The other day a Twitterbot called @AquinasQuotes tweeted this:
While others retweeted it and favorited it and seemed to identify with it, I thought the translation sounded ungainly and struggled to make sense of it.
As I’ve noted before, most philosophy bots seem to operate without editorial (let alone philosophical) oversight; so it’s no surprise to find misattributions, awkward translations, sentences taken out of context and once coherent thoughts rendered nonsensical. There’s often not much editorial discernment on the other end of the communication, either; if it sounds vaguely encouraging and uplifting, it will find an audience.
The quotable items the bots serve up usually appear without any link or citation that would allow them to be tracked down and read in context, and in most cases they aren’t even lifted from a work of philosophy. Instead, they’ve been pulled from some existing compilation of quotations — which was made, in the majority of cases, from some other compilation. We are almost always at several removes from the original text.
In this case, I tracked down the quotation about living well and working well to the Summa Theologiae, 1ae-2ae Question LVII Article 5. Here Aquinas takes up the question: Is Prudence A Virtue Necessary to Man? The full argument runs as follows in the translation by the English Dominican fathers.
Prudence is a virtue most necessary for human life. For a good life consists in good deeds (bene enim vivere consistit in bene operari). Now in order to do good deeds, it matters not only what a man does, but also how he does it; to wit, that he do it from right choice and not merely from impulse or passion. And, since choice is about things in reference to the end, rectitude of choice requires two things: namely, the due end, and something suitably ordained to that due end. Now man is suitably directed to his due end by a virtue which perfects the soul in the appetitive part, the object of which is the good and the end. And to that which is suitably ordained to the due end man needs to be rightly disposed by a habit in his reason, because counsel and choice, which are about things ordained to the end, are acts of the reason. Consequently an intellectual virtue is needed in the reason, to perfect the reason, and make it suitably affected towards things ordained to the end; and this virtue is prudence. Consequently prudence is a virtue necessary to lead a good life.
I understand the impulse to get away from “a good life consists in good deeds” or “good works,” but the translation of bene operari as “to work well, to show a good activity” doesn’t really help. First, it tries too hard to articulate the Latin verb, so that instead of a simple construction (“to work well”), we have to grapple with an unnatural sounding doublet. The English Dominicans seem to have understood that it’s not really all that necessary to fuss over the verb operor here, since Aquinas spends the rest of the article breaking down what he means by it: not only what we do but how we do it, from right choice rather than merely from passion or impulse, and so on. And if we try to parse “show a good activity” we might run into other problems, since it could easily be confused with hypocritical display.
The trouble seems to have started with the publication of Father Joseph Rickaby’s Aquinas Ethicus in 1896, where the Stonyhurst philosopher offered “to live well is to work well, or display a good activity”. I’m still not sure what Rickaby was trying to accomplish with this doubling of the verb (why “display”? why “a” good activity?) and by what contortions he managed to get the adjective “good” for the second half of his doublet from the adverb bene. I take it that with “display a good activity” he’s reaching for something like Aristotle’s “activity of the soul in conformity with excellence or virtue” and that in bene vivere consistit bene operari the Jesuit hears Aquinas hearkening back to Aristotle’s definition of eudaimonia or happiness as eu zen (living well) and eu prattein (doing well).
It’s unfortunate that Rickaby did not consult with his friend Gerard Manley Hopkins for a more felicitous phrase. The thing might at least have had some rhythm to it.
In any case, it was only a matter of time before someone tried to make things a little more natural sounding and came upon the word “show.” (I haven’t yet tracked him down, but I should.) That’s how we find Rickaby’s doublet reproduced (without comment) by creativity guru Julia Cameron in her book Walking In this World, in Forbes magazine’s “Thoughts on the Business of Life” feature, and on a whole batch of sites offering inspiring quotations to live by.
I wonder how Forbes readers or Cameron’s readers make sense of this sentence from the Summa, without the benefit of Aquinas’ explication. Do they find in it something like Garrison Keillor’s exhortation at the end of Writer’s Almanac to “do good work”? Or do meaningful work? Or do the work to which one is called? (Can we still talk meaningfully about vocation?) I wonder, too, whether it genuinely clarifies things for them, or why they might wish to identify with the statement and pretend to themselves and others that it clarifies things or inspires them.
This isn’t just a matter of being fussy or snobby about the misreading of Aquinas or deploring the degeneration of philosophy into a meme, though I do have that reflex, I confess. I’m noticing something else happening here, and it has to do with confusion that Rickaby’s doublet causes, or at least fails to resolve, for modern readers around the English word “work.”
Consider just for a moment the appearance of this sentence from the Summa in Cameron’s book on creativity. It hangs there in the margin on page 105, as a gloss on the following passage: “When we start saying ‘Can’t, because I’m working,’ our life starts to work again. We start to feel our artist begin to trust us again and to ante up more ideas.” We have to make room for “our artist,” who retreats when we are busy and over-scheduled, to come out and play. Then and only then will our life “work” again. That’s Cameron’s word, not mine; she’s saying that when we cordon off time for artistic work, our life “works” — makes sense or becomes meaningful again.
This idea of a life that works should bring us back into the territory of eudaimonia as human flourishing, or happy activity; the life of the working artist flows, but not because she acts in accordance with virtue, but because she takes measures to care for the self and allows “her artist,” or what used to be called her genius, to come forward without fear or interference. “We forget that we actually need a self for self expression,” Cameron continues, and that is why we have to say “no” to invitations and other demands on our time: “Instead of being coaxed into one more overextension of our energies in the name of helping others, we can help ourselves by coaxing our artist out with the promise of some protected time to be listened to, talked with, and interacted with.”
The notion of an artist abiding within us who needs to be drawn out and cared for and listened to would be entirely foreign to Aquinas and the Aristotelian ethics on which the Summa draws. That aside, I’m sympathetic to the argument Cameron is making here. Just recently I wrote admiringly of Ingmar Bergman’s “disciplined solitude,” and I know firsthand how hard and how critical it is to secure protected time in order to do one’s work. There’s that word again: work. Maybe it’s always been a confusing word, and maybe that’s why in the 19th century Rickaby felt he had to render it with that doublet. But I have to point out that the “work” of artists, writers, craftsmen, creative people — the work Cameron wants us to put aside time for so that our lives will start to work again — isn’t at all the work Aquinas is talking about at this juncture in the Summa.
In fact, Aquinas takes great pains in this part of the Summa to draw a sharp distinction between the work of the artist and the performance of action: following Aristotle, he distinguishes the artist’s making (facere) from doing (agere); and with this distinction in mind he defines art as “right reason about things to be made” and prudence as “right reason about things to be done.” So the considerations that apply to “working well” or prudent action do not apply to the artist’s work. “The good of an art is to be found, not in the craftsman, but in the product of the art.”
Consequently art does not require of the craftsman that his act be a good act, but that his work be good (ad artem non requiritur quod artifex bene operetur, sed quod bonum opus faciat)….the craftsman needs art, not that he may live well, but that he may produce a good work of art, and have it in good keeping: whereas prudence is necessary to man, that he may lead a good life (bene vivendum) and not merely that he may be a good man.
By the time we’ve gotten to Cameron’s book and its ideas about creativity, the quotation from the Summa has lost all connection to Aristotlelian ideas about “work” as virtuous action and the other-directed performance of duties (or what Aquinas calls the “due end” of action). Instead, the focus has shifted here entirely to the self and the demands of “self-expression.” What Father Rickaby called “the display of a good activity” is now sounding more like self-display. Through accidents of translation and misreading, the idea of work that Father Rickaby tried to capture in his doublet has drifted from an activity of the soul in conformity with excellence — or virtue — to what might amount to nothing more than the production of an elaborate selfie.