Friday, November 18, 2005

sixth paper

Here is my Philosophical Anthropology paper, mentioned here, I got an A!

St. Thomas Aquinas, in the first half of the second part of his magnum opus, the Summa Theologiae[1], treats one of the fundamental questions of human existence, the good and evil of human actions. Through the course of addressing this question he concludes that not all human actions are good, that some are indeed evil. In doing so, he reveals interesting insights into his understanding of the human person (and even provides a basis from which to compare his thought to Plato’s). Here we will focus our attention on Article 1, of Question 18 in this particular section[2] in order to examine these understandings and how he arrives at them.

Article 1 asks the following question: “Whether every human action is good, or are there evil actions?”[3] Before we begin, a clarification must be made that will affect how we understand the rest of this article and ancillary articles that St. Thomas references. When he says “Evil” here in the title he doesn’t only mean moral evil. “Evil” also suggests “non-goodness,” a distinct idea from moral evil. Peter Kreeft, professor of philosophy at Boston College, gives the example of a tree to illustrate this point. He says that “a tree is not evil for not being God, but a tree, unlike God, can be diseased, and disease is evil for a tree.”[4] Noting this distinction from the beginning will give us a broader understanding of St. Thomas’ language which we will see later.

St. Thomas begins the article by presenting three Objections against the possibility that any human actions can be evil, which he will then analyze and refute. In Objection 1 he states: “Dionysius says that evil occurs only in virtue of what is good.” But since the power of good cannot produce evil, evil actions must not exist. Objection 2 says that an evil action is one that is deficient in some way. But all actions can be perfected and perfected actions are only good. Therefore, “every action is good and none is evil.” Finally Objection 3 again quotes Dionysius who states that evil only happens accidentally. But all actions must have proper effects, not accidental ones, “therefore no action is evil; on the contrary, every action is good.”

St. Thomas then gives a general rebuttal by quoting our Lord in John 3:20, “Everyone who does evil hates the light.” The witness of Scripture being one of his primary authorities, he states that some human actions must be evil. He then gives his own Response that will expound on the rebuttal and concludes the article with specific Replies to each Objection. In this Response and in the Replies we see the heart of St. Thomas’ understanding of the human person.

First he says that if we can understand how some things can be evil themselves, understanding evil as it was described earlier, then we can progress to an understanding of how human actions can be evil as well. The “good-ness” or “evil-ness” of an action flows from the “good-ness” or “evil-ness” of the thing that produces the action. He begins this train of thought by stating that since a thing exists at all, it is good. This he proved in two earlier Articles in the Summa and is worth examining here[5]. In the first part of the Summa under Question 5, Articles 1 and 3 ask “Whether goodness differs really from being?” and “Whether every being is good?” respectively. He answers negatively to Article 1 and affirmatively to Article 3. “Goodness and being are really the same, and differ only in idea” because goodness is desirable, and it is desirable in so far as it is perfect, perfect in so far as it is actual and actual if it simply exists. Therefore, as St. Augustine says, “inasmuch as we exist we are good.”[6] In answering positively to Article 3, it is enough to see that being denotes existence and so we are in the same line of logic used in Article 1 and can conclude that every being is good.

Returning to St. Thomas’ Response, we now have the first point revealed about his understanding of the human person, that because he exists, he is good, or to put it a better way, he is essentially good. We will see the appropriateness of this word, essence, later in our examination of the Response.

St. Thomas then states that “In God alone the complete fullness of His being is in something one and simple, while in everything else the fullness of being proper to it involves diverse things.” He makes this point to draw out the distinction between God and man. Man is good because he has being as a human, as was shown before. But, unlike God, man’s fullness of being isn’t in “something one and simple,” but requires the composite of soul and body with all of their respective capabilities intact. So in this respect if man falls short in one of these capabilities he is imperfect and so is not exhibiting the complete fullness of his being of which he is capable. Therefore, he is evil in this way, or rather; he has evil or “non-goodness” in him. St. Thomas illustrates this in his example of the blind man: “a blind man possesses goodness inasmuch as he lives, but evil (or “non-goodness”)[7] inasmuch as he lacks sight.”

Finally, St. Thomas concludes:

We must therefore say that every action has goodness, in so far as it has being: whereas it is lacking in goodness, in so far as it is lacking in something that is due to its fullness of being; and thus it is said to be evil: for instance if it lacks the quantity determined by reason, or its due place, or something of the kind…[8]

Peter Kreeft comments here that “St. Thomas means by ‘being’ not [only] ‘existence’ (for evil acts exist) but also essence [as was mentioned before], including proper form and order to the end.”[9] Here again “evil” means some sort of deficiency or “non-goodness” but this now leads us to the more popular understanding of “evil” as a moral issue because these deficiencies make evil possible.[10] It is because of this connection that St. Thomas can conclude that some human acts are evil.

An example of “non-goodness” making “moral-evil” possible is illustrated in Article 8 of Question 5 in the first half of the second part of the Summa.[11] Here the question is “Whether every man desires happiness?” In his Response, St. Thomas states that “to desire happiness is nothing else than to desire that one’s will be satisfied. And this everyone desires”[12] But, some do not know the proper object of happiness which is the vision of the Divine Essence.[13] This deficiency in knowledge, this “non-goodness,” leads man to engage in destructive behaviors, morally evil actions, that he thinks will bring him happiness but will only offend him, others, and God. Therefore a second point revealed about St. Thomas’ understanding of the human person is that though man is essentially good, he is capable of committing absolutely morally-evil acts.

We can also draw out of the previous examination a basis for comparison to Plato. Where St. Thomas’ definition of man portrays him as fully being only when he is a composite of body and soul, Plato regards only the soul as the real being and the body as merely its “prison.” For St. Thomas the body and soul, together with all its faculties work together for the attainment of happiness, i.e. vision of the Divine Essence. Plato’s vision of the Divine Essence, the “Form of the Good,” is hindered and constricted by the body, and all his energies are spent trying to subdue and minimize the body’s influence and contribution (Phaedo 64e-65b).

This brings us to St. Thomas’ Replies in our focus Article. In his Reply to Objection 1, in which Dionysius says that evil “occurs only in virtue of what is good,” St. Thomas qualifies this by saying that “evil occurs in virtue of a deficient good.” Indeed he would agree that an absolute good could not produce evil. But this particular good (which still has goodness by virtue of being a good) is “deficient” thereby allowing the possibility for evil to be produced. In his Reply to Objection 2, in which it is asserted that evil actions do not exist because actions are perfectible and therefore good, St. Thomas counters that a certain aspect of an action can indeed be perfected while another aspect, the deficient one, can yield the evil. For example, a blind man has the “power of walking” like any other man but his deficiency in sight hinders his walking. Here we have evil as a “non-goodness” which, for further example, could lead to the moral-evil of despair or impatience. Finally in his Reply to Objection 3, which states that evil only happens accidentally rather than properly – so no action is evil – St. Thomas states that an evil action can have a proper effect according to the “goodness and being it has.” For example, adultery generates another human being by virtue of the “union of male and female” not the “lack in the order of reason” (a deficiency of reason) that made the adultery possible.

Now that we have examined the entirety of this Article in St. Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologiae, we can state clearly and separately two points that we have uncovered regarding his understanding of the human person: 1. That man is good because he exists and due to his essence and 2. It is possible that some of his acts are evil despite his essential goodness. One may be spurred by this examination to ask, “Why would man make evil actions?” In our brief treatment here we have said that this is due to man’s deficiencies of the soul and body that make evil possible. Armed now with this understanding of the human person and the cause and capability of evil in him, we can come to reconcile the real evil human action in this world with the dignity with which man was created.

[1] In this essay, I use the translation of Summa Theologiae in Treatise on Happiness, translated by John A. Oesterle, ©1983, University of Notre Dame Press edition, hereafter referred to as “TH.” I also refer to a different translation of Summa Theologiae used in Summa of the Summa, edited and annotated by Peter Kreeft, ©1990, Ignatius Press – that was done in 1920 by The Fathers of the English Dominican Province – hereafter referred to as “SS.” All quotes from Summa Theologiae are of the former translation unless indicated otherwise.
[2] 1-2.18.1 to be precise
[3] SS translation used here
[4] SS, p. 414, n. 120 says, “‘Evil’ is meant here not only in the narrow and specific sense of moral evil, but as the opposite of any good. St. Thomas does not believe that evil is a being, but that it is in beings. He does not belief that multiplicity and finitude are evil in themselves, as the Gnostics and Manichees taught, but that finitude and multiplicity make evil possible. A tree is not evil for not being God, but a tree, unlike God, can be diseased, and disease is evil for a tree.”
[5] TH, p. 161, n. 7 directed me toward these articles. They are, to be precise, 1.5.1 and 1.5.3
[6] The quotes in this paragraph up to this point, except for “good-ness” and “evil-ness” which are my own invention, are from the SS translation
[7] Cf. n. 4 above
[8] SS translation used here
[9] SS, p. 415, n. 121
[10] This is distinct from saying the deficiencies themselves are evil. Cf. n. 4 above.
[11] 1-2.5.8 to be precise
[12] SS translation used here
[13] Cf. 1-2.3.8

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