Of the effects of sin, and, first, of the corruption of the good of natureThis week we read question 85 of the second part of the second part. My comments here will focus in Article 2: Whether the entire good of human nature can be destroyed by sin?
Initially, we might wonder what "entire good of human nature" in that question is supposed to mean. I know what it means if someone says, "Have the entire contents of that milk carton been poured out?" Do we imagine the "entire good of human nature" as something contained in us when we examine this question?
Thomas takes up that challenge. As he notes, we could understand this in two ways. If I keep pouring out milk to fill my glass and my glass contains 200 ml then I will empty the carton by drinking five glasses of milk. Alternatively, we could approach the problem as a species of Zeno's paradox: If I keep taking out half the contents of the carton it will never be empty. (This is not crazy because here is a sense in which there is a very hard to remove adhesion layer of milk on the inner surfaces of the carton that is very hard to remove. I can keep rinsing out the carton, getting more and more but can I get it all?)
Thomas's reply to this is fascinating:
"But this does not apply to the question at issue, since a subsequent sin does not diminish the good of nature less than a previous sin, but perhaps more, if it be a more serious sin."That's a fascinating response. Our first inclination might be to dismiss it as it is a non sequitur. To use my earlier example, suppose I had a whole bunch of different-sized drinking glasses from 1 ml to 450 ml. The carton would be still be empty, at least according a certain purpose, once the total volume I poured out equaled the total volume that had been in the carton to begin with.
On the other and, he's right. Thinking of "the entire good of human nature" in terms of volume is just wrong. Yes, we use metaphors of volume and weight to speak of matters of good and evil as, for example, when we speak of weighing our sins. No one, however, actually weighs sins. In modern terms, we would say that to speak of "the entire good of human nature" as if he analogy between it and volume corresponded in every way is to make a category mistake.
So Thomas is right to say the concerns raised about diminution of the volume of goodness do not apply even though he does not give a good argument for reaching this conclusion. (A committed Straussian might ask whether he means us to take this argument entirely seriously. I'm not a Straussian myself but I'm open to the possibility that Thomas knew where he wanted to go but didn't know how to get there so he inserted an argument that otherwise would not have satisfied him.)
He then restates matters in different terms. The "goodness of nature" is "the natural inclination to virtue". That inclination is "the middle term between two others". The two others are 1) rational nature and 2) the good of virtue. When the goodness of nature is diminished by sin it is because sin places obstacles between rational nature and the good of virtue it seeks to obtain.
I'm not entirely certain I know what that means. As I read Thomas more more, it becomes clearer that everything in the Summa is connected to everything else. We come at what seems like a separate question here but understanding it correctly requires us to understand a technical vocabulary with is defined and analyzed elsewhere.
When we, as moderns, come to this text, we are looking for information we can apply to problems. But the text requires extensive cross-referencing to fully understand. Can we pull out part, what he says about the vices, and just use it?
For now, I'll just consider an epistemological issue. Thomas is a very much a rationalist. He will, for example, claim
"Sin cannot entirely take away from man the fact that he is a rational being, for then he no longer would be capable of sin." (Article 2)Reason, as Thomas understands it, seems to require some sort of "union" between the knowing subject and the external object. So, I look at the demi tasse on by desk and I grasp what it is. The fullness of demi-tasseness is understood by my rational soul. Or not. I can be in error. I might think, "Look, someone has put a miniature coffee cup from a child's toy collection on my desk." But to get it right, I must grasp the fullness of what it is to be a demi tasse.
So, Thomas will go on to say that sin can diminish the good of nature but that it cannot entirely remove it because reason cannot be removed. The good of nature consists of two parts: "rational nature", the root, and "the good of virtue" as the end at which it aims. Sin puts obstacles between rational nature and the good of virtue it is aimed at. It does not diminish the rational nature.
Thomas uses a very telling metaphor for this:
"An example of this may be seen in a transparent body, which has an inclination to receive light, from the very fact that it is transparent; yet this inclintion or aptitude is diminished on the part of supervening clouds, although it always remains rooted in the nature of the body."Okay, but does a transparent body have an inclination to receive light? I don't want to beat up on Thomas by using our more advanced physics against his. What I am trying to get at is the function of the mind. Is it like a clear pane of glass through which we see the world? if we leave aside the infinite regress objection, glass doesn't seem to contribute anything. Is reason like that? Could it fully grasp the good of virtue so long as there were no obstacles? That makes reason a fairly passive thing.
It seems to me that the visual metaphor for rationality is like the volume metaphor for goodness. It helps us talk about these things but we make a giant mistake if we take the metaphor as a map to the mechanism. Is Thomas making that mistake? I don't know but I do think there is sufficient evidence here to keep that question in mind going forward.