Principles of Catholic Morality

Aquinas on charity

Charity is, of course, the core of the Christian life.  The word we usually start with to describe this virtue is “love”.  Perhaps surprisingly, that’s not the word Thomas Aquinas uses to get across his main idea.  The word he uses is “friendship“.  Charity makes us friends of God.  “Friends” may sound like something less than lovers, but for Aquinas, friendship involves more than love; it’s love plus communion:

According to the Philosopher (Ethic. viii, 2,3) not every love has the character of friendship, but that love which is together with benevolence, when, to wit, we love someone so as to wish good to him. If, however, we do not wish good of what we love, but wish its good for ourselves, (thus we are said to love wine, or a horse, or the like), it is love not of friendship, but of a kind of concupiscence. For it would be absurd to speak of having friendship for wine or for a horse.

Yet neither does well-wishing suffice for friendship, for a certain mutual love is requisite, since friendship is between friend and friend: and this well-wishing is founded on some kind of communication.

Accordingly, since there is a communication between man and God, inasmuch as He communicates His happiness to us, some kind of friendship must needs be based on this same communication, of which it is written (1 Corinthians 1:9): “God is faithful: by Whom you are called unto the fellowship of His Son.” The love which is based on this communication, is charity: wherefore it is evident that charity is the friendship of man for God.

So charity contains the special love of benevolence, i.e. appreciating God’s goodness and wishing Him His good for His own sake.  According to Nygren, this sort of love in isolation would be the highest form of Christian life.  Aquinas, though, says that benevolent love isn’t good enough.  One might wish good for someone one has never met, but that’s not yet friendship. The friendship God wants with us is incomplete without an erotic component.  Friendship and charity also require an I-thou contact, a real interpersonal communion.  In the above-quoted passage, Aquinas sees this as coming from the fact that charity is infused.  God doesn’t make each of us a copy of His internal beatitude; He gives us His own beatitude.  He Himself dwells in our souls.  Now, Aquinas would say that it would be impossible for God to make copies of His divine life anyway; God’s essence and existence are one, so one can’t copy the former; its presence in the soul means the presence of God Himself.  But even if it were possible, it would be a lesser gift than the one that God has given us, which is not only happiness, knowledge, and perfection, but also intimacy.  Elsewhere, Aquinas had denied that man’s telos is a good of the soul.  He will not allow friendship with God to be seen as a means to some internal state of the soul.  Of course, charity does change the internal state of our souls–it makes us virtuous, holy, etc–but among animals, the human telos is unique in having a reference to something outside itself.

Having defined charity thus, the relationship between it and the virtuous life more or less follows the path laid out by Augustine.  If we love God, we must will to keep on loving Him, and so we must in a sense love ourselves for His sake.  Charity also demands that we love our neighbors as potential or actual sharers in/worshipers of God.  Augustine had said that all the virtues are just aspects of love.  Aquinas says something similar, although he is careful to maintain the distinct character of each virtue.  He says that charity is the form of the virtues.

In morals the form of an act is taken chiefly from the end. The reason of this is that the principal of moral acts is the will, whose object and form, so to speak, are the end. Now the form of an act always follows from a form of the agent. Consequently, in morals, that which gives an act its order to the end, must needs give the act its form. Now it is evident, in accordance with what has been said (7), that it is charity which directs the acts of all other virtues to the last end, and which, consequently, also gives the form to all other acts of virtue: and it is precisely in this sense that charity is called the form of the virtues, for these are called virtues in relation to “informed” acts.

Charity directs our acts to the ultimate good.  It provides the context that makes them meaningful.  Without charity, an act is not ordered to the ultimate good, so without charity no other virtue can acheive its perfection.  The great conservative philosopher Eric Voegelin was put place Aquinas’ insight on charity informing virtue at the apex of man’s coming to understand his relationship with God.  After this, supposedly, the gnostic descent was to set in.

3 Responses

  1. As a Thomist (well, a Protestant Thomist), I appreciated your efforts to defend Duns Scotus from the baying hounds of my fellow virtue ethicists. You might be interested in “Duns Scotus on the Will and Morality”. The author discusses his attempt to dissolve misconceptions about Scotus here: http://www.illinoismedieval.org/ems/VOL5/wolter.html

  2. Thanks! I own a copy, and it certainly guided my understanding of Duns Scotus.

  3. It appears that I misunderestimated you!

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