Thursday, April 11, 2019

11 Thomas on the vices

This week we read Question 15. The vices opposed to knowledge and understanding, from the second part of the second part. It's pretty short so I'll just go through it.

First article

He starts with three very good questions:
  1. Blindness of mind is an excuse.
  2. Blindness of mind is (can be?) a punishment and punishment is not the same as guilt.
  3. We are ultimately responsible for our sins and blindness of mind is not voluntary.
The sed contra is Gregory to the effect that blindness of mind arises from lust.

Knowledge is conceived on analogy with sight. (Deeply empirical). Three types:

The light of natural reason. We can’t lose it but it can be prevented from functioning by “lower powers” not functioning. These seem to be confined to what we would call mental illness.
Then there is what we might call "second nature”, a kind of light added by habit. To lose this is punishment.

My thoughts: It would seem then, that the development of vices is punishment for our sins.

The third principle of intellectual sight is an "intelligible principle through which we perceive things” that we might or might not “attend”. The big challenge for me here is not reading this as Kantian epistemology. For it would ridiculously easy as consequence of doing that is to go ahead and make the pragmatic move and see these things as something we invent and then apply. If we willfully turn away from this principle it is a sin.

[It’s odd that Thomas does not regard his response as dealing adequately with the objections for it is.

Second article

Is dullness of sense different from blindness of mind. [We might understand this on analogy with physical blindness which tends not to be blackness but a sense of sight so impaired that it can be of no or almost no use. And we might, therefore, wonder if there is a distinction in degree rather than of kind here.]

Three questions [it seems important that the objections are very clearly questions here. that is why he can say his respondio that all the objections have been dealt with.]:

  1. This is related to the question I ask above. Dullness is opposed to understanding so why aren’t they the same thing?
  2. The second also related. “Dullness of sense in respect to understanding” seems to be the same thing as a defect which sounds like blindness.
  3. If they differ at all, it is in that blindness can be voluntary whereas dullness of senses is a defect and that would make it not a sin.

Again, the response is very empirical with knowledge being associated with sight. This time, however, as degree is admitted, the argument by analogy depends very much on the answer being psychologically familiar to us. If we didn’t recognize some similar phenomenon to dullness in our experience we would not accept this argument. If I’m blind and someone tells me that there is a famous painting on the wall I pretty much have to take his word for it. If my senses are dull, I know there is a painting there but its greatness might allude me.

This is important for the third paragraph of the respondio begins, “Accordingly dulness of sense in connection with understanding denotes a certain weakness of the mind as to the consideration of spiritual goods.” Strictly speaking, that is a non sequitur. Yes, we can draw an analogy but that doesn’t imply that phenomenon actually exists.

This dullness towards spiritual goods is a sin insofar as it is voluntary. That is to say, insofar as I neglect spiritual goods because I am too focused on carnal goods.

[There is a distinction we find in the patristic writings that I don’t see in Thomas. The patristics will say that the gluttony is limited because no matter how much I like crème brûlée with an espresso and an ice cold grappa my desire for these will eventually get dulled. Lust for money, however, does not have this effect. It is limited. (Aside: sex is interesting in this regard as one can be both a glutton about sex and lustful for it.) The dullness that arises from being sated is very different from what Thomas discusses here but I wonder if it played a part in Gregory’s declaration used in the sed contra.)

[Analogy, perceiving a thing’s essence through a property thereof is analogous to seeing an object clearly at a distance. That makes sense on a certain level. I can tell that car a block away is a vintage Buick Skylark but I can’t tell for certain whether it is a 69 or a 72 at this distance, something I could easily have done in my 20s. But eyesight fails in this regard because it fails to determine certain details whereas understanding perceives essences and here things are reversed. At a distance, I can grasp that it is a Skylark, or to put it in essence language, its Skylarkness, what I am missing is the fine details that would allow me to classify it as a particular model year.]

Third article

Objection one is fascinating. Thomas quotes Augustine from the latter’s Retractationes, correcting his earlier claim that “God Who didst wish none but the clean to know the truth,” by saying, “many, even those who are unclean, know many truths.” Thomas replies to the objection by saying that “the cunclean can know some truths, but their uncleaness is a clog to their knowledge.” It’s worth noting two things: 1) that the comment in the Retractationes is really significant. It puts the later Augustine on the opposite side of a question from what he is usually associated. 2) Thomas gives a reply that doesn’t actually disagree with Augustine. He explains away rather than explaining. I don’t think there is anything wrong with this sort of mild esoteric writing but it is worth noting.

The respondio represents the same sort of challenge as the third type of understanding in article 1. That is to say, there is a danger of projecting modern concepts back into Thomas. The response begins: 
The perfect intellectual operation in man consists in an abstraction from sensible phantasms, wherefore the more a man's intellect is freed from those phantasms, the more thoroughly will it be able to consider things intelligible, and to set in order all things sensible. Thus Anaxagoras stated that the intellect requires to be "detached" in order to command, and that the agent must have power over matter, in order to be able to move it.
At first glance that looks a lot like enlightenment rationalism. How similar is it? I don’t know the answer to that question. I do know that if one were a late 19th or early 20th century Thomist looking to confront rationalists or, for that matter, someone alive right now looking to answer Sam Harris or Richard Dawkins, the temptation to enlist Thomas as an even-more-perfect rationalist would be very strong. I suspect, though, that it would be better to try and figure out the context Thomas made the arguments.

In that regard, Anaxagoras is a fascinating authority for Thomas to be citing here.

A big question is what is the difference between an abstraction and a spiritual good? Geometry is chock a block with abstractions but is it the way to virtue? we’d have to concede that mastering Euclid’s elements requires self discipline and that is a virtue, it would not be of much moral use for most people.

My thoughts

The first thing that strikes me is the potential for applying Thomas to modern philosophy. I have in mind something distinct from the Thomists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries who treated him as a stick with which to beat modernism. Rather, I wonder about ideas that are congenial to certain current views. I would focus instead on the third principle to the respondio of article 1, which he describes as “an intelligible principle, through which a man understands other things; to which principle a man may attend or not attend.” Now, I know that Thomas would not support post-Kantian ethics and it would be deeply wrong to claim him as an authority. That said, I think there is an opening here for Post-Kantian epistemology, and I have Charles Saunders Pierce in mind here, would argue that something this third principle is all there is. Recent neuroscience suggesting that the brain predicts patterns and corrects according to feedback backs this up.

A big question here will be, “How closely wedded is what Thomas has to say about moral truth to what he has to say about epistemology in general?"

Now, if I might go all theological on you for a moment, there is a big challenge for me here in that John Paul II specifically criticizes pragmatism twice in Veritatus Splendour. He does so on two grounds: 1) That it judges the morality of human acts "without any reference to the man's true ultimate end,” and 2) When he lumps it as a danger to be avoided along with relativism and positivism.

I’m not convinced that the distinction Thomas between lust and gluttony holds up for reasons I won’t go into here. In general, I think gluttony is a minor vice and that over-emphasis on it draws our attention away from the deeper problems and even encourages Jansensim. But I think that lust as Thomas discusses it is a source of vice has considerable promise. I read a few years ago of a study that had been done concerning volunteerism. As you may already know, beginning with my generation, interest in volunteerism has steadily declined, to the point that the only way to get significant numbers of teenagers to volunteer now is to make it an academic requirement. The study had focused on volunteer programs that paired teenagers with seniors so that the young volunteers could help with various tasks that were difficult for seniors to so and to provide companionship. The researchers picked this type of volunteer program to study because those who participated reported the greatest reward. Many said their lives turned around for the better and credited much of their life success to the time they’d spent helping these seniors. There was obviously potential evidence to encourage volunteerism here.

The study when published, though, was decidedly muted. Its main conclusion was that the teens had benefited and benefited into their adult lives because they received advice from these seniors that they would not have been able to accept from their parents, teachers or peers. When I read into the study it rapidly became clear why the conclusions were so muted. The seniors, mostly women, had bluntly told the young volunteers that they should smile more, put more effort into personal grooming, lose weight and generally focus on pleasing other people. Now that advice is politically incorrect. In many cases it is bloody offensive. The boor who tells the woman he is trying to pick up that she should smile more is being vile. And yet, it is actually good advice. There is a wealth of good advice that people spitefully ignore even though they would be better off if they took it. A good friend of mine died a few years ago from complications arising from anorexia. At some level, I think she knew the friends and health professionals telling her that she had a problem were right and yet she was unable to accept it. And she not only killed herself, she also impoverished her life and the lives of people who loved her.

Now, a first reaction might be that what I am describing is the opposite of lust, but I don’t think so. It’s a lust for a certain kind of validation that drives it and I think it explains much of the malaise of modern life.

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