This is the second of a series of posts on what we’re calling the ‘narrative’ conception of personhood in St. Thomas Aquinas’s Treatise on Happiness (in the Summa Theologicae, Ia IIae qq. 1-5). (The first can be found here.) Recall that in the first question of the Treatise, Aquinas makes three claims about the final end (or meaning) of the human person, the first of which we’ll discuss in this post:
- Every person has a final end that gives intentional or practical unity to their lives (q. 1, a. 3-4).
- Every person has exactly one final end (q. 1, a. 5).
- Every individual person has the same final end as every other individual person (q. 1, a. 7)
The argument for (1) is based on the idea that, as Georg Wieland puts it, “the person is a dispositional essence” (“Happiness” (Ia IIae, qq. 1-5)” in The Ethics of Aquinas (Georgetown UP, 2002), p. 59). Persons act deliberately and voluntarily. When we act this way–when we knowingly choose to do something–we are doing something for a reason, and that reason makes our action intelligible as one kind of action rather than another. As Aquinas puts it, “moral acts properly speaking receive their species from the end” (q. 1, a. 3). Now keep in mind that, as Aquinas moves from claim (1) to claim (3), he’s moving from a claim about individuals–from the claim that every individual aims at some ultimate end or other–to a claim that all human beings in fact have the same end, both general (happiness) and particular (deformity). Claim (3) will thus allow us to judge whether someone’s individual character, derived from the particular ultimate end they aim at, is in conformity with the ends of their nature as a human being–their personhood–but more on that later.
Let’s motivate claim (1) with an example. If Max shaves his head, he must have had a reason for doing so that explains and gives meaning to his baldness. Perhaps he shaved his head so that it will better reflect light and make him more noticeable at night as he rides his bicycle. In that case, Max’s head is (as he intended it to be) a safety device. But we don’t have to be Max to know that his shaving has meaning. When we see Max’s newly shorn head, we may well wonder how to interpret his head: has Max become a racist, or joined a gang? Is he about to undergo chemotherapy? So long as his shaved head is the result of his own deliberate action (rather than something that happened to him while he was asleep, say), Max’s head has a definite meaning derived from the goal Max had in mind when he shaved his skull, and that is of practical importance when we’re gauging how we’re supposed to react to Max’s makeover.
Our actions and our lives, Aquinas argues, are somewhat like Max’s head. Our lives have a practical unity, which we call our character, and the meaning of that unity is derived from the final end at which our lives aim, just the meaning of Max’s head is derived from Max’s intention when he shaved it. This is so because our final end orders or arranges all the actions we choose as a means to that goal. This is what makes for a single, unified series of actions–in the way that the scenes of a story are part of a unified narrative–rather than a disparate series of coincident events. Just as the plot of a story allows us to understand how its individual parts relate to one another as an intelligible whole, so likewise do we only understand the unified meaning of Max’s getting out the clippers, shaving his head, and smirking as he appraises himself in the mirror when we know why he was inclined to shave his head.
So too does our character allow us to understand how the events of our lives form a practical whole. Consider the fact that we have multiple possible actions available to us at any given time: reading philosopystone, saving the world from the minions of Dr. Evil. We cannot do them all simultaneously. We must prioritize among our ends, and choose which one seems best. But which one? Subjectively speaking, the action that appears most choiceworthy to us will depend on our character, on our acquired disposition to see and interpret the world in some ways rather than others. A crook will see opportunities in a jewelry store that a love-struck girl of marriageable age will not, and vice versa. The fact that we easily and regularly choose reading philosophystone over saving the world (say) is explained by our character. Gluttons regularly choose food over justice, cleaning out the buffet while those behind them in line go hungry; fools regularly choose amusement over seriousness, eventually rendering themselves incapable of engaging in serious thought, even when such thought is called for (e.g., at election time). Now human beings have a relatively fixed nature, as does our environment. We can reasonably assume that other human beings are going to desire food, love, honor, power, and knowledge, and given the multiplicity of goods available at any given moment, are going to make choices privileging some of these goods over others throughout their lives. (Very few people, for example, never struggle with their diet, or their sexuality, or their work ethic.) These choices display patterns, and as those patterns become second nature (what Aquinas calls a habitus, a virtue or vice), they give unity and intelligiblity to one’s life insofar as they explain it, identifying its causes.
Aquinas goes so far as to argue that our lives will have an intelligible order, a character, even if we are not ourselves aware of what this character is, or at what end we ultimately aim (q. 1, aa. 6-7). That’s a bit like arguing that every college student has a major even if not all college students are aware of what their major is. We’ll discuss this more in a later post when we discuss what I call the Objection from Mystery to Aquinas’s narrative conception of the person. For a quick illustration of the idea, however, recall that when Dante goes to Hell in the Inferno, he learns that although some souls are surprised by the circle they are place in (some are not), it’s still true every soul chose its circle–its character–in the course of its life. Like heaven, hell is the final interpretation of a person, when a soul receives in purity what it most desired, clearly or obscurely, in life. (C.S. Lewis makes much the same point in The Great Divorce.)
Two interesting philosophical asides.
- Aside #1: That final causes make motion intelligible is just as true of intentional action as of unintentional action. It is possible to understand why someone is at the grocery store buying eggs only if one knows the end he has in view: baking a cake, say, or committing teenage vandalism. Likewise, it is possible to understand why some metals conduct electricity only by knowing that conductivity is a standard (rather than chance) effect of running electricity through those metals. Particular efficient causes are only intelligible as efficient causes because they are directed towards some ranges of effects and not others. (See one of Ed Feser’s excellent blog posts on the topic here.) Efficient causality presupposes final causality and is incoherent without it. Miss that point of Thomistic metaphysics, and you’ll end up as confused about billiard balls as Hume was in Enquiry 4-5.
- Aside #2: Attentive readers may note similarities between Aquinas’s arguments here about needing an ultimus finis as a condition for the possibility of attributing intentional unity to a human life and Immanuel Kant’s defense of causality as a transcendental concept required for distinguishing between an objective and subjective order in experience in the Second Analogy in The Critique of Pure Reason, that is, for distinguishing a series of changes happening to one person from a series of changes happening to one object. Perhaps we can use that as grist for a future post.