Book Review

Two Guides for the Journey
Thomas Aquinas and William Langland on the virtues

Sheryl Overmyer
Cascade Books (8 Nov 2016)
ISBN: 978-1498228992

Book CoverThis very interesting book is about moral theology in general and the virtues in particular. The author examines two great medieval works: The Summa Theologiae by Thomas Aquinas and Piers Plowman by William Langland. 

The author notes that, for Aquinas, we need God's help "in order to be moved by Him toward acting well." All is grace. Virtue is said of God and creatures because of the ordering of creatures to God by God and because of the participation in God by creatures. Any good action on the part of creatures is, in a sense, utterly dependent on God. God is the prime focus for Aquinas.

The dialectical approach of Aquinas is complemented by the very human journey to be found in Langland. For Aquinas the focus is on God and for Langland it is on man. While Aquinas shows us the path of virtue as exemplified in Christ, Langland shows us one man's struggle along the path of virtue. Progress for Langland and Aquinas is by means of increased virtue. Different virtues come to play at different paths of the journey. But even as one is graced with the queen of virtues, namely charity, there is still a sense of incompleteness in this life. This sense is also to be found in Aquinas. However, perhaps it is Langland who reminds us of the danger of presumption, the belief that we have already arrived.

Unsurprisingly, our need for God as exemplified in both works leads to a fruitful discussion of the sacramental life: sacramental practice is for us the way toward fullness in virtue. The perfection of the virtues is thus related to our union with Christ and the virtues are annexed to the sacramental life.

Perhaps one might say that while Aquinas has a philosophical approach, Langland has a more psychological one. It is Langland who has a somewhat darker vision of how we live the virtues and how easily their relationship with the sacraments can be compromised. 

Ultimately, however, their is hope to be found in both texts: there is always room to learn from our mistakes. Grace is sufficient in order to overcome sin. 

This remind us that we need to have a proper understanding of sin in order to appreciate the mercy of God. The mercy of God does not cover us in our sins.

This work is an excellent means of understanding the importance of practicing the virtues in our moral life.

Reviewed by Dr Pravin Thevathasan