Aquinas and Virtuous Pagans

Review by Jordan Hylden

Every day, all of us engage with family, friends, and neighbors whose beliefs about God and the good life differ substantially from our own. We do so at home, at work, at church, in school, and most everyplace else. Your neighbor across the street is a devout Muslim, and your yoga instructor two doors down is a devout Krista Tippet listener who professes a deep and capacious (if somewhat vague) spirituality, yet both of them dedicated themselves wholeheartedly with you to cleaning up the park down the road. How shall we think about these differences in belief? Shall we conclude that religious differences with neighbors do not really matter, since they are evidently good people who happen to believe different things? Or, if we are convinced of the difference that Christian faith and practice makes for the moral life, must we conclude that what look like virtues in non-Christian neighbors are not really virtues after all? Must we choose between the importance of what we care about and believe in and the goodness of those who hold otherwise? Is there a third way?

Ethics as a Work of Charity
Thomas Aquinas and Pagan Virtue
By David Decosimo. Stanford. Pp. 376. $65

David Decosimo of Loyola University Maryland thinks so, and he thinks he has found it in the theological ethics of Thomas Aquinas. His book Ethics as a Work of Charity: Thomas Aquinas and Pagan Virtue is a deeply careful attempt to respond to what he calls the “challenge of outsider virtue,” by taking a close look at Thomas’s affirmation of the moral rectitude of ancient pagans such as Cicero and Aristotle, along with his practice of listening carefully to their voices and incorporating much of their thought into Christian theology.

Thomas, Decosimo argues, found a way to affirm both pagan virtue and the difference that Christ makes, theology and justice, Augustine and Aristotle, Church and world. Thomas “welcomes pagan virtue for charity’s sake, not against but because of his Christian convictions, construing pagan virtue itself as the outworking of God’s gifts” by which we are “caught up in the Father’s work of bringing all things to himself through the Son in the Spirit.” In Thomas, Decosimo finds an all-encompassing trinitarian vision in which the surpassing excellence of Christ’s grace does not devalue the real excellence of the virtues that sustain our common life today, Christians, Muslims, and Krista Tippet-listening yoga instructors included.

While the lion’s share of Decosimo’s book is a careful exegesis and analysis of Thomas’s texts, he begins and ends by situating his project within today’s conversation. As he recounts, much of the conversation is carried on as an argument between “hyper-Augustinian” Thomists such as John Milbank and Alasdair MacIntyre and “public reason” Thomists such as Robert George or John Finnis (and alongside them, bearing an odd resemblance, many liberal Protestants who do not care much for Thomism of any variety). The hyper-Augustinians tend to preserve Christian distinctiveness by swallowing the bitter Augustinian pill, namely, that all pagan virtues are merely “splendid vices,” ordered not toward the triune God and Christ’s peaceable kingdom but instead toward the violent ends of imperial Rome (or America, as the case may be). The “public reason” Thomists, on the other hand, may just as well be Aristotelians for all the difference that theology makes for their ethics: natural law, right reason, and basic goods stand for them at the ready to serve as a neutral public language for all.

But according to Decosimo, neither type of Thomist actually gets Thomas right, which is a shame, since it’s the real Thomas we need. Decosimo offers what he calls “prophetic Thomism” as the resolution. Led on by charity, and convinced that the Logos is at work in various and sundry ways to draw all things to himself, the prophetic Thomist seeks to find elements of truth in whatever she encounters, and is prepared to accommodate it by drawing distinctions to relate it to other truths she knows. The Thomist distinction, then, is simply the philosophical face of charity, its way of exhibiting scrupulous care even to strange outsider voices. Prophetic Thomists know that the stranger, after all, might be Christ in disguise.

With respect to pagan virtues, the most important distinction that Thomas made was between acquired and infused virtue, or otherwise put, the human moral virtues (justice, fortitude, temperance, and prudence) and the theological virtues (faith, hope, and love). For Decosimo’s Thomas, the human moral virtues are not second-rate, false, or scattershot in effect: rather, they are of cardinal importance for the whole of life together in time, true virtues that habituate us to live well in the polis, the natural end to which we are proportioned. They can be acquired without grace even after the Fall, and many pagans have done so. As far as they go for our earthly common life, these virtues are perfect, and so pagans such as Cicero and Aristotle are justly admired as morally good. But because God calls us not only to live in the city of man but also in the new Jerusalem, the human moral virtues are imperfect with respect to their end. God also gifts us with further virtues for our journey toward friendship with Christ, and they are of surpassing excellence. But surpass does not mean negate; grace does not destroy nature. For Thomas, then, Aristotle and Augustine both have portions of the truth, if only we make the right sort of distinction between them.

Of course, Decosimo knows that little of this interpretation is uncontested. Much of the book consists of an exhaustive substantiation of his view from the texts of Thomas, whose corpus he learned under the watchful eyes of John Bowlin and Jeff Stout, his former teachers at Princeton. Decosimo spends much time contesting the notion that for Thomas pagan virtues are “loosely held” and “disconnected,” like a not entirely reliable disposition to be courageous in battle, not necessarily tied to prudent good sense about when to charge and when to retreat. Although Thomas envisions the existence of such dispositions, that is not at all how he understands pagan virtue, Decosimo argues. Unlike some recent interpreters, he cites Thomas’s habits treatise. By saying that virtue is a habit, Thomas is saying that a real virtue is difficile mobile, difficult to dislodge, by definition. So too, a moral virtue by definition is “connected” to all the others: courage is necessarily prudent, as well as just and temperate, or it’s not worthy of the name. Decosimo does painstaking exegetical work to show that the kind of virtue Thomas affirms of pagans is true virtue, a stable habit that generates good actions that perfect our natural capacities.

Decosimo finds further evidence for his position in Thomas’s discussion of “honest” and “proximate” goods. Centuries before, Augustine had given a great deal of thought to the relationship between love of God and love of neighbor. His uti/frui (“use/enjoy”) distinction in early formulations ran the risk of making it sound as though one could only “use” the neighbor for the sake of enjoying God. Struggling with this, he eventually hit upon the idea while preaching on 1 John that the two loves need not be in competition: one can love the neighbor in God and God in the neighbor simultaneously, for God is love. Thomas systematizes this insight, holding that some “proximate” or “honest” goods are meant to be loved for their own sake, not just instrumentally for the sake of the ultimate good of beatitude. Such penultimate goods (preeminently, the common good of life together in the polis) are truly perfective of our nature, even if we are also called to go “further up and further in” to fellowship with God. Moreover, the penultimate has within itself a certain ordering to the ultimate, as a signpost and arrow pointing beyond itself to the Word in whom it has its being.

Perhaps the most intriguing, and also the most vexed, chapter is Decosimo’s attempt to ferret out what Thomas meant by saying that pagans sin if they do something good in itself (like almsgiving) for the sake of their infidelitas, but that they do not sin if they do it for the sake of one of God’s gifts, such as the good of nature. Thomas thinks that we do not act willy-nilly, but generally order our actions in an overall direction: there is some “final end” toward which our lives point. As such, how we conceive of that end matters. The miser who thinks the point of life is accumulating ducats or florins is, for this reason, morally corrupted, and so are all who hold false beliefs about life’s final end. For almost all of us, Thomas thinks, Final End Conceptions are religious in character. So just to the extent that the pagan possesses false Final End Conceptions and orders actions to the end of infidelitas, the pagan will act wrongly.

The striking thing, however, is that even with this relatively strong view of the importance of our Final End Conceptions for the morality of our actions, Thomas still affirms that the pagan can do morally good acts. How so? Thomas is not entirely clear on this point, but Decosimo suggests that we make two distinctions: between “strong” and “weak” infidelitas, and between Final End Conceptions that are salient for particular actions and those that are not. Consider, he suggests, the case of Christopher Hitchens. There is a man, if there ever were one, possessed of firm Final End Conceptions, which included beliefs about the nonexistence of God and the poisonous character of the Christian religion. His “strong” infidelitas was his strong opposition to Christianity. By contrast, a person with “weak” infidelitas would simply have believed things that contradicted the faith, without bothering to write a book running it down. Nonetheless, Hitchens believed many things, and many of those beliefs were good and true: his infidelitas was only sometimes salient for his moral actions. Put together, then, Decosimo suggests that for Thomas, infidelitas need not always be the salient portion of one’s Final End Conception for a moral action, and that even “actions with final ends that include weak infidelitas among them might still count as good.” When one adds in Thomas’s allowance that those who have not genuinely heard the Christian faith are excused from their infidelitas (a category that might extend quite broadly), then the door is open wide indeed to understand how many pagans can do good in accordance with the gift of nature.

The difficult issue here, as Decosimo acknowledges, is Thomas’s discussion of the virtue of religion and the natural duty to love God above all. Thomas does not think that post-lapsarian humanity is capable of loving God above all; as such, this is the chief difference between pagan virtue and the acquired virtue of Christians, for whom this is possible by grace. But this is no small difference, for religion according to Thomas is the chief of the moral virtues, since it takes up all of our faculties and directs them to their proper end in God. Decosimo acknowledges the possibility of reading Thomas to say that pagans cannot acquire the virtue of religion without grace. If this is true, the architectonic role of religion for Thomas may create serious problems for Decosimo’s interpretation of him as affirming pagan virtue. Decosimo acknowledges the problem but suggests that Thomas may be inconsistent here, and that those committed to prophetic Thomism might want to modify their teacher on this point.

To affirm the possibility of pagan virtue, of course, is not the same thing as predicting its probability. Thomas, like Aristotle, thought that acquired virtue was all too rare in human affairs. But unlike Aristotle, he thought alongside Augustine that this spoke to our status as “creatures in desperate need of healing, grace, and rebirth.” For Decosimo, “public reason” Thomists and their liberal Protestant cousins are too often guilty of de-emphasizing this key Augustinian (and indeed biblical) truth. But the “hyper-Augustinians,” though they take their stand on affirming it, run the risk of externalizing acquired virtue to be a truth about the “world” rather than the Church.

Decosimo may not always be fair in this criticism, but insofar as we see ourselves as faced with the false choice of affirming either Christian distinctiveness or outsider virtue, it hits home. Decosimo has helped us see a better way, recovering an aspect of Thomas’s theological ethics with possibilities that have not always been acknowledged. Decosimo has written a landmark book of lasting importance. Shall we, when faced with a world that has burned for far too long with violence and rage between people of differing faiths, have nothing more to offer than the soothing nostrums of political liberalism? “Put away your gods and your beliefs, and instead eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die.” That has not worked and will never do, since our hearts are restless for God and we must be born again. Within the heart of medieval Christendom, Thomas Aquinas found a way to affirm Christ and Aristotle, Cicero, Maimonides, and Avicenna. Perhaps we can learn to do the same.

The Rev. Jordan Hylden, a board member of the Living Church Foundation, is a doctoral candidate in theology and ethics at Duke University Divinity School.

Image: Detail of St. Thomas Aquinas, 13th-century Dominican friar and theologian, by Carlo Crivelli (c. 1435-95)

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