• Thomas M. Ward

Disability and Medieval Philosophy?

Yes. My friend, Scott Williams, has put together an excellent book bringing the academic field of disability studies into dialogue with scholarship in medieval philosophy and theology. The project took shape over about five years and three conferences. (The image of the book is linked to its Amazon page if you want to take a look at the Table of Contents.)

I contributed a very short piece on Aquinas's understanding of what it takes to make human beings completely blessed. Turns out: a lot! Our longing always outstrips our ability to achieve what we desire. So we are dependent on God to save us. What does this have to do with disability? Well, relative to those saints who have already made it to heaven, we pilgrims here below are, all of us, disabled, and this fact should both humble and unite us.

Here in this post I am pasting the first and last two paragraphs, to give you a better sense of what I'm up to:

"Many medieval Christian theologians taught that the highest human good is a certain kind of relationship to God, a relationship ofenjoyment, often referred to asbeatific vision, in which the intellect has immediate access to the divine essence such that the desires of the will are fully satisfied. It was a commonplace among these theologians that a human being does not have the ability to enjoy the divine essence exclusively by his or her own efforts. This disability is not just due to the fact that human beings were understood to be damaged by original sin. Even supposing there had been no sin, we still would not be able to reach beatific vision by our own abilities. No other person or any created thing is equipped to help us, therefore only God can raise us to that naturally unobtainable natural end of beatific vision. On Thomas Aquinas's account of beatific vision—probably the most well-known medieval account—we need both an extrinsic power added to our nature, and a divine actualization of that power, that is, God both adds an ability to our human nature which we do not by nature possess, and also activates that power. Fancifully, to reach God's heaven, God himself must strap the rocket pack onto your back and then turn it on. This view warrants the following claims, which I want to develop and defend in this paper: for Aquinas, human well-being does not consist in the full actualization of the powers intrinsic to human nature. In this respect, Aquinas's understanding of human being and well-being constitutes a radical departure from the eudaimonistic essentialism of Aristotle. Relative to the ones blessed with beatific vision, every merely human being, however excellent by Aristotle's standards, is disabled.


Let me close by suggesting what an atheist or agnostic might be able to value in Aquinas's reflections on the beatific vision, as these pertain to the relationship between disability and human well-being. Suppose there is no God; then there is no beatific vision. But Aquinas's teaching about the will's restlessness, its natural tendency to go on desiring goodness no matter what degree or kinds of finite goodness it enjoys, is plausible. If it's right, then no finite good, including complete success in the category of being human, can be that in which human well-being consists. So an Aristotelian conception of human nature should not dictate the conditions under which a human being has well-being. Being disabled, in current ordinary linguistic practice, involves lacking some ability belonging to human nature, an ability which is taken to make one who has it better off, ceteris paribus, than another who lacks it. But if we have no good reason to suppose that success in the category of being human is the key to a happy life, then we should resist current practice. Human desiring does not max out when human nature maxes out, and maxing out human nature is not even instrumentally ordered to maxing out human desiring.

What to do then with this desiring, this infinite longing? Aquinas's answer is to affirm the longing but to reject as mere fantasy a trust that human medicine or politics or commerce will satisfy this longing. A different sort of answer is to reject the longing. It makes us restless; unhappiness is a necessary corollary of it. We might then acknowledge the wisdom in the Four Noble Truths, that human desire is the cause of suffering and the only way to alleviate suffering and so achieve whatever degree of not-horribleness we humans are capable of achieving, is to quell desire through asceticism. A third way, more reflective of current practice in so-called postmodern societies, is to go all in for desire but reject the transcendent and (by merely human powers) unreachable conditions for its full satiation. For all we know about the human condition in a godless world, we should let our restless wills seek out their own paths to their own versions of the best life. Of course, in such a world, it also turns out that human well-being is impossible. With a restless will and no God, human life is fundamentally tragic. Hopefully those inclined to this tragic vision can make the best of it. But making the best of it will not entail, or even make it likely, that only those lives possessing all the goods intrinsic to human nature are candidates for the best sort of happiness we human beings can have. In this respect, a modern hedonist consumerist and the medieval Dominican friar are allies."

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