Thomas Aquinas on the Neoplatonic Hierarchy of Virtues

Like Bonaventure, Thomas Aquinas directly addresses the Neoplatonic theory of a hierarchy of virtues. The theory makes an appearance in the Summa Theologiae, where Aquinas, like Bonaventure in the Collations, does not attribute the theory to Porphyry but to Macrobius.40 The fifth article of question 61 (Iallae) asks: "Are the cardinal virtues appropriately divided into political, purifying, purified, and exemplar virtues?"41

After citing some Aristotelian (and one Ciceronian) objections that seem to arise from Macrobius's account of virtue, Aquinas allows Macrobius to cite his own authority, whom Aquinas has no reason to doubt is "Plotinus, along with Plato." To mediate this dispute, Aquinas appeals to Augustine, who says, "the soul must follow something so that virtue can be born in it; and this something is God, and if we follow Him we shall live a moral life."42 From this, Aquinas concludes:

the exemplar of human virtue must pre-exist in God, just as the exemplars of all things pre-exist in Him. In this way, therefore, virtue can be considered as existing in its highest exemplification in God, and in this fashion we speak of exemplar virtues. Thus the divine mind in God can be called prudence, while temperance is the turning of the divine attention to Himself.. The fortitude of God is His immutability, while God's justice is the observance of the eternal law in His works.43

Aquinas's discussion here recalls the words of Porphyry, cited above, concerning the exemplar virtues: "wisdom is nous cognizing; self-attention, temperance; peculiar function [justice], proper action. Valor is sameness, and a remaining pure of self-dependence, through abundance of power."

Aquinas's words are surprising because up until this point in the Summa, he has been speaking of virtue primarily in the political sense; "man is a political animal by nature," and "manz comports himself rightly in human affairs by these [political] virtues."44 But Aquinas acknowledges the philosophical necessity of understanding the political virtues as having their origin in higher virtues. Thus, in answer to the objection that Aristotle says it is inappropriate to attribute the virtues to God (NE, X, 8, 1178b 10), Aquinas answers that Aristotle must be speaking of the political virtues45—for surely we would not want to deny to God any excellence of activity. And again, to the objection that the virtues concern the regulation of passions, and so could not exist if the soul was completely purified of passions, Aquinas says this is only true of the political virtues. Beatified souls, however, are without the passions of wayfaring souls; it is these souls which achieve the purer virtues.46

To the objection that the purifying virtues cannot be virtues since they involve "flight from human affairs," Aquinas agrees that "to neglect human affairs when they require attending to is wrong." But otherwise such flight is virtuous.47 Here, Aquinas appeals to Augustine, who says: "The love of truth needs a sacred leisure; the force of love demands just deeds. If no one places a burden upon us, then we are free to know and contemplate truth; but if such a burden is put upon us, we must accept it because of the demands of charity."48

The purifying virtues, commonly called the contemplative virtues, are the virtues of "those who are on the way and tending toward a likeness of what is divine." In agreement with Porphyry's description of these virtues is Aquinas':

Thus prudence, by contemplating divine things, counts all worldly things as nothing and directs all thought of the soul only to what is divine; temperance puts aside the customary needs of the body so far as nature permits; fortitude prevents the soul from being afraid of withdrawing from bodily needs and rising to heavenly things; and justice brings the whole soul's accord to such a way of life.49

Above these are the "purified" virtues. Porphyry would attribute them only to the gods (all those other than the "father of the gods"), that is, to immaterial souls; Aquinas, in keeping with this, attributes these virtues to the souls of men who have been beatified— and even, it seems, to saints in this life:

.prudence now sees only divine things, temperance knows no earthly desires, fortitude is oblivious to the passions, and justice is united with the divine mind in an everlasting bond, by imitating it.50

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  • Katharina
    What is the heirchy of dao virture?
    11 months ago
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    Is there a hierachy of virtues?
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