Defining the Virtues

Readers familiar with Thomas's teaching on analogy and with his views of philosophical language will not be surprised that he treats "virtue" explicitly as an analogous term (1-2.61.1 ad 1). The analogical range of "virtue" is something more than the richness of any important philosophical term. Thomas is clearly aware not only that there are different authorities on the definition of virtue but also that the term itself, even on its best definition, must apply to a sundered range of cases. He must not only collate authoritative texts, he must show that the various cases covered by them are ordered around one primary case - or else "virtue" will be equivocal.

Thomas inherited a number of authoritative definitions of virtue, including quite distinct ones from Cicero and Aristotle's physical works.26 The main contest is between two further definitions, the first from Aristotle's

25 A decade after writing and publishing a first version of this argument, I discovered the extraordinary 1998 lecture by Victor Preller, "Water into Wine," now available in Grammar and Grace: Reformulations of Aquinas and Wittgenstein, eds. Jeffrey Stout and Robert MacSwain (London: SCM Press, 2004), pp. 253-267. In it, I find so much with which to agree, including this succinct summary of my abiding concerns: "I shall now simply put all my cards on the table and say that whenever Aquinas writes he writes as a theologian, for a theological purpose, making use of theological assumptions. He talks about philosophy as a theologian. He does not do philosophy" (p. 262).

26 Cicero, De inventione 2.53.159, is quoted by Aquinas in 1-2.56.5. For some earlier uses, see Augustine, De diversis quaestionibus 83 q. 31, ed. Almut Mutzenbecher, Corpus Christiano-rum Series Latina 44 (Turnhout: Brepols, 1975), 2-3, and Albert, Lectura super Eth. 1.15

Ethics and the second from Augustine by way of Peter Lombard's Sentences. The Aristotelian definition is the famous conclusion that virtue is a voluntary habit leading to action that lies in the mean, as specified by reason and a prudent person.27 The Summa paraphrases this definition variously when discussing the virtues,28 although not in 1-2.55 when it comes time to define them. The reason for the omission will appear in a moment. The competing definition comes from the Lombard's Sentences: "Virtue is a good quality of mind, by which one lives rightly and which no one uses badly, which God alone works in man."29 It is, as Thomas knows, a conflation of Augustinian texts and especially of passages from On Free Choice 2, which supplies the middle clause of the Lombard's definition.30 The definition from the Sentences is the only one that Thomas sets out explicitly to defend.31

The tension between the two definitions is palpable. Aristotle's definition has in view humanly acquired virtue, and it stresses how prudential judgment by the virtuous sets the mean. The definition that Peter Lombard composes out of Augustine is a definition of virtue infused by God. It is not immediately clear whether it speaks both of the (infused) theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity and of (infused) moral virtues. Thomas attempts to resolve the tension between these two definitions by constructing a more comprehensive analogy of the term "virtue," one ample enough to contain both Aristotle and Augustine. He succeeds in the attempt only by subordinating Aristotle to Augustine.

Thomas introduces virtue, in good dialectical fashion, with a remark on its least specific sense: "'virtue'names a certain completion of power" (quandam potentiae perfectionem, 1-2.55.1). This sense is divided next between natural powers, which are themselves called virtues as determined to specific ends, and "rational" powers, for which virtue names the habit or cumulative disposition that determines the power to act. This distinction is displaced by a

(Cologne Opera omnia 14/1:76.67-69). Aristotle De caelo 1.11 (281a15) is quoted by Aquinas in 1-2.55.1 arg. 1, and Physics 7.3 (246b23) in 1-2.55.2 arg. 3 and 56.1 sed contra 1.

27 Aristotle Nicomachean Ethics 2.6 (1106b36-1107a2).

28 Summa theol. 1-2.58.1 arg. 1, 58.2 arg. 4, 59.1, 64.1 sed contra, 64.2 sed contra, 64.3 arg. 2.

29 Peter Lombard Sententiae 2.27.1 no. 1 (CSB 1:480).

30 See Summa theol. 1-2.55.4 sed contra, and Augustine De libero arbitrio 2.18.50, ed. W M. Green, Corpus Christianorum Series Latina 29 (Turnhout: Brepols, 1970), p. 271.

31 Summa theol. 1-2.55.4c: "Now the efficient cause of infused virtue, for which the definition is given . . ."John Inglis emphasizes the importance of the infused virtues in Thomas's predecessors and shows how fully it must be considered the starting point for Thomas's own accounts. See Inglis, "Aquinas's Replication of the Acquired Moral Virtues: Rethinking the Standard Philosophical Interpretation of Moral Virtue in Aquinas," Journal of Religious Ethics 27 (1999): 3-27.

second: virtues enable being or acting (1-2.55.2). In Summa 2, Thomas is concerned with peculiarly human virtues of acting and restricts the use of virtue accordingly. He can thus add yet another piece for a fuller definition, namely, that virtue is an "operative habit" (1-2.55.2). It is very easy to conclude that it must be a good operative habit, since the notion of completeness forms part of the moral notion of virtue. Then something puzzling happens. Thomas turns, in the last Article of the Question, to defend the definition of infused virtues taken from Augustine through Peter Lombard.

What is the point of jumping, as it seems, from a general notion of virtue inherited from Aristotle to a specific and theological definition provided by Lombard? If a full definition is needed to cap the dialectical development of Question 55, why not supply Aristotle's definition of moral virtue from the Ethics? The answer cannot be simply an appeal to Augustine's authority, because Thomas has a dozen ways of rereading Augustine or of fashioning revisionist contexts for him when he finds something imprudent or misleading in the Augustinian texts. The answer must rather be that the center of the analogy of virtue lies not in civic virtues as Aristotle understood them, but in virtues infused by God. The full definition must be given for the first and clearest member of the analogy. The clearest case is not acquired, but infused virtue.

Making the principal definition of virtue theological has any number of consequences. For example, Thomas must rework the notion of habit that he has constructed so carefully in Questions 49-54 using Aristotle and Aristotle's interpreters.32 Another consequence is that he now understands even the pagan virtues as if from above. By way of concluding with the cardinal virtues, Thomas introduces a passage from Macrobius that quotes Plotinus. In it Plotinus multiplies the four cardinal virtues into four steps or stages corresponding to four states of the soul: the political, the purgative, the already purged, and the exemplary (61.5 sed contra). The passage appears several times in Albert's Lectura on the Ethics and is familiar to Thomas from many other texts as well.33 He does not correct its teaching, but he follows his predecessors in giving it a thoroughly Christian reading.

32 One sign of this is the explicit invocation of Aristotle in important sed contra arguments. Of the 19 sed contras that cite an authority in Questions 49-54, 15 cite Aristotle and not merely for an intermediate premise. Another sign is the concerted attention to the exegesis of Aristotle's texts, marked particularly by the reliance on Simplicius. Simplicius is cited eight times in these Questions (49.1, ad 3; 49.2c and ad 2; 50.1c and ad 3; 50.4, ad 1; 50.6; 52.1). At least three of these passages contain lines of direct quotation, and one of them (49.2) uses a long quotation from Simplicius as a starting point for Aquinas's reformulation of an important distinction.

33 For Albert's use of it, see Lectura 2.3 (Cologne Opera omnia 14/1:100.27-30), 4.12 (272.71-73), 5.3 (320.36-39), and 7.11 (568.1-8).

The political stage of the virtues corresponds easily to the human being as naturally political, "according to the condition of his [or her] nature." The exemplary stage refers to the virtues as they are in God. Here Thomas simply follows Macrobius's reading of Plotinus. The two middle stages must then help the soul toward its end in God. The purging cardinal virtues are virtues of motion toward God. Prudence is reinterpreted as the virtue of despising worldly things in favor of contemplation. The virtues of the soul already purged are those exercised while possessing the highest end: they are the virtues of the blessed in heaven. At the third stage, prudence means seeing only the divine.

This allegorical reading of the four stages of virtue, by which each cardinal virtue is carried upward from the human realm to the divine, extends the analogy of the terms in an unexpected direction. In the first discussions of cardinal virtues, theological virtues had been held at bay. Now it becomes clear that the political cardinal virtues are most important for the present human condition, but not for the final one, which lies beyond human capacity (61.1 ad 2). The purging and already purged virtues are related directly to the last end. They are some of the few cardinal virtues that last into the state of glory (67.1). Indeed, they must be among the infused moral virtues rooted in charity (63.3).

Here is the crux: infused moral virtues differ in kind from acquired moral virtues precisely because they prepare human beings for citizenship in the heavenly city, not the earthly (63.4). If they are different in kind and take a different definition, how can they be called by the same name except equivocally? Similar questions arise at other points. The three theological virtues are ordered to an end different from that of the acquired virtues. They have God as their object, they are infused only by God, they are taught only by divine revelation (62.1). They differ in kind or species from the moral and intellectual virtues (62.2). The difference is not merely categorical; it has consequences for action. Theological virtues are more than supplements in aid of the cardinal. They both enable and require different actions. The theological virtues are not virtues lying in the mean, except accidentally, since their rule and measure is God (64.4). So they prescribe different standards even for subject matter also considered by the moral virtues. For example, infused moral virtues demand a degree of bodily asceticism not required (or encouraged) by acquired moral virtues (63.4).

The analogy of virtue stretches almost to breaking. Can it be held together by clarifying the hierarchy of cases that fall within it, by distinguishing proper and improper senses? Thomas does clarify the hierarchy when he discusses the connection and equality of the virtues. On the surface, these topics are familiar from ancient philosophy. He knows from a number of sources, such as Simplicius and Augustine, that the Stoics taught the unity of virtues and the equality of faults. More important for him is the connection between the acquired virtues and infused virtues, whether moral or theological. The ancient philosophical topics become occasions for trying to display the unity-and-difference in the analogy of virtue itself.

Four arguments are posed against the connection of acquired moral virtues. Thomas replies with four authorities in the sed contra, three from patristic authors and one from Cicero (65.1). His counter-argument depends less on these authorities than on a distinction between complete and incomplete virtue. Incomplete virtue is no more than an inclination to do some good thing, an inclination that can arise as much from natural endowment as from practice. Imperfect virtues are not connected to one another, whether they are understood as common components of good action or as related to specific cases or matters. The connection arises in the common structure of action, and it runs through prudence. Without prudence, a habit of repeated self-restraint when faced with one kind of temptation, say, will not become the virtue of self-restraint, because it will fail to cover similar temptations. The operations of moral virtues are ordered to one another in such a way that habit in one operation must require a habit in all (65.1 ad 3).

So far the consideration has proceeded in an apparently philosophical manner. The next Question asks whether this unified complex of moral virtues can exist without charity (65.2). Thomas's reply is nuanced. If "virtue" means something aimed towards a naturally attainable human end, it can be acquired by human effort. This virtue can exist without charity, as was the case among many pagans. Still, pagan virtues do not "completely and truly satisfy the notion (ratio) of virtue." The notion is satisfied only by virtues that lead to the highest human end, which is supernatural. Strictly speaking, there can be no virtue without charity. Moral virtues are infused by God, together with the prudence on which they depend, after the infusion of charity. "It follows then from what has been said that only the infused virtues are complete, and are called virtues simply, because they order the human being rightly to the last end simply speaking." Thomas holds that charity cannot be infused without the attendant moral virtues, of which it is the principle (65.3), or without the other two theological virtues, which make possible friendship with God (65.5).

For Thomas, then, no single inclination toward the good, standing by itself, can be called a virtue simply speaking. It is only an incomplete or anticipated virtue that needs to be taken up into the unity of the virtues centered on charity. Pagan virtues are only virtues in a certain respect (secun-

dum quid), as ordered to some particular good that is not the complete and final good of human life. Thomas approves a gloss on Romans: "Where acquaintance with the truth is lacking, virtue is false even when connected to good customs" (in bonis moribus, 65.2 corpus). Securing the analogy of virtue requires not only substituting a theological for a philosophical definition, but also judging human life otherwise than Aristotle did. Thomas has changed philosophical water into theological wine.

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