Human Flourishing: Theology and the Life of Grace
Blackfriars, Oxford - March 2010
‘Man infinitely surpasses man’, says Blaise Pascal (Pensées, 434), a thought quoted by Pope Paul VI in his encyclical letter Populorum Progressio (§42), one of the great church documents on human flourishing. Philosophy has always included a sense of this, intimations of a transcendence seen at least in those human activities of thought and choice that make philosophy possible in the first place. Plato’s eros, for example, seems to be a force or desire that carries the human being ever onward in a search for the good, for truth and beauty. A Christianised version of it is well known from Augustine - ‘our hearts are restless’ – so far, so much agreement – ‘until they rest in you’, Augustine says, identifying the object of the heart’s quest with God and prefacing his statement with the reason why this must be the terminus: ‘you have made us for yourself’. As Sister Maria Boulding’s wonderful translation of the Confessions puts it, ‘you arouse us so that praising you may bring us joy, because you have made and drawn us to yourself, and our heart is unquiet until it rests in you’.
Aristotle too sees something ‘divine’ in the knowledge of truth, saying, in Nicomachean Ethics X.7, that the highest exercise of the highest faculty – the highest flourishing available to us has something god-like about it:
But if happiness (eudaimonia) consists in activity in accordance with virtue (arete), it is reasonable that it should be activity in accordance with the highest virtue; and this will be the virtue of the best part of us. Whether then this be the intellect (nous), or whatever else it be that is thought to rule and lead us by nature, and to have cognizance of what is noble and divine, either as being itself also actually divine (theion) or as being relatively the divinest part of us (theiotaton), it is the activity of this part of us in accordance with the virtue proper to it that will constitute perfect happiness; and it has been stated already that this activity is the activity of contemplation (theoretike) [1177a12-19; see also 1177b31-34]
Except that it has not been stated already, at least not in the Nicomachean Ethics and this text causes perplexity to interpreters of Aristotle for other reasons also; I mean if they are keen to distance Aristotle from anything that seems too platonic and to see his real understanding of human flourishing in the more horizontal, perhaps even secular, accounts of the magnanimous man living serenely and confidently in the moderate enjoyment of all the good things life offers.
But the idea that human flourishing is found in some kind of transcending of limitation continues to be a concern in many philosophers. This is the argument of Fergus Kerr in his Stanton Lectures in the Philosophy of Religion, given in 1994-95 and published as Immortal Longings: Versions of Transcending Humanity (1997). His aim in those lectures was to focus on the religion in some recent philosophy, to express dismay at how scant and how poor is some educated peoples’ knowledge of Christian theology, while seeking to show how theological preconceptions are nevertheless working in much modern philosophy. His substantive question – and a version of it can be ours also at this point in the day – is whether there are ways of acknowledging the limitations of human existence without regarding these limitations as barriers on the one hand, and without eliminating our desire to transcend our finitude on the other. I say ‘a version of it’ because I don’t suppose it is the case that many people explicitly describe their desire in this way: ‘I want to transcend my finititude’. It is more likely that people say ‘I want to be as happy as I can be’, or ‘I want to live as fruitfully and as joyfully as possible’, or ‘I want to fulfil the potential of my life’, or ‘I want to live in accordance with what is true about me and my life’.
Is Pascal’s thought a silly one, perhaps even a bad one that ought not to be entertained? Would Augustine’s restless heart not have settled down if he had simply been able to love his woman and his child, the loves identified by Umberto Eco in Foucault’s Pendulum as the loves in which a man’s flourishing consists?
In the opening article of his Summa theologiae, Aquinas speaks of human flourishing, salus humana – human health, wellbeing, salvation, or, we can say, flourishing. This health or flourishing requires yet one more discipline or teaching, he says, sacra doctrina. This is the case because the human being is oriented to God as to his goal or end, an orientation that is beyond the comprehension of the human mind. A human being cannot direct his intentions and actions to this end unless he has come to know it. So it is necessary, for human health or flourishing, that these matters be made known through divine revelation. Aquinas knows there is a part of philosophy called ‘theology’ and that philosophers have presented versions of transcending humanity, but he is saying that some further knowledge is needed because some new finality for human aspiration has been revealed.
What can be known about God otherwise than through this sacra doctrina – by human reason alone – would only be understood by very few people, over a long time, and with many distortions. But – he says it for the third time in a short passage – the entire health or flourishing of humankind (tota hominis salus) depends on knowledge of this truth which (the knowledge or the truth?) is in God. So that this health or flourishing might therefore be quickly and certainly accessible to people, it is necessary that they be instructed about divine things through a divine revelation.
This introduces us to how Aquinas understands the science or discipline of sacra doctrina, which from what we know about him we can translate as ‘sacred teaching’ or as ‘Christian doctrine’. He goes on in that first question of the Summa theologiae to propose that this doctrine or teaching – let’s call it ‘theology’ for short – is a subalternated science, of which there are many examples among the sciences, an area of research and knowledge which accepts some or all of its fundamental principles from a superior science and gets on with its business untroubled by the fact that it cannot itself establish those principles through itself. The superior science in this case is God’s knowledge of himself and of all things. This is the science that establishes theology’s first principles, a science that becomes accessible to us through revelation and faith, theology then being the systematic investigation of what has become known through revelation and faith. The point here, from our point of view, is that this is not just interesting information about things that have nothing crucial to do with us: this is the truth about the full flourishing of the human being, tota hominis salus (ST I 1,1 in c).
Another word for the experience in which this flourishing is found is beatitudo, a theme that links all parts of this theological system: God’s happiness is complete (ST I 26), humans are drawn towards it as their end (ST I.II 1-5), and their entering into possession of it is made possible by the incarnation of the Word who showed us in himself the way of truth by which we may arrive at the full flourishing of eternal life (ST III prologue). In this Aquinas structures his theology according to one of the first principles presented to us by revelation: that the Son of God propter nos homines et propter nostram salutem descendit de caelis, for us, human beings, and for our flourishing. He came that we might have life and have it abundantly (John 10:10).
So far what have I done? Well I have reminded us that philosophy has often concerned itself with a human desire to get beyond what are experienced as negotiable limits to that desire. And I have reminded us that theology thinks of itself as carrying us further, though in the same direction. Faith is not ‘reason’s opposite’ as a character in one of Brian Moore’s novels puts it: faith extends reason’s reach and gives it more things to think about.
In the second part I want to speak about a version of transcending humanity we find in Plotinus, known to Aquinas and considered by him, but not incorporated into Aquinas general systematic account of human flourishing. I do it as another way of circling round the same question. At this point, that question has become that of trying to demonstrate that human flourishing is, in the end, not achieved but received.
In that part of his inaugural lecture that is entitled ‘on the commendation and the division of the scriptures’, Aquinas appeals to a section of Plotinus’ Enneads (I 2) in support of the view that what Aquinas calls precepts of wisdom are given to us in the books of Proverbs, Ecclesiastes and Song of Songs. This is what Aquinas says (he is trying to present a plausible rationale for all the books of the Bible):
… these (Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song) can be distinguished according to the three grades of virtue distinguished by Plotinus, since precepts of wisdom ought to be about nothing else than acts of virtues. In the first level, are what he (Plotinus) calls political virtues by which a person makes moderate use of the things of this world and is appropriately involved in social affairs. The Book of Proverbs is about these virtues. In the second level, are the ‘virtues of the one being purified’ by which a person withdraws himself from the things of the world out of contempt for them. The Book of Ecclesiastes is about these virtues: Jerome says Ecclesiastes is geared towards such contempt. In the third level, are the ‘virtues of the one who is purified’ by which a person, effectively free of temporal concerns, delights in the contemplation of wisdom. The Song of Songs is about this (De commendatione et partitione sacrae scripturae [Marietti, Opuscula Theologica I, §1207).
There are no precepts of wisdom for Plotinus’ fourth level. This is the level of ‘exemplar virtues’, or virtues as they exist in God: ‘precepts are not given about such virtues’, Aquinas says, ‘but are rather derived from them’.
Enneads I 2 is a typical weaving together by Plotinus of ideas from Plato (the purpose of life is to become godlike) and from Aristotle (distinguishing moral and intellectual virtues, and being clear that moral virtues are not found in God). It is known to Aquinas through the writings of Macrobius who summarised Plotinus’ teaching about these four levels of virtue: the civic or political virtues (which are the cardinal virtues as normally understood), exemplar virtues (which are the same qualities at the divine level with appropriate Aristotelian-informed qualifications), virtues in the process of purification, and virtues in the achieved state of purification (with the energy of a Platonic ascent charging an Aristotelian and even Ciceronian valuing of the active life).
After his appeal to it in his inaugural lecture, Aquinas speaks of it again in his commentary on the Sentences of Peter Lombard, once where he discusses whether the cardinal virtues remain in heaven (In III Sent 33, 1, 4 ad 2) and again where he discusses the difference between virtues and gifts (In III Sent 34, 1, 1 ad 6). In this latter text it is Nicomachean Ethics VII.1 [1145a24] to which he appeals for the point that divine goodness is something more exalted than virtue.
The plotinian distinction of levels of virtue is again introduced in Quaestiones disputatae de Veritate 26,8, this time in a discussion of what passions were in Christ. In his response Aquinas talks about the difference between Stoic and Peripatetic understandings of passion. The Stoics were thinking of Plotinus’ third level, Thomas says, virtues as they are in the purified soul where passion is not just managed but overcome. The Aristotelians were thinking of the reasonable management of passions, not their elimination. So the famous difference between the two schools, as described by Augustine, is a matter of terminology, Thomas says, rather than a real difference in understanding. For the purpose of his present argument it is just two levels of Plotinus’ four that are relevant, the civic or political virtues which he now identifies with the active life, and the virtues of the purified soul which he identifies with the contemplative life.
Aquinas’s most extensive use of Plotinus’ levels of virtue is in Summa theologiae I.II 61,5. It comes between the four articles in which he discusses the cardinal virtues (61, 1-4) and the four articles in which he discusses the theological virtues (62, 1-4). It might seem then to be a linking article and the ways in which it is and is not a linking article serve to focus something crucial about my topic: human flourishing and the life of grace. The most striking thing here is that Aquinas considers, between the cardinal and theological virtues, a philosophical version of transcending humanity, one that weaves together beautifully the teaching of Platonists, Aristotelians and Stoics, one that is easily adapted to contrasting the active and contemplative lives, and one that is easily incorporated into a spiritual journey or quest. Pierre Hadot says that in Neoplatonism ‘the idea of spiritual progress plays a much more explicit role than in Plato’s writings’ and that ‘the stages of spiritual progress corresponded to different degrees of virtue’ (Philosophy as a Way of Life: Spiritual Exercises from Socrates to Foucault, p.99).
In spite of all this, Plotinus’ does not become Aquinas’ preferred way of speaking about the fulfilment brought by grace, the possibility for human flourishing opened up by grace. Instead he speaks of what he calls ‘theological virtue’, of which there are, he says, three, ‘faith, hope and charity’. These are what Saint Paul had called ‘the higher gifts’ (1 Corinthians 12:31).
In Summa theologiae I.II 61,5 Aquinas begins his consideration of Plotinus’ four levels by quoting Augustine who says that the human soul must aspire to something if virtue is to be born in it. We aspire to God, Augustine says, and so (Aquinas adds) it is in God that the exemplar of human virtue pre-exists. So we can speak of God as prudent, temperate, courageous and just: Thomas says this even though Aristotle says it is ridiculous to use these terms of God (arg 1 and ad 1). To call them political virtues is in line with Thomas’s normal understanding of them, as rightly ordering human affairs.
What does he say then about Plotinus’ other two levels of virtue? Well, even Aristotle agrees that human beings should draw themselves towards divine things as far as they are able. Nicomachean Ethics X.7 is once again the place Thomas has in mind, this time the passage in which Aristotle says that complete human happiness requires a life higher than the human level: ‘not in virtue of his humanity will a man achieve it, but in virtue of something within him that is divine … we ought as far as possible to achieve immortality’ [1177b26]. Thus Aristotle, and the scriptures often commend the same thing to us, Thomas says, for example, ‘you must be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect’ (Matthew 5:48). So intermediate virtues are required between the political virtues, which are simply human, and the exemplar virtues, which are divine.
Such virtues, Thomas continues, are distinguished according to movement and rest, the one concerned with the journey into a likeness to God and the other concerned with the state of having attained to likeness to God. These are the levels of purifying and purified virtues, and he describes how the characteristics of prudence, temperance, fortitude and justice are found at each of these two levels. The virtues of purified souls are found only in the blessed, and in certain very perfect people in this life (aliquorum in hac vita perfectissimorum).
This final article of Summa theologiae I.II 61 throws into sharper relief the question posed then in the first article of I.II 62: what then are theological virtues when we have, as the second objection notes, already spoken about an exemplar or divine level of virtue, the cardinal virtues as they pre-exist in God? In fact all the objections here express this view: don’t we know already that man infinitely surpasses man and naturally aspires to immortality?
Thomas’s response opens a can of theological worms. Virtue perfects the human being, he says, enabling him to act in ways that lead to his flourishing. There is, however, a twofold flourishing or happiness for human beings. One is proportionate to human nature and is attainable through principles that are natural. The other is a flourishing that exceeds nature and is attainable only through divine power, only if we have come to participate in divinity. The Second Letter of Peter says that through Christ we are made ‘partakers of the divine nature’ (2 Peter 1:4). This requires the addition, Thomas says, of principles or powers by which a person is oriented to this supernatural flourishing (beatitudo supernaturalis). These principles or powers are called theological virtues for three reasons: they have God as their object rightly ordering us to God, they are in us simply from God, and they are available to us only through divine revelation in sacred scripture.
So he does not simply say ‘yes, there are theological virtues and Plato, Aristotle and Plotinus knew it, even though all three philosophers give us versions of humanity transcending to the divine. Human nature itself is transformed, Thomas says, so that these supernatural virtues are the ‘natural’ activities of that transformed nature. Plotinus’ divine or exemplar virtues are predicated of God whereas faith, hope and charity are virtues placed in us by God and towards God.
We thus glimpse grace. There is much more that could be said and much more that should be said: about the theological virtues and the gifts of the Spirit, about the new law and the sacraments, about sanctifying grace, charismatic gifts and particular vocations. The full human flourishing revealed in Christ does not simply meet our aspirations towards it. The text of Isaiah to which Thomas had access allows him to quote the prophet saying ‘without you, no eye can see what you have prepared for those who love you’ (Summa theologiae I 1,1 in c [cf Isaiah 64:4 and 1 Corinthians 2:9). Those aspirations also need to be corrected and redeemed, not simply in order to extend the reach of intellect and will through faith and hope, but also, and above all, through charity. Paul’s speech to the philosophers of Athens recorded in Acts 17 is the first and paradigmatic instance of sacra doctrina and philosophy being introduced to each other. And it went well, up to a point, and then it broke down. At what point did it break down? It broke down when Paul began to speak of the ultimate reality having an interest in us that was more than the desire to make sport with us. It broke down when Paul said that this ultimate reality had intervened in human history in one man. And it broke down when Paul said that that intervention in one man has illuminated the need and poverty of our situation and shown it to be more conflicted, more pitiable, than we can realise by ourselves. It broke down, finally, because Paul called them to conversion: imagine, asking philosophers to consider changing their minds!
Faith, hope and charity are not so much then a new level of virtues just like the ones we already know about as they are a new light and a new life which touches all the earlier levels. In fact this perspective of theological virtue shows itself most clearly in the place nearest to us, as our faith and hope in God enable us to relate to the neighbour, the needy neighbour, as God relates to us. The needy neighbour’s flourishing requires that we give him food, drink and clothing, his lack of freedom or lack of health requires that we visit and take care of him, his strangeness requires that we receive him and his otherness requires that we be reconciled with each other.