Thomas Pfau’s book Minding the Modern is a book of immense scope. About half the work (parts II and III) consists of an ambitious historical genealogy. The other half (the prolegomena and part IV) presents a sustained philosophical argument about human personhood and moral agency. Although Pfau places the work of Samuel Taylor Coleridge at the center of his examination of modernity, the conceptual protagonist of the book is Thomas Aquinas, whose theory of moral agency is seen to afford a robust account of human freedom that is grounded in rational volition: free decisions based on human conscience, practical judgment, teleological aims toward natural goods, virtuous choice making.

Pfau’s retrieval of medieval thought is not presented in a nostalgic light, as the expression of an exaggerated alienation from all things modern. On the contrary, in open indebtedness to Hans-Georg Gadamer, Pfau is clearly seeking to employ modern genealogical history as a means to renew intellectual life in an interdisciplinary way. His treatment of classical authors whose resources he wishes to draw on positively (Aristotle, Augustine, Aquinas) is complemented by extended discussion of modern authors one might appeal to against nominalist theories of volition (Coleridge, John Henry Newman, Edmund Husserl, to name only some). Ultimately the goal of the book is to diagnose the crisis of university education in our own age, and to re-envisage the study of the humanities, enriched by a personalist ontology drawn from classical sources.

Since I am a Thomist and largely sympathetic to what Pfau is trying to do, I will limit myself here to three points, briefly considered. What is it principally that he writing against? How does Aquinas’ theory of moral agency help him in this case? How successful is his appeal to Aquinas? Phrased differently, does his appropriation of the latter have enough internal conceptual coherence to sustain the project he is undertaking?

A good indication of what Pfau is writing against is found in chapter 14 (“Good or Commodity”) where he lists six “axioms” that tend to inform modern academic study in the humanities (425-27): those of specialization of research area, historical contextualism, skepticism regarding overarching normative commitments, admission of marketplace pluralism, knowledge as a form of emancipation from the constraints of pre-modern ignorance, and intellectual critique as the guarantor of historical progress. Behind these trends in contemporary academia, Pfau perceives the influences of empiricist materialism and procedural liberalism, animated by a reductive (and largely incoherent) utilitarian account of the human will and moral agency. Pfau does not treat postmodernist theorists like Friedrich Nietzsche or Michel Foucault as the primary sources of the fracturing of academic culture, but as a kind of ally. Their criticisms of the incoherence of modern liberalism allows one better to contest the depths of the philosophical questions raised by moral theory in modernity.

Pfau’s account of modernity’s woes is based on a substantive historical argument. He carefully draws out an arc, first of discovery and then of progressive loss, the ascent from Aristotle to Aquinas and then the descent through the voluntarism of nominalism, from William of Ockham to Thomas Hobbes (the main culprits), onward to John Locke, David Hume and Adam Smith. This is a story that has frequently been recounted in Dominican and Thomist circles. The rise of fourteenth-century nominalist theories radically obscured the metaphysics of human nature, and affirmed a theory of voluntarism and an ethics of obligation (based on divine commandments) that effectively denuded the human moral act of any sufficient reference to the norms of intellectual light and to metaphysical realism.

The story has been told in modernity by many, perhaps in its most sophisticated forms by people like Étienne Gilson, Servais Pinckaers, Alasdair MacIntyre, and Olivier Boulnois. Pfau contributes to this tradition. Personally, I found the genealogical portrait he composed particularly well done. It was limited in scope, not overly ambitious, and well-documented. Perhaps most importantly, Pfau consistently had methodological recourse to his ontological views of human personhood in the way he treated his narrative of intellectual history. The views of Hobbes do not descend by some kind of compulsory logic from those of Ockham. Each human being is a free and creative agent influenced by and reacting to the questions of his age. But at the same time, the influence of one upon the other is undeniable, and it is difficult to see how a thinker like Hobbes, Locke or Hume would have been able to develop freely the form of thought each does without the noteworthy influences of the precedent thinkers. What is more, Pfau does present a clear arc of development across the spectrum of history, giving us an enriched sense of how our own intellectual horizon and cultural context was formed.

The problem, then, is that modern conceptions of moral agency seem more typically than not to be embedded within frameworks of materialism and skepticism that are metaphysically reductive. This in turn gives rise to a utilitarian and market-driven philosophy of intellectual life that threatens to undermine the very practice of humanities education, and the project of enlightened modern reason. Of how much help is Aquinas in this context? I think Pfau is right to note that the Thomistic theory of moral agency is immensely rich when compared with virtually any modern philosophical analysis, and that it can provide a realistic account of personhood that has direct implications for domains such as literature and the arts. Toward this end, let me give a couple of illustrations dealing particularly with the relationship between the intellect and the will.

In question six of the De Malo, Aquinas famously poses the question of whether the will is primary in human action or intellect: which precedes and determines the other in the concrete exercise of human acts? Here he introduces a distinction so as to establish a dual primacy. In the order of specification, our knowledge informs our deliberate, voluntary acts. We can only love, desire or choose what we already in some way know, or have cognizance of. Consequently, all volition occurs only in or through the medium of our conceptual awareness of and reflection about reality. However, in the concrete “exercise” of human reason, the loves and voluntary preferences of the human will affect directly that which we attend to deliberately, and what it is that we choose to think about. In short, in the order of formal determinations, knowledge precedes love (without reducing our choice-making to an intellectual determinism). With respect to efficient causality, the will directs reason toward a variety of objects that can be preferred or neglected.

The advantage of this account is that it allows us to see that human loves are in some way always rationally chosen (even when choices are either more intuitive, or emotional) because they occur through the film of some grade of knowledge. But the loves of the human heart deeply affect the direction taken by our rational deliberation. We choose to think about what we love. This theory gives plenary insistence to the primacy of reason in moral action but it also allows one to take into consideration the many ways will can affect a given individual or entire culture, luring us into opaque and delusional ways of thinking that allow us to maintain unrealistic or amoral structures of behavior. Aquinas allows us to circumvent, then, the false modern dialectic between the hegemonic pretensions of ahistorical “universal reason” and the postmodern methods of historical contextualization and moral suspicion of all “given” rational structures. His account allows one to acknowledge profound truths in each of these tendencies in modern hermeneutics, while heavily qualifying and correcting each position.

A second example is closely related to the one just given. In the Summa Theologiæ I-II, qq. 6-21 Aquinas provides an account of concrete human actions that specifies twelve “moments” in human volition, six pertaining to the intellect and six pertaining to the will. The apprehension of a given end (the good of academic learning, for example) gives rise to voluntary love and desire for that end. The intellect can then judge that the object loved is a true end, which allows us to form a voluntary intention to pursue it. Deliberation about various means to attain the end passes over into free consent regarding a given means, and a forthcoming further judgment to engage in a concrete act of decision. This leads to an elective choice, an intellectual command to execute the concrete act, and further judgments about whether one has obtained the end. The process culminates in the enjoyment of the end possessed.

This somewhat schematic articulation of the structure of human freedom has a noteworthy advantage in that it permits both normative and elective accounts of human freedom to be understood in harmony with one another. We neither create ourselves through our acts of free choice, nor are our acts naturally compelled. There are certain goods that human beings typically love and desire “by nature” (friendship, material security, justice, knowledge), and at the same time, we only discover “what” we are through deliberate prudential action, within the context of larger communities of cooperation and tradition. The freedom of indetermination (to choose as we wish) is only possible because of loves that pertain to our rational nature. Yet our natural capacity to love rationally works itself out only through the history of our deliberation and choice-making in our relational life with others. The artistic, moral, and intellectual virtues develop not so much according to predictable patterns, but as the ever-new expression of the hidden reserves of our nature.

Finally, I would like to note a couple of concerns I have about Pfau’s larger project based upon what appear to be theoretical inconsistencies that appear in his book. The first concerns teleology. Pfau is quite sensitive to the fact that his teleological account of human action requires grounding in an ontology of human personhood, and he gives developed articulation to a conception of the human person in part IV of his book. However, ambiguities remain. For example, what is the relation between teleology in human action and the larger question of teleological processes in the natural world, especially in light of the modern scientific revolution? Thomists in the modern era have developed sophisticated answers to this question that give due weight to the discoveries of particle physics and evolutionary theory, and that also indicate ways of speaking rightly about teleology emergent in non-human natural forms. Pfau does not have to “solve” this problem but he does need to indicate solutions to the question, especially if he wants to recover a classical Aristotelian notion of “substantial form,” as he says he does.

More serious is Pfau’s claim that the existence of God is something that philosophical reason can never “demonstrate” (140, 155, 480, 604). While he clearly has in mind the intellectual foibles of eighteenth-century rationalist deism (e.g. the search for quasi-geometric proofs of unavoidable persuasiveness), Pfau makes the mistake of claiming that Aquinas himself does not seek to demonstrate the existence of God. This is surely false, historically speaking. Not only does Aquinas repeatedly say the opposite, but thirteenth-century theologians generally were influenced by the Posterior Analytics in trying to determine the rational warrant for saying naturally true things about God. The point here is more than pedantic. Pfau recognizes that his own conception of rational agency requires an ontological foundation immanently in the human person (i.e. the soul) as well as a transcendent giver or origin in God, one that can only be denoted analogically. (His treatment of analogical discourse about God in Aquinas is superb.) The problem is that if these points of orienting ontological reference cannot be known through the medium of philosophical reason, then they can be understood only through the medium of faith, articulated in and through a longstanding theological tradition. In his closing pages Pfau writes against Immanuel Kant’s critical delimitation of human rationality (with its philosophical prohibitions on knowledge of God and the soul), but it may be the case that Pfau himself transcends the Kantian prohibitions on speculative reason only by recourse to a kind of fideist traditionalism. In this case, his project is more voluntarist and irrationalist than he might wish to admit. Or so one suspects. An adequate account of mindful freedom might require an even more pronounced retrieval of the philosophy of being, personhood and God than Pfau seems ready to admit. And yet, this stronger conception of philosophical reason that I am advocating might make a book like this into something more prototypically modern and not less so. Here I would defer to the simultaneously classical and modern vision of Dei Filius, at the First Vatican Council, which I think makes the necessary discernments in this domain. Our capacity for metaphysical reasoning about God is frail enough that it is greatly aided by a religious tradition to sustain it, but a healthy tradition is also one that insists perpetually on the integral structure of philosophical analysis in the domain of religion.

All this said, I am grateful to the author for producing this important book, which merits a wide audience and attentive discussion of its many noteworthy intellectual merits.