas held that pagan philosophers arrived at some truths about God which are a small part of the package given in revelation, so too he thought they had come to knowledge of the human good which is an element in the full picture given by Christian revelation. There are "preambles of faith" in the practical order too.

Natural Law

This was not just speculation on Thomas's part. As in the case of "preambles" in the usual sense, he is guided by St. Paul. The heathen has the law written in his heart, whether or not he hears the good news. Original Sin has weakened but not corrupted human nature. The main principles that should guide human conduct are naturally knowable by men. The theory that this is so is called Natural Law and we will say more of it later. For now, it is important to see that theory can be seen as the basis for exchange between believer and non-believer on moral matters. There is a common base they share.

Remember Thomas asking why God would reveal things about Himself that men can in principle know on their own. His answer was that, however possible such knowledge may be, it is extremely hard to come by and much of a lifetime is needed to achieve solid truth in the area. Consider from this point of view the Ten Commandments.

The Decalogue given to Moses by God contains prohibitions of theft, lying, adultery, fornication, murder, impiety, and the like. Acts of this kind are not wrong because God says so, as if prior to the Tables of the Law it was all right for men to lie and steal and murder and rape, but suddenly, by fiat, they become wrong because forbidden. In other cultures, such actions were seen to be wrong without benefit of revelation. Why then did God bother? A people can breach the moral law so long and so thoroughly that they become confused about what it is. The Tables of the Law were meant to remedy that kind of situation.

It will occur to some to say that it is the influence of Christianity -- the Judeo-Christian heritage -- that explains why the prohibitions of the Decalogue show up in manmade law as well. But a murderer who defended himself by saying he rejected the Bible and with it the Ten Commandments would not be released as having been mistakenly arrested. The prohibition of murder is the law of the land.

Some law is made -- by man, by God -- but there is as well the natural law, also deriving from God, as nature itself does. We can come to know the major precepts of natural law by using our heads. And that is the most sweeping one -- use your head. We must do good and avoid evil. We are held responsible for what we do because we knowingly do this rather than that. Why? Why is murder wrong? Because it is destructive of society and man is naturally a social animal whose good is a common and shared one. The beginning of an answer, but the point is not to develop it fully, but to indicate how we go about dealing with moral questions.

Ultimate End

All human activity is purposive, Aristotle says in the Ethics, whatever we put our minds to, whatever we consciously and freely do, is undertaken with an end or good in view. It may be some objective reached by means of what we do; it may be simply doing something well, like playing the sweet potato or ocarina. Why are you doing that? Just cuz. It's an end in itself, not an activity without purpose.

Whatever is sought in action as its end or goal is sought as a good, that is, as fulfilling or perfective of the agent. The good is what all things seek.

Where there are ends, we will often recognize means of achieving them. Sometimes means are desirable only because they bring about the end; in themselves they are repulsive, like bitter medicine, getting your teeth drilled, jogging. Sometimes something is desirable in itself, endlike, but also instrumental in bringing about another end. We can cluster actions. Taken singly, whatever we do is for the sake of an end, but those ends will be as various and numerous as the things we do. Clustering introduces a unity or order in various realms of action. A number of different activities, each having its own end, can be clustered and become the military arts, and then they are directed to a common good, victory and peace. So, too, a variety of medical arts cluster under the direction of the doctor who aims them all at health.

What if all the things we do could be brought together in that way and aimed at a great good which is the end of all the other ends? Such an ultimate end would be something we should know about. Acting with an eye to it would ensure that what we do is good.

Not many philosophers nowadays share Thomas's view that Aristotle satisfactorily established that there is such an over-riding ultimate end of human life. If there is, it is of course the answer to "What does it all mean?" If we take a glance at some standard objections, we will be better able to appreciate Thomas's defense of the claim that there is an ultimate end at which each particular human action should aim.

Some Objections

Sometimes Aristotle is thought to have made a dumb logical mistake. From the claim that every action aims at some good he mistakenly concluded that there is some (one) good at which all actions aim. Granted there is fun in trying to catch the Father of Logic in a logical blunder, but the fact is Aristotle never argues in that way.

He notes that the ends of actions are many and various, but that some actions are clustered in such a way that the ends of some are subordinated to an overriding end. If there were an end to which all our other aims were subordinated this would be our chief good. That's what Aristotle means by the ultimate end. And, he goes on, there must an ultimate end of human action.

Why? Aristotle's argument is found in parenthesis in the text. It has been established that one end can be desired for another. Either that process comes to an end which is sought for itself alone and not for the sake of anything else, and the point is made, or there is no such end. Then whatever end is sought is sought in turn for something further, and that further end for yet another, and so on without end. But this cannot be.

Thomas sees the proof Aristotle offers as a reduction ad absurdum. The structure of such a proof is:

P v. -P.

But -P is impossible.

Therefore P.

P = there is some best and chief end of all we do. --P is its contradictory opposite. How can --P be seen to be impossible?

If it were the case that the pursuit of ends goes on infinitely, such that one end is always pursued for the sake of another and so on to infinity, it would never come about that man achieves his desired ends. But to desire and pursue what cannot be achieved is senseless and absurd, so the pursuit of ends is senseless and absurd. But the desire for the end is natural: the good is what all things naturally seek. So it follows that a natural desire is senseless and absurd. But that is impossible. A natural desire is nothing else than an inclination inherent in things by the order of the Prime Mover, who cannot be frustrated. Therefore it is impossible that there be a subordination of end to end to infinity. (In I Ethics, lect 2, n. 21)

So the argument form is a reduction, not a fallacious turning about of a proposition. Not that it isn't open to endless discussion -- well, not endless. What would be the point of that?

Another Argument

The argument just sketched is found in Thomas's commentary on Aristotle's Ethics. In the Summa theologiae, he formulates another argument. Is it the case that there is an ultimate end of all human acts? The term "ultimate end" means "the ultimate perfection and fulfillment of the agent." This is the reason anyone acts, so in that sense there is one ultimate end recognized by all men. As to what is seen to constitute the ultimate perfection and fulfillment of desire, on that men differ widely and there may seem to be a great many ultimate ends.

This argument depends on what is meant by saying of an action that it is good. The assumption is that no matter what anyone does, he does it because he thinks it is a good thing to do. What does it mean to say that it is good? There could be a quite limited answer to that question, of course. Fifi wants yogurt because it is good for her. Meaning it is conducive to health. Health presumably is either the good or a component of the good. The agent wants whatever she wants as conducive to fulfillment or perfection. This is what Thomas takes ultimate end to mean and he argues that no one can fail to act for it. At the same time, he allows for the disagreement among men as to what our comprehensive good is.

Neither Thomas nor Aristotle holds the idiotic view that every man and woman in the world would right now give you the same answer to the question, "What is the ultimate meaning of life, what is the human good?" Both men explicitly deny that any such happy state of affairs exists.

Both men maintain that it is part of the logic of human action that whatever we do is done under the implicit assumption that it is well for us to act that way. We will be the better for it. It will lead to our good. That notion of our good in a comprehensive sense is what every man and woman right now acts in the light of.

This is not unanimity as to what precisely the comprehensive good of human agents is. Some will deny that there is even this formal unanimity, and interesting objections have been raised. Some will allow the formal unanimity -- seems an easy concession -- but all that there is no single objective that could fill the bill. Different folks have different ends. Different ultimate objectives. There is irreducible variety. Fifi want to be the leading woman philosopher in Watertown, Arizona. Her father bent his every action to being the best undertaker in Tombstone. Her mother just wanted to be left alone so she could read Father Dowling mysteries. And so it goes.

Like Aristotle. Thomas thinks that in the nature of things there is a single substantive ultimate end for all human agents. But to hold that is by no means to deny the interesting differences between Fifi and her parents.


Natural Law

Since law, as has been said, is a rule or measure, it can be in something in two ways, either as in the one ruling and measuring, or as in the ruled and measured. Something is ruled or measured to the degree that it participates something of the rule or measure. Thus since all things are subject to divine providence, they are ruled and measured by eternal law. It is obvious that all things participate in some way in eternal law insofar as from its influence they have inclinations to their proper acts and ends. The rational creature is subject to divine providence in a more excellent way than other things, insofar as he is made a participant in providence itself, providing for himself and others. Thanks to his participation in eternal law he has a natural inclination to his fitting act and end. The rational creature's participation in eternal law is called natural law. Hence, when the psalmist said, "Sacrifice the sacrifice of justice," it was as if answering those asking what the works of justice are that he added, "Many ask, 'Who will show us what is good?" to which question he responds, "The light of thy countenance is sealed upon us, O Lord." As if the light of natural reason in which we discern what is good and what is evil, which pertain to natural law, is nothing other than the impression of the divine light in us. Thus it is clear that natural law is nothing other than the rational creature's participation in eternal law.

-- Summa theologiae, First Part of the Second Part, Question 91, article 2

<< ======= >>