Economics is a Wisdom

I’m teaching a philosophical theology elective this fall, with Aquinas (surprise, surprise) serving as the backbone of the course (though with a good measure of Anselm and Tolkien thrown in as well). One of the central themes of the class, moreover, is what I refer to as Aquinas’s “grammar and logic of divine action”: the way in which he draws from the fundamental principles of human action–including such concepts as ends, goods, intellect, will, choice, power, etc.–in order to articulate what we can know (albeit analogically and negatively) about God’s own being and action; but also the way in which, in doing so, Aquinas effectively establishes God as the first, ideal or paradigmatic actor against which all human action, including specifically economic action, is ultimately to be compared and understood. For Aquinas, in sum, our theology of divine action is both informed by and informative of the grammar and logic of human action.

The Aquinas readings in the course begin where Aquinas himself commences his two great works of theology and philosophy, the Summa Theologiae and the Summa Contra Gentiles. In the opening passages of these works I identify at least four distinct levels or respects in which I think economics might be seen to be not only relevant but integral to Aquinas’s overall theological and philosophical project. The first (I’ll address the other three in subsequent posts) has to do with the fact that, as Aquinas argues in Summa Contra Gentiles 1.1 (see passage below), the most universal and encompassing mode of all human inquiry and knowledge is philosophy, or “wisdom,” which he characterizes as the knowledge of things in their ordering towards their end. Thus, a particular branch of philosophy or wisdom, such as architecture, he says, consists in the knowledge of particular things as they are ordered to a particular end, while a more universal wisdom, such as theology, is that which understands a more universal order of things as they are ordered to a more universal end. But if so, then economics, which I define, in a certain Thomistic revision of Lionel Robbin’s well-known and influential definition, as the science of action in its use of scarce means as they are ordered to a desired end, is to be properly classified as a branch or sub-discipline within philosophy or wisdom. Economics, in short, is a wisdom. 

SCG 1.1: “The Office of the Wise Man”

The usage of the multitude, which according to the Philosopher is to be followed in giving names to things, has commonly held that they are to be called wise who order things rightly and govern them well. Hence, among other things that men have conceived about the wise man, the Philosopher includes the notion that “it belongs to the wise man to order.” Now, the rule of government and order for all things directed to an end must be taken from the end. For, since the end of each thing is its good, a thing is then best disposed when it is fittingly ordered to its end. And so we see among the arts that one functions as the governor and the ruler of another because it controls its end. Thus, the art of medicine rules and orders the art of the chemist because health, with which medicine is concerned, is the end of all the medications prepared by the art of the chemist. A similar situation obtains in the art of ship navigation in relation to shipbuilding, and in the military art with respect to the equestrian art and the equipment of war. The arts that rule other arts are called architectonic, as being the ruling arts. That is why the artisans devoted to these arts, who are called master artisans, appropriate to themselves the name of wise men. But, since these artisans are concerned, in each case, with the ends of certain particular things, they do not reach to the universal end of all things. They are therefore said to be wise with respect to this or that thing; in which sense it is said that “as a wise architect, I have laid the foundation” (1 Cor. 3:10). The name of the absolutely wise man, however, is reserved for him whose consideration is directed to the end of the universe, which is also the origin of the universe. That is why, according to the Philosopher, it belongs to the wise man to consider the highest causes.

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2 thoughts on “Economics is a Wisdom

  1. Do not the last two sentnces of the quotation imply that philosophy, if universal enough, is indistinguishable from, or, overlaps with, the contemplation of God in Himself ?

    Or is the difference that theology contemplates the Transcendent and Immanent God, whereas philosophy is confined to the created universe so that it does not look outside of it ?

    Can philosophy, without theology, ascend by its own natural power to the contemplation of ultimate causes – or if it sets out to do that, is that itself evidence that it is moved, though unaware of this, by God’s grace ?

    Your posts are never less than thought-provoking. Thank you. I “envy” your students.

    • Hi James. One way to put it is to say that, insofar as philosophy is the knowledge of things as they are ordered towards their end, and the end of all things (including philosophy!) is God and, for us, our contemplation of God, then the culmination of philosophy is the contemplation of God.

      So no, philosophy would not be limited to the knowledge of creatures, though the knowledge of creatures (as they are ordered towards their ends, both proximate and more remote) would be included within philosophy. On this understanding, insofar as biology took the ends of living things seriously and as irreducible, would be a branch of philosophy. Insofar as biology, however, denied the reality of the ends of living things by attributing them ultimately to entirely accidental causes, would be anti-philosophical.

      Finally, for Aquinas philosophy can “without theology” (if by that you mean divine revelation or supernatural grace) know that God exists as the first cause and can know certain negative attributes about him (e.g., divine simplicity, immutability, eternity, infinity, etc.), though he also says that, practically speaking, even this philosophical, natural, or rational knowledge of God is possible only by an elite few, only after a very long period of study, and even then it will be “mixed with much error” (making revelation practically necessary even in those areas where reason is otherwise, at least in principle, competent to act). But our ultimate end of knowledge of God in his essence (what you refer to as the “contemplation of God”) Aquinas says this is only possible by a supernatural act of grace.

      Hope that helps!
      Blessings,
      Jonathan

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