Joseph Pilsner

in The Specification of Human Actions in St Thomas Aquinas

Published in print April 2006 | ISBN: 9780199286058
Published online May 2006 | e-ISBN: 9780191603808 | DOI:

Series: Oxford Theological Monographs


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A circumstance is an attendant property of an action. In murder, for instance, one might take note of the time, the type of weapon, or the perpetrator’s height. Although Aquinas in some contexts denies that any circumstance can give form and species to a human action, in other contexts, he asserts that at least some circumstances do, as when the ‘sacredness’ of a stolen chalice further defines ‘theft’ as ‘sacrilege’. The key to understanding this apparent contradiction lies in recognizing that a human action can be viewed from two perspectives. The very same property in an action can be incidental when an action is considered apart from a comparison to right reason, but essential when this standard is invoked. For instance, the fact that an item being stolen happens to be ‘sacred’ is just one circumstance among many until the action is compared to right reason; then this property ‘sacred’ is recognized as part of what constitutes sacrilege and essential to its object. When speaking with greater precision, Aquinas admits that a property essential in a comparison to right reason (such as ‘sacred’ in sacrilege) even deserves a new name, instead of a ‘circumstance’ it should be called a ‘condition’ or ‘difference’ of an object.

Keywords: accident; circumstance; condition; difference; human action; object; proportion; right reason; species; specification

Chapter.  12521 words. 

Subjects: Christian Theology

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