In his passages on Charity and its accompanying virtues and effects, Aquinas draws many subtle distinctions. But unlike a discussion on the number of angels dancing on the head of a pin (a question Aquinas never took up), the subtle distinctions regarding Charity are quite helpful. Take for instance the location of Charity. Christian love (Aquinas uses Latin caritas in referring to the spiritual love spoken of in the Greek New Testament as agape, and my traditional – and free – translation renders the Latin with the capitalized cognate “Charity”) resides in the will, otherwise known as the intellectual appetite. It is a desire, but a desire for something known, not something seen or sensed with the body. And so Charity is not a feeling. So you don’t feel love for God this morning? No worries. Desire for God isn’t in the gut.
Aquinas goes on to explain that love is a complex thing. Charity is a movement in the will, based on what we know, directed toward an object, resulting in acts of love. Without this groundwork, a guy can get hopelessly lost wondering whether, for instance, he should love his wife or his father more. What do you mean by “more,” Aquinas asks. With regard to the object, the parent as the source of life is more venerable and deserves a more respectful love. With regard to intensity and frequency of action, though, I ought love my wife more because she’s closer and because opportunities for acts of service come up more often.
Another poser: Should I love my enemy more than I love my upstanding friend? My enemy needs love more, and loving my enemy proves my love for God, since love for an enemy is one of the more counterintuitive commands of Christ. But how can God actually want me to love my enemy more than I love my friend? Again, the subtle distinctions come into play. The good friend is a worthier object, so I love him more in the sense that there is more in him to love. With regard to acts of love, as well, my friend comes out on top. I have no obligation, according to Aquinas, to abandon my friend and commit a random act of kindness toward my enemy. What kind of friendship would I have left then? My love for my enemy means that I would be ready to make sacrifices to help him in an emergency, and in this way love for my enemy is loftier or worthier because sacrificing for the sake of an enemy is harder than sacrificing for the sake of a friend.
To take another example, can I love God completely and thoroughly? He commands me to love Him with my whole heart. But that only covers my limited capability for desiring God. I can never love all of Him, since my knowledge can never comprehend Him, and I can never love Him as much as He deserves. But I can love Him as much as I am capable of: a tautology until I realize it means it is also possible for me to love Him less than I am capable of. So here, my duty is to improve my knowledge and my wisdom so that I can love God through his works in all that I do. In the end I know it’s not enough in one sense, but only in that I’m not designed to be capable of loving Him more than humanly possible.
Finally, is it better to love something or to know something? That depends on the something, Aquinas says. In his terms, the intellect is excellent according to its operation, the will according to its object. An object below me in the order of creation is actually greater in my knowledge than it is in itself. Or in other words, the knowledge of a stone is of more worth in the grand scheme of things than the stone. But will, i.e. desire, doesn’t upgrade the stone the way intellectual apprehension does. So knowing the stone is better than loving the stone. God on the other hand, is above is. So our knowledge of Him is only as valuable as human knowledge can be. The will, however, is excellent according to its object, and in loving God, we love Something greater than ourselves. So loving God is greater than knowing Him.