Saturday, April 16, 2011

A Disorganized Medley

A few days ago, I uploaded a post called An Organized Summary and started it with the explanation that the title referred not to my essay but to Aquinas. The title of today's follow-up, on the other hand, refers to my writing, not to his. A few days ago I finished the first half of this year's Aquinas assignment, and I just want to gather a few random observations on what I've read so far.

1) This section on habits clarified the organization of the Summa. Over the last five years, I've read several hundred long, dense pages (probably the equivalent of a couple thousand normal pages), and now I see that this part wouldn't make sense without them. To talk about habits, Thomas had to explain God's character, the creation, the definitions of "good" and "true," the nature of man, the powers of the soul, the ways in which humans have or acquire knowledge of things below themselves and of things above, God's continued government of the world, man's purpose, the will, the passions, and more.

2) I was struck even more forcefully this year with the inaccuracy of the view that medieval theologians believed everything on the basis of authority. Thomas starts every article with objections to the point he wants to make; he knows an idea is not worth investigating if someone might not see it differently. Many of these objections come from authorities, and Thomas takes them on. Sometimes he proves them wrong, and sometimes he shows that they have to be interpreted correctly. But in all cases, he shows that blind faith in authority is no way to build a theology.

After the objections, he always offers a short indication of his view: a brief argument, a definition, or again perhaps a statement from an authority. Even when this introduction to his side of the argument is from the Bible, Thomas doesn't sit still and accept it. The Bible is hard to understand, and we often misinterpret it, so Thomas goes on to explain why what the Bible says is correct.

3) We have powers, habits, and acts. Powers come to us in our nature, meaning both human nature and individual nature. All humans have the power to grow and to learn; these powers come from our "specific nature," in other words, from our belonging to the human species. Some humans have greater powers of strength, some greater powers of intelligence, and so on; these powers come through each one's individual nature.

Habits make us apt to do certain things. Some people have natural potential (i.e., power) for intelligence but have never applied themselves to it and so aren't in the habit of thinking complex thoughts or working on difficult mental problems. As we develop habits, though, we become more apt to use our intelligence. Sherlock Holmes has habituated his powers so thoroughly, that he must take on mental challenges.

Habit, though, only means likelihood. It is not an action itself. Our lives should be full of actions suitable to our purpose, actions like serving others and turning our thoughts to God. We all have the power to help others, but some work at developing the habit, and some make entire lives out of service.

4) Thomas calls habit "second nature," a phrase I knew but didn't understand before I started seeing it a few years ago in the Summa Theologica. My two-year-old grandson learns without having to work at it; it just happens because it is his nature to learn. But habits must be developed. After he develops the habit of using the potty, he will respond to certain needs by seeking a bathroom without even having to think about it. It's tempting to say that he'll "naturally" want to use a bathroom and keep his clothes clean and dry, but of course (as is obvious now), that response is not natural at all and will take work to develop. Once he gets the habit, though, it will be like nature and thus a "second nature."

5) Virtues (i.e., good habits), Thomas says, are human phenomena, yet they come from God, not from us. We work, we act, we develop these good habits, yet God works them "in us, without us." I read three ways virtues can come from God (although Thomas may explain more that I have missed, and God probably has ways that even Thomas missed). First, God created each of us with a purpose according to a plan that includes all the powers of human nature. So anything we do from nature, anything that accords with reason (limited as human understanding is) comes ultimately from God. Second, habits have to get started; the first wish to desire to want to do right has to come from somewhere; the first act in the training process has to be committed. These beginnings of virtue, Thomas says, must come from God, because man cannot turn himself toward true happiness. Third, God sometimes just miraculously endows a habit, as when he gives a gift of knowledge without his servant having had to work at studying or memorization.

6) Wisdom differs from prudence. Wisdom is the virtue of knowing the place and the value of things in their ultimate contexts. Prudence is the virtue of practical reason that determines good and suitable means for achieving good goals.

7) The theological virtues -- faith, hope, and charity -- reside in the will and intellect alongside justice and prudence and so forth, but don't merely duplicate those virtues. Human understanding can only grasp things at human level or below; these three virtues point us to divine things beyond our comprehension. Faith, like reason, tells us what to believe, but with reason, knowing all the premises tells us everything pertinent about the conclusion, while we can never know everything about the God that faith leads us to.

8) My thoughts about Aquinas run in circles this year. I keep thinking about the habit I've developed of reading Aquinas, of my will to read his explanations of the human will, of my love for this expositor of love. I get another helping in a couple of months. Until then, I can practice the virtue of patience.

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