St. Thomas Aquinas: A Guide in Our Call to Virtue

Today is the Feast of St. Thomas Aquinas. Volumes have been written about this great saint whose theological contributions to the Church are vast. In fact, out of all of the theologians in Church history, it is St. Thomas Aquinas who holds a prime of place in theological study. Pope Pius IX promulgated the encyclical, Studiorum Ducem, in which he encourages all members of the Church to study St. Thomas in order to grow in understanding and depth in the spiritual life:

Such a combination of doctrine and piety, of erudition and virtue, of truth and charity, is to be found in an eminent degree in the angelic Doctor and it is not without reason that he has been given the sun for a device; for he both brings the light of learning into the minds of men and fires their hearts and wills with the virtues. God, the Source of all sanctity and wisdom would, therefore, seem to have desired to show in the case of Thomas how each of these qualities assists the other, how the practice of the virtues disposes to the contemplation of truth, and the profound consideration of truth in turn gives luster and perfection to the virtues. For the man of pure and upright life, whose passions are controlled by virtue, is delivered as it were of a heavy burden and can much more easily raise his mind to heavenly things and penetrate more profoundly into the secrets of God, according to the maxim of Thomas himself: “Life comes before learning: for life leads to the knowledge of truth”…We propose to comment briefly in this Letter on the sanctity and doctrine of Thomas Aquinas and to show what profitable instruction may be derived therefrom by priests, by seminarians especially, and, not least, by all Christian people.

Studorium Ducem, 2-3

Since Lent is fast approaching and we are all called to virtue, it is a good time to take a brief look at St. Thomas’ teaching on the virtues. The theological (supernatural) virtues of faith, hope, and charity will be left to another day, and the focus for today will be on the cardinal virtues of temperance, prudence, fortitude, and justice. Before delving into each specific cardinal virtue there are a couple of foundational principles to understand.

First, every single Catholic is called to the virtuous life. It goes hand-in-hand with our baptismal call. Many Catholics view the moral life as a list of rules or commandments to follow; things that should not be done. These are usually comprised of a lengthy list of “thou shalt nots”, however for most of the Church’s history, the moral life was understood in light of the virtues. The virtues are ordered to the ultimate good of the person, which is God, as well as the good of others. This means by living the virtues, a person is ordering their life to the good and is less likely to commit one of those “thou shalt nots”.

Second, virtue is formed by habit. Aristotle said in the Nichomachean Ethics, ‘A human virtue is one which renders a human act and man himself good’. The theological virtues are gifts from God through grace, but the cardinal virtues are formed within us through habitual living and God’s aid. In establishing habits, we are better able to do battle with temptation. Habits begin with a first step and are guided by self-control, prayer, and the Sacraments. The virtues must be done with God’s help. Even though we form a habit through our free will, it is God’s grace that will help us form these habits. We cannot reach perfection without God’s help. Perfection is the ultimate aim of the virtuous life because perfection dwells in God and our eschatological end.

Temperance

Temperance is the virtue that teaches us moderation. St. Thomas says in the Summa Theologica Part II Question 141:

Wherefore in like manner temperance must needs be about desires for the greatest pleasures. And since pleasure results from a natural operation, it is so much the greater according as it results from a more natural operation. Now to animals the most natural operations are those which preserve the nature of the individual by means of meat and drink, and the nature of the species by the union of the sexes. Hence temperance is properly about pleasures of meat and drink and sexual pleasures. Now these pleasures result from the sense of touch. Wherefore it follows that temperance is about pleasures of touch.

In the West, temperance is a virtue that is fading. The vices/sins of gluttony and lust are on full display from unrestricted sex to binge drinking to obesity. Temperance is essential for taming these temptations and strengthening us on the journey to holiness. As with the other cardinal virtues, temperance can only be learned by habit. Temperance is not Puritanism. It does not demand abstinence (except for sex outside of marriage). Food, drink, and sex are all gifts from God that are meant to be enjoyed. Problems arise when we use them in a disordered and sinful manner. Temperance helps us to keep a proper balance and ordering to God of the goods He has given us. Temperance should be seen in light of beauty instead of restriction, St. Thomas again: “Honor and beauty are especially ascribed to temperance, not on account of the excellence of the good proper to temperance, but on account of the disgrace of the contrary evil from which it withdraws us, by moderating the pleasures common to us and the lower animals.”

Fortitude

Fortitude is the virtue which helps us to overcome obstacles in daily life and persecution in the spiritual life. It is the virtue most needed when others do evil against us, even inside of the Church. In order to persevere in moments of persecution or fear, fortitude needs to be firmly established within the individual. Fortitude is absolutely necessary in the face of martyrdom. Fortitude helps the individual to restrain and control fear.

…it belongs to the virtue of fortitude to remove any obstacle that withdraws the will from following the reason. Now to be withdrawn from something difficult belongs to the notion of fear, which denotes withdrawal from an evil that entails difficulty, as stated above (I-II, 42, 3,5) in the treatise on passions. Hence fortitude is chiefly about fear of difficult things, which can withdraw the will from following the reason. And it behooves one not only firmly to bear the assault of these difficulties by restraining fear, but also moderately to withstand them, when, to wit, it is necessary to dispel them altogether in order to free oneself therefrom for the future, which seems to come under the notion of daring

ST II-II 123 a.2

There are various fears that crop up in our daily lives and it is through the habit of fortitude we can temper fear and make reasoned decisions. We can also fall on God, as we always should, because fortitude is also a gift of the Holy Spirit.

Justice

Justice is the virtue that gives God and people their proper due. The virtue of justice established within ourselves guides us to make just decisions in our daily lives and to treat people with right ordering to the good.

Now the proper matter of justice consists of those things that belong to our intercourse with other men, as shall be shown further on. Hence the act of justice in relation to its proper matter and object is indicated in the words, “Rendering to each one his right,” since, as Isidore says (Etym. x), “a man is said to be just because he respects the rights [jus] of others.”

 ST II-II  58 8 a. 1

Justice is a virtue we choose to live each day. We treat others with the good they deserve. Justice is not just about fighting unjust laws or immorality in the public square. Justice begins in our own hearts and homes. Do we lose our temper and yell at our children or spouses? Do we not give our workplace their due? Do we gossip or hold onto anger towards others? These are sins against justice. We all fail at times, but the virtue of justice helps us to fail less and less.

Prudence

Prudence is the queen of the cardinal virtues and it can also be one of the most misunderstood. Prudence is often confused with timidity or a confused understanding of what Scripture means by “meekness”. St. Thomas says, “Prudence is right reason in matters of action.” (ST II-II 47 8 a. 2) It is to use reason to make decisions and to not be ruled by the passions or emotion. Prudence requires an individual to order actions to the good and the ultimate good for mankind is God.

Prudence is “right reason applied to action,” as stated above (Article 2). Hence that which is the chief act of reason in regard to action must needs be the chief act of prudence. Now there are three such acts. The first is “to take counsel,” which belongs to discovery, for counsel is an act of inquiry, as stated above (I-II, 14, 1). The second act is “to judge of what one has discovered,” and this is an act of the speculative reason. But the practical reason, which is directed to action, goes further, and its third act is “to command,” which act consists in applying to action the things counselled and judged. And since this act approaches nearer to the end of the practical reason, it follows that it is the chief act of the practical reason, and consequently of prudence.

Prudence is the most important of the cardinal virtues in the spiritual life and also the most difficult for most of us. Our days are spent in which moments of conflict or experiences awaken the passions or emotion, which make reasoned decisions harder to achieve. This day-in-age it is the passions which drive many of the conflicts within our society. Emotions and the passions are goods, but they can cloud human reason. Right judgments cannot be made if reason is clouded. Prudence forces the individual to separate themselves from those passions and emotions in order to find right counsel from a spouse, trusted friend, or spiritual guide, as well as take time to consider all of the options in light of the ultimate end before acting. All of us make mistakes when we are imprudent and likely fall into sin.

St. Thomas Aquinas is a great teacher and friend. His writing and his life are examples to each one of us on virtuous living. We cannot persevere on the spiritual journey if we do not make a concerted effort to learn the virtues and set them as habits in our own lives. The need for the virtues has a long standing tradition and teaching throughout the Church’s history. Befriend St. Thomas Aquinas on your journey to holiness through the virtues. He is also a wonderful intercessor for students. He is an ever present friend for me in my graduate studies, especially since I spend so much time in his works these days. I highly recommend reading some of his works. Perhaps start with The Aquinas Catechism or Summa Contra Gentiles. Many books have also been written by Scholastic theologians to guide you in reading St. Thomas. St. Thomas Aquinas, ora pro nobis.

image: Sailko (Own work) [CC BY 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

By

Constance T. Hull is a wife, mother, homeschooler, and a graduate student theologian with an emphasis in philosophy.  Her desire is to live the wonder so passionately preached in the works of G.K. Chesterton and to share that with her daughter and others. While you can frequently find her head inside of a great work of theology or philosophy, she considers her husband and daughter to be her greatest teachers. She is passionate about beauty, working towards holiness, the Sacraments, and all things Catholic. She is also published at The Federalist, Public Discourse, and blogs frequently at Swimming the Depths (www.swimmingthedepths.com).

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  • noelfitz

    Constance,

    Was it Pius IX or XI who wrote Studiorum Ducem?

    Sorry for being pedantic.

    Perhaps it is worth considering that Plato, Cicero, Ambrose, Augustine and the Bible also considered the cardinal virtues, so our understanding of them is not only due to Aristotle and Aquinas.

  • Constance

    Noel, It’s the Feast of St. Thomas Aquinas, so the article focuses on his theology as it pertains to the virtues. And the IX, XI was a mix up of the fingers in typing. I’ll have the editor fix it for me. Thanks for catching it.

    Chances are if a document or theological work is referenced in a case like this it’s a typo. I was reading the document as I typed…lol. All those Roman Numerals can be tricky on the fingers, as well as in editing. It’s good to give us a heads up so it gets fixed. 🙂

  • noelfitz

    Constance,
    sorry for being picky. But your article was great. Thanks.

  • Constance,
    This is so much in line with what I have been reading about Thomistic virtues. I am in the process of writing a book about modern etiquette and how virtue development must be the motivating factor behind our good deeds. I feel I’ve found a kindred spirit in you!

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