An Interview with Angela McKay Knobel, author of “Aquinas and the Infused Moral Virtues”

Angela McKay Knobel is an associate professor of philosophy at the University of Dallas. This October, the University of Notre Dame Press published her newest book, Aquinas and the Infused Moral Virtues, which William C. Mattison III has called, “what is now likely the best book available on virtue in Aquinas’s thought.” Professor Knobel recently answered some of our questions about her research and writing processes. She also spoke about how this book can help to re-center the conversation about what it means to be a Catholic in the world today.

When did you first get the idea to write this book? 

I have in some sense been writing this book for my entire academic career. I completed my Ph.D. dissertation on the infused moral virtues in Aquinas in 2004. A few years later (in 2007), the acquisitions editor at Notre Dame Press, who had seen it footnoted in another manuscript, invited me to submit a revised version of my dissertation for publication. 

This book is not that revised dissertation, mostly because in the process of revising my dissertation, I changed my mind: not just about what I thought Aquinas thought, but also about what I thought. Over the years, as I published papers and discussed Aquinas with students and peers, I gradually clarified my views about both. This book is the result. 

Angela McKay Knobel

What can readers find in Aquinas and the Infused Moral Virtues that will resonate with them during this era? 

This is an academic book on Thomas Aquinas, so it does not address the conflicts of our time directly. But there is a great deal of conversation right now about Catholicism:  about what it means to be a Catholic and be in the world, and about what Catholics believe about grace and particularly about how what we believe ought to manifest itself in our actions. 

This book advances a claim about the Christian moral life in general and Catholicism in particular, namely that growth in the Christian moral life consists in developing a relationship with God, and that that development is itself a gift from God. It also argues that growth is of necessity gradual; not something that is present all at once in anyone who believes, but something that occurs slowly. My thesis is not going to settle any debates about, say, eucharistic coherence, but I do think it can help to re-center the conversation. 

How did you research this book? 

Everyone writes and researches differently. For me the hardest part of research is figuring out what I think the questions are. That sounds counter-intuitive, because at some level the question of this book seems obvious: how are the infused and acquired virtues related? But to really get to the heart of that question, you have to re-examine what Aquinas thinks habits are, and what he thinks grace is, and how he thinks grace transforms our nature. Even beyond that, you have to figure out what is at stake, so to speak, in different ways of answering the question. So much of the “research” for this book really consisted in trying to figure out two things: (1) how Aquinas thinks virtue “works,” so to speak, and (2) what assumptions about Aquinas are operative in various interpretations of him.  

What did you learn while writing it? 

Patience. I am used to getting things done quickly, and there was nothing quick about the writing of this book. There are some things that you cannot both do quickly and do to your own satisfaction, and this was one of them. I started over a lot. I had to learn to be patient with myself. 

In what way is the book you wrote different from the book you set out to write?

When I first started what turned out to be this book, way back in grad school, I had an agenda. I had a neat idea—that the whole second part of Aquinas’s summa was really about infused virtue. After a while—after a few years, actually—I realized that I was trying to force the text to fit my neat idea instead of simply being open to the text itself. And I realized that I might disagree with Aquinas. Those combined realizations were liberating. 

Who is the biggest influence on you and your work? 

This is a difficult question to answer. I’m not sure there’s a single individual I could name. But there’s a kind of scholarship that I admire and that I consider a kind of model for what I do: a kind of scholarship that is informed, attentive to texts and tradition, but also not weighed down by it; a scholarship that can be fair and evenhanded, even to those one disagrees with. That is the standard I have tried to live up to in this book. 

What is your writing schedule like? 

When you have small children it’s hard to get serious thinking done while they’re awake. So I get up at 5am, two hours before anyone else in my house is awake, and that’s my writing time. During the rest of the day I research or do other work, but that time before anyone else gets up is sacred. 

What advice would you give to a writer who wants to start a book? 

Don’t try to write a whole book all at once. Try to break your project down into as many small parts as possible, and then tackle one part at a time. 

Who would you like to read Aquinas and the Infused Moral Virtues and why? 

I think this book will be helpful for anyone who wants to understand Aquinas’s moral theory and the place of virtue in it. Given the technical nature of some of the discussion, this book will be most helpful for students of Catholic moral philosophy and theology, students of Aquinas, and seminarians. But I think that lay Catholics who want to better understand their faith could also gain a lot from reading it.  

What book are you working on next? 

The next book I hope to write is very different from this one. It will be a short book about abortion: not the typical us vs. them book, but a book about the way we ought to be challenged internally by the views about abortion we already hold. It’s not about our political views so much as about our other attitudes, feelings and reactions and how they can and sometimes conflict with the views we claim to hold.

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