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“Charity and the Intellectual Life”


by James Berquist
Tutor, Thomas Aquinas College, California
February 1, 2023



1. The “intellectual life” that I am talking about today concerns two things: the life we live here at Thomas Aquinas College (TAC), but also the kind life for which this education is a preparation; these are in a way two and in a way one, and I am focused upon the way in which they are one. I call the life we live and prepare for here the “intellectual life” because it is a life lived for the good of the intellect — truth — and for the highest truths most of all. This life — I claim — is ordered to charity in the deepest sense, and it is that order that I want to clarify. I do so through a consideration of an objection that a Christian might make to the life we live and prepare for here — an objection concerning the place of charity in our common life.

2. This objection is simple but should be stated in context. Let me begin by laying out some of the critical features of the life we live here.  As the Blue Book1 puts it:

Liberal education aims to benefit the learner in a specifically human way. This is implied even by its name which means “the education of a free man.” For no animal except man is capable of freedom. But more precisely, it is the education of a free man insofar as it helps him to achieve freedom. Yet it does not try to help him through any and all means, but specifically through knowledge. Accordingly, we must ask what kind of knowledge suits the free man so that he becomes free in the acquiring of it. We must therefore first understand the essential character of the free man. Perhaps it will help to contrast him with his opposite, the slave. The slave is characterized by living for another  —  he is, as Aristotle says, “not his own but another’s man,” “a living possession.” Thus it follows that the free man lives for his own sake; he is his own man.2

The life we live and prepare for here is one focused upon freedom, which is understood in terms of being one’s own man.

3. Already you might see the objection. Charity seems other-oriented. The charitable man seeks the good of others, and therefore lives for them. Is this in opposition to the free man?3 Let me deepen the question. The Blue Book goes on to consider the kind of knowledge that the free man is interested in.

Now there are in general two kinds of knowledge. Such knowledge as medicine or jurisprudence, for example, is practical: it is desirable exclusively or at least chiefly for the sake of action. But another kind, theology or natural science, for example, is theoretical: it is desirable in itself. Therefore, if the free man is properly concerned with what has intrinsic value, his education must concentrate upon theoretical knowledge.

The authors then explain the difference between these two kinds of knowledge in more detail.

Knowledge does not become theoretical simply because someone does in fact desire it, but is or is not theoretical because of its own intrinsic character. We can see that this is so by considering how one desires theoretical knowledge. When knowledge is desired from a theoretical motive, it is desired for the sake of the knower as such, that is, for the perfecting of his understanding.4

The free man is interested in theoretical knowledge over practical knowledge. And this because practical knowledge is desired for the sake of something outside of itself (action) rather than for its own sake, while the free man desires the kind of knowledge that is desired for the sake of the knower as knower.

4. Based upon these points, the Blue Book’s authors conclude that the knowledge concerning “the productive arts, whether servile or fine, are clearly no essential part of a free man’s education.”5

5. The objection can now be made in context. It would seem that the life we live and prepare for here is ordered in some way selfishly, or, to state this more gently, perhaps, it so deeply emphasizes theoretical knowledge and freedom that the charitable life — the life ordered to the good or goods of others — is put in a secondary place. Is the life we live here opposed to charity, or does it at least make charity a secondary good? If so, are we not disregarding Christ’s universal insistence that to imitate Him is to serve? He came to serve, not to be served, and He tells us often that the greatest in the Kingdom is he who is the servant of all.

Two parts to the objection: happiness, and the context of charity

6. It seems to me that there are two possible ways to make this objection. First, one might think that the very account of theoretical knowledge overestimates its goodness and the goodness of freedom (as understood), and that human perfection should be sought elsewhere. Secondly, one might grant the order of the practical to the theoretical, but still think this account does not place the goods of the intellectual life in context with the whole Christian life, which must consider the happiness of those around us. Both of these possible ways of making the objection must be addressed.

7. But it should be clear that they are indeed parts of one objection to this extent: The objector looks at the account of the good or goods that the Blue Book present as part of the chief goods of human life (freedom and theoretical knowledge) and does not see in them a call to service, which he, the Christian objector, knows the chief goods ought to have. The goods seem to be personal perfections whether the greatest or not, and thus their pursuit is not intrinsically connected to the service of others. It looks to him as if these goods in some way draw man away from others, if not in their pursuit, at least in their enjoyment. In short, the objection, however far it is taken, is rooted in one confusion: the apparent opposition of the good of the self to the good of the other.6

The contemplation of God is the aim of theoretical knowledge

8. Let us turn to the notion of happiness presented by the intellectual life in order to address the first way of making the above objection. First and foremost, the authors of the Blue Book do not indicate that the human being rests in just any theoretical truths as the final good. While showing how theoretical knowledge is superior in itself to practical knowledge, the authors present a certain science as the supreme science, and the subject of that science as the reason for the goodness of all the other sciences.

But human understanding cannot be perfected by knowledge of an order which it has itself produced as, for example, the order in an artifact or in a constitution. Such an order, since it is the effect of human intelligence, is to that extent inferior to man; but nothing is perfected by reflecting within itself that which is inferior to it. Thus, the natural objects of theoretical interest are the things better than man, so that whoever intends to become a free man will be chiefly concerned with the study of God and divine things. This means that his proper concern will be the study of theology, which has God as its subject, and proceeds in the light of faith.7

It is the knowledge of God and the science(s) that studies Him (metaphysics, natural theology, and as I will consider shorty, sacred theology) that is the supreme area of theoretical knowledge. Indeed, in accounting for the worth of the other sciences, the authors of the Blue Book bring them back to the subject of the supreme science(s).

If nature were not the work of an intelligence superior to ours, the effect of a divine art, we would not become more perfect just in understanding it. Our relation to nature would be only practical, and we would confront nature as the potter confronts his clay.8

The authors draw this point from Aristotle’s words in the Parts of Animals, where he considers the worth of knowing all things in light of “the artistic spirit that designed them.”9 So, the theoretical knowledge that the intellectual life chiefly seeks is the knowledge of God (and divine things — things pertaining to God), and in knowing and considering lower beings, even beings lower than ourselves, we see in them the artistic spirit of the Creator, and thus we see God in them.

9. It is not theoretical science simply speaking, then, that is being presented as the supreme object of the intellectual life, then, but rather God, whom we are coming to know through our investigations of the theoretical sciences. These sciences are of intrinsic worth because in them we are knowing something of the mind of God. Moreover, as the passage cited above indicates, the intellect is the power in virtue of which man is distinguished as man from other natural beings. Hence, as it is in the perfection of the intellect that man is perfected as man, then it is the contemplation — the active and focused consideration — of God that is human perfection and happiness. This view of happiness, implied here in the Blue Book, is made explicit in the education the authors of the Blue Book present, and in their other writings.  (As the Juniors here studied last semester, Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics finishes with an argument that a particular act of contemplation, the contemplation of the divine nature, is happiness.10 Senior year is theology is devoted to the study of the Trinity and the Incarnation. And the founders, the authors of the Blue Book emphasize this point in their writings all the time.11

10. The authors of the Blue Book are following St. Thomas as well as Aristotle here.  And Thomas sums up the position nicely.

“Now man's highest operation is that of his highest power in respect of its highest object: and his highest power is the intellect, whose highest object is the Divine Good, which is the object, not of the practical but of the speculative intellect. Consequently happiness consists principally in such an operation, viz. in the contemplation of Divine things.”

Of course, this happiness is in this life imperfect, for we can only imperfectly contemplate the mind of the creator. I’ll say more on this at the end of this talk. But the point here is that the goodness of the theoretical sciences is found principally in the knowledge of God, And it is in drawing our mind to God that happiness, to the extent that we can have it, is found.

Moreover, this is to say that God Himself is the Goal of the Intellectual Life

11. So, the primary goal of the intellectual life as we are considering it here is not theoretical knowledge simply, but the contemplation of God, and of things as manifesting the mind of God. From this we can draw a further, and extremely important point. In the act of contemplation, the appetite (the will) of man does not rest in himself, but in God. Consider the following text from Aquinas’ de Veritate.

And so, just as God acts in every agent because he is the first efficient cause, so also is He sought in every end because he is the last end. But this is to seek God implicitly. For, the power of the first cause is in the second as the principles are in the conclusions. But to resolve conclusions to their principles or secondary causes to their first causes belongs only to the power of reasoning. Hence the rational nature alone is able to bring back secondary ends to God by a way of resolution so as to seek God Himself explicitly. And just as in demonstrative sciences the conclusion is not rightly known except through resolution into the first principles, so also the appetite of a rational creature is not right except through an explicit appetite for God, either actual or habitual.12

Just as we must bring all efficient causes back to God as the principal cause, we must see Him as the end by which all other ends are ends. He is the Good by which all goods have their goodness. For God is the cause of all being and existence, and thus the perfections that are found in things, the desirability that is found in things, is from Him and in Him more excellently. All creatures incline to Him as end, but man can see that He is the final good. He is the final terminus of our wills. When we seek to contemplate Him in all things, it is because we love Him.

12. It is on account of this that Peter DeLuca finds Charity in the heart of the Intellectual life.

God is the best and therefore the most lovable being. To know Him is to love Him and Charity is, first and foremost, the love of God. Love of neighbor springs from that. And therefore, even though it may only be possible “through a glass darkly,” knowing God, even in this life, is good.

Once we see that the contemplation of the Divine is rooted not in the love of our own perfection in some self-focused way, but rather upon the love of God, we begin to see how it is that the intellectual life is a life centered around Charity.

13. For the man who contemplates God in Himself and in His creation is not self-focused; he is focused upon God. He contemplates God not for man’s sake, but rather for love of God. The will rests not in the created goodness of man’s delight, but in God.

14. Moreover, the one who contemplates God in this way conforms himself to God. For knowledge is caused by the experience of truth, which is itself a conformity of the intellect to the being that is known. Aquinas puts it this way in the de Veritate. He says that truth is

…the conformity or adequation of thing and intellect. As we said, the knowledge of a thing is a consequence of this conformity; therefore, it is an effect of truth, even though the fact that the thing is a being is prior to its truth.13

The contemplator of God conforms himself to God.

God’s Goodness is Common or Universal

15. Thus, the objection is overturned in part. The intellectual life as we are considering it (and lived well) aims at God the ultimate end, and thus it does not overemphasize the good that it seeks. And, to bring this back to the Blue Book’s argument that practical knowledge is not an end in itself, we can also see that the intellectual life seeks God in the supreme way.

16. For the practical intellect is ordered to production. It seeks to bring about something. The carpenter brings about a table, the painter brings about the painting, the poet brings about the poem. In all these cases, the artist (fine or otherwise) measures his product by means of his intellect. That is, his vision and understanding and art rule or govern the product.

17. This is a good thing, and even a great thing insofar as it imitates God’s creativity. But for the artist to truly delight in God through this act, he must see or bring into his art the rule and measure of God’s mind, and thus the artist must seek to conform himself and his understanding to the mind of God. In short, he must contemplate God in or through his art, his art is not the end itself. There is a theoretical move that completes the goodness of what he is doing.

18. As the authors of the Blue Book say, “human understanding cannot be perfected by knowledge of an order which it has itself produced.” Thomas clarifies this truth thusly.

Note, however, that a thing is referred differently to the practical intellect than it is to the speculative intellect. Since the practical intellect causes things, it is a measure of what it causes. But, since the speculative intellect is receptive in regard to things, it is, in a certain sense, moved by things and consequently measured by them. It is clear, therefore, that, as is said in the Metaphysics, natural things from which our intellect gets its scientific knowledge measure our intellect. Yet these things are themselves measured by the divine intellect, in which are all created things — just as all works of art find their origin in the intellect of an artist. The divine intellect, therefore, measures and is not measured; a natural thing both measures and is measured; but our intellect is measured, and measures only artifacts, not natural things.14

God’s mind is the rule and measure of things, our mind is the rule and measure of our artifacts (tables, paintings, poems, etc.). Thus the goodness in our artifacts will depend upon our minds being conformed to the mind of God, and it is this latter good that is the contemplation of God. We are not made perfect by a good we produce, but by the uncreated Good.

Charity in the intellectual life

19. Thus the first way of making the objection15 has been answered. The intellectual life is not self-focused, and is indeed focused upon the supreme end — God Himself — in the supreme way. And we have begun to answer the second by seeing that this life is not selfish. However, we can still say how it is that the intellectual life includes a call to service.

20. The simplest way of responding to this second way of making the objection is to point to the facts just established, namely that God is the measure of the intellectual life, and the man who lives according to that measure seeks God according to His — God’s — Goodness. That is, just as God’s goodness is such as to draw all creation to Himself, so also the man who loves God wants to draw all creation to God. Especially the rational nature. To incline to the contemplation of God is to incline to bring all rational natures to contemplate God.

21. To see this point, we have to distinguish two kinds of goods: the common and the private. This is a division according to whose good something is. A common good, strictly speaking, is a good of many at once; its goodness is communicable. The private good is good for only one, and its goodness is not strictly speaking communicable. So, for example, my shoes are private goods – I can enjoy them or use them, but insofar as I am enjoying or using them, no one else can – I can’t communicate or share the goodness of my shoes without giving up their goodness (in this case a kind of utility) as far as I am concerned. Hence the old joke – why should you never criticize someone until you have walked a mile in their shoes? Because then you’ll be a mile away, and they won’t have any shoes. Shoes are good in a privative way, since their goodness is restricted to the one using them (strictly speaking). But when I consider the goodness of truth, of peace, of justice, I am considering goods that are not reduced or restricted to one person’s enjoyment; rather, these goods are sharable. Justice is good for all at once. Truth is enjoyed by many at once without anyone’s enjoyment reducing or restricting the goodness for others.

22. Thus, a common good is a good that rules and measures the one who enjoys it, for it is not tailored to him. A private good is ruled and measured by the one who enjoys it, for its goodness is restricted and tailored to him in his enjoyment of it.

23. God is not only a common good, but the common good. He is the supreme end who is universally the end. He is not just good for all creatures in the way that a kind of private good can be good for many.16 God Himself is the same good for one and for all. Thus, when we consider that it is the goodness of God to which the intellectual life is ordered, and we see that God’s goodness is common or communicable, then we see that the intellectual life is ordered to the supremely communicable Good. To love this good, then, is to love it as it is, that is, to love it as communicable.

24. Aquinas, whom, again, we saw clearly stating that happiness is the vision of God (to the extent that one can have it), argues that even as we advance in the contemplation of God, we advance in the desire to save our fellow man, which would be to share the goodness of contemplation.

We can… consider…three grades in charity, but God ought to be most especially loved for His own sake. For, there are some who freely, or without great vexation, are separated from the leisure of divine contemplation so that they are concerned with earthly affairs, and in these there is apparent either no charity, or very little. Some, however, so delight in the leisure of divine contemplation that they do not want to turn away from it even to apply their service to God to the salvation of their fellowmen. The highest degree, the third, are those who rise to the heights of charity so that even as they advance in divine contemplation, although they are very much delighted in it, serve God in order to save their fellowmen. This is the perfection meant by St. Paul (Rom. ix. 3), For I wished myself to be an anathema from Christ, i.e., separated from Him, for my brethren; and (Philip. i. 23-24), I desire to be dissolved and to be with Christ,... But to abide still in the flesh, is needful for you.

St Paul cannot actually desire to be damned, Thomas explains, but rather when you compare the goodness of one’s participation in the contemplation of God to the participation of the body of Christ in the contemplation, the latter is more desirable even for the individual, for the individual is loving the communicable good more than he loves his participation in that communicable good.

25. To love God for His sake and thus to desire to serve his goodness by saving one’s fellow men, then, doesn’t take away from the desire to contemplate Him. It is specifically the other way around. For, as Aquinas just noted: “Even as [one] advance[s] in divine contemplation,” one is more inclined to serve God and therefore one’s fellow men, for one is more and more conformed to God’s shareable goodness.

26. If this sounds strange to us, I suspect it is only because we are used to think of ‘happiness’ as a private good, as something that belongs to us as individual, autonomous wholes. For, when it comes to obvious common goods, we see that to desire the good is to desire it according to its communicability, which is to say that we desire it while recognizing that it belongs to us as parts of the whole, to which it belongs directly. We say someone is a good team player in a sport when he serves the good of the team, which is found in well-ordered parts, and in victory. We call someone a showboat when he places the good of the team below his private desires for recognition. The team player desires victory as the good of all, and we see and honor this man.

27. Ever so much more so with the courageous man, the soldier who is willing to sacrifice his life for the good of the country. We see that he loves the good of the whole, and recognizes that it belongs to him as a part of that whole. He loves the common good according to its goodness, which belongs, properly speaking, to the whole.

28. Thus, to love the common good according to its goodness is to love it as the good of a whole, of which each of us is a part. Thus, to desire that good in itself is to desire the good of the whole. As John Nieto put it in an article some years ago:

The appetite is satisfied by the same good, a good that can belong to many. But it is more satisfied by that good as possessed by oneself and others, than as possessed only by oneself. The former is a greater satisfaction.17

If we love the good for itself, we love it as the good of all. We want beatitude, it is a common good. If we want it properly, then we want it as the good of the whole body of Christ.

29. Marcus Berquist sums up the whole of this point succinctly and beautifully by means of a failure that we are all likely to suffer at some point in our life here.

How often have you found yourself in the middle of an argument, defending and even advocating a position, because it is your own, even though you can see, if only dimly, through the haze which the passion of disputation creates, that your adversary has a better case? For those of us who are involved in the intellectual life, this is a major stumbling-block and occasion of sin. If the truth is not a common good, what is? If we subordinate the good of truth to the private good of our self-esteem, what excuse can we offer to the One Who is the Truth itself and the Good Who is common to every creature? Given the universal goodness of the truth, the only right attitude is to order oneself to it-–to discover it, communicate it, and defend it.18

This is the goal and the way of the intellectual life. We seek to so conform ourselves to the goodness of the truth (perfected in the knowledge of God’s mind), that we are inspired in all things to discover it, communicate it, and defend it.

30. Thus, when it comes to the corporal works of mercy, for instance, we must say that the pure and complete love of the truth for its own sake inspires us to perform these works for the sake of the ultimate end. We do them and make way for them in the intellectual life, not because we love the goods of our bodies more than the contemplation of God, but because we want the deeper good that requires the bodily goods be attended to. The intellectual life includes a call for service. Indeed, it demands that we serve for love of the contemplation of God.

If I have time, I will elaborate on the following passages.

Some last thoughts on the virtues particular to the intellectual life as we live it here:

II, 45, 6, c. and ad 1: I answer that, The seventh beatitude is fittingly ascribed to the gift of wisdom, both as to the merit and as to the reward. The merit is denoted in the words, "Blessed are the peacemakers." Now a peacemaker is one who makes peace, either in himself, or in others: and in both cases this is the result of setting in due order those things in which peace is established, for "peace is the tranquillity of order," according to Augustine (De Civ. Dei xix, 13). Now it belongs to wisdom to set things in order, as the Philosopher declares (Metaph. i, 2), wherefore peaceableness is fittingly ascribed to wisdom. The reward is expressed in the words, "they shall be called the children of God." Now men are called the children of God in so far as they participate in the likeness of the only-begotten and natural Son of God, according to Rm. 8:29, "Whom He foreknew... to be made conformable to the image of His Son," Who is Wisdom Begotten. Hence by participating in the gift of wisdom, man attains to the sonship of God.

Reply to Objection 1: It belongs to charity to be at peace, but it belongs to wisdom to make peace by setting things in order. Likewise the Holy Ghost is called the "Spirit of adoption" in so far as we receive from Him the likeness of the natural Son, Who is the Begotten Wisdom.

II-II, 45, 2 c.: Now this sympathy or connaturality for Divine things is the result of charity, which unites us to God, according to 1 Cor. 6:17: "He who is joined to the Lord, is one spirit." Consequently wisdom which is a gift, has its cause in the will, which cause is charity, but it has its essence in the intellect, whose act is to judge aright, as stated above (FS, Question [14], Article [1]).

II-II, 45, 4, c. and ad 3: The wisdom which is a gift of the Holy Ghost, as stated above (Article [1]), enables us to judge aright of Divine things, or of other things according to Divine rules, by reason of a certain connaturalness or union with Divine things, which is the effect of charity, as stated above (Article [2]; Question [23], Article [5]). Hence the wisdom of which we are speaking presupposes charity. Now charity is incompatible with mortal sin, as shown above (Question [24], Article [12]). Therefore it follows that the wisdom of which we are speaking cannot be together with mortal sin.

Reply to Objection 3: Although wisdom is distinct from charity, it presupposes it, and for that very reason divides the children of perdition from the children of the kingdom.

Aquinas’ last words (Torrell, St Thomas Aquinas, vol. 1 293):

I receive you, price of my soul’s redemption, I receive you, viaticum of my pilgrimage, for love of whom I have studied, watched, labored; I have preached you, I have taught you; never have I said anything against you, and if I have done so it is through ignorance and I do not grow stubborn in my error; if I have taught ill on this sacrament or the others, I submit it to the judgment of the Holy Roman Church, in obedience to which I leave now this life.


[1] As we affectionately call the founding document of our college (A Proposal for the Fulfillment of Catholic Liberal Education).

[2] 35-36.

[3] Right away, we should note that the authors follow the above with, “Does this mean that the free man is selfish? It would be strange indeed to say that a man loses his freedom when he lives for the sake of the community. Rather, since the good of a community exists in its members, even though he does not pursue a private advantage, he is yet pursuing a good which he himself shares. By contrast, the slave, insofar as he is a slave, is ordered to an end which he does not share. Therefore, the life of the free man properly consists of such activities as are in themselves worthwhile.” I will be explaining this in the following.

[4] 36

[5] 38

[6] A very modern confusion.

[7] 36

[8] 37-38

[9] 37

[10] Bk. X, Chapter

[11]  For two examples, see, first, Peter Deluca’s essay on Liberal Education and Citizenship,[11] where he traces out Aristotle’s argument from the general account of happiness, through the account of the moral virtues and the account of practical reason, to the account of happiness most properly considered in the perfection of wisdom wherein man contemplates God; another one of the founders and authors of the Blue Book, Mark Berquist points to this same conclusion in the orientation seminars for all freshmen, we read an essay on The Liberal arts and the Humanities, where he argues for the intellectual life as we live it here, and presents Aristotle’s notion of happiness as the supreme end of man and of this education. His emphasis is on the startling nature of this claim, for, as Aristotle puts it, “such a life (would) seem to be too high for man…”, and he can only live it insofar as there is something “divine” in him. This divine thing is the intellect, which, though a created power, can draw all things back to the source of creation, and in them contemplate the mind of the creator.)

[12] QD de Veritate, 22, 2 (Leonine ed., v. 22, 617, 54-71).

[13] QD De Veritate, Q. 1, A. 1, c. (Marietti VIII ed., 3). “Prima ergo comparatio entis ad intellectum est ut ens intellectui concordet: quae quidem concordia adaequatio intellectus et rei dicitur; et in hoc formaliter ratio veri perficitur. Hoc est ergo quod addit verum super ens, scilicet conformitatem, sive adaequationem rei et intellectus; ad quam conformitatem, ut dictum est, sequitur cognitio rei. Sic ergo entitas rei praecedit rationem veritatis, sed cognitio est quidam veritatis effectus.

[14] QD De Veritate, Q. 1, A. 2, c. (Marietti VIII ed., 5)

[15] That is, arguing that the intellectual life is not ordered to the highest good in the highest way.

[16] (I can say shoes are good for many people, but not because any pair of shoes is enjoyed by many at once)

[17] John Nieto, “The Axiomatic Character of the Principle that the Common Good is Preferable to the Private Good,” The Aquinas Review (2007, 131).

[18] Berquist, “On Common Goods and Private Goods,” 422-423.


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