Intellectual Virtues

Intellectual Virtues

Intellectual Virtues

We saw last time that St. Thomas divides virtues into intellectual and moral. He does this because human beings have two principles of action: the intellect and the appetite. Let’s start with the intellectual virtues. The intellect is that which is highest in man. It should go without saying, then, that we need to perfect this power. It is that whereby we know ourselves, the world around us, and God. Recall that virtues make performing good acts easy, prompt, and joyful. This is true of the intellectual virtues as well. For St. Thomas, there are virtues that perfect our speculative intellect (which is concerned with knowing simply), and virtues that perfect our practical intellect (which is ordered to the end of operation). The former virtues are wisdom, science or knowledge, and understanding.

St. Thomas explains these intellectual virtues by making some distinctions that are at root commonsensical and in accord with our experience. He says that sometimes we know truths in themselves, and sometimes come to know them through another. In short, sometimes we know truths at once, and it is understanding that perfects the intellect to understand all the better. St. Thomas calls it “the habit of principles.” Furthermore, some truths we arrive at through another. Knowledge or science (scientia) is the habit whereby the mind is perfected to draw conclusions by demonstration from first principles. Think of particular sciences or disciplines here, all of which have their own principles from which we can reason and come to conclusions. Because there are different sciences, there are different habits of scientific knowledge. There is only one wisdom, however, since wisdom rightly judges all things and puts them in order. Wisdom considers the highest things, the highest causes.

What is Art?

Again, wisdom, knowledge, and understanding perfect the speculative intellect for the consideration of truth. But St. Thomas also explains that there exist the virtues of art and prudence for the perfection of the practical intellect. No doubt many of you have heard of prudence, but what is art? Aquinas defines it simply and succinctly: “Art is nothing else but the right reason about certain works to be made.” One might be left wondering how this differs from prudence. However, prudence is right reason of things to be done. Think of it this way. When we make something, the action passes into outward matter (we build a bridge or chisel the marble). But when we do something, there is a sense in which the action abides in the agent (for example, when we see, will, and so forth). This distinction is enough for St. Thomas to distinguish the virtues of art and prudence.

There is only one wisdom, however, since wisdom rightly judges all things and puts them in order. Wisdom considers the highest things, the highest causes.Click To Tweet

Prudence as a Chief Virtue

We will talk more about prudence in a later post. In addition to being an intellectual virtue, prudence is one of the so-called “cardinal virtues.” Prudence is a chief virtue in the good life, since the good life consists in good deeds. Often here we think only about what one does. That is obviously very important. But St. Thomas thinks it is likewise important how ones does it; does one act from impulse or passion, or from a rightly ordered will that chooses the good? This makes all the difference in the world. Next time, we will discuss the moral virtues. These perfect the passions. Even though they do not perfect the higher powers in us, however, they are vital for the moral life.

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