Posted: January 3rd, 2023
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Required text Ethics: The Essential Writings, ed. Gordon Marino (New York: Modern Library, 2010). ISBN: 9780812977783.
Our reading for today includes selections from two philosophers—both medieval thinkers (although from very different eras), both Christian philosophers, and both canonized by the Roman Catholic Church—Aurelius Augustine and Thomas Aquinas. Augustine (354-430 CE) was born in North Africa, to a pagan father and a Christian mother (St. Monica). He was raised more or less as a pagan, although his mother sought to convert her son at every opportunity. He was educated in both Carthage and Rome, mastered Greek and Latin literature and philosophy, and converted to Christianity (under the influence of his teacher, St. Ambrose) when he was 32. Aquinas (1224-1275 CE) was born in Aquino, in Italy, to Catholic parents. He sought to become a priest at the age of 19, but his parents were not pleased with the decision—and they kept him imprisoned for a full year before they relented and allowed him to pursue holy orders and a Catholic education in Paris and Cologne. Between the two of them, Augustine and Aquinas constitute two of what are called the “Doctors of the Church,” the most fundamental philosophers and theologians in Roman Catholicism (and the Anglican Communion). Naturally, as Augustine lived before the Great Schism of 1099, his thoughts have been deeply influential on Eastern Orthodoxy, too; and, since the Protestant Reformation took place long after the death of Aquinas, both he and Augustine figure prominently in Protestant thought, as well, although somewhat less prominently than in Catholicism. Whatever your own religious leanings, we have to recognize that Augustine and Aquinas are two of the most brilliant, formidable philosophical minds of the roughly one thousand years of Western history we call “the Middle Ages,” and are worthy of study even if we are not Christians ourselves (just as Plato and Aristotle were worthy of study, even though we’re not ancient Greek pagans).
Before we get started, here’s a brief introduction to Augustine’s life and work, especially his book, the City of God.
The selection from Augustine is constituted by two chapters from the City of God, wherein he tries to explain the recent fall of the Roman Empire as the consequence of its paganism. Our readings, however, deal less with this topic than with a classic problem in the history of theology and philosophy of religion: what we sometimes call “the problem of evil.” The problem of evil was not a problem for Greek or Roman pagans, actually, because their conception of the gods made room for some gods or goddesses doing evil things. As such, the origins of evil in the world were very clear to the ancients: all things, including all evil things, come from the gods. The great Western monotheisms, however—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—do not have the “luxury” of polytheism to explain away evil. If there is only one God, and if that one God is responsible for everything that exists in the world, then it seems that all evil and suffering can ultimately be ascribed to God. Evil exists because God wanted it to exist, or because God could not have created the universe otherwise. And here is the problem: on the Judeo-Christian-Islamic conception of God, God is (among other things) both omnipotent and omnibenevolent—that is, God is both all-powerful and entirely good. It seems that evil exists in the world. But why does it exist? If God is perfectly good, then God couldn’t want there to be evil; to want evil is in fact not to be good. And yet, if God doesn’t want there to be evil in the world but evil still exists, then it seems that God is incapable of getting rid of it. But if God is all-powerful, then there is nothing God cannot do. So: evil exists in the world, and it seems that this can only be reconciled with the belief that God created everything, in one of two ways: either we deny that God is omnipotent (he wants to get rid of the evil, but can’t), or we deny that God is omnibenevolent (he could get rid of the evil if he wanted to, but he doesn’t want to). This is one of the oldest and most difficult problems in the history of religious thought, and we’re not going to resolve it this semester—although I’m sure some of you have heard versions of some of the many various possible solutions that have been devised through the ages.
Importantly, Augustine notices that the problem of evil is really two problems: on the one hand, it is the theological problem about the nature of God I just described. But on the other hand, for most of us, the problem with evil is not that it threatens our understanding of God—but that suffering evil makes our lives seem like they’re something less than desirable and good. This is a more basic sort of problem, as it doesn’t threaten our conception of God so much as it threatens our understanding of ourselves as living worthwhile lives. The existence of evil can—and often does—cause good people to question the value and meaning of living good lives (as the Ring of Gyges example does, as well).
To address the theological problem first, in our second selection from Augustine, he makes very clear that God is not responsible for creating evil—since “creation” is always only the creation of something, and evil is not something. Famously, Augustine defines evil as a kind of deprivation; an evil man does not possess or contain or create evil. Rather, an evil man is deprived (or deprives himself) of some of the good he could have possessed or contained or created. Put another way, Adolf Hitler does not possess more evil than Mohandas Gandhi; Hitler is simply less good than Gandhi. Perhaps this seems like splitting hairs, but it’s an important distinction, philosophically. It means, among other things, as Augustine points out, that there could be nothing in existence that was purely evil. Since all things are good (something Augustine believes on the basis of the creation narrative in the biblical Book of Genesis), anything that was in no way good at all would be nothing. Everything (every thing) is good; only God is purely good. Everything else can be made less good by way of what Augustine calls “corruption.” Thus, insofar as he is a human being, even Adolf Hitler is good. It’s only insofar as he is hateful, murderous, genocidal, etc. that he “is” evil. For Augustine, everything that is is good. Not to be good is not to be. Thus, God can be understood to be both omnibenevolent (everything God created was and is good), and omnipotent (everything that exists exists by God’s power). On Augustine’s reading, there is no contradiction at all, theologically speaking.
But this doesn’t resolve the other problem, the non-theological problem of evil: we suffer, and suffering is bad, and a good God (like any good person) would help us not to suffer, if he could. This is the problem our first selection from Augustine is meant to address. To begin with, Augustine denies the view (popular in the ancient world) that nothing is really bad—that everything could be good for us, if we understood it correctly. Thus, Augustine is saying here that, although Hitler is in some theological sense good, his actions still make lots of innocent people suffer. Those people are not wrong to understand themselves as suffering, and as suffering due to something they did not choose for themselves, nor are they wrong to desire not to suffer in this way. So, Augustine devotes a large portion of the first selection to insisting upon the reality of suffering, and the inability of philosophy to overcome suffering by a change in attitude. (He is arguing in part against the ancient Greek and Roman philosophical school of Stoicism, which argued that everything can be understood as good for us—even pain and loss—if we think about it in the right way. Augustine thinks of such a line of reasoning as, among other things, unchristian.) He then notes that people could not suffer indefinitely and with no promise of release from suffering and still think their lives were worthwhile. Ultimately, Augustine is making the case here for faith (as we saw in Kierkegaard)—and, specifically, for Christian faith. He argues that, since our lives would be intolerable otherwise, we must hope for something better in the future. And, since we can’t reasonably hope to escape suffering in this life, we must hope for some sort of release from suffering after we die. Such a release from suffering, since it would be supernatural in origin, is not something we can work for—it could only be given to us by God. The standard Catholic term for such a gift is “grace,” and thus Augustine is arguing that we can achieve happiness and meaning in our lives through hope, faith, and the grace of God. This part of the argument is, quite straightforwardly, less philosophical than it is religious. Augustine’s final advice to sufferers is, in fact, probably a kind of ethical fideism.
Now, with a little bit of Augustine on our minds, watch this video introduction to some of the insights of Thomas Aquinas. Worth noting before you watch the video is that it definitely focuses on the ways in which Aquinas’ views differ from earlier Christian thinkers (like Augustine) and are compatible with later secular thinkers (such as in modern science), rather than on Aquinas’ voluminous and influential theological writings. Try to think of this video (and all the videos, really) as a useful supplement to rather than a summary of or replacement for the reading in the textbook.
Whatever we think of Augustine, Aquinas is no fideist. Aquinas’ approach to ethics is called “natural law theory,” on the basis of his understanding of ethics as falling under his understanding of law. For Aquinas, the word “law” has a much broader application than it does for us today—unless we’re talking about natural scientists, who use the term “law” to designate a fundamental and unchanging principle of the universe (as in “the law of gravity”). Aquinas notes that there are several kinds of law, but that they all derive from the will of God. Thus, the highest kind of law is what he calls “eternal law,” and eternal law is really just the mind of God. It cannot be known to human beings, but it is the rational basis upon which all other laws are developed. Eternal law is partially revealed to human beings in two ways, Aquinas thinks: through what he calls “divine law,” which is really just the history of divine revelations as they are recorded in the Christian Bible; and through what he calls “natural law,” which is the system of basic principles underlying all of nature. The last kind of law Aquinas discusses is “human law,” and human law is what we generally mean when we use the word “law” today—the laws establishing and established by human legislators and human governments. At their best, human laws are always based on natural and divine law, Aquinas thinks; at their worst, they are perversions or rejections of natural and divine law. When a human law runs contrary to divine law or natural law, Aquinas argues that it is not really a law, and as such, it is not morally wrong to disobey it. Thus, Aquinas might argue that the laws establishing Apartheid in South Africa were unjust because they contradicted the natural and divine laws. In such a situation, Aquinas would see nothing morally wrong in disobeying those laws.
Most interesting here, however, is Aquinas’ category of natural law. This will include, of course, what we might call the “laws of nature,” but it also includes his understanding of the basic tendencies of human nature. Human beings are so created, he thinks, that some things are better for us than others—and, he thinks, we are generally inclined to do those things that are best for us. If we don’t, if we act contrary to human nature—if we engage in what Aquinas (and many modern-day natural law theorists) will call “unnatural acts”—then we are destined for unhappiness. Borrowing a great deal from Aristotle, Aquinas argues that it is a basic element of human nature to desire virtue. If we allow ourselves to choose vice instead—usually, for Aquinas as for Aristotle, in pursuit of pleasure—then we are acting contrary to our natures. All vicious actions are thus understood, for Aquinas, as both unnatural and inhuman.
The basic human inclination toward virtue is, he argues, derivative of an even more basic inclination—to be rational. Thus, for Aquinas, even though we are created by God and ought to obey God’s commands as they have come down to us through divine law, we are nevertheless rational creatures who can think things through for ourselves. Our ability to reason—the human mind—is not an accident, according to Aquinas, but was created intentionally by God. As such, we are doing God’s will when we use our minds to figure things out for ourselves. Naturally, Aquinas thinks that there are true and false conclusions to which we could come by way of reasoning, but he also thinks that our beliefs about ethics have no real merit if we simply accept them on faith. Rather than simply accepting whatever our religious community says is unnatural as unnatural, we have the ability and the responsibility—the moral responsibility—to use our minds to think philosophically about ethics, and discover for ourselves that what God commanded is in fact what is best for us. Thus, although Aquinas does advocate for human beings to engage independently in rational deliberation about ethics, he also believes that everyone, if they are thinking rightly, will come to the same conclusions about ethics. While there might seem to be something of a “having-your-cake-and-eating-it-too” quality to Aquinas’ position, it is nevertheless a fascinating attempt to bridge the gap between the Greek philosophical tradition of ethics in the spirit of Plato and Aristotle, on the one hand, and the Christian religious tradition of ethics in the spirit of Augustine. We’ll see this attempt furthered in a more modern context tomorrow, in our reading from Martin Luther King, Jr. And, of course, it’s not that different from how we think about math or science: that mathematicians and scientists (and students in these disciplines) ought to pursue the truth for themselves, but also that there are right (and wrong) answers. It’s not just a matter of their opinion.
In brief, then, Aquinas argues that any action that runs contrary to nature is morally wrong, and any action that is a rational expression of nature is morally right. This does not mean you get to do whatever you feel like doing. While you may feel a natural inclination to have sex, for example, Aquinas will argue that there is only one rational expression of that natural desire—heterosexual intercourse for the purpose of procreation, within the confines of a religiously sanctioned marriage. If one reads the writings of contemporary Thomists (“Thomist” is just the word we use to mean “philosopher in the tradition of Thomas Aquinas”), you’ll see them working very diligently to demonstrate by way of reason that the traditional ethical beliefs of Christianity, as espoused in the Bible and in Catholic tradition, make the most sense. (Naturally, some of these arguments are better than others.) This certainly gives Aquinas’ views, even his ethical views, something of a sectarian character: they seem sometimes to appeal to Catholics (and like-minded religious individuals) alone. Moreover, it is difficult sometimes to see how he could actually be asking us to think for ourselves when he thinks he already knows what the conclusions of our thinking ought to be. Crucially, however, we must see that, while it is enough for Augustine that we trust that God has a plan for us that includes more than suffering, Aquinas suggests that we have a responsibility to do more than hope—we must also think.
Both Augustine and Aquinas believe that religion plays an important role in human life, and that religion—or, at least, some religions—have something crucial to say about ethics. Do you think that either of them also believes that a person must be religious in order to be ethical, however? Is there anything in either Augustine’s or Aquinas’ writings that might help a non-religious person to become better, ethically speaking, without necessarily becoming more religious?
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