Aquinas studies – Can there be a conflict between natural and divine law?

On one level, no there can be no conflict between natural and divine law. However, there may be conflict between the two in how they are embodied on an individual or cultural level. There may also be the appearance of conflict if we don’t properly distinguish the principles from the proper conclusions.

For an excellent introductory guide to Aquinas follow this link.

Human beings, in having a natural inclination to “the fitting act and end”– which is ultimately “eternal reason” — exhibit in our rational and creaturely existence, a participatory relationship between natural law and divine law (Thomas Aquinas: Selected Writings, Penguin Books., London 1998, p. 620). The rational recognition and obedience to natural law is the means by which we participate in the divine law (p. 620). Our rational natures, our desire and ability to contemplate about things beyond the merely material, and to concern ourselves with things not merely limited to material well-being, should provide us with a hint that the “fitting act and end” exceeds our material or natural capacities. For this reason, God gives us divine law. Thomas gives four reasons for God revealing to us his divine law. First, as our ultimate end exceeds our natural capacity in being directed towards “eternal happiness” we need divine direction in order to attain our ultimate end. Second, we are not accurately able to judge on “contingent and particular things” and so we require certitude of judgement which can only come from God. Thirdly, as our “fitting act and end” involves our interior intellectual lives, natural law is not adequate to govern or “restrain interior acts.” Fourth, in order for there to be final clarity and justice in the mixture of practical and particular judgements, all things will ultimately be judged according to divine law (p. 623).

In none of these things is there a conflict between natural and divine law. The one serves as a floor upon which we may, by the light of faith, break through the ceiling of our materiality and apprehend and participate in divine law. And as God is simple/holy and infinitely Good, it is not possible for the principles originating in him and sustained by him to be in conflict. “God through his wisdom is the maker of the universe of things… the notion of divine wisdom moving all things to their fitting end takes on the note of law… the eternal law is nothing other than the idea of divine wisdom insofar as it is directive of all acts and movements” (p. 633).

However, in terms of how human beings exhibit this participatory relationship between natural law and divine law, there is conflict. While human affairs are subject ultimately to eternal law, in both our knowledge and our actions we are in varying degrees “imperfect” and “corrupt” (p. 640). Insofar as our knowledge of eternal law and natural knowledge are obscured by “passions and the habit of sin” a holy/perfect participatory relationship between natural law and divine law is “defective” (p. 640-641). The conflict is in proportion to how “bad” one is. On the other hand, “the good are perfectly subject to the eternal law, as always fulfilling it” (p 641). Also, there may be failure in this regard in terms of “rectitude” (there may be an impediment in nature (e.g., are psychopaths born that way?) and knowledge (if one’s reason has been “depraved” by bad customs, or a “bad cast of nature”). This is to say that there may be a general culture which depraves or malforms us in relation to specific moral principles (p. 649). Finally, a conflict may arise as a consequence of prolonged damage to the human heart. This may be a result of “bad persuasion” regarding speculative matters, depraved customs, or corrupt habits. Such things may result in the natural law being “erased from the hearts of men” (p. 652).

Finally, there may be the appearance of conflict if we don’t distinguish between the common principles and the proper conclusions (i.e., secondary precepts or particular applications). Whereas there is “the same truth or rectitude for all “in reference to “common principles of reason” (e.g., “one cannot simultaneously affirm and deny something” p. 644) this does not mean that everyone knows matters pertaining to “proper conclusions” of speculative reason to the same degree (e.g., the outworking of speculative reason resulting in specific of geometrical definitions not known to all). Neither do the common principles work themselves out in a uniformed way, as the “proper conclusions” of practical reason will vary depending upon the specific circumstances (p. 648). Also, relating to the reality of circumstantial and cultural change, whereas the “common principles of reason” are immutable, the natural law may change by way of addition or subtraction in reference to particular contexts or situations (p. 650). This addition or subtraction will, if proper and good, leave the common principles uncorrupted, but effect the proper conclusions in a generally applicable way for a particular culture. For example, the principle of “everyone should act according to reason” results in the proper conclusion regarding terms of borrowing goods and returning them to the rightful owner. However, there may be culturally or regionally unique circumstances that may make the terms of borrowing (and the rectitude of returning them) different (p. 648). For example, in peacetime, a scythe has simpler associations than during a time of war. It may be right not to return such a tool during wartime if it threatens the safety of the owner or others. If we don’t keep the difference between the common principles and the proper conclusions clear, we may think there is a conflict between natural law and divine law, when in fact there is only a difference in the outworking of natural and divine law in a local or individual context.

Boethius’ description of Providence, Fate, and Fortune in Bk IV.

Lady Philosophy asks Boethius to “imagine a set of revolving concentric circles” in her effort to explain how Providence and Fate relate to one another. It is extraordinary how Boethius evokes a visual image to try and explain a deep and perennial mystery. The innermost circle is closest to “the simplicity of the centre” which is equated to the “high citadel of oneness” which is Providence or “Divine Reason.” Providence is also equated to the “Primary Intelligence.” Due to it being equated with Divine Reason, Providence does not itself orbit anything. It does not move. It is essentially the Unmoved Mover. The closer an orbit is to the simplicity of the centre, the more that thing which is the circle is freed from Fate (or “above the chain of Fate”). It seems to me this is essentially “rest”.
Continue reading “Boethius’ description of Providence, Fate, and Fortune in Bk IV.”

Thomas à Kempis – “desire to be unknown”

Chapter II – Of thinking humbly of oneself

There is naturally in every man a desire to know, but what profiteth knowledge without the fear of God? Better of a surety is a lowly peasant who serveth God, than a proud philosopher who watcheth the stars and neglecteth the knowledge of himself. He who knoweth himself well is vile in his own sight; neither regardeth he the praises of men. If I knew all the things that are in the world, and were not in charity, what should it help me before God, who is to judge me according to my deeds?

2. Rest from inordinate desire of knowledge, for therein is found much distraction and deceit. Those who have knowledge desire to appear learned, and to be called wise. Many things there are to know which profiteth little or nothing to the soul. And foolish out of measure is he who attendeth upon other things rather than those which serve to his soul’s health. Many words satisfy not the soul, but a good life refresheth the mind, and a pure conscience giveth great confidence towards God.

3. The greater and more complete thy knowledge, the more severely shalt thou be judged, unless thou hast lived holily. Therefore be not lifted up by any skill or knowledge that thou hast; but rather fear concerning the knowledge which is given to thee. If it seemeth to thee that thou knowest many things, and understandest them well, know also that there are many more things which thou knowest not. Be not high-minded, but rather confess thine ignorance. Why desirest thou to lift thyself above another, when there are found many more learned and more skilled in the Scripture than thou? If thou wilt know and learn anything with profit, love to be thyself unknown and to be counted for nothing. [alternative trans: “If thou wilt know or learn anything profitably, desire to be unknown, and to be little esteemed”].

[Contra ‘social media’, contra various (I suspect) vain and (without question) brand-building church personalities – making much of exploits in order to sell books and speak at conferences etc. Cf the Apostle Paul in 2 Corinthians 12 – he easily boasts and catalogues various disasters and hardships, but only reluctantly shares the vision and leaves uncatalogued entirely the various “signs of a true Apostle”].

4. That is the highest and most profitable lesson, when a man truly knoweth and judgeth lowly of himself. To account nothing of one’s self, and to think always kindly and highly of others, this is great and perfect wisdom. Even shouldest thou see thy neighbor sin openly and grievously, yet thou oughtest not to reckon thyself better than he, for thou knowest not how long thou shalt keep thine integrity. All of us are weak and frail; hold thou no man more frail than thyself.

H/T The Literature Project

Patrick Leigh Fermor on the Efficacy of Prayer (particularly monastic prayer)

“After the first postulate of belief, without which the life of a monk would be farcical and intolerable, the dominating factor of monastic existence is a belief in the necessity and efficacy of prayer; and it is only by attempting to grasp the importance of this principle–a principle so utterly remote from every tendency of modern secular thought–to the monks who practice it, that one can hope to understand the basis of monasticism. This is especially true of the contemplative orders, like the Benedictines, Carthusians, Carmelites, Cistercians, Camaldulese, and Sylvestrines; for the others–like the Franciscans, Dominicans or the Jesuits–are brotherhoods organized for action. They travel, teach, preach, convert, organise, plan, heal and nurse; and the material results they achieve make them, if not automatically admirable, at least comprehensible to the Time-Spirit. They get results; they deliver the goods. But what (the Time-Spirit asks) what good do the rest do, immured in monasteries far from all contact with the world? The answer is–if the truth of the Christian religion and the efficacy of prayer are both dismissed as baseless–no more than any other human beings who lead a good life, make (for they support themselves) no economic demands on the community, harm no one and respect their neighbours. But, should the two principles be admitted–particularly, for the purposes of this particular theme, the latter–their power for good is incalculable.”

Fermor, Patrick Leigh. A Time to Keep Silence. New York: New York Review Books, 2007. p 26-27

The development of Christmas (Feast of the Nativity) being celebrated December 25

“NATIVITY, Feast of the. Similarly to other comparable feasts (6 or 10 Jan, 18 Nov, 28 March), in Rome the tradition developed of keeping the feast of Christmas on 25 Dec; this dates to ca. 336, though it is mentioned for the first time in the Chronography of 354. The Roman calendar indicates for 25 Dec, a day of the rebirth of the sun after the winter solstice, the birth of Mithras and public games in honor of the Sol Invictus, the cult of which the emperor Aurelian had introduced at Rome in 257. This apologetic context –Christ as the true Sol iustitiae (Mal 3:20)–was behind the introduction of the feast of Christmas in the Roman calendar. Further, chronological reasons relating to the other dates of the life of Christ (e.g., the Annunciation, 25 March) may have played a certain role. In 380 the feast was introduced in Constantinople, in 432 in Alexandria, and in 439 to Jerusalem, where it did not become established, however, until the Justinian era. There are numerous Christmas homilies in Latin and Greek, beginning with that of ps.- Optatus of Milevis (CPL 245). The oldest liturgical formulas may be found in the Sacramentarium Veronese. From the time of Gregory the great we find the characteristic triplicate Christmas Masses (Hom. ev. 8), the celebrated in S. Maria Maggiore, St. Anastasia and St. Peter’s” (Encyclopedia of Ancient Christianity).

Summary and Outline of St. Athanasius’ “On the Incarnation”

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Summary of St. Athanasius’ ‘On the Incarnation’

“His treatise on the Incarnation of the Word of God, though written quite early in his life, and before the rise of Arianism, is the best example of his theology, and is of special interest in modern times from its breadth of view and thoroughly philosophical standpoint. It is well worthy of his Alexandrian training and traditions. The Incarnation, he teaches, culminating in the death on the Cross, was not primarily a propitiation or the averting of a penalty. What is known as the “forensic” theory Athanasius avoided. It was rather a restoration from death to life. Human nature through sin was in corruption, and must be healed, restored, recreated. A true theory of Creation is given, in opposition to the views of the Epicureans, the Platonists and the Gnostics. Men were created above all the rest, in God’s image, with even a portion of His own Word, so that having a sort of reflexion of the Word, and being in fact made rational (λογιχοι), they might be able to abide ever in blessedness (c. 3). But if they did not obey His laws, they were to fall into and remain in death and corruption—a negative state; for what is good is, what is evil is not; evil is the negation of good, death of life, etc. Man turning to the evil partook of negative things, evil, corruption, death, and remained in them: he lost the image, and lost the life in correspondence with God (c.5). The handiwork of God was in process of dissolution (6). God could not justly prevent this, seeing that He made the law, nor could He leave man to the current of corruption, and watch His work being spoilt. Even repentance by itself was useless (7), for it did not alter the nature, or stay the corruption. Only He could restore or Continue reading “Summary and Outline of St. Athanasius’ “On the Incarnation””

“My Way of Life” opening paragraphs.

[“My Way of Life” (Walter Farrell O.P., S.T.M, and Martin J. Healy, S.T.D) was written to be a simplification (yes, that’s correct, a simplification) of Aquinas’ Summa Theologica. I only discovered this little book while rummaging through a used book store yesterday. I’ve since learned that it is a classic in its own right. I found the opening paragraphs very thought provoking. Here is a link to an online edition of Walter Farrell’s 4 vol Companion to the Summa.]

“THE ROAD THAT STRETCHES before the feet of a man is a challenge to his heart long before it tests the strength of his legs. Our destiny is to run to the edge of the world and beyond, off into the darkness: sure for all our blindness, secure for all our helplessness, strong for all our weakness, gaily in love for all the pressure on our hearts.

IN THAT DARKNESS beyond the world, we can begin to know the world and ourselves, though we see through the eyes of Another. We begin to understand that a man was not made to pace out his life behind the prison walls of nature, but to walk into the arms of God on a road that nature could never build.

LIFE MUST BE LIVED, even by those who cannot find the courage to face it. In the living of it, every mind must meet the rebuff of mystery. To some men, this will be an exultant challenge: that so much can be known and truth not be exhausted, that so much is still to be sought, that truth is an ocean not to be contained in the pool of a human mind. To others, this is a humiliation not to be borne; for it marks out sharply the limits of our proud minds. In the living of life, every mind must face the unyielding rock of reality, of a truth that does not bend to our whim or fantasy, of the rule that measures the life and mind of a man.

IN THE LIVING OF LIFE, every human heart must see problems awful with finality. There are the obvious problems of death, marriage, the priesthood, religious vows; all unutterably final. But there are, too, the day to day, or rather the moment to moment choices of heaven or hell. Before every human heart that has ever beat out its allotted measures, the dare of goals as high as God Himself was tossed down: to be accepted, or to be fled from in terror.

GOD HAS SAID SO LITTLE, that yet means so much for our living. To have said more would mean less of reverence by God for the splendor of His image in us. Our knowing and loving, He insists, must be our own; the truth ours because we have accepted it; the love ours because we have given it. We are made in His image. Our Maker will be the last to smudge that image in the name of security, or by way of easing the hazards of the nobility of man” (My Way of Life, pgs 1-2).

Von Balthasar on Soloviev: The meaning of Dostoevsky’s “beauty will save the world”

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From the very beginning, Soloviev wanted to complete his theosophy with a universal aesthetics. He prefaced his essay on natural aesthetics with Dostoyevsky’s dictum that “beauty will save the world.” The Critique of Abstract Principles had proclaimed that ‘the realization of pan-unity in its external actuality is absolute beauty’, so it is as little something ‘given’ as is ‘pan-unity’ itself; it is a task assigned to humanity, and human art is a vehicle of its realisation. Soloviev promises to develop, at the end of his work, ‘the common axioms and rules of this great and mysterious art that brings all beings in the form of beauty’. According to another declaration, the sphere of aesthetic realisation should be divided into three areas: the material (technology), the formal (the ‘fine arts’) and the absolute (mysticism). For Soloviev, however, mysticism is not only passive devotion to the divine or direct contact with it; it also is the active art of bringing the divine from Heaven to earth, and, in this sense, ‘theurgy’—it is concerned, that is, with the realisations of the ideal: this is why Soloviev becomes a bitter opponent of classical idealist aesthetics, according to which beauty is allowed to be ‘only’ appearance, not reality, only an illusory reflection, not even a true promise or foretaste. ‘An infinity that existed solely for an instant would be an unbearable contradiction for the spirit; a bliss existing only in the past would be a torture for the will.’ Continue reading “Von Balthasar on Soloviev: The meaning of Dostoevsky’s “beauty will save the world””

St. Chrysostom — why church attendance — why church buildings?

“This too might with reason be said to us: “Behold ye despisers.” For the Church indeed is in very evil case, although ye think her affairs to be in peace. For the mischief of it is, that while we labor under so many evils, we do not even know that we have any. “What sayest thou? We are in possession of our Churches, our Church property, and all the rest, the services are held, the congregation comes to Church every day.” True, but one is not to judge of the state of a Church from these things. From what then? Whether there be piety, whether we return home with profit each day, whether reaping some fruit, be it much or little, whether we do it not merely of routine and for the formal acquittance of a duty. Who has become a better man by attending (daily) service for a whole month? That is the point: otherwise the very thing which seems to bespeak a flourishing condition (of the Church,) does in fact bespeak an ill condition, when all this is done, and nothing comes of it. Would to God (that were all,) that nothing comes of it: but indeed, as things are, it turns out even for the worse. What fruit do ye get from your services? Surely if you were getting any profit by them, ye ought to have been long leading the life of true wisdom, with so many Prophets twice in every week discoursing to you, so many Apostles, and Evangelists, all setting forth the doctrines of salvation, and placing before you with much exactness that which can form the character aright. The soldier by going to his drill, becomes more perfect in his tactics: the wrestler by frequenting the gymnastic ground comes more skillful in wrestling: the physician by attending on his teacher becomes more accurate, and knows more, and learns more: and thou–what hast thou gained? I speak not to those who have been members of the Church only a year, but to those who from their earliest age have been attending the services. Think you that to be religious is to be constant in Church-going? This is nothing, unless we reap some fruit for ourselves: if (from gathering together in Church) we do not gather something for ourselves, it were better to remain at home. For our fore-fathers built the Churches for us, not just to bring us together from our private houses and show us one to another: since this could have been done also in a market place, and in baths, and in a public procession:–but to bring together learners and teachers, and make the one better by means of the other. With us it has all become mere customary routine, and formal discharge of a duty: a thing we are used to: that is all. Easter comes, and then great the stir, great the hubbub, and crowding of–I had rather not call them human beings, for their behaviour is not commonly human. Easter goes, the tumult abates, but then the quiet which succeeds is again fruitless of good. “Vigils, and holy hymn-singing.”–And what is got by these? Nay, it is all the worse. Many do so merely out of vanity” (The Acts of the Apostles, Homily XXIX).