4 Reasons Aquinas on Rights and Modern Individual Rights are Very Different

It is true that St. Thomas Aquinas speaks of certain rights, but these rights are species of the virtue of justice. They are in absolutely no manner similar to how Hobbes, Locke, or later modernity will use the term rights.

Listers, at an academic seminar studying the differences between ancient and modern thought, the concept of individual rights was presented. It was stated that the modern notion of individual rights (and even the natural right concepts of early modernity) was in direct contradiction to the Catholic doctrine of Natural Law. Individual rights were predicated upon understanding each citizen as an autonomous moral universe that had a right (read: desire) to everything as long as it did not infringe upon the autonomy of another. In contrast, Natural Law is an external standard imprinted upon all humanity participated in by reason.1 In short, the notion of individual rights is a direct rejection of Natural Law. At this point, a student raised his hand and submitted that this could not be true, because St. Thomas Aquinas spoke of individual rights. Apparently, if you ever wanted to watch a room of politically minded Thomists explode in ire, this was a good way to do it.

It is true that St. Thomas Aquinas speaks of certain rights, but these rights are species of the virtue of justice. They are in absolutely no manner similar to how Hobbes, Locke, or later modernity will use the term rights. In fact, Aquinas’ use of the term right appears synonymous with the term just; thus, many simply use the term just instead of right to avoid the modern baggage the term right imparts. The following is a brief summary of St. Thomas Aquinas’ question Of Right in his Summa Theologica.2 The reader may note that Aquinas’ use of the terms equality and right are ripe for equivocation. We must be sure to read Aquinas as Aquinas, and not import our modern definitions into his teachings. The following list seeks to clarify Aquinas, and let the Angelic Doctor speak on the virtue of justice free from modern misreadings.


1. Why Justice is Unique Among the Virtues

A habit is a series of actions that constitute a practice, and a good habit is called a virtue. According to Aristotle, Holy Scripture, and St. Thomas Aquinas, there are four Cardinal Virtues: prudence, justice, temperance, and fortitude. Each virtue holds the soul to reason when faced with its respective object. For example, the virtue of prudence is the habit of right reasoning – it is the means by which we rationally choose good ends. The virtue of temperance holds the soul to reason in the face of something pleasurable; thus, the bar patron who decides against the proverbial “one more drink” saves himself from drunkenness through temperance. The virtue of fortitude holds the soul to reason in the face of something fearful. The soldier who holds the line against the cavalry charge has fortitude.

In these cases, virtue perfects the soldier and the patron in matters that only befit them in relation to themselves.3 The virtue of justice, however, is different. Justice “directs man in his relations with others.”4 In other words, justice is unique, because it is fundamentally relational. Justice deals with a person’s relation with his neighbor. A person may demonstrate prudence, temperance, or fortitude simply by their own actions, while a person can only demonstrate justice in relation to someone else. Aquinas says this shows a “kind of equality.”5 While the modern notion of equality has strong egalitarian undertones, equality, according to St. Thomas Aquinas, is simply the proportionate relationship of one thing to another.6 The Angelic Doctor’s notion of right hinges strongly upon his concept of equality in justice.


2. Understanding Right(s) According to Aquinas

Modernity is obsessed with rights language. Almost all of the ethical and political discourse in the modern West is now expressed in individual rights. The West has, without a doubt, lost its moral vocabulary. To confuse the modern notion of rights – which is little more than the desires of the autonomous moral universe of the individual – with Aquinas’ notion of what is right under the virtue of justice, would be a profound error.

The virtue of Justice is “the habit which makes men capable of doing just actions.”7 What then are just actions? Aquinas teaches that which is just is “a work that is adjusted to another person according to some kind of equality.”8 The concept of just is also expressed in the term right; thus, that which is just will also be right.9 The Angelic Doctor gives two types of rights for consideration.

Natural Right – A relation that is objectively just, where a person gives and receives that which is of equal value in return; there is a natural equality.

Positive Right – A relation that is subjectively just, where one party deems that which they receive to be satisfactory; a positive right may either be (1) a private agreement between two individuals, or (2) a public agreement where the whole community agrees.

For example, if someone inquired for how many hours should a laborer be paid who worked five hours – the objective answer is five hours. There is a natural equality between working five hours and being paid five hours. The relation here is a natural right. In contrast, if two merchants form a contract to trade ten red widgets for six green widgets, this may be subjectively just for the two parties involved. It is a positive right.


3. On Special Species of Rights

When Aquinas speaks of natural right and positive right, he is speaking of an agreement between two individuals, neither of whom are subject to one another. For Aquinas, this is just or right simply.10 Now, the habit of justice has as its object the just, and the just or right “depends on commensuration with another person.”11 How then do we speak of relations that seem to belong to justice but are not of equal parties?

For example, there is the relationship between a father and his son or the relationship between a master and his slave. In both cases, there is certainly a justice between both parties as they are both human beings.12 On the other hand, there is an inequality in the relationship that makes it wanting of what is perfectly just. Since justice deals with the relation of one person to another, these relations are still governed by the virtue of justice; therefore, Aquinas speaks of a parental right of the parents over the children and a dominative right of the master over the slave.

Finally, there is also the relation between the husband and the wife. Notice, that for Aquinas, the relation between the husband and wife has a greater capacity for justice than parental right or dominative right – but it still falls short of true justice shared between equals. The Common Doctor states:

A wife, though she is something belonging to the husband, since she stands related to him as to her own body, as the Apostle declares (Ephesians 5:28), is nevertheless more distinct from her husband, than a son from his father, or a slave from his master: for she is received into a kind of social life, that of matrimony, wherefore according to the Philosopher (Ethic. v, 6) there is more scope for justice between husband and wife than between father and son, or master and slave, because, as husband and wife have an immediate relation to the community of the household, as stated in Polit. i, 2,5, it follows that between them there is “domestic justice” rather than “civic.”

In conclusion, there is the what is just or right simply, and this is may be expressed between two equals in either natural right or positive right. In contrast, there are several other species of right: the parental right of parents over their children, the dominative right of masters over their slaves, and the greater domestic right between a husband and wife.


4. The Modern Notion of Rights

A little clarification by contrast may help display the giant intellectual chasm between Aquinas’ species of justice called rights and modern notions of the same term. Though Machiavelli arguably planted the first seeds of modernity, it was Thomas Hobbes who began the West’s obsession with rights language. In fact, in many ways, what Machiavelli did for the prince (i.e., allowing him to separate politics from ethics, virtue), Thomas Hobbes did for each individual citizen.13 In Chapter XIV: Of the First and Second Natural Laws, and of Contracts, Hobbes articulates one of the monumental shifts in ancient to modern thought: individual rights. Aristotle, St. Thomas Aquinas, and the Catholic Church never spoke in terms of individual rights. The standard for the state and for its citizens was natural law. What was good and what was evil was not predicated upon man’s judgment, but rather by the external standard set upon him by nature. In Hobbes’ deconstruction of nature into a realm of war and chaos, he gives the West its first true taste of rights predicated upon the individual. He states:

And because the condition of man (as hath been declared in the precedent chapter) is a condition of war of everyone against everyone against everyone, in which case every one is governed by his own reason, and there is nothing he can make use of that may not be a help unto him in preserving his life against his enemies, it follows that in such a condition every man has a right to everything, even to one another’s body. And therefore, as long as this natural right of every man to everything endues, there can be no security to any man how strong or wise soever he be, of living out the time which nature ordinarily allows men to live.

It is shocking to many that the first notion of individual rights in the West is predicated upon each person’s ability to murder one another. For Hobbes, nature is chaotic and warlike, thus, each man has the unmitigated right of self-preservation – a right that went as far as to go to “everything, even to one another’s body.” Whereas Aquinas taught the natural inclinations of humanity were (1) self-preservation (2) the procreation and education of offspring and (3) to seek happiness, the good; Hobbes reduces them all to an unbridled right of self-preservation.14 The brutality of Hobbes will later be made more palatable by John Locke, and later in modernity the standard of nature will be discarded altogether – leaving each individual an autonomous moral universe brimming with manufactured rights.

Much more could be said on the transition from ancient to modern political thought, but this snippet of Hobbes simply goes to show the outrageous difference between Aquinas’ use of the term right and the modern notion of rights. The real question is, how are faithful Catholics who believe in Natural Law supposed to be virtuous in a world that defines all politics and morality in rights language? Something to ponder.


SPL Catechesis on the Soul & Virtue


  1. Natural Law: 3 Steps to Understand how Humanity Participates in Natural Law and The 6 Step Guide to Aquinas’ Natural Law in a Modern World. []
  2. ST II-II.57 []
  3. ST II-II.57.1. “On the other hand the other virtues perfect man in those matters only which befit in relations to himself.” []
  4. Id. []
  5. Id. []
  6. Id. []
  7. Id., citing the Philosopher, Aristotle, in Ethics v. 1. []
  8. Id. at a. 2. []
  9. “For this reason justice has its own special proper object over and above the other virtues, and this object is called the just, which is the same as right. Hence it is evident that right is the object of justice.” Id. at a. 1. []
  10. Id. at a. 4 []
  11. Id. []
  12. “Hence in so far as each of them is a man, there is justice towards them in a way.” Id. at a. 4, reply 2. []
  13. Machiavelli & Hobbes: For more on this claim, see 7 Introductory Catholic Thoughts on Machiavelli’s The Prince and A Catholic Guide to Thomas Hobbes: 12 Things You Should Know. []
  14. “The paragraph is notable within the Western intellectual tradition as the beginning of “rights language.” Hobbes is setting the stage for the Leviathan. Men, unable to live in the warring chaos of nature, will seek self-preservation by transferring their rights to the Leviathan. The state will be their salvation from each other and from the natural state of war and chaos.” From the Catholic Guide to Hobbes, cited above. []

Charioteer of the Virtues: 6 Lessons on Prudence & her Contrary Vices

Listers, Aristotle (“the Philosopher”) defined prudence as  “right reason applied to action.”1 Similarly, the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches, “prudence is the virtue that disposes practical reason to discern our true good in every circumstance and to choose the right means of achieving it.”2 Prudence is an indispensable part of the virtuous life. It stands as a “unique virtue” for the role it plays in both the intellectual and moral life of the virtuous person. It is also a “special virtue” for its role in guiding all virtues to their determined end. Prudence is, without any doubt, absolutely necessary to live the good life, the virtuous life.


SPL Catechesis on the Soul & Virtue


Lesson One:
Prudence Does Not Always Deal with Morality

Prudence is an intellectual virtue. The intellectual virtues are categorized as either speculative or practical. The speculative virtues perfect a person’s ability to contemplate truth. For example, the intellectual virtue of science helps to perfect a person’s ability to contemplate a specific body of knowledge. A person, a scientist, may through the habit of science perfect his understanding of botany, archeology, or astrophysics. In contrast, the practical intellectual virtues are concerned with external acts. The practical virtue of art is “nothing else but the right reason about certain works to be made.”3 Through the virtue of art, the shipwright perfects his ability to make ships. The other practical virtue is prudence. If art is the “right reason of things to be made,” then prudence is the “right reason of things to be done.”4 A shipwright may have an excellent aptness for creating ships, but that does not make him a prudent shipwright. The prudent shipwright knows what time he should rise for work, how many hours he should engage his craft, and how he should conduct himself in all his affairs.


Lesson Two:
Prudence is Distinct from All Other Virtues

If a shipwright crafts the finest ships to ever sail the open seas is he a moral or immoral person? The intellectual virtues do not provide a moral import. A shipwright might create the finest ships but be morally bankrupt, while a morally upstanding person may be a terrible shipwright. In the virtues that deal with morality, there are principally the Theological Virtues – faith, hope, & charity – and the Natural or Cardinal Virtues – prudence, justice, temperance, and fortitude. Just as prudence is concerned with a person’s intellectual acts, so too is prudence concerned with a person’s moral acts. No other virtue shares this scope. In this context, Aquinas calls prudence a “special virtue,” because prudence is the only moral and intellectual virtue.


Lesson Three:
Prudence is the Auriga Virtutum

"Detail of the east gallery with busts of Virtues in Canterbury Quad, St John's College, Oxford c.1631-36." Fr. Lawrence, OP. Flickr.
“Detail of the east gallery with busts of Virtues in Canterbury Quad, St John’s College, Oxford c.1631-36.” Fr. Lawrence, OP. Flickr.

Prudence is right reason applied to action. Temperance is the virtue that moderates attraction to pleasurable goods. If a shipwright decides against the proverbial “just one more drink” and retires from the public house, has he acted prudently or with temperance? A common mistake is to regard the other virtues as simply different forms of prudence; thus, justice is prudence regarding order, temperance is prudence regarding pleasure, and fortitude is prudence regarding fear. What then is the proper relationship of prudence to the other virtues? First, prudence does not dictate the end or goal. If the determined end is that the shipwright should not have another drink, that end is determined by temperance. Second, prudence does dictate the means to achieve the end. If the shipwright determines not to have another drink, what is the most prudent means to achieve that end? – or rather, how should he now act? Is it more prudent to simply not order another ale or to leave the pub altogether? Temperance has set the end, now prudence must determine the means to that end. Aquinas quotes Aristotle in stating, “moral virtue ensures the rectitude of the intention of the end, while prudence ensures the rectitude of the means.”5 Each moral virtue sets the end according to right reason, but the means to that end is right reason in action – prudence.6 In this context, the nickname of prudence – the Auriga Virtutum, the Charioteer of the Virtues – is properly understood, because prudence “guides the other virtues by setting [the] rule and measure.”7


Lesson Four:
There are Different Species of Prudence

Our Servant King, St Dominic's priory church in London. Fr. Lawrence, OP. Flickr.
Our Servant King, St Dominic’s priory church in London. Fr. Lawrence, OP. Flickr.

Does prudence govern only the good of the individual or is prudence concerned with the good of others? In his Ethics, Aristotle notes that many have argued that prudence only deals with the individual’s good, because “they thought that man is not bound to seek other than his own good.”8 Aquinas holds that this view is “opposed to charity,” because charity demands we seek the good of others.9 Aquinas further holds the view is contrary to reason, because right reason “judges the common good to be better than the good of the individual.”10 Consequently under both charity and reason, prudence deals with “not only the private good of the individual, but also the common good of the multitude.”11 A philosophic principle worth committing to memory – and often used by Aquinas – is that the object of a thing determines the species of a thing. If prudence, therefore, can have as its object the good of many, the good of a few, or the good of one, there must be correlating different species of prudence. According to the Angelic Doctor, there is political prudence, which “is directed to the common good of the state.”12 Second, there is the domestic prudence, which is “directed to the common good of the home.” Third, there is prudence simply or monastic prudence, which “is directed to one’s own good.”13


Lesson Five:
Prudence of the Flesh

Aquinas opens his discussion with a simple syllogism. It is impossible for a man to be prudent unless he is good. No sinner is a good man. Therefore no sinner is prudent.14 There is, however, a false prudence. Virtue is “an habitual and firm disposition to do the good.”15 Prudence, as the Charioteer of Virtue, disposes a person toward a good end. What about a prudent robber? A robber that “devises fitting ways of committing robbery”?16 Aquinas posits this as a false prudence, and is the “prudence of the flesh” as described by St. Paul.17 Aquinas further submits there is a second type of prudence – an imperfect prudence. Imperfect prudence would be the shipwright who is prudent toward his particular good, shipbuilding, but lacks prudence toward the “common good of all human life.” Moreover, imagine the brilliant astrophysicists who is also an atheist. Finally, there is true and perfect prudence – the prudence that “takes counsel, judges, and commands aright in respect of the good end of man’s whole life.”18 The true and perfect prudence is prudence simply. To wit, prudence is right reason in action, and sin will always be an irrational act; therefore, sinners are not prudent.


Lesson Six:
Imprudence & Negligence are Special Sins

"Detail of the Rood in St Paul's church, Knightsbridge by Bodley." - Fr. Lawrence, OP. Flickr.
“Detail of the Rood in St Paul’s church, Knightsbridge by Bodley.” – Fr. Lawrence, OP. Flickr.

Imprudence is a sin and manifests in two different ways: as a privation or as a contrary.19 As a privation, a person lacks the prudence they ought to have. As a contrary, the person’s actions go directly against prudence. For example, the imprudent man who despises wise counsel.20 Where as prudence is considered a special virtue, so too is imprudence a special sin. Aquinas explains, “for just as all the virtues have a share of prudence, in so far as it directs them, so have all vices and sins a share of imprudence, because no sin can occur, without some defect in an act of the directing reason, which defect belongs to imprudence.”21 For example, if the shipwright has too many ales at the public house, is he imprudent or acting with intemperance? The shipwright is both, because intemperance has set the end and imprudence has set the means. Just as prudence is a special virtue, imprudence is a special sin.22 The second vice opposed to prudence is negligence. The virtue of solicitude is a care or concern for something, it watchfulness, and it is being alert. It is a part of prudence.23 Negligence is a lack of solicitude – it is an omission, a failure to act. Consequently, negligence is opposed to prudence, right reason applied to action, because there is no action. In this way, negligence is also a special sin as it affects the act of reason itself. The special sins are also known as general sins, because their scope extends past any particular matter. For example, lust is particularly oriented toward sexual matters, but negligence affects reason itself; thus, the vice of negligence can extend “to any kind of moral matter.”24

  1. ST. II-II.47.2 Sed Contra, citing Ethics VI 5 []
  2. CCC § 1806 []
  3. ST. I-II.57.3, see also for an extended conversation on the intellectual virtues, 8 Traditional Catholic Answers about Virtue. []
  4. Id. []
  5. II-II.47.6. Sed contra []
  6. Aquinas on Prudence as the Means: “But it belongs to the ruling of prudence to decide in what manner and by what means man shall obtain the mean of reason in his deeds. For though the attainment of the mean is the end of a moral virtue, yet this means is found by the right disposition of these things that are directed to the end.” II-II.47.7 []
  7. CCC § 1806, furthermore, “it is prudence that immediately guides the judgment of conscience. The prudent man determines and directs his conduct in accordance with this judgment. With the help of this virtue we apply moral principles to particular cases without error and overcome doubts about the good to achieve and the evil to avoid.” []
  8. II-II.47.10 – Aquinas citing Ethics, vi. 8 []
  9. Id., see Aquinas citing St. Paul, I Cor. 13:5, 10:33. []
  10. Id. []
  11. Id. []
  12. Id. a. 11. []
  13. Id. a. 11, see also a. 12, further defining political prudence. There is “legislative prudence,” which belongs to the rulers, and “political prudence,” which is “about individual actions.” Consequently, political prudence is in both the rulers and the ruled. []
  14. ST II-II.47.13, sed contra. []
  15. CCC § 1803 []
  16. II-II.47.13 []
  17. See Rom. 8:6. []
  18. Id. []
  19. II-II.53.1. []
  20. Id. []
  21. Id. a. 2 []
  22. Special Sins Under Imprudence: First, there is “thoughtlessness.” Thought, according to Aquinas, “signifies the act of the intellect in considering truth about something.” II-II.53.4. Thoughtless is the vice, the bad habit, of failing to judge rightly “those things on which right judgment depends.” Second, there is the vice of inconsistency. Aquinas teaches that inconsistency demonstrates a “withdrawal from a definite good purpose.” Id. a. 6. Aquinas reasons that a man does not step back from a previously attained good unless it is for some inordinate desire; thus, inconsistency is accomplished through a “defect of reason.” []
  23. See II-II.47.9 []
  24. II-II.54.1-2. []

The West has Lost its Moral Vocabulary: 8 Traditional Catholic Answers about Virtue

What does it mean to be a good person? In modernity, the moral vocabulary of society has shifted from a virtue-based language to one of values. Virtues are rooted in reason and reflect a common moral standard for all men. Values are rooted in the individual and reflect an autonomous moral universe.

Listers, what does it mean to be a good person? In modernity, the moral vocabulary of society has shifted from a virtue-based language to one of values. Virtues are rooted in reason and reflect a common moral standard for all men. Values are rooted in the individual and reflect an autonomous moral universe. Where virtues can discuss justice as something apart from any individual, values are meaningless without the worth imported to them from the individual. A Catholic parish may be rooted in the “values of Christ,” but the local Muslim or atheist community would submit totally different value systems. In politics, one party may value “traditional marriage,” while another party may value “same-sex marriage.” In the West, political discourse has become obsessed with values generally under the guise of individual rights language; yet, is this the best moral jargon the West has to offer? The West was built upon a moral vocabulary that contemplated the soul and virtue. The following eight questions are meant to serve as an introduction to virtue in general – both moral and intellectual. The list is not meant to discuss any particular moral or political issue, but it is meant to offer a moral vocabulary rooted in reason and common to all humanity. And while it is not necessary to understand the following questions, a greater insight into the virtues may be gained by first contemplating the soul –  7 Questions on the Powers of the Human Soul Compared to Other Souls.1


1. What is a virtue?

A virtue is “an habitual and firm disposition to do the good.”2 Virtue cannot be reduced to a single act. A man who returns a lost wallet he found in a park may be virtuous, but a single act is not dispositive of virtue. To determine if someone is a virtuous person, often the totality of their actions are considered. The key question is – does this person have a habit of doing what is right? A habit may be defined as a series of actions that constitute a practice. The Philosopher, Aristotle, says a habit is “a disposition whereby someone is disposed, well or ill.”3 A habit that disposes someone to what is good or well for them is called a virtue. It is a good habit. A habit that disposes someone to what is evil or ill for them is called a vice. It is a bad habit. Those who have a habit of doing what is good are properly called virtuous, while those who have a habit of doing what is bad are rightly called vicious.


2. How does virtue or vice define a person?

If a person is labeled virtuous or vicious, the label goes beyond the content of their actions and seems to define the very person. Virtue and vice are different species of the genus of habit. A virtue is a good habit, and a is vice a bad habit. An inquiry into which genus habit should be a species under aids in unlocking the deeper nature of a person’s actions. According to Aristotle and Aquinas, habit is a species of quality. The category of quality is one of the ten categories from Aristotle’s Organon. In a broad sense, the categories articulate everything that may be an object of human apprehension. For example, a table. The category of quantity denotes how many tables there are, the category of relations denotes if it is a superior or inferior table compared to other tables, and category of place denotes where the table is, and so forth. The category of quality has four different types: first, shape (rectangular, circular, etc.), second, sense qualities (hot, cold, loud, quiet, etc.), third, capacity (a man has the capacity to run swiftly or a table to bear a great weight), and fourth, dispositions (the quality of being disposed an act). Habit is a species of quality in the fourth sense – of dispositions. Therefore, a habit, whether a virtue or vice, defines the very quality of its subject, the person, as either being disposed to good or evil.4


3. Can non-Catholics be virtuous?

Aristotle by Fr. Lawrence, OP. Flickr.
Aristotle by Fr. Lawrence, OP. Flickr.

The natural virtues or “human virtues” are known as “natural,” because they are naturally available to all humanity.5 Every human is a rational animal and is able to acquire the natural virtues. In other words, a person does not need to be Catholic to have the natural virtues. The natural virtues can serve as a common table of dialogue between persons of all faiths and creeds. Each person is a rational animal – meaning they are endowed with the power of the intellect in their soul. Each person has the power to rationally reflect upon their own actions, which is the basis for morality. Acting virtuously is nothing more than acting rationally. Each human – regardless of their “worldview” – is expected to act rationally and hold to the common standard of natural virtue. It is obvious, however, that though all men may acquire the natural virtues, not all men do. One key observation is that virtues are habits, not mandated instincts. The rational soul is like clay upon the potter’s wheel. The rational animal, by the power of the his or her intellect, may choose to act rationally (good) or irrationally (bad). The rational animal may form his or herself into a virtuous or vicious individual. Second, it is true that the rational soul is inclined to what is truly good and rational. All persons choose what is good. The caveat is that the mover of the soul, the power of the will, often times moves the soul toward apparent goods and not actual goods.6 Consequently, though man is a rational animal, he often makes irrational choices toward apparent goods, which can develop into vices. In fact, entire cultures or religions may suppress individuals from being virtuous by habituating them to apparent goods.


4. What moral virtues are available to all humanity?

The Cardinal Virtues are the natural moral virtues available to all men. Drawing from both the ancient Greek philosophical tradition and the ancient Hebrew faith of the Old Testament, the Church teaches that there are four Cardinal Virtues: prudence, justice, temperance, and fortitude.7 Prudence is the “elective habit” and may be said to simply be “right reason in action.”8 Prudence is unique insofar as it is both an intellectual and moral virtue. Justice is the virtue whereby a person gives what is due to both God and neighbor.9 It is the virtue of being well-ordered. Justice has the distinction of being the highest virtue of politics or the state. Temperance is the virtue that holds the soul to reason in the face of something pleasurable that would lure it away.10 In contrast, fortitude is the virtue that holds the soul to reason in the face of something that would scare it away.11 The soldier that stands his ground despite an oncoming onslaught is engaging in fortitude. A husband or wife that holds true to their marriage vows despite the allure of adulterous sexual pleasure is engaging in temperance. These four virtues are the “cardinal” virtues, because of the “pivotal role” they hold in morality.12 The Cardinal Virtues are available to all humanity, because they are acquired virtues – meaning they may be “acquired by human effort.”13 Each rational animal, as a creature of the Creator, may acquire these moral virtues, which in turn prepare the soul “for communion with divine love.”14 For grace always perfects nature; thus, the person with great natural virtue has laid a great foundation for divine love.


5. Are there virtues that must be given to humanity?

Hope, Faith, & Charity by Fr. Lawrence, OP. Flickr.
Hope, Faith, & Charity by Fr. Lawrence, OP. Flickr.

The Theological Virtues are moral virtues that are given by God. While the Cardinal Virtues are natural virtues, thus they may be acquired by all rational animals; the Theological Virtues are infused virtues, which means they are infused into the individual by God. There are three Theological Virtues: faith, hope, and charity. The Virtue of Faith is that by which Catholics “believe in God and believe all that he has said and revealed to us, and that Holy Church proposes for our belief, because he is truth itself.”15 Truth is not a concept – it is a person, Jesus Christ, and he has wedded himself to humanity through his bride, his body, the Church. The Virtue of Faith, however, cannot be reduced to mere intellect assent. True faith is both belief and living out that belief. The Virtue of Hope is the “anchor of the soul.”16 Hope anchors the believer in virtue by instilling in him a desire for the Kingdom of God, a trust in Jesus Christ, and reliance on the Holy Spirit.17 The Virtue of Charity is the mother of all virtues. It is the virtue by which we love God for his own sake and our neighbors as ourselves.18 Just as the soul is the form of the body, Charity is the form of all virtue – it actuates the potential of virtue. It is the anima (soul) of virtue, because “the practice of all the virtues is animated and inspired by charity, which ‘binds everything together in perfect harmony.”19 Though the Theological Virtues are infused into the person by God, they are properly habits, because once they are given it is the choice of the individual to habituate himself toward the goods of faith, hope, and charity.


6. Are there other virtues besides the moral virtues?

Along with the moral virtues, there are the intellectual virtues. The intellectual virtues may be distinguished into two categories: the speculative virtues and the practical virtues. The power of the intellect is the hallmark power of the rational soul, and the speculative virtues help perfect the intellect’s ability to consider truth. Aquinas teaches the speculative virtues “may indeed be called virtues in so far as they confer aptness for a good work, viz. the consideration of truth (since this is the good work of the intellect).”20 There are three habits that perfect the speculative intellect: understanding, wisdom, and science. Now, the speculative intellect has as its end the consideration of truth, and truth itself is a twofold consideration. First, there is the truth that is known in itself. Aquinas submits, “what is known in itself, is as a ‘principle,’ and is at once understood by the intellect.”21 The habit that perfects the speculative intellect’s consideration of principles is the virtue of understanding. It is the “habit of principles.”22 The principles in question are known in themselves, because they are indemonstrable – they are not deduced from other truths. For example, “a whole is greater than its parts.” Moreover, there is the “first indemonstrable principle,” which is the foundation for all others – “the same thing cannot be affirmed and denied at the same time.”23 The second aspect of truth is that which is known to be true “through another.”24 In other words, it is known through the ability to reason. The virtue of wisdom contemplates the highest causes in the universe and allows the intellect to place all being in a rational order. For example, wisdom rationalizes there are living beings and non-living beings, the under living beings there are animals and plants, under animals there is the rational animal and the non-rational animals, and so forth. Science is simply a “body of knowledge,” thus, the virtue of science perfects the intellect through the study of the different bodies of knowable matter. So whereas wisdom will set everything in proper order according to the highest causes, science will study the specific and distinguished bodies of knowledge, e.g., chemistry, astronomy, zoology, botany, etc. So, as Aquinas teaches, “there are different habits of scientific knowledge; whereas there is but one wisdom.”25 One wisdom sets the order, while habits of scientific knowledge are as numerous as the potential to separate one body of knowledge from another.


7. Are there other intellectual virtues?

Along with the speculative virtues, there are the practical virtues of art and prudence. The virtue of art is the habit of knowing how to make things. Aquinas states, “Art is nothing else but ‘the right reason about certain works to be made.'”26 Art is understood as an operative/practical habit – in contrast with a speculative habit – for it perfects in the craftsman an “aptness to work well.”27 The second operative or practical habit is prudence. If art is the “right reason of things to be made,” then prudence is the “right reason of things to be done.”28 In the virtue of art, there is an “action passing into outward matter” to create an external object. Through the art of smithing, the blacksmith smiths a plow. In the virtue of prudence, there is an “action abiding in the agent.” Through the virtue of prudence, the blacksmith decides to start his day before dawn. Aquinas summarizes the distinction as “prudence stands in the same relation to such like human actions, consisting in the use of powers and habits, as art does to outward making: since each is the perfect reason about the things with which it is concerned.”29 Prudence is unique insofar as it is both an intellectual virtue and a moral virtue. For example, the blacksmith may make prudent choices in how to operate his smith, while he also may make prudent choices in how to treat his family. Prudence perfects reason, which is necessary in both intellectual and moral matters.30


8. Why are the intellect virtues not moral virtues?

Holy Virtue by Fr. Lawrence, OP. Flickr. - "The Latin inscription reads: 'We shall attain the excellence of virtue with the grace of God and the effort of our will.'"
Holy Virtue by Fr. Lawrence, OP. Flickr. – “The Latin inscription reads: ‘We shall attain the excellence of virtue with the grace of God and the effort of our will.'”

If a man is a great botanist does that make him a moral or immoral person? Neither – the acumen of the intellectual virtues, save prudence, does not have a direct moral import. A person may be incredibly intelligent and also vicious at the same time. The intellect does, however, have an indirect moral consideration. For example, the blacksmith has the habit of scientific knowledge needed to smith, and he knows the art of smithing. The moral consideration is what the blacksmith wills to do with the knowledge and art he has. He may create brittle plows and sell them to cheat patrons of their money. He may create the finest swords in the region and donate them to those fighting on the front lines. The moral consideration is not the knowledge itself, but what the soul wills to do with the knowledge. For example, when the will moves the soul to use knowledge for a just or charitable purpose, then the act is a moral act.31


  1. Published on All Saints Day 2014 – All you holy men and women of God, pray for us. []
  2. Catechism of the Catholic Church (“CCC”) § 1803 []
  3. Habits: For more on habits and the source for the given quotes, see ST I-II.49.1-2 []
  4. The Categories: A quick sketch of Aristotle’s Categories found in his work, Organon. (1) Substance – that which cannot be predicated of anything else; thus, this particular man or this particular chair; note that while the accidents of the substance may change (e.g., the chair becomes rough or changes color), if the substance changes it forfeits existence (e.g., a human is a human, it cannot change to anything more or less than a human). (2) Quantity (3) Relation – things can be inferior or superior to others, etc. (4) Quality – as described above (5) Place – a substance may be here or there (6) Time – the table is one day old or hundred days old (7) Position – the table is upright or overturned (8) State (or Condition) – the table is in this or that condition (9) Action – to produce a change, e.g., a man may run or kick (10) Affection – to receive an act or to be acted upon, e.g., the table is kicked by the man. []
  5. CCC § 1804 []
  6. ST.II-I.8.1 []
  7. CCC §§ 1805-11 []
  8. CCC § 1806 []
  9. Id. at § 1807 []
  10. Id. at § 1809 []
  11. Id. at § 1808 []
  12. Id. at § 1805 []
  13. Id. []
  14. Id. []
  15. Id. at § 1814 []
  16. Id. at § 1820 []
  17. Id. at §§ 1817-18 []
  18. Id. at §§ 1822-29 []
  19. Id. at § 1827, citing Col 3:14. []
  20. ST. I-II.57.1 []
  21. Id. at a. 2 []
  22. Id. []
  23. Indemonstrable Principles: I-II.94.2 – for example, “Hence it is that, as Boethius says… certain axioms or propositions are universally self-evident to all; and such are those propositions whose terms are known to all, as, “Every whole is greater than its part,” and, “Things equal to one and the same are equal to one another.” But some propositions are self-evident only to the wise, who understand the meaning of the terms of such propositions: thus to one who understands that an angel is not a body, it is self-evident that an angel is not circumscriptively in a place: but this is not evident to the unlearned, for they cannot grasp it.” SPL discusses indemonstrable principles in the list The 6 Step Guide to Aquinas’ Natural Law in a Modern World.” []
  24. Id. at a. 2 []
  25. Id. []
  26. Id. at a. 3. []
  27. Id. []
  28. Id. at a. 4, cf. Metaph. ix, text. 16 []
  29. Id. at a. 3-4 []
  30. Id. at a. 5. []
  31. Id. at a. 1. []

7 Questions on the Powers of the Human Soul Compared to Other Souls

 1. What is a soul?

The soul is the principle of life. Aquinas defines the soul as “the first principle of life in those things which live.”1 In Latin, the word for soul is anima, from which English derives words like animated and animation – to have an anima is to be animated. In contrast, something that does not have a soul, like a table, is considered an inanimate object. It is therefore held that all living corporeal things are animated by a soul. “Living things” is, however, not limited to humans, but includes plants and animals as well. Consequently, plants and animals must also have souls, because they are alive. The question raised is what type of soul does a plant have? What type of soul does an animal have? And how are these souls different than the soul of the rational animal – the human?


2. What type of soul does a plant have?

Plants are living beings—they are animated by an anima, a soul; however, is the soul that animates a plant the same soul that animates animals or humans? One consideration is what type of “powers” the life of a plant demonstrates. The Latin word for power is potentia. The term potentia is underneath the English word potential, because if an entity can act on its potential then it has the power to do the act. If there is no potential there is no power. So what is the potential of life in a plant? Imagine a large oak tree. The oak has the power to reproduce via its acorns, it has the power to grow as demonstrated by it moving from acorn to a large oak, and it has the ability to nourish itself via its leaves and deep roots. The ability to reproduce, the generative power, is how the plant soul gains existence. The ability to grow, the augmentative power, is how the oak grows according to its proper size or quantity. The ability to nourish, the nutritive power, allows the soul of the oak to preserve its existence.2 These powers are rooted in the soul of the plant, which is called the vegetative soul. Note that the three powers are able to be distinguished from one another because they all act toward a different object. Imagine still that there is a beehive in the large oak or a horse grazing nearby. The bees and the horse are also alive, but they seem to have powers that go beyond simple growth and preservation.


3. What type of soul does an animal have?

Horse, Feliciano Guimarães, Flickr.
Horse, Feliciano Guimarães, Flickr.

Animals are animated by the sensitive soul. First, animals have the ability to reproduce (generative power), grow (augmentative power), and nourish (nutritive power) as plants do. A horse, however, may reproduce quite differently than an oak tree. Though the powers act toward the same end, the matter of the body the soul acts upon may have a very different means to that end. For example, the sensitive soul typically demonstrates the power of locomotion – to be able to move; however, the tiny wings of the buzzing bee are quite different than the taunt muscles of a galloping horse. Another power that distinguishes the vegetative soul of the plant from the sensitive soul of the animal is its namesake power – the senses. Unlike the oak, the horse is well aware of the world around it. The horse can see, taste, hear, smell, and touch. These five powers under the particular sense act toward a particular object. The power of taste knows the flavor of grass, and the power of sight knows the rolling green hills. The eye, however, only knows its own object. The eye can distinguish between green hills and a blue sky, but it cannot distinguish between green grass and sweet grass. Since every power is distinguished according to its own object, there must be something common to all the senses that distinguishes between all the sense objects; moreover, not only is it able to distinguish between the objects, what is green and what is sweet, but also able to combine the senses into one harmonious sense perception. The power that perceives all the external senses is called the common sense. A horse, much like a dog, may start to associate certain perceptions and remember them; thus, the sensitive soul may also have the power of memory. A dog may even recall what it has perceived through its senses at night in a dream; thus, the sensitive soul may have the power of imagination. In short, animals demonstrate a degree of knowledge, though it is the lowest form of knowledge in Creation.3


4. What type of soul does a human have?

There is something uniquely remarkable about the human soul. Aquinas observes that the sensitive souls of animals are driven by natural impulses or instincts. A deer darts at a strange sound, and a colony of bees builds a hive. Humans, however, are different. Like the bees, humans seek shelter, but with one crucial difference. The bees have the natural impulse to build the same hive over and over again. Humanity, however, does not build the same shelter over and over. Humanity has risen from huts to penthouse apartments. How? Humanity is able to reflect upon the shelter as a shelter and the art of making a shelter. Humans can contemplate the very art of shelter construction and may reason about different materials and techniques. A bee does not know itself as a hive-maker or reflect upon the art of hive-making. A bee is a slave to its instincts. A human, however, is a rational animal, and it is in rationality that it can reflect upon the world. The human’s ability to reflect upon his or herself as a person and upon the actions that person takes sets the human apart from the other animals. The ability to reflect is rooted in the hallmark power of the human soul – the intellect. Unlike any other power, the intellect may know itself. It is precisely in this self-reflection, that mankind is able to reason. Humans have a rational soul. Consequently, the ability of humanity to reflect upon its actions is the basis for all morality. Unlike the deer that darts at a sound, a person can reflect upon their actions. Maybe it is more rational to stand and fight, like a soldier fighting alongside his comrades. The reflection upon actions serves as the foundation of moral inquiry, and in this context there are four primary powers of the rational soul to consider: the senses, the passions, the will, and the intellect.4


5. What are the passions?

The passions are movements of the soul. A passion could be an immediate inclination toward a sense object. For example, a person is walking down the road and they sense warm buttery bread and immediately feel drawn toward the bakery. There is a movement in the soul toward the bread. A passion could also be an aversion to a sense object. A person walking down the road turns the corner and sees a large snarling hound. The immediate reaction is a movement of the soul away from the sense object. Passions are movements of the soul that affect the soul. A person could feel fearful all day due to an upcoming test. A person could feel joy all day due to an upcoming dinner party. Note in both cases that the person is not stating, “there is a test coming up, I choose to be fearful” or “there is a dinner party coming up, I choose to be joyful.” Rather, it is the object affecting the soul in a different way – either an inclination toward an object or a aversion from an object. Typical passions include love, hatred, desire, fear, joy, sadness, and anger.5 Aquinas places both the senses and the passions in what he refers to as the sense appetite of the soul, which simply means there exists an inclination toward an object apprehended by the senses.


6. What is the will?

Whiskey Shots Kirti Poddar Flickr.
Whiskey Shots Kirti Poddar Flickr.

The will is the mover of the soul. According to the Angelic Doctor, “the will is a rational appetite.”6 An appetite is an inclination toward a good; thus, the rational appetite of the will moves the soul toward things that are good. Following Aristotle, Aquinas agrees that all men seek the good.7 If, however, all men use their will to seek the good, why does it appear that humanity so often chooses what is evil and self-destructive? Does an alcoholic will the good when he reaches for another drink? Does a suicide victim choose the good when he takes his own life? Aristotle and Aquinas would both agree on the caveat that while all men seek the good, it is not necessary that the goods they seek be actual goods in truth – only that the person’s will sees the object as an apparent good. The will moves the soul of the alcoholic toward the next drink, because he believes the drink to be a good. The drink, in turn, is affecting his soul. The alcoholic has a developed a passion toward the drink and is now inclined toward it. If, however, the alcoholic tried to remain sober, note that there would be a struggle between his will wanting to move his soul toward what is truly rational, and his passion moving his soul toward the sense object of alcohol. When speaking of the soul and morality, the questions of whether the passions will enslave the will to their inclinations or the will will discipline the passions into a rational order lays at the heart of moral inquiry and act. The rational soul is able to reflect upon its own actions and is so charged with choosing the rational and moral act.


7. What is the intellect?

The intellect is the power of the soul to understand. The intellect may be divided into two powers. First, every rational soul has the power of the passive intellect. The passive intellect is the potential for the soul to understand the intelligible. It is a receptive power. The second power, the active intellect, is the power that allows the intellect to abstract the form from the intelligible thing and understand it. For example, a person who has never seen a horse has the passive power to understand what a horse is. If the person then sees a horse, the active intellect allows the soul to abstract from the horse the intelligible form of the horse. For the mind does not take in the actual material horse, but it does take in an intelligible form of it. If the person goes back and tells his friends about the horse, he is recalling that intelligible form through the power of memory. If he theorizes that there must be black horses and brown horses and even horses with wings, he is using the power of his imagination. What if the person pondered whether or not you could eat a horse? Could you hunt a horse for sport? Could you tame it? The person’s power to reflect upon what is a proper act toward the horse, a moral act, is powered by reason. Is reason then a power of the intellect? No. Reason is a movement from one truth to another in order to understand. The person faced with a horse could reason the horse was a living being, an animal, a horse, and even a certain species of horse. Reason allows the mind to come to understand a truth. The intellect, however, simply knows the truth attained. Reason is not a power of the intellect, the reason is to the intellect as movement is to rest.8

  1. Aquinas’ Summa Theologica, ST I-I.75.1 []
  2. ST.I-I.78.2 []
  3. Aquinas on Common Sense, ST I, 78, 4, ad.2. []
  4. The Rational Soul: Following Aristotle, St. Thomas Aquinas gives five genera of powers in the rational soul: vegetative, sensitive, appetitive, locomotion, and intellectual. Note that the higher souls take on the powers of the lower souls: plants have the vegetative powers, animals have vegetative and sensitive powers, and humans have vegetative, sensitive, and intellectual powers. Aquinas refers to these souls as higher and lower based on the object of the their powers. The vegetative powers – which characterize the vegetative soul – have only the body as their object. The sensitive powers go outside the body and have as their object sensible things. The intellectual powers go even further to have as their object universal being. Another consideration is that the ability for man to reflect, the power of the intellect, is in a real way the Imago Dei in man – the image of God. It allows us to create and to be moral. A final consideration here is that the art by which man learns to reflect better – to reason more properly – is logic. Aquinas gives a brief summary of the difference between animals and the rational animal as an introduction to logic in the prologue of his commentary on Aristotle’s Organon. []
  5. CCC § 1772 []
  6. ST.II-I.8.1 []
  7. Id., citing “the Philosopher says (Ethic. i, 1) that ‘the good is that which all desire.'” []
  8. Reason & Intellect: Boethius gave the analogy that the reason was to the intellect what time was to eternity. []