By Chris Hazell
We sat down with Associate Professor of Philosophy Angela Knobel, Ph.D., to discuss her new book, Aquinas and the Infused Moral Virtues.
When I started graduate school, I thought that I wanted to study Aristotle since I had read a lot about him as an undergraduate (even though I went to a Catholic school, we actually read more Aristotle than Thomas Aquinas). But then I took a course on Aquinas, and I was just blown away by the richness and the depth of his thought on virtue. Although Aristotle is the guy everyone looks to when it comes to contemporary ethics, he actually doesn't offer that much detail. Aquinas offered a framework, a way of understanding the virtues that is almost mathematical, and that’s when I became interested in Aquinas.
I should say that my definition of virtue is not how a contemporary virtue ethicist would define it. What Aquinas and Aristotle thought is that human beings have a nature that both points them to fulfillment and provides the standard by which to measure that fulfillment. Reaching this fulfillment requires moral formation and growth. We cannot reach this state of human flourishing unless we cultivate certain habits that foster moral development. And a habit that orders us toward fulfillment is a “virtue.” As a virtue ethicist, I'm interested in studying the habits that are necessary for us to become most fully what we are — human beings.
Essentially, an infused virtue is one that is given to you by God, and an acquired virtue is one that we cultivate by our own efforts. We can develop acquired virtues, such as courage or justice, through our own efforts and reach human fulfillment on a natural level. As Christians, though, we believe that the ultimate purpose of human life is to become united to God in beatitude. The happiness that we are destined for is supernatural happiness, and that entails participation in the divine life. No amount of acquired virtue can enable us to reach beatitude. But when we’re baptized, our very nature is changed by grace. God “infuses” virtue into our being so that we are capable of acting in a manner befitting beatitude.
Aquinas believed that not only were the theological virtues of faith, hope and love given to us through our baptism, but even virtues such as justice, temperance and others were. He thought that all virtues had to be given by God if we were to act in a manner befitting the Christian moral life. For example, someone might have natural, or Aristotelian, virtues like courage and temperance. But when that person is baptized, he or she is given the infused virtues of courage and temperance. And it’s these infused virtues, not any developed natural virtues, that enable the baptized Christian to perform actions proportionate to our union with God. We might be able to train ourselves to go fight courageously for our homeland, but we cannot train ourselves to die courageously for Christ. The latter act can only be done through the infused virtue of courage given by God.
It might seem like Aquinas’ understanding of infused virtues implies that exercising and developing these virtues doesn’t take work on our part, but this is not true. Just because we are given infused virtues doesn't mean we possess them in their fullness. To say that someone has infused temperance doesn’t mean that he or she uses it well or even at all. By receiving these virtues, we are in a position to start practicing them and to act in a manner that is befitting of our participation in the divine life. We have to pray for the grace to use these virtues and open ourselves up to the Holy Spirit. When we try earnestly to act rightly as a Christian and we fall short, it’s usually because we are relying on our own strength. As we grow in the spiritual and moral life, we realize just how dependent we are on the Holy Spirit.
Reading Aquinas’ thinking on the virtues helped me with my own spirituality. It changed the way I practice my religion and the way I think about growing in my faith. When it comes to cultivating Christian virtues, I think we don’t talk enough about the role of grace and the Holy Spirit, and this does a disservice to our faith. My hope for the book is that it spurs a renewed appreciation for the role grace plays in Christian virtues. I also hope the book pushes forward the conversation since there is much in this area that remains unanswered.