Morality And Reason in Thomas Aquinas Philosophy:A Critical Analysis


Aquinas was born (1224/25-74), of the family of the counts of Aquino, at the castle of Roccasecca, near Naples in the winter. He received his early education at Monte Cassino and the University of Naples. He joined the Dominican friars when he was nineteen, and studied under Albert the Great in Paris for three years. From 1248 to 1252 he collaborated with Albert in the foundation of a Dominican Institute of General Studies. Subsequently he lectured as Dominican professor in Paris until 1259.

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He summarized those lectures in his first work, De entre et essentia (on Being and essence), a work in which the fundamentals of his philosophical synthesis were already established even at this early stage of his career. He was then called to lecture at the papal count in Italy, where he met William of Moerbeke, the translator. He lectured again in Paris from 1268 to 1272 at a time of polemical opposition from the seculars, the Latin Averriosts and the traditionalist Augustinians. He was then called and appointed to lecture at the new general house of studies in Naples from 1272 to 1274, the year of his death.

Among his writings, we may mention the following works,  having a special place in the history of philosophy: : commentaries on the sentences (1256); De principiis nature, De ente et essentia, ‘De veritate”, Quaestiones quodlibetales, summa contra Gentiles, De potentia, De regimine principum; commentraries on Aristotle’s metaphysics, physics, nicomachean ethics, De Anima and politics; De aeternitate mundi, De unitate inteletus, De Malo, De Spiritualibus creatures, Quaestio dispulata de anima; commentaries on De causis, De coelo and De genertione et corruptione; summa theoloigica (or summa theologiae; 1265-73) and a compendium theologiae which he was unable to complete before his death.

In his works, he separated the true Aristotle from the Arabic interpretations. He also corrected Aristotle by a profound application of Aristotle’s own principles. Thus, for example, in his commentary on the metaphysics (XII), Aquinas shows clearly that God knows not only himself but the world also. This implies that God knows all things. He transformed the thought of Aristotle and achieved a revolutionary change of thought in the Christian philosophy and theology of the thirteenth century.

Aquinas sees God as subsistent Being, ipsum esse subsisteus, and he sees every created thing as receiving its limited esse from subsistent esse. It is being that is grasped in every experience. If is always being which is the primum notum. Everything is intelligible through being. It is being which dominates intelligence and specifies it etc metaphysics is the science of being.

Faith and Reason: Theology considers objects as known by the light of divine revelation, whereas philosophy considers objects ‘as they are knowledge by the light of reason’. Thus, for example, philosophy studies man’s final end as knowledge by reason, while theology studies man’s final end as known through divine revelation. In actual fact, man’s final end is supernational beatitude, but no philosopher can divine by reason alone that man is called to a supernatural beatitude transcending the power of human nature. For Aristotle, we discover by reason alone (unaided by faith) that man’s final end is human happiness.

Faith and reason have their own respective juridical domains. Nevertheless they do not contradict each other. Truths of faith and truths of reason derive from the same origin, God, who is Truth itself. The truths of the two domains are fundamentally in accord and they can be used harmoniously, either directly or indirectly in the construction of a Christian philosophy and theology.

Faith renders a valuable service to reason by healing, liberating and elevating the mind in its natural funtionings. Grace does not destroy reason but rather perfects it. Reason, in turn, renders a valuable service to faith by the role which it plays in apologetics, in theology, in polemics, or the refutation of objections raised against the truths of faith.

The metaphysical order of finite beings: The science of metaphysics or first philosophy is concerned with being as being. It commences with our experience of being. Among the immediate and undeniable data of our everyday experience we encounter everywhere and continually a multiplicity of different kings of individual beings: persons, animals, plants and inanimate being. Each individual (such as myself, for example) shows certain characteristics: unity, autonomy, complexity and dependency on others. Each individuals are ‘being’ and each is ‘being such’; each is one and multiple at the same time. This experience of the multiple modes of reality leads to the discovery that each such being is composed of a constitutive co-principle of perfection (esse: quo est) in virtue of which a substance is called a being, and a constitutive co-principle of limitation (essentia; quo est tale), ‘in virtue of which it is such – and such a being’. In a substantial change, the substance of a thing is completely changed to another substance. For example, when a man dies, his body eventually change into dust and so there is a substantial change from flesh to dust. But when he puts on weight or   loses weight, or again when he gets taller or becomes lighter in complexion, his body undergoes accidental changes. Colour or position is also accidental change. Yet there remains in the process of change an underlying indeterminate substrate of change, which Aristotle called ‘prime matter’. In this case, one substantial form gives way to another substantial form which informs the prime matter’. Prime matter is the potentiality to received various forms, the potentiality to  become anything.

Aquinas maintained that it is in accordance with reason that there is the hierarchical gradation of beings, and in between the human being and God, a distinct class of finite, incorporeal, spiritual forms, such as ‘angels’, or intelligences. Beings of this kind have no primary matter and, hence, no principle of individuation within a species. Each angel, then, is totally its own species, differing in kind from others. Beings are similar by their virtues of principle of perfection and different by virtues of the principle of limitation.

Quinque Viae: Aquinas points out that while the proposition ‘God is’, or “Absolute Being is’, is one which is self-evident in itself (since the predicate is included in the subject),  it is one which is not self evident to us. For Aquinas the human intellect is unable to discern, in an a priori way, the positive possibility of the supremely perfect being whose essence is existence itself. The human intellect, must first come to know in a posteriori way the fact that perfect being is.

The intellect abstract’s the idea of being from any experience of any being whatsoever. It is an idea whose extension is unlimited and transcendental. The totality of all reality cannot  depend on anything outside itself, since there is nothing outside itself. It must be independent, absolute and unconditioned.

Aquinas listed five ways in which the mind can proceed from a knowledge of limited being as effects to absolute, infinite being as their cause.

  1. From our experience of motion or passive coming to be. Anything that moves, moves from potency to act. But a being in potency cannot bring itself to act (which is lacks). It therefore needs a being already in the state of act to bring it from potency to act.
  2. From cause: we observe also in the world that one thing causes another, and this very cause is also caused by another, and so on. Again the causal series cannot continue ad infinitum There must be a beginning, a first cause who is Himself uncaused. This first, uncaused cause, is what all men call God.
  • From the Contingency of Beings: All the beings in this world are contingent; they come and go. They come into existence and eventually perish and cease to exist. They may and may not exist. Tshis imply that, they are not necessary beings. This show that there must be a Necessary Being who is responsible for the coming into being, that Necessary Being is God.
  1. From the Degree of Perfection: We know from observation that things have various degrees of perfection. One thing is better than another. Another one is in turn better than the second, and so on. The same is true of beauty, truth and etc. If there is good, there is better, then best, one being perfect than another etc. There most be the most perfect being, the supreme goodness, and the source of all perfection. This is what we call God.
  2. From order: We see that there is order and harmony in the universe. Everything is working toward an end purpose. There must be an Intelligent Being who order all things. That Being is what we called God.
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Man’s knowledge of God: Aquinas said that it is impossible for us know the essence of God and also it is impossible for us to know what is God. because our sense perception is limited to the five sense. God is transcendental but the human sense is not. We can only form the idea of God, but we can never really come to know his nature, we can get nearer to forming the right idea of it. For example, we can remove from the concept of God the elements of corporeality, limitation, potentiality, mutability, imperfection, and etc; all of which are characteristic of creatures. We can then say that God is not corporeal, he is not material, not limited etc. These are what we mean when we say that God is an immaterial or spiritual being, that He is infinite, immutable, not subject to space nor time etc. hence he is simple, spiritual and outside the realm of space and time. Thus in this negative way, we get nearer to forming the right idea of God. There are certain positive attributes which are predicated of human beings but which are par excellence the attributes of God shared in a limited way by creatures. Such attribute are justice, wisdom, goodness, life, being, beauty, power and etc. They predicated on human beings and God. God is life itself, God is not simply a being, but a being itself and etc. We can know all these attribute by our sense experience. We can not really know God’s nature, essence etc.

Continuous creation: Thomas view the world as being depended continuously upon God, the Absolute Being. According to Aquinas, the purpose of creation must be God’s already existing infinite perfection, insofar as He wishes to communicate it through finite participation.

In De Malo, Aquinas asserts that evil, as Plotinus and Augustine had seen, is a privation of goodness, of perfection, in being or in action. The Thomistic doctrine says that evil is like  a being. Any physical evils, as for example may physical injuries, arise from human immoral behaviour. God does not will these but merely permits them for the sake of greater good.

Psychology: It is the principle of all man’s rational, sensitive and vegetative operations. The human composite has several faculties or power of operation. It has the vegetative powers of nutrition, growth and reproduction, and also the sensitive powers of external and internal senses, the power of locomotion and the power of sensitive appetite.

The highest human power is the faculty of intellection. It is grounded in the nature of the human soul or spirit.

In Aquinas’ days the Latin Averroists held that the intellect is a substance distinct from the soul and common to all men. Aquinas pointed out that the “intellectual lives, and activities of different men differ from one man to another and that the functions of the intellect is totally under control of the individual human being”1.

Knowledge of Reality: According to Aquinas, this is knowledge of being and of the modalities of being. The human being obtain his knowledge of being or reality through his experiences of the data of reality.

Corporeal realities obtrude themselves upon the sense organs of the human composite. They are sensed and imaged as particular beings. Aquinas calls the imaged, particular representation of the object, the expressed sensible species, or the phantasm.

All our experiences, whether objective or lived experiences, are experiences of being they are experiences of something real (caliquid); ‘this’ thing.

Ethics: Thomas Aquinas is basically Aristotelian but with a Christian orientation. He agrees with Aristotle that all human activities are directed towards good, and that man’s highest good is the intellectual contemplation of the highest object i.e. God. Aquinas is talking of the beatific vision of God in heaven, not only by philosophers but even by simpleminded people who lived good lives during their earthly existence. For Aristotle the highest of good of man is the philosophical contemplation of God by philosopher here on earth.

St. Thomas assigns an important role in morality to reason. This will unfold latter.

Political Theory: Aquinas stresses that the “purpose of the state is to provide for temporal peace and welfare”2.

Man is by nature a social being , and therefore social government or the state, is natural to man. Men attain their national end through cooperation. This is evidenced in men’s use of language and in their division of labour. The necessity for authority in society is based, then, on the social nature of man. It is God who is the author and creator of human nature and so it is God himself who is the author of the exigency in human nature for sovereign social governance and leadership. The state is a natural society in the sense that man’s nature demands it.

Concluding comments: The original and profound synthesis of thought achieved in the written work of Thomas Aquinas is the product of a brilliant philosophers-theologian. It is a synthesis which is a Christian synthesis. In this, it resembles, but surpasses, the synthesis of Christian wisdom produced in the patristic period and in the works of Augustine, Anselm, Albert, Bonaventure and the ‘Augustinian’ philosopher-theologians. The basic attitude is that of Christian faith seeking deeper understanding of Christian wisdom (fides quaveras intellectum). Aquinas adapted the insight of the newly-translated Aristotelian and other Greek and Arabic text to his own exposition of a Christian philosophical-theological world-view.



As with most of the words that have fallen into common use, morality has  various meanings. Thus philosophers and other thinkers have attempted to define it from their individual point of view. There is yet no particular definition that have received universal acceptance.

This word morality in its etymology which is of Latin origin, derives from the word ‘mores’ – meaning custom or habit. One would notice that in its contemporary usage and application, the meaning has branched away from the original derivative word.


Definition of Morality

As I. P. Anozie would hold, “morality is the science of what man ought to do by the reason of what man ought to be”3

The question now is, what is man and what ought he to be? Man has been defined as a rational animal. If this really is the definition of man, then man ought to be rational animal and ought to behave rationally; in which case we see that morality has some foundation in man as man. But if not the reverse becomes the case. For P. Green, morality stand as the quality where by a human act measure up to what it should be as a step to the objective last end of human action or fails to measure up.

Fagothey in his own view defined morality as “the quality in human acts, by which we call them right or wrong, good or bad. It is a sign of a human act without specifying which of the two is meant”4

According to Murray, morality is a quality of human acts by reason of which we call some good and some others evil. From these two last definitions we see that morality embraces all that can be called human acts quality; without noticing which one is good and which one is evil. So when the word “moral” is employed in a sentence, without the objective good or ‘bad’. The meaning becomes vague. But people most often take the term to mean the positive. Thus when we say John is a moral man or that he lives and moral life, we may take it to mean that John is a good virtuous life. Whatever the case may be, morality deals with both the good and the bad aspects of human actions without specification.

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Having given the definition of morality, let us look at the various notions people hold of it.

It will be fallaciosus to believe that everyone will hold a uniform notion of morality, hence this Latin dictum, “Tot homunes quest sentenao” – these are many notions as there are people. To start with, many people reserve to and associate morality with the church, this since it is the business of the church and her members. Those people who do not belong to any church sect, feel that they are of morality. Morality has its formulation in man as man. In the light of this, every human being ought to be moral, and under moral obligations.

Fagothy saw morality in the light of human relationship in a civilized political life. No wonder he point out that “morality is  the product of civilized life, which necessarily entails political organization”5.

We see from this expose, that morality is essentially concerned with human relationship, how men ought to behave towards one another and the general vices ad principles governing that relationship. This morality is an indispensable factor for a healthy society.

In this vein also, Thomas Hobbes pointed out that:

The province of morality is limited to those qualities of mankind that concern their living together in peace and unity”6


In Hobbes’ view, morality characterizes healthy and ordered society where the members live harmoniously. Now we shall take a brief look at some of the moral theories.

Platonism: This is a moral theory propounded by Plato. All that he said in this, can be epitomized as, “knowledge is morality”. For him people act virtuously because they have the knowledge of the good life and those who act evilly are ignorant of the good life. He strongly believed that if one knows the right thing, he will not do otherwise. But the problem is to discern what the right thing is, or what he called “the good”. To this, he answered:

“Finding the nature of the good life is an intellectual task very similar to the discovery of mathematical truth7.

He believed that anyone can discover the goal of life if he has attended a reasonable intellectual capacity. He opined that one can reach such intellectual ability of realizing the good, if he is carefully schooled in such disciplines as mathematics, philosophy and etc. It will be helpful to clarify what Plato meant by “evil is due to lack of knowledge”. To do this, we will rely on Popkin and his colleagues who sufficiently put it in the following words:

“Plato did not maintain that one must have knowledge in other to lead the good life. He “maintained only the weaker doctrine that if one did have knowledge he would lead the good life”8

In effect, Plato was only saying that knowledge is not only necessary but a sufficient means for knowing the good.


Aristotle with most other Greek philosophers, attempted to discover the real nature of the world by employing reason alone. This intellectual trait is more manifest in their metaphysics but is generally the facture of their philosophizing. In this Ethics, he did not only depend on reason, for the nature of the good, but as a realist, examined the daily behaviour and speeches of the people. From such examinations and perhaps speculations, he discovered that everyone aspires to live a happy life. For him the good life for man consists of happiness. Men ought then to behave in such a way as to achieve happiness.



This is sometime called HEDONISM. This is the moral theory about the good life for man propounded by Epicurus. For him man ought to do what he does in order to obtain plessures. But it has been found out that there are some pleasures that result in pain. Such pain-causing pleasures are alcoholism; gluttony, sexual pleasure, fame etc”, it is likely that one who surfeits himself with too much alcoholic drink will suffer headaches and stomach ailments, Gluttony will lead to indigestion and stomach upset and fame may be accompanied by all sorts of distress.

And again sexual pleasure is bad as it is accompanied by regrets, depression, fatigue or tiredness. All these are bad pleasures in that they lead to temporary satisfaction. The good life ought to be the one that ultimately result in pleasure which is the sole good for the Hedonists.



Cynicism as a moral theory tries to supply the answer to the question, what is the good life for a man? It does not show interest in man in the society but man as an individual. It is concerned with the single man; his development and salvation. To achieve this personal realization and salvation, one has to disengage himself from mundane and any kind of social ties-be it political, cultural, religion and otherwise. In fact cynicism holds that all the fruits civilization are worthless-government, private property, marriage, religion, slavery (in the Greek social order), luxury; and all artificial pleasures of the senses.9

All these are viewed as being retrogressive, leading up to a life of asceticism. We can then say that cynicism as a doctrine is anti-social since it concern itself with individual rather than with holistic social development and salvation. And also that it is anti-materialistic since it ignores the worldly goods-money, houses, cars and etc. Man’s involvement in these is seen as his destroyer. How man should attain this personal development independent of the world becomes a poser.

“To this, Popkin and his colleagues answered: If a man is to find salvation in the world, he must find it within himself – this is what virtue consists in, for the cynics”10



This is a moral theory propounded by Zeno. The basic tenet can be summed up thus:

“learn to be indifferent to the external infuences”11

For them one who is absorbed in these external things is never free. But their rejection salvages one and ensures his development. It is within the power of man to reject or accept the external happening. In fact they believed that ‘good or evil depends upon oneself’ as he has the will power to reject or accept things. In their view, other people have authority over me i.e. torturing, enslaving me and etc only, if I am not indifferent to these events. Thus one is free and independent of the world if he practices indifferences to the external events. In this state of indifferences be it in chaos or in perfect order, one can achieve personal salvation.



“Utilitarianism is all about the utility of the majority. Utilitarianism as a moral perspective states that:

An action is right in so far as it tends to produce the greatest happiness for the greatest number”12.

Thus if an action can produce the greatest pleasure or serve the interest of the largest number of people, it is right, otherwise it is wrong.

By identifying happiness with pleasure people like Bentham tried to interpret utilitarianism as a form of Hedonism but this is not the case with modern philosophers of utilitarianism.

Popkin and colleagues remarked that,

The essence of utilitarianism as a philosophy is that it lays stress upon the effects which an action has. If an action produces an excess of beneficial effects over harmful ones, then it is right, otherwise it is not.13

Obviously then, this theory stresses more, the consequences rather than the agent and the motive of the action. Hence a morally good person can perform an action that is undesirable.

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To people like Freud, morality is a matter of instinct. This is supportable by what he pointed out in his ‘psycho analytic theory’ that,

“Human behaviour and actions are determined by instincts”14

This is a mere reduction of man to an irrational level of animal.

To many scientists, morality is entirely a matter of organism heredity. But it must be observed that human behaviour does not end in instincts but emerges into more superior and refined order.

For Aquinas, morality rests on something more fundamental in man, that is reason. For him a human act is right if it tends to the end according to the order of reason but when it deviates from that rectitude it becomes  wrong. In a similar vein, M. Cronin saw morality as:

“The science of human conduct as according to human reason and as directed by reason towards man’s final natural ends”.15

M. Cronin sees human actions as being teleological (end-seeking). Also Aquinas’ entire moral theory is teleological seeking for the good or end of man. His Maxim.

“Bonum est faciendum et profequendum malum est vitandum”16

the good is to done and……

sought and evil to be avoided portrays the teleological character of his moral theory.


We talk of the nature of morality when we mean the specific qualities and characteristics which an act will possess, to be qualified as a moral act. To classify an act as moral then, those specific moral qualities and characteristics must be present in it; and to classify another as immoral these qualities must be apparently absent. It is the nature of beings. Two things need to be pointed out immediately. Firstly, that morality considers actions that are either good or bad. Secondly, they must be human actions. The lower animals have not got that power to distinguish between right and wrong as it is found in man. This power lies in the ability to think. It lies in human reason. Man would not have been moral or have the idea of morality, if he were deprived of reason.

Morality is associated with the acts which man performs. But it does not deal with every act that man performs. For the purposes of clarity we shall distinguish between the two different types of acts which man performs; the one he does consciously and the one that emanates unconsciously from him. These are otherwise called ‘human act’ (actus humanus) and act of human (actus hominis) respectively. By the act of man is meant, anything that man carried out involuntarily or unconsciously. For instance, breathing, winking the eye, somnambulism,and etc. It happens that man performs these acts, but he is not the master; meaning that he has not deliberately willed to perform and or control them. They are non-volitional acts.

In the words of Fagothey, by the human act is meant, as Thomas J. Higgins put it,

“the free deliberate act”,17. Going further in this distinction, D. J. O. Connor has this to say:

“actions are called human or moral in as much as they proceed from reason: being a rational animal entrants being a moral being and vice versa”18.

In his view morality and rationality are so tied together that when one is removed the other automatically loses its reason d’ etre so following his tend of thought it will be impossible for man to be rational, without being moral and vice versa; since one is indissolubly manced to the other. Rationality and morality where and co-exists in concordance.

St. Thomas Aquinas considered an act as human only when it is accomplished under the control of man’s intellect and will. Hence he remarked.

‘’Now we call an act human not which may be performed by man in anyway whatever for in some acts, plant, brutes and men share but which is proper to man. Now among other things, it is proper that he being the master of his acts. Consequently, any act of which he is the master is properly a human act; but not those acts over which man has no control even though they may take place in man, for example digestion and growth, and others of this sort”19

Aquinas might have concluded here that any other actions performed by man, outside those proper to him as man, or those that proceeded from his deliberate will, can be regarded as action of man.

So before an act is considered to be human, it must be characterized by either one of these three factors; deliberate choice, arbitrary decision or consent. Any act involving these, is a human act. We see then that they are characterized by voluntariness. It will be unfair and improper to punish and hold man responsible for those acts which he cannot deliberately control.

Clearly, then we are left with the proper human acts. Infacts morality deals specifically with human acts. It is those acts are imputable to man as man that can be considered as moral acts proper. It is inferable then that morality has some foundation in man as man.

So, any act coming from these ‘real man’ whether good or bad falls within the ambit of morality.

The next object of inquiry will center on the source of morality. In the philosophical world, the question about the source of morality has been a controversial issue. While some hold that it is a product of legal or customary convention; others say that it is intrinsic and natural to man. To hold that morality is all convention (man-made) is wrong, but that it has some conventional connotation in as much as what is moral here may not be moral there. David Hume who is an advocate of conventional morality asserted that,

“we act morally first out of self-interest and then out of a habit following certain conventional rules”20

The question here is, does morality become man-made simply because one acted out of self interest and followed certain conventional rules? Will it then not analogically follow that speech for instance can become man-made just because one spoke out of self-interest and followed certain conventional rules in speech? Therefore Hume’s assertion is erroneous.

In this view, Stumpt said that;

“Moral rule is discovered or found in the sense that, ways of behaving appear inappropriate and in varying degree damaging to personalities”21.

This quotation points out that morality is intrinsic and natural to man, hence it is independent of custom and to hold that it is something reserved for a people, nor should it be individualistic, and egoistic. Rather it should be universal, and a concern for the welfare, of all.

Fagothey subscribes to this when he said:

“Both communal and individual welfare must be put together if morality must come into play”22

This shows that no morality exists where one behave out of the social order.

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