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

Obedience, Submission, and “Slave Morality”

According to Orlando Patterson, the Roman mime-writer Publilius Syrus wrote, “The height of misery is to live at another’s will” (Patterson, Slavery and Social Death, 77). In this statement, Publilius, a former slave from Syria, had in mind the lot of a Roman slave.

To the Roman mind, living “at another’s will,” in submission and obedience to another, was miserable not because the one obeyed was necessarily harsh or unkind, but because living in this way was itself dishonorable. In effect, the slave had no life of her own; her life was a mere expression of the master’s life. Her actions expressed the master’s desires, and her very existence was dependent on the master. As Patterson puts it, “The dishonor the slave was compelled to experience sprang…from that raw, human sense of debasement inherent in having no being except as an expression of another’s being” (78). In contrast, to be a Roman slaveholder, with others subjected to your will, contributed to one’s honor.

As Patterson notices (78), this Roman view of honor and dishonor is wrapped up in a picture of the good on which power is central. He quotes Friedrich Nietzsche: “What is good? Everything that heightens the feeling of power in man, the will to power, power itself. What is bad? Everything that is born of weakness. What is happiness? The feeling that power is growing, that resistance is overcome” (Nietzsche, The Antichrist). Anachronism aside, I suspect many Romans—slave and free alike—would have endorsed Nietzsche’s idea.

Of course, the Christian picture of the good could not be more different. Continue reading