An Introduction to Philosophy for Deacons: Issue #10

(The following are the written notes/texts of four, three hour, online session presentations given in the months of February through May in A.D. 2018.  A similar set of presentations was given to a previous group some years earlier.  The group consisted of diaconal aspirants, spouses, and diocesan officials of the Diocese of Pueblo in Colorado, United States.  The fifteen articles found here will include thirteen specific philosophical issues, covered in those four online sessions.)


Let us now turn attention to the tenth issue: the rediscovery of Aristotelian Realism and Ethics



The Medieval Period, the Middle Ages (c. A.D. 500 to 1200) ends with the rediscovery of Aristotle’s realism.

Due to Augustine’s appropriation of Platonic idealism, Christianity takes a neo-Platonic turn, developing social and political structures which emphasize an immaterial spirituality; things such as God and angels and heaven and prayer.

One manifestation of this neo-Platonic turn is the development of the monastic movement; which represents the choices of many to remove themselves from the work-a-day world to a world which is closer to heaven and God.

However, the occupants of the monasteries are still very much human and need to fill their time.  In addition to food production and prayer, many are involved in the discovery, repair, copying, and preservation of extant texts.

Among those texts preserved are the writings of Aristotle.  Christianity’s turn away from Aristotelian realism and toward Platonic idealism is the means by which Aristotle’s realism is saved for future generations.


Thomas Aquinas:

  • Rediscovers the writings of Aristotle
  • Thomas uses Aristotle’s methods and philosophical concepts to investigate theological matters.
  • The rediscovery of Aristotelian realism will lead to the birth of modern science.
  • Thomas uses Aristotelian social and political concepts to create new ideas and attitudes toward issues of political power, government, and law.
  • And very important is his use of Aristotle to expand upon ideas of Saint Augustine to formulate a Natural Law theory.

Natural Law theory

  • Consistent and compatible with a contingent view of human nature (down-to-earth)(feet on the ground).
  • Consistent and compatible with both the incarnation focus of Roman Catholicism and its faith based soteriological concepts.
  • There are four types of Law: eternal, natural, positive, and divine.
  • The manner in which Thomas discusses these indicates that he, Saint Thomas, fully believes that morality and politics must have human happiness as their focus and must always take into account the changing nature of human contingencies.
    • Eternal Law:  is the plan of God’s wisdom, found in the “mind” of God, by which God is involved in and directs all action and all motion of creation. 
    • Natural Law:  are fundamental inclinations placed by God in the minds of all persons.  Persons become aware of these good inclinations by means of reason directed by the Holy Spirit.  Natural Law is awareness of those aspects of eternal law which apply to human being and action.  Participation in and adherence to the natural law leads persons to their proper ends/goals.
    • Positive Law:  refers to the human ability to use reason to apply aspects of the natural law to social, political, and moral affairs.  (The word Positive is derived from the Latin word posit meaning “he puts/places”.  Sometimes Positive Law is called, somewhat inadequately, Human Law or Civil Law.)
    • Divine Law: refers to special announcements of revelation such as the 10 Commandments or Magisterial pronouncements which seek to fill holes present in positive law.
        • The need for Divine Law is exemplified in Jesus’ parable of the “Weeds Among the Wheat” (Matthew 13:24-30).  Along this line, Aquinas points out that if a lawgiver or law enforcer were too rigid, the application of law would do more harm than good.  Thomas points out that if every evil were legislated against, much harm would be done.  This is Thomas’ way of saying human nature is contingent, messy, broken, and that the lawgiver and law enforcer must make accommodations for those limitations.
  • Sensitivity to human nature as it actually is, will lead Aquinas to articulate (ST, I of II, Q19) his famous articulation of freedom of conscience; the right of the individual to follow his or her own well informed conscience, even when the dictates of that conscience are at odds with civil and/or ecclesial law.



Five hundred years after Saint Thomas, Immanuel Kant will articulate ideas already percolating in western culture between the times of Aquinas and Kant.

Among these Kantian ideas is that morality should not be based upon nor accommodate the contingent, messy, incarnational, actual, down-to-earth, earthy ways of human nature.  Morality should be based on a priori synthetic propositions, which apply to all situations for all humans at all times.

Kant is a return to Platonism.  The un-earthly, non-human, ideal moral ideas of Kant bare a resemblance to the neo-Platonic Christianity of the Medieval/Middle Ages period, to the Platonism adopted by Augustine and to the idealism of Plato.

One manifestation of that Platonic adoption is that morality should be based on ideal concepts of law and morality.  Therefore, a Natural Law based morality, such as that of Aquinas, is to be rejected for two reasons (which we saw earlier):

  • Thomas Natural Law moral theory asks us to be realistic, down-to-earth, and to take into consideration the ever present aspects of human contingency.  Thomas’ morality is an incarnation reality.  Like Jesus, Thomas’ morality seeks to be fully immersed in the actual real human condition; not to have the human condition perfected as a condition for God to enter human history.  Kant rejects such a contingency based morality because such a morality can never be infallibly formalized.
  • Only ideal a priori synthetic ideas, like the algorithms governing an idealized right triangle, can obtain the necessary universality to be right in every instance.  To base morality on nature is to base morality on entities which, like the shapes of actual triangular forms, can never be universally uniform.

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