Aristotle, Friendship, and Christ: a few random musings

In Book II, Aristotle discusses virtue in general, to include its essence, and that it is a mean between extremes, which will be vices of excess or defect. He will then examine the major virtues individually, although not thoroughly (that will come later) and completes Book II by asking how one attains these virtues.

 

He begins by discussing whether it is an action, a nature, or a habit. Looking at the first two options, it is shown that it cannot be the case that virtue is an action, nor is in our nature (although it is not contrary to nature). It must be, therefore, a habit. It is not contrary to nature, however, in that our natures have virtue in potency, but it is through [repeated] actions that these habits are actualized. Virtues are habits that dispose toward certain action. Virtues, then, are principles of action.

 

Now, man becomes virtuous by repeated acts, and these actions occur more easily by the possession of the virtues. It takes work, then, to form them, but when formed, they make similar work easier. This can be compared to the athlete, who must run to become a good runner, and yet, once a good runner, his running comes easier. It is reciprocal.

 

Operations producing the habit of virtue take place according to right reason, and so the virtues cannot be passions, which of themselves are morally neutral. In this way, Aristotle differs strongly from the Stoics, for example.  In commenting on Aristotle’s work, St. Thomas says that “He says first that to establish the definition of virtue we have to take for granted three principles in ‘the soul: passions, powers, and habits. Virtue must come under one of these, for he just said that virtue is a principle of certain operations of the soul.” The passions are not blameworthy or praiseworthy as such, but as we use them, in accord with right reason. Therefore, “A man is not praised or blamed because he is simply afraid or angry but only because he is afraid or angry in a particular way, that is, according to reason or contrary to reason. The same must be understood of the other passions of the soul. The passions of the soul, therefore, are neither virtues nor vices.”

 

Pleasure or sorrow is said to be a sign of virtue already produced. A man who does not steal, for example, but is saddened by the ‘loss’ of money or goods, does in fact do the right thing, according to reason, but he does not do it in the way a virtuous man would, for a virtuous man would not be saddened in the act, but rather joyous in having acted rightly.

 

We must consider not only that virtue is a habit but also what kind of habit, says Aristotle. The virtues will render good both the man and his work. Accordingly, Aquinas comments “The reason is that the virtue or power of a thing is judged by the best it can do… Now the utmost or best to which the power of anything extends is called its excellent performance. It belongs to the virtue of every thing, therefore, to render an excellent performance. Because a perfect operation proceeds only from a perfect agent, it follows that everything is both good and operates well according to its own virtue.”

 

The chief characteristic of virtue is the mean, and this mean is not simply the arithmetical average between the vices of excess and defect, but a mean according to the one possessing the virtue. In other words, there is no simple universal formula for determining the ‘exact’ measure of fortitude as opposed to cowardice or rashness, but rather, it must be in accord with reason, with the person so acting, and the circumstances of his action.

 

Now, virtue can be an extreme in the measure of goodness, and this is not contrary to virtue. This is easy to see in the intellectual virtues, for example, and in the theological virtues, where there is no ‘mean’ of faith, hope, or love. But the cardinal virtues are an extreme towards the recognition of the good and in being in accord with right reason. This is not contrary to their being a mean between excess and defect . Aquinas states it clearly: “precisely as it possesses the character of the best and as it acts or guides well in a determined genus it is an extreme. For an understanding of this, we must consider that the entire goodness of moral virtue depends on the rectitude of the reason. Hence good is in harmony with moral virtue according as it follows right reason, but evil has a reference to each vice, viz.: excess and defect inasmuch as both depart from right reason. Therefore, according to the nature of goodness and evil both vices are in one extreme that is, in evil which is thus shown to be a deviation from reason. Virtue however is in the other extreme, that is, in good which is characterized as a following of reason.”

 

As mentioned at the beginning of this summary, a discussion of individual virtues and vices follows. But as it is brief and will be expounded upon in detail in later books of the EN, we will forego any analysis here. Also, the mean and extreme in virtues relating to honors is discussed, and again, these will be discussed more thoroughly later.

 

Aristotle tells us of the opposition among the virtues and vices, and that this opposition of vices among themselves is greater than of the vices to the virtues. He also states that, generally, one extreme is more opposed to virtue than the other. For example, men are more inclined to excess in temperance than to defect, and likewise, we recognize cowardice as further than rashness from courage.

 

While all the above is certainly important, Aristotle never ceases to remind the reader of the practical nature of ethics. Therefore, the manner of acquiring virtues must be learned, but moreso, followed. The three  primary ways of acquiring virtues, according to the philosopher, are to avoid extremes, consider one’s natural inclinations, and beware of pleasures.

 

Reflection:

 

A virtuous man, a magnanimous man, cannot necessarily be known by his actions alone, for may have little virtue and yet seem to accomplish something great, while a more noble man does not accomplish a comparable outward task. While we fully seek to do great things for the glory of God, we do not know that He has called us to do great outward things.

We may be judged by men on what we accomplish in their eyes, and we should do everything we can with the intention of objective success in this world, declaring our successes to the glory of God and accepting full culpability for our failures.  But if outward success always followed from a right interior disposition, we may be tempted to pride.

All the virtues are interior dispositions that are preparations for doing the good, whether these good things come to fruition or not.  Not understanding this can lead to two related dangers.  We may, despairing of ever accomplishing great things, not seek to do the things daily that would possibly lead to the “great deed.” Likewise, if we fail to accomplish a great task that seems to have been set before us, we may tend to despair, having worked so long for, what seems to us, nothing. Again, God asks us to be faithful, not necessarily successful.

A soldier will train day after day, year after year, and may or may not ever enter into battle.  If he trains and never fights, he should be glad for the peace that has allowed it.  But if he grows negligent in his training, the battle that is suddenly upon him may prove his end.  Years of arduous training are suddenly seen to be worth it in the mere minutes of close-quarters combat. Likewise, we must train ourselves in the virtues daily, not knowing in what ways we may or may not be tested.

To quote my earthly father, “Life is too long to do nothing and too short to do anything great.  But great things are done in a short time by those who have been long in preparing.” We therefore strive at each moment to create in ourselves the dispositions, the powers, to meet our calling.

The Pharisees – A Short Reflection

Introduction

‘”Judaism” today and “Pharisaism” in the time of Jesus are the same.’[i] Of course, this is a ridiculous and uneducated statement on so many levels. ‘Pharisaism,’ as the term is used today, is only partially related to the beliefs and practices of the actual Pharisees in the time of Christ. The old Catholic Encyclopaedia states ‘after the conflicts with Rome (A.D. 66-135) Pharisaism became practically synonymous with Judaism,’[ii] but this must be understood in a post-Temple context and in the light of the wars with and defeat of the Jews by Rome, and here, the term ‘Pharisaism’ is being used correctly, stating what the Pharisees indeed taught at that time, and not as the term is often used today.  And even in its modern usage, to make such a statement about ‘Judaism’ is absurd as well. How do we remedy such an attitude? Much could be said about the history of what we now call ‘the Jews,’ and it is a rich and rewarding study. But our purposes here are to examine, ever so briefly, the Pharisees themselves.

The Pharisees were an important group in the time of Christ, and have often been misunderstood. While certainly Jesus often had confrontations with them, there were also Pharisees among his followers.

“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites!…You snakes! You brood of vipers! How will you escape being condemned to hell?”[iii] “Now there was a Pharisee, a man named Nicodemus who was a member of the Jewish ruling council. He came to Jesus at night and said, ‘Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the signs you are doing if God were not with him.’”[iv]

While not intending here a ‘defense’ of the Pharisees (as if they needed one) I would like to present a simple picture of them that goes beyond the use of the term today, which is probably ill founded, for in many Christian circles, the term Pharisee is used to portray a legalistic attitude, and to belittle those who would call themselves ‘religious.’ These uses, however, show a lack of understanding about who the Pharisees actually were. As N.T. Wright notes in his The New Testament and the People of God, “Their aim, so far as we can tell, was never that of simple piety for its own sake. Nor (one need scarcely add) was it a system of self-salvation so often anachronistically ascribed to them by Christians who knew little about the first century but a lot about the Pelagian controversy. Their goals were to honor Israel’s God, the following of his covenant charter, and the pursuit of the full promised redemption of Israel.”[v]

Beginning of the Pharisees

This religious sect came into existence as a class about the third century B.C. After the exile, there was much intermixing of the pagan and Jewish culture, to include intermixing in marriage. This was contrary to the law, and it had, of course, many negative effects on the people of Israel. As a result, many purists who wanted to stay more faithful to the covenant with the God of Israel formed sects or factions (others besides the Pharisees will be briefly discussed later). The more zealous among the Jews drew apart calling themselves Chasidim or “pious ones”, i.e., they dedicated themselves to the realization of the ideas inculcated by Esdras, the holy priest and doctor of the law.[vi]

The Pharisees emerged after the revolts of the Maccabees, led by Judas Maccabaeus and his descendants.’ In the violent conditions incidental to the Machabean wars these “pious men”, sometimes called the Jewish Puritans, became a distinct class. They were called Pharisees, meaning those who separated themselves from the heathen, and from the heathenizing forces and tendencies which constantly invaded the precincts of Judaism.’[vii]

The Pharisees, then, set themselves up as pious and zealous defenders of the traditions of Israel, and this must be seen in the light of a people whose ways were attacked by the pagans around them since the beginning. God, indeed, told His people not to intermarry the neighbouring peoples, and certainly not to worship their gods. While it is true that, ‘without knowledge, even zeal is not good,’[viii] we must recognize the good and noble purpose of the Pharisees, not only in their beginning, but even through the time of the Gospel and thereafter, rather than group them all as a bigoted, self-righteous group. To do so would be the same mistake as those who would blame ‘all Jews’ for the death of Christ with a false understanding of what the Gospel writers had meant. ‘A study of the early history of Pharisaism reveals a certain moral dignity and greatness, a marked tenacity of purpose at the service of high, patriotic, and religious ideals.’[ix]

The Hasmonean period

During the Hasmonean period, it has been argued that the Sadducees and Pharisees functioned primarily as political parties. N.T. Wright, while not arguing that politics was the main aim of the Pharisees, certainly rejects the notion that they limited themselves to issues of personal piety.[x] Political life effects religious life, and vice versa, and this is seen most markedly in times of foreign rule. Public life and personal piety, regardless of the current trend to try and separate one’s faith from their political stance, always go together. Any integrated life will not make a wide distinction between belief and practice, nor between private and public conduct. The Pharisees sought in every way to keep the Chosen People aware of their state as a chosen people, and ‘the influence of the Pharisees over the lives of the common people was strong and their rulings on Jewish law were deemed authoritative by many.’[xi]

The Roman period

‘The Pharisees are seen at their best when contrasted with the Zealots on one hand, and with the Herodians on the other.’[xii] They seem to take a middle way, as they tend to reject violently overthrowing the Romans (a task that almost always proved unsuccessful in the short term and never successful for long), but condemned the acceptance of Roman and pagan culture as an acceptable partner in Jewish life. It was through living out the law of God faithfully (as they understood it) that they hoped to attain the freedom of Israel from its oppressors.

Beliefs

Unlike the Sadducees, the Pharisees also believed in the resurrection of the dead. They also believed in a literal resurrection of the body. We see this distinction between them and the Sadducees when Jesus discusses certain issues with each, as well as when Paul, as recorded in the Acts of the Apostles, pits the opposing beliefs against each other.

Then Paul, knowing that some of them were Sadducees and the others Pharisees, called out in the Sanhedrin, “My brothers, I am a Pharisee, descended from Pharisees. I stand on trial because of the hope of the resurrection of the dead.” When he said this, a dispute broke out between the Pharisees and the Sadducees, and the assembly was divided. (The Sadducees say that there is no resurrection, and that there are neither angels nor spirits, but the Pharisees believe all these things.)[xiii]

Many of the distinctions in belief between these two groups seems to stem from the Pharisees’ acceptance of most of what Christians call the New Testament, whereas the Sadducees were reluctant to accept anything beyond the Pentateuch as revealed truth. ‘As contrasted with the Sadducees, the Pharisees represented the democratic tendency; contrasted with the priesthood, they stood for both the democratic and the spiritualizing tendency.’[xiv]

Mention must be made of a third prominent group, the Essenes, who “…emerged out of disgust with the other two. This sect believed the others had corrupted the city and the Temple. They moved out of Jerusalem and lived a monastic life in the desert, adopting strict dietary laws and a commitment to celibacy.”[xv]

Conclusions

The Pharisees are an often misunderstood group, and in fact, like almost any group, one must make a few observations:

  • They must always be viewed as a whole, but also with the distinctions that are bound to exist within that whole
  • The good (or evil) ideals of a group must be contrasted with the human beings in the group that often fail to hold to that ideal
  • The group must be understood in the context of their time, the surrounding culture, and rival (or allied) groups that interact with them. The development and history of a group is especially important, so that reference to the groups working within a certain period of history may be contextually understood with what they were at that time, rather than on the basis of what they may have later become

Certainly, Jesus and the Apostles had their conflicts with ‘the Pharisees,’ but likewise, the Pharisees had positive qualities, and many of them were not enemies but friends of Christ. We must educated ourselves on who the Pharisees were in a balanced and realistic way, lest we make a similar mistake to those who think only that ‘therefore the Jews sought the more to kill him’[xvi] and forget that ‘salvation is from the Jews.’[xvii]


[ii] NewAdvent.org

[iii] Matthew 23:29,30

[iv] John 3:1-2

[v] N.T. Wright,The New Testament and the People of God (NTPG) 189

[vi] NewAdvent.org

[vii] ibid

[viii] Proverbs 19:2

[ix] NewAdvent.org

[x] See Wright, ‘NTPG’ Ch.7ff and ‘Paul and the Faithfulness of God’ Part I, 2.2

[xi] Wikipedia

[xii] NewAdvent.org

[xiii] Acts 23:6-8

[xiv] NewAdvent.org

[xvi] John 5:18

[xvii] John 4:22

Nicomachean Ethics – Books VI & VII

Book VI: Intellectual Virtues (most especially prudence)

 

In book VI, Aristotle takes up the question of the intellectual virtues, having already treated the virtues that pertain to the sensitive part of the soul directly (but as informed by reason). We now proposes to treat the intellectual virtues in a way similar to that of the previously discussed virtues: ‘consequently, we should divide right reason, an intellectual virtue that is rectitude of the reason, into its species, as in a similar fashion we have already divided the moral virtues.’ (Aquinas Commentary, 1109)

The intellectual virtues seem to be five: art, science, understanding, wisdom, and prudence. This enumeration is given, and Aristotle goes on to show that, although similar to other intellectual virtues, prudence cannot be reduced to one of the other four. The key distinction I take to be the difference between art, where the ‘product’ is external (the operation passes into external matter, such as the resulting sculpture or music) and action, where the act is intrinsic (the act may effect another. Where art is productive through reason, prudence is active through reason.

Aristotle makes it clear that prudence is not to be equated to science, which demonstrates from necessary things. Prudence, rather, takes its principles from necessary things, but applies them to contingent things, and in this way it might rightly be related to dialectics. There can be, then, a syllogism reasoning from principles to what must be done in the here and now, but the syllogism will include contingent matter, and therefore not be demonstrative. In simpler terms, prudence cannot be reduced to simply applying principles and deducing the right action in the same way principles can be used in geometry, for example.

‘Prudence then will be neither a science nor an art. It is not a science because the thing to be done is contingent; it is not an art because the genus of action and making differ.’ (EN 1165)

An important point is the simultaneous necessity of the moral virtues and the virtue of prudence. ‘A virtue is a habitual and firm disposition to do the good. It allows the person not only to perform good acts, but to give the best of himself. The virtuous person tends toward the good with all his sensory and spiritual powers; he pursues the good and chooses it in concrete actions.’ (CCC 1803) As St. Thomas comments, ‘But moral virtue, for instance, justice, causes a craftsman rightly to use his art. On the other hand, in the use of prudence an additional moral virtue is not required, for it was said (1170, where the example of the mutual influence of temperance and prudence were discussed) that the principles of prudence are ends in regard to which rectitude of judgment is preserved by the moral virtues. Hence prudence, which is concerned with things good for man, necessarily has joined with it the moral virtues preserving its principles.’ (Commentary, 1172)

Book VII: Continence and Incontinence

There is not only vice and virtue, but there are two other ‘degrees’ of moral dispositions that must be understood. The rarest, and yet worst and best degrees possible, are what may be deemed the beast-like and the god-like. Men may be brutish (beast-like) when they are either through extreme corruption by culture or physical/mental handicap more like irrational animals than like human. Likewise, an extreme sort of virtue could be deemed god-like or divine, as perhaps some of the great saints may have seemed at times, or the martyrs (with the help of grace) acted at their final tribulation.

But much more common are those who are not virtuous, but yet are not vicious, but (metaphorically, at least) somewhere in between. The virtuous, remember, do the good with joy and are not even tempted to the evil, for the good is habitual to them. The vicious, on the contrary, conclude that, for example, every pleasure is right for them to partake (the intemperate).

But between these two are those who, with right reason, would avoid the excess in pleasure but, at times and because of the passion arising in them, fail to adhere to right reason. A key indication of this is their sorrow and repentance when the passion has cooled and they regret their actions (something the vicious do not do, i.e., feel remorse). Likewise, the continent person succeeds in not giving into the temptation to enjoy and excess pleasure, but does so with sorrow, for although he obeys right reason, he is not so habitually exposed as to take his joy in doing the right, but often feels pained to do so. Nevertheless, he is on the right path and may in time build the habit and do later with joy and ease what he only does now through battling with his passions.

Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, Book V – Justice

After Aristotle has discussed the virtues that pertain to the passions as they relate to reason, he discusses the virtue of justice, which will be about relation between the agent and another. The question of justice to oneself is discussed at points throughout the Book, and is definitively answered in the last section.

 

I use here the division according to the lectures in the commentary by St. Thomas Aquinas:

 

Properly (885-1090)

 

Justice (885-1077)

 

Aquinas points out first that “concerning justice [Aristotle] proposes for consideration three differences existing between justice an the previously mentioned virtues”…the previous “are concerned with the passions…we took the mean and not the thing…Each of the afore-mentioned virtues is a mean between two vices, but justice is not a mean between two vices.”

 

Will, and not the senses more directly, is the proper subject of justice; justice is defined in the Catechism of the Catholic Church as “the moral virtue that consists in the constant and firm will to give their due to God and neighbor.” So justice is a mean in one way, in that it gives what is do, and not more or less (when we are speaking of strict justice). But true justice is found first in the will, and only then in the object, to which the will is conforming and striving. Therefore, an event can occur that is objectively unjust, but it may not be an unjust act on the part of the agent, who wills to be just, but mistakenly, and thus commits an objective unjustice.

 

Legal justice (885-926)

 

He says first that justice itself is a certain perfect virtue not in terms of itself but in relation to another. Legal justice is justice as relates to the community at large, that is, primarily, the polis or state.

 

Partic. Justice

Absolutely (927-999)

 

Aristotle then discusses distributive justice and commutative justice. The first of these deals with what the state or community owes the individual, and this in a proportionate manner, meaning it is based on what the individual contributes to society and perhaps to his rank or position. So a general may deserve more honor and a bigger house from the state. However, when it comes to communitive justice, this is not necessarily so. The general and the peasant will generally pay the same price for a new set of Reeboks.  Because of this more strict equality of communitive justice, economic issues get discussed by Aristotle, to include the coming into being and use of money as a standard of trade.

 

Relatively (1000-1077)

 

We are reminded, frequently throughout Aristotle’s account of the virtues, but seemingly more often during his treatment of justice, that it is reason and not man that should truly govern man. In legal justice especially, but in all three aspects of justice, man is the reasoner, but it is reason that is law, and not man arbitrarily.

 

 

Epikeia (1078-1090)

 

Its object (1078-1088)

 

St. Thomas clearly states the overall topic of this part of the treatise: ‘In Greek epiiches is understood as what is reasonable or becoming; it is derived from epi meaning “above” and ikos meaning “obedient,” because by equity a person is obedient in a higher way when he follows the intention of the legislator where the words of the law differ from it.’

 

Today, we often discuss keeping the intention of the law versus the letter, and often find that there arise cases where keeping the letter of the law is in direct opposition to the intention of the creator of the law in its original and universal conception.

 

Its subject (1089) and habit (1090)

 

The virtuous man is not a zealous enforcer of the law for vengeance’ sake, but rather, to make the offender better and safeguard the community. The habit, then, of equity is not a virtue distinct from justice, but a species thereof.

 

Metaphorically (1091-1108)

 

Aristotle lastly revisits a topic he has touched upon several times throughout the treatise on justice, once again affirming that, despite the arguments that appear to the contrary, a man cannot really do injustice to himself, and this because to do injustice requires it be against one’s will, and one so to commit injustice against oneself implies a contradiction.

 

Personal Reflection

 

Justice and Equity

 

The difference in justice and equity is certainly a debated point in Christian theology, and no more is it a more pressing and divisive topic than when concerning election. The main point seems to be this: that God, in justice, could let us all remain unsaved (not justified) and yet, He, by mercy, wills to save some. This salvation of only some is, then, certainly just, but most certainly not equitable.

 

St. Thomas states in his commentary that “The reason why not everything can be determined according to the law is that the law cannot possibly be framed to meet some rare particular incidents, since all cases of this kind cannot be foreseen by man. On account of this, after the enactment of the law, a decision of the judges is required by which the universal statement of the law is applied to a particular matter. Because the material of human acts is indeterminate, it follows that their norm, which is the law, must be indeterminate in the sense that it is not absolutely rigid.”

 

While I certainly do not have the space here to propose how this may give insight into the justice/mercy question and the will of God “that all be saved” is also in conformity with the fact that “few enter” and are saved (combined with God as universal first mover but creatures as true causes), I think that the above comment can indeed be a point of reflection on the mystery of God’s justice and election.

Summary of Nicomachean Ethics Book II

In Book II, Aristotle discusses virtue in general, to include its essence, and that it is a mean between extremes, which will be vices of excess or defect. He will then examine the major virtues individually, although not thoroughly (that will come later) and completes Book II by asking how one attains these virtues.

 

He begins by discussing whether it is an action, a nature, or a habit. Looking at the first two options, it is shown that it cannot be the case that virtue is an action, nor is in our nature (although it is not contrary to nature). It must be, therefore, a habit. It is not contrary to nature, however, in that our natures have virtue in potency, but it is through [repeated] actions that these habits are actualized. Virtues are habits that dispose toward certain action. Virtues, then, are principles of action.

 

Now, man becomes virtuous by repeated acts, and these actions occur more easily by the possession of the virtues. It takes work, then, to form them, but when formed, they make similar work easier. This can be compared to the athlete, who must run to become a good runner, and yet, once a good runner, his running comes easier. It is reciprocal.

 

Operations producing the habit of virtue take place according to right reason, and so the virtues cannot be passions, which of themselves are morally neutral. In this way, Aristotle differs strongly from the Stoics, for example.  In commenting on Aristotle’s work, St. Thomas says that “He says first that to establish the definition of virtue we have to take for granted three principles in ‘the soul: passions, powers, and habits. Virtue must come under one of these, for he just said that virtue is a principle of certain operations of the soul.” The passions are not blameworthy or praiseworthy as such, but as we use them, in accord with right reason. Therefore, “A man is not praised or blamed because he is simply afraid or angry but only because he is afraid or angry in a particular way, that is, according to reason or contrary to reason. The same must be understood of the other passions of the soul. The passions of the soul, therefore, are neither virtues nor vices.”

 

Pleasure or sorrow is said to be a sign of virtue already produced. A man who does not steal, for example, but is saddened by the ‘loss’ of money or goods, does in fact do the right thing, according to reason, but he does not do it in the way a virtuous man would, for a virtuous man would not be saddened in the act, but rather joyous in having acted rightly.

 

We must consider not only that virtue is a habit but also what kind of habit, says Aristotle. The virtues will render good both the man and his work. Accordingly, Aquinas comments “The reason is that the virtue or power of a thing is judged by the best it can do… Now the utmost or best to which the power of anything extends is called its excellent performance. It belongs to the virtue of every thing, therefore, to render an excellent performance. Because a perfect operation proceeds only from a perfect agent, it follows that everything is both good and operates well according to its own virtue.”

 

The chief characteristic of virtue is the mean, and this mean is not simply the arithmetical average between the vices of excess and defect, but a mean according to the one possessing the virtue. In other words, there is no simple universal formula for determining the ‘exact’ measure of fortitude as opposed to cowardice or rashness, but rather, it must be in accord with reason, with the person so acting, and the circumstances of his action.

 

Now, virtue can be an extreme in the measure of goodness, and this is not contrary to virtue. This is easy to see in the intellectual virtues, for example, and in the theological virtues, where there is no ‘mean’ of faith, hope, or love. But the cardinal virtues are an extreme towards the recognition of the good and in being in accord with right reason. This is not contrary to their being a mean between excess and defect . Aquinas states it clearly: “precisely as it possesses the character of the best and as it acts or guides well in a determined genus it is an extreme. For an understanding of this, we must consider that the entire goodness of moral virtue depends on the rectitude of the reason. Hence good is in harmony with moral virtue according as it follows right reason, but evil has a reference to each vice, viz.: excess and defect inasmuch as both depart from right reason. Therefore, according to the nature of goodness and evil both vices are in one extreme that is, in evil which is thus shown to be a deviation from reason. Virtue however is in the other extreme, that is, in good which is characterized as a following of reason.”

 

As mentioned at the beginning of this summary, a discussion of individual virtues and vices follows. But as it is brief and will be expounded upon in detail in later books of the EN, we will forego any analysis here. Also, the mean and extreme in virtues relating to honors is discussed, and again, these will be discussed more thoroughly later.

 

Aristotle tells us of the opposition among the virtues and vices, and that this opposition of vices among themselves is greater than of the vices to the virtues. He also states that, generally, one extreme is more opposed to virtue than the other. For example, men are more inclined to excess in temperance than to defect, and likewise, we recognize cowardice as further than rashness from courage.

 

While all the above is certainly important, Aristotle never ceases to remind the reader of the practical nature of ethics. Therefore, the manner of acquiring virtues must be learned, but moreso, followed. The three  primary ways of acquiring virtues, according to the philosopher, are to avoid extremes, consider one’s natural inclinations, and beware of pleasures.

 

Reflection:

 

A virtuous man, a magnanimous man, cannot necessarily be known by his actions alone, for may have little virtue and yet seem to accomplish something great, while a more noble man does not accomplish a comparable outward task. While we fully seek to do great things for the glory of God, we do not know that He has called us to do great outward things.

We may be judged by men on what we accomplish in their eyes, and we should do everything we can with the intention of objective success in this world, declaring our successes to the glory of God and accepting full culpability for our failures.  But if outward success always followed from a right interior disposition, we may be tempted to pride.

All the virtues are interior dispositions that are preparations for doing the good, whether these good things come to fruition or not.  Not understanding this can lead to two related dangers.  We may, despairing of ever accomplishing great things, not seek to do the things daily that would possibly lead to the “great deed.” Likewise, if we fail to accomplish a great task that seems to have been set before us, we may tend to despair, having worked so long for, what seems to us, nothing. Again, God asks us to be faithful, not necessarily successful.

A soldier will train day after day, year after year, and may or may not ever enter into battle.  If he trains and never fights, he should be glad for the peace that has allowed it.  But if he grows negligent in his training, the battle that is suddenly upon him may prove his end.  Years of arduous training are suddenly seen to be worth it in the mere minutes of close-quarters combat. Likewise, we must train ourselves in the virtues daily, not knowing in what ways we may or may not be tested.

To quote my earthly father, “Life is too long to do nothing and too short to do anything great.  But great things are done in a short time by those who have been long in preparing.” We therefore strive at each moment to create in ourselves the dispositions, the powers, to meet our calling.

Summary of Nicomachean Ethics Book III

Part I: Voluntary Action

Spontaneous and Involuntary

Compulsory action is said to be that that originates outside of the agent. A rock, for instance, never acts from an internal principle to move away from the center of gravity of the earth, but must be thrown, for example, to move upward. This principle of movement obviously comes from outside the agent. Such action is said to be involuntary. Action that begins from within the agent, however, is in the power of that agent (at least to some extent) and, in an intellectual subject, is said to be voluntary. It is voluntary action which is our subject in ethics.

Voluntary Action and Merit

Returning to the example of the rock, we do not blame a rock when it hits us in the head, but rather the person who threw the rock at us. This is in keeping with the principle of voluntary action, and it is voluntary action that deserves praise or condemnation. Even when, say, a snake bites us, we may attribute (in a way) voluntary action to the creature, and be upset at the snake for biting us, we still do not see the snake as having acted in an immoral manner, but rather recognize its action as in keeping with its [determined] nature. Not so, the human that bites us, for being an intellectual creature, the latter has true voluntarity to its action.

Involuntary and Ignorance

Of course, ignorance can change the voluntary character of an action. If the same human bit my finger, but thought he had grabbed his chicken fingers, then I may be upset (and my finger may throb), but I also recognize that his action was not morally evil in the way I would claim if he bit my finger on purpose. However, if the same person often bit peoples’ fingers, repeatedly making a similar mistake, we could certainly say that he has a moral duty to check what he is eating before biting into it. His ignorance may not be completely without personal fault. Not all ignorance cancels out moral responsibility, but only ignorance that cannot be (at east reasonably) helped.

Definition of Voluntary

So the definition of the voluntary seems to be ‘that which the agent himself originates in such a way that the agent knows the individual circumstances that concur with the action.’

Choice

Choice and voluntary are not identical, but choice seems to be a species of the voluntary. Choice means that the decision between alternative options (and simply ‘not to act’ is a viable option) are known and considered. Choice always has to do with the means toward and end, and we choose by pondering and then deciding to achieve our intended end in one way or another.

Counsel

We take council so as to make sure our choice aligns properly with it being voluntary, for as we said, we want to know the individual circumstances that concur with the action, and to know the truly best (that is, ‘good,’ in keeping with our true nature and true end) option to take. We take counsel especially in the practical arts, and in ethics most specifically, because there are no simple formulas, but as ethics is much like an art, many options in almost infinite different circumstances will exist in which we must apply the objective principles of moral science.

Object of Willing

The object of willing is the good. But, in each circumstance, and for the particular individual willing some action, the apparent good is the object of willing. It is necessary, for this reason, to seek counsel (whether from others or at least in personal reflection) so that the true good and the apparent good rightly align. This is what Aristotle says that ‘the virtuous person correctly passes judgment on each individual thing and in each case what appears to him is truly good.’

Aristotle wraps up the first half of this book by making clear that virtue and vice are within our power. He then goes on to refute other errors, such as the thought that no one is voluntarily evil (which overly emphasizes the intellect and disregards the will in moral education) and that we have no faculty of the cognoscitive good (but the true good and apparent good for each man does not mean that the true good is subjective).

Part II: Moral Virtues

Fortitude

‘A man is called brave principally because he is not afraid of death for a good cause nor of all emergencies that involve death.’

False Fortitude

True fortitude does not involve the actions of the daredevil or the uncontrolled actions that stem from wrath, because fortitude, like all virtues, must be in keeping the truly good and undertaken voluntarily and with right reason.

Temperance

Temperance is a mean dealing with pleasures, and this virtue pertains primarily to the sense of taste and touch, inasmuch as these same senses are those that least set us apart from all other animals (remember, our concern is ultimately that we are intellectual creatures, and our end as man is in keeping with this). ‘Temperance and intemperance then have to do with such pleasures as the other animals have in common with man. Hence gratifications of touch and taste seem to be servile and brutish.’

Part III: Personal Reflection

I spoke the least on fortitude above, but want to reflect on it briefly here. When we read Josef Pieper on fortitude, he emphasizes the fact that this virtue really does pertain primarily to a willingness to die in battle, and he also emphasizes the patient suffering of the martyr as the way we most clearly see (graced) fortitude.

I think of fortitude in its relation to the Christian life, and its special relation to the sacrament of Confirmation. Confirmation makes us soldiers of God.  It has been variously designated a making fast or sure, a perfecting or completing, as it expresses its relation to baptism. It is, after baptism, the next Sacrament of Initiation.  But what does it do?

“Now it has been said above (1; 65, 1) that, just as Baptism is a spiritual regeneration unto Christian life, so also is Confirmation a certain spiritual growth bringing man to perfect spiritual age. But it is evident, from a comparison with the life of the body, that the action which is proper to man immediately after birth, is different from the action which is proper to him when he has come to perfect age. And therefore by the sacrament of Confirmation man is given a spiritual power in respect of sacred actions other than those in respect of which he receives power in Baptism. For in Baptism he receives power to do those things which pertain to his own salvation, forasmuch as he lives to himself: whereas in Confirmation he receives power to do those things which pertain to the spiritual combat with the enemies of the Faith.” (Aquinas, ST III, Q.72)

Nicomachean Ethics I: A Reflection

The first order of business for Aristotle is to mark out the subject matter, how the subject is treated (the science) and the method of argument. Herein lie the content of the first three chapters. Aristotle is always one to start from principles, and here, if we are to determine what a person should do, that is, what actions would make a man a good man, we must determine what the ‘function’ of a man is; what is it that man ‘is for?’

After all, we could hardly give an answer as to whether or not a clock was a good clock unless we knew what it is a clock is for; what is it suppose to do. Once we do know this, however, we have something to measure it against, and to decide if it is good or faulty.

To take this analogy further, we may ask what the spring in a watch is for, and may determine that it is there to turn a cog. Well, what is the cog for? To turn a hand, perhaps. So the spring is a means, but not a final end. The spring is there, however, so that ultimately, the watch keeps and displays time, and displays it correctly. This is the final end of the watch, and what the means are there to help accomplish.

So Aristotle shows us that a man may do several things for the sake of other things, but that ultimately, there is some end at which all other things aim. This final end will be unique to man, or at least will be set apart inasmuch as man differs from other things.

Likewise, a computer may keep time (mine certainly has a clock on display) but the computer does more than this, and has higher functions. So while it may keep time as does a watch, its end will not be the same as a watch, for it goes beyond the watch in its ultimate function.

Likewise, man shares many traits with other beings; a man is like a rock, in that he has matter and form, and he is like a tree, in that he has nutritive and regenerative capabilities, and he is likewise like a beast, in that he has self movement and sensation (sight, hearing, and the like). But Aristotle will ask, ‘what sets man apart?’ and the answer is ‘reason.’ Man is capable of rational thought, and seeks to know things as they are.

Man’s good then will be something to do with his reasoning, but will not ignore his material nature, his nature he shares with other beings.

In Chapter II, Aristotle points out that the goal of both the individual and the political community is the same, that is, the perfection of the human being.  Just as Aristotle seems to differ with modern philosophers by assigning an objective nature to man, he differ here with modern political thought, for certainly we don’t often hear that the political community exists primarily for the good of the citizens’ virtuous activity.

In short, for Aristotle, the subject matter of political science is the doing of noble and just actions.

Now, this is a goal which allows of a great deal of fluctuation and variability. The philosopher therefore lays down the truth, for example, that the virtues are absolutely necessary for man to attain his highest good. They hold for all people and everywhere and at all times. However, we will also see that ethics is primarily a practical rather than speculative science. Because of this, the principles are objective and true, but there application will vary not only by situation, but even by person. For example, what would be brave in one situation may be cowardly in another, and what would be brave for a specific person (say, a well trained soldier) may be rash for another person (someone with no experience in combat trying to take on the same challenger).

Returning to what it is that man strives for, we take into account that he is rational. But we can ask the simple question, ‘why does man do the things he does?’ Ultimately, the end that seems to be only an end and not a means toward anything else is this: happiness. Man seeks to be happy, and it simply makes no sense to ask to what purpose he wishes to be happy. He may think he desires money, or honor, or sex, or food, or drugs, or somehow, even pain, but in the end, he does what he does and desires the things he desires so that he may be happy. The shocking thing to so many that have never read Aristotle or any of the ancient and medieval thinkers on ethics is this: it was not primarily duty or law that was the principle of their moral thought, but attaining true happiness.

Aristotle, in Book I of his Ethics, concludes that happiness is what we seek, and virtuous activity is how we attain this end.

Our contemporary culture would tell us that the key to happiness is freedom, but the modern understanding of freedom is extremely flawed. True freedom is not the “right” to simply follow the impulses of the will, but a true freedom is what is known as a “freedom for excellence.”

Servias Pinckaers uses the wonderful example of a piano player as a means to show what virtue can do for someone who seeks true freedom towards a specific end:

In the beginning the child, despite the desire to learn will often feel that the lessons and exercises are a constraint imposed on freedom and the attractions of the moment. There are times when practice has to be insisted upon…Of course, anyone is free to bang out notes haphazardly on the piano, as the fancy strikes him. But this is a rudimentary, savage sort of freedom… On the other hand, the person who really possesses the art of playing the piano has acquired a new freedom. (The Sources of Christian Ethics, p.355)

We see, then, that to truly be free to attain the very ends we were both made for and should aspire to attain to, that our freedom involves both a responsibility and a joy in becoming what we are meant to be. It should come as no surprise that, at the same time a new teaching on freedom overtook society (a freedom which emphasizes indifference rather than excellence) the virtues fell out of common knowledge and pursuit.

If we are to once again become a culture that seeks excellence, we must be a culture that strives after virtue. We are meant to be something, and we are meant to have a part in becoming that something. We are truly both what we are (as created) and what we make of ourselves: a sort of theistic existentialism. Made in the image of God, we are meant to be free, but free to be what He made us to be.

Noble Character and Virtuous Habits

“Noble and great characters are all made so by the constant repetition of virtuous actions…Those who really succeed in life can find no other way but the way of self-discipline and self-control, which is also the way to the greatest happiness possible on earth.” (Garesche, Ch. 3)

 

“Human virtues acquired by education, by deliberate acts and by a perseverance ever-renewed in repeated efforts are purified and elevated by divine grace. With God’s help, they forge character and give facility in the practice of the good. The virtuous man is happy to practice them. (CCC 1810)

 

To build a character that is truly noble and Catholic, we must pray, seeking God’s grace, and faithfully receive the Sacraments, by which God gives us these graces.

 

Jesus says: “I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in me, and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.” The fruit referred to in this saying is the holiness of a life made fruitful by union with Christ. When we believe in Jesus Christ, partake of his mysteries, and keep his commandments, the Savior himself comes to love, in us, his Father and his brethren, our Father and our brethren. His person becomes, through the Spirit, the living and interior rule of our activity.”(CCC 2074)

 

In these brief essays, however, we will focus on “our part,” inasmuch as we are cooperators in God’s plan for us. “God is the sovereign master of his plan. But to carry it out he also makes use of his creatures’ cooperation. This use is not a sign of weakness, but rather a token of almighty God’s greatness and goodness. For God grants his creatures not only their existence, but also the dignity of acting on their own, of being causes and principles for each other, and thus of cooperating in the accomplishment of his plan.” (CCC 306)

 

“It requires plenty of courage and honesty to be sincere with oneself. There are many men and women who, their whole lives long, are afraid to stand face to face with their own mistakes and with the defects of their own character…It is only by seeing ourselves as we are that we can remake and perfect our own character.” (Garesche, Ch. 6)

 

 

We ought, then, to practice regularly the examination of conscience. There are many ways of doing this, to include going through the Ten Commandments or looking at the Beatitudes or even all the major points in the Sermon on the Mount. We might also, however, do so by examining the cardinal virtues, seeing where we have failed to be prudent, just, temperate, and where we have lacked fortitude. We should likewise examine ourselves in the light of the theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity.

 

“…by learning from our mistakes, we cooperate with God in building up a noble character.” (Garesche, Ch. 6)

 

“…you can choose what to imitate. On that choice depends, to a great degree, your character and your destiny…by taking all the good characteristics of those around you, you can build up the ideal of a perfect character…you need not confine yourself to the people you actually know. Through the magnificent works of literature, you can associate with marvelous familiarity with the great minds, the noble hearts, and the shining characters of all history.” (Garesche, Ch. 7)

 

We, therefore, have no excuse if we say that we are not amongst other noble and virtuous people.  Even if this be true, we have at our disposal the greatness of those hero’s of virtue, whether factual persons of the past, or even fictional characters. As Christians, we certainly have the witness of the great saints of the past.

 

Of course, in building what we call a “Catholic character,” there is no greater example than that of Christ Jesus Himself.  Building a Catholic character, then, will be to imitate the virtues of first of Christ, but also of those who most imitated Him (“I urge you, then, be imitators of me,” says St. Paul in 1Cor4:16).

 

We are creatures of habit. But we are also responsible, to a great degree, for the habits we have. “Now, a habit is nothing more or less than an inward tendency to a certain line of action, which springs from the fact that we have often acted that way in the past, and that we are by nature inclined to do what we have often done before and in the way in which we have done it before.” (Garesche, Ch. 8)

 

We must, then, in building a noble character, focus on the four cardinal virtues, which are prudence, justice, temperance, and fortitude. We must rightly understand them, but also strive constantly to build them. Indeed, in many ways, forming our character through the virtues is analogous to training our minds through study and our bodies through exercise. We will grow weaker or stronger in a large degree by whether we exercise or neglect to exercise these faculties.

 

“By studying these four good habits, or virtues, and by cultivating them diligently, we are able to lay the foundation of a strong, good character in a secure and permanent way.” (Garesche, Ch. 8)

 

Briefly, the four cardinal virtues are as follows (as described in the “In Brief” section of the Catechism):

 

1833    Virtue is a habitual and firm disposition to do good.

1834    The human virtues are stable dispositions of the intellect and the will that govern our acts, order our passions, and guide our conduct in accordance with reason and faith. They can be grouped around the four cardinal virtues: prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance.

1835    Prudence disposes the practical reason to discern, in every circumstance, our true good and to choose the right means for achieving it.

1836    Justice consists in the firm and constant will to give God and neighbor their due.

1837    Fortitude ensures firmness in difficulties and constancy in the pursuit of the good.

1838    Temperance moderates the attraction of the pleasures of the senses and provides balance in the use of created goods.

 

 

“The greatest of all historical examples of fortitude is, of course, the example of Christ, whose whole life was an exercise of this virtue, as it was of prudence, justice, and temperance…all these virtues, with a faithful balance, depend on one another, and if you succeed in cultivating any one of them to a notable degree, you will possess them all…” (Garesche, Ch. 12)

 

 

Free Will and Providence: Metaphysical Issues

“For God is at work in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.”[1]

 

The Problem

If one were to ask the question “why does a rock fall when released from the hand,” it would, no doubt, be a true yet odd answer to respond, “God wills it.”  Yet, we must not argue that indeed, the falling of the rock does not escape God’s providence.  It certainly did not catch Him by surprise.

 

However, when asking the question, we are usually seeking the more proximate answer.  To say that “the rock falls because of gravity,” that still hardly understood force that draws massive objects toward one another, is to in no way infringe upon God’s power and providence.

Some find it difficult to understand how natural effects are ascribed to God and to the activity of nature. For it would seem impossible that one action should proceed from two agents: hence if the action productive of a natural effect proceeds from a natural body, it does not proceed from God.[2]

 

Here we find a difficulty that has bothered logicians, philosophers, and theologians alike. From this problem we get Occam’s Razor, whereby we need to give two explanations when one seems sufficient. “For Ockham, the only truly necessary entity is God; everything else, the whole of creation, is radically contingent through and through. In short, Ockham does not accept the Principle of Sufficient Reason.”[3]

 

Certainly not unrelated to the nominalism that follows from Ockham’s theories (at least as they were later developed) is the mitigated skepticism of David Hume.  His skepticism towards the reality of causality is well known. “Hume’s account of causation provides a paradigm of how philosophy, as he conceives it, should be done. He goes on to apply his method to other thorny traditional problems of philosophy and theology: liberty and necessity, miracles, design. In each case, the moral is that a priori reasoning and argument gets us nowhere.”[4]

 

Of course, Hume’s theories had a huge impact on the thought of Kant, who may legitimately be seen as the pre-eminent thinker of modern philosophy.  “In the Preface to the Prolegomena Kant considers the supposed science of metaphysics. He states that ‘no event has occurred that could have been more decisive for the fate of this science than the attack made upon it by David Hume’ and goes on to say that ‘Hume proceeded primarily from a single but important concept of metaphysics, namely, that of the connection of cause and effect.’”[5]

 

Ockham believed in God, and Hume, most likely, did not. Kant believed we could not prove God, but must act as if he existed. These are but a few of the philosophical results of a poor understanding of causality.

 

From a flawed or superficial understanding of causality, we also encounter problems in theology. Less often we get the error of Arminianism, which almost seems to entail a limit on God’s sovereignty so as to safeguard man’s freedom. But the more rigorously thought out error is that of the Reformed theologians, who insist that, if all is grace, man is in reality entirely passive in his actions, at least towards salvation.

 

For example, “Luther having denied the freedom of the will in sinful man as also freedom in the use of grace, logically placed the eternal destiny of the individual solely and entirely in the hands of God, who without any regard to merit or demerit metes out heaven or hell just as He pleases…Calvin is the most logical advocate of Predestinarianism pure and simple. Absolute and positive predestination of the elect for eternal life, as well as of the reprobate for hell and for sin, is one of the chief elements of his whole doctrinal system and is closely connected with the all-pervading thought of “the glory of God”.”[6]

 

This ‘glory of God’ is, however, falsely portrayed, for, as Etienne Gilson said so well, “When and where piety is permitted to inundate the philosophical field, the usual outcome is that, the better to extol the glory of God, pious-minded theologians proceed joyfully to annihilate God’s own creation.”[7] With St. Thomas, who is rightfully called the theologian of creation, we can see that God’s sovereign causality is not undermined by a correct understanding of the creatures role as a true cause, and this because the causes are not competitive, but each refers to its own proper sphere.

 

The Solution

The solution to the problem, at least insofar as a solution can be understood by a limited human intellect, is that we differentiate the causes, not as percentages or equals, giving one another a hand with a task, as a strong man may lift 80% of the weight and a weaker helper 20%, but as two causes that are on completely different planes of existence. God transcends his creation, and is not simply the greatest being among many.

 

It would seem that the issue of ‘divvying up’ the task when we seek either God or creature as cause would be more suited to a monistic or polytheistic and pagan universe than to a Thomistic one, in which God completely transcends the world He created. Even in an example like Plotinus, who to my understanding does his best to have his One transcend the emanating world, one can still hardly deny that his doctrine was very near to pantheism.

 

In true monotheism, however, God utterly transcends His creation so as to be in no way in ‘competition’ with that creation. Rightly understood, therefore, we need not assign cause to God or creature in a false either/or dichotomy. Each can be true cause, but with respect to the primary causality of the uncreated Creator in His case and, likewise, with respect to the contingent being in his.

It is, also, clear that the same effect is ascribed to a natural cause and to God, not as though part were effected by God and part by the natural agent: but the whole effect proceeds from each, yet in different ways: just as the whole of the one same effect is ascribed to the instrument, and again the whole is ascribed to the principal agent.[8]

 

Now, assigning the creature merely an instrumental causality is a perfectly good answer when we are considering inanimate beings and, perhaps, even non-rational animals. But we must certainly acknowledge that instrumental causality alone is not sufficient to understand a free creature’s causality as truly free. No one calls a pencil free when it is used as a true cause in the writing of a letter, even if we rightly assign instrumental causality to the pencil. Therefore, we must at least qualify the causality we here speak of if we are to maintain that some creatures are real and free causes.

In government there are two things to be considered; the design of government, which is providence itself; and the execution of the design. As to the design of government, God governs all things immediately; whereas in its execution, He governs some things by means of others.[9]

 

St. Thomas gives this brief description of God’s providence in dealing with creation as a whole, in which St. Thomas states that God lets true causes intervene between He and the intended effect. This answer must be given to the occasionalism that became very prominent in the thinking of later theologians and philosophers. However, it is only a general answer, applying to all of creation, and only hints at an answer to the problem of creaturely causality when we come to discuss rationally free beings as truly causal. Certainly,

The divine will imposes necessity on some things willed but not on all. The reason of this some have chosen to assign to intermediate causes, holding that what God produces by necessary causes is necessary; and what He produces by contingent causes contingent.[10]

 

When St. Thomas answers this more specific question of rational and free creatures, it comes in his treatment of man’s end.

I answer that, as Dionysius says (Div. Nom. iv.) it belongs to Divine providence, not to destroy but to preserve the nature of things. Wherefore it moves all things in accordance with their conditions; so that from necessary causes through the Divine motion, effects follow of necessity; but from contingent causes, effects follow contingently. Since, therefore, the will is an active principle, not determinate to one thing, but having an indifferent relation to many things, God so moves it, that He does not determine it of necessity to one thing, but its movement remains contingent and not necessary, except in those things to which it is moved naturally.[11]

 

If God truly transcends His creation, He can create a world that is, while completely dependent on Him for its existence, still truly independent to the extent that God is not limited to creating creatures that cannot reason and will for themselves. But if God can create creatures that are rational and free, then their actions, while dependent on God for existence, are also truly their own, for that is how God created them. The issue, then, is the question as to whether God can or cannot create things that are both ‘contingent and not necessary.’

 

The answer, in a monistic, pantheistic world, would be no. The Thomist Norman Kretzman argued according to the Neoplatonic dictum that the good must necessarily be diffusive of itself and must necessarily create, although the Good is free to create whatever He likes. This position may be seen as problematic when asking if God could create beings that were contingent and not necessary, but it is hardly a true Thomistic position. A true Thomist natural theology would affirmatively answer that, yes, God can create beings that are contingent and not necessary, and, what’s more, these beings would have the freedom to do the same. These creature’s actions and choices are contingent, and therefore depend on the first cause, which is God. Yet their actions are not necessary, and thus are truly free.

 

Reply Obj. 1. The Divine will extends not only to the doing of something by the thing which He moves, but also to its being done in a way which is fitting to the nature of that thing. And therefore it would be more repugnant to the Divine motion, for the will to be moved of necessity, which is not fitting to its nature; than for it to be moved freely, which is becoming to its nature.[12]

 

If God creates creatures that have free will, then it is repugnant to reason that they be not truly free. God is omnipotent, and this means, not that he can do all things conceived of, but that he can do all things that are true possibilities. As God cannot make square circles because of the intrinsic contradiction in the term, neither can He make rational and free creatures that are completely determined. In a monistic and pantheistic emanationist metaphysics, we would indeed affirm, then, that God could not make free creatures. But when God is understood to completely transcend His creation, we need no longer see a contradiction.

 

Just as Christian theologians have been able to come to an understanding of the Incarnation whereby Christ is truly man and truly God, and with no admixture of these natures, likewise, using the same ‘non-competitiveness’ of God’s nature with that of His creation, we can affirm God’s ability to make rational and free creatures. And in the history of theology, we see that the difficulties in understanding the two natures of Christ often stemmed from the Neoplatonic philosophical underpinnings of the early Church. The Aristotelian approach, modified by St. Thomas because of his faith in revelation and therefore the data of creation ex nihilo, allows us to overcome this difficultly.

 

We need not deny God’s providence here. Certainly, philosophers and theologians have affirmed what we have just said, but in too great and one sided a way, and thus come to the conclusion of deism. But these philosophers have neglected to remember that God does not create from pre-existing material, and therefore, He cannot create it and then simply leave it to itself, as an artisan would do in our human understanding. God is always present as efficient (and final) cause to His creation and, therefore, it is always, at every moment, dependent upon Him. Providence, therefore, is in no way rejected. Yet again, providence must be understood according to the nature of each thing that God providentially governs.

 

It belongs to divine providence to use things according to their mode. And the mode of a thing’s action is in keeping with its form which is the principle of action. Now the form through which a voluntary agent acts is not determinate: because the will acts through a form apprehended by the intellect, since the apprehended good moves the will objectively; and the intellect has not one determinate form of the effect, but is of such a nature as to understand a multitude of forms; so that the will is able to produce manifold effects. Therefore it does not belong to divine providence to exclude freedom of the will.[13]

 

Thomas’ answer to the question of free will and divine providence is far more intricate that we have space to ponder here. Certainly, even then it would not be a complete answer, as if free will and providence can be comprehended by the finite mind of man. But St Thomas denies neither man’s freedom nor God’s providence, and St. Thomas does this, informed by revealed truth, but in perfect consistency with philosophical reasoning.

 

Concluding Thoughts

It is a mystery, for sure, that God is present and governing in all His creation, and yet allows free will. Perhaps, through philosophy alone, we would not come to this conclusion. But, informed by revelation, we can also see that it need not be contradictory to reason that we affirm both free will and providence. The above arguments, therefore, are not meant to convince, from reason alone, that free will and providence are definitively the answer. To do so would be to produce a weak argument, as if this were our entire reason for affirming its truth. But, in the manner of St. Thomas’ Summa Contra Gentiles, it is hoped that the result is two-fold: It affirms that free will and providence are not repugnant to reason, and this is a sufficient response to those who do not believe, that at least their arguments against the faith are not demonstrative and, for the believer, strengthens the faith  by presenting it in such a way that we may grasp a little more understanding of God and His creation.

 

As a practical question, therefore, what does this mean for a believer? It may, at least, help to answer the great question of prayer: Why pray?

So, as natural effects are provided by God in such a way that natural causes are directed to bring about those natural effects, without which those effects would not happen; so the salvation of a person is predestined by God in such a way, that whatever helps that person towards salvation falls under the order of predestination; whether it be one’s own prayers, or those of another; or other good works, and suchlike, without which one would not attain to salvation. Whence, the predestined must strive after good works and prayer; because through these means predestination is most certainly fulfilled.[14]

Lastly, turning briefly from St. Thomas, we can sum up what this means for our life as Christians. The Catechism gives a true and balanced response to the question we have been pondering.

The vocation to eternal life is supernatural. It depends entirely on God’s gratuitous initiative, for he alone can reveal and give himself.[15] The preparation of man for the reception of grace is already a work of grace.[16] God’s free initiative demands man’s free response.[17] God grants his creatures not only their existence, but also the dignity of acting on their own, of being causes and principles for each other, and thus of co-operating in the accomplishment of his plan.[18]

Quotations from Scripture, the Fathers, and the Catechism could certainly be multiplied beyond this, but the Doctor of Grace will be given the final words here. Recognizing that there is an objective and absolute moral law that we must follow, yet finding ourselves in need of God’s mercy and grace to follow His commands, we ask with Augustine that God “”Give me what you command and command what you will,”[19] because “He Who created you without your cooperation, will not save you without your cooperation.”[20]


[1] Phil 2:13

[2] SCG, 3.70

[3] Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Occam

[4] SEP, Hume

[5] SEP, Kant and Hume on Causality

[6] NewAdvent.org, Predestinarianism

[7] Gilson, Etienne, The Unity of Philosophical Experience, p.32

[8] SCG, 3.73.

[9] I, Q.103, ar. 6

[10] ST. I, 19, ar. 8

[11] I-II, Q.10, art. 4

[12] Ibid.

[13] SCG, 3.73

[14] ST I, 23, ar. 8

[15] CCC 1998

[16] CCC 2001

[17] CCC 2002

[18] CCC 306

[19] St. Augustine, Confessions, 10, 29

[20] St. Augustine, Sermon 169, 13

Knowledge of God’s Perfections through Reason

“Every perfection and goodness which is in creatures belongs to God essentially (Aquinas, SCG, 1.80).” Just as we can know the existence of God from reason alone by reasoning from effects to cause, we likewise can know certain attributes of God.

Yoram Hazony* recently published an opinion piece, in which he claimed that we can know little, if anything, about God. The key concept, which he was adamant to deny, was knowledge of God’s perfection or perfections. While the article showed certain theological and hermeneutical errors, the primary issue was one of reasoning, specifically metaphysical reasoning. It is to that error, its origins, and its solution, that I now turn.

Metaphysical thought inquires beyond our sense experience, but is derived from it.  We can understand something about the world beyond our immediate perceptions, and “come to a knowledge of the truth.”  Philosophical reasoning canbring us to many of the same truths as divine revelation, as truth is one.  But a bad metaphysics, or a doubt of the possibility of metaphysics, can lead to an equally erroneous view.

The two directions of rationalism and empiricism that developed in the modern period of philosophy, as emphasized by Descartes and Hume, respectively, contributed to a divorce between faith and science.  Kant later attempted to reconcile the divergent views, but he also had to deny the ability to prove the existence of God, and many other metaphysical possibilities fell by the wayside in his system as well.

But these problems began earlier than Descartes with theologians who viewed being as either an equivocal or as a univocal concept. Univocity and equivocity are not the only available positions, however.

We must say here something about abstraction if the point is to be understood. We will quickly look at natural philosophy, mathematics, and metaphysics to demonstrate this.

In the study of natural philosophy we merely abstract the universal from the particular.  We study the features of flesh and bones, apart from this particular flesh or this particular bone. This is to consider objects as “matter as such,” such as flesh and bones, but not particular matter, such as “this flesh” and “these bones.”

Freedom from all sensible matter brings us to mathematics.  For we do not need to include matter in the definition of a circle as we do when we define flesh, but there are no existing circles apart from matter.  We see that the difference, then, is that while both require matter to exist, mathematical objects do not require that matter be part of their very definition.

Metaphysics goes beyond this by not only abstracting the object of study from sensible matter, but understanding that some things can exist and be defined apart from any matter whatsoever. In other words, the mind leaves aside all the limitations of matter and cognizes an object that is intelligible without reference to matter and so is independent of matter in both meaning and existence.

The understanding of abstraction and separation are not only important for understanding the difference in the speculative sciences, but in understanding metaphysical topics. It is especially important in contemplating how all created things relate to God without falling into the areas of thinking that God’s being and our being are completely univocal or completely equivocal.

Nominalism is the general philosophical position of many today. Simply put, a nominalist cannot see the connection between beings in any metaphysical way, but only as matters of fact. Nominalism tends to be the underlying premise of empirical scientific positivism.

A different metaphysical understanding than that of univocal or equivocal being is necessary to arrive at an understanding of God. That position, held by St. Thomas Aquinas, is one of analogy. When one understands being analogously, we are able to see that there are similarities and differences in what is common from one being to another, and we can use this understanding to see that effects must have some similarity to their cause. It is through this similarity that we can know something of God and His perfection.

Before we go a little further into exploring the use of analogy in understanding God and His perfections, something must be said of the two ways in which we can, philosophically, know something of God.

The first way is that of negation, which consists in denying of God anything that belongs to contingent beings as contingent. Here, we say more about what God is not than what He is, but in doing so, we really do come closer to understanding God. After all, we move closer to understanding anything when we can limit certain attributes from our concept of the thing. We do this with mathematics, in which we remove the material and simply understanding the thing as, for example, a circle. When we realize a contingent thing, as contingent, requires a cause, we can see that God is uncaused. Uncaused, infinite, etc, are actually negative terms, but they tell us real information about God. In this via negationas, then, while perhaps not stating perfections of God, we do take away imperfections from our concept of God.

The second way we of philosophically speaking of God is the way of eminence, the via eminentiae. In this way, we attribute to God, to an eminent degree and analogously, everything that can be considered a pure perfection. In this way, we can say that God is wise, for example. But He is not wise in the way a human is wise, for a human learns in time, and through discursive reasoning, and learns a limited amount of things. So we, by removing all the imperfections of wisdom as it exists in our own experience, can say that God is wise. Of course, God’s wisdom is really wisdom, but it is spoken of neither equivocally nor univocally as compared to ours, but analogously.

As we stated earlier, we reason to the wisdom of God, for example, by understanding the relation of cause and effect, knowing that effects in some way resemble their cause, and cannot exceed its cause. Therefore, an unwise (primary) cause could not create a wise effect. Being does not come from non-being. Here, we come full circle, and see that, in the same way we prove God’s existence, moving from contingent being’s dependence on necessary being, we can likewise know of some of the perfections of God.

Again, it is by a sort of incomplete abstraction from one subject that we understand such terms as goodness and even being itself.  The primary subject that we abstract these analogies from is being itself, which is God.  For example, God is not [merely] “good” but is goodness itself, whereas other things are “good” by way of analogy, and this goodness is understood as related to God’s goodness but not univocal to it.

Lastly, mention must be made of the supposed imperfections of God mentioned in Scripture, as pointed out by Mr. Hazony in his recent article. Again, we refer here to the importance of analogy. There are several types of analogy used in natural theology, and each has important uses in the field. However, one type of analogy called, by the philosophers, improper proportionality, but might better be known in general as a metaphor.

If God is “like a lion,” then we have an example of this type of analogy. We can derive some knowledge of God, as He relates to His creatures, from such analogies. But obviously, such analogies have limited use. God is not gold-furred, around 450 pounds, and carnivorous, and no one that says that “God is like a lion” intends such things to be conveyed. Likewise, in the places where the Scriptures seem to make statements that limit the perfections of God, they are always stated in metaphorical ways, and almost always meant to show, not an intrinsic attribute of God, but to convey something about how He relates to His creatures, or, more appropriately, how creatures are related to Him.

 

*Yoram Hazony does not exist. This short essay is a response to an imaginary article that denies we can know, through reason, that God has certain perfections.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 32 other followers