Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Some Unusual Moral Theology from Saint Thomas Aquinas

In honor of the Feast of Saint Thomas Aquinas, in the traditional liturgical calendar, here are some unusual tidbits from his moral theology.

Many moderns say that Saint Thomas' moral system is too specific; instead, they say that one merely has to follow his conscience to be moral. But while just following your conscience is profound and true, it is also trivial: likewise, one must always follow the law of gravity. Gravity is everywhere and universal, and this a profound, mysterious truth, but how, precisely, are we to follow the laws of gravity? Consider especially the law of gravity when it applies to making buildings or aircraft: it isn't easy and takes a lifetime of study and effort.

Saint Thomas' moral system is rather complex, but what would you expect? Everything in life takes virtue and effort. We find his description of virtues in the SECUNDA SECUNDÆ PARTIS of his Summa Theologica. His precise systemization of virtue and vice brings up some surprises, which should be humbling.

Here are some unusual observations on morality:

The sin of irony: this is false humility, and although it is a lesser sin than boasting, it is a sin against the truth. While you can be modest about your accomplishments, you can never belittle yourself through a lie. The Postmodern philosophy of our age loves irony: ironic liberals support policies that they do not justify, and some conservative Christians are jumping on the irony bandwagon, too, just to gain acceptance in society. These ironists may be lying, since they are denying their own God-given powers of intellect and judgment.

Gluttony has several forms, and it could be mortally sinful if it becomes an end in itself. Overeating of course, is the sin of gluttony, but so is eating too quickly. When you eat can be gluttonous: snacking while watching television comes to mind. Eating expensive foods, sumptuousness, is the sin of gluttony, as is seeking food prepared too nicely or daintily. Although it may be good to vomit if you eat too much, the habit of overeating that leads to bulimic behavior is quite sinful. I wonder what Saint Thomas would think of the trend of expensive, "spiritual", environmentally-sensitive food stores, such as Whole Foods (also known as Whole Paycheck).

The sin of curiosity is an inordinate desire for knowledge of the truth. Knowledge of the truth is a good thing, but motivations can make it sinful, such as gaining knowledge in order to sin (like studying locks in order to steal), or gaining knowledge because of pride. News reporters may have the sin of curiosity when they look for the wrong-doings of others, and photographers may have the sin of curiosity when they secretly take compromising pictures of celebrities. If you are obligated to study some subject, but instead study something else, that is also curiosity. Superstitious curiosity is the attempt to gain knowledge by horoscopes, palm readers, occult sources, and such forth. Attempting to study something above your intelligence is also the sin of curiosity; as is often said, a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. How often do we find self-appointed experts who falsely think that they know something? You can be curious about your own intellect: consider the modern pastime of being a self-absorbed navel-gazer. Finally, if you place the study of nature above higher things, you have the sin of curiosity, and this is precisely the problem with the modern project.

Religion is a natural, and not theological virtue. A pagan who offers sacrifices to his false gods is more moral under the natural law than someone who is irreligious. The natural moral virtue of religion is distinguished from the theological virtue of faith. The object of faith is God Himself, while the purpose of religion is to pay just honor to God. Undue worship, which is a sin against religion, happens when worship is done in a manner contrary to divine law or ecclesiastical custom, or when someone impersonates a priest, or when someone includes forms of worship from the Old Law or from outside of the Church. These problems are widespread in the Church today.

Piety is the moral virtue of justice that leads us to honor our parents, family, country, fellow-citizens, and allies. Practicing the virtue of religion must not conflict with the virtue of piety, for even though honor to God takes precedence, good does not conflict with good. Our modern culture is highly impious.

Liberality is the good use of money or riches. The morality of liberality is relative to the means of the giver: a poor man who gives away a dollar can be more liberal that a rich man who gives away billions. Liberality is the golden mean between the sins of covetousness and prodigality. One who covets will gain and hold wealth excessively while being deficient in giving, while the prodigal is deficient in gaining and holding wealth, while giving excessively. Modern liberals don't show liberality.

The virtue of epikeia or equity recommends the bending of general rules to fit specific circumstances. For example, if you borrow a sword from someone, it is just that you give it back to him. However, equity would recognize the special case where the sword owner is in a state of madness, so returning the sword to him would not be just. American law is becoming quite absolutist, and judges are increasingly no longer allowed to adjust the rules to fit circumstances; this state of affairs came in reaction to judges becoming too lenient.

Memory is a virtue of prudence. Modern education does not like memorization, but prudence requires that we must remember the truths that we have learned. A good general principle is that if you have to learn something, learn it well.

Docility is the virtue of prudence where a person habitually does not rely on his own prudence! Docility is being open to the wisdom of those who are older and more experienced, as well as receptivity to the wisdom of the ages. To do otherwise is to constantly re-invent the wheel.

Shrewdness is part of the virtue of prudence where one is able to rely on his own prudence when required. This is not to be contrasted with docility, but merely is prudence in a particular circumstance.

There are two forms of scandal, which are sins against charity. Doing something that leads others to sin is giving scandal, while sinning because of something someone else has done is taking scandal. Both are quite popular sins in our world, be it pornography or someone losing their faith because of misdeeds in the priesthood.

Solicitude of the future
is the sin where one worries at an undue time; for example, when parents worry about a child's admission to an Ivy League university when he is still an infant.

Dullness of sense and blindness of mind
are sins against knowledge and understanding, and tend to come from gluttony and lust. Dullness of sense is the sin of not using your senses to perceive the world, while blindness of mind is not using your intellect to understand the world. Self-absorbed people are often unaware of their surroundings, while those who seek after constant entertainment don't come to a knowledge of the truth.

Magnanimity is the virtue of doing great, courageous, and honorable things, without the sins of vainglory, ambition, or presumption (which is going beyond your abilities). The sin of ambition is where someone wants more than their share of honor, where he wants honor for an excellence he does not have, or where honor is for his own use, and not for the benefit of others and for the glory of God.

Magnificence is the virtue of doing of great things with money and wealth; it is like liberality, but more is done with perhaps the same means. It is a virtue of courage, because it risks far more than does liberality. Its opposite vices are meanness which attempts to do great things, but is more concerned with keeping costs as low as possible, and banausia, which is like a consuming fire, hemorrhaging money and laying waste to everything, for no good benefit. These vices are commonly seen in modern business and government.

Effeminacy is a sin against the virtue of perseverance, where a good is given up due to the endurance, difficulties, lack of pleasure, and toil needed to gain it; note that Saint Thomas does not classify effeminacy as a sin of lust, but rather a lack of courage. On the other side of the virtuous mean of perseverance is the sin of pertinacity, where one is too headstrong or self-opinionated, who doesn't know when to 'stop flogging a dead horse'.

Insensibility is the rejection of pleasure, especially natural pleasures that are necessary to preserve life, and is a sin against temperance. Some pleasure is always required by necessity. This is not the same thing as willfully foregoing pleasure, however, such as required for health, fulfilling duty, or penance. The sin of insensibility is rampant in much modern art, where the notion that art ought to provide pleasure is often rejected.

1 comment:

  1. For years, my father has told me that virtue lies in moderation between the extremes. It went in one ear and out the other. After reading this article, he reminded me once more of this. How late we become smart sometimes!