St. Thomas 2

Virtue, Anglican Style (Part 2)

We turn now to a consideration of the priority of practice – the practice of philosophy – in each of the three predecessor cultures. Once again, we see a unity among the differences: in all three cultures there is what Pierre Hadot calls a “philosophy before the [moral] philosophy.” Before an agent can know what is good or right (let alone succeed in doing it) she must do something other than – she must do something before – knowing. Knowledge of the good is conditioned by something prior.

The pre-classical society of the heroic is perhaps the most difficult case to establish, but things get clearer when we do two things. First, we must realize that, for a Homeric warrior to be morally successful, he must arrive back to his home victorious after battle. This is the primary standard for virtue in this society. Second, we must ask, “What moral presuppositions must obtain for such a victorious return? There are two moral prerequisites for success[1] which come into play here, and both are human practices: loyalty and accountability to his kin (otherwise he would not be motivated to return home), and appeasement of the Gods in prayer and sacrifice. The two practices – loyalty or accountability and obiessence before the divine – are for this society its “philosophy before philosophy.” They are the practices which precede and undergird the achievement of virtuous eudaimonia.

            In fifth-century Athens the successful moral life also presupposes a disciplined praxis, well documented and described by Pierre Hadot. Hadot points out that, once, when Socrates was challenged

“…love comes from within the individual, and after it is awakened it must be renewed…”
 to quit his annoying irony and offer is own definition of justice, he replied: ”I never stop showing what I think is just. If not in words, I show it by my actions.” At the heart of what Socrates meant by knowledge, Hadot says, is a way of life, ”a love of the good.” That love comes from within the individual, and after it is awakened it must be renewed through self-questioning, self-examination, a personal commitment to a life of philosophy.[2]

As Socrates and his contemporaries of fifth-century Athens would say, however, this love for the good must be nurtured and fostered. Hence the practice of paideia, what Hadot describes as “the desire to form or educate:”[3]

This education was imparted by adults…. In the fifth century, as democracy began to flourish, the city-states showed … the concern for forming their future citizens by physical exercises, gymnastics, music, and mental exercises.[4]

Turning now to medieval Christendom, we can see a similar commitment to a disciplined praxis which precedes the attainment of virtue. The supreme articulation and defense of this stance comes the Summa Theologica of St. Thomas Aquinas, where he mounts a defense of habituation or the formation of habits by human acts, as a cause of virtue. In the second article (“Whether any Virtue is Caused in us by Habituation from our Acts?”) to Question LXIII (“The Cause of the Virtues”) Thomas writes

… Dionysius says that good is more efficacious than evil. But vicious habits are caused by evil acts. Much more, therefore, can virtuous habits be caused by good acts.… We have spoken already in a general way about the generation of habits from acts. Speaking now in a special way of this matter in relation to virtue … it follows that human nature, directed to the good which is defined according to the rule of human reason, can be caused by human acts; for such acts proceed from reason, by whose power and rule the good in question in established.… Accordingly, human acts, in so far as they proceed from higher principles, can cause acquired human virtues.[5]

Having now considered two overlapping features of these three historical stages of the virtue tradition which are the predecessor cultures to modernity (Heroic society, classical Athens, medieval Christendom), we turn now to the third: the ways in which these cultures conceived of man or humanity. The core idea here which overlaps onto all three civilizations is that humanity is a functional concept, about which MacIntyre writes:

… Moral arguments within the classical … tradition – whether in its Greek or its medieval versions – involve at least one central functional concept, the concept of man understood as having an essential nature and an essential and an essential purpose or function…. That is to say, “man” stands to “good man” as “watch” stands to “good watch” of “farmer” to “good farmer” in the classical tradition.[6]

            Nowhere does one see Thomas’ reliance upon Aristotle more clearly than in this anthropological commitment to man as a functional concept. Here the Angelic Doctor appears to be taking his cues directly from Aristotle (e.g., chapter 13 of Book I of the latter’s Nicomachean Ethics, where he states and then builds upon the analogy, alluded to above, that a good man is analogous to a good harp player).  Ralph McInerny argues, that on Aquinas’ view,

“Just as a ham­mer can be said to be a good ham­mer or a bad ham­mer based on how well it ful­fills its pur­pose or per­forms its func­tion, so also a human being can be said to be a good or a bad person.”
  Beginning with the classical tradition,[7] Aristotle says in Nicomachean Ethics, that the relationship of “man” to “living well” is analogous to that of “harpist” to “playing the harp well.” (Nicomachean Ethics 1095a 16). This “living well” for Aristotle is man’s essental telos, and the word he uses to denote it is eudaimonia, variously translated as “happiness,” “success,” and “blessedness” (among other options).[8] What is interesting about this elusive sense of eudaimonia for Aristotle is that it is neither simply a means to some other end (although at various points in his corpus the Philosopher does suggest that meditative contemplation of the divine – that is the Unmoved Mover – is the supreme telos of the human person[9]) nor is it simply an end in itself. Reducible to neither of these, it is instead a virtue (perhaps, for Aristotle, the ultimate virtue) whose end is intrinsic to itself. That is, its ultimate end (what both D.S. Hutchinson and Stanley Haurwas  / Charles Pinches consider to be “living a well-lived life”)[10] is intrinsic to the practice, and even the attainment of, eudaimonia. What is clear, however, is that for Aristotle man does have a purpose, which he can fulfill or accomplish well or poorly. Just as a hammer can be said to be a good hammer or a bad hammer based on how well it fulfills its purpose or performs its function, so also a human being can be said to be a good or a bad person.

Join Fr. Matt Boulter, again, next Thursday as he surveys the landscape of virtue in the Anglican tradition.



[1] Note that one of the English translations for eudaimonia, Aristotle’s highest good and human telos which we will see later, is “success.”

[2] Gwen, Barry. “The Second Oldest Profession,” review of Hadot’s What is Ancient Philosophy in the NYT Aug 18, 2002.

[3] Hadot, Pierre, What is Ancient Philosophy 11.

[4] Hadot, 12.

[5] Anton Charles Pegis, tr. The Basic Writings of St. Thomas Aquinas. (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1997), 483 – 484.

[6] MacIntyre, 57-58.

[7] Although it may well be possible to show that man is assumed to be a functional concept in the narrative world of Homer, I am focusing only on the more readily available examples of the classical and medieval cultures here.

[8] For a discussion of the translation of eudaimonia, see D.S. Hutchinson’s article, “Ethics,” in Barnes, Jonathan, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Aristotle (New York: Cambridge UP, 1995), p. 200, n. 4.

[9] MacIntyre insightfully articulates the role Aristotle assigns to contemplation of the divine in the life of eudaimonia: “… such contemplation is the … essential final and completing ingredient in the life of the man who is eudaimôn.” MacIntyre, 158.

[10] Barnes, 202; Hauerwas, Stanley and Charles Pinches, Christians Among the Virtues (Notre Dame: U. of Notre Dame P., 1997), 17-30.