Tag Archives: Saint Thomas Aquinas

June 12: Justice, VII: Justice, Gratitude and Religion

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The just person does not repay another merely because the other needs it, but because the other has done something good for us. We wish to make a return. There is a deep and soul-enriching reciprocity about justice, then. We are touching something fundamental in the human make-up here. To repay a good deed done to us with a reciprocal good deed is something we need to do in order to be whole. On the other hand, to be constantly on the receiving end of goodness without ever acknowledging it is a kind of solipsistic existence that is not good for us, and in our heart of hearts we know it. Even babies will spontaneously respond to goodness by smiling back at a loving smile, by embracing the one who embraces them with love. We are made to respond to goodness and love by a goodness and love of our own.

In our life with God, we will always be indebted to him. The sheer size of what we’ve been given by God is truly astronomical: he has given us the universe! He has given us life. He has given us himself in his beloved Son. He continues to sustain us in being by his love. We will always be loved more by him than we can possibly love in return. But that does not excuse us from trying. It is religion that allows us to attempt some expression of our gratitude to God. God does not need gratitude in the same way our employee needs his pay, or in the same way our friend needs to be thanked for his acts of kindness to us. God does not need. Full stop. But we need to express it.

shared meal

Gratitude, then, is inseparable from religion and is an aspect of justice. Eucharist is a word that literally means thanksgiving. One of the psalms exclaims, ‘Oh how can I repay the Lord for all his goodness to me? The cup of salvation I will raise, and I will call on the Lord’s name’ (psalm 115). Through religion, we raise the cup of salvation, we give ourselves to God, who gives himself to us. This reciprocal giving, on such a deep level, is itself a gift – the greatest of gifts.

St. Thomas Aquinas, who never seems to overlook anything, ever, points out (S.T., II, II, Q. 106:5) that gratitude isn’t always related to the material size of what we have been given. From our human benefactors, also, we have been given many things, large and small, on many levels, by many people. Yet, as St. Thomas comments, we are ‘sometimes under greater obligation to one who has given little, but with a large heart.’ What a beautiful thought. I think of the gift of a sea-shell given by a child with shining eyes. The gift of a smile from an adult with intellectual disabilities. The gift of trust given by a friend. These gifts are what help to make us human, and to make life liveable. As we study here the virtue of justice, we see that it reminds us to notice that the gift with a heavy weight, with a countable quantity, or with a vast size is not the only thing that make a gift valuable, and that obliges us to respond in kind. The intangible quality of the gift is perhaps what is most valuable to us. The gift of the heart, the gift of love, this is the greatest gift. To return it is one of the greatest of human acts. The virtue of justice helps us to live lives of gratitude, of reverence, of joy and of greatness.

SJC.

Anyone wishing to make a further study may consult:

Josef Pieper, The Four Cardinal Virtues, University of Notre Dame Press, 1966.

St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, II.II. Q. 58f.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 1803 – 1811.

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June 8. Justice IV: Justice and Debt

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The virtue of justice is particularly sensitive to all forms of indebtedness, not merely monetary. ‘The just deed,’ says St. Thomas with admirable succinctness, ‘is the deed that is adjusted to or commensurate with the other’ (S.T., II.II, Q. 57:3). For example, a parent feeds baby-food to her three-month-old baby because that is what the baby needs. The rest of the family receives normal food. An employer in a large company normally would not expect the daily cleaners to be doing executive work. Justice apportions expectations, services, and wages according to the needs, services, and abilities of the other.

Justice, therefore, does not mean that everyone is treated in the same way. Rather, it is the role of justice to see that people are treated differently when they are different, when they have different needs, and exist in differing situations. The equality with which justice is concerned involves ensuring that what is done for another or given to another is duly proportionate to that person in his or her situation of need.

At the same time, when people are existing in identical situations, then it is the role of justice to ensure that their treatment is identical. Two people performing the same job in the same company should be paid the same wage, regardless of the colour of their skin, their country of origin and so on. ‘Justice’, says Thomas Aquinas, ‘is the perpetual and constant will to render each one his right. A man is said to be just because he respects the rights of others’ (S.T. II.II. Q58:1).

SJC

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June 7. Justice III: Justice and the Other

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Photo: L’Arche.

A theme underlying the Catechism’s teaching on the virtue of justice, but which could easily be missed, is that justice is a virtue by which we focus on others’ rights and claims.

We are perhaps encouraged by our culture to be aware of justice or injustice in the political sphere. But apart from that, our culture today teaches us to be most aware of injustices done to ourselves. We are taught to ask “what about me?” rather constantly. Granted, in a world where we can easily be victimised by entire systems of injustice, this is an important and necessary question to ask. The virtue of justice does not require us to be victims. On the contrary, this virtue is about opposing injustice wherever we find it. But, it is possible to go overboard here. It is the justice of the nursery, of the two-year-old, and of the ghetto, that regards everyone as a potential robber and enemy. It is important to grasp that in the virtue of justice, its principal act is to honour the legitimate rights and claims of others.

So then, St. Thomas Acquinas tells us in his Summa Theologica (II.II, Q.58:1): ‘It is proper to justice, as compared with the other virtues, to direct man in his relations with others.’ The other virtues – prudence, courage and temperance – are formed within the mind and emotions of the individual. They may involve other people, but they may not. Justice, on the other hand, exists in relation to others. It works to maintain a certain equity between a need and the fulfilment of that need. The obvious example is in the payment of a just wage for a service rendered. But there are deeper and more subtle considerations relative to justice, which we shall explore in the coming posts.

SJC

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3 May, Prudence X. Conclusion: Proceeding in Confidence.

Palm Sunday Philippines 2015 02

Saint Thomas Aquinas has a genius for analysis, certainly, and analysis often brings to light something of which we were already dimly aware so that we become more conscious of it, and say to ourselves, ‘Yes, that is what I have always thought.’

Someone once asked me, however, if Saint Thomas meant us to have a checklist with boxes to tick each time a big decision was needed in life.  And if not, how do we make use of the insights we’ve just been considering?  My advice is that, like many things that apply to the inner life, these parts of prudence overlap.  Growth in one area will mean that growth in the virtue as a whole.  We might consider the list and see, for example, that we have a hard time with one or two aspects of prudence.  With Thomas’s insight, we can apply ourselves to these aspects and undertake to make some progress in them.  Or, we might find that we were already striving in this direction, but were coming under criticism from others, whose lack of prudence was making them impatient with our tendency to approach matters from the perspective outlined here.

Now, perhaps we can proceed with more confidence in

‘discerning rightly that which helps from that which hinders in our journey toward God.’

SJC.

Many thanks to Sister Johanna for this series of reflections on Prudence. I think I’ll go back and consider them all together, now I’ve read them one by one.   Will T.

Photo: Missionaries of Africa

 

 

 

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2 May: Prudence IX, Hmmm.

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Circumspection. 

Foresight looks ahead.  Circumspection looks around.  It is to do with how the many circumstances in one’s life may combine at this particular point in time in the effort to attain one’s end prudently.  It takes cognisance of the complexity of existence.

Jack and his bookshop might be getting along fine now and he may decide to expand his business.  But then he prudently decides to wait a bit because of, say, illness in the family.  He doesn’t want to be preoccupied with business when the family may need him to be more available at home.  Circumspection strives to evaluate how everything will or will not work together.  It will try to leave room for the unexpected, for the unforeseeable.  Which leads us to: 

Caution 

Isn’t prudence about caution?  Having said so much do we really need to consider caution, too?  After foresight and circumspection, aren’t we sufficiently protected from evil?  Not really.  Thomas says that the things with which prudence is concerned are ‘contingent matters of action.’  Put in more modern words, we cannot control everything, or see into the depths of every action.  The ‘false is found with the true,’ he warns, and ‘evil is mingled with good on account of the great variety’ of life and events and personalities.

‘Good is often hindered by evil, and evil has the appearance of good.  Wherefore prudence needs caution.’ 

SJC.

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1 May: Prudence VIII, Foresight

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Foresight – or looking into the future – might seem to be a bit strange here in our survey of the virtue of prudence.   How can we see what has not happened yet?  How can we control that?  Isn’t foresight God’s affair?  And our part is simply to accept what he disposes?  Not quite, according to Aquinas (Summa Theologica  II.II: 49:6).  It is true, he says, that certain things about the future are subject to divine providence.  But the virtue of prudence is about the ‘means to an end’; it is about setting things in order in the present so as to attain a desirable end in the future.  Foresight is directed to the future, and to something distant, but is brought to bear on things in the present, that are within our power to regulate.

This sounds a bit airy-fairy, so let’s go back to our friend, Jack, with the bookshop.  He wants his bookshop to be successful.  He therefore needs to hire people who will be trustworthy and will help him to attain that end.  He knows now that if he is soft-hearted about hiring unreliable people with poor references, they will probably not help him to succeed in business.  Foresight tells him what will probably happen if he hires the right kind of person.  He cannot know everything about the future, and cannot guarantee absolutely that the person he has hired with the good references will work out fine.  But, he can set things in order by doing as much as he can do, checking the references well, and divine providence will have to do the rest.

Foresight looks ahead and evaluates the present according to the goal that exists in the future.

SJC.

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30 April: Prudence VII, Reason.

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Saint Thomas Aquinas says that it is important for prudence that a person be “an apt reasoner” (Summa Theologica 49.5).  We have just said that we must not be thinking forever about what to do, but still, we must think enough.   We know, for example, the exasperation we feel when someone flip-flops from one decision on one side of the problem to the opposite decision on the opposite side with very little rational explanation for the change of mind.

Today, pop psychology has placed a rather inordinate stress on the so called “gut feeling,” as though our gut somehow has access to a truth that the mind and the reason cannot find.  Saint Thomas thinks more highly of our powers of reason than that.  He says that reason is the faculty that researches, weighs and evaluates.  Going off on tangents, or taking quantum leaps isn’t really the way to attain prudence, in his thinking.  Rather, he says,

‘The work of reason is research proceeding from certain things to other things.’ 

Eminently reasonable himself, Thomas would have us take a step by step approach to discovering the most prudent course of action:

  ‘It is proper to the rational creature to be moved through the research of reason to perform any particular action.’  

SJC.

 

 

 

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29 April: Prudence VI, Shrewdness.

 

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In the virtue of prudence shrewdness complements teachability and limits it.  (Summa Theologica  II. II. 49:4) ‘It is a disposition to acquire a right estimate by oneself’, says St. Thomas.  In other words, after you have listened to the advice of those who are older and wiser, the obligation to arrive at a decision about what to do still rests on oneself.  Others cannot and should not decide for us.  The weight of the final decision is still a burden we must carry alone.  One can be running to this or that person forever, unable to come to a decision and rest in it.  Shrewdness knows when one has listened enough and found the answer; shrewdness accepts that the answer in this case might always contain some ambiguity, realises that a certain amount of risk and uncertainty must be borne, but that the issue is now as clear as it will ever be, and the time has come to act.  Saint Thomas will even go so far as to say that in deliberation we may take as much time as needed, but a considered act must be performed swiftly (Summa Theologica  II.II. 47:9).  There comes a time, and we must simply get on with it!

It is important to remember that prudence isn’t about being indefinitely watchful and careful.  Its most important act, for Saint Thomas, is the command.  Prudence answers a question: “What is the best course of action in this situation?”  When it discovers this answer, it commands, “Do it.”  Prudence is a “directive knowledge”, for Saint Thomas.

SJC

Carving, Chichester Cathedral. MMB

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27 April: Prudence IV, Understanding.

 

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The next step in the dance of prudence is understanding, for Saint Thomas.  Understanding gives us the ability to see how this principle applies to this case.  Each event is different from the one before.  Understanding helps us to see the differences – especially those that are not immediately obvious.  This usually requires us to think something through, and not simply react on the basis of how something appears on the surface.

Let’s go back to Jack, our small-business owner about whom we were thinking yesterday.  Let’s say he has a bookshop.  Let’s say his down-and-out employees help themselves to the cash.  Now Jack had better think this through.  He wants to help the needy – this is an important principle.  So he turns a blind eye to the disappearing cash.  But sooner or later, this is going to have an adverse effect on his business.  Sooner or later other principles, that are arguably more important, get buried – such as his obligation to support his family.  If the business suffers, he will soon be in a position to help no one, including himself.

Good people are not usually attracted to doing bad things, but to doing a good thing in an immoderate way, at the wrong time, under the wrong conditions.  With understanding we acquire the ability to set priorities, to determine which good thing I need to be doing now, to say no sometimes to one good thing in order to safe-guard a greater good, and to see what is really at stake in a given situation.

SJC

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26 April: Prudence III: Memory,

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So then, where does St. Thomas begin when he looks at the virtue of prudence?  For him, the first aspect of prudence is memory (see Summa Theologica, II.II: 49:1).  Why?  Because

…it is typical of prudence to be aware of what is true in the majority of cases.  This kind of awareness is fostered and engendered by experience and time, therefore, prudence requires the memory of many things.

Perhaps it is easier to understand this by looking at the opposite quality.  I suspect we all know someone about whom others will roll their eyes and sigh, saying, “Oh dear.  Jack never learns.”  Here, Jack is someone who makes the same big mistakes over and over: the small business person, say, who hires incompetent and dishonest employees out of a desire to help the under-dog.  These employees subsequently harm the business through irresponsibility or theft.  This becomes a pattern, though, in Jack’s business career.  He lets his need to “save” people who have a sob story get in the way of his judgement.  Repeatedly.

It is the repetition of the error that is at issue here.  Memory, says Thomas, is aided by diligence.  With diligence, we make a mental note of what happens, we put conscious effort into noticing how events unfold in matters that are important to us.  We don’t just let life go by, and let the same mistakes happen again and again.  We ask why something keeps happening.  From this, we gain some capacity to predict what is likely to happen if we do the same thing again.  ‘It behoves us to argue about the future from the past; therefore memory of the past is necessary in order to take good counsel for the future,’ says Saint Thomas.

SJC.

Prudence suggests a waterproof in Wales.

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