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.
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Forms and healing come by nature but knowledge from God is “teaching within” – the active and passive principles at play in human life

Forms come by nature. Thomas says, “certain seeds of the sciences pre-exist in us, namely, the first conceptions of the intellect which are known right away by the light of the agent intellect through species abstracted from sensible things” (Thomas Aquinas: Selected Writings, Penguin Books., London 1998, p.198). The pre-existent seeds Thomas is referring to are those images which we passively receive by our senses and naturally actively abstract to some degree by way of our inherent agent intellect. Our agent intellect is created to function commensurately with our senses as it interacts with nature. The agent intellect is the active principle in our intellect that abstracts, or processes, all our sensory data, rendering them to our memories (passive intellect) for further consideration (if we want).

For an excellent introductory guide to Aquinas follow this link.

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Aquinas studies: if we cannot know the essence of God, how can there be a science of divine things?

The notion that there can be a science of divine things does not negate Thomas’ statements regarding how we are unable to know the essence of God. A science of divine things is possible so long as we are clear regarding what we actually can and cannot know, and how the science of divine things proceeds.

For an excellent introductory guide to Aquinas follow this link.

First of all, only God can know his own essence. In fact, he knows himself “through his essence” (Thomas Aquinas: Selected Writings, Penguin Books., London 1998. p. 116). In other words, only God can truly know himself, as it is his essence to do so. The science of divine things must proceed from this basic understanding, namely, we cannot essentially know God. This does not mean, however, that we cannot in any way come to know God (as we will see).

Secondly, in terms of human reason, according to Thomas we can approach knowledge of God referring to the fact of his existence (and not of what he is). This can be done in three ways: 1) observing his effects in creation; 2) understanding his causality of “more noble effects” which grants a “better display of his eminence”, and; 3) in a negative sense we understand more clearly how he transcends all things and defies definition (Thomas quotes Dionysius, “he is known as the cause, the excess and negation of all things” – (Aquinas, Selected Writings, p. 117).
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Aquinas’ view of the possible errors in ‘investigating’ God using natural reason

It is good and right to direct everything in our being towards God and union with him (including our intellects). However, errors are possible.

1) Presumption: in directing our intellect towards God we should not presume that we can comprehend God as we may be able to comprehend other aspects of creation (Thomas Aquinas, Thomas Aquinas Selected Writings, ed. by Ralph McInerny. Penguin Books: New York, 1998. p. 128).

For an excellent introductory guide to Aquinas follow this link.

2) Placing reason before faith in the directing of ourselves to God and to union with him. As God is incomprehensible to our intellects, and yet we are to direct everything towards him, we must “Begin by believing” (Aquinas, Selected Writings, p. 128). Believing is to hold something as real and true on the basis of what a knower tells us, so belief is the way we are able to transcend our intellects by receiving from God his self-revelation. This self-revelation is an outflow of God’s love towards us and thus the extent and form of his self-revelation is suited to our capacity. “Every creature is moved as to be made more and more like God insofar as it can be” (Aquinas, Selected Writings, p. 129). This movement happens through “infused faith” (Aquinas, Selected Writings, p. 131).
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Boethius’ description of Providence, Fate, and Fortune in Bk IV.

Lady Philosophy asks Boethius to “imagine a set of revolving concentric circles” in her effort to explain how Providence and Fate relate to one another. It is extraordinary how Boethius evokes a visual image to try and explain a deep and perennial mystery. The innermost circle is closest to “the simplicity of the centre” which is equated to the “high citadel of oneness” which is Providence or “Divine Reason.” Providence is also equated to the “Primary Intelligence.” Due to it being equated with Divine Reason, Providence does not itself orbit anything. It does not move. It is essentially the Unmoved Mover. The closer an orbit is to the simplicity of the centre, the more that thing which is the circle is freed from Fate (or “above the chain of Fate”). It seems to me this is essentially “rest”.
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Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy – The significance of Lady Philosophy’s appearance

When Lady Philosophy appears to Boethius, he has lost his mind to the passions in the midst of his suffering (“wandered away from yourself” pg. 16). Lady Philosophy stands over him. “Understand” is the Old English word used to translate intellectus but I like the association here. The only way to “become aware” of Lady Philosophy is with this proper stance of humility beneath her, looking up. Her “awe-inspiring appearance” echos Plato – “philosophy begins in wonder” (Plato, Theaetetus 155c-d). “Her eyes burning and keen beyond the usual power of men” indicates that the rational mind is that which is able to illumine and perceive the hidden essence of things, whereas the “usual power of men” is limited and generally content with the appearances of things. “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” points towards the notion of there being a “Perennial Philosophy”. Lady Philosophy embodies all that is best and timeless of human wisdom, and yet remains fresh and alive in every contemporary situation. As Copleston states at the beginning of his History of Philosophy series, “Philosophy, which is the work of the human spirit and not the revelation of God, grows and develops; fresh vistas may be opened up by new lines of approach or application to new problems, newly discovered facts, fresh situations, etc” (Copleston, History of Philosophy Vol 1pg 4). “It was difficult to be sure of her height, for sometimes she was of average human size, while at other times she seemed to touch the very sky…” Lady Philosophy, as she is “the work of the human spirit” will always be on some level familiar to us and reflective of us, however, human reason in the variety of Philosophers with their unique insights and gifts will always transcend any individual as the various insights are shared and received and as the mind approaches the intellectual and eternal realms. “Her clothes were made of imperishable material” indicates that once truth has been apprehended, it cannot be destroyed. However, this doesn’t mean that it is always appreciated or recollected (Boethius is himself an example of someone in whom Lady Philosophy had become obscured due to neglect). The embroidered “Pi” and “Theta” shows the value of both practical and contemplative Philosophy, but again the relation of one beneath the other must be noted. Practical philosophy must serve to raise our intellects towards that which transcends the merely physical and practical. “Her dress had been torn by the hands of marauders who had each carried off such pieces as he could get.” This is where I enter into Boethius’ work. There are those who grab at fragments of philosophy without comprehending or appreciating the whole. The danger, we see later (pgs 8, 63), is especially acute if such people think and act as though they have the whole of Philosophy on the basis of their little fragmentary wisdom. The books indicate the way we are able to engage the wisdom of the past. The sceptre indicates the authority of Wisdom over human life and affairs.