The Satiation Of The Spirit With Truth

January 22, 2010

Josef Pieper in 1981

The final consideration Josef Pieper brings to his discussion of St. Thomas on temperantia is a subtle distinction on the power of chastity.

We have spoken of the destructive power of unchastity and of the preserving, perfecting, fulfilling power of chastity. Something more must be added to this subject. Christians have always had a very dicey relationship with celebrating the sensual in life — particularly the appreciation of sensual beauty and the sexual. Christian doctrine does not exclude sensual enjoyment from the realm of the morally good (as against the merely “permissible”).

On the contrary, think of Jesus and the  account of a woman who performs an extravagant act on the beginning of the Passion narratives in Mark: “While he was at Bethany in the house of Simon the leper, as he sat at the table, a woman came with an alabaster jar of very costly ointment of nard, and she broke open the jar and poured the ointment on his head.” This gesture wasting something as expensive as an entire jar of perfume — is sniffed at by the bystanders, who complain that, at the very least, the nard could have been sold and the money given to the poor.

But Jesus is having none of it: “Let her alone; why do you trouble her? She has performed a good service for me.” Authentic religion, ultimate concern, can never be hemmed in by reason alone. Flowing from the deepest place in the heart, religion resists the strictures set for it by a fussily moralizing reason (on full display in those who complain about the woman’s extravagance). At the climax of his life, Jesus will give himself away totally, lavishly, unreasonably — and this is why the woman’s beautiful gesture is a sort of overture to the opera that will follow. And it is rooted in the sensual and the extravagance of man’s response to it. No Manichean response for Jesus.


Without chastity, not only is the satiation of the spirit with truth rendered impossible, but also actual sensual joy in what is sensually beautiful. That Christian doctrine does not exclude sensual enjoyment from the realm of the morally good (as against the merely “permissible”) does not need to be specifically stated. But that this enjoyment should be made possible only by the virtue of temperance and moderation — that, indeed, is a surprising thought.

Yet this is what we read in the Summa Theologica, in the first question of the tractate on temperance even if more between and behind the lines than in what is said directly. In the case of animals, it is said there, no pleasure is derived from the activity of the other senses, such as the eye and the ear, except as they affect the satisfaction of the drives of hunger and sex; only because of the promise of food is the lion “happy” when he spies a stag or hears his call. Man, by contrast, is able to enjoy what is seen or heard for the sensual “appropriateness” alone which appeals to the eye and the ear — by this, nothing else but sensual beauty is to be understood.

One frequently reads and hears that in intemperance man sinks to the level of the beast — a dictum to be used with caution, for intemperance (like temperance) is something exclusively human; neither angel nor animal can know it. But keeping this distinction in mind, the sentence becomes meaningful: unchaste lust has the tendency to relate the whole complex of the sensual world, and particularly of sensual beauty, to sexual pleasure exclusively. Therefore only a chaste sensuality can realize the specifically human faculty of perceiving sensual beauty, such as that of the human body, as beauty, and to enjoy it for its own sake, for its “sensual appropriateness,” undeterred and unsullied by the self-centered will to pleasure. It has been said that only the pure of heart can laugh freely and liberatingly. It is no less true that only those who look at the world with pure eyes can experience its beauty.

Unlike all other virtues, it has always been the strange fate of the virtue of temperance and moderation, especially in its aspect of chastity, not to be valued and practiced or scorned and ridiculed more or less at its face value, but to be overestimated and overvalued in a very specific sense. This is something altogether unique. There have, of course, always been theoretical discussions about the hierarchy of the virtues and one or the other has been shifted to a higher rank.

But the stubborn and really quite fanatical preference given to temperantia, especially to chastity, which runs through the whole history of Christian doctrine as a more or less hidden undercurrent or countercurrent, has a very special aspect. No one, at any rate, has attached to justice or prudence or to any of the three theological virtues such an emphatic and evidently not simply factual, but emotionally charged evaluation.

Of course, there would not be the slightest objection against such an evaluation per se — for strictly speaking, virtues as such cannot be overrated. But here we are speaking of an evaluation and over evaluation based on a false premise; of an evaluation, therefore, which implies a misunderstanding of what is supposedly valued so highly. And against this we must object strongly.

In the province of temperantia, as we have said before, it is man’s attitude toward creation which is decided, and most incisively. And the “wrong premise” upon which rest the over evaluation and erroneous value given to temperantia in general and chastity in particular amounts to this, namely, the explicit or implied opinion that the sensual reality of the whole of creation, and above all the non-spiritual element in man himself, is actually evil. To sum up: the “wrong premise” is an explicit, or, more often, an implicit, even unconscious and unintended, Manichaeism.

That man must eat, that he must sleep, that the origin of new human life is linked to the physical union of man and woman — all this, especially the last, appears, in this presumably ineradicable apprehension of the• world, as a necessary evil — perhaps not even a necessary one — something unworthy of God the Creator and of man as well. The specifically human task, or better still, the specifically Christian task, would consist in rising above this entire “lower” sphere and mounting by ascetic practice to a purely spiritual way of life.

Not only do fasting, vigils, and sexual continence take on a very special importance from this basic approach, but they move necessarily into the center of attention of the man striving for perfection. This evaluation, however, shares and indeed intensifies the errors of its origin; and despite all outward similarity, it has as little to do with the Christian evaluation of those three things as the heresies of the Manichees, the Montanists, and the Cathari have to do with the Catholic dogma that proclaims that created reality is good in all its spheres, and is not subject to the arbitrariness of human evaluation; indeed, it is the basis and the point of departure of all evaluation as well as of all realization of value.

That “wrong premise” with its effects on ethical doctrine is particularly evident in the Montanist writings of Tertullian, who, by reason of his ambiguous status as a quasi-Father of the Church (St. Thomas speaks of him only as a heretic: haeretints, Tertullianus nomine) has continued to this day as the ancestor and the chief witness of that erroneous evaluation of temperantia. One need only enumerate the subjects of his works: “On Modesty,” “On the Veiling of Virgins,” “On the Adornment of Women,” “On Fasting,” “Admonition to Chastity,” “Concerning Stage Plays,” or mention his rejection of second marriages after the death of wife or husband, in order to show that the realm of temperantia is very prominently under scrutiny.

For Tertullian, unchastity is to such a point the primal form of sin that according to him the sin of the angels was unchastity, and thus they fell from God; this is what he thought St. Paul had in mind when he said that women should veil themselves “because of the angels” (1 Corinthians 4, 10). To the same frame of reference belongs the cause of Tertullian’s separation from the Church only a few years after his baptism: he could neither comprehend nor condone the fact that Pope Callistus welcomed back into the ecclesiastical community those sinners against chastity who had done the required penance contritely.

Tertullian denounces the encyclical with which the Pope proclaims this measure as a blot upon the Church, fit to be read “in those dens of vice, beneath the signboards of the whorehouses rather than in the house of God. It is characteristic, also, that already with Tertullian the emphasis on external action appears which customarily and as if from inner necessity accompanies the erroneous evaluation of temperantia, and more especially of chastity: he calls for more obligatory fast days; for the veiling of women and girls; and he sees the hallmark of a Christian in his abstention from public entertainments.

Blindness only can deny that this Manichaean undervaluation of the sensual reality of creation (let us repeat: not as a formulated opinion, but as an inarticulate attitude) tinges and surreptitiously qualifies the current Christian notion of the virtue of temperance, and more especially of chastity. This becomes evident in innumerable small traits pertaining to the thinking and speaking habits of Christian folk, and also not infrequently in the accents and shadings of moral preaching

If, for example, one speaks with special emphasis of the defilement of unchastity, this implies a different and weightier blame than the defilement pertaining to any other sin. (Actually, the term “defilement” is almost never applied to other sins.) What is censured is not only the specific “vulgarity” inherent in any form of self-indulging pleasure; there is also almost always a persistently audible undertone suggesting the idea of contact with something in itself impure, with a reality defiling per se.

The current notion of the “Immaculate Conception” — current even among Christians — refers this immaculateness not so much to the person of the Virgin Mary as to the process of conception, of begetting (and often enough, as anyone can test, not to the conception of Mary, but to that of the Lord in the womb of His mother). Among people generally, this immaculateness is in any case not understood as it is understood by the Church and by theology, namely, as signifying that Mary was free from the stain of original sin from her mother’s womb.

The current popular notion, rather, is this: by a special grace of God, that conception remained free from the impurity and taint which naturally adheres to it, as to all begetting and conception. And even if this immaculateness is correctly referred to the person of the Virgin Mary herself, as in the appellation Mary “Immaculate,” we find on close listening that the concept has been totally deprived of its universal, inclusive significance, and has been limited to the province of chastity alone.

Something similar is true of the concept of purity, which, also viewed Biblically, is much broader in scope than chastity. For the average understanding it has become entirely natural to refer the beatitude “Blessed are the pure in heart” exclusively, or at any rate principally, to chastity, though neither the immediate Biblical meaning nor the interpretation of these words of the Lord in classical theology favors such restriction; Aquinas, for example, by no means assigns the beatitude of the pure in heart to the virtue of chastity, but to the supernatural virtue of faith.

Finally: Try to ascertain what the average Christian associates with the sentence: To the pure all things are pure. First, he will not readily imagine that this phrase is to be found in the New Testament (Titus 1,15) and that it only affirms what was said by Jesus Himself (Matthew 15, 10-20); On the contrary, the average Christian, such as we find him in every walk of life and on every educational level, would sooner have guessed at a non-Christian, liberal author. And it is scarcely ever thought of that aside from and indeed predating its misused liberal interpretation, this sentence has a sound and important Christian significance. Of course here again purity is confined to chastity, in evident contradiction to the sense of the context. And since the presumably Christian sense of the Biblical sentence is supposed to imply that even to the pure man not everything is pure, we find here again the effects of the notion of the essential impurity of the reality of being.

These misconceptions, which miss the actual Christian meaning of things — and examples of which could be multiplied — can only be partially attributed to ignorance. They propagate themselves, in the form of inarticulate opinions and attitudes, beneath and beyond and even in spite of formal instruction; as a rule, the average Christian we here have in mind will, after some concentration on the relevant article in his catechism, be able to give the “theoretically” correct answer. Decisive, however, are not so much the explicit words as the atmosphere in the province of moral education and teaching; and it must be admitted by even the most cautious judgment that this atmosphere is plainly not entirely free from the germs of Manichaeism.

And no cleansing can be effected by mere theoretical knowledge and cognition, or by instruction only. What is required is that the dogmatic truth of God the Creator and His works be wholly appropriated in humbly confident assent, and that this truth obtain the radiant and vivifying power which is the exclusive property of genuine vitality.

But the “world” exists not only as God’s creation. There is also the “world” which, as St. John the Apostle says, “lies in evil” and prevails in the “gratification of corrupt nature, gratification of the eyes, and the empty pomp of living” (1 John 22, 16); there is the kingdom of the “Prince of this world” (John 12, 31, Luke 4, 6); there is the world for which Christ the Lord did not want to pray (John 17, 9). There is not only the reality of creation, but also the perversion of the order of creation, which has taken on form in the activities of men and the objective “creations” which grow out of these. And this “world” also comes up for judgment in the sphere of temperantia, in a very specific sense. It is in that which aids and abets the self-indulging lust for pleasure that the inversion of the order of creation may most obtrusively be realized, filling the foreground of the “world” completely with its seductive call. (Though of course the core and substance of that world which lies in evil consists primarily in the realization of injustice and above all in the actual denial of faith, hope, and charity — a telling counterpart to the hierarchy of the virtues!)

From this point of view the evaluation and educational emphasis put on the virtue of temperance rightly achieves special significance. This sort of estimate of temperantia, however, has to be carefully distinguished from the previously mentioned “Manichaean” variety (not always an easy task, as the Manichaeans constantly adduce the valid arguments of the other side together with their own). Even the rigorist attitude of the Carthaginian Tertullian is partially conditioned by his constant experience of metropolitan life.

“It is bad to live in cities: there are too many lecherous people,” reads the beginning of the chapter on chastity in Nietzsche’s Zarathustra. What Nietzsche asserts with hard-hitting precision was also known to Thomas, who formulates it more dispassionately and abstractly “There is not much sinning because of natural desires….

But the stimuli of desire which man’s cunning has devised are something else, and for the sake of these one sins very much.” Intemperance is enkindled above all by the seductive glamour of the stimuli provided in an artificial civilization, with which the dishonorable team of blind lust and calculated greed surround the province of sexuality. All training and self-discipline aiming at chastity will find itself constantly faced with this situation. The resulting “overemphasis” on temperantia is in a certain sense fully justified (even though, on the other hand, the ethics of the so-called “fight against public immorality” seem to be a precarious and debatable business — and not only because of their ineffectiveness). Even St. Thomas assigns to temperantia primacy before fortitude and justice — though in a circumscribed, non-actual sense — since it must be most often proven in the world. We say in a circumscribed, non-actual sense, for the hierarchy which is actually and essentially valid is of a different kind.

But first a comment is necessary to avoid facile misunderstandings. In these considerations it is not a question of minimizing the gravity of the sins against chastity. No attempt at palliation can lessen the fearful weight of the willful turning of man from God. But we must never lose sight of the fact that the essential nature of sin lies exclusively in this willful turning away from God. On the other hand, the opinion (again founded on Tertullian) that unchastity is the gravest of all sins seems to base the gravity of this sin not so much on the turning away from God as on the turning of man to the goods of the sensual world; or, more directly and revealingly expressed: on defilement by a reality presumed to be impure and evil in its essence. St. Thomas, however, states that even a disordered turning of man to a transitory good, if it does not include a turning away from God, cannot be a mortal sin.

But even the Summa once quotes the sentence of St. Isidore of Seville according to which the human race succumbs to the devil more through unchastity than in any other way. In the moral teaching of the last hundred years this thought has played a dominant role, to an extent where it is over refined to a definiteness of statement exceeding all human competence. How could a mere human being be able to know that — as a widely read theological writer of our times asserts – “there are ninety-nine people our of a hundred who will be damned for this very sin!” For St. Thomas, by contrast, the proposition of St. Isidore merely proved that in the sin of unchastity the compelling force of sensual desire is most, effective; this very fact, however, mitigates the gravity of the sin, “because the sin is more venial the more overwhelming the sensual passion that drives one to it.”

But let us return to the consideration of the hierarchy of the virtues and the place of temperantia in that hierarchy. Over and over again Thomas has raised the question of the hierarchy of the virtues. His reply is as follows: “Man’s good is rational good. But this good is possessed in its essence by prudence, which is the perfection of reason. But justice is the agent which makes this good real. It is the portion of justice to establish in all human affairs the order of reason. But the other virtues maintain and protect this good, insofar as they order the passions, lest these turn man away from rational good. In the hierarchy of these virtues fortitude has the first place. It is followed by temperance. That which concerns being is higher than that which concerns operation; and this again is higher than that which concerns maintenance and protection, inasmuch as only that which hinders is removed. Consequently, among the cardinal virtues prudence is the noblest; justice is the second, fortitude the third, temperantia the fourth.” “Justice and fortitude are higher virtues than temperance; but they are all exceeded by prudence and the theological virtues.”

Temperantia in its strict and ultimate sense is not “realization” of the good. Discipline, moderation, chastity, do not in themselves constitute the perfection of man. By preserving and defending order in man himself, temperantia creates the indispensable prerequisite for both the realization of actual good and the actual movement of man toward his goal. Without it, the stream of the innermost human will-to-be would overflow destructively beyond all bounds, it would lose its direction and never reach the sea of perfection. Yet temperantia is not itself the stream. But it is the shore, the banks, from whose solidity the stream receives the gift of straight unhindered course, of force, descent, and velocity.

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