Health as a Virtue: Thomas Aquinas and The Practice of Habits of Health

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A couple months back as I was browsing the Wipf & Stock website, looking through Princeton Theological Monograph Series titles, this book caught my eye. Written by Melanie Dobson, a Methodist pastor with a Th.D in theology from Duke, Health as a Virtue: Thomas Aquinas and The Practice of Habits of Health is a book that uses wisdom from the past for practical theology in the present. I’m finding myself more and more interested in habit formation, and since I teach a health class (read: P.E.) at school, this seemed worth the read.

As I got into it, I discovered Dobson writes as someone who struggles with a chronic illness (ix). During her doctoral work, she was struck by Aquinas making frequent references to “health” in a section of his writings on Habit. Her basic argument is that Aquinas understands health as part of the moral life (ix). In the book, she not only fleshes this out, but she provides evidence of field research she completed involved a Clergy Health Initiative program in the UMC, as well as an evangelical organization called Word Made Flesh. She conducted interviews with participants in both of these programs to see if Aquinas’ insights actually worked. As she concludes her preface,

I offer to you, my readers, not a quick-fix diet book or exercise plan for greater physical health. To practice health as a virtue in accordance with Aquinas’s thinking engages all of our being. However, flourishing with God is worth the moral effort. May you be well. (x)

From here, after brief acknowledgements, she launches into the first part of the book. The opening chapter briefly recounts her personal journey, setting the stage for groundwork in Aristotle in chapter 2. With this foundation laid, she moves to Aquinas’ account of habit in general (chapter 3), and his writing on health in particular (chapter 4). In this latter chapter she correlates the seven aspects of habit with Aquinas’ thought on health. For Aquinas, habits

  • Have a lasting quality
  • Orient to action
  • Bear repeating
  • Increase, decrease, and are corruptible
  • Constitute virtue
  • Can be infused by God
  • Have a telos

She notes in conclusion:

Aquinas adopts, adapts, and elaborates upon Aristotelian philosophy of habit and health to develop his own moral strategy. Aquinas offers dual meanings of health that allow both for health to be a status, and a habit. Health as a status retains no moral component, and fluctuates dependent upon a person’s heredity, immune system, and constitution. At the same time health can comprise part of a virtuous life as a person cultivates lasting habits in order to care for her wellbeing (38).

She goes on to clarify by way of summary that health for Aquinas is not synonymous with the WHO definition, salvation, the summum bonum, or an idol. From here, Dobson moves to a section of four chapters that take this notion of habit and health and apply it into several areas. She starts with the interface of body and soul (chapter 5), before exploring our passions/desires and their relationship to our health (chapter 6). Then, she examines the actions of habits of health (chapter 7) before finishing out the first part of the book looking at the end or telos of habits of health. The final section of the book details her two case studies mentioned above before a brief concluding chapter.

Though I’ve done some reading on healthy living and practical theology, I think this is the first book that is rigorously theological in its approach to health. There is much wisdom to be found in Aquinas on habit formation, so this makes for a helpful read to orient you to health in theological perspective. Because Dobson lives with a chronic illness herself, she doesn’t present the insights as if they will guarantee you won’t get sick or struggle with a disease. Rather, she present health as a habit of the body and soul that one lives out in spite of sickness and disease. Not everyone who gets sick is living an unhealthy lifestyle and not everyone who seems healthy on the outside actually is. Dobson’s work will help provide a theological framework for thinking about this topic, as well as open avenues for further exploration.

Melanie L. Dobson, Health as a Virtue: Thomas Aquinas and The Practice of Habits of Health (Princeton Theological Monograph Series). Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, June 2014. 170 pp. Paperback,$20.00.

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Thanks to Pickwick Publications for the review copy!

Author: Nate

I'm an avid reader, musician, and high school Bible teacher living in central Florida. I have many paperback books and our house smells of rich glade air freshners. If you want to know more, then let's connect!

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