Virtues of War – Aquinas

virtuesofwar_thomasThomas Aquinas was a 13th century Christian theologian and moral philosopher. Aquinas refers to the region of his birth, Aquino, not his family name. Noteworthy for our purposes is that each of his brothers became soldiers of some type, taking after their father. Thomas was the youngest and chose a different path. His family was embarrassed by his desire to join a new monastic order of preachers, the Dominicans, because of their life of poverty. His own brothers kidnapped him and held him in detention in a family castle for over a year. One story has them hiring a prostitute to tempt him away from a religious life, but he chased the woman away with a fire iron. His fellow Dominicans called him “The Dumb Ox” because he was large and quiet (“dumb” historically referred to muteness). One story circulated about him describes how his desk even had a slight curvature carved into to accommodate his size and shape.

069_thomas-summaThe Summa Theologica, or summary of theology, was an entire genre in medieval Europe. A “summa” was a textbook for theology students, which is to say Catholic priests in training. This was before universities really took any recognizable shape, and formal training often assumed a Christian form (convents, monasteries, etc.) Thomas modeled his summa after this type, but as lengthy as his was, it was never actually completed. In 1273, in the middle of writing a third part, he had an unexplained experience which caused him to cease writing altogether. When asked why he quit, Thomas replied “all that I have written seems like straw to me.” He died four months later. His writings, particularly those that make up his summa, have been unmatched in their influence upon Christian theology, and moral philosophy, and the Roman Catholic Church counts him as primary among “Doctors of the Church.”

In terms of the virtues, Aquinas assumes the account given by Aristotle, to whom he refers simply as The Philosopher, without much revision.

Intellectual virtues perfect the aptness for reliably producing goods, either Truth (in the case of speculative intellectual virtues) or things (in the case of practical intellectual virtues). Each practical intellectual virtue, prudence and art, must be passed down person to person; to be practically knowledgeable about pitching, for example, you must learn from a pitcher. The Greeks called the speculative intellectual virtues “First Principles,” including understanding, science, and wisdom, because they was accessible to anyone, even slaves and women (which were thought of as rational non-persons). Speculative intellectual virtues only needed to be awakened in a person (like 1+1=2), and maybe policed as subsequent conclusions were drawn (2+2≠5). Because they can be misused, intellectual virtues fall short of the full sense of virtue. For example, an artist can be excellent at their craft, but purposely make bad art (maybe Picasso serves as an example of this for some readers). The exception to this mis-usability is Prudence, which also serves as a moral virtue.


Moral virtues cannot be misused and are therefore virtues as such; they cannot but make a person good. According to Aquinas, trying to answer for the fundamental difference between Christian and pagan epistemological commitments, they can be ‘acquired’ by anybody at all, but they can also be ‘infused’ by God into righteous persons. This allows him to claim pagans like Aristotle as something like proto-Christians (what others of his era called “virtuous pagans”); those who would be Christians had they been born during the Common Era. Acquired moral virtues perfect genuine worldly happiness, and he insisted that non-Christians can genuinely achieve happiness, the highest human good on earth. Infused virtues, however, perfect supernatural happiness via supernatural ends, similar to the theological virtues. Thomas affirms Cicero’s list, citing the same four cardinal virtues the Roman world subscribed to, rather than the lengthier and more diverse Aristotelian list the Greeks propagated.


Theological virtues are unique to Thomas, at least in terms of the history we’ve traced in this course. There are three, modeled on Paul’s admonition in 1 Corinthians 13, the (in?)famous wedding verse. The scriptural element is critical, for it is referencing those things which will remain after “the end” (telos), the final consummation of justice that Christ will accomplish upon his second coming. Paul exhorts the church in Corinth to remember that what we see before us, the sensory world we inhabit and which we usually think of as real, is in fact passing away; “for now we see in a mirror, dimly… Now I know only in part; then [we Christ’s perfection arrives] I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.” (v.12, NRSV) All we thought we knew will pass away, all except for faith, hope, and love. And the greatest of these is love. As individual theological virtues, they regard perfect happiness; their practice moves a subject closer to their supernatural telos, a perfect end only possible by God’s intervention, assistance, and final consummation.


MacIntyre on Aquinas

Although the heroic era and its cultures were centuries apart from 13th century Italy, MacIntyre is quick to remind us that there were remnants of heroic societies in Celtic, Germanic, and Anglo-Saxon cultures, whose “social forms and poetry… were Christianized so that the pagan warrior king could emerge as the Christian knight, remarkably unchanged.” For that reason, “the medieval order cannot reject the heroic table of the virtues.” (166) We might explore next week if the competitive nature of the heroic virtues played a part in the use of virtue to justify Christian knights going off to fight in the crusades…

The ‘rediscovery of classical texts’ MacIntyre alludes to was mentioned last week, as Cicero saw a huge resurgence during this time. The medieval era is undoubtedly the crux of his dystopian catastrophe, when a heavily “Christianized” Western Europe rediscovered its own philosophical story, in Homer, Aristotle, Cicero, and Virgil. Culture had to confront new assumptions and ideas about human freedom and common goods, which had become co-opted by Roman Catholicism. Nearly all forms of intelligent thought assumed a Christian structure, which had become corrupted by power, wealth, and status after Constantine I legalized the religion in the 4th century and it quickly became the de facto religion of the empire. The penetrative intercourse between church and state fermented for many centuries until the Pope held more power than any king, and often acted accordingly.

Thomas, like Sophocles before him, illustrates a moral inconsistency between structures and institutions of power and the cultural reality within which that power operates. Put another way, he filled a void left between what was preached about being good (which also implied obedience to the Pope) and what was practiced by those claiming to be good.  The recovery of Greek and Latin literature and culture, including the virtues, was what MacIntyre had in mind when he described the post-apocalyptic attempts to piece the natural sciences back together, only in reality it was moral philosophy which had lost its roots. Writing Leviathan 1651, the subtitle of which was The Matter, Forme and Power of a Common Wealth Ecclesiasticall and Civil, Hobbes (not a defender of democratic or republican forms of government) remarked, perhaps lamentably, that “the failing of Vertue in the Pastors, maketh Faith faile in the People: and partly from bringing of the Philosophy, and doctrine of Aristotle into Religion.” (Leviathan, part I, ch.12; page 95. Paraphrased in After Virtue, 165) It was his work which asserted the absolute power of an autocratic ruler, the leviathan, which combined the ecclesiastical power of the Pope with the political power of the King. The first pages of Hobbes book make the connection to the beast of the bible explicit, citing Job 41. “There is no power on earth to be compared to him.” It isn’t clear if Hobbes was aware that the same beast is killed by God in Psalm 74:14 and Isaiah 27:1. In Aquinas’ time, “Leviathan” was synonymous with the devil, and often represented Greed, one of the seven deadly sins.

Philoctetes’ return and the changing meaning of isolation

Remember that, for Aristotle’s Athens, isolation was a fundamental violation of friendship, but not for Homer. MacIntyre revisits Philoctetes and places him in the same meaningful social space as “the solitary anchorite or the shepherd on the remote mountain side.” This is important because even expulsion, voluntary or not, from a community still assumes a social role. Insofar as their meaning is assigned by a community, even the exile is a functional social role. “The individual carries [their] communal roles with [them] as part of the definition of [their] self, even into [their] isolation.” (173) Even if serving primarily as a means of enforcement, that role may be revised and augmented via counterstories. The Monastic Hermit, a character known for fleeing the urban centers of third century Rome, is a perfect example of assigning positive moral substance to a formerly derogatory social space.

Antony, perhaps the most famous early eremitic monk, inspired many after him, including St Augustine of Hippo. Early monasticism, from which Thomas’ Dominican order descended, signified an attempt at dealing with the moral incoherence of the church becoming increasingly invested in secular power and status. We may think of this impulse, of voluntary exclusion and rejection of wealth, as a kind of counterstory. If so, then it might complicate Lindemann’s account, for Christians were by no means being marginalized by dominant narratives; they were writing them; ruling over civil cases in basilicas, advising emperors, and inheriting large swaths of land. The time of persecution had ended, and the age of the martyrs had passed. That story was contested by the early monastics, who interpreted the legalization of Christianity as a tragedy. To understand why, let’s look at what, for the early church, constituted the highest good, which was martyrdom.

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