St. Thomas on the Nature of Human Action

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INTRODUCTION

In moral theory, understanding the concept of human action is significant. While contemporary moral philosophers tend to address these subjects as discrete topics of study, St. Thomas Aquinas’s treatment of them yields a bracing, comprehensive view of the moral life. Though at times it is not necessary for someone to be a trained moralist just to determine whether an act is good or bad, in some cases, this task can be challenging. Essential to identifying a correct moral action is recognizing what in this action is relevant to making this determination. The following essay will focus on the role of the reason and will to human, voluntariness, a feature that distinguishes human acts from acts of a different kind, and specifications of human actions and the cardinal virtues that govern actions and guide conducts according to faith and reason. All actions that are conducive to the attainment of man’s final end are considered morally good. Thus, an account on this ultimate end of human acts will be illustrated on the grounds of Aquinas’ writings.

THE NATURE OF HUMAN ACTION

An action is human just as it is rational for it was stated that through reason, man is the master of his acts. However, in order to fully understand the nature of human action and the end in which an action is aimed, we must understand what consists rationality. In the second part of Summa Theologiae, Aquinas explains that reason in comprised of two powers: the cognitive and the appetitive. The cognitive power of reason refers to the intellect. This power enables us to know, understand and apprehend the goodness a thing has. The appetitive power is the will. This power responds to the intellect’s judgment of what is good or choice worthy. Aquinas holds the superiority of the intellect over the will. The first formal principle is universal being and truth which is the object of the intellect and therefore by this kind of notion the intellect moves the will, as presenting its object to it. He applies this law even to God and the Creation which is founded upon the essence of God in so far as this essence is known by God's intellect and can be produced through the creative act. The divine will freely selects from among the possibilities in the divine essence. Thus even in God this present order of creation has been willed because it was reasonable, and not vice versa. Parallel to man, the act of understanding precedes the movement of the will. However Aquinas also points out that the will is free and is not limited to select necessarily what the intellect presents to it as reasonable. Good determines the will as the truth determines the intellect. The will is dependent on the intellect while the intellect is dependent on sensations which are objects that may vary from a good stance to an evil point of view. In this case, the will is free to select from among these various objects presented to it by the intellect. It was stated in the second part of Summa Theologiae that choice is substantially not an act of the reason but of the will: for choice is accomplished in a certain movement of the soul towards the good which is chosen. In our life, we are presented with competing goods between which we must choose but our intellectual limitations prevent us from deciding what is good. The careful analysis of the will and how it is used by man to create a free human action is a significant contribution of St. Thomas to moral theory. He identified six stages of the will’s involvement from the time a person realizes a goal to the time he achieves it. To further understand each stage, Pilsner used a situation as an example. A man of modest means reflects that it might be appropriate for him to do something to help the poor. Though he is uncertain at first how this might be accomplished, he recognizes that his idea is worthwhile.

The illustration exemplifies the first stage which is willing simply considered. In this stage, the man visualizes...
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