Thursday, June 27, 2013

Hope, Fear, Despair, and Presumption

Philosophers of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries valued reason so much, they tried to reduce human emotions to their mechanical constituents. Nineteenth-century philosophers, on the other hand, favored the individual, the emotional, the reflective, the inexplicable so much that they romanticized logic, many of them making it the product of a living cosmos that evolved by force of will until it had produced rational creatures who could think about it in amazed self-love. In contrast to both, the scholasticism of Thomas honored reason, authority, empirical evidence, and a deep desire to line up listable things in one-to-one correspondences.

Take the beatitudes, for instance. In his survey of the theological virtues, Thomas wants to assign each of the characteristics praised by Jesus to exactly one of the virtues, even to one associated aspect of one of the virtues. Cleanness of heart, for example, corresponds to the gift of understanding, which works with the virtue of faith. Those who mourn do so from the gift of knowledge, says Aquinas, knowledge being another gift associated with faith. The poor in spirit have filial fear, a gift associated with hope. Correspondences like these seem like stretches to me, but Thomas’s fondness for them comes from a mind that can provide a helpful outline of the components of the spirit-led Christian life, so I smile forgivingly and move on.

The last part of my yearly passage through the Summa Theologica covered the virtue of hope and its associated gifts and vices. Every aspect of Aquinas’s explanation flows from his definition of hope: the longing for a future good, difficult but not impossible to attain. Theological hope has as its object eternal happiness with God. Faith must precede hope, he explains, since one must have the object of hope proposed intellectually. But hope, he goes on to say, precedes love for God in most Christians: we want the happiness for ourselves first and then learn to love God for his own sake.

I was suprised to see Thomas describe fear as both a contrary to hope and a gift of the Holy Spirit, but his analysis made sense to me in the end. After all, the Bible tells us both that fear of God is the beginning of wisdom and that perfect love casts out fear, so there must be some intrinsic tension to the notion. Thomas’s solution is to divide fear into three categories: fear of worldly things, which can turn us away from God; servile fear, that is, the fear of punishment, the fear that, as a famous movie villain once explained, will keep us in line; and filial fear, the fear of separation from God. The second and third types both keep us close to God, but as love grows during our lifetime, it diminishes servile fear and increases filial fear. Even in Heaven, where servile fear is eliminated completely, the Blessed will have a type of filial fear, not in that they actual believe they might lose their eternal reward, but in that they will never cease to wonder that God has granted it. I found this analysis logical and helpful.

Even more helpful in day-to-day life, though, was Aquinas’s accounts of the vices opposed to hope: despair and presumption. Both are sins in that they insist on a false view of God. Despair knows of God’s justice, but the despairing soul acts on the belief that God’s mercy could never apply to her. Presumption, on the other hand, has every confidence in God’s mercy, but the person who presumes on that mercy believes that God’s justice doesn’t have anything to do with him individually. The definition of hope comes in very handy here. The desparate sees eternal happiness as impossible to attain, while the presumptuous sees its achievement as not arduous at all.

Now here’s where I might part with Thomas on his neat correspondence schemes. Presumption he aligns with the mortal sin of vainglory, or pride; the presuming soul values himself so highly, thinks of himself as so special, that he can’t believe anything he does could deserve God’s punishment. Thomas then sees despair arising from (or should it be descending from?) the sin of sloth. But can’t despair come also from a kind of pride? I’ve known a couple of people who feared they’d done something special enough to put them forever outside God’s forgiveness. Really? You’re so special that your sins are categorically worse than mine?

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