What is it to be a good person? What is it to live well rather than badly? We might say, "It is to act in accordance with some true moral code." If we are Christians or Jews, we might mention the moral code of the ten commandments. If we say this, however, we will find at least one person who disagrees with us, and that is Thomas Aquinas. He did not think that living well consists in acting in accordance with the commandments. This is not because he thought (as some modern Christians do) that the commandments have been superseded by the law of love. He thought the ten commandments were just a common-sense account of what loving behavior is like (and especially what it is not like). He thought that any society which was indifferent to whether you broke the commandments or not couldn't be a community of friends. He thought these commandments were one of those things given to us by God in his revelation which we could have worked out for ourselves, if we thought hard and honestly enough about what a society based on friendship would be like.
But although Aquinas holds the moral code of the commandments in high esteem, he would still disagree with you if you said that living well is simply acting in accordance with the commandments. Why? Because, he says, living well is not just a matter of doing good things instead of bad things. It is a matter of doing them well, and that means doing them from the depths of your real character.
You may do an act of kindness, you may send a donation for the relief of famine, say, in Africa, because you have been momentarily swayed by television reporting or whatever, and that, of course, is a good thing to do. You may do it because you have been told that it is the right thing for a Christian to do. You may do it because you fear that God will punish you if you don't, and it is still a good thing to do. But Aquinas would say that this is still not what living well means. Living well means doing good because you want to do it, because you have become the kind of you that just naturally wants to do this. Then you are no longer just doing kind acts. You are a kind person:
Living well is not only doing good things, but doing them well, choosing them in a right way and not simply acting on impulse or emotion. Right choosing involves having a right goal and suitably acting to achieve that goal. The dispositions to right goals are the moral virtues in the appetites; the disposition to act suitably to achieve the goal must dispose reason to plan and decide well, and that is the virtue of prudence. Doing something good on another's advice rather than one's own judgment is not yet a perfect activity of one's own reasoning and desiring. One does the good but not altogether well, as living requires. Thinking in a theoretical way seeks the true match of mind to things . . . Thinking practically seeks the true match to right appetite, and that can only happen in . . . matters we have power to influence . . . So the virtues concerned with contingent matters are dispositions of practical thought: skill for making, prudence for doing. In the case of doing, man's practical reasoning makes plans and decisions just as his theoretical reasoning explores and arrives at conclusions, but then goes on to issue commands to do things, and that is its special role. If men made good decisions and then didn't implement them properly, reason's work would be incomplete (ST lallae, 57, 5-6).
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