Necessary consequences of tristitia

In treating of the sins against charity, St. Thomas eventually treats of sloth, which is contrary to charity by being contrary to the first necessary effect of charity: joy. He says:

As Aristotle says in the Eighth book of the Ethics, no one can remain very long in sorrow (tristitia) without enjoyment. Two things must arise from sorrow: that man shun the sorrowful and that he go to something that gives him joy, just as those who cannot rejoice in spiritual enjoyments go to carnal ones

ut philosophus dicit, in VIII Ethic., nullus diu absque delectatione potest manere cum tristitia, necesse est quod ex tristitia aliquid dupliciter oriatur, uno modo, ut homo recedat a contristantibus; alio modo, ut ad alia transeat in quibus delectatur, sicut illi qui non possunt gaudere in spiritualibus delectationibus transferunt se ad corporales

Note how matter-of-factly St. Thomas speaks: two things must arise… just as those who cannot rejoice…

The Latin tristitia is broader than the English sorrow. St. Thomas speaks of rust being the tristitia of iron- it is the state of being run down and corrupted. In human beings it is depression and other like feelings.

No human mood is ever continuous, but some predominate. And if we don’t enjoy spiritual things we will just seek happiness in physical ones. St. Thomas speaks of enjoyment-seeking as pretty much automatic.

Kant’s ethics held up unpleasant action as the ideal of virtue. Those who forever “toughed it out” or followed sheer rational duty without enjoyment were most ideal. Isn’t there some plausibility to this? Virtue seems above all manifest in difficult and unpleasant circumstances, so why not think that continuous perfect virtue would be continuous unpleasant circumstances? St. Thomas appears to think such virtue is not only not ideal, but that it is simply impossible. The man who lived that way- taking no spiritual joy- would, in short order, be wallowing in purely physical pleasures.

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6 Comments

  1. Brandon said,

    March 18, 2010 at 7:53 pm

    This would make an interesting critical approach to Kantianism from a Thomistic perspective: the fundamental flaw of Kantianism as removing our defenses against acedia.

  2. thenyssan said,

    March 19, 2010 at 3:52 am

    The circumstances may be difficult and unpleasant, but the virtue is what makes the action easier and more enjoyable. The contrast is what makes the virtue more obvious to the people around the actor–the joy in the midst of the trial. I’m with Pinckaers on this one: take happiness out of ethics and not even Kant’s prodigious talents can get you to a fully consistent ethics.

  3. March 19, 2010 at 5:21 am

    “prodigious talents”? verbosity, abuse of language? Mental confusion leading to early onset mental illness? Using words without understanding?

    Can anything good come from Kant?

  4. March 19, 2010 at 5:41 am

    I think the critique of Kant (oh sweet irony) could be very harsh indeed: if it is the case that the peculiar understanding of reason he has holds up the unpleasant as an ideal, then his ethics is, quite literally, an ethics of hatred. It is contrary to love, not by the nature of love, but by the first necessary effect of love.

    Pinckaers is one of the few who stresses what is necessary to read the quotation above correctly, sc. St. Thomas insists that we can only choose goods. A consequence of this is that we can only choose delightful things. Different sorts of things can be delightful, but the moral life has to consist in choosing what we will delight in, not whether we will seek enjoyment at all.

    If I wanted to destroy Christianity among the devout, I’d tempt them with a doctrine like Kant’s: convince them all that the “spiritual man” knows that all this life is suffering, stress a particular understanding of “if you would be my disciple, take up your cross”, stress the penances of the saints to spiritual novices… etc. In short order they’ll all be wallowing in sensual pleasures.

  5. thenyssan said,

    March 19, 2010 at 5:43 am

    Don’t get me wrong, I’m not on board with Kant. But of all the moderns who inherited a broken starting point and tried to make it work, he showed the most…basic intellectual capacity? I don’t mean to say he was “nearly successful,” because the opposite seems true to me in many regards. But I think if you dropped him in the 13th century things would have turned out differently.

    At any rate, defending the man or distinguishing parts of his corpus is neither here nor there. You can always just elide the example and read on happily.

  6. Niggardly Phil said,

    March 19, 2010 at 2:55 pm

    Certainly didn’t mean to attack you nyssan, my post was poorly worded frustration that no one took me aside and said, ya know, Kant is not particularly worthwhile as something to read.

    Certainly he carried what he inherited a step further. He just strikes me as an example of someone who went his whole life searching for what moves the mind and heart, while denying any concepts that would have allowed him to grasp it, and yet writing work after work about his failed attempt.


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