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.