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As a person looks back at their life, a common concern is the legacy they leave in this world. Most people posses an earnest desire to make a difference in the world. Before any contribution can be made, be it great or small, it is important to understand one’s own worldview. After constructing a coherent framework about the “basic makeup of this world” (James 16), it is possible to build on this foundation to create new ideas. In his work The Human Good, Thomas Aquinas is able to share his views on this world and thereby make valuable theological contributions to this world.
Aquinas was born in Roccasecca, a town in southern Rome, and lived from 1225 to 1274 (Aquinas 145). Prominent thoughts during this medieval era included those of Augustine and Aristotle. Born into this critical time, Aquinas attempts to “reconcile the teachings of . . . Aristotle with Christian doctrine or Reason with Faith” (Aquinas 145). Aquinas is renowned as the “greatest theologian of the medieval Catholic church” and a “representative of scholasticism” (Aquinas 145). As the son of a nobleman, he was educated at the University of Naples and became a member of the Dominican Order of Preachers. After finishing his education, Aquinas spent most of his life “teaching at Dominican study houses and universities in France and Italy” (Aquinas 145).
In The Human Good, Aquinas reveals his views on what a human being is, and how humans know what is right and wrong. Although these are two separate questions, examining the nature of a human being leads to examining how they are able to know what is good. In light of the first question, Aquinas uses passages from the Psalms to answer, “God . . . from the abundance of his perfection, grants being to all existing things” (Aquinas 145).
Aquinas describes humans as created beings that “have intelligence and bear his likeness and represent his image” (Aquinas 146). Along with being created in God’s image, Aquinas also implies humans have a personal relationship with their creator when he says, “God will not forget his people” (Aquinas 147). Finally, Aquinas states that intelligent creatures have free will, or are capable of directing their own actions.
Since humans can deviate away from God’s will, Aquinas also refers to humans as “corruptible beings” (Aquinas 147). This by no means implies that humans have equality with God. Despite the fact that humans can direct their own actions, they are still under the rule of the first creator. Aquinas puts a lot of effort into justifying why humans and all other created objects do, in fact, act towards an end. Although this may seem like an obvious principle, Aquinas views it as a fundamental issue, which must be proved. This issue is important because, an ordered universe acting towards an end implies it was “voluntarily produced by an agent” (Aquinas 146).
In order to prove that all things do tend towards an end, Aquinas says that if agents did not tend toward any particular end, actions would extend to infinity. Philosophically, this is not possible because this requires “an infinity of antecedents” (Aquinas 148). Since this world, including humans, are finite; an infinity of actions is not possible. This proves that “there must be something which, when had, brings the activity of the agent to rest” (Aquinas 148). After this fact is established, another premise regarding humans can be added.
Humans, as intelligent beings, act by “preconceiving that which they pursue by their actions” (Aquinas 148). This is unlike natural agents, which have no concept of the end they are approaching. This implies that by knowing or having the ability to aim for an end, humans can change their end. Author Jean Porter comments that the human will, “unlike animal impulses, is never oriented by natural necessity toward any particular finite good” (Porter 71). Since humans do not have a set path to follow to their end, a big portion of a person’s life is spent in trying to determine their own end. Next, Aquinas goes on to prove that regardless of what end humans chose, it is for the sake of good.
First of all, since humans tend toward some end, its logical to say that this end, whatever it may be, is towards something that is beneficial. From what can be observed, intelligent agents will flee “anything they apprehend as evil” (Aquinas 150), and to flee evil is to seek good. In other words, all humans seek to perfect themselves, or seek happiness by improving.
Stating that every human acts for the sake of good may seem useless when considering that the definition of goodness is defined by the individual. Aquinas himself gives examples of goods around which people structure their lives: “riches, honor, physical pleasure, and so on” (Porter 77). However, establishing that every human being tends toward what is good provides more room to proceed. The next task would be to acquire a “correct concept of the human good” (Porter 72). Once there exists an ultimate good, there also exists a standard by which a human can tell if he or she is are headed towards the good end.
The existence of many ideas of human goodness among a group of people does not disprove the fact that there may be one ultimate good. Even if an individual has a mistaken notion of what is good, he or she will change their notion if they realize his or her mistake. Therefore, if an ultimate good were to exist, all agents would seek this end if they had the knowledge.
Finally, Aquinas reasons that “to understand the most perfect intelligible object, which is God, is the most perfect of acts of understanding” (Aquinas 151). Aquinas also states that it is the natural desire of men to know the first cause. God is the first cause of all, so knowing God must be the ultimate end of all understanding. Now that there exists an ultimate good, this “theory of goodness provides a foundation for a theory of morality” (Porter 68), by which it is possible to know what is right and what is wrong. Consequently, although humans may establish and follow different ends seeking good, the ultimate ideal of good is found in knowing God.
Aquinas’ approach to answer theological questions has some questionable aspects. Like most ideals, one wonders how realistic it is to seek the ultimate good in every aspect. According to Aquinas, only by knowing God do humans have a standard by which they can know what is right and wrong. It can be agreed upon that even an ignorant individual’s ultimate end is knowing God.
However, until such knowledge is acquired, the true standard is arbitrary and the individual has a flawed concept of right and wrong. Therefore the harder the ideal end is to acquire, the more people have skewed view on morality. This suggests that for many, morals are relative, which is somewhat naturalistic. Since, Aquinas’ views are theistic both views cannot coexist within the same theory. Therefore, Aquinas’ views on morality depend upon the feasibility of achieving the ideal.
Another aspect of Aquinas’ methods that receives much criticism is his eager acceptance of Aristotelian ideas “without criticism from biblical revelation” (Hoffecker 110). Although commendable, the attempt to prove spiritual matters such as the existence of God using human logic alone seems a bit ambitious. Aquinas is criticized for looking “too hastily elsewhere, outside the biblical revelation . . . [to] support the Christian faith” (Hoffecker 110). Straying so far away from divine revelation and relying so heavily on reason endangers the importance of faith. Positively, with the knowledge of such dangers, moderate uses of Aquinas’ methods can result in powerful tools for the Christian faith. This is the reason for praising Aquinas as “the greatest theologian of the medieval Catholic Church” (Aquinas 145).
Aquinas’ contributions in theology and philosophy revolutionized Christian thought. His work combines Aristotelian logic with theology producing a revolutionary line of thought known as “Thomism” (Aquinas 145). Although not mentioned in The Human Good, earlier works by Aquinas use similar methods of logic to prove the existence of God. Aquinas’ ideas on morality and man made them more compatible for people with non-Christian worldviews.
Even though venturing so far away from divine revelation may be risky, his work helped introduce more people to Christianity. The popularity of Aquinas may have caused the rise of applying reason in more areas such as religion in the western world. The logical, cause-and-effect mindset of the western world may be attributed partly to this newly sparked popularity of Aristotelian thought. Being able to justify the one’s position using logic is also useful when defending the Christian faith.
Although a complicated work of theology, Aquinas was able to reflect his fundamental views on man and morality though The Human Good. He left a lasting legacy by gaining a wide audience with whom to share his ideas. Some leave legacies by their memorable actions or character. Others construct revolutionary ideas and alter the course of public thought forever. Whichever method is used, the worldview of the person shapes their actions and their thoughts.
Aquinas, Thomas. “The Human Good.” The Western World. Ed. Mark Kishlansky. Boston: Pearson Custom Publishing, 2002. 145-155.
Hoffecker, Andrew. “Medieval Scholasticism: The Thomistic Synthesis”. Building a Christian World View. Ed. Andrew Hoffecker. Phillipsburg: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1986. 97-113.
James, sire. Universe Next Door. Downers Grove: Intervarsity Press, 1996.
Porter, Jean. The Recovery of Virtue. Louisville: John Knox Press, 1990.