Summa Theologica - Summary of Key Opinions in The Summa - The Summa, Part II: Ethics - Content in General

Content in General

The first part of the Summa is summed up in the premise that God governs the world as the "universal first cause." God sways the intellect; he gives the power to know and impresses the species intelligibiles on the mind, and he sways the will in that he holds the good before it as aim, creating the virtus volendi. "To will is nothing else than a certain inclination toward the object of the volition which is the universal good." God works all in all, but so that things also themselves exert their proper efficiency. Here the Areopagitic ideas of the graduated effects of created things play their part in Aquinas' thought. The second part of the Summa (two parts, Prima Secundae and Secunda Secundae) follows this complex of ideas. Its theme is man's striving for the highest end, which is the blessedness of the visio beata. Here Aquinas develops his system of ethics, which has its root in Aristotle.

In a chain of acts of will, man strives for the highest end. They are free acts, insofar as man has in himself the knowledge of their end (and therein the principle of action). In that the will wills the end, it wills also the appropriate means, chooses freely and completes the consensus. Whether the act be good or evil depends on the end. The "human reason" pronounces judgment concerning the character of the end; it is, therefore, the law for action. Human acts, however, are meritorious insofar as they promote the purpose of God and his honor.

By repeating a good action, man acquires a moral habit or a quality which enables him to do the good gladly and easily. This is true, however, only of the intellectual and moral virtues (which Aquinas treats after the manner of Aristotle); the theological virtues are imparted by God to man as a "disposition", from which the acts here proceed; while they strengthen, they do not form it. The "disposition" of evil is the opposite alternative. An act becomes evil through deviation from the reason, and from divine moral law. Therefore, sin involves two factors: its substance (or matter) is lust; in form, however, it is deviation from the divine law.

Sin has its origin in the will, which decides (against reason) for a "changeable good." Since, however, the will also moves the other powers of man, sin has its seat in these too. By choosing such a lower good as its end the will is misled by self-love, so that this works as cause in every sin. God is not the cause of sin since, on the contrary, he draws all things to himself. But from another side God is the cause of all things, so he is efficacious also in sin as actio but not as ens. The devil is not directly the cause of sin, but he incites the imagination and the sensuous impulse of man (as men or things may also do).

Sin is original sin. Adam's first sin passes through himself to all the succeeding race; because he is the head of the human race and "by virtue of procreation human nature is transmitted and along with nature its infection." The powers of generation are, therefore, designated especially as "infected." The thought is involved here by the fact that Aquinas, like other scholastics, believed in creationism; he therefore taught that souls are created by God. Two things according to Aquinas constituted man's righteousness in paradise – the justitia originalis or the harmony of all man's powers before they were blighted by desire, and the possession of the gratis gratum faciens (the continuous, indwelling power of good). Both are lost through original sin, which in form is the "loss of original righteousness." The consequence of this loss is the disorder and maiming of man's nature, which shows itself in "ignorance; malice, moral weakness, and especially in concupiscentia,' which is the material principle of original sin." The course of thought here is as follows: when the first man transgressed the order of his nature appointed by nature and grace, he (and with him the human race) lost this order. This negative state is the essence of original sin. From it follow an impairment and perversion of human nature in which thenceforth lower aims rule, contrary to nature, and release the lower element in man.

Since sin is contrary to the divine order, it is guilt and subject to punishment. Guilt and punishment correspond to each other; and since the "apostasy from the invariable good which is infinite," fulfilled by man, is unending, it merits everlasting punishment.

But God works even in sinners to draw them to the end by "instructing through the law and aiding by grace." The law is the "precept of the practical reason." As the moral law of nature, it is the participation of the reason in the all-determining "eternal reason." But since man falls short in his appropriation of this law of reason, there is need of a "divine law." And since the law applies to many complicated relations, the practicae dispositiones of the human law must be laid down.

The divine law consists of an old and a new. In so far as the old divine law contains the moral law of nature it is universally valid; what there is in it, however, beyond this is valid only for the Jews. The new law is "primarily grace itself" and so a "law given within," "a gift superadded to nature by grace," but not a "written law." In this sense, as sacramental grace, the new law justifies. It contains, however, an "ordering" of external and internal conduct, and so regarded is, as a matter of course, identical with both the old law and the law of nature. The consilia' show how one may attain the end "better and more expediently" by full renunciation of worldly goods.

Since man is sinner and creature, he needs grace to reach the final end. The "first cause" alone is able to reclaim him to the "final end." This is true after the fall, although it was needful before. Grace is, on one side, "the free act of God", and, on the other side, the effect of this act, the gratia infusa or gratia creata, a habitus infusus which is instilled into the "essence of the soul," "a certain gift of disposition, something supernatural proceeding from God into man." Grace is a supernatural ethical character created in man by God, which comprises in itself all good, both faith and love.

Justification by grace comprises four elements: "the infusion of grace, the influencing of free will toward God through faith, the influencing of free will respecting sin, and the remission of sins." It is a "transmutation of the human soul," and takes place "instantaneously." A creative act of God enters, which, however, executes itself as a spiritual motive in a psychological form corresponding to the nature of man. Semipelagian tendencies are far removed from Aquinas. In that man is created anew he believes and loves, and now sin is forgiven. Then begins good conduct; grace is the "beginning of meritorious works." Aquinas conceives of merit in the Augustinian sense: God gives the reward for that toward which he himself gives the power. Man can never of himself deserve the prima gratis," nor meritum de congruo (by natural ability; cf. R. Seeberg, Lehrbuch der Dogmengeschichte, ii. 105-106, Leipsic, 1898).

After thus stating the principles of morality, in the Secunda Secundae, Aquinas comes to a minute exposition of his ethics according to the scheme of the virtues. The conceptions of faith and love are of much significance in the complete system of Aquinas. Man strives toward the highest good with the will or through love. But since the end must first be "apprehended in the intellect," knowledge of the end to be loved must precede love; "because the will can not strive after God in perfect love unless the intellect have true faith toward him." Inasmuch as this truth which is to be known is practical it first incites the will, which then brings the reason to "assent." But since, furthermore, the good in question is transcendent and inaccessible to man by himself, it requires the infusion of a supernatural "capacity" or "disposition" to make man capable of faith as well as love. Accordingly the object of both faith and love is God, involving also the entire complex of truths and commandments which God reveals, in so far as they in fact relate to God and lead to him. Thus faith becomes recognition of the teachings and precepts of the Scriptures and the Church ("the first subjection of man to God is by faith"). The object of faith, however, is by its nature object of love; therefore faith comes to completion only in love ("by love is the act of faith accomplished and formed").

Read more about this topic:  Summa Theologica, Summary of Key Opinions in The Summa, The Summa, Part II: Ethics

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