Thomas on love of self

In one sense both the wicked and the good love themselves since both want to continue enjoying what they enjoy and avoiding what they prefer to avoid. The “self” in this sense is whatever you’ve been doing with your life until now and the consequent habits you’ve formed to define yourself, which needn’t have any relation to what you actually are. Your habitually acting as if X is true can’t make it so.

“Self” in another sense is the part of man that rules and is predominant, and here either reason rules the irrational parts or vice versa. Thomas’s argument for the goodness of the rule of reason appeals to Aristotle’s five criteria for friendship:

1.) Friendship wills the other to keep existing. Reason desires the emotions to be appropriate to the situation while emotions want reason to simply be silent or, what’s worse, to be at the service of whatever the emotion wants right now.

2.) Friendship wills good to the friend. Reason wants emotions to have their own proper goodness of being appropriate to reality and the situation since the rule of reason is in the passions as a subject. The rule of emotion wants reason to be denied its proper good of ordering all things, even emotions, to their end as emotions. The objectivity of reason allows it to know other things in themselves and so to will goods to things in themselves. Sensitive powers like emotion see things under the conditions of sensation and so as conditioned by what is good for the sentient organism.

3.) Friendship wills to dwell with the friend. Reason by its nature dwells with things in need of order, but the dominance of passion simply seeks emancipation from reason.

4.) Friendship enjoys the friend. Things enjoy their proper acts, and the proper act of sensation is to be moved by another while the proper act of reason is to set the other in order.

5.) Friends are of one mind with each other. The more reason rules emotion the more both come into their own, while the more emotion seeks to rule over reason the voice of reason becomes weaker and more latent and emotions become unruly, dissipated, and continually a seeking novelty that the world itself cannot provide beyond a point it does not take long to reach.

For a man to love himself requires (analogously) that all his parts be friends with himself, but only the virtuous can have this. Properly speaking, only the virtuous man loves himself, as is clear from Psalms 10: 6 he who loves iniquity hates his own soul.

Tattoos, piercings, etc.

  • I can remember a world where tattoos and multiple piercings were neither normal nor fascinating, but it’s clearly not the world anyone under 20 grew up in.
  • The morality of tattoos is on more than one axis. As a Christian moral question they run afoul of the charity that one owes to his own body, sc. leaving aside what is peculiar to his state, what is not appropriate to Christ’s own body isn’t appropriate to the body of Christians, and his body scarring was entirely inflicted from without and testifies to sin while his body in itself was the lamb without spot or blemish. In the Catholic tradition we add to this that the sacrament of the eucharist affects a real union of the body of Christ with the body of the Christian and so incorporates the one into the other.
  • Within the Catholic tradition there is also the problem of no tattooed saints, i.e. that body scarring and inking is not a part of any saint’s spirituality.
  • On the axis of natural law tattoos and piercings are wrong to the extent that they manifest a belief that one’s body is his own to dispose of as he sees fit. It’s hard for me to see how one could tattoo himself without presupposing this, but it seems possible for at least some sorts of piercings to arise without this conviction. Cultural norms play a role here up to a point, bearing in mind they aren’t self-justifying.
  • The relevant axiom is supra corpus custos non dominus, that one is keeper or tenant of the body and not the lord or property owner of it. It’s more an apartment than a house, and so permanent alterations do not fall under our authority. Plato first articulates this view at the beginning of Phaedo as an argument against suicide, and he is right to point out that the principle is mystical. Absent a mystical sense we wouldn’t expect anyone to get it.
  • Permanent physical alterations of course immediately divide into the medicinal/ therapeutic and what is other than these, with the former having a moral permission as broad as the latter is narrow.

After self loathing

Assume Protestantism critiqued Catholicism and Enlightenment secularity critiqued both, and something in turn starts critiquing Enlightenment starting with the Modernism arising in the years before the definitive critique of WWI. Said another way, Protestantism flourished in a skepticism of existing (i.e. Catholic) religious traditions but was eventually lumped in as just one more tradition, Enlightenment secularism sought an authority in reason “daring to think for itself” apart from any wisdom tradition but then proceeded to last long enough to itself be a tradition. At some point all this abasing criticism had to focus on ourselves, and this is the point we seem to have reached. Again, having mocked our ancestral Church we placed hope of salvation in the documents of that Church (The Bible) and the temporal rulers of nations; having lost hope in the documents and ancient rulers we turned to placing faith in our common humanity and power of reason; but having lost hope in either of these we had nowhere left to flee but still needed to experience the thrill of losing hope in something, and so we lost hope even in our own goodness, dignity, and worth. We know there is a new birth on the far side of dying gods and we’ve lost anything else to despair of.

If this is the dissolution of Christendom it’s hard to see what the next stage looks like. I don’t say that to be ominous, as I take it for granted that tremendous violence will happen as a matter of course as it happened at every transition point from Catholicism to Protestantism to Enlightenment secularity to its postmodern critique. I’m rather puzzled by what is left to criticize after a history of other-loathing has collapsed into self-loathing comprised of our disgust at our nation, its history and accomplishments, its present government… to say nothing of our disgust at our normal everyday consciousness (unaffected by prescribed and legalized drugs), at our congenital sexual dimorphism, at gender roles so ancient they probably predate mammalian life, at normal human interaction (i.e. not mediated by screens), at sexual activity that is done as opposed to marketed and consumed, at even the idea of normal religious belonging or hierarchical order.

Moral certainties

If they knew all their physical needs were met, some non-zero percentage of seventh-grade boys figure that playing video games for the rest of their lives would be the full measure of human happiness. Video games are thus an object of hope as Christianity understands the virtue, namely our confidence in the power of something to confer happiness.

The seventh grader might be corrected by his father and told that video games don’t bring fulfillment, since this requires getting a job and earning one’s way in the world. Dad’s argument is better in one sense but not simply speaking, since a video game is at least something done entirely for its own sake while a job is not necessarily so.

Despite his hope in the eudaimonic potency of video games, the seventh grader ends up in therapy and is told he is mentally ill since his behavior falls sort of an ideal known neither to him nor the person diagnosing him. The therapist speaks to him in the hope that the seventh grader will draw the answer out of himself, perhaps forgetting that he already drew the answer out of himself, and he even continues to be convinced that it’s true. He knows it’s video games.

The ethical problem

One necessary condition of Aristotle inventing ethics was that the ultimate end of human life is not evident. What’s worse, the end is not just inevident but we have strong initial convictions about it that can’t bring ourselves to believe.

The ultimate end of human life has to at least be what you would do if all the needs of life were met. So if one knew all his needs were taken care of, what then? The young shrug at the question and assume (or fear that) this is as far as one could go, and the occasional boy thrills at the thought of playing video games forever, but a shrug is no answer and if we exist for amusements then life is a joke.

[T]hose things are both valuable and pleasant which are such to the good man; and to each man the activity in accordance with his own disposition is most desirable, and, therefore, to the good man that which is in accordance with virtue. Happiness, therefore, does not lie in amusement; it would, indeed, be strange if the end were amusement, and one were to take trouble and suffer hardship all one’s life in order to amuse oneself. For, in a word, everything that we choose we choose for the sake of something else-except happiness, which is an end. Now to exert oneself and work for the sake of amusement seems silly and utterly childish

Eth. 10 c. 6

The “what then?” that follows this is one of the background questions of human life that Aristotle tries to push to the foreground. We live for something but the common attempts to answer what it is can’t be taken seriously. The popular answers are sometimes sentimental,* sometimes it’s a joke, and no amount of backgammon or tending one’s garden deals is a healthy response to the problem.

*Included among the sentimental answers, and maybe even the chief among them, is the idea that “everyone has to answer the question for himself” which is simply our refusal to face a question that can’t be answered without judging the lives of others, no matter how loathe we are to do so.

Faith as opposed to evidence

Sometimes we know something for ourselves and other times we trust that others know it, e.g. sometimes I know where the bathroom is other times I ask someone in a position to know where it is. Call the first act knowledge and the second one faith. So I have faith in P when I trust someone else knows P.

So taken, knowledge and faith do not differ in certitude since certitude is nothing but to take P as known as opposed to mistaken and both take P in this way. I can’t have faith you know P and believe that it is mistaken or false. Note that faith won’t arise from my believing you have an opinion about something. If I ask you where the bathroom is and you respond in a way that I take as being merely your opinion the discussion is superfluous, since if all I wanted was an opinion I could have thought one up myself. Our discussion might suggest new ideas to me about how to act, or suggest certain things could be be the case, but it won’t terminate with me having in faith in you.

So faith is like knowledge because we take P as certain, but the one with faith does not have the evidence that P is true, since the evidence of this is, for example, a memory of just where the bathroom is supported by having been there many times. You have evidence of P when the truth of P is evident or obvious to you.

Faith is therefore by definition certitude without evidence, and viewed on this axis demanding evidence for faith or seeking to proportion faith to evidence fails to understand faith at all. To take the position seriously is to deny faith altogether, which would make most learning impossible since most of the time we learn things by asking others we take to be in a position to know, whether we ask them directly or indirectly though reading their books.

Another sense of demanding evidence of faith is to look for some reason to trust someone. This is an extrinsic motive for belief, where extrinsic means the evidence we get to believe the guy knows P is not the proper evidence of P. As soon as one gets the proper evidence of P he ceases to have faith and proceeds to know the matter for himself, though his very act of coming to know gives him an additional extrinsic motive to trust the guy about a matter sufficiently like P.

The theological virtue of faith is nothing more than to believe that some P is known by God. Like all acts of faith it has certitude without evidence, though in this case the certitude one can have is so great as to give the faith a properly scientific character, since it is logically impossible to believe some premise is known to be true by God and that it could be mistaken.

Problem of evil

In responding to an objection concerning the possibility of salvation for righteous non-Christians, Thomas responds:

If, however, some were saved without receiving any revelation, they were not saved without faith in a Mediator, for, though they did not believe in Him explicitly, they did, nevertheless, have implicit faith through believing in Divine providence, since they believed that God would deliver mankind in whatever way was pleasing to Him.

Summa Theologiae 2-2.2.7 ad. 3

Thomas is giving a sort of minimum necessary belief in the mystery of Christ, namely that fallen men who don’t know of Christ do not believe in him in any way till they believe that God will deliver from evil. If so, beneath this threshold of belief the fallen cannot be saved at all even by extraordinary means.

Christianity is fundamentally the faith that God delivers from evil. Part of this deliverance involves binding the perpetually unrepentant, but while this is a divine perfection mercy is more characteristic of God as he could not relate to the creature at all without first raising it out of non-existence. The details of how divine justice and mercy will work out in concrete cases is impossible to know without looking back on the whole of human history, which is not a perspective viatores can have. For all we experience of the end of history (i.e. nothing) it’s just as reasonable that God will conquer as evil will. One either trusts that God will set things right or believes that evil will never be set right, and if evil is never set right it acquires a sort of divine property since, without deliverance, the injustice and wrong it affects lives on in sæcula sæculorum. Our faith options are either in divine goodness or the quasi-divinity of evil that no power can justify or deliver from.

So it seems both faiths are right so far as they concern the destiny of the one who believes, with faith in God’s deliverance being of itself ordered to perpetual deliverance from evil and faith in the quasi-divinity of evil of itself placing the believer under its perpetual dominion.

Languages and Individuals

Matter is the principle of individuation, but in material things beneath human beings this material individuation is just multiplication or sheer division of a uniform mass. One ball bearing is not another, but they are little more than cuts in one block of steel. But human material is proportioned to intellect and so different human persons are less like different ball bearings and more like different languages. Each person that arises is less replaceable than Greek or Latin.

Nature, quiddity, essence

De ente et essentia sees one reality described as nature in its order to operation, quiddity in its order to definition, and essence in its order to existence. Again, there is a principle of action proportioned to the second act of proper motions and rest, intelligibility proportioned to first operation of the intellect and culminating in the distinct knowledge of definition, and either a principle by which esse is limited by reception in another or an account of ipsum esse subsistens as a sort of thing, i.e we can say it is the essence of something to be ipsum esse subsistens.

The perfection of nature is in proper operation and so in goodness, the act of quiddity is not brought forth in re but from intelligence and so is truth, and where essence is perfected it limits an esse received from ipsum esse subsistens. Nature perfect apart from operation is power, quiddity perfect apart from definition is the foundation in re of receptive intellect, but it seems like the attempt to view essence in the same way means one is either talking about God or absolute non-being, as the divine essence doesn’t create demiurge-like by actualizing ready-made receptacles for limiting esse.

Nature, quiddity, and essence are descriptions of something that Thomas calls essence. This suggests a sort of primacy within the trinity of names for the order of things to existence, since it is only through this order that one can have anything at all. Thomas first divides essence as being considered precisely as real as opposed to being that belongs to anything which the mind uses the copula or its equivalent to understand, and which therefore requires a sort of indifference to what exists in re since we must form judgments not just about realities but also about fictions, impossibilities, non-beings, etc.

The rational perfection of the non-reasonable

Why does God demand we believe what we cannot know, prove or intuit? I suspected the reason would be something stern – to humble the mind, remind us of our lowliness, etc. Isn’t this how we’re supposed to read God’s words to Job from the whirlwind?

Thomas’s answer is that it was necessary to the perfection of reason. To simplify:

1.) The perfection of subordinate requires two distinct perfections (a) what it can do by itself and (b) what it can only do in conjunction with another. For example, tools are subordinates and a computer must both do things by itself (autocorrect, run programs) and in union with another (write sentences, be turned on and off.) If a spatula is going to fulfil what it was made to do, it needs both to hold its shape and run over hot surfaces (which it does by itself) and be moved around under pancakes (which it does in union with another.)

2.) Created reason, as reason, is subordinate to God.

3.) Reason can reason, think, prove, intuit etc by itself.

4.) Therefore, the perfection of reason requires something it can’t reason, think, prove or intuit.

So taken, if we consider a rigorous skepticism even apart from any of its conclusions it is only compatible with atheism* since limiting the perfections of reason to what reason can know can only be reasonable if reason itself is not a subordinate nature.

*Taken broadly to include all of Plato’s divisions of atheism – the denial of God’s existence or his care for human beings.

« Older entries