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as does Aristotle™s magnanimous man? Aquinas notes that humility does
not require demeaning great gifts we have evidently received from God
in comparison to those gifts others may have received from him. Nor
is there reason to conclude that we sin more than our neighbors: We
cannot judge with certainty that we are the worst sinners of all. Still and
all, Aquinas urges us to re¬‚ect on our own failings and defects, and to
compare them with the positive attributes and talents that every human
possesses in some measure, goods whose origin is none other than God.
Then no falsehood or irony will be needed for us to think highly of
others under most circumstances. “[A] gloss on Philippians 2:3, ˜esteem
others better than themselves,™ says: ˜We must not esteem by pretending
to esteem; but we should in truth think it possible for another person to
have something that is hidden to us and whereby he is better than we
are, although our good whereby we are apparently better than he, be not
hidden™” (ST II“II 161, 3, ad 2).26


accomplishment of a virtuous deed; but it would be presumptuous if one were to make
the attempt without con¬dence in God™s assistance.”
26 Back in the quaestio on magnanimity, Aquinas has already speci¬ed the only sense in
which the person possessed of humility-informed magnanimity may properly “despise”
others: “not to think so much of others as to do anything wrong for their sake” (ST
II“II 129, 3, ad 4). While on the surface of the text this gloss by Aquinas on “despise”
[contemnere] appears to salvage the megalopsychia of the Ethics, on a deeper level it reveals
the radical recon¬guration of this virtue underway in the ST. Cf. Harvey Mans¬eld™s
analysis of Federalist 71 on the importance to modern republics of executives possessing
“courage and magnanimity enough to serve the people at the peril of their [generally short-term]
displeasure” and the provisions of the U.S. Constitution designed to shore up this relative
Moral Virtues at the Nexus of Personal and Common Goods
162

Commenting on humility as magnanimity™s twin virtue (duplex virtus)
in Aquinas™s thought, Horner says that humility “honors others and
esteems them as superior inasmuch as something of God™s gifts are seen in
them. Humility opens one™s eyes to see and appreciate the gifts of others,
just as magnanimity does for one™s own” (Horner 1998, 434). Even more
than that, however, it is important to note that in this context Aquinas
calls our attention precisely to things unseen, to those gifts of God that are
present in others yet hidden from our gaze (see also ST II“II 161, 6, ad 1).
Even the wisest human sage cannot correctly discern the full mystery of
each human soul, the Creator™s relationship to it and designs for it, and
its intimate response to divine promptings.27 These things God alone,
who “sees in secret” (see Mt 6:1“6) and knows what is in the hearts of
humans, can perceive and judge.28 This consideration provides another
powerful motive for even the most outstanding philosopher or political
leader to cultivate a magnanimity informed by humility.
The theological thrust of Aquinas™s analysis here recalls our second
and, I think, the strongest objection to humility™s classi¬cation among the
moral virtues. Why does Aquinas count humility a “part” of temperance or
moderation when it seems more directly related to the theological virtues of
faith and hope, and to the gifts of fear and wisdom that, Aquinas teaches,
accompany the theological virtue of charity? In his question on humility,
Aquinas offers two distinct lines of response to this argument, one of
which concedes its key contention and the other of which does not. Let
me now explicate these two Thomistic arguments and then endeavor to
resolve the apparent con¬‚ict between them.
First and most simply, Aquinas argues that humility is more essentially
an infused moral virtue than an acquired trait: “Man arrives at humil-
ity in two ways. First and chie¬‚y, by a gift of grace, and in this way the
inner man precedes the outward man. The other way is by human effort,


detachment from public opinion when it is needed to serve the public good (1989, 271,
emphasis added).
27 For an excellent account of the dimension of mystery in Aquinas™s thought, see Pieper
(1999); cf. also Pieper (1966, 98) on the impossibility of giving an exhaustive de¬nition
of the common good.
28 Horner™s focus on humility as ¬‚owing from gifts seen in one™s neighbor seems to stem
from his focus in this article on the questions on magnanimity and its contrary vices
in the ST. There Aquinas writes, “humility makes us honor others . . . insofar as we see
some of God™s gifts in them” (ST II“II 129, 3, ad 4, emphasis added; cf. Horner 1998,
434n110). Although in this context Horner does direct his readers to the ST ™s question
on humility (see n. 112), he does not explicate that text. He misses Aquinas™s radicalization
of humility™s demands and thereby of magnanimity™s limits.
Aquinas and Aristotelian Magnanimity 163

whereby he ¬rst of all restrains the outward man and afterward succeeds
in plucking out the inward root” (ST II“II 161, 6, ad 2, emphasis added).
In its principal, infused form humility is a habitus presupposing grace,
¬‚owing from and ordered to charity, which Aquinas de¬nes as friendship
with God (see II“II 23, 1). Nevertheless, Aquinas maintains that humility
constitutes an ethical rather than a theological virtue, since its speci¬c
function is the moderation of a passion, namely, the (excessive) desire for
or love of one™s own excellence.29
In this context, Aquinas highlights humility™s absence from Aristotle™s
enumeration of the ethical virtues and explains this lacuna in terms of
ends and emphases. The NE elaborates virtues especially in social and
political contexts, in terms of right and bene¬cial relations among human
beings. Christian theological ethics considers virtues especially insofar
as they lead us to God (ST II“II 161, 1, ad 5; cf. SCG II.4). Humility
is a paramount example of the latter type of virtue, which orders our
passions in accord with the truth about human beings compared with
and related to God. Following this line of argument, humility appears
as simply other than pagan virtue or, perhaps better put, than human
virtue as elaborated by classical philosophy. There is no con¬‚ict, only a
neat and unproblematic distinction between the two. Once distinguished
and adequately understood in their own proper terms and spheres, they
can be reunited in the lives of at least those human beings who are also
believing Jews or Christians. This is just the way that Aquinas appears
to argue that “magnanimity, of which Aristotle speaks,” and humility,
of which sacred Scripture and the Judeo-Christian tradition speak, are
complementary rather than con¬‚icting virtues. One is simply added to
the other, rendering human life and ethical excellence better balanced
and more complete.30
Things appear more complex, however, in the body of Aquinas™s article
explaining why humility is best understood as a moral (rather than a the-
ological) virtue related closely to temperance or modesty. There Aquinas
argues that humility was in fact included in various classical catalogs of
ethical virtues. It just went by another name. “Origen says (Hom.VIII super
Luc.): ˜If thou wilt hear the name of this virtue, and what it was called by

29 Cf. ST II“II 161, 2, with 161, 4, especially ad 1: “The theological virtues, whose object
is our last end, which is the ¬rst principle in matters of appetite, are the causes of all
the other virtues. Hence the fact that humility is caused by reverence for God does not
prevent it from being a part of modesty or temperance.”
30 This is the interpretation of the relationship between Aristotelian magnanimity and
Thomistic humility reached by Horner(1998, 435) and Holloway(1999, 589).
Moral Virtues at the Nexus of Personal and Common Goods
164

the philosophers, know that humility which God regards is the same as what
they called metri´ thv [metri´ tes], that is, measure or moderation™” (ST II“

o
II 161, 4, s.c., emphasis added). Those recognizing humility, in substance
if not in name, outside of Israel and the Church are said to include Cicero,
Andronicus, and, to the reader™s amazement, Aristotle himself (II“II 161,
4; 161, 2, obj. 4 and ad 4). Remarkably, Aquinas cites the NE, the very
work he claimed earlier had overlooked humility for easily identi¬able
and readily defensible reasons. “[T]he Philosopher (NE IV.3) says that a
man who aims at small things according to his mode is not magnanimous
but temperate,31 and such a man we may call humble” (II“II 161, 4).32
Once again we have evidence that Aristotelian magnanimity is very
much on Aquinas™s mind throughout his drafting of the section on humil-
ity in the ST. This citation from the chapter on magnanimity in the Ethics
clearly indicates that, from Aristotle™s perspective, the one who is magnan-
imous cannot also be humble, and thus one who is humble in a virtuous
manner cannot be magnanimous. The temperate person in the sense
used here is rather unspirited and, at least for the moment or in a partic-
ular respect, incapable of the grand ambitions and accomplishments that
de¬ne the persona of the megalopsychos. Once again, we are brought back
around to the conclusion that on Aristotle™s terms humility must be a
second-class virtue, and for the best of men not a virtue at all.
Thus, in his second line of argumentation, Aquinas ¬nds common
ground for humility as an ethical virtue among ancient philosophers and
Christian thinkers, and yet that common ground quickly becomes a bat-
tle¬eld. What Aristotle judges a second-rate virtue incommensurable with
great souls, and hence incompatible with magnanimity, Aquinas ranks as
the highest moral virtue after justice and regards as in an important sense

Aristotle™s term here (NE 1123b5“6) is sÛjrwn (s¯phron) “ as in, sˆphrosune¯.
31 o¯ o
32 Aquinas™s complete response runs as follows: “As stated above, in assigning parts to a
virtue we consider chie¬‚y the likeness that results from the mode of the virtue. Now the
mode of temperance, whence it chie¬‚y derives its praise, is the restraining or suppres-
sion of the impetuosity of a passion. Hence whatever virtues restrain or suppress, and
actions which moderate the impetuosity of the emotions, are reckoned parts of temper-
ance. Now just as meekness suppresses the movement of anger, so does humility suppress
the movement of hope, which is the movement of a spirit aiming at great things. Wherefore,
like meekness, humility is accounted a part of temperance. For this reason the Philosopher
(NE IV.3) says that a man who aims at small things in proportion to his mode is not magnanimous
but temperate, and such a man we may call humble. “ Moreover, for the reason given above
(II“II 160, 2), among the various parts of temperance the one under which humility is
comprised is modesty as understood by Tully (De Invent. Rhet. ii.54), inasmuch as humility
is nothing else than a moderation of spirit: wherefore it is written (I Pet. 3:4), ˜In the
incorruptibility of a quiet and meek spirit™” (emphasis added).
Aquinas and Aristotelian Magnanimity 165

the foundation of all other moral virtues, magnanimity included (see ST
II“II 161, 5). Aquinas thus draws his careful readers™ attention to a zone
of con¬‚ict between classical and Christian ethics, one with considerable
political rami¬cations as well. Recall the words of Christ to his apostles,
who even at such a solemn moment as the Last Supper were engaged in
one of their regular disputes over who among them was the greatest: “The
kings of the Gentiles lord it over them, and they who exercise authority
over them are called Benefactors. But not so with you. On the contrary, let
him who is greatest among you become as the youngest, and him who is
the chief as the servant. For which is the greater, he who reclines at table,
or he who serves? Is it not he who reclines? But I am in your midst as
he who serves” (Lk 22:25“7; cf. Mt 20:24“8, Jn 13:1“17, 21:15“17).33 To
arguments contesting the propriety of Christian theologians employing
theoretical resources from Aristotle and other pagan thinkers, judging
this enterprise a watering down of the Gospel, Aquinas replied that this
task is rather one of “chang[ing] water into wine” (Commentary on Bo¨thius™
e
34
“De Trinitate” Q. II, A.III, ad 5, my translation; cf. Jn 2:1“12). What seems
clear is that evangelical humility posited as a universal human excellence
is the sort of new wine that old wineskins, even those of outstanding qual-
ity such as the NE, cannot hold without tearing. The skins must likewise
be transformed into fresh ones if they are to serve their purpose (cf. Mt
9:14“17).
In their recent articles, both Horner (1998) and Holloway (1999) con-
clude that Aquinas™s magnanimity is essentially Aristotle™s megalopsychia
(albeit, in Horner™s view at least, more re¬ned and more fully elaborated),
with the addition of charity and humility. The contours and content of
magnanimity itself do not change; the ethical life of which it is a part
is simply completed and ¬lled out, rendering more clear the place of
magnanimity and its taste more palatable to modern as well as medieval
men. As we have seen, this view ¬ts well with Thomas™s ¬rst line of argu-
ment for humility as an ethical virtue (i.e., as primarily a religious virtue,
added to but not con¬‚icting with the “social and civic” virtues of which
Aristotle spoke in the Ethics), but not with Aquinas™s second presentation
as we have just elaborated it. A magnanimity that is fully at home in the

33 For a re¬‚ection on the radical implications of this proposal for virtue and leadership,
in the context of the history of political thought, see the conclusion of Pierre Manent™s
City of Man (1998, 206).
34 Compare the later antischolastic criticism of Erasmus: “We try to combine all of [Aris-
totle™s] doctrines with the teaching of Christ, which is like trying to mix water with ¬re”
(Phillips 1965, 331). I thank Patrick Provost Smith for this reference.
Moral Virtues at the Nexus of Personal and Common Goods
166

world of humility and gratitude must be a transformed magnanimity in
some crucial respects. For a fuller understanding of Aquinas™s teaching
on magnanimity and pusillanimity, a close reading of those questions
in the ST on gratitude, humility, and their opposing vices cannot be
omitted.
In Thomism and Aristotelianism, Jaffa takes note of the important dis-
sonance between these two accounts of magnanimity. He rightly refers
us to Christian (or, as he stresses, “revealed”) theology as an important
source of Aquinas™s divergence from Aristotle on this score. Radical doc-
trines such as creation ex nihilo as a free expression of divine goodness,
certainty concerning divine “particular” providence as extending to each
and every being and in particular to rational or human beings, and a
vision of each human person as imago Dei and invited to friendship with
God cannot help but in¬‚uence the Christian thinker™s vision of moral
conduct and ethical excellence. Aquinas™s narrative paradigm, rooted
in the eternal and unchanging mind of God and hence not collapsing
into historicism, is one marked by the following key moments: (1) divine
condescension, stooping to dwell among and even to become one of his
human creatures, through the radical self-emptying or kenosis that is the
Incarnation and self-offering of the Word; (2) the human ascent to God,
through mysteriously entering into and reenacting that divine kenosis,
realizing and living out the truth of one™s being as a creature and child of
God; and (3) the consequent descent to serve, to understand, and to learn
from one™s fellow human beings, all images of God, for the love of God.
In his postscript, Jaffa quotes with approval this pithy summary of the
distinction between Thomistic and Aristotelian ethics: “ . . . Aristotle did
not look upon God as Creator nor as exercising conscious government
and providence, but regarded Him as the ¬nal Cause alone. . . . The vir-
tuous man of Aristotle is, in a sense, the most independent man, whereas
the virtuous man of St. Thomas is, in a sense, the most dependent man,
that is, the man who realizes truly and freely expresses his relation of
dependence on God [i.e., a personal God who governs human affairs]”
(Copleston 1993, 410“11, quoted in Jaffa 1952, 191“2).
It still remains to be inquired, however, whether the foundations of
a magnanimity humbly conscious of its dependence on God, as well as
of its need to look to other human beings and acknowledge their sup-
port with enduring gratitude, are wholly and exclusively supernatural.
Jaffa implies as much throughout Thomism and Aristotelianism, where he
alleges that Thomas™s revisionist ethic ¬‚ies in the face of common sense
and threatens the very possibility of human or social science. Aquinas, I
Aquinas and Aristotelian Magnanimity 167

believe, would maintain that they are not, and he is able to offer plausible
reasons for so maintaining. In this present treatment I cannot attempt a
thorough explication of these arguments, much less anything approach-
ing a demonstration of their validity. My aim is simply to say enough to
make the reader aware of these core Thomistic claims and their sources
in Aquinas™s texts and to suggest that, in some instances at least, similar
arguments should resonate well with us today.
Aquinas™s natural theology, the high point of his metaphysics, teaches
that unassisted reason is in principle capable of knowing the existence of
God and certain of his attributes (ST I 2; I 12, 12; SCG I.10“102; cf. Gilson
1955, 365“75; McInerny 2001). Aquinas judges that ¬nite and contingent
being must be created being and that reason can attain to this truth; what
he judges unknowable in the absence of divine revelation is whether the
world was created “in time” or from all eternity (ST I 44“ 6). Someone
aware that his or her existence is in this way utterly dependent upon a
good, wise, benevolent, powerful, and provident God, and sensitive to
the dimension of mystery inherent in a created universe and each of
its beings, has the foundation for cultivating an attitude of philosophic
reverence.35 A natural modesty or humility is thus in truth a human or
ethical virtue even for “the princes of this world,” be they statesmen or,
as Aquinas judges, in the highest instance “philosophers” (cf. ST I 12, 13,
s.c., with 32, 1, ad 1).36
The dif¬culty here, as Aquinas is quick to note, is the trouble that unas-
sisted reason has in reaching metaphysical truths about the world and its
ultimate cause. Left to their own devices, only a tiny minority of human
beings would have discovered them, after years and perhaps decades of
effort; and even then their conclusions would often contain much error
admixed with truth. Only the most fortunate humans, those blessed with

35 Thus Aquinas would contest Manent™s claim (1998, 200) that “By nature “ at least if one
isn™t telling himself stories “ the man who is truly superior necessarily and legitimately
disdains [in a strong sense] the man who is truly his inferior.” See also ST I 27, 1, ad 3,
where Aquinas notes that the “very nature” of creatures “entails dependence on God.”
And see Aquinas™s treatment of the virtue of religion (religio), a moral virtue and a “part”
of justice, which inclines its possessor “to show reverence to the one God under one
aspect, namely as the ¬rst principle of the creation and government of things” (ST II“II
81, 3, c.), thus following “a dictate of natural reason” (II“II 81, 2, ad 3).
36 Kries (1990, 102; cf. 98“101) makes a related observation, concluding that Aquinas con-
siders the best regime of Aristotle™s Politics to be rationally inferior to the polity established
by the Mosaic Law, insofar as the former fails “properly [to] take into consideration that
aspect of [natural] justice which orders human beings to God in regulating that aspect
of justice which orders human beings to each other.” For an analogous argument in
contemporary context, see Havel (1991; discussed below, on pp. 171“2).
Moral Virtues at the Nexus of Personal and Common Goods
168

quick, penetrating intellects and dogged self-discipline, living in peaceful
lands and privileged to enjoy much leisure and learning, would ever have
achieved philosophic knowledge of the truths that are essential for lead-
ing a good life and achieving happiness “ or so Aquinas argues. Hence
God in his mercy reveals what the reason of so many would necessarily
have failed to grasp and the reason of none perfectly comprehended
(cf. SCG I.4; ST I 1, 1; I“II 99, 2, ad 2).
Against those who fear that Aquinas™s emphasis on God™s will as the
foundation of both creation and revelation undermines the possibil-
ity of science, both natural and especially ethical and political science
(cf. Arnhart 1983, 274“6; Jaffa 1952), Aquinas in effect maintains that
if the risks of a lapse into an antirational ¬deism are avoided, then the
practice of science and the quest for wisdom stand rather to gain and be
strengthened (see, e.g., ST I 19, 4“5). Presumptuous pride “ according to
Aquinas, one of the vices principally opposed to the virtue of magnanim-
ity (see II“II 130, 2) “ is a great threat to genuine knowledge. It focuses
the thinker on an exaggerated image of his own excellence, obscuring
accurate perception and disposing him to overcon¬dence and rash judg-
ment. Those reasoners, theoretical and practical, who, through believing
in things unseen yet attested to by divine authority, accustom themselves
to self-doubt and humility, are more capable of wonder at the otherness
of beings; more apt to proceed with due caution and care in their study;
and more cognizant of the possibilities for error in their conclusions and
unethical misuse of their results (cf. SCG I.5.4; ST II“II 130, 2, ad 3; 133,
1, ad 4). Faith likewise nourishes the dif¬cult, never-completed quest for
truth and justice and sustains it in hope; faith thus provides grounds for
a noble magnanimity in scholarly as well as public life (cf. inter alia SCG
I.2.2; ST I“II 40 and II“II 17; II“II 129, 6).37
Yet what of the many readers who do not accept some or all of Aquinas™s
philosophy of being and natural theology, to say nothing of his revealed
theology? Are they bound to prefer the magnanimity of the NE to that of
the ST ? Jaffa (1952) contends that this is the likely outcome of a compar-
ison of the two theories: Aristotle keeps the ethical and political sphere of
human life properly separate from the speculative or theoretical domain,
and hence his account of magnanimity and other virtues does not depend
on his metaphysics in the same way Aquinas™s does. Aristotle™s conclusions
are therefore in themselves both more accessible and more persuasive to

37 For a political theorist™s re¬‚ections on the meaning and import of hope, see Tinder
(1999); and from the standpoint of contemporary analytic philosophy, cf. Geach (2001).
Aquinas and Aristotelian Magnanimity 169

our multicultural, multiethnic contemporaries. The heroic megalopsychia
that the classical statesman evinces is much needed in modern times, Jaffa
holds, and it is the great vice of Thomistic Aristotelianism that it obscures
such important aspects of the Philosopher™s ethical wisdom from needy
inquirers in search of a realistic yet ennobling social science.
Yet it is important to note that metaphysics is not the ¬rst or foremost
teacher of ethics, according to Aquinas. There is also the ground-up
moral phenomenology beginning from natural law and rooted in what
Aquinas terms synderesis and conscientia.38 The ethical experience of each
human being, Aquinas maintains, evolves in the context of an inborn
inclination toward good and aversion to evil.39 Natural knowledge of
the ¬rst and very general precepts of natural law enjoins personal ratio-
nal re¬‚ection on human relationships, social norms, the example and
advice of others, and one™s concrete lived experiences, to deepen one™s
understanding of the requirements of virtue and upright conduct and the
connection of these with beatitudo, happiness or ¬‚ourishing (ST I“II 94, 2;
cf. 94, 4 and 6).
Re¬‚ecting on the problem of a person™s moral responsibility in a politi-
cal society or culture that (perhaps inevitably) propagates some defective
views of human ful¬llment and ethical conduct, MacIntyre (1988a, 179“
81, 198“200) considers Aquinas to hold that the universal experience of
friendship in its myriad instantiations offers unique possibilities for ethical
growth. Insofar as one is genuinely committed to a friend™s welfare, one
gradually learns how virtue develops in various kinds of conduct, and
by contrast, which actions and attitudes impede mutual concern for and
esteem of the other™s good. In so doing, one comes to an ever-deepening
understanding of the requirements of one™s own good as a human
being.
So, we might consider Aristotle™s magnanimous man who is naturally
disinclined to rejoice in the good turns others have done him or to

38 For Aquinas™s understanding and explication of synderesis, the “natural habit” of the ¬rst
principles of practical reason, and conscience, the application of moral knowledge to the
judgment of a particular act, see ST I 79, 12 and 13; I“II 19, 5 and 6; 94, 1, 4, and 6.
39 “All the inclinations of any parts whatsoever of human nature, e.g., of the concupiscible
and irascible parts, insofar as they are ruled by reason, belong to the natural law, and are
reduced to one ¬rst precept [namely, ˜good is to be done and pursued, and evil is to be
avoided™], as stated above: so that the precepts of the natural law are many in themselves,
but are based on one common foundation” (ST I“II 94, 2, ad 2). Aquinas argues for the
viciousness of pusillanimity because it runs contrary to the natural law, that is, to the
natural inclination to accomplish the good that is within one™s power, “refusing to do
that which is commensurate thereto” (ST II“II 133, 1, c.).
Moral Virtues at the Nexus of Personal and Common Goods
170

acknowledge them after those favors have been returned with interest.
Aristotle implies that the megalopsychos nonetheless does have friends and
is even willing to “adjust” his life to spend time in their company and to
meet their needs (cf. NE 1125a1). Insofar as he grows to esteem his most
virtuous companions, his soul-mates, as other selves, he might re¬‚ect
that just as he appreciates hearing the good he has done recounted and
remembered, so his friends likewise appreciate and even deserve to hear
their noble deeds recalled. More than that, he may come to realize that
the genuine love and affection he has for his friends should make his
being their moral debtor more often than not a pleasant reality. Friend-
ship of the noblest kind issues in a kind of individual self-transcendence
that propels toward mutual self-ful¬llment. It may be that Aristotle him-
self hoped that his readers who matched the description of the megalopsy-
chos in Book IV of the NE might be brought to reconsider their excessive
concern with superiority and consequent ingratitude, by the time they
had studied the lessons on philia in Books VIII and IX.40 Such at least is
one possible implication of Jaffa™s interpretation of the structure of the
Ethics as one of ethical ascent from common attitudes and appearances
to deeper truths about the human condition (see 1952, 64“6), although
we should note as well that Jaffa doubts that anyone other than a true
philosopher could experience the fullness of friendship as described in
those passages.41
If the experience of friendship can be posited as in some sense uni-
versal, transcending the historical or cultural particularities in which it
is embodied and by which it is informed, Aquinas™s natural law teaching


40 Indeed, an invitation to this sort of ethical ascent could be read in two of the chapters
following almost immediately on the treatment of megalopsychia in the NE: that on friend-
liness or affability (NE IV.6) and that on truthfulness, de¬ned as the disposition willingly
to reveal the reality of oneself and one™s character in attitude, word, and deed (NE IV.7).
For a recent analysis of ethical growth by way of philia and its role in Aristotle™s political
science and theory of the common good, see Smith (1999, 628“31). For a parallel dis-
cussion of amicitia in Aquinas™s political thought, see Finnis (1998a, 111“17) on “Egoism,
Self-Ful¬llment, and the Common Good.”
41 It is also important to note, however, that the constrained nature of friendship based on
a common love of noble deeds, some of which can only be performed by one person
or another, is re¬‚ected to the end of the NE: “[O]ne will wish the greatest good for his
friend as a human being. But perhaps not all the greatest goods, for each man wishes for
his own good most of all” (NE VIII.7, 1159a11“13; cf. IX.8, 1169a18“1169b2). Aquinas
might well argue that the divine friendship of caritas (see ST II“II 23“33, especially 23,
1 and 3) ¬nally frees all virtuous human friendships to be themselves, so to speak, by
loosing the tension created by the all-too-human concern of each friend for his or her
own superiority.
Aquinas and Aristotelian Magnanimity 171

also implies that different sociopolitical contexts tend to obscure some
content of the natural law, and hence of human virtue, even while illu-
minating other aspects of it. In our times, the moral sensibility shown by
dissenters in the former Soviet Union and its satellites offers strong expe-
riential support “ generally from outside Thomist circles and often from
non-Christians “ for the humanity of humility and its role in forming
the character of the truly magnanimous person. In a 1984 essay enti-
tled “Politics and Conscience,”42 to give one powerful example, V´ clava
Havel urges jaded modern men to recover their primordial awareness of
their “life-world” or the “natural world,” together with the sense of ethi-
cal responsibility this dimension of humanness enjoins. This task entails
recovering the simplicity and capacity for wonder manifested by small
children:

They are still rooted in a world which knows the dividing line between all that is
intimately familiar and appropriately a subject of our concern, and that which lies
beyond its horizon, that before which we should bow down humbly because of the
mystery about it. . . . [This “natural world”] is the realm of our inimitable, inalien-
able, and nontransferable joy and pain, a world in which, through which, and
for which we are somehow answerable, a world of personal responsibility. . . . At
the basis of this world are values which are simply there, perennially, before we
ever speak of them, before we re¬‚ect upon them and inquire about them. It owes
its internal coherence to something like a “pre-speculative” assumption that the
world functions and is generally possible at all only because there is something
beyond its horizon, something beyond or above our grasp but, for just that rea-
son, ¬rmly grounds this world, bestows upon it its order and measure, and is the
hidden source of all the rules, customs, commandments, prohibitions, and norms
that hold within it. The natural world, in virtue of its very being, bears within it
the presupposition of the absolute which grounds, delimits, animates, and directs
it, without which it would be unthinkable, absurd, and super¬‚uous, and which
we can only quietly respect. Any attempt to spurn it, master it, or replace it with
something else, appears, within the framework of the natural world, as an expres-
sion of hubris for which humans must pay a heavy price, as did Don Juan and
Faust. (Havel 1991, 250“1)

In the conclusion of this essay, Havel alludes to the surprising impact
of the “antipolitical politics”43 practiced by dissidents as diverse as

42 Havel wrote this as a speech to be delivered on the occasion of receiving an honorary
doctorate from the University of Toulouse in May 1984, but at the time he was prohibited
from traveling abroad (Havel 1991, 249).
43 Havel loosely de¬nes this concept as “politics as one of the ways of seeking and achieving
meaningful lives, of protecting them and serving them . . . politics as practical morality,
as service to the truth, as essentially human and humanly measured care for our fellow
humans” (1991, 269).
Moral Virtues at the Nexus of Personal and Common Goods
172

physicist Andrei Sakarov, novelist Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, philosopher
Jan Patoˇka, and leader of the Solidarity Trade Union Lech Walesa, whom
c
Havel could then describe as a “simple electrician with his heart in the
right place, honoring something that transcends him and free from fear”
(Havel 1991, 270“1). The writings, and even more so the lives, of these
heroes of Central and Eastern Europe have much to teach us Westerners,
Havel suggests: “I am convinced that what is called ˜dissent™ in the Soviet
bloc is a speci¬c modern experience, the experience of life at the very
ramparts of dehumanized power. As such, that ˜dissent™ has the opportu-
nity and even the duty to re¬‚ect on this experience, to testify to it and to
pass it on to those fortunate enough not to have to undergo it. Thus we
too have a certain opportunity to help in some ways those who help us,
to help them in our deeply shared interest, in the interest of mankind”
(1991, 269“70; cf. Pangle 1992, 84“90). One of the “essential and uni-
versal truths” in the dissidents™ experiences is the personal, social, and
political importance of a courageous, magnanimous humility: “We must
draw our standards from our natural world, heedless of ridicule, and reaf-
¬rm its validity. We must honor with the humility of the wise the limits of
that natural world and the mystery which lies beyond them, admitting
that there is something in the order of being which evidently exceeds all
our competence. We must relate to the absolute horizon of our existence
which, if we but will, we shall constantly rediscover and experience” (267,
emphasis added; cf. Tucker 2000, 155“61).
From such evidence I conclude that Aquinas™s ethic of humility-
informed magnanimity is not one with which, in terms of our human
moral experience, “the facts soon clash” (NE 1098b12“13; cf. 1145b3“
8, and Jaffa 1952, 22, 27“9). Our memories of a “century of sorrows”44
suggest that humility constitutes a more central political virtue than even
Thomas Aquinas seems to have recognized (cf. ST II“II 161, 1, ad 5).


44 The phrase is from another former Soviet bloc dissident, Karol Wojtyla or Pope John
Paul II, in his Address to the Fiftieth General Assembly of the United Nations Organiza-
tion, October 5, 1995, §16“17: “In order to recover our hope and our trust at the end of
this century of sorrows, we must regain sight of that transcendent horizon of possibility
to which the soul of man aspires. . . . We can and we must do so! And in so doing, we shall
see that the tears of this century have prepared the ground for a new springtime of the
human spirit” (emphasis in the original).
7

Remodeling the Moral Edi¬ce (II)
Aquinas and Aristotelian Legal Justice




For most contemporary political theory, the preeminent or focal mean-
ing of justice is on the macro level: its primary subject is the politi-
cal community and its regime or basic structure. Justice is above all,
in Rawls™s famous phrase, “the ¬rst virtue of social institutions” (Rawls
1971, 3; 1999, 3), and as such he later speci¬es it as “free-standing”
and “political, not metaphysical” (Rawls 1985, 1993). In recent years,
scholars have challenged this reigning paradigm from various vantage
points, arguing for a renewed appreciation of the links among political
science, ethics, and philosophic anthropology, and hence for the impor-
tance to political theory of also investigating personal virtue (cf. inter alia
Bartlett 1994; Berkowitz 1999; Budziszewski 1988; Collins 2004; Galston
1991, 2002; Macedo 1990; Manent 1998; Sandel 1998). Aristotle™s works
have appropriately loomed large in the revival of the political study
of personal virtue, while by comparison the contribution of Thomas
Aquinas has been largely overlooked. Susan Collins has recently observed
that justice itself has been given short shrift among the virtues, even
in neo-Aristotelian scholarship (Collins 2004, 53; cf. O™Connor 1988,
417).
This chapter seeks to continue the reconsideration in political theory
of justice as a personal virtue, focusing on Aquinas™s dialectical account
of justice as a preeminent ethical virtue and a character trait of persons
who care about and work for the well-being of their political commu-
nities. For Aquinas as for Aristotle, this far-reaching, especially excel-
lent form of justice is termed “legal” and constitutes a “general” or
all-encompassing virtue proper to any deeply good human being and


173
Moral Virtues at the Nexus of Personal and Common Goods
174

committed citizen. In both Aristotle™s and Aquinas™s thought, legal justice
plays a key role in framing and navigating a central problem for social and
political theory: how to harmonize or at least to ease the tension between
the good of individual human beings and the common good of their
polities.
The neglect of Aquinas™s contribution in this context is perhaps rooted
in the conviction that Aristotle™s path-breaking account of legal justice in
the NE “reveals the full scope of [the] possibility” and problematic of
this virtue (Collins 2004, 52). If this is so, then Aquinas™s writings on
the topic must be either super¬‚uous, because his theory is essentially the
same as Aristotle™s, or muddling and misleading in important respects.
If the latter is the case, perhaps it is “ once again “ because Aquinas is
¬rst and foremost a Christian theologian rather than a political philoso-
pher, and so when his theory diverges from or substantially develops
Aristotle™s, the modern theorist suspects unwarranted religious encroach-
ments on social-scienti¬c terrain, a fully “faith-based” theory where uni-
versally accessible reason is what is wanted (Jaffa 1952; cf. Tessitore 1996,
13“14).1
This chapter seeks to demonstrate that Aquinas™s account is neither
super¬‚uous nor simply obfuscating for all its complexity. Aquinas™s legal
justice is indeed indebted to but is not identical with Aristotle™s, and on
its own it comprises a signi¬cant resource for political theorists today.
To study only Aristotle on this issue is to clarify some important prob-
lems and possibilities but to miss out on others “ and in some cases,
on others that are especially apropos to current social and political con-
cerns. I begin with an overview of Aristotle™s legal justice in Book V of
the NE and Aquinas™s interpretation of it in his Commentary on the “NE,”
noting some theoretical and practical problems these texts elucidate.
I then show how Aquinas navigates them in his ST, chie¬‚y by means
of an increased or enlarged emphasis on the concept of the common
good, and by incorporating his novel natural law theory and an explicit
account of the will into the dialectic concerning justice. One advantage
of the theological setting of Aquinas™s most developed theory of legal
justice, I suggest, is that it foregrounds questions of personal interiority,
universal welfare, and religion that are integral to contemporary political
experience, and so also to our political science.

1 For diverse views on the merits of Aquinas™s virtue ethics and political theory, and on their
relation to Aristotle™s thought, cf. also articles and literature reviews by Arnhart (1983),
Holloway (1999), Miner (2000), and Chapter 6 of this book.
Aquinas and Aristotelian Legal Justice 175

7.1 Aristotle on Legal Justice
Aristotle™s overview of legal justice as ethical virtue occurs in the open-
ing chapters of NE V. The relative brevity of this account has led some
to conclude that Aristotle was not very interested in this “general” type
of justice: as one scholar opines, Aristotle brings up legal justice only
to explain that this is not what he is going to talk about (Ferree 1951,
13).2 Others argue, by contrast, that legal justice has a signi¬cant and
perhaps even an overarching or architectonic role in the NE.3 As Martin
Ostwald observes in a note to his translation, “Although much of Book V
is devoted to a discussion of justice in a narrow, or what Aristotle calls
˜partial™ sense, Aristotle remains ever conscious of the wider connotations of the
term: ˜justice™ is for him the same as ˜righteousness,™ ˜honesty.™ It . . . regulates all
proper conduct within society, in the relations of individuals with one
another, and to some extent even the proper attitude of an individual
toward himself” (NE 1962: Ostwald 111n1, emphasis added). It is in this
broad sense that, as Cicero observes (and the Biblical tradition concurs),
“justice . . . gives its name to a good man” (De Of¬ciis I.7; quoted by Aquinas
in ST II“II 58, 12, s.c.: “Whether Justice Stands Foremost among All Moral
Virtues?”). I consider this latter position more persuasive. The ambit in
which Aristotle™s ethical virtues generally and justice in particular are
most at home is the social and civic one. Without legal justice as the
peak of “other-directed” human virtue, the full nature and function of the
other ethical virtues Aristotle describes cannot be elucidated. Although
this “general” kind of justice is explicitly the topic of just one full chapter
in the NE (V.1), its ethos informs virtually all of Aristotle™s ethical study.
Moreover, it does so in a manner that initially helps to lessen, but later
to reintroduce and even underscore, the parallel tensions between per-
sonal ¬‚ourishing and the political common good, and between law and
virtue.4

2 Ferree™s book appears to be the sole extant monograph on Aquinas™s legal or general
justice, which he treats in the context of modern debates on social justice. For a more
recent discussion of legal justice in the context of Catholic social thought, see Benestad
(1984).
3 Cf. also Collins (2004, 53“60), O™Connor (1988), Smith (2001, 131“55), and Tessitore
(1996, 35“42).
4 Cf. Kries (2002) on the centrality of this problem and the prospects of moderation
as a virtue for resolving it. Collins™s argument (2004, 47“8ff.) for relocating the fun-
damental tension to within moral virtue itself, between the aims of individual perfec-
tion in virtue and the common good, seems to me to reformulate and offer a fresh
angle on rather than to unseat the foundational problem of personal vis-` -vis com-
a
mon goods. Collins™s new stress is on virtue as “an independent end” in itself, but
Moral Virtues at the Nexus of Personal and Common Goods
176

Aristotle™s Legal Justice
Aristotle arrives at his de¬nition of legal justice by means of his usual
methodology for ethics and political science, beginning from ordinary
speech and common opinion. “We see that all men mean by ˜justice™ that
characteristic that makes them performers of just actions, that makes
them act justly, and that makes them wish what is just. The same applies
to ˜injustice™ . . . ” (NE V 1, 1129a7“10). People seem to have one of two
closely related meanings in mind when they speak of unjust persons,
either lawbreakers or unfair, covetous types. “Consequently, ˜just™ is what
is lawful and fair, and ˜unjust™ is what is unlawful and unfair” (1129a34“
b1). These meanings overlap in being rooted in our relationships and
conduct toward others: both justices are characteristics of social and polit-
ical animals (cf. Pol. I.2). They differ in that justice as law-abidingness is
in a sense said to be the whole of ethical virtue, while justice as fairness
comprises a discrete part of that whole.
Aristotle™s terse yet complex account of the content and aims of legal
justice might be distilled into the following syllogism:
the art of legislation yields laws, or lawful things,
Major premise:
which “we say” are just and which are just “in some
sense.”
laws and lawful things are about “what is commonly
Minor premise:
expedient, either to all or to the best or to those in
authority, whether with respect to virtue or . . . some
other thing [e.g., honor or wealth].”
by just things we sometimes mean “those
Conclusion:
things . . . which produce and preserve happiness or
its parts in a political community,” and in this sense
we are speaking about legal justice (cf. NE V.1,
1129b12“18).5
The highest function of law in Aristotle™s framework seems to be to foster
the cultivation of the virtues, as the core or at least the sine qua non of
private and public happiness. Legislation accomplishes this task by man-
dating the performance of acts of fortitude, temperance, and other noble

she often formulates this in terms of one™s own perfection in virtue as an end, and I
think correctly describes Aristotle™s magnanimous man at the pinnacle of this nobility-
for-its-own-sake as occupied principally in contemplating himself or his own excellence
as a personal good, rather than the beauty of virtue in itself (see Collins 2004, 52,
56n24, 57).
5 In this passage I follow Apostle™s (1984b) translation of the NE.
Aquinas and Aristotelian Legal Justice 177

characteristics, and by forbidding acts of the opposing vices. In this way,
law fosters both personal and common goods, although as a social norm
it aims principally at the latter. Assuming that civil laws have been care-
fully and wisely drafted, justice as law-abidingness in a signi¬cant sense
constitutes “complete” ethical virtue. Law-abiding justice shares with par-
ticular justice or “justice as fairness” its essential other-regardingness even
while transcending its partiality. Legal justice takes the excellences proper
to the other virtues and directs them to promote the good of one™s polis,
its rulers and its regime. It is the use of full ethical virtue for the public
welfare, and as such it is especially praiseworthy, honorable, and civically
indispensable. Virtue as such is de¬ned vis-` -vis the person possessing it,
a
looking chie¬‚y to his or her own character, inner dispositions and actions;
justice as such is de¬ned rather with a view to the good of another, and
in the case of legal justice speci¬cally by its social and civic orientation
and repercussions (cf. 1129b16“1130a14).
Yet in accord with his usual methodology, Aristotle also reports, in a
subtle yet candid manner, that law-abiding justice™s agent-transcending
nature and its orientation toward political ¬‚ourishing cut both ways
in public opinion. On the one hand, justice of this sort is considered
especially dif¬cult and demanding as well as far-reaching, and so it is
esteemed as the pinnacle of human excellence. “Thus, this kind of jus-
tice is regarded as complete virtue or excellence . . . in relation to our
fellow men. And for that reason justice is regarded as the highest of all
virtues, more admirable than morning star and evening star, and as the
proverb has it, ˜In justice every virtue is summed up™” (NE V.1, 1129b26“
30). Other observers, however, argue on this same basis that justice causes
the alienation of one™s own good, that in bene¬ting others the just per-
son harms or at the very least overlooks him- or herself.6 “For the very
same reason, justice alone of all the virtues is thought to be the good of
another, because it is a relation to our fellow men in that it does what is
of advantage to others, either to a ruler or to a fellow member of society”
(1130a3“5, emphasis added).7 In this remark one hears echoes of the
sophist Thrasymachus™s dismissal of justice as “high-minded innocence,”

6 Cf. ST II“II 47, 10, obj. 2: “[T]hose who seek the common good often neglect their own.
Therefore they are not prudent,” and ad 2, beginning “He that seeks the good of the
many, seeks in consequence his own good, for two reasons.”
7 Collins reads this passage differently, as underscoring the “unique power” of lawful justice
and continuing to re¬‚ect people™s praises of this character trait (Collins 2004, 54). In
my judgment, however, Aristotle clearly writes so as also to evoke people™s (and Thrasy-
machus™s in Plato™s Republic speci¬cally) doubts about and even blame of justice.
Moral Virtues at the Nexus of Personal and Common Goods
178

even foolish self-contempt and self-depreciation, in Book 1 of Plato™s
Republic (348c“d; cf. 343c; NE 1962: Ostwald 114n10; Ambler 1999).
In this chapter of the NE Aristotle offers no detailed refutation of
Thrasymachus™s verbal assault on justice. He evokes it without fanfare,
raising the Socratic question of whether devotion to justice for the sake
of another, for the public good and civic ¬‚ourishing, should be inter-
preted as extreme excellence or extreme folly. The tenor of Aristotle™s
text indicates that that his audience will overwhelmingly be drawn to the
self-perfecting interpretation (cf. Smith 2001, 33“5; Tessitore 1996, 16,
19), but the problem of whether and how that practical judgment may
be philosophically defended is left largely untreated in Aristotle™s text.
Aquinas will take up the task of a more detailed defense of legal justice as
an agent-perfecting ethical virtue in his ST, offering the reader a preview
of the general lines of that argument in his Commentary on the “NE” V.1“2.
Before moving on to Aquinas™s Commentary, we should note two addi-
tional passages in NE V that call into question the persuasiveness of posit-
ing law-abiding justice as a universal ethical excellence. First, in relating
the two distinct kinds of justice he has identi¬ed, Aristotle writes that
“everything unfair is unlawful, but not everything unlawful is unfair” (NE
V.2, 1130b12“13). To be valid, this assertion appears to presuppose a com-
prehensive law that aims to inculcate virtue as well as to repress vice and,
most importantly, has correctly understood ethical virtue™s meaning and
exigencies at least vis-` -vis others. Of what actual political community™s
a
legal code could this possibly hold true? Common sense seems strongly
to indicate that in actual polities and real-world regimes, not everything
unfair is unlawful in the realm of civic legislation (cf. Kempshall 1999,
119).
Yet when Aristotle refers to law, the sort of legislation he and we live
under in political communities seems to be the only sort alluded to, as
underscored in the paragraph concluding his initial investigation of the
legal just:

So let us dismiss that justice which is coextensive with the whole of virtue as well
as its corresponding injustice, as the one consists in the exercise of the whole
of virtue in our relations with our fellow men and the other in the exercise of
the whole of vice. Likewise, it is clear how we must determine the terms “just”
and “unjust” which correspond to them. For the great majority of lawful acts are
ordinances which are based on virtue as a whole: the law commands to live in
conformity with every virtue and forbids to live in conformity with any wickedness.
What produces virtue entire are those lawful measures which are enacted for education in
citizenship. We must determine later whether the education of the individual as
Aquinas and Aristotelian Legal Justice 179

such, which makes a person good simply as a man,8 is part of politics or of some
other science. For being a good man is perhaps not the same as being a good
citizen [in every case] (NE V.2, 1130b17“29, emphasis added).

Are legal justice and the whole of human virtue essentially the same
or not? At the least, we may say that their relation in Aristotle™s thought
is quite complex. How law-abiding justice in this-worldly polities can con-
stitute a universal human excellence, to say nothing of the practice of
complete ethical virtue or “virtue entire,” remains unclear at the end
of Aristotle™s explication of this preeminent form of justice. Even at its
best, or in the “best regime,” legislatively de¬ned and civicly oriented
excellence requires the corrective of epiekeia or equity, according to
Aristotle™s ethical pedagogy (NE V.10). The inherent limitations, the
errors, and even the perversions of human law further advise moder-
ation, Aristotle™s “signature virtue” for practical affairs, and also seem
to endorse education to a type of theoretical virtue that transcends the
regime of one™s polis and in a sense all of politics (cf. NE X.6“8). The
reader of the whole Ethics must thus conclude that the ethical virtue that
is to be so universally, that comprises the practical perfection of human
beings in social life, cannot be fully lawful or law-abiding according to the
only legal standard Aristotle apparently has to offer, the political (cf. Collins
2004, 56; Smith 2001, 150“3; Tessitore 1996, 39“42). How Aquinas goes
about salvaging legal justice™s preeminent status and why he considers it
worth saving at all remain to be seen.

7.2 Aquinas™s Commentary on Legal Justice in the Nicomachean Ethics
While Aquinas™s Commentary on the “NE” is in the main literal and inter-
petive, I will argue that it intentionally develops Aristotle™s ethical thought
in response to three closely related questions that the letter of NE V.1“2
raises but does not unambiguously resolve.9 First, does legal justice consti-
tute an ethical virtue in its own right “ a general or “complete” one, to be
sure, yet also a speci¬c excellence requiring cultivation and care, just as
do courage, temperance, liberality, and meekness? Or is it rather simply
another name we use for the whole cohort of ethical virtues when we see

8 In the NE, when speaking of the practitioner of legal justice, Aristotle uses forms of an¯r
e
(Latin vir), the speci¬cally male human, instead of the inclusive anthropos; by contrast,
Aquinas in his ST generally employs forms of the inclusive homo. The Dominican Fathers
generally render homo as “man,” and for ease of reference I have not normally modi¬ed
that translation.
9 On Aquinas™s Aristotelian commentaries, cf. Jenkins (1996) and Torrell (1996, 224“46).
Moral Virtues at the Nexus of Personal and Common Goods
180

them in action in the social and civic spheres? Second, if legal justice is in
fact a distinct virtue, what part of the human psyche does it relate to most
directly and perfect? In other words, what if anything does legal justice
do per se, directly, for the one who cultivates it, given that it aims speci¬-
cally at the bene¬t of ˜another™? Third, why is legal justice so outstanding,
perhaps even the greatest of the moral virtues? More speci¬cally, how can
it be both lawful or law-abiding and simultaneously praiseworthy always
and everywhere?

General Justice as a Speci¬c Moral Virtue
With regard to the ¬rst inquiry “ whether legal justice constitutes a virtue
in its own right “ Aquinas writes that Aristotle in fact resolves it, at the end
of NE V™s ¬rst chapter, “[clarifying] something that may be doubtful from
the premises.” On the one hand, “law-abiding justice” seems to be just
another name for the whole cohort of ethical virtues when they are put
into action in the civic context. On the other, it seems itself to be one more
“among the virtues,” singled out for special praise or blame as the case
may be. Aquinas paraphrases Aristotle to the effect that the whole of ethi-
cal virtue and legal justice are one substantially but different conceptually,
in terms of their de¬nitions (cf. NE V.1, 1130a10“13). Insofar as we con-
sider an act of virtue in itself, it is not legal justice, but particular justice or
some other virtue. As an example, Aquinas mentions an act of refraining
from adultery. He seems to mean that, insofar as this action is considered
in itself, it is proper to virtues such as temperance and commutative jus-
tice, a right and noble ordering of one™s passions and a ¬rm will not to
take a good that belongs to another human being. But Aquinas argues
that insofar as an action proper to these virtues is further directed by the
agent to the welfare of the broader community “ perhaps thinking of
the example to others and the trust and respect for the law and for mar-
riage vows that should characterize a good society “ then the action may
be ascribed to legal justice (Comm. NE V, 2 n. 912).
Things still do not appear clear, however. Why are justice, on the
one hand, and virtue, on the other, distinguished from one another in
Aristotle™s text (cf. NE V.1, 1130a12“13)? Must not then at least legal
justice in itself constitute something other than a virtue? At this juncture
Aquinas employs more precise technical language, and tighter logic as
well, to make his case for general or legal justice as a concrete virtue.
Borrowing concepts from elsewhere in Aristotle™s works, most notably
those of “matter,” “form,” and the “common good,” he identi¬es and
extracts the “speci¬c virtue” of legal justice that he considers implicit in
Aquinas and Aristotelian Legal Justice 181

Aristotle™s text. “[W]here a special formal aspect of an object exists even
in general matter, there a special habit must be found. For this reason it
follows that legal justice is a de¬nite virtue taking its species from this, that it
tends to the common good” (Comm. NE V, 2 n. 912, emphasis added). That
Aquinas considers this point, not unambiguously stated by Aristotle, an
important one is further indicated in the ST, where Aquinas devotes one
of just two articles on legal justice to the question of “[w]hether justice,
as a general virtue, is essentially the same as all virtue” (see ST II“II 58, 6
and its complex Aristotelian framework). Aquinas™s response emphasizes
the distinctiveness of legal justice as a speci¬c ethical virtue “in respect of
its essence, insofar as it regards the common good as its proper object,”
just as charity “regards the divine good as its proper object.” Toward the
end of this passage Aquinas also indicates that his own special concern
to underscore and account for the status of legal justice as its own ethical
virtue was not shared by Aristotle in NE V.

Legal Justice as Agent-Perfecting
Just as Aquinas™s Commentary aims to clarify the “object” or aim of legal
justice in Aristotle™s ethical framework, so too it speci¬es the “subject” of
this virtue in a way Aristotle had not deigned to do in NE V. Identifying the
part of the human psyche or persona legal justice inheres in and enriches
is no tangential task of intellectual curiosity. It is rather bound up with the
defense of justice as an ethical virtue: The fact that it is a concrete habit
aiming at the good of another does not render it ipso facto an excellence.
It could actually constitute a vice harmful to its possessor, orienting him
or her to act for an alien good that detracts or diverts from his or her own
welfare. Thrasymachus and all who blame justice could still be right.
In Aquinas™s judgment, the commentator of NE V is therefore required
to make a brief but clear excursus into the psychological basis of justice,
in the spirit of Plato™s Republic, which Aquinas knew only very partially and
on a secondhand basis. He does this by picking up on a clue that Aristotle
leaves in summarizing a typical commonsense understanding of justice:
“we see that all men mean by ˜justice™ that characteristic which makes
them performers of just actions, which makes them act justly, and which
makes them wish what is just” (NE V.1, 1129a7“9, emphasis added). This
statement, combined with the opening clause of Aristotle™s de¬nition of
partial justice as “that quality in terms of which we can say of a just man that
he practices by choice what is just” (NE V.5, 1134a2, emphasis added; cf. ST
I 58, 1; 58, 3), leads Aquinas to conclude that Aristotle posits “intellectual
appetite” (or “appetitive intellect”: ST I 83, 3; cf. 80, 2) as the faculty of
Moral Virtues at the Nexus of Personal and Common Goods
182

soul perfected by justice, legal as well as particular. Aquinas does not
hesitate to use the non-Aristotelian term “will” for this power of soul by
which we not only desire but also, properly speaking, wish, choose, and
act. “Likewise, we must take into consideration that [Aristotle] properly
explained justice after the manner of a will, which does not have passions
but nevertheless is the principle of external actions. Consequently, the
will is [the] proper subject of justice, which is not concerned with the
passions,” but rather with voluntary actions (Comm. NE V, 1 n. 889).10 By
extension, we may infer that legal justice perfects a person™s will, his or
her intellective appetite or rational desire, vis-` -vis the social and civic
a
spheres of human life and action.
This conclusion is once again important enough, in Aquinas™s estima-
tion, to merit its own article in the ST, at II“II 58, 4, “Whether Justice Is
in the Will as Its Subject?” We will need to look more closely at this argu-
ment later on, since the text of the Ethics curiously refrains from explicat-
ing (much less emphasizing) just how perfecting our habitual attitude,
choices, and actions vis-` -vis others helps perfect our own persons. Despite
a
Aquinas™s glosses on the text, Aristotle™s action-based account of lawful
justice in NE V.1“2 leaves the impression that general justice™s speci¬c
excellence is somehow extrinsic to the person possessing it (cf. Tessitore
1996, 40).

Political Regimes and the Problematic of Legal Justice
The third question Aquinas addresses regarding legal justice as a virtue
is this: Why is legal justice an especially perfect virtue, and how can this
claim made or reported by Aristotle in NE V.1 be justi¬ed? Aquinas might
seem at ¬rst glance to have answered this question by responding to the
previous two. In perfecting the will, on Aquinas™s account a very high
faculty of soul closely connected to intellect or reason, legal justice comes
across as an outstanding characteristic for a person to possess. In fostering
the common good through virtuous acts of all sorts, legal justice conduces
to a very great end.
Yet neither of these arguments responds to a critical problem with
the whole concept of legal justice in its lawful or law-abiding nature, a
dif¬culty evident already in Aquinas™s seemingly innocuous observation

10 Cf. this passage from Aquinas™s Commentary on the Politics, II, 1 n. 1 [2]: “Moreover, it
should be noted that [Aristotle] says it pertains to the best regime that human beings
should live as much as possible according to wish, that is, according to the will of humans; for
the human will has as its principal object the end of human life, to which the whole of
political life is ordered” (emphasis added).
Aquinas and Aristotelian Legal Justice 183

that Aristotle “shows that the legally just is determined by law” (Comm.
NE V, 2 n. 900). In the Commentary Aquinas does more to clarify and
underscore this dif¬culty than to resolve it. The problem is this: The only
form of law Aristotle™s NE acknowledges is the one most familiar to us,
laws framed by humans for governing particular political communities.
Glosses Aquinas, “It is clear how what is [legally] just and unjust ought to be
determined according to justice and injustice of this kind, because they are
the precepts as laid down by the law. The greater part of legal prescriptions
are enjoined in agreement with the whole of virtue inasmuch as the
law commands us to live according to every virtue and forbids us to live
according to any vice” (Comm. NE V, 3 n. 924, emphasis added). But
the problem with this formulation is that civil legislation is framed with
a view to the reigning regime “ the governmental form and the way
of life it re¬‚ects and supports “ of each particular polity. As Aristotle™s
Politics III makes clear and his Ethics here anticipates, no extant political
regime has a complete vision of justice underlying and supporting it.
Its legislation must therefore promote a civicly de¬ned account of legal
justice that is not in accord with virtue entire, or with ethical virtue as a
universally human perfection. This type of justice, carefully considered,
appears to be narrower than the wider, even “complete” justice it is ¬rst
billed as in the NE. Aquinas™s Commentary quietly but clearly highlights
this dif¬culty with the whole notion of legal justice as a preeminent virtue
by foregrounding and highlighting the problem of regime-centered and
regime-de¬ned justice.
Aristotle writes that “[s]ince a lawbreaker is, as we saw, unjust and a
law-abiding man just, it is obvious that everything lawful is in a sense just”
(NE V.1, 1129b12“13, emphasis added). Aquinas™s commentary on this
passage is particularly important and worth quoting at length.

[Aristotle] says “in some measure” because every law is determined in relation
to some regime. Now, not every regime possesses what is simply just but some
regimes have only what is partially just, as is evident in the third book of the
Politics. In a democratic regime where all the people govern, what is partially just
is observed but not what is simply just, so that because all the citizens are equal in
one respect (i.e., in liberty), therefore they are considered equal in every respect.
Consequently, acts that are prescribed by law in a democracy are not simply but
only in some measure just. But Aristotle says that those enactments are lawful that have
been ¬xed and determined by positive law, which is within the competence of legislators, and
that each enactment so decreed is said to be just in some way.
Next . . . [Aristotle] explains with what the decrees of law are concerned. . . . He
says ¬rst that laws touch on everything that can be of any possible utility for
the community (as in correct regimes [rectis politiis] where the common good is
Moral Virtues at the Nexus of Personal and Common Goods
184

sought), or for the utility of the best (i.e., certain elders of the city who govern
it and are called nobles), or for the utility of the rulers (as happens in regimes
ruled by kings and tyrants). In the framing of laws attention is always given to what is
useful to the affair of chief importance in the city.
Some may be considered as best or as ruling either because of virtue (as in
an aristocratic regime where certain ones rule on account of virtue), or for the
sake of something else (as in an oligarchy where the few rule on account of riches
or power). Since human utility of every kind is ¬nally ordered to happiness,
obviously the legal enactments that bring about happiness and the means to it
(i.e., the things that are ordered to happiness either principally, like the virtues,
or instrumentally, like riches and other external goods of this kind) are called just
in some fashion. This is by comparison with the civic community to which the framing of
a law is directed. (Comm. NE V, 2 n. 901“3, emphasis added)

We saw earlier how Aquinas elaborates and supports Aristotle™s legal
justice as a virtue by specifying the common good as its aim. Yet here
he follows Aristotle in noting that law “ positive, human, political law “
almost always seeks something other than the common good. According
to Aquinas in this text, the common good is sought only in “correct” [rec-
tis] polities of which he gives no detailed account or example. He does
give examples of regimes acknowledging and seeking the partially just:
notably, examples from every basic regime type listed by Aristotle (except
“polity,” rule of the many on account of virtue and for the common
good), including two Aristotle initially classi¬es in the Politics as com-
mon good “ seeking and therefore “correct”: kingship and aristocracy
(cf. Pol. III.6“7, 1279a16“b10). On this paradigm, the justice that is com-
plete and especially perfect human virtue in the service of the common
good cannot properly be styled “legal,” at least in the vast majority of
real-world polities. To hold universally, this appellation would seem to
require a source or “type” of law that transcends the particularity and
¬‚awed justices of this-worldly political legislation. The theory of natural
law developed by Aquinas in his ST seems a good candidate to ¬ll this
role.
Scholars have previously argued that Aquinas™s account of natural law
emerged, at least in part, from its author™s attempts to resolve dif¬culties
inherent in Aristotle™s ethics (see Fortin 1996, 2:164“6; MacIntyre 1988a,
192“4). To my knowledge, however, none has identi¬ed as one of these
the fundamentally political problem of regime-relative legal justice, or of
general justice as both determined by law and an eminent ethical virtue
fostering a normative common good. Given the way Aquinas™s Commentary
frames and elaborates this problem, however, such a causal connection
seems highly likely.
Aquinas and Aristotelian Legal Justice 185

7.3 Legal Justice and Natural Law in the Summa Theologiae
Aquinas™s most elaborate treatment of legal justice as a personal virtue
occurs in the ST, near the beginning of its lengthy treatment of justice as
a cardinal virtue (ST II“II 58“122). This discussion is preceded in ST II“II
by a detailed study of the three theological virtues faith, hope, and charity,
and by the consideration of prudence or practical wisdom (prudentia),
which has pride of place among the cardinal virtues for its unique status as
both an intellectual and a moral virtue, and hence precedes justice, which
is exclusively ethical. The remaining two cardinal virtues, fortitude and
temperance, still await consideration. In analyzing this treatment of legal
justice, I stress those aspects that appear to diverge from or substantially
to develop the legal justice of the NE.
It is clear from the outset that legal or general justice is for Aquinas
a privileged mediator, even a nexus between personal and common
goods. This is so because legal justice is the only virtue having the com-
mon good as its immediate end, the de¬ning aim by which its identity is
crafted (cf. ST I“II 61, 5, ad 4) . Because of its excellent and far-reaching
end, Aquinas places legal justice at the forefront of all the properly moral
virtues an individual might possess, just as Rawls accords justice the ¬rst
place among the desirable characteristics of social institutions. Here in
the ST Aquinas offers a unique strategy for af¬rming both the legal char-
acter of general justice and its universal moral merit. First, in de¬ning
legal or general justice, Aquinas privileges the common good as the end
of legal justice over the law as its “rule or measure.” Second, Aquinas™s
account comprises a more elaborate and multilevel legal theory rooted in
his novel theory of natural law and including his theological re¬‚ections
on divine law. Third, Aquinas™s incorporation of an explicit account of
the human will as the proper subject of justice gives that virtue a deeper
interiority in the personal psyche and a more universal outreach. By plac-
ing the political or civic meaning of justice in a more internal yet also
more expansive and even transcendent context, the tension is lessened (if
not fully overcome) between justice as individual excellence and justice
as socially and civicly situated.


Prioritizing the Common Good before the Law
Aquinas™s explication of justice as a general virtue in his ST accentuates,
at least initially, the respects in which his Commentary diverged from the
letter of Aristotle™s NE account. Aquinas cites Aristotle™s authority in the
sed contra of his inquiry “[w]hether justice is a general virtue,” quoting
Moral Virtues at the Nexus of Personal and Common Goods
186

the statement that “justice is every virtue (NE V.1)” and so indicating the
Aristotelian roots of this aspect of his virtue theory; yet Aquinas does not
explicitly refer to Aristotle™s text again in this article. Aquinas™s response
to this question runs as follows:

Justice, as stated above (ST II“II 58, 2) directs man in his relations with other men.
Now this may happen in two ways: ¬rst as regards his relations with individuals,
secondly as regards his relations with others in general, insofar as a man who serves
a community serves all those who are included in that community. Accordingly
justice in its proper acceptation can be directed to another in both these senses.
Now it is evident that all who are included in a community stand in relation to
that community as parts to a whole, while a part as such belongs to a whole, so that
whatever is the good of a part can be directed to the good of the whole. It follows
therefore that the good of any virtue, whether such virtue direct man in relation
to himself or in relation to certain other individual persons, is referable to the
common good, to which justice directs: so that all acts of virtue can pertain to
justice, insofar as it directs man to the common good. It is in this sense that justice
is called a general virtue. And since it belongs to law to direct to the common
good, as stated above (I“II 90, 2), it follows that the justice which is in this way
styled general is called legal justice, because thereby man is in harmony with the
law which directs the acts of all the virtues to the common good (II“II 58, 5).

There are several important developments in this explication. First, the
common good now appears more central than law itself to the meaning
and de¬nition of legal justice. Legal justice™s normative goal (common
good or bonum commune: cf. also ST I“II 60, 3, ad 2) now takes precedence
over the virtue™s rule and measure (law or, more broadly, reason exercised
with a view to the common good: cf. I“II 90, 2, ad 3). Because, according
to Aquinas, any law deserving of the name seeks the common good of
some community (I“II 90, 2), and because justice as a general virtue is also
geared to promoting the common good, general justice “is called legal.”
Rather than make a person simply law-abiding or lawful, the general virtue
of justice inclines a person more generally, as it were, to work in tandem
with the law so that social legislation and personal initiative “harmonize”
with one another in promoting the public welfare (cf. II“II 64, 3, ad 3,
and De Veritate 28.1, quoted in Ferree 1951, 50“1; but cf. 25“7). Moreover,
Aquinas™s accounts of both practical reason and charity entail a positive
ethical duty to use both free initiative and law-abidingness to foster the
common goods of one™s communities (see ST II“II 47, 10); such a duty
is not stressed or even explicitly mentioned by Aristotle.
In foregrounding the common good as the goal of legal justice,
Aquinas makes no mention of the partial or more exclusively possessed
goods alluded to in the parallel passage of Aristotle™s NE, where law™s
Aquinas and Aristotelian Legal Justice 187

aim is described as “to secure either the common good of all or of the
best, or the good of those who hold power either because of their excel-
lence or on some other basis of this sort” (NE V.1, 1129b14“18, emphasis
added; cf. Comm. NE V, 2 n. 902“3). In this move we see intimations
of Aquinas™s critique of regime-centered politics and political science,
insofar as the normative goal that legitimates political authority and rule
to begin with, the common good, is forgotten or compromised (cf. Pol.
III.6). For Aquinas, the ethical realm is the deeply human and divinely
anchored foundation of politics, and thus Aquinas™s legal justice as a
virtue must aim at nothing less than the fully human social telos, the
good of the community and all of its members.11 It seems therefore that
a person who possesses Aquinas™s virtue of general justice will only fully
harmonize with the law if it is truly made with a view to the common good
of all.
When Aquinas introduces law into this dialectic of general or legal
justice (ST II“II 58, 5), he does so in extremely general terms, a fact
notable because his legal theory is much more multilayered or pluralist
than Aristotle™s. The text on law referenced, ST I“II 90, 2, treats of law
per se, not of speci¬cally human or civic legislation, the topic of later
questions 95“7. The community for the good of which law is framed is
similarly unspeci¬ed. In question 90, Aquinas de¬nes law in general as a
rule of reason, for the common good, made by whomever has care of the
community, and promulgated. Then in question 91 Aquinas describes
four forms of law that meet that de¬nition: eternal, natural, human, and
divine. These in turn serve the common goods of the universe and of all
humanity (reminiscent of the Stoic cosmopolis; cf. Fortin 1996, 2:160), of
particular political societies, and of the people of God (¬rst Israel with
the Mosaic or Old Law, then the Church with the Law of the Gospel
or New Law), as distinct but often overlapping communities. Aquinas™s
virtue of legal justice, as distinguished from Aristotle™s, thus admits of
direction to political, moral or universal, and divine common goods.
Aquinas™s typology thus comprises as it were civic, ethical, and “infused
moral” virtues of legal or general justice (cf. Finnis 1998a, 216n; Fortin
1996, 2:273).12

11 Eleanore Stump thus argues “that many of the provisions [with] which proponents of an
ethics of care are most concerned . . . such as care for those at the bottom of the social
hierarchy, are in fact in Aquinas™s ethics . . . subsumed under justice” (1997, 61).
12 By infused moral virtues Aquinas means habits of conducting one™s life with a view to
friendship with God, divine gifts accompanying grace and facilitating the work of the
theological virtues faith, hope, and charity. See ST I“II 63, 3 and 63, 4: “[Aristotle] says
Moral Virtues at the Nexus of Personal and Common Goods
188

Natural Law and Aquinas™s Legal Justice
We are now in a position to appraise a novel resolution Aquinas offers for
the Aristotelian problem of how to uphold the status of legal justice as
an ethical virtue when many and perhaps all people live under regimes
evincing only partial understandings of justice and issuing legal codes that
do not truly or rightly aim at the common good. Some universally human,
transpolitical source or type of the legally just seems needed to overcome
this dif¬culty, to salvage the status of legal justice as a praiseworthy quality
always and everywhere, as a preeminent moral virtue. Aquinas™s natural
law is an especially good candidate to ¬ll this role.
Aquinas™s natural law is rooted in the inclinations proper to human
beings or “rational animals”: toward happiness, social life and friendship,
and truth-seeking (ST I“II 94, 2; cf. I“II 1“5). Its corresponding principles
or precepts, beginning from the ¬rst foundational norm that “good is to
be done and pursued and evil avoided,” are understood by Aquinas to
aim at the “natural common good” and especially at the “moral common
good” (I“II 94, 2; 94, 3, ad 1), which in turn constitute the foundation of
all genuine social and political common goods. Natural law™s universally
knowable ¬rst precepts and their “proximate conclusions” (such as that
no human being may be unjustly harmed) contain the very “order of
justice and virtue, whereby the common good is preserved and attained”
(I“II 100, 8). Moreover, Aquinas maintains that in a fundamental sense
natural law encompasses and directs us to all virtuous acts in a way that
positive political law cannot and should not: “If we speak of acts of virtue,
considered as virtuous, thus all virtuous acts belong to the natural law. For
it has been stated (I“II 94, 2) that to the natural law belongs everything
to which a man is inclined according to his nature. Now each thing is
inclined naturally to an operation that is suitable to it according to its
form. . . . Wherefore, since the rational soul is the proper form of man,
there is in every man a natural inclination to act according to reason,
and this is to act according to virtue. Consequently, considered thus, all
acts of virtue are prescribed by the natural law, since each one™s reason
naturally dictates to him to act virtuously” (I“II 94, 3, emphasis added).
By contrast, human law, according to Aquinas, properly prescribes only
acts of justice necessary or helpful for the common good of the political

(Pol. III.3) that citizens have diverse virtues according as they are well directed to diverse
forms of government. In the same way, too, those infused moral virtues, whereby human
beings behave well in respect of their being ˜fellow-citizens with the saints, and of the
household of God™ (Eph. 2:19), differ from the acquired [ethical or moral] virtues,
whereby people behave well in respect of human affairs.”
Aquinas and Aristotelian Legal Justice 189

community and certain actions proper to other virtues for the sake of the
common good (hence as acts of general justice: I“II 96, 3; cf. 96, 2).
We would therefore expect Aquinas to argue that natural law “ which
Aristotle did not (at the very least) explicitly treat “ is the truly compre-
hensive law vis-` -vis human virtue, and therefore grounds and delineates
a
the broad sphere of the legally just. This Aquinas does most explicitly in
ST I“II while treating of law, maintaining ¬rst that all the properly moral
precepts of the Mosaic Law, especially those of the Decalogue (the Ten
Commandments), “belong to the law of nature” (I“II 100, 1; cf. 100, 3, c.
and ad 1; and 99, 4). Aquinas distinguishes general moral from speci¬-
cally political or “judicial” precepts of the Mosaic Law and speci¬es that
both “the moral and judicial precepts, either in general or also in partic-
ular, contained that which is just in itself; but the moral precepts contained
that which is just in itself according to that general justice which is every virtue,
according to the Ethics V.1; whereas the judicial precepts belonged to spe-
cial justice, which is about contracts connected with the human mode of
life between one man and another” (I“II 100, 12, emphasis added).
In these “moral precepts” of natural law Aquinas ¬nds a universally
human, rational foundation for legal justice, a common “measure” for
social and civic virtue across (and within) diverse polities and cultures
(cf. George 1999, 249“58; MacIntyre 1988a, 164“208; McInerny 1990).
On this account, the basic principles of general justice are accessible to
all and impel each person to seek deeper and more detailed knowledge
of the human good, to cultivate the virtues for the welfare of others as
well as for one™s own good: for the human or moral common good. Legal
justice thus understood functions as a virtue regardless of the positive
law in force in a given country and epoch or the requirements of any
particular regime. Natural legal justice, in Aquinas™s thought, serves as a
common basis, a foundation for furthering the common good by means
of acts proper to the various ethical virtues, whether legally mandated,
or transcending the letter of the civil law yet in accord with its spirit, or
when necessary even in opposition to positive legislation (cf. ST I“II 96,
4“6; 97, 4; II“II 120 on equity).13

13 In treating equity as a virtue leading one to act beyond or even against the letter of the
law to do the truly right thing, ultimately for the common good, Aquinas himself seems
to indicate that his natural law“informed legal justice is wider than Aristotle™s notion
based on human law, when he writes that according to Aristotle in “(Ethics V.10), ˜epikeia
[epiekeia or equity] is better than a certain,™ namely, legal, ˜justice,™ which observes the
letter of the law: yet since it itself is a kind of justice, it is not better than all justice” (ST
II“II 120, 2, ad 2; cf. c. and ad 1). Only on the basis of a natural law theory can legal and
Moral Virtues at the Nexus of Personal and Common Goods
190

In the questions on justice in ST II“II, the natural law foundation for
legal justice as “every virtue” is expressed most clearly in the question on
the “precepts of the [Mosaic] law” that correspond most closely to the
requirements of justice.14 On Aristotle™s commonsense model that what
is legally just is determined by the precepts of legislation, Aquinas here
echoes his observation from ST I“II that the moral precepts of the Old
Law, and particularly the most general ones, speci¬ed by the Decalogue,
are the foundational precepts delineating or “measuring” what is just:
“The precepts of the Decalogue are the ¬rst principles of the Law; and
the natural reason assents to them at once, as to principles that are most
evident” (II“II 122, 1). Although the body of this response focuses on what
is just in particular, on what is owed to speci¬c others, Aquinas still sets his
response (and the entire Decalogue) in the broad context of legal justice
as complete virtue in its other-regarding aspect. The very ¬rst objection is
as follows: “It seems that the precepts of the Decalogue are not precepts
of justice. For the intention of a lawgiver is ˜to make the citizens virtuous
in respect of every virtue,™ as stated in NE II.1. Wherefore, according to NE
V.1, ˜the law prescribes about all acts of all the virtues.™ Now, the precepts
of the Decalogue are ¬rst principles of the whole Divine Law. Therefore
the precepts of the Decalogue do not pertain to justice alone.” Aquinas
replies that the Mosaic Law did indeed look to instruction regarding the
whole of virtue but had to begin with the basics, with what was clearly
due to others and so the sine qua non of social life, as expressed in the
precepts of the Decalogue (II“II 122, 1, ad 1).


The Dialectical Return to Human Law and Politics
For all his emphasis on natural law as foundational and the correspond-
ing ¬rst moral precepts of divine law, it is striking that Aquinas does
not jettison political or “human” legislation as a “rule and measure” for
legal justice as a virtue “ far from it. In his second question in the ST on
legal justice, inquiring “[w]hether justice, as a general virtue, is essen-
tially the same as all virtue,” the political context returns to the fore.

general justice (or justice as every virtue) coincide. Aquinas™s equity falls under the rule
and measure of natural law™s most general primary precepts, that “good is to be done
and pursued and evil avoided” (I“II 94, 2), that “justice should be preserved” (I“II 100,
8, ad 1), etc.; under the guidance of prudence, equity determines in the concrete what
the natural law and just human law require in speci¬c instances.
14 Aquinas likewise emphasizes the Decalogue™s natural law cum general justice context
in his earlier question regarding possible legal precepts corresponding to the virtue of
prudence: see ST II“II 56, 1, c.; cf. also ad 1“3.
Aquinas and Aristotelian Legal Justice 191

“The Philosopher says (NE V.1) that ˜many are able to be virtuous in
matters affecting themselves, but are unable to be virtuous in matters
relating to others,™ and (Pol. III.2) that ˜the virtue of the good man is
not strictly the same as the virtue of the good citizen.™ Now the virtue of
a good citizen is general justice, whereby a man is directed to the common
good. Therefore general justice is not the same as virtue in general, and
it is possible to have one without the other” (ST II“II 58, 6, s.c.; cf. ad 4;
emphasis added). This explicitly political characterization of legal justice
continues throughout this article and into the following articles as well.
One indication is Aquinas™s introduction of the distinction between those
actually governing and ordinary citizens, a distinction based in principle
on different degrees of political wisdom or prudence and in practice
on diverse civic roles and responsibilities: “[L]egal justice is a special
virtue . . . insofar as it regards the common good as its proper object. And
thus it is in the sovereign principally and by way of mastercraft, while it is
secondarily and administratively in his subjects” (II“II 58, 6). In describ-
ing the goal of this politically oriented virtue of legal justice, Aquinas
employs a revealing and ennobling term: the “human common good”
(II“II 59, 1, ad 1; recall I“II 61, 5, on the “human” virtues as social and
civic, as discussed in Chapter 5).
What is one to make of this shift in emphasis? On the one hand,
Aquinas™s theory of legal justice puts the spotlight on the limits of poli-
tics as regime-directed and regime-informed. In developing his theory of
natural law and attributing to it a unique relationship to “virtue entire,”
Aquinas apparently acknowledges that civil or political, regime-informed
law is almost always, perhaps always, too selective in its conception of
justice to aim at the common good in accord with full ethical (or per-
sonal) virtue. His initial downplaying of law in favor of the common
good appears to underscore this fundamental political limitation. For
Aquinas, it is clearly untenable to posit a social and civic common good
that obstructs the fundamental human inclination to good action and
virtue, from which inclination ¬‚ow the ¬rst principles of practical rea-
son, the precepts of natural law (see ST I“II 94, 2). In these foundational
criteria of goodness applicable to individuals and their associations alike,
Aquinas locates the most basic distinction between genuine and spurious
common goods (cf. I“II 96, 4; 97, 4).
In a more Augustinian than Aristotelian vein, Aquinas further argues
that a just human or civil law, one that has the civic or human common
good as its goal, must be in harmony with the precepts of natural law.
The claims of natural sociability and natural law are prior to and take
Moral Virtues at the Nexus of Personal and Common Goods
192

precedence over particular political regimes and their diverse forms of
legislation. Writes Aquinas, “As Augustine says (On Free Choice of the Will
I.5), ˜that which is not just seems to be no law at all™: wherefore the force
of a law depends on the extent of its justice. Now in human affairs a thing
is said to be just, from being right, according to the rule of reason. But
the ¬rst rule of reason is the law of nature. . . . Consequently every human law
has just so much of the nature of law as it is derived from the law of nature. But
if in any point it de¬‚ects from the law of nature, it is no longer a law but
a perversion of law” (ST I“II 95, 2, emphasis added).
It is most signi¬cant that, according to Aquinas, positive laws deviating
from the natural law are deemed not only unjust but also illegal; con-
versely, only civil laws according with natural law qualify, to use Aquinas™s
seemingly redundant phrase, as “legal laws” (ST I“II 96, 4; cf. 92, 1, ad
4). In this instance, Aquinas™s theory clearly and self-consciously deviates
from Aristotle™s in NE V.1 as Aquinas himself interprets it: “Aristotle says
that those enactments are lawful that have been ¬xed and determined
by positive law, which is within the competence of legislators . . . ” (Comm.
NE V, 2 n. 901). In his Ethics, Aristotle does not explicitly identify what is
“right” with what is “lawful”; nor on my reading does he argue for a natu-
ral human inclination to ethical virtue or the corresponding self-evident
(per se nota) principles of practical reason that Aquinas also calls ¬rst pre-
cepts of natural law. Where Aristotle might hold that an action is not
right by nature yet lawful in a particular polity, Aquinas posits a measure
of illegality in addition to wrongfulness. Conversely, Aquinas often uses
the positive terms “legal” or “lawful” where we modern readers would
expect to read rather “moral” or “just” (e.g., ST II“II 64, 3, ad 3). Why
does he hold so tenaciously to justice™s legal aspect, especially vis-` -vis gen-
a
eral justice? Doesn™t that approach just muddle things, as even scholars
sympathetic to Aquinas have argued (e.g., Finnis 1980, 165; cf. 1998a,
216; Hart 1994, 185“212)? Wouldn™t we be better off with a more clear-
cut distinction among law, justice, and morality (including moral virtue)
than Aquinas™s theory offers?
Natural law and natural right, at least on some interpretations of the
latter, both indicate a shared humanity and universal ethical standards,
albeit in the context of highly varied and changing human circumstances
across space and time (cf. NE V.7, ST II“II 57, 2). Natural right bespeaks
what Aquinas might term an ethical commonality “in praedicando” or of
“species-sameness” among humans: insofar as we are all human beings or
rational animals, and perform actions of the same types, certain ethical
standards apply across the board. Just as “animal” is common to both
Aquinas and Aristotelian Legal Justice 193

horses and human beings, so “unjusti¬ed killing of human beings is wrong
or evil” applies to Aristotle and to Aquinas as much as it applies to Saddam
Hussein, George W. Bush, this author, and the reader. Natural law must

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