Volume 30, Issue 1, Spring/Summer 2010
Is Martyrdom Virtuous?
An Occasion for Rethinking the Relation of Christ and Virtue in Aquinas
IN HIS NICOMACHEAN ETHICS, ARISTOTLE ARGUES THAT MOST DEATHS are contemptible and offer no opportunity for the exercise of virtue. Thomas Aquinas, on the other hand, considers the publicly shameful death of the martyr to be not only the highest exemplification of the virtue of courage but also the greatest proof of moral perfection more generally. What accounts for this substantial divergence from Aristotle on the possibility of virtuous action in death? This essay investigates the theologically informed metaphysical and anthropological framework within which Aquinas situates his claims and then explores the implications of these claims for his broader ethical appropriation of Aristotelian virtue theory. It ultimately intends to show the extent to which Aquinas's conception of virtue depends upon a theological and specifically Christological understanding of human perfection.