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.)

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