Wednesday, March 13, 2019

07 Thomas on the Vices

The things which come into man's use are external things, and among these honor is the greatest simply, both because it is the most akin to virtue, since it is an attestation to a person's virtue, as stated above (103, 1 and 2); and because it is offered to God and to the best; and again because, in order to obtain honor even as to avoid shame, men set aside all other things. 
That's from Question 129, Article 1 "Whether magnanimity is about honors?" He gives three objections that suggest that it is not. There is, then, something tricky about honor.

If we parse the paragraph above we can draw a number of conclusions about honor.
  • It's an external thing.
  • Honor is offered to God and to "the best".
  • We tend to value honor highly and will set aside other things to get it.
An external thing is something that, if the reader will forgive a little Stoic language, is not up to us. We might make an analogy with health. I want to be healthy and there are things I can do to promote my health and yet I might do everything right and still get cancer or have a heart attack.

"Honor is offered to God" here must mean that it is done not that everyone does. That seems odd. Anyone who recognized God as God would surely give him honor. For Friday Vespers of week 1, we sing a Canticle from Revelations 15 that features these lines:
Who would dare refuse you honor,
or the glory due your name, O LORD?
And yet many do so refuse. In this world, honor does not necessarily go to those who deserve it. If I understand him correctly, that is why Thomas says in his reply to Objection 1 of this article, "Good and evil absolutely considered regard the concupiscible faculty, but in so far as as the aspect of difficulty is added, they belong to the irascible." (That is still going to leave us difficulties with regards to God as it seems odd to say that he faces any degree of difficulty in attaining anything but I'll leave that for now.)

The pursuit of honor and fear of shame is all important to us. We'll put aside other things to get the first and flee the second.

In the Aristotelian schema: every virtue has at least two corresponding vices. One is a deficiency and the other is the lack. The example most often used is courage: a deficiency is courage is cowardice and an excess is foolhardiness. That courage is used most often should be a warning to us here that it may not work out so neatly with every virtue.

One of the excesses that Thomas opposes to magnanimity is ambition.

Now there is a problem with terminology here. The terms we use to describe virtues and vices do not correspond to metaphysical truths waiting to be discovered. They are part of a language that changes according to current use. A while ago a young man I know told me that his girlfriend had dumped him because he wasn't ambitious enough. As he explained it to me, two things became apparent. First, that, even though he is a nice guy, she was absolutely right to have dumped him. Second, that by ambition she meant that he just drifted through life taking it as it comes and didn't strive to improve himself or his place in the world. She, like many people in our culture, uses the word "ambition" more or less the way Thomas uses the word translated as "magnanimity". Magnanimity, meanwhile, has come to mean the sort of person who dismisses a moral debt generously or who picks up the tab after dinner.

When we speak of ambition as a vice, then, we should try to track what Thomas means specifically by this word and not think of all the different ways we use the word today. For Thomas, honor is due for excellence but any excellence in us is a gift from God. Further, this excellence was given us so that we could benefit others. We can be excessive, that is to say "ambitious," in three ways: 1) By desiring honor for forms of excellence that God has not given us; 2) By desiring honor for ourselves "Without referring it to God"; 3) When we seek honor as its own reward rather than as a way to benefit others.

The central issue facing us in this course is: How do these vices incline us to sin? Is it the three excesses themselves that are sins? Or are these attitudes that make us likely to sin? The problem I have here is this: If desiring an honor that is not due to me is a sin, what is ambition? Is it something that lies behind the thing or is it only found in things. By way of analogy, pianissimo means to play very softly but you can never see or hear it by itself. You can hear a particular piece of music played pianissimo but never the thing all by itself much the way you never see red, only red stuff. Is ambition something about the execution of an act that makes it sinful? Or can someone do something in an inordinate way such that it is bad, meaning it could be better, but it doesn't rise to the level of sin?

In closing, a challenge from Jane Austen. (I think Austen is one of the best, if not the best modern writer on virtue.) At the opening of Sense and Sensibility, she tells us that a man who has lost his immediately family invites his nephew and niece along with their three daughters to live with him at his estate. Now, this nephew is also heir to the estate. Austen describes their behaviour towards him as follows:
The constant attention of Mr and Mrs Henry Dashwood to his wishes, which proceeded not merely from interest, but from goodness of heart, gave him every degree of solid comfort which his age could receive; and the cheerfulness of the children added relish to his existence.
Now a qualification is required here. By "constant attention" Austen does not mean "all the time" as we would. For the 18th century, "constant" referred to to virtue "constancy" meaning a quality whereby a person didn't change all the time depending on the situation of the moment. That cleared up, notice that "goodness of heart" makes the attention virtuous even though some of it is unquestionably a matter of interest. It would presumably be vicious if it proceeded only from interest. We might also wonder if attention that sprang only from interest would be constant. I rather suspect it wouldn't but would fluctuate depending on our sense of whether or not this attention was likely to pay off. The important thing, though, is that Austen says that self interest does not necessarily render the attention vicious.

What about seeking honor for myself. Suppose I hope to be a poet and part of the reason I do so is that I hope to get good enough to gain honor from others for doing so. Okay, I apparently have delusions about the respect that poets are likely to get. But is the fact that seeking honor is part of what I do vicious? I don't know that I will be any good at the outset. As Jean-François Revel said, "Il y a très peu de grands poètes, et la plupart des grand poètes ont le plus souvent écrit très peut de poèmes." But does it do harm if a poet sits down to write a poem seeking honor even though it should be obvious to him that this outcome is unlikely? Again, it might if that was the only reason for writing this poem or if he took honor as a matter of entitlement but merely seeking it does not seem fatal. And even to the extent that it is bad it doesn't seem to necessarily lead to sin.

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