Friday, April 8, 2011


My reading this year in the Summa Theologica comes from Thomas's "Treatise on Habits." Aquinas needs to talk about the virtues of a good Christian life, and he defines virtue as a good habit; so his plan requires spending a lot of time on habits. A habit, he says, resides in the soul and "disposes" some part of the soul for good or for ill. Another way to put it is that a habit makes some part of the soul apt to do, to think, or to want something. A virtue "perfects" a power of the soul by disposing the intellect or desire (the two principles of human action) to good; a vice disposes to evil.

As Aquinas explains it, a good action is an action suitable to reason and to the nature of the agent. That is, a good action makes sense and is ultimately good for the person doing it. In order to get this good action going, though, a lot of parts have to come into play. At the very least, three things have to happen. First, my intellect has to determine a goal. If I have the virtue of wisdom, I'm apt to choose a suitable goal. My intellect then moves my will so that I desire the goal. If I have the virtue of temperance, my will is more apt to desire these suitable goals. Then, in turn, the will moves the intellect, but this time a different part of the intellect: practical reason, the part that figures out means for reaching a goal. If I desire a goal, my intellect will find the means to reach it. If I have the virtue of prudence, my practical intellect will be more apt to choose reasonable means. And of course, at some point this process will determine a bodily action, the body, if healthy, will obey the commands of the intellect, and I'll be doing something good.

As I read all this detailed information, six pages each day, I've naturally been thinking a lot about Aquinas's theory and these terms and a lot about the collaboration of so many parts and so many virtues required in order to do the right thing. Then yesterday I read something in Charles Williams that made me suspect a second kind of collaboration.

Charles Williams's prose is typically dense. When I read his books I sometimes feel as though my face is lifted up under a stream of rich stew. What goes into my mouth, I enjoy immensely, and I know I am nourished by it. But I miss a lot of it and feel it running down my cheeks with regret. Of course, when I turn a page of War in Heaven and see long paragraphs without dialog, I know that I'm in for some work and will need to slow down. But even Williams's dialog is sometimes full of multiple meanings. The defiant Gregory Persimmons tells the Archdeacon of Fardles that he must ask a favor for a friend. To indicate that he can compensate the Archdeacon, he says, "My friend comes to you as a beggar, but I will pay for myself." But then Williams tells me that the last statement irks the Archdeacon, so I have to slow down to think why. The statement has theological significance: Persimmons believes he can be the captain of his fate, his own absolute, the god of his world, and thus he rejects the notion that any God would take on flesh to pay a debt of divine justice for him. The Archdeacon knows human nature enough to see immediately that Persimmons's statement has to do with larger issues than a checkbook.

Besides setting up conversational phrases with several layers of meaning, Williams fills other parts of his narration with quirky phrases, philosophical ideas, and uncredited quotations, and I know that, as much as I enjoy any given passage, I miss most of the allusions through not being as well read as this friend of Lewis and Tolkien. I'm sure that the first time I read this book, I missed the reference I caught yesterday. Here's the passage:
But now he was conscious of some slight movement on his own part . . . . The cause of all action there disposed itself according to that Will which was its own nature, and, so disposing itself, moved him easily . . . so that at any time and at all times its own perfection was maintained.
The phrases are too similar to ignore. Surely Williams had studied the words of Aquinas from seven hundred years earlier. But what a coincidence that I came across them in the same week yet another hundred years later! I'm not sure the coincidence is as random as it seems, though. I've heard resonances of Aquinas in Tolkien before, and I'm starting to think that these two just knew their Summa Theologica well enough that I could read any long section of Aquinas and any book by one of those two Inklings and find some parallels.

While I'm at it, I should mention a third collaboration I noticed in the passage. After the Archdeacon goes through this complex inner motion toward action, he performs a desperate act (no spoilers this time) and runs. Two other characters spontaneously assist him and join him in flight. These three people have three different understandings of the stakes and three different motives for banding together. But they all see the action as a commitment to the Triune God and a stand against evil. It seems that Williams is saying that following Jesus does not depend on total agreement regarding either theology or the reason for commitment. It takes variety in more than just gifts and service to make a Church, and it is good to be reminded that a disparate group can collaborate effectively for good as long as they agree on Who they're laboring for.

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