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  • Thomistic Thoughts on Changing Representations of Self and Other
  • Giuseppe Butera (bio)

Augustine, Aquinas, Thomistic psychology, hylomorphism, substance dualism

Alexandra Pârvan's appropriation of Augustine's metaphysical distinction between self and action is both creative and laudable. It surely has the potential to add an important element to the treatment of both victims and perpetrators of violence by helping them to change negative self-models that puts them at risk "for both receipt and perpetration of relationship violence" (Pârvan, 2017, p. 242). What I would like to do is suggest ways that this potential might be increased i) through a more refined understanding of Augustine's distinction between self and action, and ii) through the appropriation of later medieval developments in philosophical psychology, developments that find their classic formulation in the mature writings of Thomas Aquinas.

Augustine's Distinction Between Self and Action

Pârvan is surely right to make much of Augustine's distinction between self and action. Each, although real, is not real in the same way. Undoubtedly, anyone who might identify their actions with their very self will have a very hard time recovering from violence or, if they are perpetrators, rejecting it. Yet, as Pârvan notes, that is precisely what so many of us do from an early age, conditioned as we are at the earliest stages of our psychological development to identify our self-worth with the treatment, good or bad, received at the hands of our caregivers. That this is wrong, why it simply cannot be true that we are reducible to our actions, much less the negative judgments implicit in abusive treatment, seems obviously right. In drawing on Augustine's metaphysical reasoning, Pârvan bolsters this sense by providing a profound reason to reject this unhealthy identification of self with action.

Yet the distinction between self and action Pârvan seizes up on is not quite the one she wants or, I would argue, the one necessary for her proposed treatment to be as effective as it might be. Pârvan maintains that the distinction is such that a person may be distinguished from their actions. This much is clear. What is not so clear, however, is whether she believes this distinction to be operative only at the metaphysical level, or also at the moral level. Although some passages point to the former, the overall thrust of her essay gives the impression that she understands the distinction to apply at the moral level, as well. [End Page 261]

What this means is that, for therapeutic purposes, it is important to teach clients not only that their selves are metaphysically distinct from their actions, but perhaps more important, that they are morally distinct from them, too. As Pârvan writes, "Thinking with Augustine, if one is to be valued regardless of one's acts, in virtue of their quality of being a self, it is because there exists a dimension of the self beyond the moral one" (2017, p. 245).

There are a few things I would say about this. First, a moral distinction between the self and its actions cannot be found in Augustine. Indeed, such a distinction is not only foreign to his mind, it is utterly opposed to it. For Augustine, morality is found in the will or it is found nowhere. When the self wills to do that which is in keeping with God's eternal law, the self is said to be morally good because its will is well-ordered. When, however, the self wills that which is contrary to God's law, it is said to be disordered and thus morally bad. The moral goodness or badness of the self is nothing but the moral goodness or badness of the self's willing (see Augustine, 1993, 2.19–21, pp. 68–69). In other words, there is no moral distinction between the self and its acts. To attempt to make such a distinction is to fundamentally misunderstand the nature of morality in Augustine's thought.

Although a serious mistake (assuming Pârvan makes it), it is rather easy to fix. Pârvan might simply distinguish between the...


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