For Maimonides and Aquinas theism is not an accessory added to an Aristotelian naturalism; it is a distinct metaphysic with corresponding differences in the conceptions of virtue and moral psychology. Even the possibility of what we might call "plain old" natural perfection is underwritten by God, in their understanding. For Aquinas, the underwriting is (in part) via natural law (our participation in eternal law); for Maimonides it is via revealed law.6 They depart from Aristotle on the issue of whether agents can be irretrievably incapacitated for perfection, in terms of both judgmental and motivational capacity. (This suggests an avenue of exploration. If Aristotle's moral psychology and account of moral cognition are basically correct as a fully naturalistic conception of human nature and ethical value, then this might suggest that the possibility of moral retrieval and deep and substantial changes in character may need to be underwritten by theism.)
On Aristotle's view, if the agent's character is both ethically disordered and fixed in its disorder, then the agent may neither comprehend, nor be moved by correct ethical considerations. Neither Maimonides nor Aquinas thought that the accessibility of norms also guaranteed motivational engagement with them. But that does not dilute the contrast with Aristotle. If it is through one's character that one recognizes and appreciates ethical considerations, then if there is no 'compass' besides practical wisdom to orient character, an agent can be profoundly alienated from sound ethical considerations. In acting wrongly, the agent who is firmly established in vice may not see himself as flouting or violating what he in some sense knows to be true values; he thinks of himself as succeeding in acting on what he really (but mistakenly) takes to be true values. It is not so much that on the Maimonidean or Thomistic view it is easier to be good; rather, it is that there are different and enlarged resources for ethical direction and redemption.
The diagnosis of these differences may help explain why Maimonides does not regard practical wisdom as a virtue.7 For Aristotle, it is the master virtue, the one that orients and guides the virtues of character. Maimonides does, of course, take ethical virtue to be a human perfection. Yet, as Weiss points out, "The Law specifies what actions are obligatory regarding all sorts of matters that for the Aristotelian gentleman would be subject to the deliberation of practical wisdom."8 Certainly reason must be employed in interpreting and elaborating the Law. But there is, for Maimonides, no distinct excellence of the practical intellect. Ethical virtue fully subserves intellectual perfection. The practical understanding needed for ethical action is acquired by study of the Law and obedience to it. Aquinas, like Aristotle, does hold that prudence is a virtue, and his account of it is very much like Aristotle's; he says it is "right reason about things to be done" (Aquinas, S.T., Q. 57, Art. 5; p.576), and that prudence is needed "to perfect the reason and make it suitably affected towards means ordained to the end;" (Aquinas, S.T., Q. 57, Art. 5; p.576). Still, Aquinas departs from Aristotle in the crucial respect that the will can be guided by the infused virtue, charity. It is that, and not prudence, which is the master virtue. In the order of perfection charity precedes faith and hope, because both faith and hope are quickened by charity, and receive from charity their full complement as virtues. For thus charity is the mother and the root of all the virtues, inasmuch as it is the form of them all,. (Aquinas, S.T., Q. 62, Art. 4; p. 596)
For both Maimonides and Aquinas, what enables a human being to achieve perfection is something non-natural, and its mode of accessibility is non-natural, either as revealed law or reason's participation in eternal law. For Maimonides, there is the Law to guide an individual; for Aquinas, synderesis, conscience, and infused virtue make possible activity that is ordered to perfection.
The different interpretations of objectivity exemplify different kinds of optimism. Aristotle is optimistic in the sense that there is a mode of human activity which fulfills or completes human nature and which is naturally pleasing. A human being can lead a life that is found by that person to be desirable for its own sake and worthwhile, and if the agent is a virtuous agent, that finding is true. Another dimension of Aristotle's optimism is the notion that unaided human reason is competent to make the judgments of what makes for an excellent life and what perfects human nature. Again, this is not to say that unaided or natural human reason of course succeeds in this unless something impedes it: Aristotle's optimism is not naive.
Maimonidean and Thomistic optimism are different from this, and different from each other. For each of them, Aristotle's conception of perfection or happiness would be regarded as incomplete, as perfection of us as merely natural beings. To some extent, Aristotle himself seems to suggest the limitation of natural human perfection. For example, in developing his conception of happiness in Bk. I of the Ethics, Aristotle says that "a living person who has, and will keep, the goods we mentioned is blessed, but blessed as a human being is" (NE, 1101a 20). Later in Bk. X he indicates that the most perfect happiness is that consequent upon the activity of the divine element in man. Whether he is interpreted as settling on practical activity or intellectual activity as the best life, he is still at a distance from the two medievals. For both Maimonides and Aquinas perfection requires the activity of a supernatural being, God. Indeed, even the incomplete, natural perfection of human beings has no standing on its own, independent of the activity of God. They are claiming to show that even the acquired, natural excellences of human beings have to be understood on the basis of a theological metaphysic. For Maimonides, this crucially involves revelation of the Law. For Aquinas, this is a metaphysic in which human reason, through its apprehension of natural law, participates in divine reason. Maimonides and Aquinas are less optimistic regarding human natural capacities, but more optimistic regarding the overall metaphysical prospects for human beings. We are helped. The Aristotelian man, through misfortune in habituation and ill-ordered exercise of capacities for voluntary action, may come to be fixed in bad policies of both judgment and motivation, and there may be no effective help for him. These really are three different conceptions of objectivity, and associated with them are different interpretations of virtue and the enabling conditions of perfection.
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