Distinguished philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre spoke at St. Mary’s College’s annual MacMahon Aquinas Lecture. His lecture was titled, “How Truth is Approached through Error: Rereading Aquinas’ Project at SUMMA THEOLOGIAE, Ia-IIae, qq. 1 and 2.”
MacIntyre, the Rev. John A. O’Brien Senior Research Professor Emeritus at the University of Notre Dame and Senior Research Fellow at the Center for Contemporary Aristotelian Studies in Ethics and Politics at London Metropolitan University, spoke on the first two questions of the “Prima Secunda” of St. Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologiae. MacIntyre explained how the students and readers of Aquinas first see these questions as impersonal.
But the “third person questions and answers correspond to first person questions and answers,” said MacIntyre. The third person questions are appropriately impersonal for theoretical inquiry and first person questions by the reader are appropriate because they are practical, continued MacIntyre.
By distinguishing this difference in how the questions are posed, MacIntyre argues that Aquinas’s approach to truth through error enables his students and readers to see these initially impersonal questions as their own questions.
Using the example of a student, MacIntyre comments that “the danger in every classroom is that the philosophical questions never become [the students’] questions.” As MacIntyre related his experience from introductory philosophy courses, students are guilty of rehearsing answers to questions posed but remained uninvolved and undisturbed by questions, answers, and debates. A successful philosophy course would be more disquieting, more painful, and hence, more engaging.
The first two questions of the Prima Secunda of the SUMMA THEOLOGIAE: 1) the final end of human beings and 2) what is the final end, how to achieve this final end, and what does this final end consist. These preliminary questions also leads to questions of the nature of the final end, the relationship of acts of the human will to that end, what makes human acts go bad, the role of passions, and the need for habits of intellectual and moral virtues.
MacIntyre also encourages the student and reader to return to these questions. “A first reading would not provide what we need,” he said.
For example, in what might appear to be a break in the argument from Question 62 onward, Aquinas insists on the need for the theological virtues in the face of affliction by sin. After rereading these first two questions, this initial argument complements Aquinas’s consistent insistence of how humans are prone to error and thus his insistence on the need for the theological virtues to understand man’s ultimate end, or beatitude.
The first question contains 8 articles. MacIntyre used Robert Sokolowski’s language of the three ways of the application of ends to describe the distinction between the kinds of ends in Aquinas’ project. There is the end by nature of what something is by its species, the end associated with human practices and its purposes, and the final end of a particular human being.
St. Thomas distinguished human action by asking the question of why was an action done or what is the good of doing such an action. In asking these questions, one tries to find what it is that the unity of human life consists. Rational animals are directed towards a single ultimate end and the achievement of their life is in this rational end.
In speaking about the progression of Aquinas’s thought in this first question, MacIntyre said that one is compelled to ask if it is credible that everything in one’s life is directed to one ultimate, whether such an end is rightly conceived or misconceived. While some may see many ultimate ends but for Aquinas, there would still exist a rank ordering of such ends and no more than one can be placed first.
MacIntyre then introduced the second question of Aquinas with a comparison to Aristotle. Where Aristotle defines three kinds of life-devoted to either pleasure, political success, or wealth in his NICOMACHEAN ETHICS and addresses three mistaken views, Aquinas addresses 8 mistaken views and goes into greater length in refutations. Aquinas defines beatitude as comparable to the Greek understanding of eudemonia.
MacIntyre warned of an insufficient translation of Aquinas’ “beatitude” to mean “happiness.” When Aquinas speaks of beatitude as being man’s ultimate end, it describes the perfected and completed life with respect to the ultimate end of man. Using the examples of wealth and power, Aquinas shows that the ultimate end of man cannot consist in something that is desired for something else.
MacIntyre, however, reminded his audience these goods, such as wealth and power, are goods as long as they are not perceived as the ultimate end.
In a further argument, pleasure is not an end: Beatitude cannot consist in our being pleased, even if an occasion for extraordinary delight.
A beatitude instead must consist in what constitutes a soul’s good. For a soul to achieve its excellence, it must have a relationship to a good that is other than itself.
MacIntyre pointed out that St. Thomas presents the strongest arguments that one can find for or against his own position in order to pursue the truth. By using sources in ancient, Jewish, and Islamic philosophies and traditions, in addition to the Augustinian tradition, Aquinas’ argument is strengthened.
Citing FIDES ET RATIO, MacIntyre encouraged students and readers to consider the continuity of questions asked by philosophers in every culture and tradition and their role in the attainment of truth.
Sandra Laguerta is a junior theology major. She owns a bike named Veritas. Contact her at email@example.com if you have the engineering skills to make a sidecar for her bike. She plans on naming it “SideCARitas.”