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Aquinas on love

A introductory note on the Summa Theologica and on Thomas's method 

            The major work of Thomas Aquinas (1225?- 1274) is the Summa Theologica (sometimes Summa Theologiae)—the summation of theology.  It is in three parts: the first part (prima pars), the second part (which is divided into two—the first part of the second part (prima secundae 1a 2ae) and the second part of the second part (secunda secundae, 2a 2ae), and the third part (tertia pars).  We will be working in the prima secundae and secunda secundae. This Summa can be found online here: http://www.newadvent.org/summa/ 

            Thomas follows a pattern of inquiry that in some ways is a model for philosophy.

            First, he organizes all the relevant topics and puts them into a reasonable order.

Next, he breaks down each important question into several articles—each of which deals with a particular question that can be answered precisely.  And he begins each article by stating that precise question.

Next, he gathers from the full range of tradition (ancient Greek philosophy, the Bible, Jewish, Christian, and Muslim philosophers and theologians) all the objections to his own position, and he clearly states them.

Then, ”on the contrary,” he brings up a quotation that turns into the direction of his own reply.

Then, “I answer that,” he gives his own answer.

Finally, he shows (if it is needed) how his answer furnishes an adequate basis for answering the questions.

This is a powerful discipline of inquiry that most people, including philosophers, neglect to cultivate.  One of the reasons for having you read this is to review Aristotle, to see how he may be summarized and re-presented, as well as to expose you to some spiritual teachings relevant to ethics presented in an academically rigorous manner.


In the Summa Theologica (supplemented by Disputed Questions on Charity), Thomas presents faith, hope, and love as a participation in divinity--a way of sharing in the nature of God, a way of living the divine life as human beings on earth.[v]  

We will be exploring Thomas's ideas that love is (1) divinely “infused” into the soul by God and (2) the integrating and capstone virtue in the entire system of virtues (taking the place, in that respect, of Aristotle’s practical wisdom/prudence.

As always in our philosophical readings, the motto is “Do your best, and don’t worry about the rest.”  Come to class prepared with comments and questions.


            For class purposes, helpful passages are to be found in the prima secundae, questions 61, 62, and 65: http://www.newadvent.org/summa/2065.htmNote: you do not have to answer any questions yourself in order to do this assignment; Thomas answers them.

            Remember that Thomas is organizing, and adding to, Aristotle.  Here are some vocabulary reminders.  “Prudence” is the word for phronesis—practical wisdom.  “Concupiscence” is the word for self-centered desire.  “Fortitude” is the word for courage.  “Charity” is the word for agape love (the divine or Godlike love of God and the neighbor).


            Note: on the topic of hope, I draw on my draft chapter on scientific living to portray hope for eternal life (via a critique of pessimistic "scientific" cosmology), hope for integration of mind, body, and spirit (using reflections on biology), hope for personal growth (drawing on positive psychology), and hope for a wonderful destiny for human history (drawing on Hebrew prophets, Immanuel Kant, and Pitirim Sorokin).


Thomas on the virtues

            Thomas Aquinas kept Aristotle’s layers of moral and intellectual virtues and added a third layer, the "theological" virtues of faith, hope, and love.

            A virtue grows as the will becomes reliable, choosing well in a particular type of situation.  Where there is virtue, according to Thomas, one pursues the good “voluntarily, readily, with delight, and firmly.”[ii]

            Cardinal virtues (prudence (practical wisdom), justice, fortitude (courage), temperance) signify “general conditions of soul found in all the virtues.”  There is an “overflowing of one to the other.”  For example, each virtue, as a habit, requires fortitude to attain firmness.[iii] 

            Virtues have two modes: growing and perfect, and in the second way they can be regarded as patterns or exemplars, divine qualities, as they exist in God.  Only in their imperfect form can one virtue be had without the others.[iv]   This analysis is expanded in 1a 2a3, Question 61, Article 5, discussing the cardinal virtues of prudence, justice, temperance, and fortitude.  Here are the main points.

(1)  In the first sense, these virtues are "political" [social] in the sense that we properly conduct ourselves in society by means of these virtues.

(2) In the second sense, for wayfarers on the journey to divine virtue, these are purifying virtues.

(3) In the fourth sense, for those who attain true excellence of character in this life, they are perfect virtues in that they are exercised with no contrary emotion or appetite or inclination.

(4) In the highest sense, these virtues are patterns ("exemplars") that pre-exist in God. 


Question 62, article 1, teaches that there is a transcendent happiness that we can attain by becoming "partakers of the divine nature."  In other words, there is a limited but important sense in which humans can live divinely, can live in a God-like way.  God infuses "principles" (not propositions to be believed but powers) in us so that our reason and will are ordered to God.  Thomas uses a metaphor: "As ignited wood participates in the nature of fire . . . man partakes of the divine nature . . . ."  1a 2ae, Question 62, Art. 2, on the Theological Virtues, reply to 1.


Question 65, article 5.  It takes faith and hope to live in intimate friendship with God.  God and the believer each live within the other.  "Love (caritas, charity) signifies not only love (amor) of God, but also a kind of friendship with him, which adds besides love a returning of love for love along with a certain communing of one with another.  That this pertains to love is evident from what is said: "He who abides in love abides in God and God in him" (1 John 4.16) . . . .  Now this fellowship of humankind with God, which is a kind of intimate living with him, is begun by grace in the present and is perfected in the future through glory--as faith and hope maintain."

Thomas on faith (ST 2a2ae Q 1-7)
            Faith is a gift from God.  That is what is meant by its being "infused."  Nevertheless, the gift must be received.  "The act of believing is an act of the intellect assenting to Divine truth at the command of the will moved by the grace of God."  Furthermore, it is necessary to act on faith, to live the truth.  Genuine faith is living faith, which goes beyond mere intellectual belief (Q4, art.4).
            [Comment by JHW: one way in which the gift of faith occurs is that the Spirit of Truth enables the individual intuit spiritual truth when it is presented to the mind.] 
           Faith in its simplicity is a relation to God.  Even though we do not conceive God with perfect clarity (since what faith presents is above the intellect), true faith has no doubt and no fear (Q 2.1).  (Servile fear of punishment is an effect of lifeless faith, though filial fear as a son or daughter of God is regarding separation from all that is wonderful in the divine life [Q7]).
        Faith in its complexity is faith in particular truths.
        [Comment by JHW: Human beings have a tendency to take high truths and to formulate them in static propositions and teach that others must believe them, e.g., in order to be saved.  When a person runs into an offensive doctrine, there are two possibilities.  The first possibility is that the person has not yet matured in order to be able to understand the truth in question.  The second possibility is that the doctrine is false and inconsistent with the good God of simple and living faith--a relation of trust and love.]
        "Faith is a habit of the mind, whereby eternal life is begun in us, making the intellect assent to what is non-apparent" (Q 4.1)
        Over time, faith grows to become more intellectually certain and firm, and the will becomes more prompt, devoted, and confident.
Thomas on love

           Thomas's argues that (1) love is the crowning virtue in the system of virtues and (2) love is infused in us by God.  When love comes to dominate the character, the whole system of developing virtues, one becomes capable of stronger things.  For example, love motivates one to overcome when external obstacles cause difficulty, remove joy, and give the impression of unsteady achievement.[i] 

Love, caritas (charity) is the mother and root of the virtues as their source, though as their culmination it is the last to come to fruition.  Love comes to permeate lower virtues.[vi]  As character reaches completion, love progressively motivates and illumines the practice of every act of courage, self-mastery, justice, diverse social virtues, and every exercise of intellectual and technical excellence.

The ideas about love fit into an interpretation of God and creation.  God is infinite and eternally perfect.  His will is expressed in his love of us all, a love which ever seeks to enable us to participate in his goodness.  In fact, God’s love creates goodness in us.

Love infuses joy in the will.  “The soul’s joy, flowing over into the body, fills it with happiness in the form of health and incorruptible vigor.”[vii]  He infuses love in us as a gift; and that gift, or grace, is a foretaste of glory.

God’s love descends to us, and our created intellect, with all its limitations, rises toward God.  We love God as the root of our happiness.  We can love God wholeheartedly.  Love brings us toward union with God, a union that we can feel now, though the feeling is not a sign that we are God. 

Our response to this God’s love is voluntary; it is an act of will, so we are not a mere channel for God’s self-expression.

Love is friendship with God, which enables us live with him intimately as a member of his society.

We begin by grace in the present and look forward in faith and hope to future glory in the perfect love of God.  Our love becomes more perfect as we eliminate everything in our affections that is contrary to our love of God.  As our love grows, it becomes more intense, more deeply rooted in us, and it embraces more and more in its compass. 

In the circuit of love that embraces another human being, the scope of our love increasingly expands.  We move toward identifying with the good of all things.

Love is fulfilled in a participation in the social life of God, whose love communicates itself to every being who may possibly share in that intelligent and intelligence-transcending love.  Love in its fullness enables us to love our neighbors, near and far.  Sometimes love overcomes evil with good and warms an enemy.

[i] Thomas, ST, 1a2ae 65.3

[ii] Article 2, response, in Saint Thomas Aquinas, On Charity (De Caritate) trans. Lottie H. Kenderierski (Milwaukee, Wisconsin: Marquette University Press, 1993), p. 28.

[iii] Thomas, Summa Theologica—hereafter, ST—Ia IIae, 61.4.

[iv] Thomas, ST, Ia IIae, 65.

[v] Thomas, ST, 1a 2ae 62.

[vi] Thomas, ST, Ia 2ae 65.3

[vii] Thomas, ST, Ia IIae 59.5 (cf. 2a2ae 23.2); 2a2ae 23.3; and 2a2ae 25.5.  Referring to "incorruptible health," Thomas here speaks about a kind of health that appears to be distinct from the health of the body.  Nevertheless, there is a legitimate claim about the benefits of well-balanced spiritual experience as a tonic for health.