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  • Writer's pictureAaron Mead

Aquinas on the Virtues: Wisdom

The book of Proverbs tells us, “Wisdom cries out in the street; in the squares she raises her voice” (1:20). She cries out that people might heed her teachings and thereby find security and avoid disaster. But, what exactly is wisdom?

I will try to answer that question, here, from the perspective of Thomas Aquinas, one of the great teachers of the church. This is the second in a series of posts about Aquinas’s view of the virtues. If you would like to read from the beginning, last time I started the series with a discussion of the intellectual virtue of understanding.

It will be helpful to start by distinguishing clearly between the ideas of a “means” and an “end.” The “end” of an action is simply the thing that you are going for when you do something—the aim, purpose, or goal for the sake of which you act. The “means” is the thing you do in order to realize the end. The means is often simply the action itself.

For example, in one of my favorite lines of philosophy, Aristotle states, “taking a walk is for the sake of evacuation of the bowels” (Physics, Book II, Part 6). (Okay, yes, I’m a little juvenile; in all seriousness, scholars think Aristotle may have had some sort of bowel condition, explaining why such an example would be ready at hand.) In this example, “evacuation of the bowels” is the end while “taking a walk” is the means to the end (it is also the action).

Now, to act well, Aquinas thinks your action needs to issue from a choice, not mere passion or impulse (Summa Theologica I-II, Question 57, Article 5). When Aquinas uses the word, “choice,” he has something quite specific in mind. A choice, for Aquinas, is about the means to some end. We intend the end—e.g., evacuation of the bowels—but we choose the means—e.g., taking a walk.

In Summa Theologica I-II, Question 58, Article 4, Aquinas calls wisdom “a habit of choosing, i.e. making us choose well.” But, wisdom is a virtue of the intellect for Aquinas—an excellent quality of the thinking part of our minds—and the intellect is not the only thing involved in choosing. Choosing is also a function of the will, i.e., the thing that actually causes our actions (Summa Theologica, Question 13, Article 1).

So, wisdom guides the will in choosing the correct means to the intended end, thereby contributing to a good choice. It provides the proper reasoning about the means, while the will (and its virtues, to be discussed in subsequent posts) sets the wheels of the choice in motion. Thus, Aquinas sometimes calls wisdom, “the right reason about things to be done (and this, not merely in general, but also in particular)” (Summa Theologica I-II, Question 58, Article 5).

The parenthetical comment at the end of this quotation (“…not merely in general, but also in particular”) hints at something further and important about wisdom. In my last post, I claimed that, according to Aquinas, understanding is an intellectual virtue that allows us to identify good ends, such as life, knowledge, and social relationships. But, I also suggested that grasping these ends with our understanding does not yet answer all the ethical questions we might want answered. The deliverances of understanding are still so general that they do not give us guidance in many specific ethical situations.

For example, suppose you are happily reading a non-fiction book. By Aquinas’s lights, you would be pursuing one of the good ends for human beings: knowledge. (Great job!) Now, suppose someone has a life-threatening accident on your front step and starts screaming for your help. What should you do?

While it seems pretty obvious that you should put down your book and help the person, the virtue of understanding is not going to help you to make that judgment. Indeed, your understanding simply tells you that two human goods are in play here—knowledge and life. It does not tell you how exactly you should prioritize them in this specific situation. Coming up with specific principles that help you decide what to do in a particular situation is one of the roles of wisdom. It allows you to identify the right thing to do in specific situations.

At this point, fair reader, you might worry that Aquinas’s account of wisdom still doesn’t give us much guidance about what to do. For example, it doesn’t give us a nice utilitarian formula like, “Act such that you produce the greatest happiness for the greatest number.”

However, formulas like that famously break down: should you kill an innocent if it would produce the greatest happiness for the greatest number? Aquinas would likely say that what we should do depends on the particular complicated circumstances of our action, which cannot be codified in a single formula. In many cases we will need to rely in the moment on distinct principles very specific to the case. And grasping these very specific principles is what wisdom is supposed to do for us.

How might we gain wisdom? Traditional ethical rules might be one source of wisdom, such as rules against lying, cheating, stealing, or killing. We may learn such rules from our parents when we are small or from scripture (e.g., the Ten Commandments, the book of Proverbs).

But, of course, there may be exceptions to such rules: perhaps you should lie to the Nazi at your door looking for the Jews in your attic; or, in a time of war, perhaps you should kill that same Nazi given the chance. Given the possibility of such exceptions, we must be a keen observer of actions and their consequences as they bear on the basic human goods. Such observations will be a further source of wisdom.

Finally, Proverbs tells us, “the fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom” (9:10). Part of what it is to fear God is to heed what God says as of the utmost importance. God himself, then, is the ultimate source (or “beginning”) of wisdom. Indeed, the personification of wisdom in Proverbs 1 and 8—the woman who “cries out in the street”—is a allusion to God. Thus, as James 1:5 tells us, if we lack wisdom we should ask the God who gives it generously to all.

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