This is the first in a series of posts regarding the way Thomas Aquinas discusses vices. It is related to a course I am taking. If you wish to see all the posts in this series, please click here.
In reading Thomas, I seek to learn from him. In confronting Thomas, we are confronting something monumental, a theology of immense importance.
On the other hand, I could, of course, ignore him. Most Catholics these day do. Kuhn says somewhere that when a new paradigm arises, the people who follow it don’t refute the old paradigm so much as they ignore it. Thomas and Thomism is today, an ignored paradigm because, as I say, most Catholics pay little attention to it. Oddly, then, Thomas Aquinas seems immensely important and yet not at the same time.
In doing this course, I am going to operate on the assumption that Thomas is of immense importance. If we really want to understand our faith and how it got to where it is, some knowledge of Thomas, Bonaventure, Dun Scotus is useful. More than that, though, it seems to that a Catholic theologian must engage with Thomas at least to be able to place their own views in relation to his.
It seems to me that, at his best, Thomas is a linguistic philosopher. He is very good at getting clear about how we use language and what that implies. For example in the Reply to Objection 3, of Question 49, Article 2 in the First part of the Second Part of the Summa Theologiae, Thomas concludes a long discussion of “habit" and “quality” by saying, “From this it is clear that the word “habit” implies a certain lastingness: while the word disposition does not.” This is good and sound conclusion. We will need to specify a bit. I think we may have lost some nuance in translation for the word “disposition” in English does imply a certain lastingness. Otherwise we couldn’t talk about dispositions in the first place. We could say that what Thomas really means is that habits are more deeply rooted than dispositions.
And here, someone might say, “I want more than that. I want to be able to say, “This is a habit and that is a disposition because they are clear different things!” Behind this is a fear that there is a grey area: things are dispositions up to a certain point but it’s hard to say where the dividing line would be. This is a very old problem in philosophy.
One famous formulation of the problem goes as follows. If I put a grain of sand on a table and ask you if it is a heap of sand, you will say it is not. If I add one more and ask you if that is enough to make it a heap, you will say that it is not. “Aha," I say, “then adding one grain is not enough to make it a heap.” You agree. I then continue adding one grain at a time until you agree that there is enough sand to constitute a heap. And then I pounce and say, “But where is the dividing line? I’ve been adding one grain at a time and you agreed that adding one grain cannot be the thing that makes this thing a heap.” And yet, it makes sense to speak of some things being heaps of sand and others of being just grains of sand on a table.
Behind this sort of argument is an implicit claim that a vague definition is no definition at all. That is plainly nonsense but why? One answer is because we can talk about heaps of sand and do so in a coherent and consistent way. I like that answer but I rather suspect that Thomas would not and that is why he uses terms such as “quality" and “species of quality”.
If we jump ahead to Question 51, Article 3, Thomas asks, “Whether a habit can be caused by one act?” It is immediately obvious that we have a problem like the heap of sand.
The temptation is to say, "It seems clear that one act isn’t enough to cause a habit.” But Jane told me that she is starting a habit of getting up at six in the morning every morning starting tomorrow. Suppose she succeeds. It’s not difficult to imagine, the world is full of people who are capable of such resolve.
But this doesn’t seem enough. We want to say that we are not willing to accept that once is enough to establish a habit. On the other hand, Jane did it. She said she was going to establish a habit and then she did it and she had it right from the beginning. She didn’t fail! And we might ask ourselves why it's important to know what "causes" a habit. Is it going to help us form good habits to get clear on this?
The real point point here, I think, is about the use of the word. When can we say Jane has established her habit? Consider a counter example: we would not say she lost that habit if she failed, after a late night at a party, to get up one morning. No, to use the word, we want to see consistency. But we do not, thereby, come to know the essence of “habit”. We only learn to speak correctly.
If we jump back to Question 49, Article 1, Thomas asks, “Whether habit is a quality?”
Well, the question might be put this way, “Do I have a habit of drinking coffee in the same way that I have height?”
He makes a distinction between qualities and predicaments. Predicament: something that can be predicated. “Michel is wearing a red sweater today.” does not seem to be the same sort of statement as “Michel has a bad habit of putting things off until the last second.” I can just take the sweater off. It takes more effort to change a habit. To change my sweater, I just take it off without, it seems, changing myself. To change my habits seems to require changing me.
But consider this: I have a glass of wine with dinner everyday. One day I read that the studies that convinced me this is healthy were badly done and there is new evidence suggesting it’s bad for me. So I stop drinking. Another person in the same predicament finds it hard. Yet another, can’t do it. We call what I have a practice, what the second person has a habit and what the third has a disease, that is to say an addiction. How do we make this distinction?
We don’t say of a red ball that it “has redness” in ordinary language use. Philosophers say things like this but they are just abusing language when they do so. It tells me nothing at all to say a red ball has redness.
There is a real puzzle here. We don’t talk the same way about these things and that tells us something important about the beliefs we operate on. But does it tell us anything about the things themselves.
Suppose I meet someone who thinks that “that ball has redness” and “that house has a car is parked in front” are equivalent uses of "has". This implies that just as the parked car can be moved, the redness can be taken away from the ball. One response would be to say, well, try it, try to take the redness away from the ball. Now, he might succeed in that. The ball might be painted red and that paint could be removed. But what if the ball is made of some red material? In that case he will fail. Would we, on that basis, say that “redness” was a predicament not a quality? No. The difference between these things is functional. Our language reflects what we can do but also what we do do. We use the term quality when we are operating in a certain way and predicament in another. (It is telling, perhaps, that in English the many uses of predicament have been reduced to only one: to be caught in a dilemma or quandary.)
We are discussing the way we use the word habit and concluding that we use it more like the way we talk about qualities than the way we talk about than things hat we can simply take on or off. But we aren’t pointing at anything about the things themselves, simply about how we talk and behave regarding them. There are cultures that recognized slavery as an evil but took it to be an evil that could not be removed, a quality of human life to be deplored but accepted. This went on for centuries. Does anyone seriously think that all that had to be done was to explain to them that they took as a quality what was only a predicament and the problem of slavery could have been done away with? I suppose there are such people but they seem rather stupid to me. I can’t just tell the person with a bad habit that they can just stop, can I? Well, sometimes this works—Miles Davis just decided to stop using heroin—but usually not.
Moral habits are going to matter to the degree that we can change them."To have" or "to not have" in this context is determined by performance.