Thursday, March 28, 2019

09 Thomas on the vices

Some thoughts on rules

“The essence of belief is the establishment of a habit; and different beliefs are distinguished by the different modes of action to which they give rise.” Charles Saunders Peirce
Two of us presented yesterday on the subject of scandal. In the discussion that followed there was some pushback regarding mys use of the word "rules" to describe Thomas's concept of rectitude. I understand the reasons for the resistance and even agree with them. That said, I think a lot hangs on what we mean when we say "rule". I don't mean to argue that Thomas himself would have used the word but rather that using the concepts of rules is a useful way to make sense of what rectitude is.

I raised the issue in regards to two quotes from the second part of the second part of the Summa, Question 43.

Here is the first.
A thing is said to be less right, not because something else surpasses it in rectitude, but because it has some lack of rectitude, either through being evil in itself, such as sin, or through having an appearance of evil.
That is from the reply to Article 1, Objection 2. The question it raises is one of interpretation. Thomas says that there are degrees of rectitude. That seems reasonable. We might say, Terri and Kate are both good singers but that Kate is better.

Does the claim that Kate is a better singer require criteria to be meaningful? We could legitimately say either "no" or "yes".  The consequence of saying no is that there isn't much to discuss. If I say, "yes" then I might point at something like range. I might say, Kate has an effective range of three octaves and a bit. When interpreting this statement the larger context will matter. I might think that Kate does everything else Terri can do just as well but she has the added advantage of also having a greater range. On the other hand, I may mean that even though there are some things Terri can do better than Kate, effective range is such an important quality for a singer to have that it trumps all others. The two statements both refer to a criterion but seem to use them in different ways. The first says that range is a desirable characteristic. The second says not just that it's desirable but carries the implication that a wide range is something a singer should have. (I am speaking in general here. There are cases where it would be reasonable to say a singer must have wide range; that would be the case if she were auditioning for the part of Queen of the Night in Die Zauberflöte.)

In the Confessions Augustine tells although he liked Faustus he did not find him an especially learned man, "He had read some of Cicero's speeches and a very few books of Seneca." (Book 5, Chapter 6). In her book, Perception, Sensibility and Moral Motivation in Augustine, Sarah Byers argues that this implies that Augustine had read a lot of Seneca, which is undoubtedly true. But we could go farther and conclude that for Augustine a learned man should have read a lot of Seneca.

When we start using "should" regarding a criterion a rule is clearly implied. Does it follow, then, that when we just say that Kate has an added advantage that no rule is applied? How we answer this question is going to depend not just on what we mean by "rule" but also about how we feel about rules.

To return to Thomas, when it comes to determining what is a sin we could use rules. It's not the only way. When I was a little boy my parents used to sometimes say, "You could have done better and you know it." Generally they were right as they knew me quite well. If I know I could have been better morally and failed that might reasonably be imputed to me as a sin. The problem is that others rarely know me well enough to say whether I really did as well as I could. Worse, I certainly don't know myself so well. So I use rules as an analytic tool.

We can miss this because the first time we encounter rules they are rules given to us by someone else. "Always wash four hands before eating!" We're often given an "explanation" of this rule in the form of the benefits of good hygiene but the explanation doesn't really justify the rule. The only justification is that our parents want us to do this and they are our parents so we learn how to act in accord with that rule and others. If I had found a scientific study that cast doubt on the efficacy of hand washing it would not have swayed my parents one bit. And this doesn't change. All through life we are given rules we have to follow whether they make sense to us or not. Most speed limits cannot be justified but I get a ticket if I am caught exceeding them anyway. But not all rules are like that. Indeed, most of the rules our parents give us are good rules.

Furthermore, rules aren't always laws. All laws are rules but not all rules are laws. A law should be clear because a law has to be enforced. It isn't just to have a law so vague that people can never be sure whether they are breaking it or not. A speed limit may be arbitrary but it's pretty easy to figure out what 80 km is and whether or not I am exceeding that speed. Which isn't to say that there aren't unjust laws. Those rules which concern sins are laws but not all moral rules need be laws. To quote from my presentation again,
What does it mean to say something “has some lack of rectitude” while still not having perfect rectitude? Prima facie that is contradictory. I think we could help Thomas out by positing two kinds of rules. There are rules that describe what counts as a sin or what might appear as a sin and there are rules that help us improve our character. If we return to our sprinter, we might say that an example of the first kind of rule is always stay in your lane. Whether she succeeds in that is determined by her not stepping over the line. We might add, don’t even step on the line because that way a judge can’t make a mistake and disqualify you. That would be an example of something analogous to what might have the appearance of sin. “Always do your best” is a rule of the second type.
A rule can be vague and still be a good rule. Always consider the feelings of others is a good rule even though it is pretty vague. We might say it's an aspirational rule. If I want to develop a generous disposition towards others that would be a good rule in the sense that applying it as best as I can will help me to very slowly improve my habits.

Of course, some may not like the word "rules". There are lots of words that can be used to describe regular behavior. Peirce, who I quote at the outset, spoke of habits, dispositions and rules. Thomas speaks or ordered and disordered behavior as well as behavior that has or lacks rectitude. There is no reason to abandon such language. But rules have one singular advantage and that is when it comes time to analyze things. If I want to get from I hurt my friend's feelings because I talked about disease without realizing he has just been diagnosed with cancer I need to say something like either, "It's my fault because I should have known," or "This hard on him but it's not my fault because I could not have known." Both statements imply rules and rules like this are essential when it comes to understanding and improving my character. (Character here meaning just something the sum of my good habits minus my bad, if the reader will be charitable enough to assume that I have more good habits than bad.)

PS: I have not spoken of it here because this post is already too long but there is a long argument about the meaning of specific claims versus generalizations behind this. On the surface, "my shoes are black" looks like the same kind of statement as "all human beings are mortal" but they have very different functions. I can't really test the second. I can say something like, "As far as I know every human being in the past eventually died and I assume all the ones alive now and who will be born in the future will die someday," but I don't actually know this.

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.

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.

Tuesday, March 12, 2019


I got it back recently. By "it" I mean my past. By "recently" I mean in the last few years.
I've never thought average guys were compelled to ape the ruling class, I don't believe romance is inevitably corrupted, and the collapse of European culture is long overdue. In short, what Bryan Ferry has to say has never spoken very loud to this listener no matter how you break it down.
That's Robert Christgau from  his review of an early greatest hits collection from Roxy Music. That band was a secret pleasure of mine in the late 1970s. In high school I'd heard "Love is the Drug" on the radio and loved it. I never would have admitted to anyone that I liked them. I bought Bryan Ferry's solo records In Your Mind and Let's Stick Together and somehow ended up in possession of another one called Another Time, Another Place that I hope I didn't steal.

I listened to those records only when there was no one else home. I wouldn't have dared to admit to anyone that I liked them. Even to myself, I affected a slight irony about liking them, always holding something back. Like a lot of boys raised by women, I had come to feel, as Robert Glover aptly put it, that it was "not safe or acceptable for a man or boy to be just who he is." Bryan Ferry provided me (and, I suspect, others) a romantic escape where we could experiment with figuring that out.

During the lowest period of my life, I listened to Flesh + Blood and Avalon obsessively.

Christgau is wrong. The Bryan Ferry thing is not that average guys are compelled to ape the ruling class but that we're allowed to if we want. That may seem to contradict the previous point but I don't think it does.

Wednesday, March 6, 2019

06 Thomas on the Vices

First some unfinished business following from my discussion of Question 53.

A few quotations.
 Thus, by defect of "counsel" to which {euboulia} (deliberating well) corresponds, "precipitation" or "temerity" is a species of imprudence; by defect of "judgment," to which {synesis} (judging well according to common law) and {gnome} (judging well according to general law) refer, there is "thoughtlessness"; while "inconstancy" and "negligence" correspond to the "command" which is the proper act of prudence.  [Response to Article 2: Whether imprudence is a special sin?]
And since it can resist the impulse of the passions, if it fail to do this, it is due to its own weakness in not standing to the good purpose it has conceived; hence inconstancy, as to its completion, is due to a defect in the reason. Now just as all rectitude of the practical reason belongs in some degree to prudence, so all lack of that rectitude belongs to imprudence. Consequently inconstancy, as to its completion, belongs to imprudence. And just as precipitation is due to a defect in the act of counsel, and thoughtlessness to a defect in the act of judgment, so inconstancy arises from a defect in the act of command. For a man is stated to be inconstant because his reason fails in commanding what has been counselled and judged.  [Response to Article 5: Whether inconstancy is a vice contained under prudence?]
The thing I am having difficulty grasping is the way Thomas uses the word "command". He says, "reason fails in commanding". How does reason command? This seems more like a function of the will than of reason to me.

This seems particularly pertinent with regard to constancy. I think of the climax of The Philadelphia Story in which George Kittridge suspects  Tracy Samantha Lord of infidelity. Tracy herself, having had too much to drink the night in question, isn't entirely sure what she did and is obviously worried that she might, in fact, have had sex with another man. And yet, Tracy expects that George, a man who claims to love her, should have reserved judgment. That he immediately jumped to suspecting her rather than not judging, thereby failing to remain constant, offends her. When she is later vindicated as regards any affair, she breaks off her engagement with George because of that lack of constancy. It seems to me that she both judged and acted correctly.

Our reason is constantly bombarded with evidence that requires interpretation. We might change our mind as to what to think as regards some particular moral issue several times a day every day. Virtue, it seems to me, that we create some distance between our reason and what we do. I may feel more or less warmly towards my wife at various times but my vows to her require a constancy that derives chiefly from the will. I don't see how a Thomist could deny this. (Which is not to say it cannot be refuted, only that I do not know how it would be done.)

Questions 94, 95 and 96: Superstition

That issue carries on into today's discussion for Thomas has to deal with occult forces that we do not. "Occult" at the simplest level means "hidden". That could have several applications here. The word could simply be used to mean beyond our ability to explain. It could also mean relating to supernatural forces. Finally, it could mean, a kind of power that can become available to us through some special initiation into secret, association,  knowledge or power. It is the last Thomas objects to.

That he does so springs from his physics. You simply cannot explain action at a distance with Aristotelian physics. And yet it exists and Thomas knew it existed. Thus, in the first objection to Question 96, Article 2. "Whether observances directed to the alteration of bodies, as for the purpose of acquiring health or the like, are unlawful?" he writes:
Now in the physical order things have certain occult forces, the reason of which man is unable to assign; for instance that the magnet attracts iron, and many like instances, all of which Augustine enumerates (De Civ. Dei xxi, 5, 7). Therefore it would seem lawful to employ such like forces for the alteration of bodies. 
Before we sneer at Aristotle, we should note that Descartes did no better. His physics requires that things either push other things or that they grab onto them and pull in order for causes to have effects.  Neither, as we might be inclined to think, is the problem solved by Newton for Newton was sufficiently spooked by fear of occult practice that he asserted that action at a distance could only happen in a straight line. That, however, was soon disproved for if we lay a piece of paper over a magnet and sprinkle iron filings on the paper those filings will gather in curved lines. Similar effects can be achieved with electrical charges.

It was a consequence of such anomalies that a lot of superstitious nonsense was promulgated during the Romantic era. Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, for example, attributes the power to create life to electricity.

It was really only during the first half of the twentieth century that a credible explanation of these hidden forces was achieved. Meaning that a mathematically predictable regularity between inputs and outcomes was hypothesized and then experimentally validated. That creates a whole new set of problems for philosophers for modern physics largely dispenses with causality in the sense that many philosophers, including Thomas, use the word.

What I note, with regards to these questions, is how incredibly profound and sensible Thomas manages to be despite working under that handicap. He distinguishes between an attempt to use occult forces in terms of predictable causality (which he deems allowable) and the use of what are actually signs in an attempt to gain some sort of power over outcomes in cases where we do not understand the causality (which he deems unlawful). (Thus he would dismiss Frankenstein as foolish superstition for the book does not establish any regular connection between electrical charge and the outcomes but merely speculates that such a thing might exists and jumps from their to a belief that it does,)

He goes so far as to say that there might be circumstances wherein wearing "Divine words" around our neck would be dubious. If I understand him correctly, and I may not, we can distinguish between cases where I use these simply as a sign of faith in the power of God to do things and where I use them in the hopes of attaining some outcome without any faith but merely a hope in hidden powers.

Stoic conceptions of God

When we make such leaps we read what are signs as causes. I can invoke a sign without claiming any causality between my doing that and the outcome. Thomas goes on to imply that what is really going on then is that we are invoking some other power. If, as in the case of sacraments, that other power is God and we do this invoking in a fitting and obedient way, it is permissible. What happens when we do not do these things? Thomas attributes that to some sort of contract with demons.

That intrigues me for we have in these questions a concept that is remarkably close to the Stoic conception of God and the influence of Stoicism on Christianity is the focus of my thesis. The issue comes up in Question 94, Article 1: Whether idolatry is rightly reckoned a species of superstition? Among other things, Thomas discusses the following in his response:
Others again deemed the whole world to be one god, not by reason of its material substance, but by reason of its soul, which they believed to be God, for they held God to be nothing else than a soul governing the world by movement and reason: even as a man is said to be wise in respect not of his body but of his soul. 
If Thomas had stopped there, he would have been describing Stoic theology, which was a part of their physics.  He does not stop there, however, he goes on to describe further steps the Stoics did not take such as "that divine worship ought to be given to the whole world and to all its parts, heaven, air, water, and to all such things". The Stoics reserved their worship for the soul that governed the world.

Before proceeding, an important qualification. The Stoic conception of god cannot be squared with the Christian God. It is simply too narrow and would not, for example, allow for a transcendent God. Neither would it allow for the incarnation. Stoic faith must be deemed heretical for us Christians. 

That said, can it be deemed idolatry or superstitious on the terms Thomas proposes to us here? I'm not sure it can. For the Stoics neither personify their deity nor do they claim to be able to use occult forces associated with that deity to achieve desired ends.

What they did do, and Thomas is aware of this and condemns it, is tolerate and go along with common practice in worship even though it was at odds with their inner belief. Thomas quotes Augustine's disapproval of Seneca's practice in this regard and validates it.
For since outward worship is a sign of the inward worship, just as it is a wicked lie to affirm the contrary of what one holds inwardly of the true faith so too is it a wicked falsehood to pay outward worship to anything counter to the sentiments of one's heart. Wherefore Augustine condemns Seneca (De Civ. Dei vi, 10) in that "his worship of idols was so much the more infamous forasmuch as the things he did dishonestly were so done by him that the people believed him to act honestly." 
I'm not ready to expand on this right now but there seems something profound and good here. 

Added: It seems to me that the sort of objection Thomas might have gone on to raise would have been in regards to whether the Stoics can, in fact, worship their god at all. When Cleanthes, for example, sings praise to Zeus, he doesn't mean "Zeus" as his fellow Greeks meant Zeus. Zeus becomes for him a metaphor for something that is not Zeus. (We could raise the same sort of objection to those who today say they are spiritual but not religious.)