Comparing Thomas Aquinas and Aristotle’s conception of the human good.

Whereas both Thomas and Aristotle would agree that “the ultimate end of man, as of any intellectual substance, is called felicity or happiness” there is a profound difference between them regarding in what that happiness consists. The difference between Thomas and Aristotle’s accounts of the human good boils down to the difference between Thomas’ Christianity (grace and faith) and Aristotle’s virtuous paganism (the integrated intellectual life at its humanly best).

For an excellent introductory guide to Aquinas follow this link.
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Aquinas studies – happiness is found in an act of the intellect rather than an act of the will.

Thomas agrees with Aristotle regarding in what faculty happiness is found. Aristotle limits the state of happiness to those beings which have the capacity for rational thought. He says, “Happiness is an activity of the [rational] soul” (Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, 1100a15). Thomas echoes and expands on this when he says “happiness is the proper good of the intellectual nature” (Thomas Aquinas: Selected Writings, Penguin Books., London 1998, p 268).

For an excellent introductory guide to Aquinas follow this link.

Arriving at the link between ‘happiness,’ ‘the proper good,’ and the ‘intellectual nature’ occurs after discounting the various misconceptions regarding what happiness/the proper good are, namely physical pleasure, honour, wealth and any other pursuits which are not ‘self-sufficient’ but rather transitory and contingent. Also, finding happiness in the intellect involves recognizing that the intellect is our highest faculty. As sight is are our highest sensory faculty by which we are able most accurately to perceive the world around us, so our intellects are our highest faculty, enabling us to understand the world around us. Happiness and the proper good are bound up with our telos. It is the intellectual nature which is the specific difference between humans and all other created compound beings (the imago dei), and thus our happiness is to be found in relation to our intellectual nature. Thus, true happiness for us is to be found in intellectual activities directed towards God. “God is the ultimate end of the intellectual substance and that operation whereby a man first attains God is said to be substantially his happiness or felicity” (Aquinas, Selected Writings, p. 270). This ‘attaining’ is some kind of intellectual sight – the Beatific Vision.
Continue reading “Aquinas studies – happiness is found in an act of the intellect rather than an act of the will.”

Boethius’ “The Consolation of Philosophy”

Here are some thoughts regarding the meaning of the title of the book. I’m using the Penguin Classics, Watt’s translation edition.

Boethius faced a sudden and brutal change in his fortunes, and this caused him to “wander away” from himself (p. 16 – c.f., Dante’s awakening in a dark wood). At the beginning of the book, we see what this wandering away from one’s self looks like. The poetic muses are by his side, feeding him sugary poison, ‘dictating words’ to him and seducing him as a group of “sluts” (or “harlots”) may seduce a lonely man (pgs., 4-5). It seems he is actually out of his mind and then he becomes aware of Lady Philosophy standing over him. Her appearance is extraordinary, but one aspect, in particular, is noteworthy here (I will attempt to unpack her appearance more in a different post). “She was so full of years that I could hardly think of her as of my own generation, and yet she possessed a vivid colour and undiminished vigor” (p. 4). I think this is important as it indicates that she isn’t Lady Philosophy in relation to a particular school of philosophy, rather she indicates what is referred to as Perennial Philosophy (though of course Boethius didn’t use or know this term).
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Aristotle’s view of the human good in the Nicomachean Ethics

Aristotle is absolute in stating “Every craft and every investigation, and likewise every action and decision, seems to aim at some good; hence the good has been well described as that at which everything aims” (1094a). However, this does not mean that everything aims at the same ‘goods’. As he says, “there is an apparent difference among the ends aimed at” (1094a). Whereas humanity shares the characteristics of plant and animal life, and whereas the same things which are good for the wellbeing of plants and animals are also good for us (nourishment, health, etc) the good at which we aim is different and greater than the good at which a plant, for example, aims in growing and reproducing. This is because of the specific difference between humans and other living things, plant or animal.

What makes humans unique? What is our function that differentiates our good from other goods? “The human function is the soul’s activity that expresses reason, or requires reason” (1098a5). This expression and requirement of reason is for the human “a certain kind of life” which when completed well expresses “proper virtue” (1098a10). As this is regarded as the right function of the human being, the virtue of living well according to reason is the human good. “The human good turns out to be the soul’s activity that expresses virtue” (1098a15).

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A basic comparison between the thought of Plato and Aristotle, in similarity and difference.

“Now for such general conceptions as that of manhood, or triangular shape, or any other abstraction that exists in a number of concrete things but nowhere by itself, Aristotle usually adopts the same word that Plato had used for his self-existing realities, namely “kind” or “kinds.” But just as Plato, in addition to this term which he shares with Aristotle, had a synonym which is peculiar to himself, namely “idea,” so Aristotle too has his own special synonym, namely “form.” And in expounding the doctrines of the two philosophers it has, very naturally, been usual to avoid the term “kind” common to them both, and to adopt for each the synonymous term characteristic of himself. Thus we speak of Platonic “ideas” and Aristotelian “forms.” It is a practice which has an undoubted convenience and is conducive to clearness from one point of view, but it has the great disadvantage of always suggesting the difference between the two thinkers and never their common ground, and also of severing the technical language of both of them, from the common matrix of natural, and naturally significant, phraseology out of which it grows and with which it always remains in connection. It is easy, however, to discern this common ground. “Idea” and “form” are mere variants on “kind.” And Plato and Aristotle both investigate such problems as these: What is meant by saying Socrates and Sophroniscus are both “men”? What does it really tell you of them? What does it enable you to understand? When you ask “what” a thing is and get your answer:–It is a cart, a horse, a tree–what really is that “whatness” or “thatness” that makes it the thing it is and not some other thing? And why can you never give any explanation of a thing except by determining some “kind” or “kinds” which it is or to which it belongs? But Plato is always trying to get at something behind the concrete and Aristotle to get at something in it. The Platonic “kinds” or ideas  exist apart from individual things and are the perfect prototypes of which they are the imperfect imitations or reflections; the Aristotelian  “kinds” or forms are abstractions of the human mind that have no actual existence except in transient and concrete individuals.” (Philip H. Wicksteed, Dante and Aquinas, pps 18-19 [bold emphasis mine]).

The Trinitarian anthropology of St. Augustine

“Who can understand the omnipotent Trinity? We all speak of it, though we may not speak of it as it truly is, for rarely does a soul know what it is saying when it speaks of the Trinity. People wrangle and dispute about it, but it is a vision that is given to none unless they are at peace. There are three things, all found in a person , which I should like people to consider. They are far different from the Trinity, but I suggest them as a subject for mental exercise by which we can test ourselves and realize how great this different is. The three things are existence, knowledge, and will, for I can say that I am, I know, and I will. I am a being which knows and wills; I know both that I am and that I will; and I will both to be and to know. In these three–being, knowledge, and will–there is one inseparable life, one life, one mind, one essence; and therefore, although they are distinct from one another, the distinction does not separate them” (Augustine, Confessions, XIII, 11).

‘My name is John Daker’ as a theological parable about the relationship between eros and agape and the virtue of perseverance. ;)

Recently I was reminded of the video ‘My name is John Daker’ and it got me thinking… Initially, I was a bit baffled by the medley of two songs, one a classic Christian hymn celebrating the resurrection and the other a 1950s hit song by Dean Martin celebrating romantic love. However, I now think John Daker was making a profound (though subtle) theological point in crafting his performance into a parable.

As Origen states (echoing St. Ignatius of Antioch), ‘my eros has been crucified’. However, it is because of the resurrection and ascension of Jesus and Pentecost that our eros may be redeemed and gathered up into agape and thus be directed towards the Lord in worship (a total repudiation of Nygren’s thesis in ‘Eros and Agape’ (with a h/t to Dante) doubtless both these works influence this parable). In our ‘now and not-yet’ reality none of us can give clear expression to this truth. We forget, falter and get things wrong (sometimes even embarrassing ourselves). The key is to persist under the grace of God and in the power of the Holy Spirit in allowing the resurrection power of Christ to sanctify all our loves. One of the key virtues in this spiritual warfare is the virtue of perseverance. This virtue is called to battle especially when it appears that what we are doing is futile, ridiculous or failing. As John Daker indicates through the clever use of his eyebrows, he gets all of this perfectly. Also, by recording his parable and stating his name at the outset he indicates that this ‘treasure’ is held in jars of clay and must be joyously incorporated into our witness. ‘God’s strength is made perfect in our weakness’.