Friday, October 16, 2009

Father Hardon - The Meaning of Virtue in St. Thomas Aquinas

Until modern times the relationship of morals to religion was taken for granted, and writers as far different in philosophy as Plato and Avicenna, or in theology as Aquinas and Luther, never questioned the basic truth expressed on Mt. Sinai when Yahweh gave the Jews the Decalogue, the first precepts of which were to honor God as a foundation for the secondary precepts of the moral law.

But something new has entered the stream of human thought, the concept of man’s autonomy that wishes to dispense with religion in its bearing on morals, on the grounds that the very notion of religious values is only a mental construct. Whatever bearing they may have on ethical principles, it is not as though the concept of God was a necessary condition for being moral in the current, accepted sense of the term.

Aquinas believed what Aristotle never dreamed: that man is more than a composite of body and soul, that he is nothing less than elevated to a supernatural order which participates, as far as a creature can, in the very nature of God. Accordingly, a person in the state of grace, or divine friendship, possesses certain enduring powers, the infused virtues and gifts, that raise him to an orbit of existence as far above nature as heaven is above earth, and that give him abilities of thought and operation that are literally born, “not of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.” Nowhere else does the true character of the supernatural appear more evident than in the endowments of infused virtue which some people possess and others do not, and that make some capable of spiritual actions which others cannot perform.

In the Thomistic system, the soul is the substantial form of the body, which gives man all that is properly human and places him essentially into the natural order; sanctifying grace or justification, by analogy, is the accidental form of the soul, which gives the same man all that is properly divine and puts him habitually into the family of God. Comparing the two with each other, the soul is the foundation of natural existence, as sanctifying grace is the principle of supernatural life.

Yet we know that the soul is not all we have in the body, that the soul itself has powers through which it operates and by which it gives expression to its rational nature. Even so, by a divine consistency, the “soul of the soul,” as sanctifying grace has been called, must have channels for the deiform life that God confers on the just. They are the virtues, theological and moral, according to their respective purposes; not unlike the native abilities through which mind and will come into contact with us.

St. Thomas defines virtue as “a good habit bearing on activity” or a good faculty — habit (habitus operativus bonus). Generic to the concept of virtue, then, is the element of habit, which stands in a special relation to the soul, whether in the natural order or elevated to the divine life by grace.

The soul is the remote principle or source of all our activities; faculties are the proximate sources built into the soul by nature; habits are still more immediate principles added to the faculties either by personal endeavor or by supernatural infusion from God. Consequently the soul helps the man, faculties help the soul, and habits help the faculties.

Not every habit is a virtue, but only one that so improves and perfects a rational faculty as to incline it towards good — good for the faculty, for the will and for the whole man in terms of his ultimate destiny.

Among the infused virtues, however, some are concerned directly with God and operate in a field in which the unaided reason cannot work; they are called theological. Others have as their object not God Himself, the final end of all things, but human activities that are penultimate and subordinate to the final end; they are called moral and, because four of them (prudence, fortitude, temperance, and justice) are primary, said to be cardinal (cardo, hinge) in human conduct.

Theological virtues supply for the mind and will what neither faculty has of itself, the salutary knowledge, desire and love of God and of His will, without which there could be no supernatural
order, which means voluntary choice of suitable means to reach the heavenly goal to which we are elevated. These virtues make us well adjusted to our last end, which is God Himself; hence they are called theological, because they not only go out to God — as all virtue worthy of the name must do — but they also reach Him. To be well adjusted to our destiny we must know and desire it; the desire demands that we are in love with the object to which we are tending and are confident of obtaining it. Faith makes us know the God to whom we are going, hope makes us look forward to joining Him, and charity makes us love Him.

Besides the theological virtues of faith, hope and charity, St. Thomas teaches that a person in divine friendship receives an infusion of the moral virtues whose immediate object is not God Himself but the practice of human actions conducive to man’s final end. Just as faith, hope and charity correspond in the supernatural order to natural knowledge, hope and love, so there are other divinely infused habits to supplement and match these theological virtues; habits which are elevated counterparts of the acquired virtues of prudence, temperance, fortitude and justice.

Aquinas and Aristotle both recognize that virtue is not its own reward and has little meaning apart from an ultimate goal. A man is virtuous because his actions correspond to an objective norm, which for Aristotle was knowable by reason and for Aquinas by reason and faith.

Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.

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