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Nature And Grace by Aquinas

Article Six Whether Charity is the Most Excellent of the Virtues

Whether Charity is the Most Excellent of the Virtues

We proceed to the sixth article thus:

1. It seems that charity is not the most excellent of the virtues. For the virtue of a higher power is the higher, just as its operation is the higher, and the intellect is a higher power than the will. It follows that faith, which is in the intellect, is more excellent than charity, which is in the will.

2. Again, that by means of which another thing works would seem to be inferior to it. A servant through whom his master acts, for example, is inferior to his master. Now Gal.5:6 says that |faith worketh by love.| It follows that faith is more excellent than charity.

3. Again, what is additional to something would seem to be more perfect. Now hope seems to be additional to charity, since the object of charity is the good, while the object of hope is arduous good. It follows that hope is more excellent than charity.

On the other hand: I Cor.13:13 says: |the greatest of these is charity.|

I answer: human actions are good in so far as they are regulated by their proper rule. Human virtue therefore consists in the attainment of the rule of human actions, since it is the principle of good actions. We have already said in Art.3 that the rule of human actions is twofold -- human reason and God. But God is the first rule of human actions, and human reason must be ruled by him. The theological virtues consist in the attainment of the first rule, since their object is God. It follows that they are more excellent than the moral and intellectual virtues, which consist in the attainment of human reason. The most excellent of the theological virtues, further, must be that which attains God the most perfectly.

Now what exists through itself is always greater than what exists only through something else. Faith and hope attain God through learning the truth from him, and through receiving some good from him. But charity attains God so as to rest in God, not through receiving something from him. Charity is therefore more excellent than faith and hope, and consequently more excellent also than all other virtues. Prudence is similarly more excellent than the other moral virtues, since it attains reason through itself, whereas the others attain reason only through reason itself determining the mean in actions and passions.

On the first point: the operation of the intellect is completed when the thing understood is in him who understands. The excellence of its operation is therefore measured by the intellect itself. But the operation of the will, and also of any appetitive power, is completed when the subject is inclined to something as an end. The excellence of its operation is therefore measured by the object sought. Now as the Book on Causes maintains (props.12, 20), when one thing exists in another thing, it does so according to the mode of the thing in which it exists. Hence anything which is lower than the soul must exist in the soul in a mode higher than that in which it exists by itself. But anything which is higher than the soul must exist by itself in a mode higher than that in which it exists in the soul. It follows that knowledge of things beneath us is more excellent than love of them. This is the reason why the philosopher places the intellectual virtues above the moral virtues in 6 Ethics 7 and 12. But love of things higher than ourselves is more excellent than knowledge of them. This is especially true of love to God. Charity is therefore more excellent than faith.

On the second point: faith does not use charity as an instrument, which is the way in which a master uses his servant, but as its own form. The reasoning is therefore false.

On the third point: it is the same good which is the object of charity and of hope. But charity implies union with its object, whereas hope implies distance from it. This is the reason why charity does not look upon the good as arduous, as does hope. The good is not arduous for charity, since charity is already one with it. It is thus clear that charity is more excellent than hope.

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