Thursday, March 21, 2019

08 Thomas on the Vices

In addition to my usual sin of seeing Stoic and libertarian interpretations everywhere I’m going to go all theological on you this week. As if that wasn’t bad enough, I’m also going to go all analytic on you and allude to very delicate issue in passing. 

In the modern world we don’t automatically assume that pride is a bad thing. In fact, we encourage oppressed people to take pride as a first step towards emancipation. We also typically assume that it is impossible to reconcile traditional morality with this new notion of human dignity. I’m going to outline an argument that suggests that Thomas and Augustine both can be reconciled with our modern notion that pride is a first step to liberty. Perhaps “argument” is overstating: It might be better to say I’m going to list some elements that might go into such an argument if it were to be made.

Question 163, Article 1, Whether pride was the first man’s first sin?
 In Objection one, he raises the possibility that the first sin might have been disobedience, Quoting the letter to the Romans to that effect. The reply to the objection reads:
“Man’s disobedience to the Divine command was not willed by man for his own sake, for this could not happen unless one presuppose inordinateness in his will. It remains therefore that he willed it for the sake of something else. Now the first thing he coveted inordinately was his own excellence; and consequently his disobedience was the result of his pride.”
I’d parse that as follows:
  1. The first sin wasn’t committed to satisfy some inordinate need for food, fame or material goods because Adam’s will was well-ordered.
  2. “Something else” here must means something that is good in itself.
  3. That something else was to be excellent and it is for that reason that he disobeyed.
If we go to the response we get this:
There are many movements towards sin and the character of the sin attaches to that movement in which inordinateness is first found. 

Inordinateness is in the inward movement of the soul before being an outward act of the body.
We get moved towards the end before that which is desired for the sake of the end: I want pleasure before I eat chocolate chip cookies. Now there is nothing wrong with chocolate chip cookies in themselves. There has to be an inordinate end that my appetite was aimed at.

But Adam is not like me: he does not have any inordinate desires towards sensible goods such as pleasure. The fruit did indeed look like it tasted good but that is where the sin lies.

He quotes Augustine from Bk 1 of De civitate dei in support of this.

An Inner Citadel

Now that is interesting that citation comes from a section of Book 1 where Augustine deals with the plight of Roman women who were sexually assaulted during the sack of the city. Now, obviously, this is a very delicate issue. Augustine had previously argued that the barbarians respected the holiness of the Christian Churches by granting sanctuary to those who managed to get to them. But now he must deal with those who did not manage to reach the churches and the most horrific case is those women who were raped. In Roman society these women were doubly assaulted. First there was the actual sexual assault and then there was the shame that went with it. In the Roman world chastity was highly valued (a point much modern writing about the empire tends to mislead us on). A woman was expected to resort to heroic measures to prevent any assault on her chastity and if she was unable to prevent a sexual assault suicide was, while not required, put forward as an ideal response. 
(It's worth noting that both Ambrose and Jerome took views that virginity and not consent was what mattered. A note in my copy of De civitate dei suggest that Augustine does not mention Ambrose out of respect but is clearly refuting him.)

Augustine very decisively says that this view is wrong. He says that if a woman has not inwardly consented to the outward act that was forced on her she remains chaste. In a passing remark, he suggests that remains true even she  took physical pleasure.

It’s worth dwelling on the significance for we need to consider how horrible this pleasure would be. Some of the boys who were victims of sexual assault in the church report that even as they were hating what was happening, even as they were willing that it should stop, their bodies betrayed them by responding. Think how horrible that must be. Where do you find sanctuary when even your own body is not safe? 

There is a clear Stoic element to his discussion. Augustine’s notion of an inward consent is similar to, and probably derived from, the Stoic notion of an inner citadel. A “place” where I can assert my right to resist what is put upon me against my will. This wouldn’t be easy. Indeed, it must take heroic strength and dogged persistence to maintain that inner resolve not to consent when the whole world is against you. It seems reasonable to me that a person or people might see the ability to resist this way as a source of legitimate pride. As Christians we would want to add that we should recognize that God’s help is required but the principle is is established.

Dogs that don’t bark in the night

Thomas’s conclusion here is more humble than we might think. He proceeds by exclusion to reach his conclusion: “It remains therefore that the first inordinateness of the human appetite resulted from his coveting inordinately some spiritual good.” It must be because Adam coveted some spiritual good because it cannot have been for any other reason. We associate this inference with Sherlock Holmes: eliminate all the other factors and the one that remains must be the truth. That’s a valid inference but it still remains possible to question it on another level. If I can bore you with some logic:

It’s possible to have a valid inference that is as wrong as wrong can be. For example: 
Either it is raining or the Queen is Jewish.
It is not raining.
Therefore the Queen is Jewish.

We call the fundamental level, that initial premise, "Either it is raining or the Queen is Jewish,” an interpretation, a model or a structure depending on what school of logic we belong to. The question of whether that is legitimate is not in the province of logic, not the logicians responsibility. And that raises a challenge. Because there are an awful lot of possible interpretations. [Keep in mind what interpretation means here.] It doesn’t follow that because a set of given interpretations have been eliminated that any given alternative is going to do.

Where can we turn for an understanding of obedience as a spiritual discipline opposed to pride?

Medieval heritage

A lecturer I once heard discussing the rise of the Franciscans and Dominicans made the following, I think, astute observation, “The problem was that while individual monks made a vow of poverty, the community as a whole did not.” And that can get to be a problem because a community in which everyone lives in poverty and sacrifices for the greater good is almost certain to begin accumulating wealth. If wealthy people in the community donate land and money to the monasteries in the hope of obtaining blessing from God, substantial wealth and power can result. In the period between the eighth to tenth centuries that did not matter because everybody was poor. Beginning in the tenth century and especially between the eleventh and thirteenth centuries some monasteries became rich and politically powerful. Corruption followed. In addition, this very wealthy church was unable to preach convincingly against movements such as the Albigensians who embraced a strict and inspiring asceticism. One way to understand what Francis and Dominic did was that they reinvented spiritual life to respond to new conditions and one of their chief goals was to focus on obedience in the pursuit of spiritual goods.

In a monastic community, obedience means not only obedience to God but also obedience to the abbot or abbess. Our understanding of pride in this context might include not only pride against God directly but also against the abbot. Is my obedience towards my abbot the same as my obedience towards God?

There is an interesting possibility regarding this question found in scripture. (I borrow heavily from Fr. John Nepil in the following)
There are a number of Greek terms for obedience in the New Testament. Two have the same prefix “hupo”, whip means under. There is “hupotasso” which means under the order of. To be subordinate. That is therm that is used to describe the obedience Jesus showed to Mary and Joseph in Luke after they find him in the temple. Another term is “hupoakuo”, which means under the hearing of. Akuo is the root of the word acoustic.  Prime example is the Canticle in Philipians 2:
Though he was in the form of God,
Jesus did not regard equality with God
as something to be grasped at.
Rather he emptied himself
and took the form of a slave,
being born in the likeness of men.
He was known to be of human estate,
and it was thus that he humbled himself,
obediently accepting even death,
death on a cross.
Now there is an obvious intuition we might take from this and that is that huputasso is the form of obedience we owe to other human beings and that hupoakuo is the form of obedience we owe to God. (I say intuition rather than conclusion because I know of no way to actually prove this.) Hupotasso requires that I do what is asked of em and it also requires a certain attitude. I must charitably assume that there is some good that can come from my obedience. Hupoakuo requires something even deeper. It requires that I surrender even that inner citadel that I might otherwise reserve. Only God deserves the latter and this has political implications.

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