June 12, 2006

How I spent my summer vacation X

Thomas Aquinas, Summa contra gentiles I, ch 1-15, 21-2, 28-35

The introductory chapters to this Summa make it sound like a manual of apologetics: Aquinas talks about using reason to argue against pagans and Muslims. But the actual content, especially in our selection, seems to be Christian rationalist theology (that is, rationalist and a priori reconstructions of aspects of Christian doctrine). We start off with the existence of God, and then in the later chapters Aquinas criticizes Maimonides' negative theology.

The argument for the existence of God is straight out of Aristotle's Metaphysics: God, the first cause and unmoved mover, must exist so that no causal chain suffers an infinite regress. As a prelude, Aquinas criticizes Anselm's ontological argument, arguing that the reductio step only works if we assume that than which nothing greater can be thought exists -- without this presupposition, he says, there is no contradiction.

Aquinas' answer to negative theology is a theory of analogy. God has all perfections, but as effects of actions rather than of essence; creatures have these perfections by analogy with God. For example, a human is said to be good, but of course (from the Christian perspective), pales in comparison with God's goodness: the human has these perfections only by analogy to God. But we know divine goodness only as divine effect rather than divine essence, and we know it only after we know mortal goodness. Thus, God is metaphysically prior but epistemically posterior. Furthermore, this does not contradict simplicity because God's power (which is identical with God's essence and existence) is the one underlying cause of all the diverse effects we come to know in this life; Aquinas compares it to the sun's light, heat, and power to dry wet things, which are all due to one underlying power, and which fire possesses by analogy with it.

Aquinas, Treatise on happiness (Summa theologiae I-II) q. 1-5

This selection covers much the same ground Augustine did in the reading from City of God, and reaches much the same conclusions. Aquinas, however, proceeds much more systematically, and without going off on long tangents about how much this life sucks. Like the rest of the Summa theologiae, it consists of a series of 'questions', which in turn are subdivided into 'articles'. The articles themselves are highly structured, and Aquinas' method is essentially refutation (though sometimes this makes the presentation awkward): several objections to his position are given, then he presents his own, general refutation, and finishes by applying it to those particular objections.

All five of these questions deal with happiness, in the sense of Aristotle's eudaimonia. The first question argues that there is one, definite 'ultimate end' for humans, 'the most complete good'. The second explores a number of possibilities for this good, including wealth, fame, power, and pleasure; eventually, Aquinas argues that it cannot consist in any 'created good', meaning humans can only enjoy happiness by God's grace, and that this happiness must, in fact, be God's grace. This is explored further, and at the end of question three Aquinas argues that true happiness can be nothing other than 'vision' of the 'divine essence' -- a full and complete knowledge of God that amounts to some sort of intellectual union with God. All other goods are, at best, bad approximations of this one true and complete good. Naturally, details about what exactly this is are a little vague. Questions four and five both deal with the conditions by which this happiness is achieved by humans -- moral rectitude is required, but our fallible, physical body must be replaced by a perfect, eternal, spiritual one, etc.

Aquinas, Treatise on the virtues, (Summa theologiae I-II) q. 55-8

This section of ST is an appropriation of Aristotle's theory of virtues from book 6 of the Nicomachean ethics. This forms an important historical contrast with the treatise on happiness: with its notion of the highest good and ultimate end as superphysical contemplation of the Good (played by God), Happiness was, essentially, Platonic. Virtues, by contrast, is essentially Aristotelean. Today, few philosophers think of Plato and Aristotle as anything other than mutual antagonists; but Aquinas seems to have seen deep compatibilities between the two most famous Ancient philosophers and Mediaeval Christianity.

Aquinas begins by discussing the essence of virtue as a meritorious habit. Virtue is a habit, rather than one particular action, because it covers many individual actions; and, as a habit, virtue is uniquely meritorious because it is the principle by which we act meritoriously. Question 56 concerns the 'subject of virtue', by which Aquinas means those aspects of the soul which can be considered virtuous (or not, of course). These include the intellect, will, and 'irascible and concupiscible powers' -- powers by which we seek out sources of pleasure and avoid sources of discomfort -- but not 'sense knowing', which seems to be the sort of unsystematized empirical knowledge we have about our surroundings. Virtues of the intellect are called, simply, intellectual virtues, while virtues of the irascible and concupiscible powers (known more simply as the appetites) are moral virtues (the good will is considered a moral virtue). An important equivocation in 'virtue' is clarified here: habits may either merely enable or actually compel us to act virtuously.

This distinction is important because it allows us to distinguish two general families of intellectual virtues. On the one hand is phronesis, which is the virtue of the practical intellect; this is a virtue that compels us to virtuous action. On the other hand, there are three virtues of the speculative intellect -- science, understanding, and wisdom -- none of which compel us to virtuous action, but do enable the good of intellectual contemplation. The order of science, understanding, and wisdom reflects an epistemological hierarchy based on the distinctions outlined in Aristotle's Categories: science is the most specific, while wisdom is the most general knowledge of fundamental metaphysical principles that serves to organize its subdisciplines. Art -- by which Aquinas means both craftwork and the liberal arts -- also has its own sort of intellectual virtue, which is distinguished from phronesis in that art concerns the manufacture of externals (loosely speaking, in the case of manufacturing a mathematical proof), while phronesis concerns one's internal character.

The last question in the assigned reading covers the relationship between the moral and intellectual virtues. While fundamentally distinct, Aquinas argues that the two families are interdependent. First, moral virtue requires that the virtuous action be 'present with' right reason -- that is, it is not enough that I have the outward appearance of behaving virtuously, or that I'm acting the same way as a virtuous exemplar; to be virtuous is to know that the principle for one's actions is virtue itself. (Kant will make a similar point in the second section of the Groundwork.) Then, most of the intellectual virtues are independent of the moral ones (you don't need a good will to be good at math), but phronesis is not. The moral virtues are all concerned with reason being able to control and direct the appetites -- Aquinas uses metaphors of a blacksmith's tools and a driver controlling horses. Without this control, temptation will simply overwhelm any attempts at exercising phronesis.

Aquinas, On being and essence, ch 1-3

This piece, which I only have in excerpts, seems to be the discussion of Aquinas' theory of universals for this reading list. The most notable feature is that Aquinas argues both matter and form must be taken as the essence of a particular individual -- as discussed in the capsule of the Physics, Aristotle argued that only form was an individual's essence. Aquinas' argument is quite straightforward: "essence is what is signified through the definition of a thing, but the definition of natural substances does not contain form alone, but also matter". Chapter 3 discusses determination, individuation, and differentiation of species from genus. Not being extraordinarily familiar with either Aquinas or the mediaeval debates over universals, I find this text quite opaque, but the idea seems to be that matter ('signate matter' in the case of individuals, some other sort of matter in the case of species) individuates/differentiates but does not 'signify' anything above and beyond what is in the higher conceptual orders. That is, Socrates' matter serves to individuate him, but his being human signifies everything about him; similarly, the genus animal signifies everything about the species human, as well as the species donkey, the species dolphin, and so on, while these species are individuated by some non-signated matter. Really, I have no clue.

Total pages read: 945 (Just over 1/3 done! Whoot!)

Interesting philosophical link: Trying to define 'racial essentialism'

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