In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

The Thomist 63 (1999): 553-77 AQUINAS ON PAGAN VIRTUE BRIANJ. SHANLEY, 0.P. The Catholic University ofAmerica Washington, D.C. IN ALASDAIR MACIN1YRE'S post-After Virtue narratives of the history of ethics, Aquinas's principal achievement is portrayed as a creative synthesis of the preexisting Aristotelian and Augustinian traditions.1 The most obvious point of disagreement between the two traditions concerned the possibility of the autonomous achievement of genuine moral virtue. To put the matter another way, the central tension concerned conflicting answers to the question of whether anyone could achieve moral excellence without divine assistance. The Aristotelian answer, as embodied in the Nicomachean Ethics, was clearly (if anachronistically ) affirmative. The Augustinian answer, influenced by Paul, Augustine's own experience, and anti-Pelagian polemics, was a resounding negative.2 As Macintyre tells the story, this is one issue where Aquinas sides unequivocally with Augustine and against Aristotle: there is no genuine virtue that is not shaped by the infusion of divine caritas. As Bonnie Kent has shown, however, Maclntyre's reading of Aquinas on this point is inaccurate;3 Maclntyre's own 1 See Whose Justice, Which Rationality? (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1988) and Three Rival Versions ofMoral Enquiry (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1990). 2 For Augustine's evolution on this point, see James Wetzel, Augustine and the Limits of Virtue (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992). In De civitate dei 19.25, Augustine famously characterizes pagan "virtues" as actually vices. For more of the nuances in Augustine's position, see the texts cited by John M. Rist in Augustine: Ancient Thought Baptized (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), 170-73. 3 Bonnie Kent, "Moral Provincialism," Religious Studies 30 (1994): 269-85; see her references to Maclntyre's texts on 274-77. As Kent notes (279), Maclntyre's reading is at odds with a long tradition of commentators on Aquinas. Kent's critique of Macintyre is 553 554 BRIAN J. SHANLEY, O.P. Augustinian leanings skew his interpretation of Aquinas.4 Kent even goes so far as to accuse Macintyre of "moral provincialism" because his misreading of Aquinas excludes entire categories of persons from the possibility of any moral excellence on the basis of their religious commitments. She argues that Aquinas actually held a more "morally cosmopolitan" position because he allowed for the possibility of at least a qualified achievement of moral virtue by non-Christians. While I cannot wholly endorse Kent's evaluation of Macintyre, she is clearly correct in claiming that he has misread Aquinas on the reality of genuine virtue apart from charity. Neither Kent nor Macintyre, however, has successfully sorted through either the complexities of Aquinas's position or, more importantly, its theological import. If Aquinas is more faithful to Aristotle than Macintyre acknowledges, he is also more faithful to Augustine than Kent admits. Aquinas's position is difficult to sort through, however, because there is a tension between what he says about acquired Aristotelian moral virtue and what he says about the Augustinian need for grace. The purpose of this paper is first of all carefully to untangle the tensile Aristotelian and Augustinian strands and to show that they do not really conflict. An examination of key texts in the Summa Theologiae discloses that Aquinas admits Aristotelian virtue, but within Augustinian limitations. The second and more constructive aim of this paper is to argue, based on a seminal insight of T. C. O'Brien, that Aquinas's doctrine of grace makes it possible to attach a theological significance to pagan virtue that goes beyond anything that Augustine ever affirmed. In the end, Aquinas's analysis of pagan virtue represents a creative appropriation of Aristotelian and Augustinian elements into his own theological synthesis. In order to make my case, I will begin by explaining what Aquinas understands to be the nature of acquired moral virtue. I will argue that it is essentially political virtue, the virtue of man as a social being ordered to the common good, and that Aquinas reiterated in her Virtues ofthe Will: The Transformation ofEthics in the Late Thirteenth Century (Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 1995), 19-34. 4 Macintyre describes himself...


Additional Information

Print ISSN
pp. 553-577
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Back To Top

This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. Without cookies your experience may not be seamless.