- Aquinas on Virtue: A Causal Reading by Nicholas Austin, S.J.
Most recent works on virtue ethics, if they delve into the history of philosophy at all, draw on classical Greek or Hellenistic thought as their primary historical resource. Theologians sometimes, but philosophers rarely, draw on Aquinas, despite his robust and sophisticated treatment of virtue. Misinterpretations are distressingly common. The fault lies in part in contemporary philosophers' impatience with Aquinas's theological commitments (even Philippa Foot, who admired Aquinas, disliked reading those parts of his work that are explicitly theological), but in part with Aquinas scholars themselves, who are apt to fall into opaque Thomistic jargon and often fail to connect Aquinas's concerns with those of contemporary scholars. Aquinas's world would seem so much less foreign and so much more fruitful if only there were adequate bridges to take us there.
Aquinas on Virtue is just such a bridge: advanced undergraduates, graduate students, and philosophers and theologians whose specialty is not Thomistic ethics will find this work particularly helpful. Austin packs a lot into this little book, designed to show the relevance of Aquinas's theory of virtue for contemporary ethics. To this end, he takes on some important objections, such as that Aquinas's ethics is prudish or patriarchal, that it fails to recognize the decisive role of situations (rather than character) in determining what we do, and that its reliance on intrinsic finality in nature is misguided (because it is rendered obsolete by Darwin or because it is a mere projection of the human mind onto nature). Austin offers brief and clear responses that, while hardly decisive, nevertheless demonstrate that there is a fuller debate to be had.
Austin's focus is Aquinas's theory of virtue, which he distinguishes from a virtue theory. Aquinas does not offer a virtue theory in the sense that his account of virtue is more fundamental than, say, his account of natural law or his action theory. In his more holistic approach, Aquinas intertwines these various elements. The study of Aquinas's theory of virtue therefore gives us one important inroad into his ethical theory. What sets Austin's study apart from other studies of Aquinas on virtue is his embrace of a "causal approach." For Aquinas, a full account of something requires that we explore all its causes, not just its formal cause but its final, efficient, and material causes as well; and so we find him examining all four causes in treating any number of topics, such as the human being, free choice, and virtue. Austin finds that by following Aquinas's lead in this way, not only will he be able to offer a full and systematic account of Aquinas on virtue, but in the process he will be able to set up and investigate key questions and problems, such as those concerning the distinction [End Page 488] and increase of virtue. It also allows Austin to make clear the metaphysical bases of Aquinas's theory of virtue as well as its theological character.
The result is an admirable and well-researched systematic treatment of Aquinas on virtue. Some scholars will object to Austin's decision to reorganize Aquinas's ideas rather than to present them in the way and order in which Aquinas did himself. However, Austin's presentation hardly spoils Aquinas's pedagogy; instead, he enables the contemporary reader to take advantage of it. Aquinas's own students, approaching his texts with an impressive background in Aristotelian scholarship, biblical exegesis, and Scholastic training, would have—maybe—been able to follow his arguments as he wrote them. Not so the contemporary student, who will inevitably miss, or misunderstand, a great deal of what Aquinas writes in the Summa theologiae or the disputed questions De malo. A careful, systematic book such as this one supplies contemporary readers with adequate background to make their way through this unfamiliar territory, understand it...