Aquinas on the Virtues: Wisdom

Wisdom

Image credit: “Information is not Wisdom” | Big Think

The book of Proverbs tells us, “Wisdom cries out in the street; in the squares she raises her voice” (1:20). She cries out that people might heed her teachings and thereby find security and avoid disaster. But, what exactly is wisdom?

I will try to answer that question, here, from the perspective of Thomas Aquinas, one of the great teachers of the church. This is the second in a series of posts about Aquinas’s view of the virtues. If you would like to read from the beginning, last time I started the series with a discussion of the intellectual virtue of understanding.

It will be helpful to start by distinguishing clearly between the ideas of a “means” and an “end.” The “end” of an action is simply the thing that you are going for when you do something—the aim, purpose, or goal for the sake of which you act. The “means” is the thing you do in order to realize the end. The means is often simply the action itself.

For example, in one of my favorite lines of philosophy, Aristotle states, “taking a walk is for the sake of evacuation of the bowels” (Physics, Book II, Part 6). Continue reading

Aquinas on the Virtues: Understanding

Understanding

Image credit: The Clinton Street Theater

Today I begin a series of posts on Thomas Aquinas’s view of the virtues. Most of my focus in this series will be on what are often called the “cardinal” virtues—wisdom (or “prudence”), justice, courage, and temperance—and the “theological” virtues—faith, hope, and love (or “charity”). However, in order for that discussion to make sense, I need to begin with the virtue of understanding.

Understanding is what Aquinas calls an “intellectual” virtue, i.e., an excellent quality of the thinking part of our minds that allows us to think or reason well in a particular sense. As Aquinas puts it, understanding allows us to grasp “self-evident principles both in speculative and in practical matters” (Summa Theologica I-II, Question 58, Article 4). This dense statement needs some unpacking. Continue reading

Death and Glory on the Mountaintop

If I’m perfectly honest, I want glory. I want my gifts to be reflected far and wide. I want my accomplishments to be honored by many people. I want to be known and praised for doing great things.

These desires have a natural and appropriate root. Human beings are social creatures. Part of what that means is that we want to be acknowledged by others, and being honored for good things we’ve done is an important part of that acknowledgement. If I wash the dishes, it is good and right for my family to thank and perhaps even praise me. If my friend accomplishes something extraordinary, it is good and right to celebrate the accomplishment and shine a light on it for others to see.

The trouble is, despite this honest root, my desire for glory tends to bloom in distorted ways. Continue reading