Melanie L. Dobson, Health as a Virtue, Thomas Aquinas and the Practice of Habits of Health. Cambridge: The Lutterworth Press, 2015, 168 pp. (Pbk). ISBN: 978-0-7188-9375-0, £17.50.

Reviewed by: Lynn Bassett, Retired health care chaplain

Email: [email protected]

This thoughtful book about the relationship between health and virtue recounts a doctoral research project that arose out of the author’s desire to make theological sense of her own experience of living with chronic illness. Dobson is an ordained pastor in the United Methodist Church. She describes how the onset of debilitating symptoms in April 2003, fractured her life into “before” as a healthy young woman, and “after”. For Dobson, life with illness involved much medication and a new focus on care of herself. The book offers helpful and challenging material for anyone who has an interest in maintaining a healthy relationship between the body and spirit but, informed as it is by a Thomist perspective on the moral life, it may be of particular interest to those engaged in Christian ministry.

The book is structured in two parts. Part one explores the notion of habits of health drawing on Aristotelian thought about both habit and health. According to Aristotle Eudaimonia, the art of living well, begins by cultivating virtuous practice and leads to a life of flourishing. Dobson shows how Thomas Aquinas, a twelfth century theologian influenced by Aristotle, developed a Christian interpretation of the importance of habits for a virtuous life. Of particular interest to the focus of this book is Aquinas’ understanding of health as a habit.

Dobson’s deep reading of Aquinas’ Treatise of Habit in the Summa Theologiae reveals that, according to Thomas, moral practice of habit extends to health. Prefiguring the aims of contemporary healthcare, Thomas takes a holistic view considering body and soul as inter-wound. In contrast with contemporary tastes for fitness programmes and crash diets, good habits of health, as understood by Thomas, are developed over time, reduce the need for constant decision making and lead to flourishing, virtue and, ultimately, deeper into the heart of God.

In chapter seven, Dobson explores how habit works, comparing Thomistic theory with the work of contemporary psychologists to understand how someone wanting to cultivate a more healthy lifestyle might use habit to change their behaviour. She illustrates this with an example of someone taking up the practice of running.

At the end of Part one she concludes that practising habits of health leads not only to healthier bodies and souls but also to a more virtuous life; further the virtuous life offers the possibility of health even for those suffering physical sickness.

Part two recounts Dobson’s qualitative field research into habits of health in two Christian communities in the United States of America; the results show that the insights of Thomas are still relevant to ministerial and missionary practice today. She explores the experience of ten United Methodist Clergy who participated in a Clergy Health Initiative (CHI) pilot programme and 12 missionaries in the evangelical organization Word Made Flesh (WMF). Her findings suggest that, in both communities, clergy and missionaries who engaged in habits of health, were happier, more vital human beings. They reported better relationships with God and were able to be of greater service to other people.

Dobson’s research demonstrates that Aquinas’ theology of health is relevant and resonant with the needs of contemporary society and, perhaps, especially with those in Christian ministry where barriers to practising good heath include an emphasis on spirit over body, problems of time management and 24/7 availability and a sense of service which sometimes tips over into martyrdom. Participants in the CHI pilot found that, when they practised habits of health such as good nutrition, exercise and taking time for themselves, they had more to offer their congregation and they were more engaged. One participant said, “I can’t take care of them, if I don’t take care of me”. In WMF the introduction of a Community Care programme resulted in not only individual flourishing but also a sense of greater cohesion and support at an institutional level.

Relevancies for health and social care chaplains are evident throughout this book. Chaplaincy involves both ministry and mission; there is a similar need to care for the self in order to continue to care well for others. Dobson’s work makes accessible the quite dense writings of Aristotle and Aquinas. There are many footnotes and references and, in order to maintain the flow of the argument, I found it helpful to focus on the main text on the first reading returning later to delve deeper into the layers of wisdom offered. It is a book that exudes a quality of kindness, to self and to others, and as such may be returned to again and again.