Aquinas on Virtue

A Casual Reading

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Nicholas Austin
Moral Traditions
  • Washington, DC: 
    Georgetown University Press
    , July
     2017.
     232 pages.
     $34.95.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9781626164734.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Nicholas Austin manages to give a fresh look at Thomas Aquinas’s treatment of virtue by analyzing it in light of distinctions that antedate the Angelic Doctor by many centuries in his Aquinas on Virtue: A Causal Reading. Austin considers Aquinas’s understanding of virtue in light of the division of the four causes that Aquinas takes from Aristotle (xix). Those already familiar with the corpus of Thomas Aquinas’s writings on virtue and the corresponding secondary literature will find such a treatment to be obvious, natural, overlooked, and much needed. The ubiquity and fundamental character of the four causes in Aquinas’s thought make them a natural principle for an analysis of the virtues, and Austin makes an important contribution by bringing this to the fore.

Austin has an easy writing style and does not hide his thinking within technical jargon, so this monograph is quite accessible. However, those who are looking for a more technical working out of the causal analysis and its implications may be somewhat disappointed since Austin simply does the analysis and does not really work out the more technical philosophical details. It would be too much to say that this amounts to a fault in the book, but those who are interested in it should be aware of this.

On the whole, the text presents itself as something that would be readily used in a college class, and it seems that this might be its intended audience. The accessibility of the writing, the clear causal analysis, and the lack of a great deal of technical detail make Aquinas on Virtue well suited to such a purpose. This is a text that is born from years of teaching experience.

That being said, the order of the book is somewhat mystifying. It is hard to understand why he begins by giving a causal definition of the virtue of temperance in chapter 1, and waits until chapter 4 to define virtue. This cart-before-the-horse approach, however, is not fatal to the book, or to its purpose, because each chapter functions as a self-contained unit, and could be read in different order without difficulty.

This reviewer must agree with Austin’s own assessment where he states, “causal analysis does not impose an arbitrary schema on Aquinas’ virtue theory; it has a prominent place in his method of investigating in general and the understanding of virtue in particular. The causal approach to reading Aquinas on virtue therefore yields a promising new way into the riches of his account” (68).

Aquinas on Virtue: A Causal Reading is a welcome contribution to the ongoing conversation on virtue ethics, and Aquinas’s own treatment of virtue in his moral theology. Those interested in this discussion, and those who are looking for an accessible text for their classroom would do well to add this book to their libraries.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Daniel Lendman is a doctoral student in Systematic Theology at Ave Maria Univeristy.

Date of Review: 
January 15, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

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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