Catholic Medical Quarterly Volume 66(2) May 2016
The Knowledge of the First Principles in Saint Thomas Aquinas
By Mary Christine Ugobi-Onyemere IHM
Publisher: Peter Lang AG,
Internationaler Verlag der Wissenschaften
This work is filled with the spirit of Saint Thomas Aquinas and is a study of the essential principles on which reality itself is constructed according to Thomistic teaching. For the non-specialist, it is technical at times but remains hugely rewarding. As the subject of conscience has been recently much talked about, I will focus on what the book has to say about this and on the closely related topic of synderesis, the principle that good is to be done and evil avoided.
The author notes that synderesis comes from the Greek word synesis or insight. It is easy to confuse synderesis with conscience or prudence because all three are concerned with the moral act. Synderesis, for Aquinas, is not a power but a habit. Conscience in contrast is an act. While both conscience and synderesis incite against evil, the permanent principle of an act is conscience.
Saint Jerome thought wrongly that the word conscience can be given to synderesis, our first natural habit. But Aquinas makes a clear distinction between the two. He also contrasts them with prudence, which is right reason of things to be done. All the moral virtues are under the direction of prudence.
The author notes that for the great Thomist Joseph Pieper, conscience is the living unity between prudence and synderesis. Another great Thomist, Ralph McInerny, responds with a view that conscience is an act and not a habit and therefore cannot be a virtue. Aquinas himself combines both views in the statement that conscience is an act of the habit of prudence.
For Aquinas, synderesis is the first principle of natural law and is innate within our minds. It cannot be lost.
The author notes that Aquinas got his thoughts about the subject from the Church Fathers, especially Saint Jerome. According to Aquinas, we have knowledge of synderesis in the same way that angels know, by participation in a higher order. It is always right and good and does not err. It is naturally given to all human beings without exception.
So, says Aquinas, synderesis remains an unsullied principle but with the possibility of misinterpretation in the judgment of particular cases. Aquinas also says that the precepts of the Decalogue contain moral norms that are half-way between the broader principles of synderesis and its remote conclusions. It is natural for man to know the precepts through natural reason because it is natural to love. Everyone's natural preference is the good and evil runs contrary to human nature. The precepts of the natural law is based on one common foundation: the pursuit of being good.
Synderesis refers to God because the human mind tends naturally to the good and the good is ultimately found in God.
This book is of great interest for anyone who wishes to know more about Saint Thomas and it reminds us how important the teaching of Aquinas is for our ethical reflections.
Reviewed by Pravin Thevathasan