St. Thomas’s Philosophical Account of Human Psychology

Many centuries on psychology didn’t have the status of an independent science. It developed within philosophy and used research methods of the latter. And while solving philosophic problems, psychology worked out its own range of problems. Hence it is very important to study psychological views of philosophers through the ages of human history. In this way we can trace the genesis of modern problems, understand how psychological views change and eventually make forecasts for future.

The Roman Catholic Church Priest Saint Thomas Aquinas, also known as Thomas of Aquin (1225-1274), was also a great philosopher and scholastic theologian. His ideas gave birth to a philosophic movement referred as Thomism. He is still a significant and reputable figure in the Western thought authorized as a master of dialog with different cultures, an author deeply analyzing human reason and particularly the problem of voluntariness and consciousness of man’s deeds.

St. Thomas’s ethics was expressed in his central work Summa Theologica (1265”“1274). The work is built in the form of questions and answers. The second part is the Treatise on Happiness and the Treatise on Human Acts, where the author scrutinizes the character of human supreme happiness and those actions which provide a man with happiness. St. Thomas Aquinas observes the nature of voluntary deeds, virtue and vice of human actions on the whole. In this work the author states that man’s flourishing and development takes places when a person commits some holistic actions according to the intellectually approved and affectionate will.

From the work of Aquinas we understand that human happiness doesn’t consist in carnal pleasures, honors, fame, wealth, mundane power or hedonic enjoyments, it doesn’t have sensual origin.

Human life is coordinated by some specific force, intention, “inner word” which provides each action of cognition with certain direction.

Having reason and freedom of will, man becomes responsible for what he does, as he is able to choose from good and evil, no blind fate, or fatum hangs over him. According to St. Thomas, reason has primacy over will, and we are not able to wish anything that was not admitted by reason. The goal is chosen by reason: first you know, then you wish, and the will can be primary if it is sent by God and interpreted by soul.

To explain this, St. Thomas introduced the concept of “first principles of action”[1]. On the base of the ancient Greek philosophy St. Thomas Aquinas stated 4 cardinal virtues: prudence, justice, restraint or temperance, and fortitude. Prudence means care, caution, good sense of judging revealed during decision-making in some situation. Justice is ability to find a balance between one’s own self-interest and good for others. Temperance means to resist the temptation, to practice self-control against desires, to abstain. Finally, fortitude is courage, spiritual strength to withstand calamities, to overcome fears and hesitations. These virtues are considered to be of natural kind ”“ resulting in natural law, which is human part in the eternal law perceived by reason. Meanwhile there are 3 supernatural virtues, called theological (associated with salvation): faith, hope and charity. Faith is implicit trust and confidence with what we believe in. Hope stands for a feeling of submissive anticipation, longing for something to rake place. And charity is a disinterested assistance given to somebody in need. The main rule arising from these statements is to do good and to avoid evil. The supreme good of a man is called happiness. The later comes as an action conducted according to the perfect virtue and incarnates the Supreme will.

St. Thomas underlines that people cannot be happy without following Divine Grace. Only wishes and actions coming from Grace of God can bring happiness. Still it is not absolutely achievable in earth life, but we can come closer to it fostering those virtues[2].

Apart from that there are also theoretical intellectual virtues: wisdom (sophia), science, empirical knowledge (episteme) and intuitive understanding (nous); practical intellectual virtues ”“ prudence (phronesis); and productive intellectual virtues ”“ art, craft (techne). Here Thomas claims that “the intellectual virtues are habits by which the soul expresses the truth”[3].

There is a certain codex of behavior which is considered to be correct and resulting in harmony and ultimate happiness, but St. Thomas stresses that when a person has a choice how to behave we need to take to account both situation and person’s intentions within it. These two factors observed determine the moral value of an action. Specific case is killing in self-defense and justification of war. The latter can be justified when it is waged under the guidance of a ruler with high authority, when the enemy is truly to blame and deserves reprisal, and finally those who attack must bear good intentions in the end, for the victory of good or prevention of evil.

In this way perfect happiness can not be reached by moral actions, but the actions based on moral virtues serve as media to supreme understanding of good and God. Meanwhile divine grace doesn’t avoid evil, fortuity, freedom of will, luck and happiness. Evil is caused by secondary reasons like those experienced by a genius artist working with bad instruments.

And as for the freedom of will, it is just what can define whether one will be happy or not. Through individual practice we study what is good and what is evil, what consequences come after these or those actions, what we feel through different models of behavior, and cognitive experience influences our soul. Therefore inside of us the understanding expressed in virtues is built, and when we act against them we suffer. The conflict between what we do and what we should do brings pain to our soil, and that is why we cannot reach happiness. To avoid this pain, we have our feelings and intellect to gain natural cognition. While feeling give us information from material world, our intellect is able to understand those entities which abstracted from material objects through intellectual speculation. Intellect expands our cognition, exceeds senses, as it can percept a thing generally, in its generic essence. The intellect has several ranges, and each goes farther and farther from the material nature of objects, from spatiotemporal sphere of existence. And through this way of abstraction we can eventually come to cognition of God, the supreme and ultimate goal of being, and the supreme happiness too.

All in all, the main thing we possess is freedom of choice, due to which we often feel unhappy, as it is very difficult to behave right.

Moreover, it is hard to know what is right and what is wrong, but we should work to improve ourselves and develop the basic virtues which promise us the way to the true understanding and attainment of happiness. And we should remember the words of St. Thomas that happiness is secured through virtue; it is a good attained by man’s own will[4].

[1] See Aquinas, II-I, q.3, a.1

[2] See Aquinas, II-I, q. 109, a.10

[3] See Aquinas, II-I, q.57

[4] See Aquinas, II-I, q.5, a.5

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