Aquinas on Virtue

A Causal Reading

Nicholas Austin

"An elegant, thoughtful examination of Aquinas' virtue ethic."
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Aquinas on Virtue: A Causal Reading is an original interpretation of one of the most compelling accounts of virtue in the Western tradition, that of the great theologian and philosopher Thomas Aquinas (1224–1274). Taking as its starting point Aquinas's neglected definition of virtue in terms of its "causes," this book offers a systematic analysis of Aquinas on the nature, genesis, and role of virtue in human life.

Drawing on connections and contrasts between Aquinas and contemporary treatments of virtue, Austin argues that Aquinas’s causal virtue theory retains its normative power today. As well as providing a synoptic account of Aquinas on virtue, the book includes an extended treatment of the cardinal virtue of temperance, an argument for the superiority of Aquinas's concept of "habit" over modern psychological accounts, and a rethinking of the relation between grace and virtue. With an approach that is distinctively theological yet strongly conversant with philosophy, this study will offer specialists a bold new interpretation of Aquinas’s virtue theory while giving students a systematic introduction with suggested readings from his Summa Theologiae and On the Virtues.

Table of Contents

Note on Sources

Part I. Defining Virtue
1. Defining Temperance Causally
2. Virtue as a Habit
3. Virtue as a Good Habit
4. Virtue’s Definition

Part II. Causal Ethics
5. Exemplar and Object
6. End and Agent

Part III. The Causal Analysis of Virtue
7. Rational Virtue
8. Passionate Virtue
9. Telic Virtue
10. Graced Virtue
11. Rethinking Infusion

Appendix: Virtue Defined
Selected Bibliography


"One of the strengths of this work is the author’s ability to address the two divergent, yet interconnected, spheres of medieval and contemporary moral theology without inadvertently doing any injustice to either or convoluting his lines of argument—a risk explicitly noted in his introduction. Austin succeeds in providing a holistic causal analysis of virtue that is conversant with the concerns of contemporary society."—Parergon

"[Austin's] interpretations are always insightful, and at their best, illuminating and persuasive. On his showing, seemingly abstruse metaphysical concepts are relevant, and sometimes indispensable to making sense of a wide range of issues in Aquinas and moral thought generally. His causal analysis of the relation of the virtues to the passions, and the role of the passions in rational deliberation, struck this reviewer as especially illuminating. . . . This is a valuable book that deserves widespread attention, by moral theorists as well as students of Aquinas."—Theological Studies

"A fresh look at Thomas Aquinas's treatment of virtue . . . A welcome contribution to the ongoing conversation on virtue ethics."—Reading Religion

"An elegant, thoughtful examination of Aquinas' virtue ethic."—Catholic Books Review

"Austin fulfills his intention to make Aquinas's understanding of virtue more intelligible for modern man by means of a causal analysis. He amply shows how Aquinas's virtue theory is neither univocal nor reductionistic, but rather, capable of dialogue with modern perspectives, while nevertheless, penetrating deeper than modern theories."—The Incarnate Word

"A compelling study that will offer scholars and theologians a bold new interpretation of Aquinas's virtue theory . . . A masterpiece of deliberative scholarship."—Library Bookwatch

"Austin skillfully reconstructs Aquinas’s multidimensional account of causation and uses it to reframe Aquinas’s definition of virtue. In the process, he develops a method for reaching a more complete understanding of any particular virtue. A highly innovative and fruitful analysis."—Diana Fritz Cates, professor of religious ethics, University of Iowa

"Nicholas Austin’s Aquinas on Virtue: A Causal Reading is a highly welcome and stimulating addition to Thomistic studies as well as to the modern literature on virtue ethics. His illumination of Aquinas’s thinking on the virtues through the lens of the four classical causes which cooperate to produce them delivers an original and insightful treatment which is both temperate and persuasive, and deeply satisfying to follow."—Jack Mahoney, emeritus professor of moral and social theology in the University of London, and Honorary Fellow of Campion Hall, University of Oxford

"Nicholas Austin’s sweeping study represents an impressive achievement in the field of Christian ethics. Its approach is more fundamental and thus more potentially illuminating than other introductions to Thomistic virtue available today. It provides a full account not only of what Aquinas understands virtue to be, but also the significance of the method by which he comes to and communicates that understanding. As enjoyable to read as it is challenging in its claims, this book is clearly the work of a master teacher and will no doubt be an invaluable resource for student and specialist alike."—Patrick Clark, University of Scranton

"Twelve years ago Nicholas Austin began a study into Thomas Aquinas’s writings on temperance.  Along the way, he discovered that Thomas explored his own understanding of the virtue by engaging temperance’s specific causes: material, formal, exemplary, efficient, and final causes.  That discovery led Austin to expand greatly his investigation: could the causes themselves provide the hermeneutical lens for understanding most of Thomas’ writings on the virtues?  Here in your hands is Austin’s long-awaited, ground-breaking answer."—James Keenan, Founders Chair, Boston College

"This book is a positive pleasure to read: always clear, teacherly, and admirably nonpartisan...This sophisticated introduction to Aquinas' theory of virtue moves Aquinas studies in just the right direction."—The Thomist

"Austin has done proponents of virtue ethics a great service by providing a clear, concise, and contemporary guide to Aquinas’ virtue theory."—Horizons


Supplemental Materials


About the Author

Nicholas Austin, SJ, teaches theological ethics at Heythrop College, University of London. He is the author of several book chapters, essays, and articles.

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