AQUINAS AND DANTE ON PERSONHOOD AND MORALITY
Aquinas and Dante on Personhood and Morality
The problems of personhood and morality have been explored by various philosophers in the past. Usually, their responses and theories would be shaped by the paradigms and themes which are prevalent during their time period. Philosophical inquiries during the Medieval Period, for instance, have been particularly influenced by the rise and the spread of religion. Consequently, the theories and ideas about personhood and morality which have been purported by medieval philosophers are mostly influenced by the concept of God. Moreover, medieval literary thinkers and scholars likewise write text which are framed in a religious context. Instances of these include the ideas of St. Thomas Aquinas and of Dante Alighieri.
However, their theories and their stand on certain issues are also influenced by past philosophers. For instance, St. Augustine of Hippo is known to have undertaken the philosophies of Plato. Hence, Augustine’s works demonstrate a marriage between Platonic ideas and Christian beliefs. Accordingly, Aquinas is also known to have been heavily influenced by the works Plato’s student, Aristotle. This means then that his ideas of personhood and of morality are highly Aristotelian. Similarly, it has been found by a number of scholars that Dante’s ideas, as manifested in his works and poems, are also Aristotelian. So then should his accounts on personhood and morality.
It appears however, that Aquinas’ and Dante’s account on personhood and morality are not entirely similar. This is despite the nature of their ideas being both Christian and Aristotelian. This essay then aims to provide a comparison of Aquinas’ and Dante’s accounts of personhood and morality. Furthermore, this essay aims to demonstrate the difference between their philosophies and general beliefs. Lastly, this essay would argue that despite Aquinas’ place in the Catholic Church, it is Dante’s concept of personhood and morality that demonstrates a more Christian inclination.
St. Thomas Aquinas: On Personhood and Morality
Aquinas offers an articulate account on what it means to be a human person. The widely accepted account of a human person, as established by Ancient Greek Philosophers, is a being with the faculty of reason. This means that the essence of a person is rationality; hence, a rational being. There have been various accounts prior to Aquinas on this concept of human essence. Plato and Aristotle regard this as encapsulated in the human soul. Consequently, this rationality makes the human soul, according to Plato and Aristotle, as eternal. Aquinas, however, asserts the similar case.
According to Aquinas, a human being is composed of both a body and a soul. It is from the human being that a human person would arise. The human being, however, does not survive death as it is “the privation of life” (Aquinas, 1981, p. 1219). He regards this as “the greatest of punishments” because it deprives a person of being which is “one of the primary good” (Aquinas, 1981, p. 3902). He also regards the human flesh and bones to not capture, in itself, the essence of personhood. This is because the parts of the body such as the hand or the foot, or the body in itself, are not complete. According to him, only those substances which are complete may be regarded as persons. Accordingly, it is the soul that has “a complete act of existing of its own” (Toner, 2009). However, Aquinas regards that the soul in itself is not “a complete species, for the soul needs the body in order to complete its species” (as cited in Toner, 2009). Hence, for a human being to have personhood, he should have both a body and a soul.
This argument is similar to Aristotle’s claim on the hylomorphism of the matter and form or the body and the soul. Both philosophers, however, claims that it is the former that holds the intellect and will of an individual. Accordingly, Aquinas (1981) reinforces Aristotle’s claim that “all naturally desire to know” (p. 3929). Aquinas (1981) states the perfection and the actualization of a human person is knowledge (p.800). Each being would desire to attain its perfection and it is in a person’s nature to desire to know (p.800). Hence, desiring to know is linked with a person’s desire to attain perfection.
Aquinas (1981) likewise takes into account Aristotle’s Virtue ethics in his view of morality. Aquinas (1981) reinforces Aristotle’s account that human beings are regarded as moral and that human acts are subjected to moral laws. This stems from the argument that human beings are rational beings and they have dominion over their actions. Due to their intellect and will, they have the ability to choose their decisions and actions. Aquinas (1981) states that free will is “free judgment arising from reason” (p. 879). From this faculty of reason, each person would be able to attain its ultimate end. For both Aristotle and Aquinas, this is happiness.
Furthermore, Aquinas (1981) also holds Aristotle’s concepts of virtues as a way to attain the ultimate good which is happiness (p.784). Virtues are regarded to be the mean between two degrees which involve an action and which can only be acquired through habit. To be good, it is important for a person to acquire moral and intellectual virtues. It is through virtue that one is able to pursue towards the good and this pursuit is guided by both natural and divine laws. On the one hand, natural laws are that which guide or natural inclinations such as eating, mating, and building a family (Kretzmann & Stump, 1993). On the other hand, divine laws is that which involves Christian doctrines as it is commanded by God (Kretzmann & Stump, 1993). Through the divine law, a person may be able to attain eternal salvation.
Dante Alighieri: On Personhood and Morality
The concept of personhood has likewise been very much demonstrated in Dante’s The Divine Comedy. His account of personhood, albeit not explicitly discussed, showcases a sense of hylomorphism as promulgated by Aristotle. Firstly, in the case of Francesca, the personhood is in reference of the physical body of a person (Webb, 2016). In the case of Beatrice, the personhood appears to have lost after death; and for Pier, his personhood appears to have been lost because of his body’s vegetative state (Webb, 2016). Lastly, in the case of those who have committed suicide, there is an illustration of how the personhood is lost because the union of the body and the soul has been forcibly destroyed. In this case, there appears to be a deep connection as well with the living body and the personhood of human person. This may also the reason for Dante’s personhood to be intact throughout The Divine Comedy—because his appearance is that of a living body. Webb (2016) claims that there is an “importance of the living body for the recognition of personhood”. Hence, it may be concluded that Dante’s regard for personhood resembles Aristotle and Aquinas’ accounts—that it is based on the hylomorphism of the body and the soul.
Dante’s account of ethics and morality is likewise demonstrated in his work The Divine Comedy particularly on his presentations of the circles of hell. This is because through this illustration, he is able to present what he regards to be virtuous and right actions as opposed to what he counts as sins. Like Aristotle, he regards virtues to be that which would “to bring them to a state of happiness” (Alighieri, 1966).
In his formulation of the circles of hell, he is able to present what he regards to be deadly sins. These sins are regarded as deadly and severe insofar as they are given a special place in Dante’s hell. According to Dante, this is a result of an excessive expression of one’s individualism (as cited in Bellioti, 2011, p. 126). Human beings, according to him, often simply desire what gives them pleasure and simply discard or wrongfully treat the things which they are supposed to treasure (Bellioti, 2011, p. 126). For instance, pride, anger, and envy are sins out of a belief that in order to value oneself, one must mistreat others. Sloth is a sin that stems out of the insufficient desire of material things while gluttony, lust, and greed stem out of an excessive amount of such desire. These sins corrupt the person as a whole and eventually lead him away from the spiritual aspect of himself (Bellioti, 2011, p. 127).
In order to avoid these deadly sins, a person must be able to acquire a righteous form of love— that which is intellectual (Alighieri, 1966). This is because Dante claims love connects a person with that of the Divine. It is through this that a person’s soul is able to properly live. Furthermore, the object of a right form of love is God and the virtues (Alighieri, 1966). Given the wrong object or the wrong means, love becomes ill and corrupt. Hence, if one focuses on God, one is able to act rightfully. Consequently, one becomes happy and his soul would eventually reach salvation.
Aquinas VS Dante: A Comparison
Aquinas and Dante’s account of personhood and morality is similar on some points and different on others. Firstly, on the account of personhood, both Aquinas and Dante provide similar accounts. Both of them regard the soul and the body to be unified with reference to Aristotle’s metaphysical accounts as well. Both of them place high regard on the importance of the soul in encapsulating a person’s essence. Likewise, both of them consider the body as equally important in terms of recognizing one’s personhood.
However, it is quite interesting to note how Aquinas and Dante approach these concepts. On the one hand, Aquinas regards the soul as still capable of carrying personhood apart from the body. Dante, on the other hand, seemingly states that personhood may only be viable with an existing corporeal body. This is evidenced in his description of the people he encountered with in his work. Without the body, it is extremely difficult for him to regard her as a person. Furthermore, Aquinas, in his discussion of personhood, seemingly regards reason and knowledge to be the primary determinant of a person’s existence. Dante, on the other hand, appears to not have an equal sentiment when it comes to knowledge and a person’s natural desire to know. In fact, as Kretzmann and Stump (1993) puts it, Aquinas’ claim on a person’s natural desire to know, or what may be regarded as curiosity, appears to be incoherent with the prevalent Christian doctrines at that time.
Aquinas and Dante’s differences are also immanent in their idea of morality and how a person ought to act. Certainly, on the one hand, both thinkers have the same stand in terms of virtues and happiness. The latter is man’s goals while the former is a means to attain it. However, their differences arise in terms of how such virtues may be acquired. On the one hand, Aristotle regards that virtues may be acquired by reason. Through the aid of natural law, a person is able to do good and eventually acquire virtues through habitually doing good human acts. This entail then that even those who are not Christians and even those who are atheists may become good persons and eventually attain happiness. This is because if one analyzes Aquinas’ ethics, as it is lifted from Aristotle, there is no particular requirement of belief in the Christian God. As long as one abides by the natural law, one becomes virtuous and happy. Dante, on the other hand, disagrees. According to him, it is not reason per se that would guide us to be virtuous. It is righteous love and such love may only be attained if the subject of that love is God. Given this, it is improbable then for an atheist to love righteously and consequently, to live virtuously. Once love is not demonstrated in relation to God, one then, cannot be happy.
As discussed above, St. Thomas Aquinas and Dante Alighieri are two prominent thinkers of the Medieval Period. Their philosophies and ideologies are shaped by two major factors. Firstly, both of the prevalent religious beliefs at that time, namely of Christianity. Likewise, both are influenced by the previous philosophies which they may have studied, particularly Aristotle’s.
Despite the similarity in their influences, their accounts of personhood and morality are not entirely similar. At some points, they differ entirely. While both of them assert that a human being is composed of both a body and a soul, it is Dante who regards the living body as extremely important in the recognition of personhood. Aquinas, on the other hand, still regards the soul, even the separated soul, as that which is vital for personhood. Similarly, in terms of morality, both Aquinas and Dante demonstrate their Aristotelian leaning. However, it is Dante’s account which places God at the center of right actions. Only Christians would have the capacity to rightfully love and therefore, become good. Aquinas, on the other hand, implies that even non-Christians can become good and happy through his promulgation of the Natural Law.
Given these accounts, one may infer that Dante’s accounts demonstrate more the Christian doctrines when compared to Aquinas.
Alighieri, D. (1966). Epistolae: The letters of Dante. (P. J. Toynbee, Trans.) Oxford: Clarendon Press.
Alighieri, D. (2003). The Divine Comedy. (H. Wadsworth, Trans.) New York: Barnes ; Nobles Classics.
Aquinas, S. T. (1981). Summa Theologica. Michigan: Christian Classics .
Bellioti, R. A. (2011). Dante’s Deadly Sins. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell.
Kretzmann, N., & Stump, E. (1993). The Cambridge Companion to Aquinas. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Toner, P. (2009). Personhood and Death in St. Thomas Aquinas. History of Philosophy Quarterly, 26(2), 121-138. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/27745152 .
Webb, H. (2016). Dante’s Persons: An Ethics of the Transhuman. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
AQUINAS AND DANTE ON PERSONHOOD AND MORALITY