Practical Scholasticism

One of the things often missed in critiques of scholasticism is its practical thrust. Questions angels and pinheads don’t capture the real genius of the best of scholasticism. In the hands of a master like Thomas, scholasticism is a mode of pastoral theology. A few illustrations from Thomas’s discussion of gratitude in ST II-II, 106-107.

In his ethics, Thomas makes regular allowances for the natural frailties of human beings. How can a pauper show gratitude when he has nothing to return for a favor? He is required to give whatever payment he can (respect and honor for his benefactor at least ) but Thomas (quoting Aristotle) says that virtue does not require what is impossible. Thomas cites Seneca’s claim that the forgetful are the worst sort of ingrates, but adds that this doesn’t apply to “the forgetfulness that comes from a natural failing,” which is “involuntary” and hence not morally culpable.

His recognition of human limits is related to the careful discrimination of duties in different circumstances.

What does a friend owe to a friend in return for a benefit? Thomas says that it depends on the form of friendship: If a friendship of “convenience,” the return should be proportional to the advantage that came from the favor; if the friendship is of a “perfect” kind, then one responds to the love and preference more than the favor. What if the benefactor needs nothing? Then a material expression of gratitude is not required. What if the benefactor’s circumstances change after he bestows the benefit? Then the response changes too. Should you keep giving benefits to someone who misuses them? For a while, Thomas says, in the hope that favors will turn him back to the life of virtue. Once it becomes clear that his “ingratitude only increases and worsens with repeated kindnesses, they must be discontinued.”

In the midst of all these distinctions, Thomas never loses sight of the central point: To love God and neighbor. No one can help someone do evil; that would be to harm rather than benefit them. Repayment for favors should always be made “in whatever way would be more useful to the benefactor.” Generosity is not simply a good; we must determine whether we are aiding or harming someone with our gifts.

These discriminations and distinctions are part of what is rightly described as a “virtue” ethic, not an ethic of laws or duty. Yet within this overall framework of virtue, he finds plenty of room, and plenty of need, to steer his readers this way and that. Scholasticism is perfectly suited to this sort of ethical casuistry, answering questions of detail that come up everyday. It’s hard to see how an ethical thinker could avoid addressing these questions. And it’s hard to know how you could even begin to answer these questions without becoming something very close to a scholastic.

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