Aquinas, Aristotle and the Promise of the Common Good by Mary M. Keys
|Reviewed By:||Cary J. Nederman|
|Reviewed in:||The Journal of Politics|
|Date accepted online:||14/01/2008|
|Published in print:||Volume 69, Issue 04, Pages 1210-1230|
Mary Keys has written a complex and nuanced book that speaks to a startlingly diverse readership, ranging from contemporary political philosophers to scholars of St. Thomas Aquinas to historians of ancient and medieval ethical and political theory. It is a testament to the success of her ambitious agenda that each segment of her audience will take away some very different, yet equally important, lessons from an attentive reading of this volume. In spite of the fact that the book is neither lengthy nor written in a complicated style, her argument is not easy to summarize. Formally, she wishes to render Aquinas more relevant to modern concerns by establishing what she regards to be the actual foundations of his political theory and thus to move him away from the conventional interpretation as simply a Christian Aristotelian. Keys accomplishes this feat by means of an ingenious and innovative close reading of Aquinas's major texts, with particular reference to his often unappreciated (and unfinished) commentary on Aristotle's
The point of departure for Keys's argument is the observation that prominent current exponents of English-language political philosophy-she singles out early Rawls, Michael Sandel and William Galston-lack an adequate account of the idea of the common good. The second chapter offers a brief but trenchant critique of these philosophers, revealing that their refusal to adopt a "foundationalist" stance dooms any attempt to appeal to such a good, even though their theories ultimately require it. By contrast, Aquinas provides precisely the sort of robust conception of the common good Keys finds lacking today. Specifically, Aquinas builds a suitable intellectual edifice by appropriating one crucial feature of Aristotle (his conception of the political and social nature of human beings) and wedding it to a Stoic-Christian doctrine of natural law so as to produce a highly original and coherent synthesis of preceding traditions.
Keys consequently reads Aquinas not as a slavish adherent to Aristotle's philosophy, but instead as an astute critic. According to her, Aquinas recognized that Aristotle's
Having analyzed Aquinas's departure from Aristotle's teaching in a series of chapters that form Part II of her book, Keys then examines in Part III how St. Thomas elaborates and transforms Aristotle's conceptions of magnanimity and justice in accordance with a conception of human nature that posits the intrinsic goodness of the will and mankind's special rational faculties (rather than
Of course, my short synopsis of Keys's enterprise necessarily fails to capture the complexity and insight to be found in her book. Of particular value to the present reviewer are the implications of her work for our understanding of the vexed problem of the nature of medieval Aristotelianism. To the extent that she has successfully identified the independence of Aquinas's thought from Aristotle's moral and political doctrines, we are left to wonder whether Aristotle is less an intellectual source for Aquinas than an authority on the basis of whose name a quite novel (and essentially non-Aristotelian) philosophical system was developed. This was certainly the case for other medieval authors, such as Ptolemy of Lucca and Marsiglio of Padua, who quoted Aristotle heavily while simultaneously articulating political theories that stand at considerable remove from their supposed origin. Keys does not offer any sustained reflections on this issue-it is rather irrelevant to her more philosophical agenda-but she implicitly raises the question in a pointed and compelling way. I was also struck by her argument that Aquinas's theory does not fit comfortably with the "organic" tendencies common to much medieval political thought, a point that she might have expanded on in far more detail.
If there is one criticism to be offered of Keys's book, it is the absence of very significant engagement with some of the other important recent interpretations of Aquinas's political ideas, such as those of Brian Tierney, James Blythe, and John Finnis. Tierney and Blythe, in particular, propose that Aquinas had indeed conceived his political theory in terms of constitutional evaluation based on an Aristotelian schema-the very antithesis of Keys's position. One might have wished for her to examine overtly the limitations of their readings in order to demonstrate the plausibility and strength of her own understanding of Aquinas's thought. That she does not address critically such alternative interpreters detracts (if only slightly) from her otherwise praiseworthy accomplishments.