Unpacking Pride

I’ve been quoting an excerpt from Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologica in which he describes precisely how Lucifer wished to be “like God” and so fell from grace:

he desired resemblance with God in this respect–by desiring, as his last end of beatitude, something which he could attain by the virtue of his own nature

What exactly does this mean? It is a very Thomistic statement, and the language could do with some elaboration for a contemporary audience.

His Last End

An end is a goal. It is the intended conclusion or outcome of an action, or the use or purpose or action of an object.

This sense of the word is retained in the phrase “to what end?”

The end of a coffee machine is to make coffee. The end of drinking the coffee is enjoyment, stimulation, quenching of thirst, or social connection.

The last end is the ultimate purpose or action. When it comes to human beings, our last end is something we have been trying to figure out for millennia, usually through philosophy and religion.

In orthodox Christianity the last end of humanity is to know and to love God.


Aquinas tells us what he means by beatitude in a section dealing with the beatitude (or blessedness) of God:

nothing else is understood to be meant by the term beatitude than the perfect good of an intellectual nature; which is capable of knowing that it has a sufficiency of the good which it possesses, to which it is competent that good or ill may befall, and which can control its own actions.

Trying to explain Aquinas using Aquinas is a bit recursive, so lets quickly note that “the perfect good of” means a perfected, complete state of being. “An intellectual nature” means a being with intellectual faculties, ie. “capable of knowing”. “Competent” just means suitable or fitting.

In other words, beatitude for a human means our most perfect and fulfilled state of being, a state in which we lack nothing that is good for us. This includes knowing that we lack nothing that is good for us.

This is paradise. To want for nothing, and have no doubts about being in true paradise.

The Virtue of His Own Nature

“Nature” here means essence. When we say something is “not in my nature” we are describing ourselves in our most intimate and essential being. Forget “mother nature”, this nature is the essence of who and what you are.

“Virtue” is a little tricky. We use the phrase “by virtue of” to mean “because of” or “caused by”. Virtue comes from the Latin vir meaning ‘man’. A virtuous man is, in a manner of speaking, a manly man. In other words, to be virtuous is to have all the qualities of an ideal human being.

But the term can be applied to anything. The virtue of a knife is its ability to cut things. the virtue of a coffee machine is its capacity to make good coffee. So when we say “by virtue of”, we mean “thanks to this quality”.

Defining Pride

Paraphrasing Aquinas our own pride consists in desiring, as our last end of beatitude, something which we can attain by the virtue of our own nature.

Thanks to our quick dip into Thomistic terminology we can say that pride means wanting our most complete state of perfection to be something that can be attained through our own qualities.

The orthodox Christian idea of perfection cannot be attained without God. To know and love God requires a relationship with God that is beyond our natural capacities. So perfection, paradise, cannot be attained through our own qualities.

The Irony of Pride’s Perfection

The irony is that our pride causes us to settle for a much lesser perfection. Hence Milton’s Lucifer deciding it was better to reign in hell than serve in heaven.

While we still desire happiness, insisting that we attain it by ourselves immediately lowers our aim. Our last end becomes whatever trace of perfection we can strive for, though in reality it mostly devolves into endless striving.

In pride, our last end of beatitude becomes a distant promise of perfection towards which we can only ever struggle in the hope that we will find it fulfilling.

In other words, our struggle for happiness in this broken and frustrating world is already the perfection we obtain by our own powers. This is the dismal paradise that our feeble nature built, and the only consolation is the impression that we built it all by ourselves, and the hope that things will get better before the end.

As God said to Jeremiah:

my people have committed two evils: they have forsaken me, the fountain of living waters, and hewed out cisterns for themselves, broken cisterns that can hold no water.

Yet the promise of the Gospel is that God is ready with his grace at every moment to restore His relationship with us, to bring us to a blessed state entirely beyond our own nature and capacity.

The only obstacle is the one we ourselves present, in our recusant desire to do it on our own, for ourselves, and in our own way.

Who is in control?

Yesterday a friend showed me Lamentations 3, and its relevance to my current project amazed me. :

He has driven me away and made me walk
    in darkness rather than light;
 indeed, he has turned his hand against me
    again and again, all day long…

The chapter is ruthless, full of broken teeth, mangled bodies, bitterness and mockery. And it is God who inflicts all this on Jeremiah. When did you last hear that God has “made me walk in darkness rather than light”? It doesn’t sound right, as though all the meanings are inverted. It’s as if someone set out to write the opposite of “the Lord is my shepherd”.

But then it changes:

I remember my affliction and my wandering,
    the bitterness and the gall.
I well remember them,
    and my soul is downcast within me.
Yet this I call to mind
    and therefore I have hope:

Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed,
    for his compassions never fail.
They are new every morning;
    great is your faithfulness.
I say to myself, “The Lord is my portion;
    therefore I will wait for him.”

Now this is hardly a reassuring message at first glance. It’s as if he’s saying “God beat me to a bloody pulp, but at least he didn’t kill me!” But to me it has a different significance. To me it says that God is in control of everything, and even in the darkest moments of suffering and despair, God is still in control.

This isn’t meant to be soothing or inspirational – it’s radical and transformative. We think we are in control, and that God is this thing or this guy who wants to help us, and if we’re really good or really repentant or practice talking to him often enough then things will start to go our way. And if things don’t go our way, it’s just because we haven’t tried hard enough, or we don’t really believe, or we’re being tested, or we’re not truly penitent.

What’s really going on is that God is in control. Not just in some abstract or distant way, but deeper than our own sense of pride and agency would have us know. “Without Me you can do nothing,” and that’s putting it mildly.

In technical terms, here’s how Aquinas states it:

God moves man to act, not only by proposing the appetible to the senses, or by effecting a change in his body, but also by moving the will itself; because every movement either of the will or of nature, proceeds from God as the First Mover. And just as it is not incompatible with nature that the natural movement be from God as the First Mover, inasmuch as nature is an instrument of God moving it: so it is not contrary to the essence of a voluntary act, that it proceed from God, inasmuch as the will is moved by God.

To say that you have free will does not mean you are like God. You are not able to control yourself, secure your own salvation, or even practice virtue independent of God’s will. Any movement of your will is dependent on God’s will.

The impression that you are thinking and acting and willing independent of God’s will is the illusion we call ‘Pride’. The impression that the buck stops with you is false, and both the cause and symptom of sin and suffering.

God is in control, absolutely. What makes Lamentations 3 so striking is that Jeremiah recognises God’s control, and ascribes to God responsibility for his suffering. He doesn’t succumb to the illusion that God is not in control.

This is radical, but it is also very mysterious. It means that in our sin and ignorance, in the midst of this illusion of self-sufficiency and control, God is nonetheless still in control.

So why do we suffer? Why undergo this whole bewildering drama and illusion if God could stop it right away?

This question has occupied theologians and philosophers for millennia. There are complex and nuanced answers that are beyond the scope of this post, but the bottom line is that God is in complete control, there is a purpose to it all, and that purpose is most definitely a mystery. As Julian of Norwich wrote after a vision:

“Sin is behovely (useful or necessary), but all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well,”

How do we know what is good?

Continuing the discussion with Matthew:

I think there’s much to be said about this “unknowable” good because when I’ve thought about how the natural law theorist might address the is/ought problem one manoeuvre might be to emphasize that “the good” is a metaphysical notion, and that whether we can fully understand or know “the good” and thus provide a rational justification for it, is an epistemological issue. In other words it may be a metaphysical fact that “the good” contains the moral/normative imperative within it (i.e. “is” implies “ought”) but the fact that we cannot “see” this, which is to say provide a rational justification for it (to satisfy the moral rationalists and the rest of the “orthodoxy”), is merely due to our own limitations. Perhaps you might have some thoughts about this idea or about the “appetite for unknowable good” as you put it.

I’m out of practice thinking about ethics, but I still want to see if I can clarify what appears to me to be a category error somewhere in our discussion.

The question “how do we know what is good?” can be viewed as an epistemological question, in the sense that “X is good” is a belief that asserts something about the way the world is.

The is-ought problem is an epistemological stance that says notions of “good” or “right” or “ought” etc., are not in fact about the way the world is. “X is good” is – from this point of view – a statement of value, not a statement of fact (hence the alternative term for the is-ought problem: the fact/value distinction).

Matthew has suggested that Natural Law might be treating “the good” as a metaphysical entity, that is, something that exists in its own right. Essentially, this would mean there is a particular kind of thing in the world called “good” and this good uniquely compels obligation. In other words, good is a fact that somehow carries value in it.

But I don’t think this is how Natural Law operates. I don’t think it depends on a metaphysical notion of good.

Instead, I would suggest that when Natural Law makes the claim that “X is good”, it is in fact making an anthropological claim. In fact when Natural Law asks “how do we know that X is good?”, it is still regarding this as an anthropological question, rather than an epistemological question.

If you look through Aquinas’ work (not a straightforward task) you’ll see that he does indeed regard these questions as the kinds of questions that can be answered in the context of human nature, by examining how human beings actually function.

I’m using the term anthropology a bit loosely, but that’s in part because “Ethics” has changed in meaning as well. I could call it Psychology (the logic of the soul) but that has many contemporary connotations as well.

Perhaps we could say that at the heart of the is-ought problem is whether we are looking at ethics as an anthropological phenomenon or ethics as an epistemological problem. The is-ought problem is itself an epistemological problem, and the relevance of it to ethics as an anthropological phenomenon is limited.In philosophy it is considered a cheap shot to point out that most moral skeptics live as though they were moral realists. That’s a fair objection in epistemological terms. Moral skeptics might happily admit they’re doomed to behave irrationally, perhaps out of cultural forces or mere pragmatism. But approaching ethics from an anthropological perspective resolves some of the tension: epistemology is not how people ‘do’ ethics after all. Here we can bring in Dtcwee’s observation:

thinkers from Aquinas to Hume studied how DOES reason decide what’s good rather than how SHOULD reason decide what’s good, and it’s only until later that ethics shifted towards the prescriptive and coercive.

I’m not sure of the exact time-frame, but that distinction between “how does” and “how should” is indeed what I’m trying to describe as the anthropology of ethics versus the epistemology of ethics. Though I think human beings have a real talent for prescription and coercion regardless of the ethical or philosophical paradigm!

Is morality rational?

Bonus question: is reason moral?

Matthew asked the following question in response to our discussion of the is-ought problem:

if “there is no rational way to convince me that I ‘ought’ to do anything” then the result is that either I am not compelled to do that thing (adhering strictly to rationality as the basis for action) or I still do that thing independently of what reasons/rationality compels me to do (perhaps out of desire or inclination or external influence). This points to the question of “what is the role of reason?” when it comes to our actions or judgments.

So I wonder in what sense are reasons (or rational justification) relevant to natural law. I haven’t given this much thought but perhaps there might be something to be said about whether or not natural law fits into the “orthodoxy” of moral philosophy which is typically to provide reasons or rational justifications for our judgments about what we ought to do (i.e. moral precepts), from which the is/ought problem arises.

If it is not necessary to provide a rational justification for why we ought to for example, “fulfill our essential nature”, or if somehow this whole enterprise or rational justification is based on a misconception about morality, then it would seem that reason/rationality is not essential to moral knowledge (or moral understanding) according to natural law theory and therefore natural law theory fits outside of the “orthodoxy” of moral philosophy.

Do you think this distinction between natural law theory and “orthodox” moral philosophy exists?

I think the key question is “what is the role of reason?” with regard to actions and judgements.

During my ill-fated PhD studies I took a closer look at the intellectualist perspective of the will, which informs the Natural Law perspective. Aquinas is pretty much the poster-boy of intellectualism, and in his view the will is defined as the appetite for the good as perceived by the intellect. In this sense, we are hard-wired to do whatever the intellect (reason) tells us is good.

What the intellect identifies as good is an open question. A skeptic can become paralysed by moral doubt, genuinely unable to decide what is truly good. An ordinary person might think twice about eating meat after seeing some horrific mistreatment of livestock. A tasty piece of food might suddenly become unappetising when you realise your three year old son dropped it in his potty by accident.

All our choices are underpinned by reasons. But the motive force – what moves us to make choices – comes not from intellect/reason but from will.

The purpose of Natural Law is to straighten out the operation of the intellect so that the goods it presents to the will are genuine goods. In other words, it seeks to ensure that our reasons are rational ones.

But how does the intellect know what is good? Doesn’t that just bring us back to the problem of how the intellect (reason) can determine what is good and what isn’t? Won’t we just get mired in meta-ethical debates at this point?

This is a genuine problem, by which I mean a practical one in addition to a theoretical one. If good means “that which the will desires” but the will desires based on what the intellect tells us, then good must be whatever the intellect determines it to be.

But as we’ve already explained, the intellect cannot reach those kinds of determinations without a given premise. Pure reason gets us nowhere. A pure moral skeptic cannot recognise any criteria for ‘good’, and thus doubt can stymie the will, the appetite for (unknowable) good.

Nonetheless, there is a way out of this cul-de-sac. There isn’t space to turn around, but we can hit reverse and find our way back to the open road.

While it may be true that, starting from scratch, we cannot determine what is good on purely rational grounds, it is also true that we cannot justify “starting from scratch”, nor the demand for purely rational grounds.

In the first instance, this means that Aquinas and his ilk set out not to create a rationalist or skeptical ethical framework from scratch, but to determine through observation how it is that we already make choices, how we already do ethics, and whether we can improve on what we already do.

This is where the analogy to psychology is quite reasonable. Psychologists don’t really know what mental health means as some absolute or refined category. They define it in the context of people’s ordinary lives, where the line between mental health and illness is drawn fairly broadly in terms of whether or not you can get on with living.

It would be a strange and (ironically) an unreasonable step for Aquinas to decide arbitrarily that from today he would start determining good and evil from a purely skeptical premise. He’d have to – to put it crudely – be a real believer in skepticism.

Instead, he took the much more reasonable approach of looking at how people – including himself – already identified things as good or evil, and sought to find clarity in that dynamic. That doesn’t mean he abandoned reason at all, rather, he identified the reason implicit in people’s ethical choices and judgements, and found that it was coherent even if it wasn’t absolute.

That is, there’s a reason why people prefer truth over falsehood, just as they prefer eating bread over eating dirt.

In this sense, the good in its varied forms is something Aquinas discovered through observation and analysis of human behaviour (and reading Aristotle). These goods are rational, which is to say, there is an order and a proportion and an appropriate relationship between the many things consistently and coherently identified as goods.

And the reason behind them can be compelling. But compelling in the hypothetical sense that presumes we all already have this practical ‘natural’ inclination toward certain things as good for us, not compelling in the sense that these reasons can move a skeptic. But then, a skeptic is someone who has chosen to take an immovable position.So I would agree that Natural Law is outside “orthodox” modern moral philosophy, but I think the is-ought problem and the question of rational justification are just symptoms of a deeper problem.The is-ought problem in its historical context was not a response to Natural Law, but to Moral Rationalists. Ironically, the group Hume sided with sound much more like Natural Law theorists:

The moral sense theorists (Shaftesbury and Hutcheson) and Butler see all requirements to pursue goodness and avoid evil as consequent upon human nature, which is so structured that a particular feature of our consciousness (whether moral sense or conscience) evaluates the rest. Hume sides with the moral sense theorists on this question: it is because we are the kinds of creatures we are, with the dispositions we have for pain and pleasure, the kinds of familial and friendly interdependence that make up our life together, and our approvals and disapprovals of these, that we are bound by moral requirements at all.

The ‘deeper problem’ I mention is simply that the approach to ethics changed. I’m not sure if it changed with Descartes, and the more general philosophical revolution, but change it did. As a result, subsequent theories of ethics seem to want to reproduce not Natural Law but Divine Law outside of a religious context.













Low mood

I’ve never been a fan of straightforward biological explanations for depression, but is anyone? I guess the idea that depression is “only” a result of neurotransmitter imbalances in the brain offers an immediate causal story for a bout of extremely low mood. Reading between the lines, maybe there has always been a certain clinical restraint in not saying to people “there’s probably an obvious or an overly convoluted cause, but it’s good enough for now if you treat it as purely bio-chemical.”

In the past I would have had no patience for such an approach. I would have wanted to identify the real-life causes as quickly and efficiently as possible. I don’t know if it is therefore a sign of maturity or simply a change in circumstances, but I now appreciate the merits of being able to identify this low mood as a discrete phenomenon worthy of some form of respect.

In other words, while I may indeed be able to trace the causative factors and do something to remedy them, I can also now recognise that the low mood itself is significant in its own right and deserves its own response. Knowing the causes – or that there are causes – does not negate the real symptoms of the low mood.

In Aquinas’ work, we can interpret depression as an extreme form of sorrow.  Sorrow is understood to be our natural response to a perceived evil. Evil in this case does not mean necessarily a moral or spiritual evil; it refers to anything the intellect interprets as bad, harmful, unwanted, and so on.

Aquinas’ discussion of the effects of sorrow show that “depression” is metaphorically apt as a kind of “pressing down” on the individual’s soul:

For a man is said to be depressed, through being hindered in his own movement by some weight. Now it is evident from what has been said above that sorrow is caused by a present evil: and this evil, from the very fact that it is repugnant to the movement of the will, depresses the soul, inasmuch as it hinders it from enjoying that which it wishes to enjoy. And if the evil which is the cause of sorrow be not so strong as to deprive one of the hope of avoiding it, although the soul be depressed in so far as, for the present, it fails to grasp that which it craves for; yet it retains the movement whereby to repulse that evil. If, on the other hand, the strength of the evil be such as to exclude the hope of evasion, then even the interior movement of the afflicted soul is absolutely hindered, so that it cannot turn aside either this way or that. Sometimes even the external movement of the body is paralyzed, so that a man becomes completely stupefied.

Aquinas held what we might now call a “holistic” view of mind and body, hence among his recommendations for the alleviation of sorrow we find both spiritual and physical remedies – contemplation of truth, warm baths, and wine.

But we also find in Aquinas the basic logic of modern psychological remedies such as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. CBT teaches us to recognise negative thoughts that contribute to anxiety and depression, and to challenge those negative thoughts.

The experience of sorrow is dependent on the presence of some evil, and our perception of it.  CBT puts a greater emphasis on perception, armed with the knowledge that our perceptions of evil are often distorted, exaggerated, or overly pessimistic.  Aquinas was perhaps more focused on sorrow as a natural response to actual evils.

Either way, in my experience the causes of a low or depressed mood can be a mystery to the sufferer absent further self-examination. It might feel as though the low mood has come out of nowhere, but if one takes the opportunity to reflect on and summarise one’s circumstances, paying particular attention to one’s hopes and the sense of future options, the experience of debilitating sorrow might turn out to be quite natural and reasonable.

Nonetheless, I would not wish to imply that there are easy answers available. As Aquinas notes, this form of sorrow is particularly injurious and should not be taken lightly:

Of all the soul’s passions, sorrow is most harmful to the body. The reason of this is because sorrow is repugnant to man’s life in respect of the species of its movement, and not merely in respect of its measure or quantity, as is the case with the other passions of the soul. For man’s life consists in a certain movement, which flows from the heart to the other parts of the body: and this movement is befitting to human nature according to a certain fixed measure. Consequently if this movement goes beyond the right measure, it will be repugnant to man’s life in respect of the measure of quantity; but not in respect of its specific character: whereas if this movement be hindered in its progress, it will be repugnant to life in respect of its species.

What this means is that sorrow directly stifles our natural vigour. Where other afflictions might subvert or disturb us, sorrow crushes us to the very core.

In terms of remedies, then, Aquinas begins by quoting Aristotle:

“sorrow is driven forth by pleasure, both by a contrary pleasure and by any other, provided it be intense.”

I suspect this provides a rationale for various addictions: we seek a remedy in intense pleasures or distractions, even if they create other problems and renewed sorrows for us.

Aquinas goes on to examine weeping and tears as sources of relief:

Tears and groans naturally assuage sorrow: and this for two reasons. First, because a hurtful thing hurts yet more if we keep it shut up, because the soul is more intent on it: whereas if it be allowed to escape, the soul’s intention is dispersed as it were on outward things, so that the inward sorrow is lessened. This is why men, burdened with sorrow, make outward show of their sorrow, by tears or groans or even by words, their sorrow is assuaged. Secondly, because an action, that befits a man according to his actual disposition, is always pleasant to him. Now tears and groans are actions befitting a man who is in sorrow or pain; and consequently they become pleasant to him. Since then, as stated above, every pleasure assuages sorrow or pain somewhat, it follows that sorrow is assuaged by weeping and groans.

“Secondly, because an action, that befits a man according to his actual disposition, is always pleasant to him.” I’m not really one for weeping and groans – heavy sighs perhaps? – but I have discovered that as a general rule if I am too depressed to write, I can always write about being depressed.

For his third remedy, Aquinas recommends the company of sympathetic friends:

When one is in pain, it is natural that the sympathy of a friend should afford consolation: whereof the Philosopher indicates a twofold reason (Ethic. ix, 11). The first is because, since sorrow has a depressing effect, it is like a weight whereof we strive to unburden ourselves: so that when a man sees others saddened by his own sorrow, it seems as though others were bearing the burden with him, striving, as it were, to lessen its weight; wherefore the load of sorrow becomes lighter for him: something like what occurs in the carrying of bodily burdens. The second and better reason is because when a man’s friends condole with him, he sees that he is loved by them, and this affords him pleasure, as stated above. Consequently, since every pleasure assuages sorrow, as stated above, it follows that sorrow is mitigated by a sympathizing friend.

Not every depressed person has sympathetic friends available to them, which is in itself quite a depressing thought. However, there exist a plethora of online and real-life support groups and, in this country at least, government-subsidised counselling available to some extent. There are options if sympathetic friends are hard to come by.

For his fourth remedy, Aquinas recommends the contemplation of truth, quoting Augustine:

“It seemed to me that if the light of that truth were to dawn on our minds, either I should not feel that pain, or at least that pain would seem nothing to me.”

Contemplation of truth is a tricky one. As Aquinas notes, it is a pleasure with no corresponding sorrow. In fact it is considered the greatest pleasure for the connoisseur who develops a taste for it. At the same time, it is somewhat elusive and not easy for a beginner to find comfort in, especially while struggling with the other facets of depression.

And yet contemplation of truth is implicated in the kind of self-analysis that uncovers the causes of a person’s sorrow. Examining one’s life does lead to the consideration of the greater meaning and purpose to our existence, indeed to the very nature of our existence and hence to the kind of transcendent truths that Aquinas had in mind.

Ending on a softer note, Aquinas recommends sleep and baths – and by extension any physical restorative that can combat the depleting effects of sorrow.

It might seem a bit strange to put contemplation of truth neither first nor last in the list when it is clearly regarded as the supreme pleasure and greatest response to sorrow. This could be because contemplation is still an indirect response to sorrow, but I think it might also be because contemplation is such a difficult work in its own right, and Aquinas – perhaps being sensitive to the needs of the depressed individual – did not wish to utterly demoralise an already suffering and weakened person with a pious exhortation to a universal yet abstract remedy.

So he slips it in as the third of four remedies:

O sorrowful soul, have a bit of a cry, chat to a good friend, maybe consider the profound reality of existence, the transcendent metaphysical order, the incomprehensible mystery of divine love, or just skip ahead to a hot bath and a lie-down.


A man of many parts-time

I’ve mentioned elsewhere that I’m balancing freelance writing with PhD studies and an eighteen-month-old son.  That’s three part-time activities which, I suspect, potentially add up to more than one full-time life.  It’s all held together at present in a state of delicate balance, easily thrown out by the slightest change.

If, for example, my wife gets an extra day of work one week, I pick up an extra day of caring for our son – an activity that dominates and drives out all other thoughts.  This past week I’ve effectively had three days of child-care.

My studies are likewise susceptible to dramatic challenges and change: for the past six months or so I’ve been reading and commenting on a history of free will from Aristotle to Augustine.

It’s an excellent book. The author delves into the origins of the ‘free will’ notion, overturning in the process some long established conventions.  He shows that Aristotle did not have a notion of the free will, the idea instead originating in Stoicism and subsequently read back into Aristotle by later generations.

Frede challenges the received wisdom that St Augustine was the original source of a ‘new’ free will concept, showing instead that Augustine’s view is largely derivative of the contemporary Stoic perspective.  For example, Augustine’s strong dichotomy of the free versus the enslaved; the idea that though we are still responsible for our exercise of will we are nonetheless no longer free; the view that God has the ability to arrange things such that He can direct our unfree will; all of these are present in the Stoicism that pervaded the Roman world in Augustine’s time.

I’m still not clear on the context and implications of all this, but it is startling to recognise how deep an influence Stoicism has had on the development of Christian thought.  It is not unusual to see Western Civilisation as a Judeo-Christian-Hellenic composite, but it was not clear to me how influential Stoicism in particular had been.  One might almost wonder whether Christianity took on board Stoicism, or Stoicism took up Christianity.

Frede’s text is scholarly and not light reading, but I’ve learned a great deal from it and will undoubtedly continue to refer back to his work as I progress.

But having recently reached the end of the book, I now have to progress on my own through the continued free will debate.  Instead of having that path clearly marked by such a prestigious scholar as Frede, I’m now proceeding one step at a time, testing the ground as I go.

This stage is far more challenging, mostly because this entire PhD project is full of uncertainty.  As a student, one is in the position of not knowing the final outcome, what one’s final work will look like, or even the direction in which it will turn.  It’s particularly hard for me, I believe, as a melancholic to determine the ‘ideal’ level of detail or amount of effort to dedicate to any particular step.

So as I move on to Thomas Aquinas’ theory of free will, I’m learning the limitations of my own knowledge, but also the limits of intellectual habits: second-guessing myself is an unacceptable delay when there is so much work still to be done.  Likewise, my desire to get right to the very heart, or to the roots of each question is impossibly idealistic.  I do not have time to learn ancient Greek and master Aristotle; I must learn to rely on the work of other scholars, even if this leaves me with a sense of doubt.

Ultimately, as my supervisor reassured me, it isn’t my job to master all these topics, but to gain a working knowledge of the Western free will debate, in order to apply its lessons to the less familiar context of the Chinese philosophers.

Juggling these three part-time occupations will always provide a challenge, and I have to prioritise the duties of a stay-at-home dad over the responsibilities of a PhD student, over the opportunities of a freelance writer.  But even in this order of priorities new challenges and possibilities emerge.  I can’t get my son to help me with my PhD, and I can’t turn my PhD into a study of child development, but I can write more about my PhD and my experiences as a stay-at-home dad on this blog and in my articles.


The nature of wealth

Back in my bioethics days I spent a bit of time reading Thomas Aquinas on a variety of subjects, just to see what wisdom the ‘Angelic Doctor’ could bring to bear on aspects of contemporary life.  One insight that made a great deal of sense to me was his adoption of Aristotle’s distinction between natural and artificial wealth:

It is impossible for man’s happiness to consist in wealth. For wealth is twofold, as the Philosopher says (Polit. i, 3), viz. natural and artificial. Natural wealth is that which serves man as a remedy for his natural wants: such as food, drink, clothing, cars, dwellings, and such like, while artificial wealth is that which is not a direct help to nature, as money, but is invented by the art of man, for the convenience of exchange, and as a measure of things salable.

Now it is evident that man’s happiness cannot consist in natural wealth. For wealth of this kind is sought for the sake of something else, viz. as a support of human nature: consequently it cannot be man’s last end, rather is it ordained to man as to its end. Wherefore in the order of nature, all such things are below man, and made for him, according to Psalm 8:8: “Thou hast subjected all things under his feet.”

And as to artificial wealth, it is not sought save for the sake of natural wealth; since man would not seek it except because, by its means, he procures for himself the necessaries of life. Consequently much less can it be considered in the light of the last end. Therefore it is impossible for happiness, which is the last end of man, to consist in wealth.

This brief excerpt contains a number of important points.  Firstly, wealth is not the source of our happiness, but it is ‘a support of human nature’.  We need natural wealth in order to flourish and pursue the higher things in life.

Secondly, money and other forms of wealth that do not directly meet natural needs are to be considered ‘artificial wealth’.  Of themselves they hold no value.  In the words of Alanis Obomsawim, an indigenous Canadian:

When the last tree is cut, the last fish is caught, and the last river is polluted; when to breathe the air is sickening, you will realize, too late, that wealth is not in bank accounts and that you can’t eat money.

The only value in artificial wealth is that we can use it to obtain natural wealth.  Hence artificial wealth such as money is a step removed from human life, an abstraction from the diversity of real things we need in order to live and to flourish.

Money has been around for a long time, but I wonder if our  ancestors were ever so preoccupied with it as we are today?  Money doesn’t behave in the same way as natural wealth.  Because we have no direct capacity to make use of it, it exists without natural order or function.  We can, therefore, obsess about it, pursue it, covet it and accrue it in ways that would not make sense for natural wealth.  As my grandfather says: “you can only sleep in one bed.”

I’ll be writing more on this topic, as I think our current way of life exaggerates the role of artificial wealth in our lives, with repercussions for our broader understanding of life and our pursuit of genuine flourishing.