Tuesday, April 9, 2019

10 Thomas on the Vices

All sorts of things jumped out at me this time.

Most prominently, Q. 117, Art. 5, Whether liberality is a part of justice?

The problem here is that liberality is an act of generosity, Thomas would say beneficence. The moral issue here concerns the giver alone. When I owe a moral debt, be it money or something else, then there is a moral aspect to my owing it but also a moral aspect in the receiver’s right to get repaid. The moral test of liberality is the way it is dispensed. To do so out of a sense of duty would be morally admirable but it would not be liberality.

It’s the sed contra that seems most interesting to me. Thomas quotes Ambrose, “Justice has to do with the fellowship of mankind. For the notion of fellowship is divided into two parts, justice and beneficence, also called liberality or kind-heartedness.” Therefore liberality pertains to justice.

I’d parse it as follows:

F if J and B.
Therefore, if F then J and B.

That is to say, there is no case where F is true unless both J and B are true.

That’s Ambrose’s argument. What does Thomas add?

He first of all acknowledges that there is something to the objections: liberality is nota species of justice. But it two points where it agrees with justice. 1) It is directed towards others and 2) it is concerned with external things. And he concludes, “… liberality is reckoned by some to be a part of justice, being annexed thereto as to a principal virtue.”

Unfortunately, I am not qualified to comment on the quality of the translation here. If we take the English at face value, however, that is a pretty soft endorsement. It is “reckoned by some”. The thrust seems to be that this is a legitimate but not necessary association.

In passing, I’d note there is a Stoic connection here. The Ambrose quote comes from De Officiis Ministrorum which was modeled on Cicero’s De Officiis a text with strong Stoic foundations. Cicero and Seneca were both held in very high regard from Late Antiquity through to the Renaissance. In any case, Thomas seems to have held Cicero and Seneca in high regard.

The Stoic connections is worth noting for the Stoic concern with justice grows out of self-concern. A very short version would run like this: I am a moral being, it behooves moral beings to have certain attitudes and behaviours and some of these would promote concern and care for the community and justice towards individuals. That view fits with Christian morality and is thus admissible. That acknowledged, there is a tension between it and the far harder example set by Jesus who gave up his life. Thus Thomas leaves open a door to consider the case of the “perfect”.

If I might hammer on the Stoic theme: this seems to me to indicate why we cannot equate the perfect to the notion of the Stoic sage. Both the perfect and the serve as moral exemplars that we should all admire even if it seems unlikely that we shall ever successfully emulate them. The Stoic sage, however, is just the most highly developed case of the sort of judgement and virtue that we are all called to have, Liberality, as described by Thomas, is a virtue fitting for all but there is a higher calling for those who aspire to be perfect. In the Reply to objection 2 of article 1, he writes as follows: "It does not belong to a liberal man so to give away his riches that nothing is left for his own support, nor the wherewithal to perform those acts of virtue whereby happiness is acquired.” He then quotes Aristotle ins support of this, “the liberal man does not neglect his own, wishing thus to be of help to certain people.” Now, that’s fine for Aristotle but there is an obvious Christian counterpoint in Matthew 19: 21, “If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor and you will have treasure in heaven.” A Stoic position could, with some effort, be harmonized with this for the Stoic is supposed to be willing to sacrifice even money necessary for subsistence for the sake of maintaining virtue. An Aristotelian could not.

In order to remain loyal to Aristotle, Thomas opens up a second way. Again quoting De Officiis Ministrorum, Thomas writes, “'Our Lord does not wish a man to pour out his riches all at once, but to dispense them: unless he do as Eliseus did, who slew his oxen and fed the poor, that he might not be bound by any household cares.’ For this belongs to the state of perfection …” It seems that in his comment on the Ambrose quote, Thomas means to indicate that what Eliseus did belongs to the state of perfection whereas the first part of the Ambrose quote describes what we might describe as good enough.

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