instruere...inlustrare...delectare Disputations

Tuesday, May 18, 2004

Feast for thought

One of the advantages to the sort of care and precision St. Thomas brings to theological questions is that, taking nothing for granted, it will ask stupid questions and get brilliant (in the "sparkling, glittering" sense) answers.

Consider, for example, the question of whether charity is the most excellent of the virtues. Anyone who half-listens to the Sunday Gospels during Easter (or, for that matter, anyone who's been to more than one wedding) knows the answer is yes:
So faith, hope, love remain, these three; but the greatest of these is love.
But though St. Thomas also knows the answer is yes, he needs to understand how that fact fits into his theology. After all:
[T]he higher power has the higher virtue even as it has a higher operation. Now the intellect is higher than the will, since it directs the will. Therefore, faith, which is in the intellect, is more excellent than charity, which is in the will.
How would you answer this objection?

I might argue that the higher power doesn't have the higher virtue, or I might argue that the intellect doesn't direct, but only informs the will. Either way, not the stuff to remember after the mid-term is turned in.

Here is the beginning of St. Thomas's reply:
The operation of the intellect is completed by the thing understood being in the intellectual subject, so that the excellence of the intellectual operation is assessed according to the measure of the intellect. On the other hand, the operation of the will and of every appetitive power is completed in the tendency of the appetite towards a thing as its term, wherefore the excellence of the appetitive operation is gauged according to the thing which is the object of the operation.
In short: the thinker is the measure of the thought, but the desired is the measure of the desire.

Fine, you might say, that's as may be, but what does this have to do with people who in their day-to-day life don't find much cause to measure thoughts and desires according to Aristotelean models of human nature?

Ask, and St. Thomas shall try to answer. He continues his reply to the objection:
Now those things which are beneath the soul are more excellent in the soul than they are in themselves, because a thing is contained according to the mode of the container (De Causis xii). On the other hand, things that are above the soul, are more excellent in themselves than they are in the soul. Consequently it is better to know than to love the things that are beneath us; for which reason the Philosopher gave the preference to the intellectual virtues over the moral virtues (Ethic. x, 7,8): whereas the love of the things that are above us, especially of God, ranks before the knowledge of such things. Therefore charity is more excellent than faith.
It's better to know than love what is beneath you. It's better to love than know what is above you. If that isn't a handy guide for daily life, a benchmark to test all our minor idolatries against, I don't know what is.

In fact, why don't you clip it out and carry in your wallet or purse:
It's better to know than love
what is beneath you.
It's better to love than know
what is above you.
This simple but profound truth, adherence to which would end countless sins great and small, is only a side effect of one of three arguments in one of eight articles in one of four questions on charity in itself. St. Thomas was writing for beginning theology students, of course, but who of us isn't, fundamentally, a beginning theology student?