Ethics as a Work of Charity: Thomas Aquinas and Pagan Virtue

Ethics as a Work of Charity: Thomas Aquinas and Pagan Virtue

Ethics as a Work of Charity: Thomas Aquinas and Pagan Virtue

Ethics as a Work of Charity: Thomas Aquinas and Pagan Virtue

Synopsis

Most of us wonder how to make sense of the apparent moral excellences or virtues of those who have different visions of the good life or different religious commitments than our own. Rather than flattening or ignoring the deep difference between various visions of the good life, as is so often done, this book turns to the medieval Christian theologian Thomas Aquinas to find a better way. Thomas, it argues, shows us how to welcome the outsider and her virtue as an expression rather than a betrayal of one's own distinctive vision. It shows how Thomas, driven by a Christian commitment to charity and especially informed by Augustine, synthesized Augustinian and Aristotelian elements to construct an ethics that does justice-in love-to insiders and outsiders alike. Decosimo offers the first analysis of Thomas on pagan virtue and a reinterpretation of Thomas's ethics while providing a model for our own efforts to articulate a truthful hospitality and do ethics in our pluralist, globalized world.

Excerpt

Every thing thom as does, he does for love of a God who delights to make strangers, and even enemies, friends. This book is about how Thomas welcomes outsiders and their virtues as an expression of that love. For Thomas, Aristotle is the preeminent outsider. There is, however, no greater insider for Thomas than Augustine of Hippo. As an act of Augustinian love, Thomas unites and transforms Aristotle and Augustine alike to teach charity toward outsiders and their virtues. in each of thousands of interactions with Aristotle, he shows us what charity for a particular outsider looks like. To see how Thomas does this, how he makes ethics itself a work of charity, we must begin where he had to—with Augustine.

Augustine and the Challenge of Pagan Virtue

Writing at the beginning of the end of the Roman Empire, Augustine confronted a problem. It was not hard to critique the declining, decadently bloated empire, but the lives of men like Scipio, Cato, and, especially, Marcus Regulus seemed, to almost anyone, truly praiseworthy. Yet these Romans were obviously not Christians and did not in any straightforward way appear animated by Christ’s charity. Their notions of the human end, the ideas that gave their lives an ostensibly virtuous and particularly Roman shape, were not only alien but often contrary to the vision articulated by the church. How then to understand their seemingly virtuous characters? For Augustine, at least as he is commonly read, idolatry and the lust for domination (libido dominandi) finally swallowed up any apparent excellence. What mattered most was what these men and their seeming virtues were not: ordered to the Triune God. All, therefore, that flowed from lives so misdirected, including the apparent excellences so tempting to . . .

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