The Afterlife: A Potential Problem in Aquinas’s Psychology

Thomas Aquinas’s attempted solution to the problem of substance dualism (i.e., the mind/body connection) involved his use of Aristotelian language to define the intellectual soul as the “form” of the body. Yet, in order to account for the separated state of the soul after death Thomas was forced to stretch Aristotle’s concept of “formal substance” to explain the Christian teaching on the soul’s disembodied afterlife. He maintains that the soul is the intellectual form of the body but is also per se subsistens (existing on its own) and that the agent intellect does not make use of any bodily organ in the act of intellection. Krista Hyde, in a master’s thesis submitted to the University of Missouri at Saint Louis, makes note of Aquinas’s attempt to connect the mind and body in one substantial form but also points out the metaphysical problem that this causes:

In this way, Aquinas reframes the mind-body connection and escapes the interaction problem, but this opens him up to another, potentially fatal, flaw. The weakness of his argument is that it is not clear how such a soul could separate from the body and survive its death, despite his protestations that this act of the body is also substantial. Aquinas maintains that the human soul is an abstract form and a concrete particular thing. He has accounted for the soul as the form of the body. It is intuitive, however, that such forms would have to be Platonic (that is, an incorporeal, abstract idea, having the highest level of reality and to which humans have access only through the world of perception and sensation) if they can be said to depart from the body and remain in existence with some function until the time of the resurrection and judgment, as required by Christian doctrine. Aquinas, of course, would never accept his philosophy as Platonic, especially on this account, because he insists that matter is for the edification of the soul. Plato maintains that the soul simply “uses” matter, but that matter is unnecessary.

If the soul is a state, it must be one that can exist apart from that which bears it. Though the concept of the free radical is helpful as an illustration of the soul as form, it fails to exemplify this aspect; the free radical is not immaterial. The soul as organizing force of the body may be fatal to Aquinas’s psychology. If the soul is seen as a sort of genetic code or as software to the body’s hardware, however, it may be possible to imagine its survival in an immaterial state, to be employed (later, during the afterlife) in organizing prime matter once more.

A counter-objection might suggest that the soul survives between death and resurrection, but is “activated” again upon the resurrection. It does not seem likely that Aquinas would be willing to accept that the soul is totally incapacitated until Judgment, since he insists that the soul retains its proper operations: will, intellectual memory, and understanding.

~ Hyde, Thomas Aquinas: Soul-Body Connection and the Afterlife, pp. 29-30.)

An interesting note to add to this is that many of Aquinas’s followers did move in a more Platonic direction after his death. Fast-forward to the 15th century and one can see with Marsilio Ficino a student of Aquinas’s thought who turns to the original sources of the Platonic tradition to explain this very problem. He argues that the soul uses various vehicles (pace Proclus) and thus maintains its formal functionality even when separated from the body. Ficino’s solution is no less problematic, however, (it does not fully explain the necessity of the soul’s embodiment) and begs the question of whether the immortality of the soul can be proven philosophically without at the same time directly appealing to such doctrines as the hypostatic union of Christ’s natures as found in the Chalcedonean definition. Whether Hyde’s proposed solution with regard to the soul as “software” or “genetic code” of the body is helpful is, of course, up to the reader to decide.

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The Originality of Aquinas’s Epistemology

In question 84 of the prima pars, Thomas Aquinas attempts to reconcile his adoption of Aristotle’s epistemology contra Plato’s theory of innate intelligible species with his allegiance to the traditional Augustinian doctrine of divine illumination. His answer to this question was quite novel in its time, and considering the influence of his philosophy on successive generations, quite revolutionary. Robert Pasnau relates a bit of the substance of and the historical reaction to Aquinas’s particular theory of illumination:

Many of Aquinas’s early adversaries noticed only the negative aspect of Aquinas’s claims about divine illumination. Roger Marston (c. 1235-1303) spoke of those who, “drunk on the nectar of philosophy … twisted toward their own sense all of Augustine’s authoritative texts on the unchanging light and eternal rules” (De anima 3 ad 30 (p. 273)). Viewed only in the light of [Summa Theologiae I] 84.5, it is not clear why there should have been such hostility. The view that Aquinas here rejects is one that was universally rejected at the time: no one held that human beings in this life have the divine ideas as an object of cognition. Moreover, everyone agreed that divine illumination is not sufficient on its own, without the senses. Still, Aquinas would be controversial because he understands divine illumination to have occurred at the time when the soul was created. Others, in contrast, would argue for special illumination, an ongoing influence from above, constantly required for the intellect’s operation. From one perspective this introduces an important difference between Aquinas and his opponents. According to Henry of Ghent, for example

“It should be said unconditionally, therefore, that there is nothing a human being can have pure truth about by acquiring knowledge of it through purely natural means. Such truth can be had only through the divine light’s illumination” (Summa I.2 [f.8rM]).

Aquinas in contrast, is able to hold that

“Just as other natural active capacities, when connected to their passive counterparts suffice for their natural operations, so also the soul, which has within itself an active and a passive capacity, suffices for the perception of the truth” (InDT I.Ic).

It is not that Aquinas denies God’s influence, merely that he thinks this influence does its part at the outset, furnishing human beings with a sufficient capacity for thought on their own, without the need for any “new illumination added onto their natural illumination” (Ia2ae 109.Ic). It is this step toward naturalism that Aquinas’s opponents would find so objectionable. Thus Marston decries his opponents for holding that “we see all things in the first truth because we see in a light derived from that truth – namely, in the natural light of our mind, which is part of the soul” (De anima 3 resp. (pp. 252-53). (Pasnau, Thomas Aquinas on Human Nature, 305).

Pasnau notes that Aquinas’s epistemology is motivated by his goal to provide a justification for sense knowledge as an essential aspect of the hylomorphic nature of humanity. For Aquinas, the Platonists (those whom he knew primarily through Macrobius) had not sufficiently done this. For them the body does not aid but provides an obstacle to the intellect that must be removed. Rather, the active intellect depends upon the senses for its reception of phantasms which it uses in its crafting of intelligible species within the passive intellect. Nonetheless, this crafting is done by an innate power which “comes to the soul from the separated substances and especially from God as from its first source” (De Veritate., 10.6).

Subjectivity in Aquinas

 

"The Triumph of Thomas Aquinas" by Andrea da Firenze 1365-c.1367
“The Triumph of Thomas Aquinas” by Andrea da Firenze 1365-c.1367

According to Anthony Flood in a recent article in the American Catholic Philosophical Quarterly, the search for a concept of subjectivity or the “conscious awareness of oneself as a person” in Aquinas’ thought , aside from the risk of superimposing a modern problem over a medieval synthesis, is not a fruitless endeavor. Flood responds to yet is dependent upon John Crosby’s notion of subjectivity. Flood argues:

The “interiority” of one’s personal being is the totality of a person as subject, which is marked by one’s own unique lived experience of and interactions with the world. In more colloquial terms, interiority is the sum and source of one’s personality, though understood not as another person experiences me, for instance, but as I experience my own self. All ongoing personal experiences are “anchored”  or grounded in one’s own interiority, which constitutes the subjective term of  those experiences (Flood, “Aquinas on Subjectivity: a response to Crosby,” American Catholic Philosophical Quarterly, 84:1 [2010], p. 71).

Flood differs from Crosby in his optimism regarding the presence of such a concept of subjectivity in Aquinas’ thought.

Modern scholars of Thomas Aquinas have recognized the importance that love plays in his motivational theory and in his soteriology. According to Flood, Aquinas’ philosophy of love is the window to his latent view of the self. Aquinas’ idea of self-consciousness is founded on dilectio. For Aquinas amor is a natural appetite that moves things toward particular objects.  However, argues Flood dilectio and the “dilectio-based relation” of the individual to his or herself differs from an “amor-based relation” in that the former includes a rational choice of the will.

Flood notes that, “As a person relates to himself through acts of dilectio, the self-relation becomes self-conscious and properly human” (p. 77).  Therefore, the dilectio-based relation is the source of self-consciousness. Self-friendship, which is the center of Aquinas’ subjectivity, is an activity of the dilectio-based relation. In other words, the conscious choice that an individual makes to love him or herself is self-friendship, which is the source of self-knowledge. Though Flood’s goal in this article is to map out a purely natural concept of subjectivity in Aquinas, it is worth noting that for Aquinas this self-friendship through dilectio is imperfect apart from divinely infused charity. Through charity the subject is brought into a supernatural friendship with God. In fact, by means of charity each person is enabled to truly love him or herself, because those without charity focus on exterior objects and are not able to truly reflect upon the “inward man” (ST II-II, Q. 25, a. 7.).

Grace and charity are crucial to self-knowledge and self-love for Aquinas. He explains, with reference to Romans 7:5-6, that the perfection of one’s natural self-love in acquired or political virtues (such as prudence and temperance) does not suffice for human perfection without the infusion of grace and charity. Accordingly, human nature requires the infusion of grace and charity because without these perfections political virtue does not attain to God as its ultimate end. For, Aquinas notes, “infused virtue means that we refrain totally from obeying sinful desires” (On the Virtues, Cambridge: 2005, p. 70).   These desires turn the self toward mutable good and set up an obstacle to perfect subjectivity. Though the political virtues seek the mean between vices in the precepts of reason, the infused political virtues lead to complete interiority because they seek the mean outside and above reason, that is, the mean provided in Holy Scripture (Ibid., p. 68). If one agrees with the plausibility of Flood’s discovery of subjectivity in Aquinas’ thought, then the question of the transition of subjectivity through the infusion of grace, charity, and the infused political virtues, I would argue, is a crucial piece of the puzzle.

Girolamo Zanchi Uses Aquinas as Authority

In the following passage Jerome Zanchi, the Italian Reformer and friend of Peter Martyr and Zacharius Ursinus, appeals to the authority of Thomas Aquinas to demonstrate the orthodoxy of his own definition of original sin (something Peter Martyr also did). This definition assumes the correctness of the concept of original righteousness and the inherited guilt that accompanies the loss of that ontological status. Although Zanchi refers to Thomas as Scholasticus he places the current paragraph under the heading Confirmatio sententiae ex Patribus (confirmation from the opinions of the Fathers).

Thomas Aquinas eandem secutus est docrinam, & clarissime explicat, eum alibi tum in Quaestionibus disputatis, quaest. 4. de peccato originali, aritculo primo. Ubi concludit de actuali inobedientia Adae, eam convenire toti humano generi & singulis hominibus, quatenus omnes fuimus unum & sumus eum Adamo. Quod enim ille admisit, non illud eum admisisse ut privatum hominem, sed ut totius humani generis caput: quemadmodum etiam justitiam originalem non acceperat ut privatus homo, & sibi soli; sed ut pater omnium hominum, & nobis omnibus. Constat igitur nomine peccati originalis venire non solum justitiae originalis privationem naturaeque corruptionem, sed simul cum reatu & culpa inobedientiae Adami. Imo ideo cumprimis peccatum originale appelatur, quia omnes homines in Adamo tanquam in sua origine peccarunt. Sed interim non negatur altera ratio, nempe, quia quisque ex vitiosa origine peccatis concipitur nasciturque filius irae. Eadem doctrinam confirmant etiam alii seniores Shcolastici… (Zanchius, Commentarius in Apostolam Sancti Pauli Ad Ephesios, pp. 234, 235)

Translation:

Thomas Aquinas followed the same doctrine, and explains it most clearly in other places and in the Disputed Questions, quest. 4 concerning original sin, article one. Where he concludes concerning the actual disobedience of Adam that it unites the whole human race and every human being,  insofar as everyone was and is one with Adam. For although he committed this crime, he did not do it as a private individual but as the head of the whole human race: just as he did not receive original justice as a private individual or by himself; but as the father of all human beings, and for us all. It is agreed therefore that by the name “original sin” comes not only a privation of original justice and corruption of nature, but also the accusation and guilt of Adam’s disobedience. By all means therefore the first sin is called “original”, because all men sin in Adam as it were in their “origin.” But in the meantime another reason is not denied, namely, that whoever is conceived in sin from vicious origin is also born a son of wrath. Other older Scholastics confirm the same doctrine…

Many of those who consider themselves theologians in the Reformed tradition believe the Reformed position on Adam’s original state is antithetical to that of the Scholastics, positing a legal/ontological dichotomy between the language of “guilt” and that of “nature.” Here Zanchi shows no such dichotomy.

David Pareus de Creatione ex Nihilo

Pareus de creationeDavid Pareus, German theologian of the 17th century, defined creation as did the scholastics before him. He says:

Definitur autem Creatio a theologis scholasticis, quod sit productio seu emanatio totius Entis a causa universali, quae est Deus. (Pareus, Theses de creatione rerum, XVIII)

But creation is defined by the scholastic theologians as, that which is a product or emanation from the universal cause of all Being, which is God.

The scholastics inherited the concept of emanation from the Neo-Platonic commentators on Aristole and from Philo, the latter of whom Pareus does not follow. Yet, Pareus, either wittingly or unwittingly, follows the same interpretation, bringing a Christianized Platonic reading into Reformed doctrine. He continues, quoting Aquinas in refutation of the slogan “nothing is made from nothing”, a slogan used against the Christian doctrine of creation ex nihilo.

Illud igitur Physicorum principium: Ex nihilo nihil sit: creationem non evertit: quia, ut Thomas loquitur, tantum est verum de emanatione effectuum particularum a causis particularibus, quas necesse est praesupponere aliquid in sua actione: quia agunt per motum: hoc est, tantum verumest de effectis causarum secundarum, naturae vel artis, quae non possunt fieri absque materia praeeistente, propter causarum imbecillitatem. Non autem est verum de effectis causae primae immediatis aut etraordinariis, ut sunt prima ipsius naturae ex nihilo productio, aut iam productae miraculosa immutatio, virtute Dei facta. (Theses de creatione rerum, XXXV.)

Thus from the principle of the Physici: Nothing is made from nothing: creation is not abandoned: because, as Thomas says, it is only true concerning the emanation of particular effects from particular causes, which necessarily presuppose something in their own action: because they act by motion: that is, it is only true concerning the effects of secondary causes, of nature or art, which are not able to be made apart from preexistent matter, because of the weakness of causes. But it is not true concerning the effects of the First Cause, either immediate or extraordinary, so the first things of nature itself are produced from nothing, or produced by miraculous immutation, made by the power of God.

Here, Pareus follows a scholastic and thoroughly Aristotelean concept of exemplar causes. Augustine spoke of the Platonic ideas as exemplar causes, Vermigli followed him, and Pareus follows the scholastic interpretation of Aristotle with a certain tinge of Neo-Platonism.

God Provides Knowledge: Heinrich Bullinger on Natural Law

Heinrich BullingerHeinrich Bullinger, the Swiss successor of Zwingli, says that the natural law is an act of the conscience and an innate knowledge of good and evil. This is similar to Thomas Aquinas’s view of the natural law, the conscience is an act and synderesis is a habit of knowledge of the difference between good and evil, the principle which provides the foundation of the law of nature. Yet, where Thomas emphasized the whole faculty of reason and the necessity of virtue, Bullinger places emphasis upon the act of conscience in accusing and excusing the acts of man. This emphasis upon the intellect over the will does not mean that Bullinger de-emphasized or overlooked the role of the desiring faculty or the necessity of virtue in the natural law. He simply attributes the moving of men toward good things to the inspiration of God that comes by means of the conscience. He also attributes the natural law itself to God’s work in men’s souls:

The law of nature is an instruction of the conscience, and, as it were, a certain direction placed by God himself in the mind and hearts of men, to teach them what they have to do and what to eschew. And the conscience, verily, is the knowledge, judgment, and reason of a man, whereby every man in himself, and in his own mind, being made privy to everything that he either hath committed or not committed, doth either condemn or else acquit himself. And this reason proceedeth from God, who both prompteth and writeth his judgments in the hearts and minds of men. Moreover, that which we call nature is the proper disposition or inclination of every thing. But the disposition of mankind being flatly corrupted by sin, as it is blind, so also is it in all points evil and naughty. It knoweth not God, it worshippeth not God, neither doth it love the neighbour; but rather is affected with self-love toward itself, and seeketh still for its own advantage. For which cause the apostle said, “that we by nature are the children of wrath.” Wherefore the law of nature is not called the law of nature, because in the nature and disposition of man there is of or by itself that reason of light exhorting to the best things, and that holy working; but for because God hath imprinted or engraven in our minds some knowledge, and certain general principles of religion, justice, and goodness, which, because they be grafted in us and born together with us, do therefore seem to be naturally in us. (Decades, II.194.)

The Reformers tended to answer the apparent discrepancy between Plato’s idealism and Aristotle’s empiricism by referring to the narrative of Genesis three, where the representatives of the human race fell from their upright state by sinning against the will of God. In the Garden of Eden, Adam had innate knowledge and virtues. Yet, these gifts were not “natural” in the sense that they were produced solely by nature but they were “natural” in the sense that Adam was created with these gifts. They were not added later. After the fall, and because of original sin, men are no longer born with supernatural virtue or knowledge, yet, God does continue to write his law upon men’s hearts – both Melanchthon and Vermigli follow the Stoic notion of prolepseis, or precognitions that stir men up to think on divine things.  So, just as Adam’s gifts were not produced by nature in the beginning, much less may this knowledge be produced by nature after nature has become corrupt. Bullinger, in the above statement, appears to present this same resolution between the two concepts of innate and acquired knowledge. The natural law cannot come from nature because of the corruption of original sin. Yet, Bullinger seems to display a rather extreme doctrine of original sin in this passage. He notes that man’s nature, defined as “the proper disposition or inclination of every thing,” has been so corrupted by sin that reason no longer functions, leaving men utterly evil and debauched. And, because of this corruption the law of nature can only exist if God so delights to write it upon the hearts of men – these principles are written upon the hearts of all men by God and only seem to be natural.

I do not think Bullinger is truly saying that after the fall man’s nature was so corrupt that the very faculty that distinguishes man from beast was lost, that reason no longer held any directive power over the passions. Other Reformers such as Calvin and Vermigli hold to a less than optimistic view of original sin, but even they admit that man’s reason has been preserved from utter destruction, to the extent that even pagans may regulate their passions to the common good of society. Bullinger is being somewhat polemical in concert with Augustine’s condemnation of pagan virtue as “splendid vices.” He is viewing the first table of the law from the perspective of the second. In other words, he is speaking of the potentialities of nature in the City of Man from the perspective of the City of God. Viewed from this perspective, and the boasts of the City of Man that claims a purely autonomous path to perfection, the law of nature is utterly destroyed by the Fall. This is the case because the natural law originally guided man toward his supernatural goal, but after the fall man pursues whatever seems right in his own eyes. So, the pagans would know nothing of God or the difference between good and evil if God did not form the souls of men with these principles from the instant of their creation. Therefore, the City of Man cannot boast in an autonomous acquisition of this knowledge since these principles have been given to it by God. Bullinger seeks to keep Aristotle’s principles of acquired virtue and knowledge while at them same time safeguarding the Biblical doctrine of original sin and innate knowledge of God. He continues, explaining how this law is written in man’s nature:

But in what sort have they it [the law of nature] in themselves? This again is made manifest by that which followeth: “For they shew the work of the law written in their hearts.” But who is he that writeth in their hearts, but God alone, who is the searcher of all hearts? And what, I pray you, writeth he there? The law of nature, forsooth; the law, I say, itself, commanding good and forbidding evil, so that without the written law, by the instruction of nature, that is, by the knowledge imprinted of God in nature, they may understand what is good and what is evil , what is to be desired and what is to be shunned. By these words of the apostle we do understand, that the law of nature is set against the written law of God; and that therefore is is called the law of nature, because it seemeth to be, as it were, placed or graffed in nature. We understand, that the law of nature, not the written law, but that which is graffed in man, hath the same office that the written law hath; I mean, to direct men, and to teach them, and also to discern betwixt good and evil, and to be able to judge of sin. We understand, that the beginning of this law is not to the corrupt disposition of mankind, but of God himself, who with his finger writeth in our hearts, fasteneth in our nature, and planteth in us a rule to know justice, equity, and goodness. (ibid.)

Thus, this law is perfectly natural, just like every good with which man is adorned. But, in order to stay in line with the Aristotelian notion of acquired good while maintaining the Pauline notion of natural corruption, we must not speak of  this law as natural. God has given us these moral principles to lead us back to him, and they are ours, but as a corrupt nature cannot begin to lead man to do good things without the hand of God molding it and adorning it with knowledge of good and evil, so the Gentiles would have an utterly depraved nature were it not for the common grace of God.

The Meaning of Aristotle’s τἀγαθόν: The Benefit of a Humanist Ethos

Peter Martyr Vermigli

During the time of the Renaissance there was a debate between humanist moral theologians and those who followed the via antiqua. The former thought moral theology could not be properly utilized by the laity and should therefore be confined to the universities. The latter considered the practical science apt for the virtuous rhetor to use in discourse and civic instruction on the nature of human behavior. Thus, one can see a disagreement between those who considered the science more speculative and those who considered it more practical. The University of Padua adopted the Florentinian humanistic concept of the science of morals but later confined the discipline to the clerics.

According to David Lines, many books were used during the Renaissance as sources for the study of morals, including Thomas Aquinas’s Sententia libri Ethicorum (i.e., his commentary on Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics). 

In fourteenth century Italy, most interpreters of the Ethics [Aristotle’s] drew heavily on Thomas’s own commentary. Acciaiuoli’s commentary was admired partly for its faithfulness to the Dominican friar. Even Ottaviano Ferrari (1518-86), a pugnacious scholar who lectured on the Ethics in the Collegio Canobiano of Milan, could oppose but not ignore the saint from Aquino. The effects were even clearer on the members of the Dominican and Jesuit orders. Around 1490 two near contemporary Dominicans, Ludovico Valenza da Ferrara and Girolamo Savonarola, produced compendia of moral philosophy. Tellingly, these works are not digests of Aristotle’s works, but of Thomas’s Summa IIa IIae, even though they cover topics in ethics, oeconomics, and politics. (Lines, “Humanistic and Scholastic Ethics,” Cambridge Companion to Renaissance Philosophy [CCRP], 310.) 

The Paduan trained Peter Martyr Vermigli carried on the tradition of lecturing on moral theology that saw the value of the science for the civic sphere, as he lectured at the Academy of Strasbourg. Vermigli was trained in the via Thomae and most likely knew the humanist poet Flaminio of Serraville, but the extent of his humanism lies in a literary technique and linguistic capacity that was typical of the ad fontes approach of the age.  An example of this can be seen in his translation of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics from Erasmus’s 1531 Greek edition, rather than relying on a Latin text. Particularly, Vermigli follows a humanist interpretation of one of Aristotle’s key phrases.

Johannes Argyropoulos - Byzantine humanist
J. Argyropoulos

He comments on Aristotle’s statement τἀγαθόν οὗ πάντ᾽ ἐφίεται (the good is that at which all things aim), saying even though τἀγαθόν is definitive (as opposed to ἀγαθόν) it does not refer to something supreme, as the “summum bonum” (supreme good) or “God” and especially not “The Holy Trinity.” He notes that the Greek article does not always denote something particular:  “Another function of the article is to indicate the reason and form without any particular conditions, in which several individuals are united; for example, as when we say ho anthropos logikos, ‘man is rational,’ we do not mean a specific individual, but rather we define the common nature and form that are shared by various individuals like Socrates and Plato.” (Commentary on Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, 21.) Contrary to those who see the phrase as a reference to the Trinity, Vermigli believes that τἀγαθόν refers to the “good itself” or the common good, which is the common form of the many naturally desired goods. A horse seeks after its own good, a dog its own good, and a human aims at its own good, but all things seek the good in general. If all things aimed at God or the supreme good there would be no natural end or reason for which each species was created, as if nature does not aim at its own preservation and perfection.  Vermigli recounts the interpretation of Leonardo Aretino (a.k.a Bruni; d. 1444) and George of Trabizond (d. 1486), who were led by the Greek article preceding the noun to interpret the phrase as a reference to the Trinity.  Instead, Vermigli follows the exegesis of Johannes Cardinal Bessarion (d. 1472).  “Bessarion, Nicene cardinal and the most learned man among the Greeks of the modern era, refuted this opinion, saying that Trapezuntius [Trabizond] should have been aware that in Greek when an article precedes a word it has a triple function.” (ibid, 22, 23)  Vermigli then adopts as his own the translation of the humanist Johannes Argyropoulos (d. 1487) who rendered τἀγαθόν as “the good itself.” (ibid)

The translation of τἀγαθόν posed a problem for other theologians during the time of the Renaissance.  David Lines affirms that one issue of debate in this period was the notion of the goal of all things:

which Aristotle described at the beginning of the Ethics as tagathón (“the good”).  Bruni’s [Leonardo Aretino] translation of this expression as summum bonum … was often followed well into the sixteenth century.  But it also raised questions and objections.  After all, if moral philosophy really deals with the supreme good, how does it differ from metaphysics and theology? And to what extent could one really expect a pagan such as Aristotle to be cognizant of Christian truth?

Vermigli seems to tie his interpretation of τἀγαθόν as the “good itself,” as opposed to summum bonum, to his belief that the pagan philosopher does not know the good as God per se in his search for the good as his final end. In other words, his translation is not abstracted from a real doctrinal issue. He notes:  “The difference between us and pagan philosophers is that they suggest the ultimate end should be achieved by one’s own virtue and zeal, whereas we say on the basis of divine scripture that the supreme good [summum bonum] cannot be obtained unless we are assisted by the spirit and grace of Christ.”  (ibid, 41.) In this passage Vermigli appears to limit the translation summum bonum to that particular end which may only be realized through the assistance of Christ. Thus, Vermigli distinguishes summum bonum from “the good itself” in order to clearly differentiate between the final end as understood by the pagan philosophers and the final end as it is revealed in the scriptures, an idea that he sees exemplified by the rules of Greek grammar.   

Moerbeke's Translation of book 7 of Aristotle's Metaphysics
Moerbeke's Translation of book 7 of Aristotle's Metaphysics

Thomas Aquinas’s exegesis of Aristotle’s τἀγαθόν is similar; although, he was unfamiliar with the Greek text and depended upon a Latin translation that rendered the term summum bonum. Instead of the humanist ethos that provoked study of the original languages Thomas did not have a functioning knowledge of Greek and relied on William of Moerbeke’s Latin translation of Aristotle’s Ethics. Like Vermigli, Thomas also makes a distinction between the different desires of particular beings, and, although beasts lack the type of desire that comes with knowledge, they also tend toward the good via the guiding knowledge of the “divine intellect.”  (Commentary on Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, I.1.11) Aristotle’s summum bonum does not imply a single good that all things desire but refers to the good in general.  However, Thomas’s interpretation falls into the realm of Vermigli’s critique in his statement, “because nothing is good except insofar as it is a likeness and participation of the highest good [summum bonum], the highest good itself is in some way desired in every particular good.” (ibid) However, this evidence does not demonstrate a substantial theological difference between Thomas and Vermigli, because Thomas’s method of commenting on Aristotle primarily consists of finding the truth for the instruction of the theologian and only secondarily consists of determining authorial intent. In fact, “Thomas places himself explicitly in the Christian perspective and arranges things so as to have the Philosopher speak of the contemplative faculty in which Thomas himself sees the happiness of beatitude.”  (Jean-Pierre Torrell, St. Thomas Aquinas, Vol. 1, 228) Also, Thomas’s assertion that the summum bonum is desired in every particular good “in some way” is ambiguous and does not appear to differ per se from Vermigli’s statement that the pagan philosopher seeks God per accidens, not per se, in seeking the common good.

In conclusion, one can see the benefits of a new age and development of scholarship that was the Renaissance. Vermigli remained a follower of the via antiqua, but his acceptance of certain humanistic principles and alacrity to follow the interpretation of humanist philosophers rendered him more capable to determine the proper relationship between philosophy and theology.