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Putting aside its religious and salvific significance to the faithful, and to those who once lived and died for it, Christianity has played a very important role for the longevity of human knowledge and culture. During the period called the Dark Ages, following the collapse of the once glorious Greco-Roman civilization, the entire western civilization entered a state of economic turmoil and social anarchy. As implied by the term “Dark Ages,” there was both a bankruptcy in human knowledge and culture. The brutish barbarians sacked into ruins the proud Roman states and colonies, including their important cultural sites, and destroyed almost all the works of the great Greek and Roman thinkers, as they were lost and burned into ashes. The ignoble vandals ravishingly placed human civilization at the verge of destruction.
A sudden spark of light was initiated by the Christian Carolingian Period. This period, spearheaded by Charlemagne, aimed at reviving education and religion. The so-called Medieval universities were instituted for the said purpose and from which began the series of revivals of the great philosophical heritage of the Classical Period. The Patristic Age revived the Platonic philosophy with the aim of supplementing the treasuries of truth in the Sacred Scriptures. This age believed that faith and reason complement each other. It produced great philosophers and theologians such as St. Augustine, Quintus Septimius Florens Tertullianus, Justin Martyr, and Cyril of Alexandria. Following this age is the Period of Scholasticism which revived Aristotelian philosophy with the same aim of supplementing faith with reason. Under this period were also great thinkers like John Scotus, Boethius, St. Albertus Magnus, Alexander of Hales, St. Boneventure, Duns Scotus, William of Ockham, and, the most illustrious of them all, St. Thomas Aquinas.
With its great contribution to the flourish of education and culture, Christianity paved the way for the renaissance of human civilization.
Part of reviving the civilization is the revitalization and reconstruction of a complete system of ethics. Moral order is essential to all individual and social state of affairs, without which progress is impossible.
We will discuss in this paper one of the most dominant philosophical schools that gave a complete system of ethical principles for the then budding Christian community during the Medieval Period – the Scholastic Philosophy. Thus we will discuss what is meant by “scholasticism,” its influences and basic doctrines, and its fundamental ethical principles. Inasmuch as it is the culmination of Scholastic philosophy, the Thomistic ethical treatise will be the major source of our discussion.
What is Scholasticism?
The word “scholasticism” has its roots in the Latin word “schola” which means school. In Latin medieval universities, the heads of the schools are called “magistris scholarum” (masters of the schools) or simply “scholastici” (scholastics or schoolmen). These scholastici generally taught dialectic, which is a philosophical method used to evaluate, analyze, and criticize a dominant philosophical doctrine to come up with a new and more profound answer to the pervading philosophical questions. During the Medieval times, the scholastici were recognized as the bearers of authentic philosophical and theological views. Out of these dialectical teachings of the scholastici or scholastics came the philosophical tradition known as Scholasticism.
Through their dialectic method, the scholastics tried to synthesize the antithetical realms of reason and faith, science and religion, pagan philosophy and Christian theology. The Patristic philosophers (which came before them) also tried to give a synthesis to these opposing realms but they lacked the technicalities of the dialectic method as thosed used by the scholastics. While the Patristic philosophers wrote in the mystical and poetic style of Platonic philosophy, the scholastics wrote in the more empirical and prosy style of Aristotelian philosophy. These two schools however have the same goal, i.e. to explain faith through reason and to supplement reason with faith. For them, the revealed truths in the Bible and the truths found in pagan philosophies ultimately have the same source – God. Contradiction between these two realms is therefore impossible.
Moreover, Scholasticism highlights two things: first, that there should be a clear delimitation of the respective domains of philosophy and theology, and; second, that man should guide his faith with his reason. Unlike the Patristic thinkers who did not give definite limits between philosophical truth and Biblical (theological) truths, the scholastics, in particular St. Thomas, pointed out that philosophical truths are known through human reason while theological truths are known through revelation, thus, putting a clear distinction between the two.
Reason should guide our faith. This philosophical view is usually associated with rationalism, i.e. the view that reason reigns supreme in man. Scholastics believe that every human, regardless of his beliefs, share in humanity through the possession and use of reason, without which man is not man. Reason has the capability to arrive at indubitable truths, as that achieved by the Aristotelian wisdom. As rationalists, the scholastics cannot just disregard the evident truths of pagan philosophy (Aristotelian philosophy), so they assimilated Aristotle’s philosophy in defense of faith. Through this view, scholastics provided faith with a rational foundation. Undoubtedly, this is one of their crowning achievements. But just as they trusted human reason, they also believed in the primal veracity of revealed truths. If God is Truth itself, then His revelations must necessarily be true. Thus a unique blend is necessary for the scholastics.
One of the bedrocks of our faith is the belief in the existence of God. Through reason, one can prove that God indeed exists. In this vantage point, reason indeed aids faith.
Adopting Aristotle’s philosophical ideas, St. Thomas proved the existence of God in his famous Quinque Viae (Five ways).
Aristotle posited that the principle of causality forms one of the foundational building blocks of human knowledge. Like other principles of thinking (e.g. principle of identity and principle of contradiction), the principle of causality admits of no proofs and is considered as one of the ultimate presuppositions for knowing. To question its objective certainty (as Kant did) is to open the door for subjectivism and universal skepticism. Meaning to say, the denial of the principle of causality may also mean a declaration that the whole process of human reasoning could be fallacious.
The principle simply states that every effect necessarily has a sufficient reason or cause for its existence. The emergence of global warming, for example, is an effect which has the overly excessive carbon dioxide combustion as its necessary cause. Every thing, event, and occurrence follow the same fashion. According to Aristotle, one cannot go one to infinity. To affirm regressive infinity is to also affirm the non-existence of a beginning. Thus the principle of causality admits the existence of a self-sufficient cause or ground of being to which all physical and mental phenomena ultimately refer. This one ultimate source of all movements is the supreme first mover, which in itself does not move. It is the unchanging being whose presence the world responds to. It is the unchanging and unmoving “good” towards which every being tends and ends. This “Prime Mover,” “First Cause,” “Necessary Being,” “Perfect Good,” and “Final Cause and Good of all things” is, for Aristotle, God.
Aquinas acknowledged the validity of these arguments and adopted them in his Quinque Viae. Nevertheless, Aquinas saw their inadequacy in explaining the Christian notion of God. The Aristotelian God is an impersonal God, which is contrary to the Personal God revealed in the Scriptures. Hence, Thomas developed his “argument from design” which now has a Christian touch to it. He says that the order in the universe is not simply initiated by an impersonal God from afar but it is something continually guided by a loving God. God is now seen as a Loving Father who takes care for his children or a Shepherd tending his flock.
The different scholastic accounts are more than just a random list of philosophical and theological discussions. Faithful to the aim of (Aristotelian) philosophy, the scholastics attempted to give an orderly and truly universal, rational view of the universe. All of their accounts are meant to explain the history of the cosmos and provide an outline for the meaning of life itself. St. Thomas’ Summa Theologica, for instance, is a sweeping attempt to explain what reality itself is. It is a proposal for the grand scheme of things.
Founded on purely Christian ideals, the scholastics proposed a history that revolves around the relationship of God and man, and how man’s reconciliation with God is made possible through Christ, the Perfect Man. With these ideals, they came up with a cyclic history that begins and also ends with God. But although their ideals are Christian, they use pagan concepts (Aristotelian) in explaining the intricate details of the existence of God and man. God’s existence, as was seen above, is explained through Aristotelian philosophy. And man’s ultimate end is also based on the Aristotelian teleological philosophy of happiness.
With reference to St. Thomas’ treatise in Summa Theologica, we can diagram the history of creation as follows:
When we say that everything begins with the existence of God, it does not mean that at a point in time, God suddenly came into being and from there everything also came into being. Rather, God’s essence is to exist so that He neither has a beginning nor an end. He is outside the limiting dimensions of space and time; or, simply, He is eternal. Now, from His existence comes the existence of the material world. This emanation of reality from the Divine is what we call creation.
Scholastic discussions in ethics are situated in this grandiose scheme. For this reason, our own discussions will be patterned after this diagram. It is also important to note that because of its strictly theistic nature, scholastic ethics or morality cannot be separated from religion. Unlike some modern ethical treatises, scholastic ethics firmly believes that the moral order is ultimately founded in the Divine Ordination of things.
The proofs of the existence of God are not intended for metaphysical or cosmological uses only. They have direct application to human ethics. In Thomistic ethics, man could only be understood under the context of being an “Image of God.” In Summa Theologica, St. Thomas wrote:
“Man is made to God’s image, and since this implies, so Damacene tells us, that he is intelligent and free to judge and master of himself, so then, now that we have agreed that God is the exemplar cause of things and that they issue from his power through his will, we go on to look at this image, that is to say, at man as the source of actions which are his own and fal under his responsibility and control.”
God is not only the efficient cause of man (the agent that caused man’s existence) but also his exemplar cause (the agent towards which man’s essence conforms and participates). Man’s very ontological constitution and mode of living a meaningful life, by way of intelligence, freedom, and mastery over himself, are all rooted in his being an image of God. Thus, for the scholastics (St. Thomas in particular), an ethical life can only be a life in conformity with the life of God.
Virtue and Happiness
In the Summa Theologica, St. Thomas highlighted how the human intellect guides the will towards the “Good,” who is God Himself. Since God is the Good towards which man craves to be with, human practical reason dictates that man should follow the example of His being, which is perfection. Thus man seeks the best way of living. Using Aristotle’s teachings in Nicomachean Ethics, the scholastics saw the different virtues as a rational way towards the Good. Although the scholastics agree with Aristotle that the good towards which every man intends is Happiness, they added that this Happiness is no other else than God Himself (thus going beyond nature itself).
Man is said to lie in between divinity and brutishness. This is because man has, in his nature, rationality and animality. Inasmuch as rationality (which is purely present in the Divine) has superiority over animality (which characterizes the brutes), reason must reign supreme in man. It is only the intellect that knows what is truly good from what is only apparent. It must therefore guide instinctual passions and appetites toward what is truly good. And one of the principles of practical reason is to always act in moderation. This is the basic presupposition of a virtue; it always stands in the middle.
Before going to the different virtues, it is important to discuss the different powers or faculties in man. Man cannot be otherwise but composed of body and soul. Like the animals, the body of man is governed by the laws of nature. On the other hand, the soul (according to Thomistic psychology) is considered as the principle of life without which the body ceases to exist. Meaning to say, the soul governs the acts and movements of the body. Like Aristotle, the scholastics identify two powers in the soul: the appetitive or irrational power and rational power. By means of the rational powers, we know the truth about things. The rational faculty has two parts – the practical and the contemplative. The practical part determines the proper act and ends of man. It is firmly connected to the appetitive powers of the soul inasmuch as it guides human desires and passions. This firm connection between practical reason and the appetitive faculty, together with the contemplative activity of the rational faculty, differentiates us from the animals. Following Aristotelian ethics, the scholastics taught that the right habitual use of practical reason creates moral virtues; and the habitual practice of contemplation, of course functioning in accordance with its proper excellence, is the highest form of intellectual virtue. Through these virtues one can achieve eudaimonia or happiness.
Contemplative part, on the other, has for its object the higher things beyond itself. It is through the contemplative activities of the soul that man shares with the perfection of higher beings. Thus, the theoretical or contemplative part seems more favorable than practical because it is closer to the Divine. In here man transcends himself and becomes like a god.
While for Aristotle true happiness is achieved by living a virtuous life, the scholastics believe that true happiness is achieved only through the beatific vision. Happiness does not end in living a moral life or achieving human excellence on earth, but rather it comes into completion in one’s union with God. The happiness in living a moral life is just a means towards the happiness in the after life.
Moreover, Scholastics also added to Aristotelian virtues such notions as Duty, Sin, Sovereign Lawgiver and Judge, Reward and Punishment in a life to come. As seen by the scholastics, the Aristotelian road to happiness (virtue) is also a path of duty. For Aristotle, if a man does not want to be rationally happy, he is said to be a fool and thus falls short of living an excellent life. For the scholastics, one the other, if a man will not take the road of rational happiness then he is a lawbreaker. He breaks the law which is discovered and formulated by reason, but imprinted in his nature by the Supreme Designer and Divine Legislator of the universe – God.
Christianity has been a very important tool for the conservation and development of human culture and education. It has perpetuated the important philosophical teachings of the Greeks by adopting and using them to explain Christian beliefs. It has also instituted places that have served for centuries as repositories of knowledge. Medieval universities did not only serve as a storage for philosophical works, but they also produced one of the best philosophical schools – Scholasticism. And one of the best philosophers produced by scholasticism was St. Thomas Aquinas.
As a philosopher of history, St. Thomas viewed history as a cyclic process that starts and ends with God. St. Thomas presented this view again through Aristotelian philosophy but substantiated it with the revealed truths of the Bible.
That man is made into the image and likeness of God grounds the Thomistic philosophy of man and ethics. Man cannot, according to St. Thomas, live ethically unless he conforms and patterns himself to the life of God.
If there’s one thing you need to remember about Scholastic (Thomistic) Ethics, it is its reverence to man’s faculty of reason. Although he was a devote Catholic, St. Thomas did not condemn Aristotle, a pagan, because he found truth in Aristotle’s words. Reason binds all men together. Regardless of the heterogeneity of its source, reason has one final end – truth. All rational beings who exercise their reason to its fullest extent will arrive at this end. St. Thomas affirms the correctness of Aristotelian philosophy, but he also affirms the veracity of the revealed truths in the Bible. So he ingenuously constructed a philosophy that beautifully tied the two together without any contradiction.