Book Review

The Philosophy Of Saint Thomas Aquinas: A Sketch

by Stephen L. Brock
Cascade Books  (23 Sept 2015)
ISBN: 978-1625646637

Book CoverThis is an excellent introduction to the philosophy of Saint Thomas Aquinas. As the author notes, Aquinas was a great philosopher as well as a great theologian. And because he was a great philosopher, he was a great metaphysician.

For the purposes of this review, I shall concentrate on the section dealing with Aquinas on ethics. The author says that Aquinas dealt with moral issues throughout his career. His main source was Aristotle and this includes Aristotle on the virtues. Following Aristotle, Aquinas sees charity as a kind of friendship. In contrast, when he deals with the moral virtues of prudence, justice, fortitude and temperance, Aquinas follows Christian theologians like Ambrose and Augustine rather than Aristotle. Other important sources for his moral philosophy include Cicero and Seneca.

The author notes that Aquinas adopts "an overtly metaphysical viewpoint" when dealing with morals. This is not surprising, says the author, as Aristotle also connected ethics with metaphysics. But the metaphysical treatment of ethics is found more in Aquinas than Aristotle because Aquinas had much more to say about man's relationship with God.

So, for Aquinas, can there be a purely philosophical science of morals? The answer is that, for Aquinas, moral philosophy is a valid discipline independent of theology because not all the metaphysics of morals directly relates to God.

The author writes that Aquinas puts morals before metaphysics. It is noted that while Aristotle would call someone bad because he harms another, Aquinas would call someone bad if he acts contrary to right reason.

All this makes for fascinating reading in the light of the on-going debates about the new natural law theory and its efforts to effectively sever morals from metaphysics. For the author, and for Aquinas, the question of how to give metaphysics its due place in human life is itself a moral question.

For Aquinas, the philosophical life, the contemplation of wisdom, is the most satisfying. The active life can certainly lead to happiness but this happiness is only of a secondary sort. Man is not man's ultimate end because there is something infinitely higher than man, namely, God. From this, it follows that moral philosophy is not the most excellent of the sciences. Moral science is confined to universal considerations, whereas action is realized in particulars. For particular actions, we need the virtue of prudence, the quality that perfects reason's ability to put order into action.

The author writes that any moral philosophy that does not give priority to man's last end could hardly be called Thomistic. He also describes the different interpreters of Aquinas. Maritain would argue in favour of the close connection between moral theology and moral philosophy to be found in Aquinas. In contrast, Ramirez argued in favour of the distinction.

This is a splendid introduction to Thomistic philosophy. We are left with the clear impression that Aquinas was a great philosopher as well as a great theologian.

Reviewed by Dr Pravin Thevathasan