Aquinas and the Infused Moral Virtues
228 Pages, 6.00 x 9.00 in
- Published: February 2024
- ISBN: 9780268201104
- Published: October 2021
- ISBN: 9780268201098
- Published: October 2021
- ISBN: 9780268201081
This study locates Aquinas’s theory of infused and acquired virtue in his foundational understanding of nature and grace.
Aquinas holds that all the virtues are bestowed on humans by God along with the gift of sanctifying grace. Since he also holds, with Aristotle, that we can create virtuous dispositions in ourselves through our own repeated good acts, a question arises: How are we to understand the relationship between the virtues God infuses at the moment of grace and virtues that are gradually acquired over time? In this important book, Angela McKay Knobel provides a detailed examination of Aquinas’s theory of infused moral virtue, with special attention to the question of how the infused and acquired moral virtues are related. Part 1 examines Aquinas’s own explicit remarks about the infused and acquired virtues and considers whether and to what extent a coherent “theory” of the relationship between the infused and acquired virtues can be found in Aquinas. Knobel argues that while Aquinas says almost nothing about how the infused and acquired virtues are related, he clearly does believe that the “structure” of the infused virtues mirrors that of the acquired in important ways. Part 2 uses that structure to evaluate existing interpretations of Aquinas and argues that no existing account adequately captures Aquinas’s most fundamental commitments. Knobel ultimately argues that the correct account lies somewhere between the two most commonly advocated theories. Written primarily for students and scholars of moral philosophy and theology, the book will also appeal to readers interested in understanding Aquinas’s theory of virtue.
1. The Structure of Natural Virtue
2. The Structure of Supernatural Virtue
3. Relating the Virtues: Aquinas’s Texts
4. Interpretive Options Part I: Coexistence
5. Interpretive Options Part II: Unification
6. A Proposal for a Way Forward
“Knobel provides what is now likely the best book available on virtue in Aquinas’s thought. Through meticulous engagement with Thomas’s text, she delineates the commonalities and discontinuities between the acquired and infused virtues and supplies a decisive intervention in recent debate on the relationship between them.” —William C. Mattison III, author of The Sermon on the Mount and Moral Theology
"Much ink has been spilled over the question of the relation between the acquired and the infused virtues in Aquinas’s thought. To this dense thicket of debate, Angela McKay Knobel brings admirable clarity, judicious attention to texts, and constructive imagination. Warmly recommended!" —Jennifer A. Herdt, author of Putting on Virtue
"A masterpiece of careful, insightful analysis and respectful but forthright critique...a major contribution to both Thomistic scholarship and virtue theory more generally." —Speculum
"The first substantial English monograph on Aquinas's account of the infused virtues in many years, and the most significant treatment of the issue since Gabriel Bullet." —The Review of Metaphysics
"Knobel’s book is a fine study of Aquinas’s theory of virtue that will be essential reading not only for scholars working in the field of Thomistic ethics, but for any moral theologian interested in reflecting on the dynamics of graced human action." —Journal of Moral Theology
"Knobel presents her case with an admirable rigour and clarity." —Theology
I have said that my goal in this book is to approach Aquinas’s theory of virtue by focusing on the broad structure of the account found in his own texts, and that I wish to abstract as far as possible from historical disputes about the proper interpretation of Aquinas, and especially from the detailed historical theories of the relationship between the infused and acquired virtues. There is one interpretive question, however, that has proven so divisive and created so much confusion that I feel that I must say something about it at the very outset of this enterprise. This is the debate over Aquinas’s view of the so-called “two-fold” end of man.
A few years ago, I attended a paper presented by a young graduate student at the annual conference of the American Catholic Philosophical Association. During the course of his presentation on Aquinas’s account of virtue, the student made a reference to man’s “natural end,” something for which he was roundly scolded in the question session by an eminent scholar. Everyone knows, the poor young man was told, that Aquinas thought we only have a single, supernatural end, and only very bad interpreters of Aquinas think otherwise. In different company, the young man’s reference to the “natural end” would have received the opposite response. A great many books over the course of a great many years have been written on this question, and anything I say here will necessarily be incomplete. However, I think it is necessary to say something about this debate, not only because it has proven so divisive, but also because some participants in this debate have insisted that one’s position on it will impact even the kind of interpretation that can be offered of Aquinas’s theory of virtue.
The debate over Aquinas’s view of the so called “two-fold” end of man concerns Aquinas’s claim that man has a “natural desire” for God. Does Aquinas mean that man by his very nature has a desire for something supernatural, namely the union with God and participation in the divine life that Christ promises? Or does Aquinas merely mean that man by his very nature desires to know and love God in the manner appropriate to his created, human nature?
Both answers can seem deeply problematic. On the one hand, Aquinas is committed, or at least seems to be committed, to the Aristotelian position that there is no natural desire without a corresponding capacity. In other words, to possess a natural desire for some kind of fulfillment is to possess the resources to satisfy that desire. If this is true, and if Aquinas also holds that man possesses a natural desire for supernatural union with God, then Pelagianism follows: we would be attributing to Aquinas a view he clearly did not hold, namely that heaven is ours for the taking; that we can achieve supernatural beatitude through our own efforts. On the other hand, if man does not naturally desire supernatural beatitude but only some variation of the kind of natural flourishing that Aristotle envisioned, then it is not clear why man would ever desire supernatural union with God in the first place: nature seems self-sufficient and excessively cut off from grace, so that there are disconnected “tiers” in the moral life.
Both sides of this debate often exaggerate and distort the claims of the other. For instance, “single-end” theorists do not actually hold that man’s natural desire for supernatural beatitude is of the same kind as those natural desires that man can actualize through his own efforts, and they do acknowledge that man has a natural fulfillment. They simply resist the notion that this natural fulfillment can accurately be characterized as a distinct end in its own right. Similarly, “two-end” theorists need not (and most do not) hold that human nature has no inherent ordering whatsoever to the divine, that the human has no more natural receptivity for the divine than Balam’s ass had for speech, or even that an individual who realized his natural fulfillment would have nothing more to desire. It is my own view that when the claims of the best representatives of both sides are sufficiently clarified and nuanced, the distance between them becomes vanishingly small. However, a full discussion of the merits of the respective views is outside the scope of the present examination. For present purposes, I merely wish to clarify the language I use in this book as it relates to or touches on this debate.
I assume in this book that Aquinas believes that (1) there is a fulfillment proportionate to our created human nature and (2) our created human nature provides us with the resources (albeit resources that are impeded by original sin) to pursue that fulfillment. Simply for ease of reference and not because I wish to take a “side” on the debate over man’s two-fold end, I may sometimes refer to the good proportionate to human nature as man’s “natural end,” though I will more commonly refer to it as man’s “natural good” or “natural fulfillment.” I in no way intend the terms “end” or “fulfillment” to be taken literally: I have no intention of implying that the attainment of any natural good would fully satisfy human desire.
Finally, although I will assume that Aquinas does recognize a good proportionate to human nature and although I have views about the most plausible account of that good, I also will not engage in speculation about what Aquinas thought the good proportionate to human nature was, and I will not enter into any of the debates that surround this question. I will not do so for a very simple reason: I do not believe it is necessary to settle this question in order to offer a clear treatment of Aquinas’s account virtue.