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The Philosophers of
Chapter 7
Plato, Aristotle, Thomas Aquinas,
Immanuel Kant, Emmanuel Levinas
Plato (427-347 B.C.)
• Taught Aristotle
• “the Good” compared to the
–The sun as a source of light
allows us to see all things
–The good shines upon all our
• Nowhere do we find THE good, we
only find good things.
• Beauty is found everywhere & in
all things, but we don’t find
• The closest we can come to the
good is in contemplation.
• We bask in the good, and it enters
into our knowing.
Philosophy is Important to
• Philosophers are contemplatives of
the good
• Therefore, they are closest to the
• Philosophers know how to act in
accordance with their beliefs,
– They make true choices about the
value & worth of their actions
– They have chosen the happiest life
Philosophers are better
• Others are ruled by feelings
– They measure actions by enjoyment
not value
• Philosophers choose particular
actions because they are true
• In The Republic, the ideal state is
ruled by the “philosopher king”
Plato vs. Sophism
• Sophist ideas threatened to
undermine morality
• Sophists proclaimed there could
be no truth, all “so-called truth”
is only opinion
• No universal truth = no universal
moral code
• Moral values only cultural or
personal opinion
• Life is ruled by needs & desires,
not reason
• The best life one of sensual
pleasure (Callicles)
• Pointless to argue about the good
in general
For Sophists
• Neither goodness, nor justice exists
on its own, there are only good
people or just people
• There was no need to think about
moral principles or “the good”
Plato’s response
• The thinking of the Sophists
caused the state to deteriorate to a
near-total moral collapse
– Private pleasures like greed
satisfying elemental needs like food,
drink, sex and power led to disorder
and anarchy
• REASON which finds the good
that pervades all is the answer!
Aristotle (384-322 B.C.)
• A major influence on Catholic
teaching (via St. Thomas Aquinas)
• Agrees with Plato
– All aspire to some good and seek to be
– Concerned with short-sightedness of
searching for happiness following
instincts & sensual pleasures
– Philosophers most likely to succeed
Aristotle differs from Plato
• Aristotle is more “down-to-earth”
• Plato’s idea of the good was too
• People don’t find THE good, they
find A good.
• Contemplation doesn’t lead to the
IDEA of good, but to the good
within all things
For Aristotle
• It is important to know the nature
of all things
– Hence his interest in science &
• Humans are self-directed beings
“Young people can become
mathematicians and geometers and
wise in things of that sort; but they do
not appear to become people of
practical wisdom. The reason is that
practical wisdom is of the particular,
which becomes graspable through
experience, but a young person is not
experienced. For a quantity of time is
required for experience.”
Review of Aristotle & the Good
• Absolute good can only be found
in God.
• Good is inscribed by God into the
nature of all things.
• To find the good in anything:
discover first its purpose, its end,
what it is for
Review continued
• One develops good character by
acting virtuously, virtues control
• Good is found in the middle
• The mark of humanity: to reason
and act rationally
• Ethical action engages capacity to
• Highest happiness: live an ethical
St. Thomas Aquinas
• Greek philosophy, especially
Plato’s, had a strong influence on
Christian moral thinking &
theology until the 13th C.
• After the 11th C, Aristotle’s work
became more well known
• Aquinas, a Dominican friar (O.P.)
incorporated Aristotle’s ideas
• Greatest works:
– Summa contra Gentiles,
– Summa theologica
– Build on his understanding of the
work of Aristotle
• Aquinas calls him “The
Aquinas agrees with Aristotle
• The ethical comes from the end
that is inscribed in the nature of
all creatures
• What something is FOR is at the
very core of what something IS.
• The desire for good is at a person’s
• God is the highest good!
Some differences
• For Aquinas, God is Trinitarian
(Father, Son, & Holy Spirit)
• The resurrection of Jesus and
immortality of the human soul
give a more refined notion of the
end of human beings
• People were made for happiness
• Happiness is the good life of a
virtuous person
Human Happiness
• Not exhausted with the good life
on earth, there is a fuller
– Found only in a loving vision of God
– In the resurrection as God’s pure gift
Aquinas’ ethics has 2 levels
1. Like Aristotle:
1. good life living and acting well
2. Good life lived out of use of
intelligence & other capacities
2. God’s self-gift to us in Jesus and
the Holy Spirit changes the way
we define the good
• Creation is good, to know how to
use one’s intellectual and sensual
capacities one must follow the
natural law.
– “nothing other than the light of
understanding placed in us by God;
through it we know what we must do
and what we must avoid.”
Virtues are key! (the Cardinal Virtues)
• Prudence: how to reason well in
moral decision-making.
• Temperance: how to remain
moderate in the exercise of the
• Fortitude: how to be courageous in
the face of difficulties.
• Justice: how to act well in
relation to others.
Theological Virtues
• Faith: God’s self-revealing action
• Hope: desire for communion with
• Charity: (Love) God’s love for us,
allows us to love others.
Immanuel Kant (1724-1804)
• The most difficult notion of the
good and happiness to follow?
• Recall: reason was very important
in Kant’s time (the Enlightenment)
• No: kings, priests, churches,
bibles, unless, reason could prove
their right to authority
• Reason the sole authority!
Kant rejects Aristotle & Aquinas
• For them, happiness is a byproduct of doing good.
• Kant argued: people do good out of
their DUTY to do so.
• People of reason act out of duty,
– Finding the reason within themselves
– Since they live autonomously
Recall that for Kant
• All goods (intelligence, love,
experience of beauty and religious
experience) are of lesser value
than a good will
– (they are only the means to obtain a
good will.)
• The soul was immortal since it
was impossible to achieve the
supreme good in this life
Kant on God
• God is also held to duty.
• God makes certain that we can
achieve the supreme good
• The supreme good (i.e., God) is a
necessary condition of reason.
Review on Kant
• The only good is a good will.
• Good is only good if it is done out
a good will and provides no
personal gain.
• An act is not moral if you enjoy
doing it.
• Moral acts are performed out of
duty and obligation.
• Reason dictates what is good.
Emmanuel Levinas (1905-1995)
• The infinite Good, God, is the
heart of ethics.
• Good comes as a call, a vocation.
• The good does not come from
• When I am called to respond to
another, I am called to be good
without reward, without selfinterest.
• In the face of another, I am turned
from myself and my own interests
and desires towards the other.
• The other awakens me to the
highest good.