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living the good life
A BEGINNER'S THOMISTIC ETHICS
By STEVEN J. JENSEN
The Catholic University of America PressCopyright © 2013 The Catholic University of America Press
All rights reserved.
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You call him a dumb ox, but I tell you this Dumb Ox shall bellow so loud that his bellowing will fill the world. Said of Thomas Aquinas by Albertus Magnus
Knowledge is the food of the soul. Plato
I once sat on a bioethics panel in which a member opined that he had discovered the most profound insight while watching a documentary in which the closing shot asks the question, "Is there an absolute truth?" The narrator steps down a hill into a swamp and scoops up some of the slime. So standing, he declares, "This is what comes of the belief in absolute truth." Suddenly the shot is transposed and we find that the narrator is standing in Auschwitz. Surprisingly, this member of the panel proceeded throughout the ensuing discussion to give conclusive pronouncements on nearly every topic raised. The profundity of his insight, it seems, had not yet sunk in. Yet surely he expressed an idea that is common stock in our society. While Jesus Christ said, "The truth will set you free," today we profess that the truth will chain you down. It leads not to freedom but to Auschwitz.
It is no surprise that these defenders of relativism are averse to checking some simple historical truths; after all, the truth will only lead them astray. But if they would bother examining the beliefs of Hitler's Nazi party, they would discover little reference to absolute truth, especially ethical truths. Indeed, Auschwitz arose not through any staunch defense of absolute truth but through discarding some fundamental truths, such as the dignity of human life. Nazism came to power in the wake of a decadent relativism; it rallied the people not with promises of a return to truth but with cries of a return to German power. The semiofficial philosopher of Nazism was Friedrich Nietzsche, who recommended that we get beyond the outdated categories of good and evil and turn simply to power. Absolute truth indeed! The horrors of the Holocaust were able to happen only because too many people were willing to discard their belief in the dignity of each human being. Had this absolute truth been lodged firmly in every person's heart, then history would have been rewritten for the better.
Unfortunately, we continue to shirk the truth. When someone proclaims the truth we berate him for being close-minded, insensitive, and judgmental. To remedy his shortcomings, we suggest that he adopt a broader mindset and become open to other viewpoints. After all, every viewpoint is on equal footing; none is better than another. In short, whenever someone asserts something as true, and other things as false, he is seen not as a liberator but as a tyrant, forcing his view upon others.
But not every view is equal to every other, and ideas have consequences, sometimes deadly consequences. Should we bear with equanimity someone who says that we can kill individuals whose lives are not worth living? Should we blithely ignore those who say we should clone and engineer human beings to create a superior stock? Should we welcome claims that some defective human beings are not people—they lack all moral rights—so that we can do with them as we please? All of these views are being boldly advanced today with little protest. Fundamentally the same views were rampant in Germany in the 1920s and '30s. I fear that we have become indifferent to evil and we pass our indifference off as tolerance.
As history tells us, we abandon the truth at our own risk. With this in mind, I advance one viewpoint as better than others. Not, of course, that Thomas Aquinas has all of the truth, or that others don't have any of the truth. We should welcome the truth where we find it, and we should not close our minds off to plausible viewpoints without some cogent reason. On the other hand, we should also acknowledge the truth when we find it, and we should reject what is false. For this reason, I present Thomas Aquinas as hitting upon much of the truth with little admixture of error. He is a good starting point and a sure guide because he has insight into the truth, of which our society is in desperate need. Not only did Aquinas happen upon true statements; he understood them. He discovered the underlying causes of things, putting everything together into a coherent structure that still stands today.
Who was Thomas Aquinas? He did not lead an eventful life, except in the realm of ideas and arguments. He fought no battles and won no wars. He discovered no new lands, nor ruled over old realms. He neither made a fortune nor invented any new device. But he did win arguments; he discovered new truths, and amassed a wealth of understanding. He was born in Italy in 1225 and died in 1274. In that short time he wrote volumes of tightly packed arguments that remain clear and cogent to our day. While he was a graduate student under Albertus Magnus, his fellow students called him the "dumb ox": an "ox" because he was rather large, and "dumb" because he said very little. As is often the case, however, his silence covered a depth of understanding. Albert the Great recognized Aquinas's genius and retorted that when this ox bellowed he would be heard around the world. And so he was. And so he is still today. For a more complete account of the life of Aquinas, you may wish to read Saint Thomas Aquinas: The Dumb Ox by G. K. Chesterton.
Aquinas is adept at uncovering the root causes of things. He is not known as one practiced in the art of political affairs or in directing people's daily lives. Indeed, he passed up a bishopric, preferring instead to contemplate the eternal truths. You might even say he was absent-minded. Once while at the dinner table with King Louis IX of France, he sat intent in thought, ignoring the conversation of those around him. Suddenly, he slammed his fist upon the table, declaring, "That settles the Manichees." Because Aquinas discovered fundamental truths, rather than merely observing worldly affairs around him, his writings are still applicable today. What finished off the dualism of the Manichees in the thirteenth century still finishes off dualism today. We know nothing of that dinner conversation with the king except what Aquinas said about the Manichees.
Aquinas is also skilled at weaving together the thoughts of his predecessors, for he always respected the authority of past thinkers, even when he differed with them. His writing is peppered throughout with references and direct quotations from Scripture, Aristotle, Cicero, Augustine, Boethius, Averroes, and many others. His memory of these writings must have been what we call photographic, especially considering that he lacked the resources we have today, such as computers. Aquinas himself said that he was given the gift of understanding everything he read. Evidently, he was also given the gift of remembering it.
Despite his erudition and profound insight, Aquinas lived a humble and saintly life. He entered the Dominican order against the protest of his family, who even locked him in a castle for a year, hoping to dissuade him from joining the Dominicans, until they allowed him to escape under pressure from the pope. One story has it that his family tempted him with a prostitute, so that he might abandon his aspirations to the religious life, but young Thomas took a hot fire poker to the woman, who hurried from the room without accomplishing her task.
Aquinas did not overly promote his own work. The last year of his life he quit writing, leaving unfinished his greatest work, the Summa Theologiae, from which most of the references in this book are taken. When pressed to write more, he refused, saying that all he had written was as straw compared to what had been revealed to him. Evidently, some mystical experience had so impressed upon him the glory of God that before it everything else paled, even his own works. He was not saying, of course, that all he had written was false; rather, he implied that truths discovered in this life on earth, even the penetration of truth found in his own writings, were insignificant compared to the truth in God himself. If Aquinas's works are like straw, then woe to the rest of us.
In this book we will examine the ethics of Thomas Aquinas. We are merely setting out the basics, providing a starting point that can serve as a foundation for further ethical insight. We will not delve into the details of Aquinas's view, although even the little we will examine reveals an intricately ordered and systematic account. To keep our attention focused, we will not consider disputed and varied interpretations of Aquinas's writings. For the most part, the material in this book is uncontested by scholars of Aquinas, although at times I have been forced to choose one interpretation rather than another. I seek only to give beginners an elementary starting point, from which they can then pursue other writings if they so choose.
In each chapter I use the ideas of Aquinas to address some common views associated with ethics today. The second chapter challenges the common perception that ethics is only about what is right or wrong; the third chapter addresses values clarification; the fourth chapter questions the attitude that we need only do what we think is right (whether or not it is in fact right); the fifth addresses determinism; the sixth addresses a Kantian attitude of "Just do the right thing"; the seventh goes beyond the idea that ethics is simply an examination of difficult and disputed ethical issues; the eighth and ninth chapters address utilitarianism; the tenth addresses situation ethics; the eleventh examines virtues belonging to reason; the twelfth focuses upon the most important of these virtues, namely, prudence or practical wisdom; the thirteenth addresses the question, "How can we know what is right and wrong?"; finally, the fourteenth chapter addresses the question, "Why be moral?" Each chapter might be viewed as showing what Aquinas would say about these topics.
Let me add a short note on the parenthetical references. They direct the reader to texts of Aquinas that address the ideas being discussed. Most of these citations are from the Summa Theologiae, and they consist of three or four elements. The first element is a Roman numeral, or a combination of Roman numerals, such as I, I-II, or II-II. This element identifies the volume of the Summa: I refers to the first part; I-II refers to the first part of the second part; and II-II refers to the second part of the second part. The second element consists of an Arabic number and it refers to the question within the volume. The third element is another Arabic number, referring to the article within the question. Finally, the fourth element, when there is one, consists of the Latin word ad and a number, for instance, "ad 3," which refers to Aquinas's reply to the numbered objection. For example, if you run across the citation (I, 1, 6, ad 3) then you should look in the first volume of the Summa Theologiae, question 1, article 6, at the reply to the third objection.
Ethics and the Good Life
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Happiness is attained through virtue; a man arrives at it through his own choices. Thomas Aquinas
One's virtue is all that one truly has, because it is not threatened by the vicissitudes of fortune. Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius
In the Republic Plato has Glaucon build upon an earlier argument of Thrasymachus; he asks us to imagine one person who is perfectly unjust and another who is perfectly just. The perfectly unjust person, he says, will rise to power through unjust means, but because he is so perfect at his injustice, he will never get caught. He will become the ruler of his city, and will have the pick of his wife among the ruling classes. He will be fabulously wealthy and well liked by all, since he is so crafty as to accomplish his injustice without notice. In contrast, the perfectly just person will do what is right no matter the consequences, even when it leads to his own ruin. And it will. For nobody likes a just person; he makes our own injustice all too evident. In the end, the perfectly just person will be persecuted and falsely accused of every sort of injustice. What is more, he will be found guilty of these putative crimes and sentenced to torment and an ignominious death. Upon hearing Glaucon's description, we are led to think not only of Socrates, whom Plato had in mind, but also of Jesus Christ.
Which life, then, asks Glaucon, is the happier life, the just life or the unjust life? The answer is plain. The perfectly unjust person leads a happy life and dies a happy death. He accomplishes all his goals, and all his wants are satisfied. The perfectly just person, on the other hand, leads a miserable life and dies a painful death.
Not for another twenty-three hundred years, from the philosopher Nietzsche, do we find such a ringing defense of injustice and evil. But surely most people, in the evil that they do each day, reason with themselves in some such manner. When someone embezzles from his company, he thinks that doing so will make him happy, while not doing so will leave him in misery; when someone refuses to stand up for what is right, he prefers to be well liked rather than to be courageous but despised; and the man who murders his wife for the inheritance imagines that he will be better off without her. Whenever we act, it seems, we are seeking our own happiness, and we often suppose that our happiness is best served by doing what is wrong rather than by doing what is right.
Thrasymachus and Glaucon, however, do not have the last word, for Socrates proceeds to dissect Thrasymachus's argument, and to argue, instead, that the just life is always the happier life, while the unjust life cannot lead to happiness. Justice, after all, is a virtue or a strength, while injustice is a vice or a weakness. It follows that justice can only help us in leading a humanly fulfilling life, while injustice must cripple our pursuit of happiness.
The Subject of Ethics
For the moment let us not focus upon Thrasymachus's concern—whether the just or the unjust life is the happier—but instead let us ask which of the following two questions best hits upon the topic of ethics: (1) "Which actions are just and which actions are unjust?" or (2) "Which actions are humanly fulfilling and which are not fulfilling?" Most people are apt to respond that the first question is the concern of ethics, while the second question is the concern of some such field as psychology. What everyone seems to suppose is that the two are quite distinct questions. What makes an action good and right has nothing to do with what makes an action fulfilling. It may turn out, as Socrates suggests, that the two overlap, so that just actions are also fulfilling actions, and unjust actions are unfulfilling actions, but in the popular mind the two questions could hardly be more distant from one another.
But not in the mind of Thomas Aquinas. Indeed, according to Aquinas the two questions could hardly be more intimately related. Furthermore, he might well use either of the two questions to delineate the topic of ethics (I-II, 1, 3; I-II, 21, 1, especially ad 2 & 3). Ethics might be described as the study of human actions insofar as they are right or wrong, or it might equally be described as the study of human actions insofar as they are fulfilling or not fulfilling. Between these two, however, the latter has a certain priority.
Suppose for a moment that we forget about justice and injustice and think instead only of the good life. After all, we do want to lead a fulfilling life. Let us consider all of our actions only in one light: insofar as they contribute to the good life. Let us describe some actions as good and others as bad, meaning not that they are morally good or morally bad, but only that they are good or bad for fulfillment.
Such a perspective is not new, for each day we all judge our actions in the light of happiness. Unfortunately, we often make a bad job of it. We judge, for instance, that getting even with our enemy will lead to happiness, but it only deepens our misery. We judge that a night on the town is just the thing needed, but it only leads to a hangover. We judge that buying that extravagant new car will satisfy our wants, but it only leads to the burden of years of debt. We all do whatever we do in order to attain happiness, but we often find only grief. The hope and desire for happiness, it seems, are not enough to achieve happiness. In addition, we must judge rightly of the actions that will truly get us to happiness.
There is a difference, then, between what we aim to achieve in our actions and what our actions actually do achieve. We aim to attain a fulfilling life, but our actions often bring disappointment. We cannot divide our actions into those that are aimed at happiness and those that are not, for all are directed toward fulfillment. We can, however, divide our actions into those that attain fulfillment and those that do not. Even apart from morality, then, we can judge some actions as good or bad in the light of human fulfillment.
By taking such an approach have we abandoned ethics? Not at all. We would be deep in the thick of ethics, which seeks to evaluate human actions insofar as they are truly fulfilling or not. As such, you might expect to find ethics in the self-help section of the local bookstore, for there you may find the dos and don'ts of leading a fulfilling life. Indeed, self-help books are a sort of modern ethics. Even in our relativistic society, self-help books recognize that we all seek human fulfillment; they recognize that not all ways of life are in fact fulfilling; and they offer, as ethics ought to, various prescriptions for a truly fulfilling life. Many self-help books claim to provide us with the skill of living happily well. Of course, they often fail. Still, what they set out to accomplish is nothing other than ethics: the rules and guidelines for living a humanly fulfilling life.
Excerpted from living the good life by STEVEN J. JENSEN. Copyright © 2013 The Catholic University of America Press. Excerpted by permission of The Catholic University of America Press.
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