Nicholas AUSTIN, Aquinas on Virtue: A Causal Reading, Moral Traditions series. Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 2017. 233 pp., $34.95 paper. ISBN: 978-1-62616-473-4. Reviewed by Steve W. LEMKE, New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, New Orleans, LA  70126.


            The author, Nicholas Austin, S.J., teaches theological ethics at Heythrop College of the University of London. His dissertation focused on Aquinas’ approach to the cardinal virtue of temperance. In this work, the author expands that discussion to a broader examination of Aquinas’ virtue ethic. The hermeneutical prism through which Austin interprets Aquinas’ virtue ethic is Aristotle’s paradigm for causation (first, formal, material, efficient, and final causes). Austin negotiates among the tensions within contemporary virtue ethics by considering both the philosophical and theological aspects of Aquinas’ ethic, by attending to both Aquinas’ classical commentators and contemporary commentators, and by balancing an interest in both the history and relevance of Aquinas’ ethics.

            Austin illustrates his causal reading of Aquinas’ virtue ethic by analyzing the virtue of temperance in light of Aristotle’s five aspects of causation. Since Aristotle defines virtue as a habit, it is important to distinguish any habit from a virtuous one. Aquinas distinguishes his sense of ethical habitus by defining it as a disposition that is stable, operative, valent, and is directed to fulfilling one’s nature, applying prudential reasoning.

            The author then unpacks the details of Aquinas’ virtue ethic, clarifying Aquinas’ somewhat technical definitions of the various components of the causal reading of Aquinas – the exemplar, the object, the agent, and the end. Austin explicates some points in Aquinas’ thought about which some of his interpreters find to be unclear or even potentially contradictory. Austin explains how this is a rational virtue ethic, utilizing the object or mode to apply Aristotle’s classic principle of the golden mean. The formal and material causes help to specify what is virtuous. However, it is also a passionate ethic in that the subjective passions and will (even the irascible and concupiscible appetites) can play a role in identifying what is virtuous. This raises the obvious question of whether objective rationality or subjective appetites are the primary tool for determining what is virtuous. While some interpreters lean either way, Austin utilizes some important distinctions articulated by Aquinas to propose a “moderate spontaneity view” which is neither fully rational nor spontaneous. The passions can have a participative rationality as they are informed by reason, which rules over the passions with a political rather than despotic authority. The passions which contribute to virtue are consequent to reason rather than antecedent to it.

            The efficient and final causes help in the execution of ethics by revealing the end or target of an act. The end must be consistent with the “good use” thesis, that is, that the end is consistent with the good operation of a person’s nature. The good use theory only applies to unqualified virtue. In this area, ethicists debate the case study of a courageous Nazi who exemplifies the virtue of courage but directs it toward a wrong end. From Aquinas’ perspective, the Nazi is not virtuous because its final cause is not directed toward the good.

            Applying Aquinas’ ethic to theological ethics is unique because it introduces the element of grace rather than the deliberative process that characterizes much of Aquinas’ ethic. Aquinas speaks of the theological virtues as being “infused” only by grace at the point of justification. This raises the question if a pagan can be genuinely virtuous. Aquinas’ response is that a pagan can practice the virtues to some degree, but never fully without grace. The challenge to Aquinas’ perspective is the reality that theological virtues seem to improve in persons over time rather than fully appearing at the point of justification. Austin proposes a “concurrentist” reading in which God provides the capacity for the theological virtues through justification, but the participation of the individual is required for full expression of the virtues. In the end, it is love that orients a person’s virtues toward their proper end in God.

            Aquinas on Virtue: A Causal Reading is an elegant, thoughtful examination of Aquinas’ virtue ethic. This is not a work for non-specialists; its distinctions require a layered knowledge of virtue ethics. This review could only survey the surface level of the concepts presented much more richly in the book. However, the scholar interested in virtue ethics will find this volume informative and interesting. Highly recommended.