Theory of property

A: Why do you own something? 

B: Because you bought it. 

A: This certainly suffices to explain ownership in the overwhelming majority of cases, but what you mean is that if you own one thing you can exchange it for another. But why do you own things at all? 

B: Because you work for them. 

A: No doubt you own your labor in a more intimate way than your money, but this still seems to be a case of exchanging one thing you own for another. 

B: But we are closer to an explanation if my labor is more mine than my money. 

A: Right. But if we make labor the source of possession it seems to prove too much. Thieves can labor to acquire goods but stealing doesn’t transfer ownership, and if I land on a desert island with a fruit tree and pigs on it the fruit and the pigs are mine to use, whether I work for them or not, or even whether I know about them or not.  

B: How can you say they’d be yours even if you didn’t know about them? 

A: Assume I died of starvation having never found them. If some rescuer found my body by flying over the island and seeing both the trees and my corpse, wouldn’t he say something like “what a tragedy! He could have survived off of those trees!” In other words, the trees were mine to dispose of, even before I knew they were there. 

B: So property is that which one can dispose of? 

A: Isn’t that the right definition? Something whose very existence is ordered to my own existence, in such a way that I could even kill or destroy it to preserve myself. 

B: Okay

A: And if this is right, then God as supreme good, creator and sustainer stands to all creation as his property. 

B: This seems frightening. God could kill or destroy all creation? 

A: That’s probably an important truth to know in some contexts, but for the moment we’re considering creation as ordered to God precisely as supremely good, so we can’t visualize him standing to creation like a tyrant seeking to maximally concentrate goods within himself to the exclusion of diffusing them to others. 

B: So what about property then? 

A: It looks like God stands to all as property because he creates it out of goodness, and so this explains in part why labor is closer to being one’s possession than money since labor formally relates to something that owes its existence to us, and so far as anything fits this description it does stand to us somehow as ultimate end. 

B: But the labor isn’t enough. 

A: Right. The basic relation of property is all things in lower strata of existence standing to all things in a higher strata. 

B: So this means all things belong to all people! That’s communism!

A: There is a fundamental orientation of all things to all persons, and this is what the Church calls the universal destination of goods. But it doesn’t follow from this that just anyone has a claim to just anything, since we can’t assume the universal destination of goods is essentially a chaotic free-for-all. 

B: Still, the justice or injustice of private property is built on top of and presupposes the universal destination of goods. 

A: That’s right. 


Thomas defines truth as adequation of thought and thing. “Adequation” means “making equal” and “equal” is the sameness of two things differing in their mode of existence, with the added note that one is being compared to the other (sometimes truth is called adaequatio vel comparatio.) 

Truth has two adequations, one between subject and predicate in its composition and division and another that compares the object as known to the object as object. 

Thomas on Usury

1.) The basic argument:

To charge for what does not exist is wrong

Usury, or charging to borrow money, charges for something that does not exist.

So usury is wrong.

2a.) The major premise is largely unobjectionable. It’s wrong to sell the Emperor’s new clothes.

2b.) So how does usury sell what doesn’t exist? It can mean three different things which I’ll put in paragraphs 4, 5, and 6, though only “5” is what Thomas means.

3.) Initial distinction between mutuum and non-mutuum. A mutuum is a good consumed by use, like the proverbial cake that one can’t both have and eat. A non-mutuum is a good that is not so consumed, like a truck or a house. Thomas argues you can therefore use my truck without owning it, but if you use my pizza then either (a) it’s yours and not mine or (b) you stole it, i.e. you’re using something that isn’t yours. To hand over a mutuum is ipso facto to give total ownership of it, i.e. to renounce any claim to the good and therefore any title to charging for it.

4.) Because I don’t lose ownership of a truck I can charge you to use it, but I do lose ownership of a mutuum when I let you use it, and so my charging you for it is to charge you for using something that isn’t mine, which is clearly unjust. So usury charges for something the usurer doesn’t own, which is one sense of “charging for what does not exist.”

5.) But this isn’t what Thomas had in mind. He means that if I charge you for borrowing a non-mutuum this means charging for (a) use but NOT (b) ownership but if I charge you for “borrowing” a mutuum then I charge for BOTH (a) AND (b) which means either charging for the same thing twice or charging for something that doesn’t exist, namely either (a) without (b) or (b) without (a.)

6.) Note that there is as much of a contradiction in the idea of “borrowing money” as there is in “borrowing pizza,” which was why I put the verb in scare quotes in (5.) One can’t borrow a mutuum qua mutuum at all, so to charge for borrowing is a third sense in which one charges for what doesn’t exist.

Scholasticism vs. Neo-Scholasticism

First wave Scholasticism compressed information to produce a synthesis of the fathers, Muslims, Aristotle, scripture, and canon law (!) The second wave was, inevitably, the development of the diverse syntheses themselves, with the Dominican synthesis quickly centering around Thomas (though Albert was a quondam rival) and the Franciscan synthesis developing either into Nominalism or Scotism and getting a popular expression in Descartes. The Jesuits later developed a synthesis of their own but, like the Franciscans, never settled on a single teacher (Suarez came close) and became mightily Thomistic after the Leonine revival.

So Scholasticism : Neo-Scholasticism :: the producers of Patristic/Scriptural/Hellenic/Islamic syntheses : those who develop the synthesis itself. The complaint that “Scholasticism ignores the fathers” is idiocy when said of the first wave, and though true of the second wave it hides more than it reveals. The patristics were the immediate subject or matter of the first wave and the remote matter or subject of the second wave. There might be something to objecting that the fathers should always be the immediate matter of any theology – scripture can certainly never be the remote matter of Christian thought – but no one seems much to mind when Islam fades even further than remote matter.

Prudential vs. Artistic imitation.

Good art can imitate something deformed, ugly or wicked but moral actions can’t. By “moral action” read “prudence.”

We tend to see the diversity of persons aesthetically as a diversity of styles, tastes and life choices. Our desire to see ourselves as entirely unique more befits an aesthetic evaluation than a moral one.

Style, taste, and life choices risk becoming substitutes for moral existence. The actor might imitate a speech impediment or odd accent to get it just right and perhaps even be applauded for the performance, but the approval can never be moral approval. We can’t be approving of him as person.

Moral imitation presupposes that what makes you good makes me good as well. A as person imitates B as person, giving rise to a mutual indwelling with a trinitarian archetype. At its human limit, a community of moral persons imitates each other in the highest form of society. Moral imitation tends to a community in a way that aesthetic views of the self lead to diversity and separation.

Artists gather up visions of things they would paint, describe, record, and produce them while the moral person gathers up what makes persons good and practices it. The second requires a supple, well-trained will and appetites for the same reason that the first one needs responsive, high-tech, expensive tools. The photographer wants a camera that melds with his vision and desire, the prudent want a will and desire that perfectly meld to the human good first seen in the saint.

Fascination with technology resonates with an aesthetic way of looking at the world as opposed to a moral one.

Prime matter v. Non-being

As created the terminus a quo of being is non-being and as generated it’s prime matter.

The relation of the created to its terminus a quo is a relation ratio ratiocinante, the relation of the generated is a real relation

The terminus a quo of the generated is to actuality per accidens since prime matter presupposes being in act, but non-being is not nested in created things as a terminus to a later being.

As within things, non-being is only proportioned to defectibility, e.g. sin, while prime matter is proportioned to actuality.

Evil as Abuse

You graduate from medical school and use your skill to torture persons; you read car manuals to learn how to sabotage cars.

When you torture, are you using the medical skill? Certainly not per se, since per se acts of medical skill are medical acts, and torture is not a medical act. Again, a per se medical act is one that would be contained in a complete science of the skill, and a complete science of medicine does not include information on torturing or anything else contrary to health. Abuse is a sort of use only secundum quid but the two are contrary per se. The same is true mutatis mutandis for the car manual.

Torture : medicine :: evil acts and sins : human will. The complete account of willing is the totality of possible acts that are consistent with the highest good, but evil consists in being something chosen that is incompatible with the highest good. Evils could not be included in a complete account of willed actions. We will evils in a different sense than we will goods.


A = “I experience a strong desire to do behavior X”

B= “I have repeatedly performed behavior X.”

If X is smoking we think B causes A, or that the strong desire arises from habituating a desire that was once much less intense. If X is sitting still in school, then we tend to diagnose it as ADHD and say that A causes B. The first can be called a moral account, the second a medical account.

If we stipulate all strong inclinations to arise from some habitus, the moral account tends to see the habitus as arising from repeated choices and the medical account tends to see the repeated choices as arising from the habitus.

2.) It’s not always easy to find a principled reason to explain a behavior morally or medically. Some behaviors (homosexuality, paying attention) have been, and even continue to be explained in both ways.

3.) Moral accounts don’t always assume that the behavior is unambiguously under one’s control, and medicalization doesn’t always assume it isn’t. Moral descriptions allow for the force of habit (think Augustine struggling with sexual vice) and medical descriptions allow the sickness to be treated by talking, which is a very different way of dealing with a sickness. Tumors don’t get healed by talking at them.

4.) Medicalization has an unstable relation to the moral order. Most assume that behaviors are not overdetermined and so if we have a medical account we have disproved the moral one. But if we remove X from moral consideration, it is not obvious why we should avoid X. X isn’t bad so…

5.) Medicalization thus opens a path to normalization, and it’s not clear what blocks it. This ties into the general problem of defining mental illne… ahem… mental disorders, which often gets treated as though it were just a fastidious hang-up about definitions that we can all easily ignore in practice, but the problem is more fundamental than this. Traditional illness is decided more or less by the teleology of looking at an anatomy textbook, i.e. if your body and its organs doesn’t look like this you have a problem. But mental illne…ahem.. mental disorder does not seem to have the same picture of the person it can work from, and the therapists even seem hostile to the idea of having to supply one. Are we all just supposed to know the details of correct human functioning? Is there nothing surprising, counter-intuitive, or controversially true about what correct human functioning looks like? Is, I dunno, prayer or sacrifice to divinity a part of it? St. Thomas would have certainly argued yes – have we refuted him?


-So is the brain an organ or not? Is a means used to accomplish tasks or something else?

-The old idea that brains could not change is logically necessary from the belief that it is not an organ but was running a program as a sort of windowless monad.

-Brains set parameters to thought like hands set parameters for grasping. A two-year-old won’t palm a basketball, fingers without calluses can’t easily fret strings, a hand that falls asleep is more aware of itself than the world.

-Handless grasping is physical control without physical quantity, or action without interaction.

Psychiatry: “You’re not bad, it’s your brain!” Of course, they never ran a test to rule out moral causes but are simply non-cognizant of any, and if behaviors make calluses they can change brain structures.

-Drugs, sleep, age etc are not physical effects acting on thought but embodiment less perfectly participating in thought. Moon phases.

-For a brain to be a means of thought is to be the first thing not rational that can obey reason.

-For us, education is primarily the training of what is not rational but can obey reason.

The unseen worlds of Galileo and Aristotle

Seen in one way measurement is relatively superficial as it literally stays on the surface of things, laying one measuring rod next to another next to another or cutting up some action with a stopwatch. Galileo’s postulate is that this act is not in fact superficial but the heart of reality, and that if we could purge out the superficial and subjective we would see the world of clocks and meter sticks. The true world of science is the unseen mathematical one.

Aristotle also situated action in an unseen world, though not of mathematical abstraction but of causal order. Hume’s objection that causes are not empirically given is true, but this is just as true of Galileo’s postulate.

Galileo and Aristotle thus both situate the scientific world in an unseen domain, and though Aristotle has some ability to call in math as a dialectical aid to physics Galileo has a much harder time recognizing the reality of causality. Causal order is replaced by “laws” or algebraic relations of measure-numbers, and any order between actions is imposed on the equations from without.

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