Aquinas' Foundations of Ethics
 and the Anthropology
 of Different Cultures

(Notes of a lecture -26-4-2000- written for the "Gabinete de
 Filosofia Medieval" of the Universidade do Porto)

Jean Lauand

(Translated into English by Alfredo H. Alves)

            First of all, I wish to thank Dr. Meirinhos for inviting me to write this lecture. What I want to do is to talk about one very central point in Aquinas, which goes back to Pindar and the classsical tradition: the problem of the foundations of Ethics.

            Aquinas' thought on this point -in some way or other- can also be found in various other cultures and languages.

            This lecture is somehow a continuation of another one I gave some years ago on "Man, a Being that Forgets" (also linking Aquinas to Pindar) that you can find in Part I of : When we get to the end of this talk I will show the timeliness of these classical theses on Ethics, Anthropology and Memory.

"Be What You Are!"

            Let us consider the foundations of Ethics, which is for Aquinas - and the Ancients as well - the being of man, realized to its maximum degree. It is not by chance that Aquinas, when referring to virtue, says, and is not tired of repeating, that it aims at the ultimum potentiae, the maximum that one can attain to (as you know, Aquinas' concept of virtue applies to man the characteristics of the classical concept of arete: excellence and the specific quality of something. Or, to quote a famous sentence of Pindar's: "Be what you are!").  Thus he says, to cite four examples:

It is through virtue that man works his way to his maximum being.

Per virtutem ordinatur homo ad ultimum potentiae (Virt. comm. 11 ad 15).

It is of the essence of virtue to aim at the maximum.

Ad rationem virtutis pertinet, ut respiciat ultimum (II-II,123,4).

Virtues perfect man, enabling him to walk in the path of his natural inclinations.

Virtutes perficiunt nos ad prosequendum debito modo inclinationes naturales (II-II,108,2).

Sin is against man's natural inclination.

Peccatum est contra naturalem inclinationem (I,63,9).

            In this talk, I want to show you, very briefly, how these affirmations - that morality has its roots in being aind aims at the maximum - are universal.

            These ideas are not exclusively philosophical. They can be found in other fields of culture: they make up the core of Shakespeare's to be or not to be (that is the question...), and they are in Dante, Confucius, Pindar as well as in - and you will perhaps find it surprising - in the Tupi-Guarani languages.

            In the Commedia (Purg. XXIII, 31-33), talking about the recomposition of being, disfigured by moral deviation, we find the following enigmatic tercet:

                        "Their eyes seemed to be rings with no gems (gemme)

                        And whoever can read in the human faces 'man' (omo)

                        Will very well be able to recognize the 'M' (emme)"

            What does this mysterious M mean (emme rhymes with gemme). The meaning of these verses is that an unjust action destroys the man who practices it, disfigures him, divests him of his "to be", of his human visage - poetically portrayed by Dante in the word "O m O" (omo, in Tuscan, means man).

            For Confucius too - and in the tradition of the Far East - morality is being man (ren, in Chinese / jin, in Japanese) and an immoral man (fei-ren / hi-nin - with the same ideograms) is the non-man as figured in the ideogram representing negation and falsity: the inner desintegration juxtaposed with the ideogram representing man:

NO                            MAN

            The same fundamental idea is found in the Tupi language.

            For the Tupi - who uses the suffix -eté as an intensive, and the superlative as well as to signify ontological truth - a good man is aba-eté, that is a man in truth or as Aquinas would say ultimum potentiae; whereas the evil man is aba-ran, pseudo-man.

"Lion King: a fable on Ethics"

            I mentioned a little while ago, Pindar's famous sentence "Be what you are" a summary of classical conception of Ethics. We find an unexpected proof of the force (and timeliness) of this conception in the great success of the film "Lion King" (this film, besides presenting the foundations of Ethics, also presents the theme of Memory, the subject of the other talk I mentioned a few minutes ago.

            As you can see then, the essence of the film is Ethics. The exiled cub Simba falls into softness, selfishness and indifference; to the refusal of the moral stature he is called to:

Timon: When the world turns its back on you, you turn your back on the world.

Simba: Well, that's not what I was taught.

Timon: Then maybe you need a new lesson. Repeat after me.

Hakuna Matata.

Simba: {Still lethargic} What?

Pumbaa: Ha-ku-na Ma-ta-ta. It means "No worries."

Timon: Hakuna Matata!

What a wonderful phrase

Pumbaa: Hakuna Matata!

Ain't no passing craze

Timon: It means no worries

For the rest of your days

Both: It's our problem-free...  Philosophy

Timon: Hakuna Matata!

Simba: Hakuna matata?

Pumbaa: Yeah, it's our motto.

            And when - in Simba's absence from his country - the oppression there becomes unbearable, the old counsellor Rafiki goes in search of the young lion to remind him of his responsibilities, he evokes the memory of his deceased father, the lion Mufasa.

            And invites him to contemplate his father face on the surface of a lake.

Simba: You knew my father?

Rafiki: {Monotone} Correction - I know your father.

Simba: I hate to tell you this, but... he died. A long time ago.

Rafiki: Nope. Wrong again! Ha ha hah! He's alive! And I'll show him to you. You follow old Rafiki, he knows the way. Come on!

Look down there.

{Simba quietly and carefully works his way out. He looks over the edge and sees his reflection in a pool of water He first seems a bit startled, perhaps at his own mature appearance, but then realizes what he's looking at.}

Simba: {Disappointed sigh} That's not my father. That's just my reflection.

Rafiki: Noo. Look harder.

{Rafiki motions over the pool. Ripples form, distorting Simba's reflection; they resolve into Mufasa's face. A deep rumbling noise is heard}.

You see, he lives in you.

{Simba is awestruck. The wind picks up. In the air the huge image of Mufasa is forming from the clouds. He appears to be walking from the stars. The image is ghostly at first, but steadily gains color and coherence.}

Mufasa: {Quietly at first} Simba...

Simba: Father?

Mufasa: Simba, you have forgotten me.

Simba: No. How could I?

            To terminate Mufasa's answer articulates the two points we have been talking about.

Mufasa: You have forgotten who you are, and so have forgotten me. Look inside yourself, Simba. You are more than what you have become.

Simba: How can I go back? I'm not who I used to be.

{Shot of cloud - Mufasa, with glowing yellow eyes. He is framed

in swirling clouds, radiating golden light.}

Mufasa: Remember who you are. You are my son, and the one true king.

{Close-up of Simba's face, bathed in the golden light, showing

a mixture of awe, fear, and sadness. The image of Mufasa starts to fade.}

Remember who you are.

{Mufasa is disappearing rapidly into clouds. Simba runs into the fields trying to keep up with the image.}

Simba: No. Please! Don't leave me.

Mufasa: Remember...

Simba: Father!

Mufasa: Remember...

Simba: Don't leave me.

Mufasa: Remember...