Wednesday, December 1, 2010

effort is not what is good about virtue

I was up late at night going through my drafts and decided to go ahead and tweak this one and post it even though it goes way back to the Leisure: The Basis of Culture discussion which was a whole year ago!  But it relates to something I've been thinking about recently.

"Effort is good"; objecting to this thesis in the Summa theologiae, Thomas Aquinas wrote as follows: "The essence of virtue consists more in the Good than in the Difficult...." "When something is more difficult, it is not for that reason necessarily more worthwhile, but it must be more difficult in such a way, as also to be at a higher level of goodness."

The Middle Ages had something to say about virtue that will be hard for us fellow countrymen of Kant to understand. And what was this? That virtue makes it possible for us... to master our natural inclinations? No. That is what Kant would have said, and we all might be ready to agree. What Thomas says, instead, is that virtue perfects us so that we can follow our natural inclinations in the right way. Yes, the highest realizations of moral goodness are known to be such precisely in this: that they take place effortlessly because it is of their essence to arise from love.

And yet the overemphasis on effort and struggle has made an inroad even on our understanding of love. Why, for instance, in the opinion of the average Christian, is the love of one's enemies the highest form of love? Because here, the natural inclination is suppressed to a heroic degree. What makes this kind of love so great is precisely its unusual difficulty, its practical impossibility. But what does Thomas say? "It is not the difficulty involved that makes this kind of love so worthy, even though the greatness of the love is shown by its power to overcome the difficulty. But if the love were so great as completely to remove all difficulty -- that would be a still greater love."

I've been thinking about this and about Jesus' struggle in the Garden of Gethsemane. This has to have been a different kind of struggle from the one that Josef Pieper and Aquinas are talking about here, though. When we struggle to be virtuous, we are struggling against concupiscence -- pride of the flesh, of the eyes, pride of life, etc (1 John). This was not the case with Our Lord.  He was not struggling to be virtuous.  He was dealing with sorrow, which is a passion, an emotion, something that you undergo as you undergo extrinsic suffering.

Aquinas says that the emotions are sort of like inner senses.    We feel cold when we are in a cold room.   We feel sorrowful when something we love has been lost to us.   The sorrow is not a fault but rather due to a faculty of our human nature which we can respond to by using our rational, spiritual nature.  The intensity of Our Lord's sorrow, and His profoundly loving, obedient response were both marks of His integrity, wholeness of body and soul, reason and will.   To distinguish between how His human and divine natures would experience human emotion is beyond my theological knowledge, but we do know His response is a model of how we should act, and our responses can be a participation in His through the mysterious communion between man and God.... what JoseMaria Escriva calls divine filiation.

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