Aquinas on Virtue: A Causal Reading.
The moral theology of Thomas Aquinas continues to be of value to modern philosophical and ethical thought. Nicholas Austin substantiates this throughout Aquinas on Virtue, demonstrating the way in which Aquinas's thought can be fruitfully applied to contemporary theological ethics. In this work, Austin provides an exposition and reconstruction of Aquinas's thought from both his early and later works, using this as a foundation from which to construct an original and cogent causal virtue theory. Austin argues that virtue theory, which accounts for 'the nature, genesis and role of virtue', offers a more holistic and less hierarchical approach than virtue ethics, which tends to determine ethics based solely on virtue (p. xvi). Austin's approach mirrors that of Aquinas, whose virtue theory is seen to be embedded within a dynamic and holistic vision of the Christian moral life.
This work is divided into three parts. The author begins by elaborating on Aquinas's definition of virtue. Here he acknowledges Aquinas's adoption of the Aristotelian schema of the 'four causes'--namely, the material, formal, efficient, and final causes--in defining virtue. Austin notes Aquinas's inclusion of Peter Lombard's Augustinian definition of virtue, arguing that it retained relevance to Aquinas because it embraces all four Aristotelian causes (p. 61). Austin supports the argument that Aquinas should not be read as either Aristotelian or Augustinian, but rather that his conception should be understood as a unique synthesis of the two spheres of thought given the clear influence of both in shaping his approach to understanding virtue. Although Aquinas does give preference to a theological reading, his approach is highly conversant with philosophy. This inclusive attitude is mirrored in his method towards defining virtue, wherein he offers an extended treatment of Aquinas's conception of virtue as a habit.
Aquinas's understanding of causation is further explored in the second section, wherein Austin establishes its continued relevance to contemporary theological ethics. Here the author argues that although Aquinas's conception of causation was founded on a metaphysical relationship between virtue and its causes, which would not be supported by modern scholarship, it retains its applicability within modern ethics as a methodological principle.
The last section, which encompasses over half of the book, is dedicated to the application of causal analysis as a methodological tool through which to further comprehend the nature, origin, and role of specific virtues. Austin concludes by offering a reassessment of the often-cited relationship between grace and virtue. In discussing infused versus acquired virtue, he argues that moral virtue 'is indeterminate between infusion and acquisition; it can either be acquired by human action or infused through grace or both' (p. 205). This re-examination offers an original contribution to theological ethics and demonstrates the value of Austin's causal approach; however, it is Austin's methodological contribution that holds the most potential in recasting academic approaches to Aquinas's thought.
One of the strengths of this work is the author's ability to address the two divergent, yet interconnected, spheres of medieval and contemporary moral theology without inadvertently doing any injustice to either or convoluting his lines of argument--a risk explicitly noted in his introduction (p. xxi). The author artfully avoids this, creating a symbiotic relationship between the two spheres of thought that clearly distinguish between medieval and modern ideas (for an example, see his discussion on the evolution of the term 'habit', pp. 23-32). By incorporating striking modern exemplars and discussions of the contemporary applications of Aquinas's virtue theory, Austin succeeds in providing a holistic causal analysis of virtue that is conversant with the concerns of contemporary society. This dialogue also functions to elucidate the abstracted threads of theoretical discussion, making this work accessible to specialist and non-specialist scholars alike (for an example, see his tantalizing discussion of a virtuous Nazi, pp. 158-64). The author makes a conscious effort to engage non-specialist audiences, providing references to relevant sections of Aquinas's works beneath each chapter title to encourage an objective reading of his argument against the primary texts.
This is a nicely presented and well-edited book, with only two spelling errors to be noted (pp. 64, 102.) This book would benefit from a conclusion detailing Austin's causal approach and the ways in which it differs from that of Aquinas. Overall, however, it presents an original and insightful contribution to the fields of Thomism and theological ethics.
ZHIYANNAH COLE, University of Auckland
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|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Jul 1, 2018|
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