. 5
( 8)


public dichotomy in the moral life. For instance, in the same ST article
where Aquinas endorses Aristotle™s ¬rst political-philosophic foundation
in humanity™s political nature, he writes: “[I]n some things we are directed
according to reason in relation to ourselves only, and not in reference
to our neighbor; and when man sins in these matters, he is said to sin
against himself, as is seen in the glutton, the lustful, and the prodigal.
But when man sins in matters concerning his neighbor, he is said to sin
against his neighbor, as appears in the thief and the murderer. Now the
things whereby man is directed to God, his neighbor, and himself are
diverse . . . [and] the virtues also, to which sins are opposed, differ specif-
ically in respect of these three. For it is evident from what has been said
(ST I“II 62, 1“3) that by the theological virtues man is directed to God;
by temperance and fortitude, to himself; and by justice to his neighbor”
(ST I“II 72, 4).

13 On the important role Aquinas assigns to fortitude in upholding justice and the common
good, see inter alia ST II“II 58, 12; 123, 5; 123, 12, ad 1, 3, 5.
Aquinas™s Social and Civic Foundations

On closer inspection, however, the disjunction between this passage
and the one we have been considering is only apparent. To use a grammat-
ical metaphor, the fact that different “direct and indirect objects” specify
the proper acts of distinct virtues and vices does not alter Aquinas™s case
that these all re¬‚ect and redound upon the soul of the same “subject,”
and that this subject is never an isolated, atomistic individual. Insofar
as voluntary actions improve or worsen my character as a human being,
they thereby render me a better or worse family member and member of
society. Not every act actually increases a virtue or a vice, which charac-
teristics or habits are too engrained to be easily altered (ST I“II 52, 3; cf.
53, 1“3), but each voluntary act of suf¬cient intensity at least disposes a
person to progress or decline in virtue or vice. And, since one may be moti-
vated to commit unjust acts by vicious inclinations that are not themselves
injustice “ cowardice, for instance, or sloth, or vainglory, or intemper-
ance “, and conversely with the other virtues vis-` -vis acts of justice, signif-
icant growth in any of the other virtues or vices is likely to affect my ability
to live justly as a member of my political society.14 The kind and degree
of the social impact of speci¬c actions will obviously vary dramatically
(compare, say, a small act of self-discipline for a good reason, or a deed
of liberality to a friend in the context of one™s everyday life, with an act
of supererogatory fortitude that saves a multitude of fellow citizens and
edi¬es still more). But the crux of the matter remains that, according to
Aquinas, one would be hard pressed to ¬nd a human act the effects of
which remain securely and entirely enclosed, in a predictable way, within
the individual agent.
Even granted this understanding of the natural social impact of human
action, however, the question still remains as to whether every human
act, as essentially an ethical action, has speci¬cally political relevance.
While some of Aquinas™s formulations, as we have seen, may give that
impression, he explicitly rejects this conclusion. In the ¬nal article of
ST I“II, 21, Aquinas distinguishes between the extent to which human life
is ordered to political society from its higher and fully all-encompassing
ordination to God: “Man [the “inclusive” form: homo] is not ordained to
the political community according to all that he is and all that he has; and
so it should not be [non oportet] that every action of his acquires merit

14 Cf. also Xenophon˜s Memorabilia II.1, where Socrates instructs the rather soft Aristippus
on the political import of facility for performing acts of moderation; cf. also the cases
made by Pieper (1966, 158“9) and Kries (2002) that more attention needs to be given
to temperance or moderation precisely in the context of justice and the common good.
Finishing the Foundations and Beginning to Build 129

or demerit in relation [per ordinem] to the political community. But all
that man is, and is able to do, and has, must be referred to God, and
therefore every human action, whether good or bad, acquires merit or
demerit [habet rationem meriti vel demeriti] in the sight of God, from the very
essence of that act” (ST I“II 21, 4, ad 3; cf. 19, 9; 72, 4; 91, 4). Aquinas™s
case here, building on many lengthy earlier arguments in ST I for the
unquali¬ed relation of every human act to God, runs thus:

As stated above (ST I“II 21, 3), the act of any man has the aspect of merit or
demerit, according as it is ordained to another, whether to a person or to a
community; and in each way, our actions, good and evil, acquire merit or demerit
in the sight of God. On the part of God himself, inasmuch as He is man™s last
end; and it is our duty to refer all our actions to the last end, as stated above (I“II
19, 10). Consequently, whoever does an evil deed, not referable to God, does
not give God the honor due to him as our last end. On the part of the whole
community of the universe, because in every community, he who governs the
community cares ¬rst of all for the common good; wherefore it is his business
to award recompense for such things as are done well or ill in the community.
Now God is the governor and ruler of the whole universe, as stated in the First
Part (I 103, 5), and especially of rational creatures.15 Consequently it is evident
that human actions acquire merit or demerit in reference to Him: else it would
follow that human actions are no concern of God™s (I“II 21, 4; cf. I 49, 3; 47, 2;
SCG III.64, 111“21, 140).

Aquinas™s earlier suggestion that all human acts affect “the whole com-
munity” should thus be read as referring and referable to various com-
munities, hierarchically ordered among themselves, in various ways and
to various degrees. Only with regard to the truly comprehensive univer-
sal community, and especially to God as transcendent end and governor
of the same, is there a total or absolute relation.16 Needless to say, on
this fundamental issue the relation of each human being (not only the
human species, or only its “pinnacle” in the philosopher) to the univer-
sal community, and directly to God as ultimate end or highest common

15 On this topic see Oliva Blanchette™s The Perfection of the Universe according to Aquinas: A
Teleological Cosmology (1992).
16 Cf. Fortin (1996, 2:273): “[Aquinas™s] point seems to be that civil society is not the
sole society to which human beings are ordered. The individual person does indeed
transcend civil society, but only as a member or part of a universal community, ruled by
God, whose common good is eo facto preferable to that of any particular society. The good
in which human beings ¬nd their perfection is never a ˜private good™ but a good that is
shared or capable of being shared by others and which for that reason takes precedence
over any good that they could claim as theirs alone.” See also Schall (1996, 132“5) for a
related discussion.
Aquinas™s Social and Civic Foundations

good uniting those who love him, Aquinas shows himself decisively more
Augustinian than Aristotelian.
Still, what exactly does Aquinas have in mind in the preceding passage,
with regard to the ways human beings transcend the political order, by
what they are and are capable of and have? One wishes that Aquinas had
said more here. Given the contrast he draws between God and political
society as ends of human life, we might tentatively begin from those fully
interior actions whereby a person directs, or fails to direct, him- or herself
to God (cf. inter alia I“II 72, 4; 71, 6, ad 5; 71, 2, ad 4; 96, 3, ad 3), and the
highest perfections of intellect and will, namely, wisdom “ both natural
(cf. ST I“II 66, 5, ad 1 and 3) and a fortiori supernatural (cf. II“II 45) “
and the theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity. But as is well known,
Aquinas affords civil authority in predominantly Christian societies some
jurisdiction in punishing ecclesial offenses, especially that of public in¬-
delity to publicly assumed faith commitments. We will return to consider
this critical problem with Thomistic theory on religion, politics, and the
common good in Chapter 9.

5.3 Cardinal Virtues as Social and Civic Virtues “ with a
Divine Exemplar
Thus far in our attempt to grasp Aquinas™s account of the interrelation
between common goods and the human good more generally, we have
focused on some rami¬cations of natural sociability for the internal acts
of the will, and the external acts to which willing often gives rise, in pursuit
of the good and the common good. Now we progress to virtue proper, by
which the individual human being is perfected and habitually inclined
to act well.
Aquinas in the ST presents the moral virtues as properly human virtues,
especially in the context of the social and civic common good. While
moral virtues that “regard the passions” are grounded in the good order
of the human being within him- or herself, this cannot be achieved with-
out proper dispositions and habits of conduct toward the other members
of one™s communities, and toward those communities themselves and
their common goods. In his investigation of prudence, practical wisdom
comprising both moral and intellectual excellence, Aquinas posits that
“[h]e that seeks the good of many, seeks in consequence his own good,
for two reasons. First, because the individual good is impossible without
the common good of the family, city, or kingdom. Hence Valerius Max-
imus says of the ancient Romans that ˜they would rather be poor in a
Finishing the Foundations and Beginning to Build 131

rich empire than rich in a poor empire.™ Secondly, because since man is
a part of the home and political community, he needs to consider what
is good for him by being prudent about the good of the many. For the
good disposition of parts depends on their relation to the whole; thus
Augustine says (Confessions 3.8) that ˜any part which does not harmo-
nize with its whole is offensive™” (ST II“II 47, 10, ad 2; cf. II“II 50, 1“4).
As we have seen, the human being is not simply or unproblematically a
part of any concrete political community, not even by nature: the human
social and civic inclination has a more universal and divine origin, and
hence a higher and more transcendent end. In Chapter 7, we will see how
Aquinas™s natural law theory implies that in harmonizing with the divine
will and the universal community under God, a person may in fact need
to be “offensive” with a view to the understandings of civic justice and
goodness promoted by his or her particular polity and its regime.17 This
was how Martin Luther King, Jr., for instance, understood it when arguing
for prudentially employed nonviolent civil disobedience, notwithstand-
ing the societal tension and disruption it unavoidably entailed. Still, given
the natural human orientation toward and need for political society, one
should, in Aquinas™s view, try to “harmonize” whenever and as far as
possible, seeking to understand and work for one™s own ful¬llment in
a more open and generous context comprising also the welfare of oth-
ers, perhaps many others, and with moderate expectations due to the
unavoidable limitations of this-worldly politics and human law (cf. I“II
96, 2“3).
In Aquinas™s paradigm, the cultivation of the ethical virtues should
not be done solely with a view to bene¬t the individual, but should also
extend to serve the family, the civic community, and the community of the
universe, all under God and ultimately for the sake of God. With reference
to Aristotle™s remark that the moral virtues are “more lasting even than
the sciences” (NE I), Aquinas suggests that this is the case insofar as
the moral virtues “are practiced in matters pertaining to the life of the
community”18 (ST I“II 66, 3, obj. 1 and ad 1).19 The nature and dignity

17 On this topic, cf. MacIntyre (1988b).
18 It is helpful here and throughout to recall that the Latin language has no articles, de¬nite
or inde¬nite. This can make Aquinas™s theory dif¬cult to decipher in precise terms and
appear more rigid or monolithic than it really is, due to the ring in English of renderings
such as “the community” for communitas or “the common good” for bonum commune.
19 The passage continues as follows: “Yet it is evident that the objects of the sciences, which
are necessary and invariable, are more lasting than the objects of moral virtue, which are
certain particular matters of action. . . . Indeed, the speculative intellectual virtues, from
Aquinas™s Social and Civic Foundations

of moral virtue come fully to light only in the context of that sociability
that inclines us to transcend our individual selves with a view to the good
life and common good. The human person even in temporal affairs is
impoverished by a narrow focus on the self; by nature, to say nothing of
grace, human aspiration can and should extend much further. As I will
show, Aquinas views the temporal, “political and social” orientation of the
virtues as an initial step in an ascent of self-transcendence that culminates
in union with God.

The Four Cardinal Virtues
The second part of the ST (ST I“II and II“II), with its dialectical inquiry
into ethics and the virtues, has been called Aquinas™s “real” commentary
on the NE (see Weisheipl 1974, 222“3). Given the abundance of ref-
erences to the NE in this massive Thomistic tome and the myriad ways
Aquinas appropriates, develops, and alters elements of Aristotelian eth-
ical theory in this work, the point is well taken. Yet it is striking that
the “real” Commentary on the Ethics is not consistently structured as
such; most noticeably, its detailed treatment of the virtues in ST II“II fails
to follow Aristotle™s ordering in the NE.20 Rather, Aquinas™s account is
built around two un-Aristotelian classi¬cations of virtue, one speci¬cally
Christian in the “theological virtues” of faith, hope, and charity (ST II“II
1“46) and the other principally Platonic in its origins (cf. ST II“II 47“
170). Among the virtues, the Platonic philosophic tradition and later the
Patristic theological tradition singled out four as singularly important for
the ¬‚ourishing of human beings in personal, social, and civic life. These
became known as the “cardinal virtues,” from cardo, cardinis, the Latin
word for “hinge.”21 By implication, a fully virtuous life turns on these

the very fact that they are not referred to something else, as a useful thing is referred to
an end, are more excellent. The reason for this is that in them we have a kind of beginning
[as opposed to an actual or near-completion, in Aristotle™s formulation] of that happiness
which consists in the knowledge of truth, as stated above (ST I“II 3, 6)” (emphasis added;
cf. I“II 57, 1, ad 2).
20 In his Quaestiones disputatae de virtutibus, Aquinas similarly declines to follow Aristotle™s
ordering of ethical virtues, adopting instead the framework of the four cardinal virtues.
21 Ernest Fortin(1996, 1:165n5) notes that this use of the term “cardinal” seems to have
originated with St. Ambrose, Commentary on Luke™s Gospel V.49 and 62. Cf. also Ambrose™s
De of¬ciis I.14 (I am grateful to J. Brian Benestad for this reference). For a sense of
the central role played by Cicero™s Rhetoric and De of¬ciis in Aquinas™s identi¬cation of
the relation of other moral virtues to these four cardinal virtues, and so in setting the
structural paradigm for this massive part of ST II“II, see inter alia ST I“II 61, 3, s.c.; II“II
49, 1, s.c.; 49, 2, s.c.; 128; 129, preface.
Finishing the Foundations and Beginning to Build 133

four characteristics, which together comprise the sine qua non of the
good life.
Aquinas™s initial or “general” consideration of the four cardinal virtues
in ST begins by inquiring whether it is appropriate to accord such digni-
¬ed, indeed foundational, status to ethical virtues rather than to intellec-
tual or speculative virtues: “Whether moral virtues should be called car-
dinal or principal virtues?” (ST I“II 61, 1; cf. I“II 66, 3). Aquinas answers

[w]hen we speak of virtue simply, we are understood to speak of human virtue.
Now human virtue, as stated above (I“II 56, 3), is [excellence] that answers to the
perfect idea of virtue [rationem virtutis], which requires rectitude of the appetite:
for such like virtue not only confers the faculty of doing well, but also causes
the good deed done. On the other hand, the name virtue is [also] applied to
[excellence] that answers imperfectly to the idea of virtue, and does not require
rectitude of the appetite [i.e., intellectual virtue]: because it merely confers the
faculty of doing well, without causing the good deed to be done. Now it is evident
that the perfect is principal as compared to the imperfect: and so those virtues which
imply rectitude of the appetite are called principal virtues. Such are the moral virtues,
and prudence alone of the intellectual virtues, for it is also something of a moral
virtue, as was clearly shown above (I“II 57, 4). Consequently, those virtues which
are called principal or cardinal are ¬ttingly placed among the moral virtues (I“II
61, 1, emphasis added).22

Aquinas thus follows the Patristic tradition in deeming prudence, justice,
temperance, and fortitude the four cardinal virtues (I“II 61, 2).

From Aristotle to the Platonists, Cicero, and Augustine
Aquinas™s initial overview of the cardinal virtues in ST is markedly dif-
ferent in tone from most of the six preceding questions dealing with
the general topic of the virtues. The change can be seen by comparing
the “authorities” [auctoritates] Aquinas chooses to cite, particularly in his
sed contra sections.23 Questions 55“60 of ST I“II treat, respectively, the
essence of virtue (Q. 55), the subject of the virtues (Q. 56), the intellec-
tual virtues (Q. 57), the difference between moral and intellectual virtue

22 Cf. also Aquinas™s reply to a rather Aristotelian objection in favor of the intellectual
virtues as principal: “Although the intellectual virtues, except for prudence, rank before
[sint principaliores: literally, are more principal than] the moral virtues in point of their
subject, they do not rank before them as virtues [quantum ad rationem virtutis]; for a virtue
as such regards good, which is the object of the appetite” (ST I“II 61, 1, ad 3).
23 See Jesse Covington™s “On What Authority? Citation Religiosity in Aquinas on Justice in
Summa Theologica” (2003), which offers a highly original statistical analysis of ST II“II
57“80 and 120.
Aquinas™s Social and Civic Foundations

(Q. 58), moral virtue in relation to the passions (Q. 59), and how the
moral virtues differ from one another (Q. 60). The structure, content,
and tone of all these inquiries are profoundly Aristotelian. In the thirty-
one sed contra sections, Aristotle is cited as an authority in no fewer than
twenty;24 and in those articles where the Philosopher does not appear
in the sed contra, he often occupies a prominent place in Aquinas™s own
response. As if to underscore the Aristotelian character of this segment™s
analysis, moreover, the ¬nal article of the series guides readers on a veri-
table tour of the elevenfold classi¬cation of the ethical virtues elaborated
in Aristotle™s NE (see I“II 60, 5).
In ST I“II 61, however, where to complete his initial analysis of the
moral virtues Aquinas turns his attention to the cardinal virtues, Aristotle
all but drops out of the picture. He is not cited in any one of the ¬ve
sed contra passages. Which interlocutors take the Philosopher™s place? A
cast of broadly Neoplatonic and Patristic characters: Ambrose, Gregory,
Cicero, Augustine, Macrobius, and Plotinus. A closer look at the ¬fth and
¬nal article of this question (I“II 61, 5) illuminates Aquinas™s new empha-
sis in explaining ethical virtue and helps reveal its civic signi¬cance.
In this article Aquinas elaborates and defends an intriguing Neopla-
tonic presentation of the cardinal virtues, quoting in his sed contra and
treating in his response Macrobius™s summary of Plotinus™s philosophic
teaching: “Plotinus, together with Plato foremost among teachers of phi-
losophy, says: ˜The four kinds of virtue are fourfold. Of these the ¬rst
are called political [politicae] virtues; the second, cleansing [purgatoriae]
virtues; the third, virtues of the already cleansed soul [iam purgati animi];
the fourth, exemplar [exemplares] virtues™” (ST I“II 61, 5, sed contra, quot-
ing Macrobius, Super somnium Scipionis 1).
“Exemplar virtues,” Aquinas glosses in his response, refer to the “types”
[rationes] of these virtues preexisting in God (cf. ST I 4, 2“3), and “accord-
ingly virtue may be considered as it exists originally (est exemplariter)
in God”; “cleansing,” to the virtues proper to those who have already
attained similitude with God; “of the clean soul,” to those by which
human things are transcended as the soul moves toward God. But in terms
of properly human affairs, Aquinas also maintains, the cardinal virtues
are best considered “political.” “[S]ince man by his nature is a political

24 Here is a more detailed breakdown of these sed contra citations of Aristotle: Q. 55, in
three of four; Q. 56, in three of six; Q. 57, in ¬ve of six; Q. 58, in four of ¬ve; Q. 59,
in three of ¬ve; Q. 60, in two of ¬ve. Aristotle returns as a central sed contra authority in
Q. 64 (on the “mean” of virtue), in three of four sed contra passages; and again in Q. 66
(on the “equality” of the virtues), in three of six sed contra passages.
Finishing the Foundations and Beginning to Build 135

animal, these virtues, insofar as they are in him according to the condition
of his nature, are called political virtues; since it is by reason of them that
man conducts himself rightly in human affairs.” Moreover, as Aquinas
is quick to clarify, “[i]t is in this sense that we have been speaking of
these virtues until now.” As we human beings apprehend them, the cardi-
nal virtues are ¬rstly “political [virtues], which are human virtues,” “the
virtues of humans living together in this world (virtutes hominum in hoc
mundo conversantium)” (ST I“II 61, 5, c. and ad 2).25
Of the article™s four “objections” and corresponding responses, one is
particularly relevant to our purposes. Aquinas writes, “[Macrobius] says
that ˜cleansing™ virtues are those of the man ˜who by ¬‚ying from human
affairs devotes himself exclusively to the things of God.™ But it seems
wrong to do this, for Cicero says (De of¬ciis 1): ˜I reckon that it is not only
unworthy of praise, but wicked for a man to say that he despises what most
men admire, viz., power and of¬ce.™ Therefore there are no ˜cleansing™
virtues” (ST I“II 61, 5, obj. 3). A classical republican ethos clearly informs
this moral stance. In his rejoinder, Aquinas invokes and weaves together
arguments from two authorities, Cicero himself (this time in his cau-
tiously philosophic mode) and the less guarded Augustine. “To neglect
human affairs when necessity forbids is vicious; in other instances it is
virtuous. Hence Cicero says a little earlier: ˜Perhaps one should concede
that those should not take up public affairs [rempublicam] who by rea-
son of their exceptional talents have devoted themselves to learning; as
also those who have retired from public life [a republica recesserunt] on
account of failing health, or for some other yet weightier motive; when
such men yielded to others the power and renown of authority.™ This
agrees with what Augustine says (City of God XIX.19): ˜The love of truth
[caritas veritatis] seeks a holy leisure [otium sanctum]; the necessity of love

25 The revised order in which Aquinas himself treats Plotinus™s fourfold classi¬cation in the
body of his article is also instructive. He begins not with the “social virtues,” but rather
with the “exemplar virtues,” as the ultimate cause of human virtues. Then, instead of
descending immediately to the “perfect virtues,” he addresses the social virtues as the
most properly human, the ¬rst step in the self-transcendence that is the mark of true
human dignity. Then the ascent to God proceeds from perfecting through to perfect
virtues. The order of Aquinas™s response thus parallels the overall structure of the ST:
God, the One who is Good, as ¬rst cause of all that is; the procession of creatures, with
their proper natures, from the One; and ¬nally, the return of the many, especially rational
creatures elevated to the order of grace, to the One. The human ascent is possible only
because of divine condescension, both on the order of nature as a gratuitous gift and
on the nature of doubly gratuitous grace. Plotinus˜s order of strict ascent appears to be
purely philosophic; Aquinas™s revised version is theological.
Aquinas™s Social and Civic Foundations

[necessitas caritatis] takes up just works [negotium iustum]. If no one lays
this burden on us we may devote ourselves to the study and contempla-
tion of truth; but if the burden is laid on us it is to be taken up under the
necessity of love™” (ST I“II 61, 5, ad 3).
The ¬nal quote from Augustine re¬‚ects the overarching paradigm of
love as divine love or charity “ caritas “ in ethics and politics, and its mode
of interacting with both the intellectual and moral virtues on Aquinas™s
account. Caritas both motivates and surpasses the philosophic and the
active life; it should inspire both the one and the other, and ultimately
unites them in a coherent unity of human life (both justice and charity,
on Aquinas™s understanding, are virtues of the will, or the intellectual
appetite proper to rational creatures capable of contemplation). This
paradigm transforms classical political philosophy even while upholding
with it the centrality of justice and the highest human telos of contem-
plation. As is often the case with Aquinas™s Aristotelian commentaries, it
is apparent enough that Cicero and Augustine are not making exactly
the same point; Aquinas™s gloss that they are coherent with one another
raises as well as resolves many questions. Clearly, Augustine™s worldview
both offers the stronger motivation for even the most gifted to engage in
public service, should their services be required for the common good,
and presents a form of contemplation that does not separate the contem-
plator from his or her fellows. Even contemplation must value truth as
a common good and be with a will to the good of all, since the highest
object of contemplation is a personal and universally providential God.
By nature and by grace, where both are conceived as free gifts of God, one
ought not to seek one™s own wisdom in isolation from one™s fellows or in
abstraction from their many and real needs (cf. Augustine, On Free Choice
of the Will II.12“14). It is no accident that the very ¬rst line of Aquinas™s
response (respondeo) in this article is likewise a quotation from Augustine:
“[T]he soul needs to follow something in order to give birth to virtue:
this something is God: if we follow him we shall live aright” (De Moribus
Ecclesiae VI).
In arguing for the rightness of situating moral virtue in an ascent of
human life and action from the political to the religious or divine (note
how the two remain distinct on Aquinas™s paradigm: no subsuming the
one completely under the jurisdiction of the other, no divinization of the
this-worldly state26 ), Aquinas ¬elds prominent objections from Aristotle™s

26 I am inclined to think that this was a concern of the Dominican Fathers™ translator of
this article of the ST (I“II 61, 5), however, or at least that the translator was concerned
Finishing the Foundations and Beginning to Build 137

NE on two counts. On the one hand, the Philosopher ¬‚atly denies the
¬ttingness (and the truthfulness) of attributing ethical virtues in any way
to God: “˜it is absurd to ascribe justice, fortitude, temperance, and pru-
dence to God™ (NE X.8). Therefore these virtues cannot be exemplar”
(ST I“II 61, 5, obj. 1). On the other hand, Macrobius de¬nes political
virtues as those “whereby good men work for the good of their country
and for the safety of the city”; but on Aristotle™s account (NE V.1), only
legal justice directly seeks the civic common good, apparently leaving no
place for the other three cardinal virtues as similarly political excellences
(ST I“II 61, 5, obj. 4).
In Aquinas™s replies to these two objections, we see re¬‚ected his reasons
for eschewing strict ethical and political Aristotelianism and for broad-
ening the base via insights from Platonic, Stoic, and Patristic thought in
fashioning his own political-philosophic foundations. To Aristotle™s abso-
lute distinction between the divine life of perfect intellect (nous) and
the traits of ethical virtue, Aquinas applies his hermeneutic (discussed
in Chapters 3 and 4) of “saving the appearances,” isolating and stressing
what he judges to be its element of truth. “The Philosopher is speaking
of these virtues according as they relate to human affairs; for instance,
justice about buying and selling, fortitude, about fear, and temperance,
about [passionate] desires; for in this sense it is absurd to attribute them
to God” (ad 1). Aquinas leaves the reader to note what he omits to say
in continuation and critique: that, obviously, Aristotle never argued for
any other manner in which these virtues could be attributed truthfully
to God, and so, unlike Plotinus and Macrobius, he does not posit God as
our ethical, social, and civic exemplar at all. God™s activity and excellence
are (in our terminology) purely speculative. Aristotle does not concur
with Aquinas, for example, that God™s “justice is in the observance of his
Eternal Law in his works,” as Plotinus states. But in Aquinas™s mind, this
sort of analogical understanding of the cardinal virtues is critical. With-
out it, one cannot grasp the full horizon into which the social and civic
inclination opens. One cannot fathom either the deepest dignity or the

with impressions readers might take away of an overrating of politics and overextending
of speci¬cally political virtue. Where Aquinas™s Latin (and Macrobius™s) uses throughout
the simple adjective politica to modify virtue (virtus), the translator does not translate it
even once as “political” or “civic.” Instead, throughout this article he uses the adjective
“social” for politica, and once uses “human” instead. There are some other weak points
of this translation, for instance in its rendering of Augustine™s careful word choice and
brilliantly constructed parallelism of caritas veritatis“necessitas caritatis, etc., but the prin-
cipal ¬‚aw seems caused by a normative concern to downplay the political emphasis of
the article™s classical language and argument.
Aquinas™s Social and Civic Foundations

severest limits of human or political virtue. Aristotle™s ethical thought is
insuf¬ciently analogical precisely because it is insuf¬ciently theological.27
This is the same basic weakness that I have argued Aquinas ¬nds
in Aristotle™s natural right teaching in the NE compared with his own
account of natural law. Gauthier has written of Aquinas™s Commentary on
the “NE” that “[s]o that Aristotle™s ethics, which hardly speaks of anything
other than man, can speak of God, Saint Thomas, without wishing it, with-
out his even noticing it, has had to transform it profoundly” (Leonine
Opera Omnia, vol. 48, xxiv“xxv; quoted in Torrell 1996, 228). With regard
to both the Commentary and the second part of the ST, Gauthier is certainly
correct in his conclusion regarding the Thomistic transformation. The
evidence presented in Part II of this book, however, strongly suggests
that Aquinas both “noticed” and “wished” to carry out that work of revi-
sion, comprising a careful, respectful critique with relative vindication
and completion in an ongoing dialectical inquiry.
With regard to the second Aristotelian objection to Macrobius™s and
Plotinus™s fourfold classi¬cation, the speci¬city of legal justice as virtue
oriented toward the common good, Aquinas™s reply clari¬es two impor-
tant elements of his understanding or use of political virtue in this article.
First, as we shall see in greater detail in Chapter 7, Aquinas follows the
Philosopher in arguing that legal justice comprises or “commands” acts
of the other virtues in the service of the common good; it is in this sense
not radically other than fortitude, generosity, or temperance. Because
an act of care or moderation in driving a car conduces to the public
welfare generally, even while it more directly bene¬ts the driver in ques-
tion and those motorists closest to him or her on the road, moderation
or patience can also be considered a political virtue, just as justice is.
Second, at the end of the reply Aquinas makes an important explana-
tory remark, in much the same language as we have seen him gloss the
Commentaries when in original ways moving beyond the commented text.

27 On the sources and import of the Platonic in¬‚uence in Aquinas™s thought, see Torrell
(1996, 127“9), which also provides an extensive literature review on this subject. It seems
especially apropos to note here that Torrell quotes J. Moreau, who writes in “Le platon-
isme dans la Somme th´ ologique” that “Thomas retained from the Neoplatonic tradition
the principle of exemplarity . . . ” (129, Torrell™s emphasis). See also the argument of John
M. Rist, which concludes: “Only by translating his God into a good and providential
agent, as Augustine, for example, will do, could Aristotle offer a transcendent principle
capable of functioning as the divine moral prototype required. With his kalon Aristotle
may have explained the possibility of morality, but he has left a gap (even an antithesis)
between morality and divinization. As in the case of the Stoics, an inadequate account
of God produces (or upholds) an inadequate account of man” (2002, 148).
Finishing the Foundations and Beginning to Build 139

“For we must take note [Est enim considerandum] that it belongs to the polit-
ical virtues, as they are spoken of here, to do well not only to the community,
but also to the parts of the community, that is to a household, or to some single
person” (ST I“II 61, 5, ad 4, emphasis added). Aquinas here conveys to the
reader familiar with Aristotle™s Politics that he is using the term civic or
political virtue in a manner somewhat diverse from the regime-relative
civic virtue of Politics III. The “parts” of the polity that he underscores do
not distinguish between citizen inhabitants and others; they are rather the
generic parts of Aristotle™s ¬rst founding as Aquinas understands them:
families and human beings. There is no mention of the regime™s speci¬c
understanding of justice and the virtues, only (with Macrobius) that the
cardinal virtues as human lead a man (and the classical texts cited, unlike
Aquinas, use the male-speci¬c vir) to seek the good of the political com-
munity and those who reside in it. Human nature is “political and social,”
and political virtue, as these Latin Platonic thinkers use it and Aquinas
appropriates it, underscores the importance of the social, or of the more
natural, less conventional side of politics. Elsewhere in the ST Aquinas
instead employs Aristotle™s understanding of political virtue, as vis-` -visa
regimes and their parts and welfare; but in accord with Aquinas™s novel
natural law foundations, his glosses here recall that speci¬cally political
virtue points beyond itself to a fuller and more common good.
It is no accident that Aquinas begins his commentary on Macrobius™s
text with a series of more or less Aristotelian objections and then com-
mences his response with Augustine™s words “the soul needs to follow
something in order to give birth to virtue: this something is God: if we
follow Him we shall live aright.” Aristotle would wholeheartedly agree,
but with a very different exemplar of God in mind, as modeling for us
absolutely speaking only the intellectual virtues, not the moral or cardi-
nal virtues (beyond their aspects of rationality and self-suf¬ciency), and
with whom we human beings cannot be friends. Nor is it accidental that
Aquinas ends this crucial discussion by broadening the meaning of polit-
ical virtue when it is used synonymously with human virtue; the more
restrictive or speci¬cally regime-relative understanding of Aristotle™s
Politics is the unspoken backdrop.

Close Contenders for Cardinal Virtues
Aquinas™s reply to the last objection of ST I“II 61, 5, which treats the
cardinal virtues theorized in an analogy of ethical ascent, focuses on an
Aristotelian variant of one of these principal virtues, justice, precisely
as it regards the common good and so marks a meeting point between
Aquinas™s Social and Civic Foundations

personal and political ¬‚ourishing. This virtue of “legal justice” will ¬gure
prominently in the book™s next segment: after the argument here in
Part II that Aquinas unearths and appropriates, but also seeks to reinforce,
deepen, and enlarge Aristotle™s social and civic foundations, especially in
their common or shared dimensions, Part III will explore the implications
of this development for Aquinas™s theory of the human virtues.
The other Aristotelian virtue that will be the focus of Part III™s analysis is
also present in question 61, but as a close contender rather than a winner
of cardinal virtue status. It is magnanimity or greatness of soul (see ST I“II
61, 3, obj. 1). Surprisingly, the very next contender Aquinas introduces
in this question is humility (obj. 2), apparently the polar opposite quality
of magnanimity, and a virtue principally of biblical, Jewish and Christian
origins rather than a classically praised characteristic. Aquinas will argue
that although neither of these virtues is quite basic or general enough to
qualify as an additional cardinal virtue, each is in a way also a “principle”
in the moral life: magnanimity by being a certain pinnacle or summit
of excellence, and in that sense the greatest and a star and compass for
the ethical life; humility in a more hidden, yet also more foundational way,
comprising the cement, as it were, that must be mixed with the foundation
and edi¬ce if it is to be suf¬ciently strong to stand.28 Not surprisingly,
these three virtues “ justice and especially legal justice, magnanimity,
and humility “ emerge at distinct points in the ST as contenders for the
highest or chief moral virtue generally; and while humility was absent
from the Philosopher™s list, magnanimity and legal justice have often
been described as the twin peaks of Aristotle™s elevenfold account of
the ethical virtues in the NE. I will argue in Chapters 6 and 7 that a
comparison of Aristotle™s and Aquinas™s accounts of magnanimity and
legal justice shows Aquinas remodeling them to ¬t his more capacious
account of the common dimension of the human good, including the
good of moral virtue.

28 In his “objections,” Aquinas quotes Aristotle, “magnanimity has a great in¬‚uence on
all the virtues” (NE IV.3), and then Gregory, “he who gathers the other virtues without
humility is as one who carries straw against the wind” (Hom. IV in Ev.). Aquinas makes
no move to deny or even qualify these laudatory descriptions anywhere in his article.
part iii


Remodeling the Moral Edi¬ce (I)
Aquinas and Aristotelian Magnanimity

In his preface to Dependent Rational Animals, Alasdair MacIntyre quotes
a prayer composed by Thomas Aquinas “in which he asks God to grant
that he may happily share with those in need what he has, while humbly
asking for what he needs from those who have.”1 It is a prayer of a
magnanimous person in humility, highlighting the two qualities that
when fused together seem to distinguish, morally and politically, the
Christian world from the classical world. Yet, as Aquinas himself notes
elsewhere, it is far from clear how humility can be compatible with mag-
nanimity, a virtue conducing to outstanding statesmanship: “humility is
apparently opposed to the virtue of magnanimity, which aims at great
things, whereas humility shuns them” (ST II“II 161, 1, obj. 3). Even
if humility is vindicated as an ethical excellence, can it be politically
salutary? Should politics, understood as humans™ own government, be
suffused with pride in human virtue, or should it be humbled by the
realization of human dependence on God and interdependence with
In this chapter I revisit the theories of magnanimity advanced by
Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas, endeavoring especially to develop a more
detailed analysis and comparison of Aquinas™s Commentary on the “NE”
and the relevant texts of the ST than those offered by other recent

Originally published as “Aquinas and the Challenge of Aristotelian Magnanimity,” History
of Political Thought, 24(1), Spring 2003: 37“65. Reprinted with alterations by permission of
History of Political Thought and Imprint Academic.
1 MacIntyre (1999, xi; cf. 7“9, 126“7).

Moral Virtues at the Nexus of Personal and Common Goods

commentators.2 In particular, I consider Aquinas™s discussions in the
ST of two of what MacIntyre (1999) terms “virtues of acknowledged
dependence”: gratitude and humility. My thesis is that the challenge
posed to Judeo-Christian ethics by elements of Aristotelian magnanim-
ity explains much of the structure and content of Thomas™s analyses of
gratitude and humility in their own rights, and that a careful reading
of these questions is required to grasp Aquinas™s complex assessment of
the megalopsychia of the NE. David Horner (1998) and Carson Holloway
(1999) concur in viewing Aquinas™s magnanimity as essentially Aristotle™s,
but with charity and humility added on. By contrast, I read Aquinas as
offering a subtle yet far-reaching critique of Aristotelian magnanimity,
one with roots in Aquinas™s theology yet also comprising a philosophic
reappraisal of Aristotle™s account of human excellence. Against argu-
ments that Aquinas™s revision of Aristotle is antithetical to civic common
sense, the requirements of statesmanship, and the rational foundations
of social science (Arnhart 1983 and especially Jaffa 1952), I concur with
V´ clav Havel (1991), among others, that re¬‚ection on the totalitarian
experiences of the twentieth century reveals the humanity and nobility
of a magnanimity informed by humility.

6.1 Aristotle on Magnanimity as Virtue
Which of the ethical virtues is the highest, the pinnacle of human
excellence? The NE presents two virtues as contenders for this honor.
One is legal justice, the architectonic virtue that comprises and orders the
other virtues in the service of the common good. Aristotle says that legal
justice is “complete virtue and excellence in the fullest sense, because it
is the practice of complete virtue” (NE V.1, 1129b30).

2 Horner (1998) offers a very careful reading of the chapter in the NE and the ques-
tions in the ST focusing on magnanimity and its opposing vices. He does not give exten-
sive consideration to Aquinas™s Commentary, however, nor does he analyze the questions
in the ST on gratitude and humility in any detail. Other recent analyses of Thomistic
and Aristotelian accounts of the virtue proper to “great-souled” persons include Arn-
hart (1983, 263“7, 272“6), Manent (1998, 198“206), and Holloway (1999). On Aris-
totle™s magnanimity, the most recent scholarship also includes Collins (2004), Hanley
(2002), Howland (2002), and Smith (2001, 115“29). Collins™s, Hanley™s and Smith™s anal-
yses seem broadly compatible with mine. Hanley, however, is more sanguine regarding
the resolvability within Aristotle™s own account of certain prima facie negative elements
of Aristotle™s portrayal of the magnanimous man, and on Smith™s reading Aristotle™s
tenor in describing the magnanimous man in NE IV is much more ironic than it is
on mine.
Aquinas and Aristotelian Magnanimity 145

The other candidate for top honors in Aristotle™s schema of virtues
is magnanimity (megalopsychia). This outstanding character trait is intro-
duced before justice, in the fourth book of the NE (IV.3).3 It is the virtue
of claiming the greatest of honors when one rightly judges oneself deserv-
ing of them. While indicating an extreme of excellence or worthiness, this
virtue conforms to the Aristotelian doctrine of the mean in that the mag-
nanimous person™s claims are neither more nor less than what he truly
deserves (1123b13“15).4 The proper bestowal of honor follows deeds
of goodness and nobility (kalokagathia). Magnanimity thus presupposes
the full possession of all the other virtues, including, we may presume,
legal justice. Megalopsychia is “the crown, as it were, of the virtues”; it
“magni¬es them and it cannot exist without them” (1124a1“3).5
Aristotle™s chapter on magnanimity comprises various levels of dis-
course. As he does throughout his Ethics and Politics, Aristotle intertwines
various opinions commonly held by his contemporaries and voiced by
poets, philosophers, and statesmen, with unattributed statements and
analyses apparently made in his own name. He begins from the moral
phenomena and attempts just enough resolution and abstraction to offer
a more coherent and complete account of the character trait in ques-
tion. For instance, many regard the magnanimous man as “haughty” on
account of his noticeable lack of interest in the goods they themselves
covet, such as riches, good fortune, and a positive portrayal in public
opinion (1124a19). While such a conclusion is comprehensible from the
vantage point of those who hold it, Aristotle ultimately presents the rela-
tive detachment of the megalopsychos as nobler and more in accord with
the truth of things than the common judgments he cites in order to
correct (1124a5“1124b7).
One paradox of the magnanimous man, as Aristotle depicts him, is that
he is both “concerned primarily with honors” and relatively indifferent to

3 Unless otherwise mentioned, all references to the NE in this chapter will be to Book IV,
chapter 3.
4 The magnanimous man™s claims to honor do fall short of the mean, however, in that no
external good is a fully adequate reward for outstanding virtue (cf. NE 1124a6“10).
5 In the EE Aristotle also argues that megalopsychia names a special or particular excellence,
insofar as it is the virtue concerned with the proper appraisal and use of great honors. It is
more than that, however, insofar as it identi¬es a basic attitude evinced by some persons
in all aspects of life, the bent “to distinguish correctly great goods from small” and to care
only or primarily for the former. In this sense, “all the excellences seem to go with this
one of magnanimity, or this with all the excellences” (EE III.5, 1232a36“40). To speak
of someone as a “magnanimous man” has an overarching and unifying signi¬cance that,
for example, the terms “liberal man” or “courageous man” lack.
Moral Virtues at the Nexus of Personal and Common Goods

them (NE 1124a12“14).6 After all, he deserves even more than the tribute
paid him by the best individuals, to say nothing of minor praises sung by
the common rung of humans that he utterly despises (1124a9“10). As
Aristotle remarks, “no honor can be worthy of perfect virtue” (1124a8),
which the great-souled person both has and knows that he has. He also
has a detached attitude toward riches, power, and the turns of fortune.
His mind rises above such petty concerns, looking out for those rare
opportunities for truly “great honor or achievement” (1124b24“5) and
dwelling on his own prowess and worth, indeed on his own superiority
and self-suf¬ciency (see 1124b9“1125a12).7
For all its grandeur and nobility, the portrait Aristotle paints of the
magnanimous man in his NE nonetheless evokes a certain pathos.8 The
magnanimous man is devoted to momentous deeds of virtue; he is kalos
kagathos, a gentlemanly paragon of ethical conduct. His “signature virtue”
is summed up in the Rhetoric as “the excellence that disposes [a person] to
do good to others on a large scale” (I.9, 1366b17“18). Yet the megalospychos
appears to view this goodness ultimately in the function of his own dignity
and status as superior, as worthy of the highest honors. He ¬nds it painful to
be in anyone™s debt in any respect, to receive good things from the hands
of others: “He is the kind of man who will do good, but who is ashamed to
accept a good turn, because the former marks a man as superior, the latter
as inferior. . . . [A] high-minded man wishes to be superior” (1124b9“13).
In the last analysis, the goal of Aristotle™s megalopsychos is both to be and to
appear self-suf¬cient, yet he uniquely stands in need of others as inferiors
(cf. NE I.7, 1097b7“14, with Pol. I.2, 1252a25“1253a40).
The “perfect virtue” of the magnanimous man thus does not appear to
be its own reward, while the best “external” reward available, honor, is at
least considerably and perhaps even woefully inadequate.9 The nobility

6 In the EE III.5, 1232b14ff., Aristotle calls his readers™ attention to this apparent contra-
diction more explicitly than in the NE, but he does not resolve it. In fact, in the Eudemian
Ethics he emphasizes the great “delight” the megalopsychos takes in the honors bestowed
by good men, on account of genuinely noble deeds, much more so than in the NE.
See especially EE 1232b9“13; compare the resolution proposed in Aquinas™s Commentary,
explicated in Section 6.2.
7 For what might be termed a “moderate Nietzschean” appreciation of these and related
characteristics of Aristotle™s megalopsychos, see Seddon (1975).
8 Others read Aristotle™s description more as comedy: see the literature reviews in Seddon
(1975, 31), and Hardie (1978, 65).
9 Compare Harry Jaffa™s contention that friendship is ultimately the best “external” good
according to Aristotle, as texts such as NE IX.9, 1169b8“11 indicate, and Jaffa™s criticism of
Aquinas on this score (1952, 123“34). One key question in this context is how “external”
a good friendship really is. In his treatment of caritas (charity) in the Secunda pars of the
Aquinas and Aristotelian Magnanimity 147

of the megalopsychos is unquestionable: he is quick to offer aid, gentle to
the lowly, con¬dent among the great, a scorner of ¬‚attery and detraction
alike, a lover of great deeds and momentous achievements (see 1124b16“
1125a9). Yet how this person at the presumed pinnacle of ethical virtue is
to achieve the happiness (eudaimonia) that is the human telos remains at
best an open question, an unsolved riddle. Aristotle thrice describes the
great-souled man as “he to whom nothing is great” (1123b32“3, emphasis
added; cf. 1125a3“4, 15“16). 10

6.2 Aquinas™s Commentary on the Magnanimity
of the Nicomachean Ethics
As Harry Jaffa notes in Thomism and Aristotelianism (1952), Aristotle
maintains that a sound ethical theory should be able to achieve har-
mony among its component parts, and with our own moral experiences
rightly understood, which means that our common moral judgments
may have to be duly altered and adjusted (Jaffa 1952, 20“1; cf. NE I.8,
1098b7“12, and 1145b2“7). In this spirit, one can see that Aquinas™s
Commentary on the “NE” aims to resolve some apparent inconsistencies
in Aristotle™s account of magnanimity, especially insofar as this can be
done on Aristotle™s own terms and with resources from Aristotle™s intellec-
tual reserves, bequeathed to posterity in his texts. Aquinas™s commentary
addresses three tensions inherent in Aristotle™s account of megalopsychia:
(1) between love of self, or rather of one™s superiority, and love of nobility
or virtue as such, as a good that can be common at least among friends;
(2) between a focus on honor and contempt for it; and (3) between a
longing to accomplish the greatest deeds and a bittersweet sense that in
human life nothing is truly great.
The second tension proves to be, for Aquinas, the easiest to over-
come. External goods, he says, ¬nd their highest value in assisting their
possessor to perform acts of virtue more readily. Their value is thus espe-
cially instrumental (utile), but no one should on that account underes-
timate their genuine worth to the well-disposed person (cf. EE VII.15,

ST, Aquinas describes this virtue essentially as a form of friendship, frequently citing
NE VIII (ST II“II 23, 1). Quoting Aristotle, Aquinas writes that friendship is “either a
virtue or with virtue” (II“II 23, 3, ad 1). Given that friendship is a reciprocal relationship
between persons, at least insofar as this relationship is rooted in virtue and ordered to
virtue, it appears to be more essentially an internal good than an external one. On this
point cf. also NE VIII.8, 1159a13“1159b1.
10 Compare EE III.5, 1232a32“1232b13.
Moral Virtues at the Nexus of Personal and Common Goods

1248b25“1249a16, and City of God VIII.8). To use these goods well is
dif¬cult, as the less than noble actions of many persons rich in “exter-
nals” but poor in virtue demonstrate (Comm. NE IV, 9 n. 757“8). Special
virtues are needed to regulate one™s attitude toward external goods and
to facilitate the use of them according to right reason. Among these are
liberality and magni¬cence regarding wealth and magnanimity regarding
great honors, the best of external goods on many counts (IV, 8 n. 742).
Magnanimity then is chie¬‚y concerned with honors, but not as if they
were the chief good or end of human life. The magnanimous person
rightly desires great honors as the ¬tting outcome and also the occasion
of great works of virtue.11 At the same time, he unfailingly relegates them
to their proper, subordinate place in the realm of human goods. He does
not lust after external goods of any sort, even honors, and may in a cer-
tain sense be said to “despise” them (IV, 9 n. 755; cf. also ST II“II 131, 1,
obj. 2 and ad 2).
Yet all this brings us back to the ¬rst dif¬culty we noted previously with
the magnanimous man. What constitutes the ultimate purpose of his great
deeds and notable honors? On the one hand, moral virtue merits some
reward, and honor appears to be the best one available. Yet, as Aristotle
notes, even the highest forms of honor are inadequate in comparison
with the deserts of genuine nobility (Comm. NE IV, 9 n. 751; cf. NE IX.1,
1164b2“6). There is much in Aristotle™s account suggesting that the chief
concern of the magnanimous man is in fact his own greatness, indeed his
superiority over others in virtue and nobility, rather than virtue and nobility
in themselves or the common goods to which they conduce. Recall that
the magnanimous man of the NE does not appear to be grateful. He
takes no delight in favors received, only in favors he himself has granted.
He is eager to repay bene¬ts with interest so that he will cease to be
anyone™s debtor and in fact be the one owed a debt. He strongly dislikes
hearing about anything anyone else has done for him; he thoroughly
enjoys hearing his own noble deeds recounted.

11 In this context, Horner helpfully refers his readers to Aquinas™s discussion of dulia or
“respectful service,” a disposition inclining a person to bestow honor on whom it is
due, hence akin to the cardinal virtue of justice (see ST II“II 103, 1). Horner sums up
Aquinas™s argument as follows: “If this witness [to the excellence of a person] is to be
borne before other human beings it must be done with outward signs, such as words,
offering external goods, bowing, etc. Honor is the reward of virtue, not in the sense that
these external things are a suf¬cient reward, but that they are rightly employed as signs
pointing to eminent virtue, for it is right that the good and the beautiful be made evident”
(1998, 429, emphasis added; cf. ST II“II 103, 1, c. and ad 2; ad 3 is especially helpful for
a clear and concise formulation of the distinctions among praise, honor, and glory as
Aquinas understands them).
Aquinas and Aristotelian Magnanimity 149

Aquinas™s commentary duly notes these problematic features of mag-
nanimity™s subject (Comm. NE IV, 10 n. 762“6) and appears to resolve
them, stressing that the magnanimous man focuses on a self-transcendent
goal or goals to which he refers his striving for personal excellence.
Aquinas judges that the full self-ful¬llment of human beings comes only
in the context of loving and working for common goods, goods that can
be shared by many and that bene¬t many (cf. inter alia ST I“II 19, 10; 61,
5; 66, 4; II“II 58, 1212 ). In this Aquinas takes his cue from Aristotle as well
as from Neoplatonic, Patristic, and Scriptural sources. Accordingly, in his
tenth lectio Aquinas says of Aristotle™s magnanimous man that “his whole
attention is taken up with the goods of the community and God” (n. 779,
emphasis added). The “great things” for which he willingly faces great
dangers are “the common welfare, justice, divine worship, and so forth”
(n. 760).
To defend this analysis, Aquinas can point the reader back to Aristotle™s
discussion of magni¬cence for a similar list of ¬tting ends for noble
deeds (NE IV.2). In that chapter, the Philosopher stresses that “a man
is magni¬cent not when he spends on himself, but when he spends
for the common good” (1123a4). “Magni¬cence involves expenditures
which we call honorable, such as expenditures on the worship of the
gods . . . and on public expenditures which people ambitiously vie with
one another to undertake, for example when they think they should
equip a chorus or a trireme or give a feast for the city in a brilliant fashion”
(1122b18“23). Yet it seems signi¬cant that Aristotle himself does not
explicitly mention these purposes in his lengthy chapter on magnanim-
ity. The Philosopher™s portrait of the magnanimous man stresses almost
exclusively the latter™s own excellence or virtue, indeed his own suf¬-
ciency and superiority as the chief focus of his mind and heart and the
ultimate goal of his actions. Insofar as the megalopsychos seeks to bene¬t
the common weal with impressive deeds of virtue, he himself remains
the ¬nal end of his public-spirited endeavors, as his determination to
excel all others in virtue and to rest assured of his own preeminence

12 This last text argues that justice, especially legal justice, “stands foremost among the
moral virtues.” On this count among others, Arnhart™s argument (1983, 272“4) that
Aquinas “depreciates the moral status of politics” appears misleading. For an alternative
assessment, see Chapter 8.
13 Compare NE VIII.8, 1159a21“4: “Those . . . who desire honor from good and knowing
men aim at having their own opinion of themselves con¬rmed. They, therefore, enjoy
[the honor they get] because [their belief in] their own goodness is reassured by the
judgment of those who say that they are good.”
Moral Virtues at the Nexus of Personal and Common Goods

Aquinas™s elaborations in this segment of his Commentary aim to close
the circle, to enhance the harmony of Aristotle™s ethics while staying effec-
tively within its own parameters. Yet Aristotle™s apparent decision not to
harmonize the magnanimous individual with some social dimensions of
excellence seems intended to re¬‚ect a tension in the ethical and political
life that will not be as apparent to the reader of Aquinas™s commen-
tary. And this is not the only rough edge of the Ethics smoothed over by
Aquinas. When Aristotle remarks that to the great-souled or high-minded
man “nothing is great,” Aquinas resolves the paradox by equating “noth-
ing” with “no external thing” (cf. NE 1123b31“2 and 1125a2“3, with Comm.
NE IV, 8 n. 747 and 10 n. 777, emphasis added).14
In Thomism and Aristotelianism, Jaffa claims that for Aristotle the domain
of practical rationality, or the ethical and political life, is an autonomous,
self-enclosed sphere with its own form of completeness and happiness.
Virtuous deeds and the city™s welfare are in this paradigm ennobled as
“¬nal causes,” there being no higher end to which they are referred. The
philosophic or contemplative life constitutes a distinct realm with its own
felicity “ more “divine,” more self-suf¬cient, yet not encroaching on the
domain of the ethico-political. Jaffa is adamant that the nobility of the
practical life is not thus lessened. Its autonomy is the guarantor of its
dignity. Those persons ¬tted to excel in it, as the great-souled clearly are,
either need not or cannot seek completion in some higher realm (see
Jaffa 1952, 29“34, 121“3).
Yet Aristotle™s own account of the magnanimous man belies this claim
of ethical self-suf¬ciency. Moral virtue cannot guarantee its possessor
the wherewithal to act on it, to perform the great and noble deeds
that con¬rm and perfect it. Luck and circumstance are factors as well
(cf. NE 1124a20“1124b7 with IV.2, 1122b30“5). More fundamentally,
moral virtue is not its own reward in an ultimate sense, as the megalopsy-
chos demonstrates precisely by his concern with high honors and with
the superiority they indicate (cf. EE III.5, 1232b4“13 with NE 1124b8“
20). Yet such external and contingent rewards cannot complete the
magnanimous man™s existence, and deep down he knows it. Something
is still lacking to him. Even in the best of circumstances, the magnan-
imous man is less than whole; the happiness available to him fails to
satisfy his deepest longings. Hence we sense his noble disappointment
with his life, with what Jaffa describes as his proper sphere, at least in his

14 Hence Manent(1998, 200) remarks that “Aquinas interprets the various traits brought
out by Aristotle with what one could call Christian generosity if not magnanimity.”
Aquinas and Aristotelian Magnanimity 151

most lucid and self-conscious moments. The Aristotelian megalopsychos
is, in the last instance, “he to whom nothing is great” (NE 1123b32;
cf. 1125a3, a15).
Aquinas™s commentary endeavors to soften and perhaps even to resolve
the third tension noted previously by painting magnanimity in the context
of a more uni¬ed, harmonious human existence, indicating that great-
ness of soul conduces to both moral and intellectual excellence. Aquinas
explicitly argues the corollary when commenting on the vice of pusilla-
nimity, a sort of laziness whereby persons become “unwilling to engage
in great things according to their dignity” (NE Comm. IV, 11 n. 786).
Thomas™s commentary continues: “Hence when they are ignorant of their
worth, they suffer a twofold damage to their goodness. First, they abandon
works of virtue and the pursuit of speculative truths, as if they were un¬tted for
and unequal to things of this kind. From this omission of great and good
works, they become worse, since it is such actions that make men more
virtuous. Second, by reason of this opinion they shirk certain external
goods of which they are capable and which instrumentally serve for the
performance of virtue” (n. 787, emphasis added).15 Thus, the great deeds
desired and when possible performed by the great-souled person are not
per se con¬ned to the practical horizon. With magnanimous movement
toward transcendence, especially through openness to the possibility of
divine meaning in ethical human action, comes greater hopefulness in
Thomas™s magnanimous character.16 Without divine revelation there is
no guarantee that any human being can attain perfect happiness, that the
gods or God will grant it. Eudaimonia remains, however, a real possibility
within a theistic worldview where any dimension of mystery is reserved
to the divinity and hence to being. Even in his Commentary, therefore,
Aquinas deliberately situates Aristotle™s magnanimous man within this

15 Cf. also ST II“II 129, 3, ad 4: “if [a person™s] soul is endowed with great virtue, mag-
nanimity makes him tend to perfect works of virtue, and the same is to be said of the
use of any other good, such as science or external fortune.” Also 133, 1, ad 2: “it may
be . . . that the faint-hearted [person] is worthy of great things in proportion to his ability
for virtue, ability which he derives either from a good natural disposition, or from sci-
ence, or from external fortune, and if he fails to use those things for virtue, he becomes
guilty of pusillanimity.”
16 See Pieper (1986, especially chapter 2, entitled “Hope As a Virtue”) for an account
of magnanimity and humility as the human virtues perfecting the passion of hope and
also “the most essential prerequisites for the preservation and unfolding of supernatural
hope [the theological virtue] “ insofar as this depends on man” (30, emphasis added). This
link between magnanimity and hope will be made explicit and developed by Aquinas in
the ST, where magnanimity is de¬ned precisely as “hope management” (Horner 1998,
431; cf. ST II“II 129, 6“7).
Moral Virtues at the Nexus of Personal and Common Goods

more uni¬ed, transcendent horizon where blessedness may at last be
One last incongruity in the character of the megalopsychos Aquinas
either cannot or will not resolve. It is the ingratitude that the magnan-
imous man shows “ or rather, his eagerness to avoid being in anyone™s
debt. This trait suggests an incapacity to rejoice over any goods in his life
whose cause he is not. Such an attitude must place considerable strain
on the magnanimous man™s friendships, so essential to the ¬‚ourishing
of ethical life and the achievement of human happiness (see Jaffa 1952,
126“7, and NE VIII“IX).
Aquinas™s commentary duly notes these disappointing characteristics
without attempting to gild the lily. He gives Aristotle™s megalopsychos the
bene¬t of the doubt in one respect when he says that the magnanimous
man tends rather than chooses to receive grudgingly, and that he does
so because of his desire to excel rather than from malice of any sort
(Comm. NE IV, 10 n. 764). Yet this defense cuts both ways: given the
necessity of choice, of active agency for a person™s actions to re¬‚ect per-
fect ethical virtue, the magnanimous man™s claim to possess complete
virtue is rendered dubious. Even if his current dispositions do re¬‚ect
choices made in the past and ingrained in his soul, they still appear
to re¬‚ect a partial vision of human ¬‚ourishing. Aquinas goes on to
highlight habitual attitudes and patterns of action that seem petty, to
say the least: the megalopsychos “cheerfully listens to the bene¬ts he has
bestowed but does not enjoy hearing of the bene¬ts he has accepted.
He can take delight in the love of him on whom he has conferred ben-
e¬ts but does not ¬nd pleasure in the fact that he himself has accepted
bene¬ts” (n. 765).
The magnanimous man depicted in Book IV of the NE has trouble
accepting his humanity precisely where it implies limitation and inter-
dependence, the roots of natural sociability (cf. Aquinas™s Commentary
on Aristotle™s “Politics” I, 1 nn. 16“35 [8“27]). While the striving of the
megalopsychos to imitate the divine is in many ways admirable, his mistaken
way of doing so causes him to depart from the order of right reason inso-
far as he fails to acknowledge frankly and with pleasure his need of and
indebtedness to those others who have contributed to his ¬‚ourishing.17
In this respect he falls short of full human or ethical excellence, and as we

17 Hardie (1978, 73) develops a parallel criticism of the megalopsychos because the latter
fails to acknowledge the roles of nature and moral luck in providing the material and
opportunities for cultivation of excellence and nobility.
Aquinas and Aristotelian Magnanimity 153

have already noted, his capacity for friendship appears to suffer as a result.
For the magnanimous man™s openness to happiness to be complete, eth-
ical virtue must be a more common good than his ¬xation on superiority
and self-suf¬ciency will allow him to grasp (cf. Kempshall 1999, 106).

6.3 The Summa Theologiae on Magnanimity and Some
“Virtues of Acknowledged Dependence”
In the treatment in the Secunda secundae [ST II“II] of the “potential parts”
of fortitude “ those virtues that follow the “general mode” of courage by
strengthening an agent to hold fast to the good in the face of dif¬culties,
but dif¬culties that fall short of the paradigmatic obstacle that is fear
of death “ Aquinas generally follows the enumeration given by Cicero
(referred to in the ST as Tullius, “Tully” in English). Yet Aquinas makes it
a point to insert into this listing “magnanimity, of which Aristotle treats,”
substituting it for Tully™s ¬ducia or “con¬dence” (see ST II“II 128“9).
Aquinas judges that magnanimity perfects the spirited part of the soul,
which he generally terms the “irascible appetite,” as does fortitude. For-
titude strengthens the soul to hold fast to the good in the face of great
evils, even death. Magnanimity rouses the soul to attempt great works,
to struggle to bring about great goods in the face of internal or exter-
nal dif¬culties (cf. II“II 129, 5, with 131, 2, ad 1). This proper sense of
one™s own capacity for virtue, together with a noble longing and daring
to attempt to bring about greater goods for oneself, one™s neighbors, and
one™s community, and for the glory of God (see also II“II 131, 1, and 132,
1), is an excellence that elicits impressive acts of other virtues, brings
them to new heights, and adds to their luster.
The vice most opposed to this virtuous trait is not presumption or
conceit, but rather pusillanimity, a shrinking of soul and a narrowing of
aspirations. Pusillanimity resembles prudence and humility but actually
vitiates both. A person who possesses much aptitude for virtue, perhaps
even considerable (though not perfect or complete) virtue, and who
could therefore accomplish great things, contents him or herself with
mediocrity and a comfortable existence (ST II“II 133, 1, ad 2).18 Aquinas
concurs with Aristotle that to refrain from noble deeds within one™s power

18 Here I employ “inclusive language,” concurring with Horner 1998 (438n5) that Aquinas
broadens the scope of magnanimity such that any human being, male or female, could
be its subject. I am less hesitant than Horner to attribute this position to Aquinas himself,
rather than simply noting it as an in-principle outcome of Aquinas™s theories.
Moral Virtues at the Nexus of Personal and Common Goods

to perform is to in¬‚ict harm by omission (cf. II“II 133, 1, ad 1 with Comm.
NE IV, 11). Pusillanimity may not be the height of wickedness, but it does
re¬‚ect a regrettable combination of excessive fear of failure, ignorance
of one™s own worth and capacities, and mental laziness (see II“II 133, 2,
c. and ad 1). Both personal and common goods depend to a signi¬cant
extent upon spirited and truly magnanimous dispositions.
Aquinas™s treatment of magnanimity in the ST differs from Aristotle™s
account in three ways, all of which render Aquinas™s version more at home
in the context of natural human sociability and participation in common
goods, even the “good of magnanimity.” First and most obvious, in his
question on magnanimitas Aquinas explicitly discusses human sociability
and the interdependence it entails, requiring the genuinely magnani-
mous to understand their own excellence in precisely that context. In
article 6 of the question dealing with magnanimity proper (ST II“II 129),
Aquinas inquires whether con¬dence (¬ducia) is an attitude necessary
for magnanimity™s cultivation and exercise. The very ¬rst objection he
tackles is that to have con¬dence often implies “another” in whom one
trusts and hopes. But the magnanimous man aims at the greatest possi-
ble superiority and self-suf¬ciency, and to acknowledge need of assistance
implies de¬ciency and dependence. As Aquinas puts it, “this [reliance on
another] seems inconsistent with the idea of magnanimity. Therefore,
con¬dence does not belong to magnanimity” (II“II 129, 6, obj. 1).
Here we reach the crux of the issue. Thomas does not mention
Aristotle in this objection, but it is, of course, “magnanimity, of which
Aristotle treats” that he has purposefully inserted into the Ciceronian
catalog of virtues connected with fortitude. At any rate, the reader famil-
iar with the NE cannot fail to recognize in it one source of the argument of
this objection. This reader will also note that Aquinas is here alluding to
an apparent con¬‚ict between classical and Christian ethics. The authority
Aquinas cites for the human need to con¬de in another is none other
than “the Apostle” St. Paul: “Such con¬dence we have through Christ
toward God, not that we are suf¬cient to think anything of ourselves, as
of ourselves” (2 Cor. 3: 4“5, cited in ST II“II 129, 6, obj. 1).19

19 MacIntyre notes that Aquinas “prepared himself for the task of writing the parts con-
cerned with detailed moral enquiry in the IIa“IIae [of the ST] by writing a commentary
on the Nicomachean Ethics at the same time as he was also continuing his exposition
of St. Paul™s epistles”(1990a, 132; cf. Torrell 1996, 228“9 and 250“7). As I will try to
demonstrate, the questions on gratitude and especially those on humility in the Secunda
secundae may be read as comprising a dialectical encounter amongst the Philosopher,
the Apostle, and Thomas Aquinas (cf. MacIntyre 1990a, 133).
Aquinas and Aristotelian Magnanimity 155

In response to this objection, however, it is Aristotle himself whom
Aquinas cites, emphasizing that even the most magnanimous person
cannot escape the natural human condition of sociability and interde-
pendence. Indeed, if we incorporate insights from Aquinas™s account of
the good of gratitude (discussed below detail in the subsection on
“Gratitude”) he should not wish to escape it, at least not in some respects.
“As the Philosopher says (NE IV.3), it belongs to the ˜magnanimous to
need nothing,™ for need is the mark of the de¬cient. But this is to be
understood according to the mode of a man, hence he adds ˜or scarcely
anything.™ For it surpasses man to need nothing at all. For every man
needs, ¬rst, the divine assistance, secondly, even human assistance, since
man is naturally a social animal, for he is insuf¬cient by himself to provide
for his own life. Accordingly, insofar as he needs others, it belongs to
a magnanimous man to have con¬dence in others, for it is a point of
excellence in a man that he should have at hand those who are able to
be of service to him. And insofar as his own ability goes, it belongs to a
magnanimous man to be con¬dent in himself” (II“II 129, 6, ad 1, empha-
sis added). Thus Aquinas evidently judges that the magnanimous need
regular reminders of their own humanity, of their natural being-part of
various societies, and of the extent to which they inevitably depend upon
the persons and excellences of others. Like the other moral virtues, great-
ness of soul needs social and political contexts and contours.
In a second revision of the portrait of the megalopsychos in the NE,
Aquinas paints the magnanimous person as positively eager to excel in the
virtue of thankfulness or gratitude, rightly understood. Aquinas devotes
an entire quaestio to this virtue, which makes a person a happy receiver and
a willing acknowledger of his or her debts to others (see ST II“II 106). The
account in the ST does not completely remove the tension so evident in
the NE between gracious receiving of favors and magnanimous eagerness
to bestow even greater favors. But it does point to the fullness of human
excellence as embodying both qualities in a graceful give-and-take. The
natural context for such quickness to give and delight in receiving is,
of course, friendship.20 Aquinas™s account of magnanimity renders its
possessor capable of deeper and more abiding friendships than Aristotle™s
Finally, in a third departure from Aristotle™s account, Aquinas presents
magnanimity as working together with an unlikely sister virtue, humility

20 For a helpful consideration of friendship as philia or amicitia and also as caritas in social
and political context, see Schall (1996).
Moral Virtues at the Nexus of Personal and Common Goods

(humilitas), which has the effect of countering the excessive concern with
superiority that characterizes Aristotle™s megalopsychos. In serving the com-
mon good, humility inclines Aquinas™s magnanimous person to take a
serious interest in the welfare of all others, including the poor, the dis-
advantaged, and the apparently unexceptional.21 Classical “elitism” (for
lack of a better term), with all of its social and political baggage, is effec-
tively undercut in Aquinas™s account, but (contra Nietzsche et al.) without
rendering universal mediocrity and pusillanimity the only viable alterna-
tives (cf. ST II“II 160“2).
In the following pages, I explicate these distinctive features of
Aquinas™s magnanimitas, focusing ¬rst on gratitude and second on humility
as essential attributes of his great-souled person. I endeavor to show how,
on the one hand, the problematic of Aristotle™s megalopsychia informs
Aquinas™s independent treatments of these two “virtues of acknowledged
dependence” and, on the other, how Aquinas™s accounts of humility and
gratitude necessarily reform and recon¬gure Aristotle™s magnanimity.

In the Secunda secundae [ST II“II], Aquinas follows Cicero in treating
thankfulness or gratitude as a speci¬c virtue in its own right, distinct from
though closely related to justice, piety, religion, and friendship (ST II“II
106, 1; cf. De Inv. Rhet. ii and ST II“II 107, 1).22 Aquinas views gratitude
as most closely related to justice among the cardinal virtues in that, like
justice, thankfulness deals with a certain equality (“moral” rather than
“legal”) in giving and receiving and is properly perfective of the human
In his discussion of gratitude Aquinas examines the ethical status of sev-
eral traits of Aristotle™s magnanimous man: (1) aversion to being anyone™s
debtor, even in the moral sense; (2) eagerness to repay favors speedily;
(3) determination to bestow even more than he received; and (4) a

21 Compare also those “others” with whom Aristotle indicates that good men and citizens
ought to share their possessions, with Aquinas™s “others” in the same context (Pol. II.5,
1263a20-b13, and ST II“II 66, 2, both arguing that property should generally speaking
be private, but common to some extent in its use).
22 In the NE Aristotle does not list gratitude as one of the ethical virtues, although he
discusses it later in the context of friendship, especially throughout Book IX. Aristotle
writes in Book IV that aret¯ “consists in doing good rather than in having good done
to one” (IV.1, 1120a12“13; cf. the parallel formulation regarding friendship at VIII.8,
1159a26“1159b1), and liberality seems to capture this active, outward-reaching mode more
perfectly than does gratitude.
Aquinas and Aristotelian Magnanimity 157

subsequent tendency to forget the bene¬ts conferred on him by oth-
ers and to dislike hearing those bene¬ts mentioned in conversation. On
at least some of these counts, Aristotle™s megalopsychos is found wanting
and urged to reform.
The root of the problem is not the third trait mentioned, as Aquinas
clearly indicates in his consideration of “Whether the Repayment of Grat-
itude Should Surpass the Favor Received?” (ST II“II 106, 6). As the grate-
ful person acknowledges the gift given gratis by another, he or she wishes
to respond in kind, transcending strict obligation to give freely of his or
her own. Aquinas notes in somewhat tentative language that “he does
not seem to bestow something gratis, unless he exceeds the quantity
of the favor received, because so long as he repays less or an equiva-
lent, he would seem to do nothing gratis, but only to return what he
has received.” From this moral phenomenology Aquinas concludes that
“gratitude always inclines, as far as possible, to pay back something more.”
In this respect, the magnanimous man of the Ethics appears a model of
the virtue of gratitude, as Aquinas explicitly argues when he defends
magnanimity as a virtue (II“II 129, 3, ad 5).
Problems emerge for the megalopsychos™s claim to be genuinely grateful,
however, when we consider the second trait mentioned, the only other
one that has its own article in the ST. In article 4 of question 106, Aquinas
inquires “Whether a Man Is Bound to Repay a Favor at Once?”. Aristotle
is cited nowhere in this discussion. It is rather Seneca, a key authority
for Aquinas on thankfulness, who provides the crucial sed contra: “He
that hastens to repay is animated with a sense, not of gratitude, but of
indebtedness” (De Bene¬ciis iv). And this, of course, describes Aristotle™s
magnanimous man to a tee (recall trait 1, “aversion to being anyone™s
debtor”): he feels his indebtedness keenly and is eager to throw off its
weight. Aquinas™s response in this article runs as follows:

Just as in conferring a favor two things are considered, namely, the affection of
the heart and the gift, so also must these things be considered in repaying the
favor. As regards the affection of the heart, repayment should be made at once,
wherefore Seneca says (De Benef. ii): “Do you wish to repay a favor? Receive it
graciously.” As regards the gift, one ought to wait until such a time as will be
convenient to the benefactor. In fact, if instead of choosing a convenient time
one wished to repay at once, favor for favor, it would not seem to be a virtuous but
a constrained repayment. For, as Seneca observes (De Benef. iv), “he that wishes
to repay too soon, is an unwilling debtor, and an unwilling debtor is ungrateful”
(emphasis added).
Moral Virtues at the Nexus of Personal and Common Goods

Following Seneca, Aquinas™s argument here seems to indicate that the
will of the megalopsychos of the Ethics is disordered or, in an Augustinian
vein, that the loves according to which he lives his life are misarranged.
Instead of a genuine love of the good(s) of virtue and of the other human
beings among whom he lives, his own superiority ranks as the ¬rst object
of his affections. His service to the common good of his polity and the
welfare of others, considerable though it may be, is desired in the last
analysis as a means to or context for his own superior excellence, which
he guards discreetly yet jealously. He will gladly share anything but this,
his rank in virtue as he understands it (cf. NE VIII.7, 1159a12“13; IX.8,
1169a17“1169b2). No human being like this could ever be truly grateful,
however eager to repay favors he may be. The will and its ordo amoris
(ordering of love) most deeply reveal the person.
Thus, the most striking contrast between Aristotle™s magnanimity and
Aquinas™s gratitude is drawn in the very article of the ST that seems to
vindicate the magnanimous man™s desire to repay benefactors with bigger,
better favors. Aquinas™s thankful person wishes to confer the best possible
bene¬ts upon the one who has shown her a kindness, but at the same
time she fully expects never to be free of the most fundamental debt.
She doesn™t want to be free of it. Indeed, in this key respect she ought
to revel in her indebtedness as in the very in¬nity of God: “The debt
of gratitude ¬‚ows from charity, which the more it is paid, the more it is
due, according to Romans 13:8, ˜Owe no man anything, but to love one
another.™ Wherefore it is not unreasonable if the obligation of gratitude has no
limit” (II“II 106, 6, ad 2, emphasis added). Aquinas returns to underscore
this point in the ¬rst article on ingratitude: “The debt of gratitude ¬‚ows
from the debt of love, and from the latter no man should wish to be free. Hence
that anyone should owe this debt unwillingly seems to arise from a lack of
love for his benefactor” (II“II 107, 1, ad 3, emphasis added; cf. also II“II
106, 3, ad 3). While this conclusion clearly concords with the centrality
of caritas in Christian revelation, I will contend that it also re¬‚ects a truth
about human relationships to which the facts of our moral experience
and observation often bear witness (cf. Jaffa 1952, 20“2).

If magnanimity constitutes a virtue, it appears that humility cannot on
at least three counts. First and most obvious, humility seems to work
directly against magnanimity, to incline the agent to move in the opposite
direction. Aquinas wastes no time in raising this problem. In the ques-
tion of the ST treating humility, the very ¬rst article inquires “Whether
Aquinas and Aristotelian Magnanimity 159

Humility Is a Virtue?” (II“II 161, 1).23 The third objection against humil-
ity as a virtue is precisely its opposition to magnanimity, which Aquinas
has already treated in the Secunda pars [ST II] and established as a particu-
larly excellent virtue (II“II 129). “[N]o virtue is opposed to another virtue.
But humility is apparently opposed to the virtue of magnanimity, which
aims at great things, whereas humility shuns them” (II“II 161, 1, obj. 3;
cf. 160, 2).
In the second place, human virtue, according to Aquinas, is principally
“social and civic” in character (cf. ST I“II 61, 5 with 72, 4), while humility
is essentially theological: it ¬‚ows from our relationship with God and
makes sense only in that context (cf. II“II 161, 1, ad 4“5). Humility may
re¬‚ect the truth of one™s excellence as compared with the Creator™s, but
is it a reasonable stance for a virtuous person in social interaction among
fellow human beings? In contrast to magnanimity, humility seems unlikely
to reinforce statesmanship or invigorate citizenship (cf. Arnhart 1983;
Jaffa 1952). Aquinas himself notes, as the ¬fth objection to humility as a
virtue, that it is conspicuously absent from Aristotle™s classi¬cation of the
ethical virtues (see ST II“II 161, 1, obj. 5). And Aquinas™s own reply to
this objection underscores the problem of treating humility as an ethical
or properly human virtue: “The Philosopher intended [in the NE] to
treat of virtues as directed to civic life, wherein the subjection of one
man to another is de¬ned according to the ordinance of the law and
consequently is a matter of legal justice. But humility, considered as a
special virtue, regards chie¬‚y the subjection of man to God . . . ” (II“II
161, 1, ad 5).
Finally, the reader familiar with the NE will recall that Aristotle™s mega-
lopsychos refuses to “adjust his life to another, except a friend, for to do
so is slavish” (NE 1125a1“2; cf. Comm. NE IV, 10 n. 776). By contrast, St.
Paul, in imitation of Jesus Christ, willingly becomes “all things to all men”
and, being free, makes himself “a slave to all” for their sakes (1 Cor. 9:19,
22, 10:31“11:1).24 Hence Aquinas asks in article 3 of the question on

23 Compare ST II“II 129, 3, where Aquinas raises the same question concerning magnanim-
ity™s moral status, but only after establishing the matter of the virtue (honors, speci¬cally
great honors: 129, 1“2). With humility the order of treatment is reversed; the very ¬rst
question that comes to mind, it seems, is whether humilitas can reasonably be considered
a moral virtue. The problematic status of humility as a virtue is further indicated by the
fact that Aquinas gives ¬ve “objections” to that status; the average number of objections
per article of the ST is three. Moreover, three of these ¬ve objections to humility as a
virtue are in some signi¬cant sense Aristotelian (see II“II 161, 1, obj. 3“5).
24 Cf. also Philippians 2:3“8: “Do nothing from sel¬shness or conceit, but in humility count
others better than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also
Moral Virtues at the Nexus of Personal and Common Goods

humility, “Whether One Ought, by Humility, to Subject Oneself to All?”
How an exceedingly virtuous person, a magnanimous individual, could
do so without untruthfulness, hypocrisy, or ¬‚attery “ vices all “ is most
dif¬cult to conceive.
On Aristotelian terms, then, if humility is an ethical virtue at all, it must
be the proper excellence of small, unspirited souls, just as silence is said
by classical authors to be a virtue in women (cf. NE IV.3, 1123b5“7 with
Pol. III.4, 1277b17“25).
In responding to our ¬rst objection, that humility opposes magnanim-
ity and hence cannot be a virtue, Aquinas contends that humility and mag-
nanimity are actually complementary virtues. Although “they seem to tend
in contrary directions” (ST II“II 129, 3, ad 4, emphasis added), both actu-
ally incline moral agents to attitudes and actions in accord with the order
of right reason (II“II 161, 1, ad 3; cf. 161, 2 and 6; 162, 3, ad 2), which is
the overarching function of human virtue. Humility moderates excessive
or misplaced hope, curbing the “impetuosity” of that passion and hence
removing an obstacle to prudence (II“II 161, 2 and 4). Magnanimity
arouses and nurtures hope, motivating and directing a person to attempt
the good of which he or she is capable. Every human being, mortal and
limited and fallible, needs both of these character traits in order to act
well on a consistent basis (see II“II 161, 1, ad 3).
In addressing the third problem, the humble person™s habit of esteem-
ing virtually all other humans (recall that the megalopsychos despises
most men), and placing him- or herself at their service whenever pos-
sible, Aquinas makes one of the most radical among his many famous
distinctions: “We may consider two things in man, namely, that which is
God™s and that which is man™s.” The Aristotelian megalopsychos could not
be too pleased to learn that what is properly speaking his, or anyone™s
for that matter, is “defect” and “destruction,” while “whatever pertains to
man™s welfare and perfection is God™s” (ST II“II 161, 3; cf. ST II“II 129, 3,
ad 4).25 If a person considers what is properly “his” in comparison with

to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which was in Christ Jesus,
who, though he was in the form of God, did not deem equality with God a thing to be
grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in the likeness of
men. And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto
death, even death on a cross.” And Romans 1:14: “I am under obligation both to Greeks
and to barbarians, both to the wise and to the foolish.”
25 But cf. ST II“II 130, 1, ad 3, treating presumption as a vice opposed to magnanimity:
“As the Philosopher says (NE III.3), ˜what we can do by the help of others we can do by
ourselves in a sense.™ Hence since we can think and do good by the help of God, this is
not altogether above our ability. Hence it is not presumptuous for a man to attempt the
Aquinas and Aristotelian Magnanimity 161

what his neighbor has from God, he cannot go wrong in esteeming his
neighbor, whomever he may be, as superior. This does not detract from
the honor due to God, Aquinas contends, but rather is a concrete way
of showing him respect: “We must not only revere God in himself, but
also that which is his in each one, although not with the same measure of
reverence as we revere God. Wherefore we should subject ourselves with
humility to all our neighbors for God™s sake, according to 1 Pet. 2:13,
˜Be ye subject . . . to every human creature for God™s sake™; but to God
alone we owe the worship of latria [adoration]” (II“II 161, 3, ad 1; cf.
II“II 84).
Yet at this juncture, one might still wonder how an exceptionally virtu-
ous person can consistently and honestly evince such esteem in the face
of others™ very obvious sins and defects. If some people seem to have
rejected or deformed God™s gifts, how can one reasonably revere and
serve them? Would it not be more reasonable to despise such individuals,


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