3. A comparison with classical virtue theory
St. Thomas Aquinas in his Summa of theology studied over 50 moral virtues, clearly defining their nature, their location in the human psyche, their mutual interconnection, their dependence upon the supernatural order of grace, granted through the theological virtues and the gifts of the Holy Spirit, and their correlation with the commandments. He did not however, attempt to deduce all the virtues directly and logically from the commandments or from the basic principles of the natural law, because he primarily saw the virtues as manifestations of the moral responsibility and creativity of the individual acting agent, as he faces the truth, and not as a catalogue of externally imposed moral obligations.
The commandments play an important pedagogical role in excluding evil action, but good acts flow more directly from the generosity of the mature individual, who perceives directly the true goodness or the evil of an action, irrespectively of whether it has been commanded of forbidden.(6) The prime function in moral education consists therefore in enabling the individual to grasp the “verum bonum,” the true good in the heart of the moral dilemma, toward which his nature has a natural inclination, and to respond to it freely, generously and creatively.
And when Aquinas discussed the opposite vices, he saw them primarily as a subtraction, as the lack of that good which could have come about through the virtue. The entire ethos, precisely analyzed by Aquinas is a theological attempt to present for pedagogical reasons, the fecundity of grace manifesting itself in the mature, virtuous person, who becomes an icon of God.
To appropriately interpret Aquinas’s virtue theory, it has to be viewed in unison with other studies of Aquinas. Within the structure of the Summa, Aquinas included an important treatise on the moral law that instructs the acting agent about the good.
The moral law was viewed by Aquinas primarily from the angle of the history of salvation, focusing on different relationships of God with humanity. The natural law, the law of the old dispensation, and the new law of grace, speak of different states of humanity, but they combine in offering the multifarious ways of divine guidance for moral action. The economy of the old law or of the new law of grace does not therefore dispense from the profiting from the light, which is available in the natural moral law.
Within the life of grace, in which openness to the grace of the Holy Spirit is primary, there is also room for rational reflection. Faith does not blind reason. It makes it more lucid, and so the inherent finality of beings, that reason alone can perceive, although with difficulty, supplies a helpful guiding light in the perception of the “verum bonum” in virtuous action. Since both creation and redemption are acts of the same, coherent God, there is no basic contradiction between the revealed law, the law of grace, and the natural law.
The grasping of the fundamental precepts of the natural moral law, whether undertaken theologically within the realm of faith, or outside it, comes about through the intuition of the “instinctus rationis” that perceives the ordering of nature toward that which is most appropriate to it. It is through the fundamental orientations of the reason and the will, ordering that good is to be pursued and evil avoided, followed by the perception of the metaphysical natural inclinations of being, that tends to preserve existence, of animality that tends to transmit life and educate offspring, and of rationality that strives for supreme truth — which includes the truth about God — and for community life based upon that truth, that conclusions about the true good in moral action can be arrived at.
The fundamental precepts of the natural law are perceived through the metaphysical intuition of the finality of being, and not through a sociological observation of moral sensibilities that may be deformed by customs or depraved habits, although the fundamental moral precepts are corroborated by theological arguments. Obviously, the theological conviction, confirmed by the dogmatic truth of creation, that human nature is stable with an inbuilt orientation coming from the Creator, contributes to the perception of an objective moral order.
A theory of being that would exclude the possibility of a dependence on the Creator would jeopardize the stability of nature and its capacity to offer a binding light, illuminating human behavior. Aquinas’ theory of the natural law was not purely philosophical, but it referred also to theological arguments. His reference to nature, reason and Scripture in the working out of the theory of natural law may appear to be circular, but this was not a vicious circle; it was a presentation of the overall harmony of all the sources of moral orientation.(7)
A full appreciation of Aquinas’ virtue theory and of his interpretation of the natural law has also to take into account the fruits of his serious academic study, reported in the “Quaestiones disputatae,” and entitled “De veritate,” although this work should really be split into two parts, with the second named “De bonitate.”
In this extensive and intensive intellectual endeavor, Aquinas studied the nature and the functioning of the intellect in its adherence to truth as its appropriate object and the nature and the functioning of the will as it is captivated by goodness. The first part of the study analyzes truth itself, God’s knowledge of it, the ideas of God, the word of God, divine providence and the knowledge of God in predestination. This is followed by a reflection on the cognition of angels, followed by a study of the human mind, which is an image of the Trinity. This includes an analysis of the transmission of knowledge by a teacher, of the working of the mind in prophecy and spiritual rapture, of the intellect conditioned by the virtue of faith, of practical knowledge in the synderesis and in conscience, and finally a particular reflection on the cognition of the first parents before original sin and of the cognition of the soul after death.
This extensive theological epistemology ends in a reflection on the knowledge of the unique soul of Christ. In the second part of the study, a similar procedure is followed with a study of goodness and its appetition by the will. As with the cognitive faculties, Aquinas looks into the will of God, into the free choice in which the will and reason combine in freely choosing goodness, and then into factors which in humans condition the willing from without, such as the sensuality, the emotions and finally grace which leads to the justification of the impious. The study terminates with a reflection on the working of grace in the unique human soul of Christ.
This extensive analysis of the nature and the functioning of the spiritual faculties as they move toward the “verum bonum,” focused on their inherent finality, and viewed also from the specific angles that are their presence in God, in the angels, in humans before and after the fall as also after receiving the redemptive power of grace, and in the unique person of Jesus Christ, God and man, offers a profound and optimistic context for the elucidation and formation of virtuous action.
Only if there is a deep conviction that the truth about goodness can be known, and that in the spiritual appetitive power there is inherent attraction to it, can the personal choice of virtuous action be grounded. Furthermore, when the spiritual faculties are enriched by the grace of faith and charity, their fundamental orientations to truth and goodness are strengthened.
The metaphysical structure of the transcendentals and of the spiritual faculties as they correspond to them, supplies therefore the background for the virtuous response to moral dilemmas as they appear. If this metaphysical grounding of being were to be questioned or even denied, both anthropology and ethics would be hanging in the air.
Returning therefore to contemporary questions, it has to be said that the fact that with the globalization of human interaction and with the wider spectrum of moral challenges, new concepts of new virtues are being formulated to which correspond real responses, is not in itself perplexing. This is a normal development of moral awareness as it is facing new challenges, to which it tries to respond.
What is perplexing, however, is that these new concepts of new virtues are nebulous or ambivalent, and deprived of any rooting in coherent and certain knowledge about the human person, about human nature and its finality. If in the name of tolerance, no certain knowledge may be had about anything, if no one is entitled to declare that he holds any truths as true and therefore universally binding, there is no place for any virtue at all, and all supposedly value-charged statements are in fact empty.
The contemporary exertion of political pressure to change the meaning of words — as is happening in the case of the word marriage — or the demanding of special privileges in the name of a moral condition that has been expanded so widely and confusingly that it encompasses blatantly contradictory values — as is happening in the case of the term reproductive rights, which is to include at the same time concern for maternity and paternity, and the right to free access to contraception, abortion and the artificial production of parentless babies — voids the new moral language of any instinctive obviousness, which means that the new ethic if it is to be maintained, will have to be enforced by brute political pressure with no rational justification.
No longer finding support in human nature and in the “instinctus rationis,” the new ethic is condemned to the status of a devastating ideology that in time will be rejected once its catastrophic effects will become unashamedly visible. The question is, will it be replaced by another, equally nefarious and nihilist ideology, lay or even religious (Puritan or fundamentalist), or will it be replaced by a return to the respect of the cognitive capacities of the human mind, of the intelligibility of human nature, its finality and its basic goodness, and to a confidence in the basic goodness of the reason and will as they are attracted by supreme goodness?