John Finnis on Aquinas 'the philosopher'

Heythrop Journal 41 (1):1–24 (2000)
Abstract
In the ten dense chapters of his new book, John Finnis examines and sometimes amends what he takes to be the key moral, legal, social and political doctrines of Thomas Aquinas. Finnis correctly stresses that neither ethics nor politics, in the Arstotelian tradition to which Aquinas belonged, are theoretical sciences. They are ‘practical’ or action‐guiding sciences. Since societal order originates in free choice, it is subject to moral norms. The latter are more firmly grounded by Aquinas than Aristotle because the former unlike the latter has an explicit and coherent account of universal or exceptionless moral principles.Finnis natural law ethics derives from a set of self‐evident precepts that focus practical reason on the pursuit and protection of basic human goods. Finnis expanding list of the latter now include marriage. Finnis equates – implausibly, in my view – attaining the ensemble of basic human goods with Aquina's notion of beatitudo imperfecta or this‐worldly happiness.Throughout the book, Finnis' exegesis of Aquinas is slanted towards bolstering Finnis' own Thomist philosophical ethics. Accordingly, Thomistic historical scholarship, which carefully traced Aquinas' biblical and patristic sources and which locate Aquinas' theological ethics within the conditions of his own life and times, has little weight in Finnis' interpretation. Overall, Finnis shows little concern for the internal logic of the Summa theologiae and, consequently, he does not adequately clarify how Aquinas' own ethics, according to its proper principles, can be both integrally theological and rational without thereby becoming a philosophical ethics
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