Monday, February 8, 2010

Gospel Poverty a Means, Not an End

Two more bags of trash burned or tossed out -- bringing the total bag count to 35.

In the past few posts I've been listing out some of the things Father Dubay says poverty is NOT. In Chapter 6 he says that poverty itself is a negative -- a nothing, an emptiness. In that way it is like silence, or space, or fasting, or any kind of privation. No one seeks a negative for its own sake -- they seek it for the sake of something else.

Similarly, the Catholic Encyclopedia asks whether poverty is the object of a special virtue, and answers NO.

the object of a virtue must be something honourable or praiseworthy in itself: now poverty has no intrinsic goodness, but is good only because it is useful to remove the obstacles which stand in the way of the pursuit of spiritual perfection (St. Thomas, "Contra Gentiles", III, cxxxiii; Francisco Suárez, "De religione", tr. VII, l. VIII, c. ii, n. 6; Bucceroni, "Inst. theol. mor.", II, 75, n. 31). The practice of poverty derives its merit from the virtuous motive ennobling it, and from the virtues which we exercise in regard to the privations and sacrifices accompanying it.
It goes on to say that poverty is related to the virtue of religion,

With this in mind, maybe I can go back to Chapter 4, which is called Poverty and Premises. In this chapter he lists some presuppositions from the Gospels, without which voluntary poverty cannot be properly understood.

But first, he acknowledges that God has made a beautiful, abundant world.

"Creation is lush. It abounds and overflows.... Any branch of study abounds in marvels. Surrounding us on all sides, they may serve to underscore one of our poverty problems: Can we rightly give up the splendors of creation? Is it right to be poor when the message of the universe, and presumably of its Author, is wealth?... Why limit our use of His hadiwork when He places almost no boundaries to what He has made for our admiration and delight? ...

What can be so dangerous about wealth? Furthermore, pleasures are good. God made them. Why all the blood and thunder about enjoying the benefits of one's hard work, benefits implanted in God's very handiwork?"
So here is where we are at present.

Creation is good.
Pleasure in itself is a good -- the Good being defined (by Aristotle) as "that at which all things aim." But as Aristotle also says, pleasure defined as physical enjoyment or ease is in itself a limited good. Honor or respectability or civic virtue is a higher good, but still not the highest.

Wealth is NOT in itself a good, because it is valued for the sake of other things which it brings, not for itself.... for enjoyment, or comfort, or "honor" (which might be something like what we think of as a good reputation, or civic decency, or the appearance of prosperity and self-sufficiency).
The life of money-making is one undertaken under compulsion, and wealth is evidently not the good we are seeking; for it is merely useful and for the sake of something else.
What does Aristotle say is the highest good?

Now we call that which is in itself worthy of pursuit more final than that which is worthy of pursuit for the sake of something else, and that which is never desirable for the sake of something else more final than the things that are desirable both in themselves and for the sake of that other thing, and therefore we call final without qualification that which is always desirable in itself and never for the sake of something else.

Now such a thing happiness, above all else, is held to be; for this we choose always for self and never for the sake of something else, but honour, pleasure, reason, and every virtue we choose indeed for themselves (for if nothing resulted from them we should still choose each of them), but we choose them also for the sake of happiness, judging that by means of them we shall be happy. Happiness, on the other hand, no one chooses for the sake of these, nor, in general, for anything other than itself.
Augustine, in On Christian Doctrine, said that earthly goods are to be "used", not enjoyed or rested in for themselves. We are like pilgrims or people on a quest, and even as travelers may pause on their journey, but don't go off in a different direction or stop for good before they get to their destination, in the same way, we don't stop and "rest" in natural goods. For one thing, they can't truly make us happy. For another thing, but in a way it's the same thing, they are not sufficient for us as humans. The soul sickens after a while even of the best earthly things, if there is no more than those.

So going back to Father Dubay -- he is making the same point, I think.

Not that creation isn't good -- but that there is a hierarchy of goods. We recognize this in our ordinary lives whenever we delay gratification, or work hard and do unpleasant things for some long term goal. In those cases, we accept a "privation" in the moment in order to receive a greater good in the future.

In the often tedious and icky and terrifying and unpraised world of raising kids, for example, we stay the course because we want our kids to thrive.

When we live in "poverty", we can't be doing it because we don't understand that wealth and abundance are beautiful. Because wealth and abundance are good things, poverty or lack can ONLY be a means to a better end. In some way, poverty must be conducive to one's greater happiness, properly understood.

Oh, and going back to the world of raising kids, we do it out of love. I don't think this is completely separate from happiness as understood by Augustine or even in the pagan world of Aristotle. Love has a hierarchy too. We have a sort of desire for personal pleasure, but everyone agrees that this is not a higher affection. Most of us are able to sacrifice some personal pleasure or comfort even for an acquaintance or stranger, let alone a friend or a child or spouse. Love seems to correspond with pursuit of the good. I think Father Dubay talks about this later. If there are two people doing some hard thing -- one because he hopes for some mercenary "reward" and one because he loves someone -- we generally consider the second more noble and generous. CS Lewis talks about the different types of "rewards" very well in The Weight of Glory. (also here)

Once again, poverty is not pursued for itself, but because of something else. It's not a denial of the goodness of things.

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