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Clear but Complicated.

John Finnis, Aquinas: Moral, Political and Legal Theory Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998. 406pp. $55.00 (cloth); $18.95 (paper).

This volume by Oxford and Notre Dame philosopher of law John Finnis is part of the newly established Oxford University Press series, Founders of Modern Political and Social Thought. It gives evidence of the renewed interest in moral, political, and jurisprudence studies based on the writings of Thomas Aquinas. Indeed much of this substantial renewal at the beginning of the millennium is due to the prolific pen of John Finnis himself. Finnis's 1980 book, Natural Law and Natural Rights, along with Alasdair MacIntyre's After Virtue, prompted substantial reconsideration of an ethical naturalism based upon themes first articulated in Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics. It was Mortimer Adler who once wrote: "Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics is the only sound, practical and undogmatic moral philosophy in the whole Western tradition." Aquinas's moral theory is part of this general recovery movement of Aristotelian moral theory.

The Finnis project of reconstructing Aquinas's theory of natural law is based upon the seminal article written thirty-five years ago by Germain Grisez, articulating an analysis of Aquinas on practical reason as found in Summa Theologiae, I-II, q. 94, a. 2. These texts of Aquinas, of course, provide the classical canon for natural law theory. The last twenty years have witnessed a wealth of sophisticated arguments articulated by Grisez, Finnis, Joseph Boyle, and more recently Robert George developing what others have called "the new natural law theory." This review is not the place to rehash the pros and cons of those issues, but the reader should be aware of the radical differences in the philosophical landscape on divergent accounts of the fundamental principles of the metaphysics of morals in Aquinas.

That said, one must note that this new work by Finnis is an extremely ambitious and clearly articulated account of Aquinas on the foundational principles of moral, political, and legal theory. In these pages, one witnesses the seriousness of purpose with which Aquinas undertakes the project of providing an analysis of the necessary conditions for a sophisticated theory of natural law. A reader coming to Finnis's work always walks away having learned something afresh. One may not always agree with every point in the analysis, but the effort is always rewarded many fold.

Finnis notes that he wrote this book both for students of philosophy and for students engaged in the study of law. Given that, he provides a useful architectonic for the book, suggesting that chapters 2-5 deal roughly with ethical matters and rights questions, while chapters 6-9 consider more directly legal matters. Of course, the book is interrelated and connected throughout. The final chapter is a discussion of theological concepts pertaining to the moral and political philosophy of Aquinas.

Finnis's analysis, like Ralph Mclnerny's Aquinas on Hum on Action, suggests that the Prima Secundoe of the Summa Theologiae is a thorough analysis of actio and that the moral and legal theory is subsumed under the rubric of human action. Finnis argues that this falls under the general categories of "thought, deliberation and decision." Moreover, Finnis notes that philosophers interested in action theory from Hobbes to the contemporary time have rejected this account. To illustrate this deliberative process, Finnis discusses at length the D-Day decision-making undertaken by British and American military leaders. He suggests that the studio-sus [the "morally weighty mature person"] is equivalent to the virtuosus, which is in turn equivalent to Aristotle's spoudaios, Utilizing what appears to be a "good reasons" approach to the philosophical task, Finnis argues that "the core of the argument is the distinction between intelligence and feeling, between reason and action and mere spontaneous urges or 'passions'" (60). Thus, "willing" becomes "intelligence in action." Chapter 3 is a thoughtful analysis of "action theory" in Aquinas, with a particularly illustrative table of Aquinas's somewhat complicated account of this tricky concept (71).

Finnis, following Grisez, has developed a strong interest in explicating what both call the "basic human goods." Chapter 3 also provides a useful commentary on Prima Secundae, q. 94, a. 2. Finnis argues for what he suggests is the "metaphysical stratification" of human nature: "(1) what we have in common with all substances; (2) what, more specifically, we have in common with other animals; and (3) what is peculiar to us as human beings" (81). By making the first practical principles non-theoretical, Finnis suggests that he avoids the is/ought problem. As Dominican Benedict Ashley once noted, Finnis and Grisez often appear overwhelmed philosophically by the prospect of falling victim to the purported naturalistic fallacy.

Finnis accounts for Aristotelian eudaimonia [what Aquinas calls felicitas and beatitudo] in terms of what he calls "integral human fulfillment." Virtue is "the perfection of the human capabilities involved in action." For Aquinas, there is perfect and imperfect beatitudo. For political philosophy, Finnis argues that beatitudo takes place within the felicitas communis, which he calls the "common fulfillment," which in turn is based in the civitas. Hence, the state is a necessary condition for human fulfillment. Aquinas adopts Plato's maxim that the polis is "human being writ large." Within this account, Finnis discusses the importance of a theory of "general justice."

Chapter 5 provides an important discussion of rights and justice within the general structure of Aquinas's theory of natural law. Finnis writes: "though he (Aquinas) never uses a term translated as 'human rights,' Aquinas clearly has the concept" (136). Justice is defined as the rights of the human person entitled as equal treatment. This is a quite good account of the basic human goods, which Finnis, like Aquinas, articulates in a threefold division: "respecting the goods of human life," "marriage, sexuality and integrity," and "truth, assertions and authenticity." These discussions of basic human rights are rooted in the "metaphysical stratification" of human personhood as discussed in q. 94, a. 2. Finnis argues that these norms "give social life and just law their backbone" and that they are grounded fundamentally on the human dignity of the person.

Chapter 6 carries forward the discussion of legal matters, where Finnis treats the issues of justice, property [rights and responsibilities], contract, and commerce and capital. An interesting question revolves around Aquinas's often quoted account of usury (207ff.). Finnis notes that in Aquinas's work, there is no sharp distinction between civil law and criminal law.

In my judgment, chapter 7 is an important part of this book. Finnis discusses the role of the state [the civitas] as a complete community. The common good is "public yet limited." Finnis notes explicitly that Aquinas is not a "law and order" person: "Aquinas teaches the unwisdom of legislating against every act of vice..." (222). Furthermore, Finnis argues that for Aquinas the purpose of human law and the purpose of divine law are different. Finnis even goes so far as to suggest that Aquinas and Mill in On Liberty are "not really distinguishable" (228). Given the present zealotry of the religious right, these works of Aquinas are worth our careful consideration. Chapter 8 considers the role of the state and the use of just and unjust laws, which, of course, are part of the mainstay of natural law political theory. Chapter 9 brings to bear discussion on the punitive role of the civitas, considering the power of capital punishment and the ability to wage war. The discussion of the "just war" takes place here.

The last chapter changes direction a bit. Here Finnis brings into the discussion theological issues important for understanding Aquinas's moral and political philosophy. This aspect of Aquinas transcends practical reasoning. Finnis and I agree wholeheartedly on the issue that "in a philosophical education, reflections about God come last" (296). One does not bring God into the philosophical discussion until the very end of that discussion. There is an important secular notion to natural law theory in Aquinas that is often overlooked in contemporary discussions. Here Finnis also provides an excellent account of Aquinas's worldview or cosmology. The discussion of the role Democritus and atomism play in Aquinas is particularly fascinating.

As always, the footnotes in a Finnis book constitute a gold mine of information indicating his deep study and reflection on Aquinas. His biographical narrative on Aquinas at the beginning of the book is a thoughtful, concise, and readable account of Aquinas's life and works. The complete list of Aquinas's immense work in one place is a useful reference for student and instructor. The end of the book provides an important and useful index locorum and a substantial regular index. The discussion of the Omnia Opera in Aquinas is based on the work of Torrell and Gauthier, both of whom have contributed substantively to our understanding of the critical editions of Aquinas's work. While Finnis is a clear writer, he is at times a complicated writer. Undergraduate instructors will need to consider how best to use this text pedagogically.

This new addition to the study of Aquinas's social and political philosophy by one of the world's premier philosophers of natural law is an exciting and fruitful text, well worth serious reading by all of us interested in the burgeoning renewal of natural law theory as the new millennium begins.

ANTHONY LISSKA teaches at Denison University in Granville, Ohio.
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Title Annotation:Review
Publication:Cross Currents
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 22, 2000
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