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        The Fearful Thoughts of Mortals Aquinas on Conflict, Self-Knowledge, and the Virtues of Practical Reasoning Thomas Hibbs Some years ago now, Leonard Boyle proposed that Aquinas devised the Summa Theologiae as a corrective to the genre of confessors’ manuals prominent in the early period of the Dominican order.1 What worried Aquinas was a penchant for narrow casuistry and a tendency to isolate moral matters from the rest of Christian theology . Boyle’s accent on Thomas’s relocation of practical, concrete ethical questions within the full scope of speculative Christian theology might, on a superficial level, seem to confirm the basic thesis of Marie-Dominique Chenu’s famous interpretation of the structure of the Summa.2 Couched in terms of a sharp division between the necessary and the contingent, the speculative and the historical, Chenu’s reading proposes that the structure of the work mirrors the neoPlatonic emanationist scheme of exitus-reditus, a going forth from,  09 Cunningham Ch9 1/27/09 11:22 AM Page 273  | Thomas Hibbs followed by a returning to, God. The exitus-reditus structure relegates the Incarnation to a mere, and merely contingent, means in a return (reditus) to God seemingly anticipated within the coming forth (exitus ) of nature. Similarly, ethics would express an abstract and universal unfolding of what is already inscribed within the order of nature. But this is not a fair reading of Boyle’s thesis, which is not that Aquinas’s inscribing of ethics within an overarching theological account is meant to replace the examination of moral matters in concrete detail. Instead, Aquinas intends with the Summa Theologiae to make a distinct contribution to the very genre of the care of souls (cura animarum). As is now generally acknowledged, Chenu’s reading works only at the most general level of interaction with the text. Even within the prima secundae, there is the historical dialectic sinlaw -grace that mirrors salvation history. The structure of the voluminous secunda secundae is not the abstract categories of the virtues and vices but intricately detailed accounts of the way in which the natural virtues are taken up and transformed by their relationship to the theological virtues and the gifts: “After the common investigation of the virtues and the vices . . . , it is necessary to consider singular matters in detail, since universal considerations of moral matters are less useful, than are those which examine actions in their particulars.”3 Aquinas’s Summa is thus characterized not only by its ambitious scope, which includes the full spectrum of theology and locates ethical topics within a comprehensive theological vision of human life, but also by its range, from universal to singular. Of course, any theoretical account remains to some extent removed from the specific conditions of human action. However attuned to particulars, no account of human nature or ethics, whether in the form of rules or virtues, can substitute for the non-rule-governed activity of prudence, whose chief task,Aquinas insists , is to bring about right action. Prudence, the capacity to appraise, judge, and command what ought to be done in concrete circumstances , is at the very heart of Aquinas’s ethics. In this, Aquinas cer09 Cunningham Ch9 1/27/09 11:22 AM Page 274 tainly follows Aristotle, for whom the wise individual is the measure of human acts. What a theoretical account of ethics can do is sketch broadly the moral precepts, the virtues, and the vices; it can of course also underscore the limits to its own inquiry. It does this in part by gesturing repeatedly in the direction of what exceeds its grasp: the proper order of human action. But it can do a bit more than this. It can give the careful reader a sense of the shape of practical reasoning, of the chief threats to its operation, and a description of the virtues whose cultivation tempers the dangers. In the last matter, Aquinas goes much further than Aristotle in highlighting the limits to practical reason and the perils for human agency in the course of ordinary human life; indeed, Aquinas to some extent puts into question Aristotle’s assumptions about the ease and delight of the activity of practical wisdom.4 Following Augustine, Aquinas highlights the vulnerability of practical reason, its susceptibility to conflict, to the deceptions of evil, and, even, to tragedy. The dangers here are in part traceable to universal features of the human condition,but some are internal to the operation of human reason and will.Aquinas’s ethical...


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