Archive for February, 2011


Free Will And Miracle – Dorothy Sayers

February 28, 2011

One of the most intelligent women who occupied our planet was Dorothy Sayers: English crime writer, poet, playwright, essayist, translator and Christian humanist. She was also a student of classical and modern languages. She is best known for her mysteries, a series of novels and short stories set between World War I and World War II that feature English aristocrat and amateur sleuth Lord Peter Wimsey. However, Sayers herself considered her translation of Dante’s Divina Commedia to be her best work. She is also known for her plays and essays. We have featured her Introductory Papers on Dante here. Here she looks at the creative act of writing and compares/contrasts it to the divine creation, with some obvious and not so obvious considerations.


God created man in his own image and likeness, i.e. made a creator too, calling him to free spontaneous activity, not to formal obedience to His power. Free creative-ness is the creature’s answer to the great call of its creator. Man’s creative work is the fulfillment of the Creator’s secret will.
BERDYAEV: The Destiny of Man

A character in a writer’s head, unwritten, remains a possession; his thoughts recur to it constantly, and while his imagination gradually enriches it he enjoys the singular pleasure of feeling that there, in his mind, someone is living a varied and tremulous life, obedient to his fancy and yet in a queer willful way independent of him.
W. SOMERSET MMAUGHAM: Preface to “Cakes and Ale”


IN CONSIDERING THE QUESTION how far the writer should permit his imagined characters to become the mouth, pieces of his personality, we touched the fringe of that permanently baffling problem, the free will of the creature. All characters, from the most important to the least, and from the best to the worst, must express some part of the maker’s mind if they are to be a living creation; but if all express that mind in an identical way, the work as a whole becomes dull, mechanical, and untrue. At this point we begin to see faintly the necessity for some kind of free will among the creatures of a perfect creation, but our metaphor now becomes very difficult to apply, since it appears obvious that the characters invented by a human writer are his helpless puppets, bound to obey his will at every point, whether for good or evil.

The analogy of procreation is more helpful to us here n that of artistic creation. While the parent is wholly responsible for calling the children into being, and can exercise a partial control over their minds and actions, he cannot but recognize the essential independence of the entity that he has procreated. The child’s will is perfectly free; if he obeys his father, he does so through love or fear or respect, but not as an automaton, and the good parent would not wish it otherwise. We may observe here one of those curious complexities of which human nature is full. There is in many parents a striving to control their children, and to make of them, if not precisely automata, yet beings as fully subordinate to the will of their procreator as the characters of a novelist are to their creator. On the other hand, there is in the human creator a parallel desire to create something that shall have as much free will as the offspring of procreation.

The stories which tell of attempts to manufacture robots and Frankenstein monsters bear witness to this strange desire. It is as though humanity were conscious of a hampering limitation of its functions; in man, the image of the divine strives, as it were, to resemble its original in both its creative and procreative functions: to be at once father and God. From experience I am inclined to think that one reason why writing for the stage is so much more interesting than writing for publication is the very fact that, when the play is acted, the free will of the actor is incorporated into the written character. The common man is aware of the conflicting desires within the playwright’s mind, and often asks questions about them. Sometimes he asks: “Isn’t it exciting to we your characters come alive upon the stage?” Sometimes he inquires sympathetically: “Isn’t it maddening to hear the actors ruining your best lines?” The playwright can only reply that (unless the production is quite unnaturally good or superlatively bad) both propositions at undoubtedly true.’

A good deal, of course, depends upon the temperament of the playwright. If he is of the egotistical kind, finding no satisfaction except in the autocratic enforcement of his sole will, he will find actors maddening almost beyond endurance. This is the type of person who, in the sphere of procreation, tends to become a Roman parent. But if he is the more liberal kind of creator, he will eagerly welcome — I will not say bad acting, which is altogether sinful and regrettable — but imaginative and free acting, and find an immensely increased satisfaction in the individual creativeness which the actor brings to his part.

And let it be said at once that if the part is well conceived and well written, good acting, however free and individual, can never harm it. The greater the part, the greater the variety of “good” interpretations: that is why (contrary to lay belief) it is much easier to play “Hamlet” in Hamlet than to play “Charles, his friend” in a third-rate sentimental comedy. To hear an intelligent and sympathetic actor infusing one’s own lines with this creative individuality is one of the most profound satisfactions that any imaginative writer can enjoy; more — there is an intimately moving delight in watching the ,actor’s mind at work to deal rightly with a difficult interpretation, for there is in all this a joy of communication and an exchange of power. Within the limits of this human experience, the playwright has achieved that complex end of man’s desire — the creation of a living thing with a mind and will of its own.

None of this delight will, however, be gained unless the playwright is devoured with a real love for material form — unless, in the writing of the play, his Energy has imaginatively moved upon the stage in the way I have tried to explain, and conceived its Idea in material terms of flesh and blood, and paint, and canvas. For the true freedom of the Energy consists in its willing submission to the limitations of its own medium. The attempt to achieve freedom from the medium ends inevitably in loss of freedom within the medium, since, here as everywhere, activity falls under the judgment of the law of its own nature. Take, for example, that kind of writing for the stage which is called — with damnatory intent — “literary” drama. The objection to it is not that it is (in the broad sense) “literature,” but that it is so written as to conform to an alien literary medium. The speeches are quite simply not constructed in such a way as to be readily spoken by an actor. This means that the writer’s Energy has arrogated to itself a freedom from natural law — it has refused to be bound by the trammels imposed by flesh and blood.

The immediate consequence of this freedom is an intolerable sense of restriction, and the verdict of the critic will be that “the language is labored.” The truth is that such speech is not “labored” enough — in the sense that it has not been given enough workmanship. Similar efforts towards an illegal freedom issue in unmanageable stage-directions, or a multiplicity of vast stage-sets, which no amount of engineering effort can hurry upon the stage swiftly enough to preserve the unities. The business of the creator is not to escape from his material medium or to bully it, but to serve it; but to serve it he must love it. If he does so, he will realize that its service is perfect freedom. This is true, not only of all literary art but of all creative art; I have chosen a theatrical example, merely because there, as also in the creation of characters, failure to surrender to the law of kind produces disasters more patent and immediate than elsewhere.

The judgment of the natural law is not without its bearing on the writer’s claim to autocratic control over the characters he invents. It is certainly true that these do not possess free will to the same extent that a child’s will is free from parental control. But all possess this measure of freedom, namely, that unless the author permits them to develop in conformity with their proper nature, they will cease to be true and living creatures.

Too much attention should not be paid to those writers who say (holding one the while with a fixed and hypnotic gaze): “I don’t really invent the plot, you know — I just let the characters come into my mind and let them take charge of it.” The theory that the mind can remain passive and empty, acting only as a kind of automatic “spirit-hand” for the characters, reminds one a little too much of the methods of “Savonarola Brown” and his gasping confidences: “Savonarola has come on — alive!” (Max Beerbohm: Seven Men.) Writers who work in this way do not, as a matter of brutal fact, usually produce very good books. The Lay public (most of them confirmed mystagogues) rather like to believe in this inspirational fancy; but as a rule the element of pure craftsmanship is more important than most of us are willing to admit.

Nevertheless, the free will of a genuinely created character has a certain reality, which the writer will defy at his peril. It does sometimes happen that the plot requires from its characters certain behavior, which, when it Ionics to the point, no ingenuity on the author’s part can force them into, except at the cost of destroying them. It may be that the Activity has chosen an unsuitable plot, or (this is perhaps more frequent) has imagined an unsuitable set of characters for working that particular plot out.

In such dilemmas, the simplest and worst thing the author can do is to behave like an autocratic deity and compel the characters to do his will whether or not. Theurgic exhibitions of this kind are frequent in the work of thriller-writers and in the more puerile type of film. A notorious instance is, of course, that openhearted and generous-minded young lover whom we so frequently see thrown into consternation by the discovery of his betrothed embracing a total stranger in the conservatory. If the lover were to behave in conformity with his character as laid down for him, he would trust the girl and await the very obvious and proper explanation, viz., that the stranger is her long-lost brother suddenly returned home. But since any such natural conduct would bring the story to a premature end, he is forced to deny his nature, believe the worst, and depart hot-foot for a distant country.

This hoary piece of untruth does little harm to the nonsensical fancies in which it is usually found embedded, since these are not, in any genuine sense, works of creative imagination. It is startling, however, to find a variation of it violently intruded into the last act of such an otherwise realistically conceived and honestly written play as Denys Amiel’s Famille.(First produced in Paris, 1937) Here its effect is disastrous, for the characters have a true nature to be destroyed; and the collapse of the power is in direct ratio to the previous strength of the characterization.

Similar, though rather more subtle, wrestings of natural truth abound in those romances where the heroine, after treating the hero for interminable chapters as though he were something the cat had brought in, is rescued by him under peculiarly humiliating circumstances and immediately falls into his arms in a passion of gratitude and affection. Knowledge of the very ephemeral nature of gratitude in proud and vain persons and of its irritating effect on the character, prompt the reader to wonder what the married life of the couple is likely to be, after thus starting from a false situation.

It is a falsity of this kind that makes both actors and audience uncomfortable about The Taming of the Shrew; whether it is played as burlesque or softened into sentimental comedy, we are still left protesting that ” ‘Tis a wonder, by your leave, she will be tamed so,” and nothing will persuade us that characters like those would really subdue themselves to a plot like that.

Yet another forcible deformation of natural character occurs when the author has allowed a character to develop along its natural lines without noticing that it has grown right away from the part it is called on to play in the plot. Mr. Micawber is a grand character, instinct with the breath of life; but inefficiency is of his very essence, and it is entirely inconceivable that he should ever have become an efficient detective for the investigation of Mr. Heep’s financial frauds. Somebody had to detect Heep, and Mr. Micawber was handy — may indeed have been designed from the outset — for the activity; but, superb fun though it all is, we cannot for one moment believe it.

The humanistic and sensitive author may prefer to take the course of sticking to his characters and altering the plot to suit their development. This will result in a less violent shock to the reader’s sense of reality, but also in an alarming incoherence of structure. Actions adumbrated at the beginning will fail to materialize; causes will be left without consequences, or with irrational consequences; the balance of the unity will be upset; and the book will trail away into disorder, or, in the critic’s picturesque phrase, “break its back.” At the worst, the theme (or bodily shape of the Idea) will disappear along with the plot. The reader will probably not be able to put his finger with any great certainty on the point at which the book goes wrong, but he will be left at the end with an instinctive awareness that there is a dislocation somewhere. So will the author. In extreme cases, the dislocation will be so shattering as to prevent the book from ever getting written. A most instructive account of how the unbridled development of free will in the characters wrecked the prospects of a work of imagination is given by J. D. Beresford in that extraordinarily fascinating book: Writing Aloud.

Here, with a candor and accuracy extremely rare in a writer, he traces the development of—or failure to develop—a theme which he tried for some years to embody in a novel, and which eventually defeated him because of the self-willed behavior of the characters. As the story shapes itself in his mind, the plot dislimns, reunites in new shapes; the center of interest shifts from one character to another, and we watch, with spell-bound apprehension (if we are framed to feel excitement about such matters) the foredoomed metamorphosis of the theme into something like its own direct opposite. It is as though we watched an army outflanked and pivoting to face an attack that moves gradually round to attack it from the rear. Beresford himself believes that the discrepancies in the story:

illustrate Mr. Forster’s remarks on the relation of character to plot; inasmuch as they show very plainly that when plot precedes character and must be adhered to whatever happens, character inevitably suffers.

His book itself, however, shows still more plainly that the trouble is not so simple as all that. What preceded plot and everything else was the fancy for presenting the character of a particular heroine.

“I should like her to be young next time; very young; and pre-war…. A pre-war heroine living in the present day. … She represents the “average woman” that is eternal throughout the ages. She shall be neither tall nor short, neither very dark nor very fair, neither alluringly beautiful nor noticeably plain, neither too clever nor a fool, neither hopelessly womanly (the “perfect wife and mother” sort  of thing) nor the kind we have read about so much lately (1927] who devotes herself to some art or profession, and babbles about woman’s freedom. She shall play games in moderation without making a fetish of them. She is original by not striving after originality, and with any luck I may achieve the same ideal, myself. If one could but make a convincing picture of the ordinary human girl, how she would show up against the young woman we get so much of now, in life and fiction.”

With that character he begins — not, we may note, with a character in a situation, but a character looking for a situation to exploit. The story is then gradually built up — background, plot, parentage and so forth — deliberately in order to account for and exploit the character of this girl (nicknamed, “J-J”). Other characters — arising this time out of the plot — supervene, and in turn arrogate to themselves the greater part of the writer’s creative interest. Being plot-founded (conceived, that is, as characters in a situation) they are enormously more powerful than the detached character of J-J; already the attackers have captured the “strong points.” Thus firmly based and equipped, they grow and cover the ground with the speed and ubiquity of pumpkins, and subdue the situation to their own will; they take command of the plot. After a hundred pages or so of this development the author stands aghast:

“In this book, struggle as I will, I do not seem to be able to stick to my first intention of telling the story of J-J. She, poor lamb, has so far served me only as a vaulting-horse, she who was to have been my ideal heroine, my interpreter. Instead of presenting a model for the girl of 1930 or so, she has become a horrible instance of Victorian repressions, a subject for vivisection, a manikin for the display of other people’s habits, anything in short but an interesting human being.”

For this disaster he can find no remedy. Either he must scrap the whole thing, or else “keep the other characters and the skeleton of the plot, but bravely sacrifice all the development I have so far worked out, get a truer understanding of my heroine and let her personality guide the evolution of the story. That would mean cutting out all the things that really interested myself.” What did in fact interest him was “the other characters”; there is actually no plot except what those characters have themselves imposed on the story. The impasse was complete, and the story was eventually scrapped, except in so far as it provides the subject for this revealing work of analysis.

Anybody who reads Writing Aloud will find entertainment in discovering how it was that the “other characters,” rather than J-J, contrived in this manner to run away with the plot. The thing that emerges very clearly is a disruption within the writer’s trinity: his Energy was not subdued to the Idea—or else merely revealed in its working the absence of any really powerful idea to control it—and the consequence is a judgment of chaos.

We will now look at another instructive example of “back-breaking” which Chesterton has observed in Our Mutual Friend:

If the real degradation of Wegg is not very convincing, it is at least immeasurably more convincing than the pretended degradation of Boffin. The passage in which Boffin ”appears as a sort of miser, and then afterwards explains that he only assumed the character for reasons of his own, has something about it highly jerky and unsatisfactory. The truth of the whole matter, I think, almost certainly, is that Dickens did not originally mean Boffin’s lapse to be fictitious. He originally meant Boffin really to be corrupted by wealth, slowly to degenerate and as slowly to repent. But the story went too quickly for this long, double, and difficult process; therefore Dickens at the last moment made a sudden recovery possible by representing that the whole business had been a trick. Consequently, this episode is not an error merely in the sense that we may find many errors Ina great writer like Dickens; it is a mistake patched up with another mistake. It is a case of that ossification which ours round the healing of an actual fracture; the story had broken down and been mended.
G. K. Chesterton: Criticisms and Appreciations of the Works of Charles Dickens.

What happened (if Chesterton is right, as I think he is) was that Dickens “fell in love” with Boffin, with the result that the character “got out of hand” or, in other words, asserted the freedom of its nature. This kind of thing does happen to characters from time to time — never, of course, to the puppet-character, but only to those that have received a full measure of the author’s life — and their escape from control is the measure of their free will. What is particularly interesting here is the method adopted by Dickens to bring plot and character back into co-operation. He took what should have been the right way out of the difficulty, but so clumsily that the result was unconvincing and false.

The character of Boffin had asserted itself to a point at which it literally could not be made to conform with the plot. I doubt whether the speed at which the story was moving accounts sufficiently for the impossibility; what really stood in the way was the intrinsic sweetness and modesty of Mr. Boffin himself. A means had therefore to be found by which the character, developing in conformity with its own nature, could yet bring the plot to the same issue which it would have reached had the character developed according to plan.

The process which I shall now try to explain is something for which the reader must take my word. I cannot easily point to any successful examples in literature, because it is the whole essence of such a process that, if it is successful, nothing in the finished work will betray it. I can only state, as matter of experience, that if the characters and the situation are rightly conceived together, as integral parts of the same unity, then there will be no need to force them to the right solution of that situation. If each is allowed to develop in conformity with its proper nature, all will arrive of their own accord at a point of unity, which will be the same unity that preexisted in the original idea. In language to which we are accustomed in other connections, neither predestination nor free will is everything, but, if the will acts freely in accordance with its true nature, it achieves by grace and not by judgment the eternal will of its maker, though possibly by a process unlike, and longer than, that which might have been imposed upon it by force.

As I have said, it is hard to illustrate this from other men’s work, since, when it has triumphantly happened, the process leaves no trace, and the majority of writers have not left analytical records of their creative activities. I tried once  to analyze a very unimportant experience of my own in this connection — unimportant, that is, (because the work itself was of no great importance except to myself. Here, I will only bring forward an instance, also personally experienced but still more trivial, of this odd coming-together of plot and character. This instance is, in a way, more interesting than the other, because the process occurred without my being at all aware of it, so that I was astonished when I saw the result.

In Gaudy Night, the heroine was left in one of those “gratitude-situations” which (as I have already complained) are so destructive to character and leave the normal person so little disposed to fall into the arms of the benefactor. She had, however, been brought into a fair way of conquering her pride (assisted by a similar approach from the gentleman’s side) and had screwed herself to the point of making a generous gesture and accepting a present from him. The present selected was a set of carved ivory chessmen. In all this, the characters were working out their own development without reference to anything beyond their own spiritual difficulties.

In the meantime, the detective-plot situation was concerned with a woman in whom the emotions had gained control over the reason, and who was carrying on a revenge-campaign of petty destructiveness against certain women who (she felt) were sacrificing the emotional to the rational. Her anger had directed itself against my heroine, with the result that she (and I) were left looking for something belonging to the heroine that she might conveniently destroy. It then occurred to a u-that the chessmen were the obvious victims; their destruction duly took place, and revealed to the heroine that some of her value for them was connected, not with the gift but with the giver.

A reader afterwards said to me: “I realized, the moment they were mentioned, that those chessmen were doomed.” Nothing, when one comes to think of it, could be more obvious from the point of view of plot-structure. I can only affirm (without much hope of being believed) that it was by no means obvious to me. The chessmen were, at first, connected with the character-development, and with that only. But when the plot demanded their destruction, there they were ready. Though I did at that moment realize that this incident clamped the two parts of the story together in a satisfactory and useful manner, it was not until my reader pointed it out to me that I understood the incident to have been, in actual fact, predestined—that is, that plot and character, each running true to its nature, had inevitably united to bring the thing about.

I could add a further example of the same kind of thing. In Murder Must Advertise I undertook (not very successfully) to present a contrast of two “cardboard” worlds, equally fictitious — the world of advertising and tie world of the post-war `Bright Young People.” (It was not very successful, because I knew and cared much more about advertising than about Bright Youth, but that is by the way.) I mentioned this intention to a reader, who instantly replied: “Yes; and Peter Wimsey, who represents reality, never appears in either world except in disguise.” It was perfectly true; and I had never noticed it. With all its defects of realism, there had been some measure of integral truth about the book’s Idea, since it issued, without my conscious connivance, in a true symbolism.

Other writers will probably be able to supply evidence of their own in support of this curious collaboration of free will and predestination wherever plot and character are allowed to develop in obedience to their law of nature. And these considerations bring us face to face with the whole question of miracle.

Whatever we may think of the possibilities of direct divine intervention in the affairs of the universe, it is quite evident that the writer can — and often does — intervene at any moment in the development of his own story; he is absolute master, able to perform any miracle he likes. I do not mean that he can invent undiscovered planets or people the world with monsters unknown to natural history — that kind of thing is a tale about marvels, not a tale abruptly modified by marvels. I mean simply that he can twist either character or plot from the course of its nature by an exertion of arbitrary power. He can slay inconvenient characters, effect abrupt conversions, or bring about accidents or convulsions of nature to rescue the characters from the consequences of their own conduct. He can, in fact, behave exactly as, in our more egotistical and unenlightened petitions, we try to persuade God to behave. Whether we mock at miracles or demand miracles, this is the kind of miracle we usually mean. We mean that the judgment of natural law is to be abrogated by some power extraneous to the persons and circumstances.

If we by analogy call God “the Creator” we are thereby admitting that it is possible for Him to work miracles; but if we examine more closely the implications of our analogy, we may be driven to ask ourselves how far it is really desirable that He should do anything of the kind. For the example of the writers who indulge in miracle is not altogether encouraging. “Poetic justice” (the name often given to artistic miracle-mongering) may be comforting, but we regretfully recognize that it is very bad art. “Poetic justice” is indeed the wrong name to give it, since it is neither poetry nor justice; there is a true poetic justice, which we know better by the name of “tragic irony,” which is of the nature of judgment and is the most tremendous power in literature as is in life — but in that there is no element of miracle. What we commonly mean by “poetic justice” is a system of rewards and punishments bestowed, like their nursery exemplars, “because you have been good” and because you have been naughty” — or sometimes simply with the object of keeping the children quiet.

Mr. Wilkins Micawber — who is continually the subject of such theurgic displays — is favored by a miracle at the end of David Copperfield. He is a “good” character – that is to say, a character sympathetic to his author – and it is desired to reward him with a “happy ending.” He is therefore packed off to Australia, where, in defiance of his own nature and in defiance of the nature of Australian civic life in the last century, he becomes a prosperous magistrate. However consoling this solution of the Micawber problem, a little thought convinces us that any person less suitable to prosper in these conditions Mr. Micawber can scarcely be imagined. It is just as the sudden appearance of a couple of aged and worthy parents to straighten out lovers’ difficulties in the last act of Molie’re’s L’Ecole des Femmes is miracle. The author, finding that plot and character will not work within their own limitations to produce a tidy result, has cut the Gordian entanglement with the magic sword of Paracelsus. The result is not only to shock us with a sense of incongruity, but also to detract something from the power of Micawber himself. He is so much the less a man for being the minion of so arbitrary a favoritism.

Wilkie Collins, a much lesser writer than Dickens, dealing with a similar problem, shows himself a much more conscientious artist. At the end of No Name he has to dispose of the unscrupulous but strongly sympathetic out-at-elbows scamp, Captain Wragge. He might have worked a moral miracle, by making the Captain repent and live happily in honest poverty; or a physical miracle, by unexpectedly endowing him with a colossal fortune which should remove the need for further rogueries. Either of these methods would destroy the Captain as we know him. Collins does artistically better, by providing him with a way to prosperity fully in accordance with his character:

“What have I been about? Why do I look so remarkably well off? … My dear girl, I have been occupied, since we last saw each other, in slightly modifying my old professional habits…. Formerly I preyed on the public sympathy; now, I prey on the public stomach…. Here I any incredible as it may appear — a man with an income, at last, The founders of my fortune are three in number. Their names are Aloes, Scammony and Gamboge. In plainer words, I am now living — on a Pill. I made a little money (if you remember) by my friendly connection with you. I made a little more, by the happy decease (Requiescat in Pace!) of that female relative of Mrs. Wragge’s, from whom, as I told you, my wife had expectations. Very good, What do you think I did? I invested the whole of my capital, at one fell swoop, in advertisements — and purchased my drugs and my pill-boxes on credit. The result is now before you.”

Here is a happy peripety which we can readily accept. We can believe in the profits of roguery; we can believe in the little legacy (since we were previously told that he married his half-witted wife to obtain it); and we can believe in these acquisitions all the better because, undoubtedly, this is the very way in which Captain Wragge would use them if he got them. It is a happy ending for a sympathetic rascal, which satisfies us because it is no miracle but a judgment of natural law.

But it is not edifying? Well, no, it is not. The making of miracles to edification was as ardently admired by pious Victorians as it was sternly discouraged by Jesus of Nazareth. Not that the Victorians are unique in this respect. Modern writers also indulge in edifying miracles though they generally prefer to use them to procure unhappy endings, by which piece of thaumaturgy they win the title of realists. Thus, in Cronin’s The Citadel it is necessary to edification that his doctor-hero shall be stripped of every personal satisfaction — wealth, reputation, and domestic happiness — in order that he may voluntarily embrace the good he once refused, namely, medical research for unselfish ends. This is right enough, from the point of view of religion and psychology. Of wealth and reputation he is deprived, very properly, by a judgment of natural law, executing itself upon his own professional conduct.

But when it comes to his domestic happiness the author grows impatient. He has already prepared estrangement between husband and wife through the doctor’s behavior; but for no very adequate reason, he suddenly abandons this line of development, and by an arbitrary act, hastily gets rid of the wife by pushing her under a bus. One cannot defend this intervention by saying that virtuous people in real life are frequently killed by road-vehicles. The episode is wholly extraneous to the structural unity of the story; it is an irrelevant miracle. The effect is to falsify the story. The divine hand is thrust into the mechanism obviously and without necessity: nec deus intersit nisi dignus vindice nodus.(“Nor let God intervene unless the difficulty be worthy of his attention”)

The agents of the miraculous which the novelist has at his command are, roughly speaking, conversion and coincidence; either a character or a situation is abruptly changed, not by anything developing out of the essentials of the story, but by the personal divine intervention of the creator. Yet it will not altogether do to say that neither conversion nor coincidence is ever permissible in a story. Both may legitimately be introduced on one condition, that is, that they are an integral part of the Idea. If it is a story about a coincidence or about a conversion, then the Energy that introduces them will be performing the will of the Idea, and the Power will proceed from that unity of purpose. This amounts to saying that, under these circumstances, the will of the creator becomes a character in the story; just as, theologically, all miracles depend on the assumption that God is a character in history. But even so, it is necessary that God should act in conformity with His own character.

The study of our analogy will lead us perhaps to believe that God will be chary of indulging in irrelevant miracle, and will use it only when it is an integral part of the story. He will not, any more than a good writer, convert His characters without preparing the way for their conversion, and His interferences with space-time will be conditioned by some kind of relationship of power between will and matter. Faith is the condition for the removal of mountains; Lear is converted but not Iago.

Consequences cannot be separated from their causes without a loss of power; and we may ask ourselves how much power would be left in the story of the crucifixion, as a story, if Christ had come down from the cross. That would have been an irrelevant miracle, whereas the story of the resurrection is relevant, leaving the consequences of action and character still in logical connection with their causes. It is, in fact, an outstanding example of the development we have already considered — the leading of the story back, by the new and more powerful way of grace, to the issue demanded by the way of judgment, so that the law of nature is not destroyed but fulfilled.


The Cause of Being by Etienne Gilson

February 25, 2011

Pablo Picasso, The Poet, Céret, August 1911

Ex ipso et per ipsum et in ipso sunt omnia (Romans 11:36). ["For from him and through him and in him are all things."]

Many Thomists find great consolation in the thought that St. Thomas himself was an Aristotelian philosopher, or, if you prefer, that he was an Aristotelian insofar as he was a philosopher. It would be wrong to contradict them, for it seems as hard to refute this assertion as it is to prove it. The concept “Aristotelian” is too imprecise for two dialecticians to be able to contradict each other about it. The same remark applies to the concepts “Cartesian,” “Kantian” or “Hegelian.”

There would be no reason to bring up this question if in fact it did not depend on another whose solution seems to be taken for granted. Why hesitate to answer “no” to the question: Was St. Thomas an Aristotelian? My point is, why do those who refuse to answer “yes” often hesitate at the moment of answering “no”? It is because the writings of St. Thomas clearly draw upon the thought of Aristotle, his philosophical technique, method, philosophy of nature, ethics, and metaphysics. So it is said that if St. Thomas had wanted to have a philosophy as independent of all religious revelation as those of the ancient philosophers, he would have chosen that of Aristotle. And there is no objection to this, except that, if St.Thomas had done this, there would only have been one more Aristotelian. We would not have a Thomist philosophy.

It is fortunate for us that St. Thomas did something completely different. There is nothing that we know of his life, his studies, and his writings that would lead us to think that he was ever thought to be a philosopher or that he aspired to have a personal philosophy. For a theologian who has climbed to the summit, that would have been to want to descend and to set his heart on something lower. It is only since the sixteenth century that the specific development of philosophical studies needed by future theologians led to the division of religious studies into two parts: scholastic philosophy and scholastic theology. From this time on, whatever philosophy was included in scholastic theologies, or explicitly elaborated in view of these theologies and for their use, was set up as a distinct body of doctrine.

This is what the thirteenth-century Averroists and their followers had already done, but they intended not only to distinguish between the two disciplines but to separate them. Scholastics from the sixteenth century to the present have cherished a sort of dream: to construct as a preamble to theology a philosophy that would owe nothing to it except a kind of external control, and that nevertheless would be in perfect harmony with it. Modern scholastics, being Thomists almost by definition (although there are numerous exceptions), naturally want this philosophy to be St. Thomas’ — which presupposes that St. Thomas had a philosophy. So they attribute Aristotle’s to him, touched up, however, as we are assured the Philosopher himself would have been able to do in order to make it agree with Christian theology.

There can be different opinions whether it is advisable to adopt this attitude. What is very difficult to accept is the transference of this way of thinking to the past and the pretension that it was already that of St. Thomas. It is of less importance, however, whether or not we attribute to him a philosophy properly so-called, provided at least that the one ascribed to him agrees with the philosophical theses he himself explicitly taught in his theological writings, chiefly in the two Summas and the Disputed Questions. It is beyond dispute that the influence of Aristotle’s Philosophy on the theology of St. Thomas far outweighs that of other philosophers. It is preponderant in the sense that, having to summon philosophy for the service of theology, St. Thomas chiefly used Aristotle’s; but what he made Aristotle say is always what he ought to say in order to serve the purposes of the theologian. And he is not the only one to serve them.

The theology of St. Thomas is changed if one imagines that it could have been linked to any philosophical doctrine whatsoever, even if it were the one the theologian judged by far to be the best of all. When St. Thomas reflects on what human reason can know about God by its own powers, without the help of the Judeo-Christian revelation, he raises the problem, not from the point of view of Aristotle alone, but in connection with the whole history of Greek philosophy, for in his eyes this comprised the entire history of philosophy, the period that followed having been little more than that of the commentators and saints.

St. Thomas has sketched a general picture of this history several times. As he knew and interpreted it, it appeared to be governed by a general rule: God can be discovered only as the cause of beings given in sensible experience, and the idea that reason forms of him is more elevated to the extent that it has a deeper knowledge of the nature of his effects. In other words, we cannot discover a God more perfect than the one we are looking for. In order to find the most perfect God that it is capable of conceiving by its unaided powers, natural reason must investigate the cause of what is most perfect in sensible beings such as it knows them.

Under the theologian’s scrutiny, this history appears as a progression that is not continuous but without retrogressions, and marked out by a small number of definite stages. The progress in deepening insight into the nature of beings which goes along with that of our knowledge of God follows a definite order, which is that of human knowledge: secunduin ordinein cognitionis humanae processerunt antiqui in consideratione naturae rerum (The ancients progressed in the study of the nature of things following the order of human knowledge: Quaestiones disputatae potentia 3.5). Now our knowledge begins with sensible things, and from them it progressively rises to the intelligible by a series of ever-deepening abstractions.

The first stage corresponds to the sensible perception of the qualities of bodies. So it was natural for the first philosophers to be materialists, for the simple reason that at the start they mistook reality for what they could perceive of it with the senses. Modern materialists (“I only believe in what I can see or touch”) are simply philosophers who have not gone beyond the first stage of the philosophical history of the human mind. For them, substance is matter. They do not even conceive it as endowed with a substantial form, for substantial forms are not perceptible to the senses. On the contrary, the qualities of bodies, which are accidental forms, can be perceived by the five senses.

According to the first philosophers, then, reality consisted of matter, which is substance, and accidents, which are caused by the constitutive principles of material substance or elements. They needed nothing else in order to explain the appearances of the sensible world. Let us clearly understand this position as St. Thomas himself did. If we posit matter as a substance whose elements suffice to account for all the sensible qualities of bodies, the latter are nothing else than the appearance of these qualities. Accordingly they do not have to be produced; they are present simply because material substance, of which they are accidental forms, is present Hence the important conclusion that, for those who espouse a philosophy of this sort, matter is the ultimate cause of all appearances. So there is no need to posit a cause of matter, or, more exactly, these philosophers are compelled to say that matter has no cause, and this, for St. Thomas, amounts to a complete denial of efficient causality: unde ponere cogebantur materiae causam non esse, et negare totaliter causam efficientem.

This last remark is of great significance. To say that matter has no cause is “a complete denial of efficient causality.” It seems that here, as so often happens with St. Thomas, he puts a bit of dynamite in our hands, while leaving to our discretion how we are to use it. At the same time we see why, for as soon as we continue our reflection, we find ourselves caught up in a series of far-reaching consequences. Keeping as close as possible to the text of De potentia 3.5, on which we are reflecting, the meaning of the position he is discussing is simple. The only substance is matter, which is the cause of all its accidents, and there is no other cause. Nothing could be clearer. But from this how does it follow that the position amounts to “a complete denial of efficient causality”?

It seems that we have to reconstruct the reasoning of which this is but an abbreviated form — a delicate operation for which the interpreter alone must bear the responsibility. It must be done, however, if we want to understand it. We propose the following: The only actual being accidents have is that of their substance. Hence the production of accidents by substance is not a production of being (otherwise the being of the substance would produce itself). On the other hand, in a materialist philosophy, material substance has no efficient cause because it is the primary being.

Thus, neither substance nor accidents have an efficient cause, from which it follows that there is no efficient cause at all. If this is indeed the meaning of the reasoning, its conclusion is that efficient causality cannot be found in a universe in which the only substance is an uncreated matter. But it does not follow from this that there cannot be an efficient cause in an uncreated universe. There can be one, provided that substance is not reduced to matter. Nevertheless, even then there remains something in such a universe that will always escape causal knowledge, namely matter itself, whose existence has no explanation, though it itself explains everything else. We could not wish for a stronger affirmation of the primacy of efficient causality in the order of being.

The second stage was reached by later philosophers who began to some extent to take substantial forms into consideration. Since these forms are invisible, by so doing they rose from sensible knowledge to intellectual knowledge. This was a definite progress, for by moving from the sensible to the intellectual order they reached the universal. Nevertheless, this second family of philosophers did not inquire if there were universal forms and universal causes; they centered all their attention on forms of certain species. Now it was a question of truly agent causes (aliquas causas agentes), but causes that did not give being to things, in the sense in which this word applies universally to everything that is. The substantial forms in question only changed matter by impressing on it now one form, now another. This was how Anaxagoras explained the diversity of certain substantial forms by appealing to the Intelligence, or how Empedocles explained them by Love and Hate. There still remained something unaccounted for in these doctrines, for agent causes of this sort explained well enough how matter passed from one form to another, but “even according to these philosophers, all beings did not come from an efficient cause. Matter was presupposed to the action of the agent cause.” The primacy of the efficient cause stands out ever more clearly, as is fitting in an article treating of the question whether there can exist something that has not been created by God.

But, as a matter of fact, we have the impression that, for St. Thomas, the creative act is as it were the archetype and perfect model of efficient causality. We do not wish to make his language stricter than he himself does, but perhaps it is not out of place to point out that here St. Thomas prefers to reserve the term causa agens to the formal cause, whose effect is to produce being of such and such a nature in a given matter, and the term causa efficiens to that whose efficacy would extend to matter itself: et idea etiam secunduin ipsos non omnia entia a causa efficiente procedebant, sed inateria actioni causae agentis praesupponebatur (and therefore, even in their view, all beings did not come forth from an efficient cause, but matter was presupposed to the action of an agent cause: Quaestiones disputatae potentia 3.5).

The final stage was reached by another group of philosophers, such as Plato, Aristotle, and their schools. Having succeeded in taking into account being itself in all its universality, they alone posited a universal cause of things on which everything else depended for its being. St. Thomas, whom we are trying to follow literally in all this, directs us here to St. Augustine’s De civitate Dei 8.4 [[De civitate Dei 8.4, ed. Bernard Dombart and Alphonse Kalb CCL 47: 219-221.]]; but what is important is that our theologian would place in one and the same group philosophers like Plato and Aristotle, even though the latter often contradicted the former.

The remark also applies to those who afterward formed their schools (Plato, Aristoteles et eorum sequaces), for among the followers of Aristotle whom he must have had in mind are Avicenna and Averroes, whose numerous disagreements are well known. But this is of little importance here, for the point at issue is whether there can exist something that is not created by God. So all the philosophers who posited some sort of universal cause of things (aliquam universalem causam rerum) are unanimous in supporting the theological conclusion that there is no being that is not created by God. This is the teaching of the Catholic faith itself, but it can be proved by three arguments. Here we have a striking example of the transcendence of theological wisdom and a priceless lesson for those who want to understand the very liberal and complex attitude of St. Thomas with regard to philosophies, including Aristotle’s as well as Plato’s.

The first philosophical reason for affirming a cause of universal being that St. Thomas appeals to here is based on the principle that, when one thing is found in common in several beings, a single cause must be responsible for its presence in them. Indeed, the presence in common of the same thing in several different beings can be explained neither by their differences nor by a number of different causes. Now, being (esse) belongs in common to all things, for they are alike in that they are, though they differ from each other in what they are. So it necessarily follows that they do not possess their being from themselves but from one single cause. Note the invaluable precision St. Thomas brings to his own thought: “This seems to be Plato’s argument, who required that a unity precede every plurality, not only in numbers but even in the nature of things” (Quaestiones disputatae potentia 3.5).

The second argument is taken from the degrees of being and perfection. The first simply affirmed the one as the cause of the many; this argument affirms the absolute, or the supreme degree in every genus, as the cause of everything that differs more or less within the same genus. It is the degree of participation in a genus that demands the affirmation in the genus of a supreme term, the single cause of its unequal participations. We immediately recall the quarta via of the Summa theologiae (1.2.3), but with a remarkable modification. In the Summa the fourth way leads directly to the existence of God, for if there are beings that are more or less beings, there must be a supreme being that is the cause of the being and all the perfections of all other beings.

In the article of the De potentia (3.5) that we are following here, the final conclusion is different: “But it is necessary to posit a single being that is the most perfect and most true being. This is proved by the fact that there is an entirely immobile and most perfect mover, as the philosophers have proved. Hence everything less perfect than it possesses its being from it.” Here the prima via comes to reinforce the quarta via of the Summa and brings it to its conclusion.

We should pay close attention to the limits of the services St Thomas expects here from the philosophers. It is enough for his purpose that both Plato and Aristotle rose to the consideration of universal being and that they assigned a single cause to it. More exactly, it is enough for St. Thomas that these philosophers had the wisdom to assign a single cause to one of the transcendental properties of being as being, whether it was unity for Plato or goodness and perfection for Aristotle. These properties are universal attributes of being, and St. Thomas honors these philosophers for having concluded that they must necessarily have a single cause, but he does not ascribe to either of them a metaphysics of creation. Plato and Aristotle explain everything about being except its very existence.

The third argument leads us as close to existence as the philosophers have ever approached it. It is the following: What exists by another is reduced to what exists by itself as to its cause. Now the beings given in experience are not purely and simply being. We cannot simply say of any one of them: it is. We must always say: it is this or that. We shall have to return to this important fact. For the present it will suffice to recall that there does not exist any simple being (that is, simply and solely being) that is given in experience.

What is only a certain way of being, or a being of a certain species, is clearly only a certain way of participating being, and the limits of its participation are determined by the definition of its species. If there are beings by way of participation, there must first be a being in itself: est ponere aliquod ens quod est ipsuin suum esse, that is, a first being which is the pure act of being and nothing else. Hence it is necessary, St. Thomas concludes, “that it is through this single being that all other things exist which are not their being but have being by way of participation.” He then adds, “This is the argument of Avicenna.” [Avicenna, Liber de philosophia prima sine scientia divina 8.7 and 9.4, ed. S. Van Riet, 2 vols. (Louvain: Peeters; Leiden: Brill, 1977-1980), 2: 423-433, 476-488.]

There are few articles of St. Thomas that enable us to see more clearly how he understood the work of the theologian. He himself does not need a proof in order to know that everything that exists has been created by God. Faith suffices for him to be sure of it. The sed contra of his article, which he takes from the Epistle to the Romans 11:36, is a reminder of this: “Everything is from him through him and in him.” But theology, as he understands it, seeks to join to the certitude of faith rational certitudes whose purpose is to prepare the mind to receive it, or, if it has already received it, to give the mind some understanding of it In any case, it is not a question of pretending that the philosophers have reached precisely the object to which faith gives its assent But the conclusions of reason and the certitudes of faith are in agreement and harmony, to such a degree that the development of problems in the course of history shows us that progress in philosophy’s way of raising and resolving them gradually approaches the meaning of the truths of faith. In the end, if it does not reach these truths, it has a presentiment of them.

At the same time this shows us how difficult it is to tie the thought of St. Thomas to one single philosophy. Plato, Aristotle, Avicenna are three different philosophers, and without wishing to deny that their philosophies are connected, they are certainly not the same. It is impossible to hold the three philosophies at the same time, as if a metaphysics of the One could at the same time be a metaphysics of Substance and a metaphysics of Necessary Being. There could not be three equally primary principles. Nevertheless, we have just seen St. Thomas call to witness these three metaphysics to show how “it is proved by reason and held on faith that everything is created by God.” How are we to understand this way of philosophizing?

To those who accuse it of philosophical incoherence, some reply that Thomism is an eclecticism, but this acknowledges the incoherence with which its opponents reproach it. Like every being, a philosophy must be one in order to be. A philosophy is not one if it is made up of pieces borrowed from different philosophies and more or less skillfully sewn together. Each of these pieces takes its meaning from the whole philosophy from which it is extracted; so it could not unite with other pieces taken from philosophies with different meanings. The unity of a doctrine is not necessarily inflexible; it can take its riches wherever it finds them, provided they are truly its riches. The unity of a philosophy, and consequently its existence, is recognized by the presence of a kind of intelligible thread, a golden thread, that runs through it in all directions and from within binds together all its parts. Philosophers worthy of the name are not rhapsodists, sewers, bone-setters.

In reply, it can be said that the doctrine of St. Thomas is not a philosophical but a theological eclecticism. The expression would be more satisfactory if it were not contradictory. A doctrine whose elements are the result of a theological choice is necessarily a theology. Wherever it is present and active, theology rules. Besides, if the theologian who made the choice were content to sew together again the pieces such as they are, from which he claims to fashion a philosophy, it would suffer from the lack of unity and being endemic to all eclecticisms and, to make matters worse, the principle governing the choice of pieces would no longer be philosophical and strictly rational.

The attitude of the theologian is profoundly different. He does not resort to the light of faith in order to create a philosophy that would have unity, but rather, in order to proceed to a critique of the philosophies he will use to create a body of theology that would have unity. What is in question here is not the unity of faith but the structural unity of the theology as a science. In this regard it is very true that St. Thomas’s debt to Aristotle exceeds by far what he owes to any other philosophy, perhaps even to all other philosophies combined; but it is none the less true that, as a theologian, the sole object of his endeavor is to establish a theology, not a philosophy. Whatever philosophical unity the doctrine thus created will have will come to it from a light higher than that of philosophy. The reason it can use several without risking incoherence is that it is not tied to any one of them, that it does not depend on any one of them, and that it first transforms whatever it seems to borrow from them.

Nothing can take the place of a personal meditation on a text like that of De potentia 3.5 (but there are many others), in order to come in real contact with the practice of the theologian and to appreciate the nature of his work. St. Thomas reveals himself there to be neither a Platonist, an Aristotelian, nor an Avicennian. If we delve deeply into these three philosophies, we see that no one of them conceived the notion of creation ex nihilo, including the creation of matter. But as they bathe here in the light of theology, we see them reveal richer philosophical possibilities than they seemed to have in the minds of the philosophers who first conceived them. The meaning of the five ways to the existence of God, the meaning of the three arguments for the universal causality of the primary being, in the last resort do not originate in any of these ways or arguments.

Their source is a definite notion of God and being whose light, shining from a mind impregnated by faith, suffices to transform the philosophies it touches. But these matters can be appreciated only with the experience that comes from long study. Virtuosity in dialectics, rather than making their demonstration possible, stands in the way of demonstrating them well.


“He Who Is” Thomas Aquinas on the Simplicity of God – Etienne Gilson

February 24, 2011

Ecce Homo, Caravaggio, 1606.

Dei igitur essentia est suum esse. Hanc autem sublimem veritatem Moyses a Domino est edoctus, qui, cum quaereret a Domino, dicens: Si dixerint ad inc filii Israel: Quad est nomen ejus? quid dicam cis? Dominus respondit: Ego sum qui sum; sic dices filiis Israel: Qui est inisit inc ad vos [Exodus 3:13-14], ostendens suum proprium nomen esse: Qui est
(Summa contra Gentiles 1.22.9-10).
["Therefore the essence of God is his being. The Lord taught Moses this sublime truth when he asked the Lord: If the children of Israel ask me what is his name? what shall I say to them? The Lord replied: I am who am ... say this to the children of Israel: He Who Is has sent me to you, showing that his proper name is He who is."]

St. Thomas himself did not succeed in condensing in one single truth the whole content of these words of Exodus. Or rather, it is we who are unable to see at once all their aspects. When he says, Ego sum qui sum, God affirms his own existence as God. He does not say: Know that there is a God, but rather: Know that I am, and that my name is He Who Is. So that the people of Israel would not think that he is a new God still unknown to them, the revelation continues: “Say this to the children of Israel: Yahweh, the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you. This is my name forever, and thus I am to be invoked for all future generations” (Exodus 3:15).

God reveals his name along with his existence, and because in the same statement in a way he reveals his essence, he thereby says — if we follow the interpretations of St. Thomas — both that the divine essence is simple (Summa Theologiae 1.3.7) and that the essence of God is his being: Dei … essential est suum esse (Summa contra Gentiles 1.22.9). Let us try to make our way through this maze of ideas.

At the outset we must take the occasion that presents itself to express respect and admiration for, and gratitude to, the excellent family of philologists. Armed with their grammars and dictionaries, supported by their methods which they regard as “scientific,” they think themselves qualified to give a correct interpretation of the sacred text We would not deny their competence, provided that it recognizes its own limitations. Philology allows one to establish the meaning of a text with the utmost precision, provided that the writer was a person like others, with a mentality like ours, using the language of contemporary society in order to express ideas similar to those which it signified by the same words.

The method can be applied to scripture, but only on the supposition that we lay down in principle not only that the sacred writer was a person like others, but, besides, that he was absolutely nothing more than that. If we do this, the notion of an inspired author vanishes and scripture becomes in fact a book like the Iliad or the Aeneid, entirely amenable to philology and the philologists. Even then there would be reason to be on guard, for the meaning of texts is in neither grammars nor dictionaries, but in the mind of the reader who translates or interprets them. Above all (and this is our only concern), no philological science could tell us the meaning an inspired author gave to his words, for the sacred writer is by definition a person who tries to utter truths beyond human comprehension. He must use words that everyone else does in order to express thoughts that are not those of everyone else. For the philologist, the words of the Pentateuch have the meaning they would have had in the mouth of anyone speaking about a topic of conversation familiar to his contemporaries. To depend on the probable meaning of the same words in other passages of the Bible is to presuppose that in no case and at no moment has the sacred writer wanted to utter a word with a unique meaning whose equivalent would be impossible to find anywhere else.

But this is not what is most serious. It is enough to see into what contradictions the philologists are apt to fall and in what bitter disputes they engage, not to let oneself be taken in by the apparent certitude of their conclusions. The methods of philology are shaky enough to leave room for arbitrariness, and in the end they allow the exegete to make the text say what he wants it to say. It is not surprising that biblical exegesis described as scientific is held in respect especially in Protestant churches. It is a scholarly form of free inquiry, in which the alleged objectivity and necessity of the conclusions are the guarantee that revealed truths can no longer depend on the magisterium of the Church and tradition. The philologists’ methods of exegesis are necessary, but their claim to be sufficient is intolerable. They must not be allowed to make us believe that meanings — even literal ones — that are beyond their reach, are meanings that do not exist

A Catholic at least could not be satisfied with methods of this sort. Scripture is given to him replete with all the meanings with which it is charged through the centuries and which it has inherited through tradition. Clearly, no philologist, speaking as such, could agree with this, but precisely, philology is not theology, and it makes no sense to claim that a method designed for literary texts of the contemporary kind can extract for us the supernatural meaning contained in a revealed text

The Church is best qualified to settle the literal sense or senses the sacred author had in mind while writing. This is not a philological method, but the Catholic believes that scripture is a book written under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. It is no wonder, then, that it raises insoluble problems for the interpreter whose only instruments are grammar and a dictionary. The Catholic sees no impossibility in the inspired texts truly and really containing meanings unknown to those who wrote them, but which divine inspiration has in a way given them for the future. The statement of St. Thomas must be taken literally: auctor sacrae scripturae est Deus (God is the author of sacred scripture).

No doubt the writings of an author who is also extraordinary do not surrender all their meaning to one who limits himself to the usual methods of the exegesis of texts. Indeed, “The literal sense is the one the author has in his mind; and since the author of sacred scripture is God, whose intellect comprehends everything at once, it is not impossible, as Augustine says in the Confessions, book 12, that even regarding the literal sense, one and the same passage of scripture have several meanings” (ST 1.1.10). So the text of Exodus can by itself contain in the literal sense everything that the Fathers of the Church have read in it, and everything St. Thomas just read in it. [The explanation of Exodus 3.13-14 in the Jerusalem Bible shows how the most correct philosophy can be in harmony with St. Thomas's rule of theological interpretation. No interpretation is acceptable if the literal sense cannot bear it, but if God is its author, one and the same statement can have several literal meanings. [See The Jerusalem Bible, ed. Alexander Jones et al. (Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1966), p. 81, note h.)]

The fundamental certainty that God is the author of scripture, and that he speaks to us in the sacred text with his own knowledge, explains the perfect ease with which St. Thomas reads in it the most abstruse metaphysical speculations. His exegesis is that of a theologian who has mastered all the resources of natural theology — the human science of divine things — and who strives to make natural reason speak the greatest possible amount of truth within the bosom, so to speak, of revealed truth. The often-expressed fear that reason lets itself be corrupted by faith is pointless on two scores. First, the theologian is not at all concerned to enlist the services of a philosophy that is unfaithful to its own methods and hence could no longer be of any help to him. On the other hand, the theologian does not think for a moment that his work can consist in changing revealed truth into the truth of philosophy. That idea would horrify him. The fides quaerens intellectum is a faith that remains irreducibly faith, as long as it has not vanished before the beatific vision. The intellectus fidei is an understanding of an intelligible object proposed by revelation; but what the intellect understands, precious as it may be, in no way penetrates the supernatural reality whose substance is the very object that faith obscurely possesses.

Accordingly we should not think of the theology of the preambles of faith as though it were a sort of philosophical introduction, or a preface written in the style of metaphysics, awaiting the true beginning of theological speculation. Theology begins with the first sed contra of the Summa, and all the philosophical speculation the latter contains is integrated into theology in whose service the theologian employs it. It cannot be of service unless it is truly philosophy; but the servant belongs to the family; she is part of the household.

It is a fatal mistake to lose sight of this truth when approaching the third question of the Summa. You can still believe you are keeping it in mind, but you are lost. No sooner has St. Thomas proved the existence of God in the two Summae than he undertakes to establish his perfect simplicity. But we have no experience of any real being that is not a composite. We cannot imagine a perfectly simple being, because nature does not provide us with an example of one. To establish that God is simple, is accordingly to establish that God is not in the way composite beings are. The proof of the divine simplicity is the first instance we shall meet of the use of the negative method in theology. What is in question is knowing about God quoinodo non sit (Summa Theologiae 1.3, div. text.), and to this end to remove all composition from the notion we form of him.

This operation is carried out according to a well-known dialectical progression, each stage of which consists in demonstrating a particular God is not composed of …: God is not composed of movable and hence material parts; he is not composed of form and matter, and so on, until finally, when even the least trace of composition has been excluded from the notion of God, the mind is compelled to affirm his perfect simplicity. Nothing is easier than to follow step by step the progress of this demonstration, which is completely rational and only employs notions familiar to traditional Aristotelianism. Act and potency, form and matter, supposit and nature, finally essence and being — nothing of all this comes from revelation.

Nevertheless, this dialectic, which is rational and properly philosophical in structure, is developed in light of a statement of God which directs it, guides it, and leads it finally to its goal. What statement? The sed contra of the question “Does God exist?” (Summa Theologiae 1.2.3), which, as we recall, is Ego sum qui sum. We cannot grasp the entire beginning of the Summa, or consequently correctly interpret what follows, if for a single moment we lose sight of God’s revelation of his existence and the name under which he revealed himself. We must try to place this dialectical progression in its true perspective if we are not to lose its meaning.

This can be demonstrated. Proving the simplicity of God amounts to proving the simplicity of his being. In other words, the process consists in proving that in this unique case the being of God is precisely that which he is. This means that the process primarily depends on the notion of the divine being that it presupposes; and since God is being par excellence, the notion of the divine simplicity will depend, for the theologian, on the particular ontology that he will accept as a philosopher. Indeed, even if it be granted that God is purely and simply being, we still have to know what being itself is.

The meaning of this remark will be apparent if we turn directly to the article in which St. Thomas’s dialectical progression culminates: “Are essence and being one and the same in God?” (ST 1.3.4). To raise the question is implicitly to assume that being an essence is not identical with being a being; or, vice versa, that being is not identical with being an essence. Many theologians and philosophers would not even think of raising the question. At the moment when he asks it, St. Thomas himself just established that, considered as a supposit or subject, God is identical with his own essence or nature. If a being and its essence are identical; if, in other words, a being is identical with what it is, how is it possible to conceive it as being even more simple? There is nothing more simple than self-identity.

Clearly, the theologian who here transcends the order of essence to reach that of the act of being is the same as the philosopher of the De ente et essentia. He knows that in a being (ens) the essence does not contain anything to account for its being (esse). On the contrary, actual being (esse) is the actuality of every form or nature, for a man is a man only on condition that he exists. What is not is nothing. In order to prove that God is simple, then, it is not enough to establish that God is identical with his essence. In order to remove all composition from him, we must reduce his notion to what is absolutely last in a being, namely esse, the act through which it is, simply and ultimately.

But why would the act of being be absolutely last? Why not stop the dialectical progression at essence rather than at existence? If the being and essence of God are identical, it should be possible to affirm that God is the highest, absolute, and simple essence, and to reduce the divine existence to it, instead of reducing the essence to it No matter how we view the final moment of this progress toward the simplicity of being, we find something arbitrary in the theologian’s decision to bring it to its ultimate conclusion, not in the essence of a being, but in the very act of existing.

This is because the reader of the Summa, who of course is paying attention to the dialectic of being he is invited to follow, is once again tempted to think that St. Thomas mounts from philosophy to theology, whereas in fact he does the opposite. No doubt there are many reasons for thinking that there is in beings a composition of essence and being, but no one of them strictly demonstrates it. It is evident, or demonstrable, that a finite being does not have its being from itself. A finite essence, therefore, is in potency to its actual being, and this composition of potency and act suffices to distinguish radically the being which is only a being, from him who is Being. But how is it possible to demonstrate, by directly examining a being, that its actual existence is the effect of a finite act within its substance making it a being (ens), in the precise sense of an essence having its own act of existing? Duns Scotus, Suarez, and countless other theologians have refused, and still refuse, to accept this metaphysical doctrine.

Perhaps not enough thought is given to the serious theological consequence of this refusal. If a real finite substance is not composed of essence and being, there is no longer a reason to eliminate this composition from our notion of God in order to establish his perfect simplicity. The undertaking becomes pointless, for we cannot eliminate from the divine being a composition that exists nowhere except in the mind of those who conceive it. So the theologian follows the opposite procedure. Knowing that God’s proper name is ‘Is’, because he has said so, the theologian holds that a finite being is necessarily complex. Now, he begins with God as absolutely simple. Therefore the complexity of a finite substance must result in the first place from an addition to the basic act of being. That primary addition can only be that of an essence, through which an act of being is that of a particular being. If the act of being (actus essendi, esse) were not a real metaphysical component of a being, it would not make a real composition with the essence. A being would be simple like the divine being, it would be God.

The certainty that esse, or the act of being, is properly speaking an element of a being, and therefore included in its structure, is explained first of all by the prior certainty that the act of being actually exists in and by itself, in the absolute metaphysical purity of what has nothing, not even essence, because it is everything that we could wish to attribute to it. Whereas He Who Is excludes all addition, a finite substance is necessarily composed of an act of being and of that which limits it. It is because it is known that God is pure being that the metaphysical core of reality is located in a metaphysical non-pure act of being.

This whole dialectic is set in motion, directed and concluded in the light of the word of Exodus. It is metaphysical in its method and structure, for nothing in the sacred text either suggests it or proclaims it. Revelation as such can fulfill its own purpose without having recourse to it, and it must be admitted that humanly speaking the primitive literal sense of scripture would not suggest any technical Aristotelian procedure. Nevertheless, St. Thomas read in it at once and indivisibly that God exists, that he is Being, and that he is simple. Now, to be He Who Is and to be simple is properly speaking to be, purely and simply.

St. Thomas showed a remarkable intellectual boldness in leading the philosophical dialectic of being, which would halt spontaneously at substance and essence, to the point it had to go in order to join the truth of the divine word. Since God has revealed himself as He Who Is, the philosopher knows that at the origin and very heart of beings it is necessary to place the pure act of existing. The divine word absolutely transcends the philosophical notions conceived in its light, that is also why they could not be deduced from it. We do not say: Since scripture says so, the philosophical notions of being and God are in the last analysis identical with that of the act of being. In fact, scripture itself does not say this; but it does say that the proper name of God is He Who Is. Because it says this I believe it. While I thus cling to the object of faith, the intellect, made fruitful by this contact, makes deeper progress in the understanding of the primary notion of being. With one and the same movement it discovers an unforeseen depth in the philosophical meaning of the first principle and gains a kind of imperfect but true knowledge of the object of faith.

It is this very movement that is called Christian philosophy, for the modest, though invaluable understanding of the word of God that it brings with it. It receives the name scholastic philosophy for the doctrinal order, the broadenings of perspective, and the deepening of philosophical views that the movement brings about. Under both these complementary aspects it is inseparable from scripture. Accordingly, we should strive at length, or better yet, frequently, either to become aware of the presence of a dialectic of the divine simplicity in the fullness of the divine name, or inversely, at our leisure to unfold this dialectic in the light of Ego sum qui sum.

Fr. Barron comments on all this here.


The Eucharistic Liturgy – Fr. Robert Barron

February 23, 2011

The entire story of the Christian Bible – creation, the fall, the formation of Israel, the Passover to freedom, the vision of Isaiah’s holy mountain, the gracious table fellowship of Jesus, the Last Supper, the eschatological banquet — is made present to us at the Mass. The Eucharistic liturgy of the church sums up and re-expresses the history of salvation, culminating in the meal by which Jesus feeds us with his very self. What I would like to do in is to walk through the Mass with this complex motif of the sacred meal in mind, demonstrating how the various features and elements we have explored are on vivid display in the liturgy.

Yahweh formed the people Israel as the means by which the whole of creation, wrecked by the fall, would be healed. The Passover supper was, as we saw, the symbolic expression of this communion so desired by God, the Isaiah mountain its eschatological anticipation, and Jesus’ meals its concrete embodiment. The opening move of the Eucharistic liturgy takes place before the ritual proper commences, when people from all walks of life, varying educational backgrounds, different economic classes, of all ages and of both genders gather in one place to pray. In principle, there is no block or obstacle to those who wish to come to the Mass.

When she was considering the possibility of becoming a Roman Catholic, Dorothy Day commented that what impressed her the most about the Mass was that the rich and the poor knelt there side by side in prayer. A community that would never exist in the harsh world of 1930s America strangely existed around the altar of Christ, God’s desire for the world becoming incarnate even in the midst of sin. When the great English historian Christopher Dawson informed his aristocratic mother that he was converting from Anglicanism to Catholicism, she objected, not to his shift in doctrinal affiliation, but that he would be obliged, in her words, to “worship with the help.”

The gathered community, coming together to worship the Lord and to feed on him, is indeed the seed of a new way of being, the contravention of the divisions and hatreds that flowed from the fall. It is the new world emerging within the very structure of the old.

Once assembled, the community rises to sing. Liturgical music ought not to be seen as secondary or merely decorative, for it gives expression to the harmonizing of the many. Just as the tribes that stream up the holy mountain do not lose their individuality as they gather to worship in common, so the participants at Mass do not surrender their distinctiveness when they sing together. Rather, they contribute, individually, to a consonance.

Just after the sign of the cross and the greeting, the people are invited to acknowledge their sin and seek the divine mercy; they say, “Kyrie eleison, Christe eleison, Kyrie eleison” (Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy, Lord have mercy). Jesus came, not for the healthy, but for the sick. He was Yahweh in person calling home the scattered sheep of the house of Israel, and that is why he was so gracious in his welcome to Matthew and his disreputable friends. And so we sinners (once we accept that we are indeed sinners) are forgiven and welcomed into easy intimacy with Christ at the liturgy.

At Sunday Mass and at more festive Masses, the Kyrie is followed by the great prayer of the Gloria, which begins with this line: “Glory to God in the highest and peace to his people on earth.” Much of the theology that we’ve been presenting is packed into that statement. Peace will break out on earth, in accord with God’s first and deepest desire, when we all come together in a common act of worship. Aristotle remarked that a friendship will never last as long as the friends are simply in love with one another. In time, he said, such a relationship will devolve into mutual egotism.

Rather, a friendship will endure only in the measure that the two friends fall together in love with a transcendent third, with some great value or good that lies beyond the grasp of either of them. This Aristotelian principle applies in regard to our relationship with God. The indispensable key to peace, that is to say, a flourishing friendship among the members of the human race, is that we all fall together in love with the transcendent Creator.

Only when we give glory to God in the highest — above nation, family, culture, political party, etc. — will we, paradoxically, find unity among ourselves. To put this in more explicitly scriptural language, only when we sit together at the meal hosted and made possible by God will we truly sit together in peace.

After the Gloria prayer, participants in the Mass are seated for the proclamation of the word of God. Since Christ is, as St. John insisted, the Word of God made flesh, the entire Scripture — Old Testament and New — is the speech of Christ. Having been gathered by Jesus, we listen to him, as did the crowds who heard the Sermon On The Mount. In the ancient world, the meal, at which convivial friends reclined in easy company, was the place where philosophical conversation often took place. (Think of the Symposium of Plato, an account of a festive supper during which the conversants discoursed on the nature of love). Thus, just as Jesus taught people around the table of conversation and good cheer, so he teaches us who have gathered in fellowship for the eucharistic liturgy.

The second major section of Mass — the liturgy of the Eucharist — commences with the offertory presentation. From the midst of the congregation, simple gifts of bread, wine, and water are brought forward and placed on the altar. Here we have a quite exact symbolic re-presentation of the multiplication of the loaves and fishes. The priest, who is acting in the person of Christ, sees the crowd gathered before him and wonders how he might feed them spiritually.

From the people, he garners a small amount of food and drink, which he then presents to the Father: “Blessed are you, Lord God of all creation, for through your goodness we have this bread and wine to offer.” Because the creator God stands in need of nothing, he is able to receive these gifts and send them back elevated and multiplied, transformed into the body and blood of Jesus. Our small offerings, in short, break against the rock of the divine self-sufficiency and return to us as spiritual food and drink. The Mass, accordingly, is the richest possible expression of the loop of grace, God’s life possessed in the measure that it is given away.

At this point, I would like to say a word about the cosmic dimension of the Mass. As we have seen, sin is construed, in the biblical reading, as not simply a personal and interpersonal problem, a strictly human concern. Rather, sin compromises the integrity of the entire created order.

“To appreciate Dante it is not, of course, necessary to believe what he believed, but it is, I think, necessary to understand what he believed, and to realize that it is a belief which a mature mind can take seriously. The widespread disinclination today to take Hell and Heaven seriously results, very largely, from a refusal to take this world seriously. If we are materialists, we look upon man’s life as an event so trifling compared to the cosmic process that our acts and decisions have no importance beyond the little space-time frame in which we find ourselves. If we take what is often vaguely called `a more spiritual attitude to life,’ we find that we are postulating some large and lazy cosmic benevolence which ensures that, no matter how we behave, it will all somehow or other come out right in the long run. But here Christianity says `No. What you do and what you are matters, and matters intensely. It matters now and it matters eternally; it matters to you and it matters so much to God that it was for Him literally a matter of life and death.’”
Dorothy L Sayers, Introductory Papers on Dante

Thus, the salvation wrought through Israel and Jesus and made present in the Mass has to do with the healing of the world. We see this dimension especially in the gifts of bread and wine presented at the offertory.

To speak of bread is to speak, implicitly, of soil, seed, grain, and sunshine that crossed 90 million miles of space; to speak of wine is to speak, indirectly, of vine, earth, nutrients, storm clouds, and rainwater. To mention earth and sun is to allude to the solar system of which they are a part, and to invoke the solar system is to assume the galaxy of which it is a portion, and to refer to the galaxy is to hint at the unfathomable realities that condition the structure of the measurable universe.

Therefore, when these gifts are brought forward, it is as though the whole of creation is placed on the altar before the Lord. In the older, Tridentine liturgy, the priest would make this presentation facing the east, the direction of the rising sun, signaling that the church’s prayer was on behalf, not simply of the people gathered in that place, but of the cosmos itself.

Next, through the power of the words of the Eucharistic prayer, the elements of bread and wine are transfigured into the body and blood of Jesus, and the people are invited to come forward and feast on the Lord. This, once again, is the Christ of the Bethlehem manger, offered for the sustenance of the world. The participants in the Mass don’t simply listen to the teaching of Jesus; they don’t merely call his memory and spirit to mind. They eat and drink him, incorporating him into themselves, or better, becoming incorporated into him. An element of Catholic ecclesiology that modern Americans find especially difficult to comprehend is that the church is not a collectivity of like-minded individuals, something akin to the Abraham Lincoln Society or the chamber of commerce.

In accord with St. Paul’s master image, the church is a body, a living organism composed of interdependent cells, molecules, and organs. Christ Jesus is the head of this body, and its lifeblood is his sacramental grace, especially the grace of the Eucharist. The members of the church, those who consume his body and blood, become therefore the limbs, eyes, ears, and sensibilities of Christ’s body, the means by which his work continues in the world. Furthermore, they come to be connected to one another by an organic bond that goes dramatically beyond the cohesiveness of even the most intense of voluntary societies.

Just as the stomach (if I can extrapolate a bit from Paul) could not possibly remain indifferent to a cancer growing in an adjacent organ, so one member of the body of Christ couldn’t possibly ignore the spiritual plight or physical need of another. And all people, Thomas Aquinas taught, are either explicitly or implicitly members of Christ’s body. The radicality of Catholic social commitment — a concern for any and all who suffer — follows directly from the radicality of this distinctive ecclesiology.

Now the Mass does not conclude with the reception of the Eucharist; it concludes rather with a commission: “The Mass is ended. Go in peace to love and to serve the Lord.” It has been said that, after the words of consecration, those words of dismissal are the most sacred in the liturgy. We must recall, once more, that the community gathered around Jesus, descended from the twelve apostles, is the new Israel and that the purpose of Israel was to be a beacon for the nations, the magnetic point to which all peoples would be drawn.

Therefore, once filled with the body and blood of the Lord, galvanized as a new community formed according to the purposes of God, the people must go forth to Christify the world. Just as Noah released the life that he had preserved on the ark, so the priest sends the community out as the seed of new life. It is in this mission to feed a hungry world that we see the real point and purpose of the sacred meal.

We saw that the sacred meal is not limited in meaning and scope to this context of space and time alone; rather, it is situated within a properly eschatological framework. The Mass signals this transcendent dimension in a number of ways. In the Kyrie, the liturgy invokes another world: “I ask the Blessed Mary ever virgin, all the angels and saints, and you my brothers and sisters, to pray for me to the Lord our God,” and the great Gloria prayer calls to mind the song of the angels early on Christmas morning: “Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”

From the beginning of the rite, therefore, we are situated in a properly heavenly context that stretches beyond that of the community gathered immediately around us. We are praying to and with the heavenly court, composed of glorified human saints and spiritual creatures at a qualitatively higher pitch of existence. Furthermore, between the preface and the commencement of the Eucharistic prayer proper, we find this distinctive prayer: “Holy, Holy, Holy Lord, God of power and might. Heaven and earth are full of your glory, Hosanna in the highest.” The triple holy mimics precisely the cry of the angels in a scene from the sixth chapter of the book of the prophet Isaiah. As the prophet saw a vision of God, he heard attendants at the heavenly throne invoking the creator of the universe with this triple chant. The Christian tradition has, naturally enough, taken these three angelic “holies” to designate the three persons of the blessed trinity. The point is that as the worshiping community enters into the most sacred part of the Mass, it becomes conscious, once again, of the supernatural community that worships in tandem with it.

In his treatment of the Eucharist in the Summa theologiae, Thomas Aquinas said that the sacrament has three names, each one corresponding to one of the dimensions of time. As we look to the past, we call the sacrament sacrificium (sacrifice), for it embodies the self-immolation of Christ on the cross. About this feature we will have much more to say in the next section. But secondly, as we look to the present, we call it communio (communion), since it realizes the coming-together of the body of Christ here and now. Finally, as we look to the future, we call it Eucharistia (Eucharist), since it anticipates the great thanksgiving that will take place in heaven when we are in the company of the holy ones, at the eschatological banquet. It is this final feature that the liturgy emphasizes when it invokes so consistently the angels and saints.

God is, in his own most reality, not a monolith, but a communion of persons. From all eternity, the Father speaks himself, and this Word that he utters is the Son. A perfect image of his Father, the Son shares fully the actuality of the Father: unity, omniscience, omnipresence, spiritual power. This means that, as the Father gazes at the Son, the Son gazes back at the Father. Since each is utterly beautiful, the Father falls in love with the Son and the Son with the Father — and they sigh forth their mutual love. This holy breath (Spiritus Sanctus) is the Holy Spirit.

These three “persons” are distinct, yet they do not constitute three Gods. They are the way the one God is constituted in the depth of his own being. This means that, for Christian faith, God is a family of love, a sharing of life, a breathing in and breathing out, a looking toward another. Whereas for the ancient philosophers substance is ontologically superior to relationship, for Christian theology relationship is metaphysically basic, for God is nothing but love. The whole history of salvation can be read as the Trinitarian God’s attempt to draw the human family into a relationship that mimics the love that God is. When we love God with our whole heart and mind, we necessarily love all those whom God has loved into existence.

This family love is expressed in the great biblical image of the sacred banquet that we have been exploring throughout this chapter. The Eucharist sums it up and brings it to perfect expression, and hence the Eucharist is the richest participation in the very being of the God who is nothing but love.


St. Thomas On Christ’s Grace and Justification — Fr. Brian Davies O.P.

February 22, 2011

Descent of the Holy Spirit upon Mary and the Apostles on Pentecost - by TIZIANO Vecellio - from Santa Maria della Salute, Venice.


As he goes on to develop this account Aquinas observes that Christians receive justification by virtue of Christ’s grace. `By his passion’, he explains, `Christ merited for us the grace of justification and the glory of beatitude. [Summa theologiae 3a 46.3]. Christ, he says, was obedient to his father even to death. Commenting on this notion, he goes on to suggest that `it was altogether fitting that Christ should suffer out of obedience’. And the first reason he gives for saying so is that `his obedience was in keeping with our justification (justificatio).’[ Summa theologiae 3a 47.2]

To understand what this means it is important to recognize that Aquinas taught about justification long before the subject became a matter of controversy during the period of the Reformation and afterwards. So it would be quite wrong to read what he says about it as, for example, a polemic directed against views on justification such as those of Martin Luther (1483-1546). What Aquinas considers under the heading `Justification’ was in his day traditionally dealt with in treatments of Penance, and he himself deals with it in connection with that in Book 4, d. 17 of the Commentary on the Sentences. In the Summa theologiae, his account of justification is part of a wider discussion of grace in general. Hence he speaks in the Prologue to 1a2ae of how we must next consider `the effects of grace’ and `firstly the justification of the unrighteous, which is the effect of operative grace’. `The justification of the unrighteous as a whole’, he says, `consists by way of origin and source in the infusion of grace.’ [Summa theologiae 1a2ae 113.7]

What does this last statement mean? The answer is effectively given in Aquinas’s explanation of what is required for justification. According to this:

Four requirements for the justification of the unrighteous may be listed: namely, the infusion of grace; a movement of free choice directed towards God by faith; a movement of free choice directed towards sin; and the forgiveness of sin.
[Summa theologiae 1a2ae 113.6]

In Aquinas’s thinking, justification occurs as, under the influence of grace, one moves towards God with faith in Christ. Justification, he says, is a `kind of rightness of order in people’s own interior disposition, namely when what is highest in people is subject to God and the lower powers of their souls are subject to what is highest in them, their reason’. [Summa theologiae 1a2ae 113.1] In other words, it is what you have when sinners repent and change direction. Or, as Aquinas also wants to say, it is what you have when God forgives sin.

Some people hold that, when God forgives sin, he goes through a process of some kind. This is because they think of God’s forgiveness by assimilating it to that of human beings. When I forgive you, I have to go through a process. I have to learn of your offence against me. Then I have to decide to ignore it. With that behind me, I must next do something to put my decision into effect — albeit that this may largely mean me not doing something (e.g. not being angry with you). And such, so it has been thought, is how it must be with God. But it should now almost go without saying that Aquinas could never agree with this suggestion — unless it is taken as a metaphor or image of some kind. Since he believes in God’s immutability, he cannot accept that God’s act of forgiveness involves him in going through a process of any kind. For him, therefore, to say that God has forgiven us is equivalent to saying that we have changed direction and turned to him.

An offence is only forgiven someone when the mind of the offended party is reconciled to the offender. And so sin is said to be forgiven us when God is is reconciled to us. Now this reconciliation and peace consists in the love with which God loves us. But God’s love, as far as the divine act is concerned, is eternal and immutable; but as to the effect which it impresses on us, it is sometimes interrupted, namely when we sometimes fall away from it and sometimes regain it. Now the effect of divine love in us which is removed by sin is the grace by which someone becomes worthy of eternal life, from which people are excluded by mortal sin. And therefore the forgiveness of sin would not be intelligible unless there were present an infusion of grace.
[Summa theologiae 1a2ae 113.3]

Though God cannot change, we can. And, when we change by moving towards him, that is because he is drawing us to himself in love, and has therefore forgiven our offence against him. As one of Aquinas’s modern commentators observes: `When God forgives our sin, he is not changing his mind about us; he is changing our mind about him.. . Our sorrow for sin just is the forgiveness of God working within us. [Herbert McCabe, OP, Hope (London, 1987), 17 f.]

For Aquinas, then, justification is a matter of God making us more godly. That is why he discusses it in the context of a treatment of grace in the Summa theologiae. And, for him, it is an effect of the Incarnation since, in his view, the Incarnation is all about God making us more godly through Christ. Aquinas believes that, in the life and death of Christ, God is doing nothing but making his love present in the world. He sees Christ’s life and death as divinity incarnate cancelling the barriers between people and God and calling us to accept that these barriers really have been cancelled. That is why he can say that we are justified by means of Christ.

Notice, however, that in reaching this conclusion, Aquinas is not merely saying that God has deemed people to be at one with him. For some Christian authors, influenced by texts like Romans 3: 28, to say that someone is justified by God does not imply that the person in question is necessarily better than he or she would be if unjustified. It is to say that one has been accepted by God, or acquitted by him, or declared to be right or innocent in his eyes. This seems to have been Luther’s understanding of justification. [`It is clear that, as the soul needs only the Word of God for its life and righteousness, so it is justified by faith alone and not by any works; for if it could be justified by anything else, it would not need the Word, and consequently would not need faith' (The Freedom of a Christian: see Martin Luther: Selections from His Writings, ed. John Dillenberger (New York, 1960, 55. Again: `So the Christian who is consecrated by his faith does good works, but the works do not make him holier or more Christian, for that is the work of faith alone. And if a man were not first a believer and a Christian, all his works would amount to nothing and would be truly wicked and damnable sins' (Ibid. 69).]

One can also find it in Calvin’s declaration that the saved `receive justice, but such as the people of God can obtain in this life. It is possessed only by imputation, because our Lord in his mercy considers them just and innocent. [Institutes of the Christian Religion, edition reprinted under the direction of A. Lefranc (Paris, 1911), 548.] Aquinas, however, thinks of justification as making a difference to people. Because it involves the work of grace, it must also, so he thinks, involve a moving away from sin. In this respect, his teaching on justification is in line with typical medieval accounts considered as contrasting with typically Reformation ones. For, as Alister McGrath explains:

The characteristic medieval understanding of the nature of justification may be summarized thus: justification refers not merely to the beginning of the Christian life, but also to its continuation and ultimate perfection, in which the Christian is made righteous in the sight of God and the sight of men through a fundamental change in his nature, and not merely his status. In effect, the distinction between justification (understood as an external pronouncement of God) and sanctification (understood as the subsequent process of inner renewal), characteristic of the Reformation period, is excluded from the outset. This fundamental difference concerning the nature of justification remains one of the best differentiae between the doctrines of justification associated with the medieval and Reformation periods.
Alister E. McGrath, Iustitia Dei: A History of the Christian Doctrine of Justijication: The Beginnings to the Reformation (Cambridge, 1986), 41.

Yet Aquinas is at least in accord with the typically Reformation insistence that justification is a gift of God and not something earned. This, or course, is because of the way in which he thinks of it as an effect of grace. As we saw in Chapter 13, he denies that people can do anything to ensure or prepare for the giving of grace. [Notice, however, that there are grounds for attributing to Aquinas some development of thinking on this issue. In the Commentary on the Sentences he speaks of people being moved to receive grace by secondary causes such as other people or illness. In later works, the emphasis falls on God as moving one to the graced life. See McGrath, lustitia Dei, 82] As he puts it:

If we speak of grace in the sense of the assistance of God moving us towards the good, no preparation as it were anticipating the divine assistance is required on our part; rather, whatever preparation there might be in us derives from the assistance of God moving the soul towards the good. In this sense, that good movement of free choice itself, by which someone prepares to receive the gift of grace, is the action of a free choice moved by God … The principal agent is God moving the free choice; and in this sense it is said that our will is prepared by God, and our steps are directed by the Lord.
[Summa theologiae 1a2ae 112.2] Aquinas is alluding here to Proverbs 8: 35 in the Vulgate translation, and Psalms 36: 23.

In his view, therefore, justification is in no way a consequence of `works’. He certainly does not think that we get to God by confronting him with a righteousness that obliges him to reward us. He thinks that we are justified by God on the basis of sheer liberality. For him, our repentance, and what follows that in the way we behave (our `works’), are the projection into history of God’s eternal love making and sustaining goodness where there is no prior claim obliging him to do so. Luther attacked Aquinas by saying that he taught that we become righteous, not by faith, but by doing righteous acts. He thought that Aquinas belittled the role of grace. But, as Denis R. Janz makes clear, Luther’s understanding of Aquinas was decidedly deficient on this aspect of his teaching.

For Thomas, human beings are not justified by their acts if `justification’ means what it sometimes means for Luther, i.e., the forgiveness of sins. This first step and sine qua non presupposition for progress towards one’s final end, the initium fidei, is `from God moving inwardly through grace’. On the other hand, if `justification’ refers to the entire process by which one reaches the final goal, then human actions are of course part of the process. As Thomas puts it in his commentary on Romans, justification is sola gratia sine operibus precedentibus, but not sola gratia sine operibus subsequentibus. Or, as he says in the Summa Theologiae, the grace of God does not presuppose goodness in human beings but creates it. In view of all this, it is a misunderstanding or at least an oversimplification to say as Luther does that for Thomas, one is justified through one’s good acts.
Denis R. Janz, Luther on Thomas Aquinas (Stuttgart, 1989), 57.


St. Thomas On The Virtue of Christ’s Grace — Fr. Brian Davies O.P.

February 21, 2011

Colijn de Coter, Le Trone de Grace - God Father, Christ, Holy Ghost and angels (Throne of Mercy). Right wing: the three weeping Marys (sisters of Saint Mary, Maria Kleophas, Maria Salome and Mary Magdalen) 1482

According to the theology of Aquinas, then, the death of Christ delivers us from the punishment due to sin. But Aquinas believes that it also does more than this. For he wants to say that people are given grace because of Christ’s death and because of his whole life as God incarnate. By itself, he thinks, the satisfaction made by Christ is of limited worth, for a person may hear of it and still remain in sin. `Christ’s satisfaction’, he argues, `brings about its effect in us in so far as we are incorporated into him as members are into the head. But members should be conformed to their head. [Summa theologiae 3a 49.3 ad 3] His judgment, therefore, is that something more is required for Christ’s satisfaction to be effective. And the something in question is grace.

To understand Aquinas’s thinking here we need to remember what we saw concerning his teaching on the grace of Christ as head of the Church. According to him, Christ has the fullness of grace and is therefore the source of grace for those who rally to him. As he writes in the Compendium of Theology:

Since the man Christ possessed supreme fullness of grace, as being the only begotten of the Father, grace overflowed from him to others, so that the son of God, made human, might make people gods and sons and daughters of God, according to the Apostle’s words in Galatians 4: 4: `God sent his son, made of a woman, made under the law, that he might redeem them who were under the law: that we might receive the adoption of sons.’
Compendium Theologiae, Ch. 214.

On this basis Aquinas holds that the grace present in Christ is shared with members of the Church. In his view, those who are members of the Church have, in St Paul’s phrase, `put on Christ’ and are `members’ of his body. This means that they can be considered as one with Christ and as therefore sharing in the grace which belongs to him.

Grace was in Christ. . . not simply as in an individual human being, but as in the Head of the whole Church, to whom all are united as members to the head, forming a single mystic person. In consequence, the merit of Christ extends to others in so far as they are his members. In somewhat similar fashion in individual human beings the action of the head belongs in some measure to all their bodily members.
[Summa theologiae 3a 19.4]

The idea here is that, because of the Incarnation, the relationship between Christ and his father is one which also exists between Christians and God. `Christ and the Church are in a sense one person. On the basis of that unity, he speaks in the name of the Church in the words of the Psalm (2I: I): `O God, my God, look upon me.’ [De Veritate, 29.7] Like St Paul (on whose teaching he is clearly drawing at this point), Aquinas teaches that, just as all people can be said to be `in Adam’, so members of Christ’s Church can be said to be `in Christ’. [Cf. 1 Corinthians 15:21. For a brief account of Paul on `in Adam' and `in Christ' see Morna D. Hooker, Pauline Pieces (London, 1979), ch. 3.] And, so he holds, being in Christ means being the recipient of grace.

Adam’s sin is communicated to others only through bodily generation. In similar fashion Christ’s merit is communicated to others only through the spiritual regeneration of baptism, by which we are incorporated into Christ. `As many of you have been baptized in Christ, have put on Christ’ [Galatians 3:27]. Now that it should be given to us to be regenerated in Christ is itself a gift of grace. Our salvation is, then, from the grace of God.
[Summa theologiae 3a 19.4 ad 3]

Being in Christ, says Aquinas, means standing in relation to God as Christ stands. Insofar as he stands as one who is graced, so do those who are in him. And insofar as his life is one which deserves (or merits) acceptance by God or the outpouring of grace, so is that of those who are in him.

There is the same relation between Christ’s deeds for himself and his members, as there is between me and what I do in the state of grace. Now it is clear that if I in the state of grace suffer for justice’s sake, I by that very fact, merit salvation for myself. . . Therefore Christ by his passion merited salvation not only for himself, but for all who are his members, as well. .
[Summa theologiae 3a 48.1]

In fact, so Aquinas adds, `Christ merited eternal salvation for us from the moment of his conception.’ The only reason why his passion is important in this connection is because `on our part there were certain obstacles which prevented us from enjoying the result of his previously acquired merits. In order to remove these obstacles, then, it was necessary for Christ to suffer. . [Summa theologiae 3a 48.1 ad 2] In Aquinas’s view, our sharing in Christ’s merit depends on him making satisfaction, which means that it is tied in with his suffering and death. [He also thinks that by dying, Christ showed how much God loves us, which thereby stirs us to love in return, and which gives us `an example of obedience, humility, constancy, justice, and the other virtues displayed in the passion, which are requisite for human salvation' (Summa theologiae 3a 46. 3).]

This account goes on to develop Aquinas’ thought on Justification but I’ve decided to save that for another day…


St. Thomas On The Goal Of The Incarnation: Satisfaction — Fr. Brian Davies O.P.

February 18, 2011

The Annunciation by Simone Martini, 1333

“Ave gratia plena dominus tecum” (“Greetings most favored one! The Lord is with thee”) The representation of Gabriel’s voice is interesting. His words are drawn in a straight line from his mouth to Mary’s ear. She’s visibly shrinking back from the angel, not sure what to expect from this encounter. There’s a similar Annunciation dating from slightly later at the Getty Museum, but overall it’s interesting that “word balloons” of one type or another never really caught on, especially when you consider how universally they are used today in narrative art.


In his book The Strangest Way, Fr. Robert Barron relates this scene from the Purgatorio: When Dante and Virgil come to Peter’s Gate, the portal to the mount of Purgatory proper, they face a great bronze door with three steps in front of it colored white, black, and red. These stand for the three attitudes of the repentant soul: confession, contrition, and satisfaction:

“In the brightly polished white of the first step, sinners see themselves with clarity and uncompromising honesty; in the black of the second step, they appreciate the hard, grinding work of contrition, feeling the pain that sin has caused themselves and others; and in the red of the third step, they sense the work of satisfaction that must be done. Acknowledging sin is not enough; restitution must be made in order that justice (right order) might be restored. The word “satisfaction” comes from the Latin satis facere, literally, to make enough, to do the required work.”

The souls doing their purgatorial work release themselves from bondage, because only they know when satisfaction has been done. In the film The Mission, Mendoza, a mercenary and slave trader, murders his brother in a jealous rage. Overwhelmed with guilt, he sits in a squalid cell, refusing to communicate or eat. The Jesuit missionary Fr. Gabriel challenges him with brutal directness, and Mendoza agrees to accompany him to his mission deep in the jungle. But the murderer resolves, as a penance, to drag behind him a terribly heavy bundle containing the accoutrements of his former life — swords, helmets, muskets, and the like.

Through jungle, over mountains, up streams, the poor man drags this load, until his fellow travelers have had enough. They beg Fr. Gabriel, saying, “We think he has taken this far enough.” The priest responds, “But he doesn’t think so, and until he does, I don’t think so either.” Only when he has lugged his penitential burden up a steep cliffside and arrived at the mission does Mendoza relent. When the bundle is cut away, he breaks down in tears both remorseful and joyful: finally he knew that satisfaction had been made. This is Dante’s third step of red.

A lot of what is related in The Mission originates not only in Dante but in the writings of St. Thomas Aquinas:

From The Bible To Aquinas
What does this mean, that “the goal of the Incarnation is `our furtherance in good,’ and that ‘it occurred in order to free us from the thraldom of sin … by Christ satisfying for us’. [Summa theologiae 3a, 1.2]? The roots of the idea lie in the Bible. One of the most prominent and influential teachings in the New Testament is that people subject to sin are restored to a right relationship with God by virtue of Christ’s suffering and death. New Testament authors tend to state this as a fact. They do not explain how the operation works. [1Corinthians 15:3; Romans 5:6 ff]

Sometimes, however, they describe the role of Christ by means of language influenced by the Old Testament notion of acts of atonement (‘at-one-ment’/’bringing together’), by which people do what is needed on their part for sin to be forgiven by God. Thus, for example, the author of 1John calls Christ “the expiation (hilasmos) for our sins’, and St Paul asserts that he is `a means of expiation’ (hilasterion) [1John 2: 2; Romans 3:25. Scholars vary in their translation of hilasterion. Some prefer `propitiation' to `expiation'. Cf. John Ziesler, Paul's Letter to the Romans (London, 1989), 112 ff.]‘

In Hebrews 9, Old Testament images connected with atonement abound with reference to Christ’s death. The general idea seems to be that this was the definitive means by which people are reconciled to God, a means which supersedes the Old Testament sacrificial system. In the Middle Ages there were differing interpretations of these texts. Abelard, for instance, argued, or has been thought of as arguing, that they are best understood as teaching us that God has forgiven our sins and provided us with an inspiring token of his love.

It seems to us that we are justified in the blood of Christ and reconciled to God in this: that through the singular grace manifested to us in that his son took our nature and that teaching us both by word and example he persevered even unto death, Jesus bound us closer to himself by love, so that, fired by so great a benefit of divine grace, true charity would no longer be afraid to endure anything for his sake.
[Epistles ad Romanos 2]

Abelard seems to hold that, if God wills to forgive sin, the sin is forgiven and that is the end of it. He also seems to hold that God has willed to redeem humanity. It appears, therefore, that he believes that the death of Christ is not strictly necessary as a means of forgiving sin or reconciling people with God. Rather, it is God loving us in human form and drawing us to himself as we recognize the extent of his love. As one commentator explains, for Abelard, Jesus was not the Man of Sorrows carrying the burden of our guilt or the victim offered up to the Father as a recompense for our sins, so much as the divine Logos made manifest to the world, incarnate because he would reveal to mankind the path of righteousness. is that people subject to sin are restored to a right relationship with God by virtue of Christ’s suffering and death. New Testament authors tend to state this as a fact. They do not explain how the operation works.[1Corinthians 15:3; Romans 5:6 ff]

Sometimes, however, they describe the role of Christ by means of language influenced by the Old Testament notion of acts of atonement (‘at-one-ment’/’bringing together’), by which people do what is needed on their part for sin to be forgiven by God. Thus, for example, the author of 1John calls Christ “the expiation (hilasmos) for our sins’, and St Paul asserts that he is `a means of expiation’ (hilasterion) [1John 2: 2; Romans 3:25. Scholars vary in their translation of hilasterion. Some prefer `propitiation' to `expiation'. Cf. John Ziesler, Paul's Letter to the Romans (London, 1989), 112 ff.]

In Hebrews 9, Old Testament images connected with atonement abound with reference to Christ’s death. The general idea seems to be that this was the definitive means by which people are reconciled to God, a means which supersedes the Old Testament sacrificial system. In the Middle Ages there were differing interpretations of these texts. Abelard, for instance, argued, or has been thought of as arguing, that they are best understood as teaching us that God has forgiven our sins and provided us with an inspiring token of his love.

It seems to us that we are justified in the blood of Christ and reconciled to God in this: that through the singular grace manifested to us in that his son took our nature and that teaching us both by word and example he persevered even unto death, Jesus bound us closer to himself by love, so that, fired by so great a benefit of divine grace, true charity would no longer be afraid to endure anything for his sake.22

Abelard seems to hold that, if God wills to forgive sin, the sin is forgiven and that is the end of it. He also seems to hold that God has willed to redeem humanity. It appears, therefore, that he believes that the death of Christ is not strictly necessary as a means of forgiving sin or reconciling people with God. Rather, it is God loving us in human form and drawing us to himself as we recognize the extent of his love. As one commentator explains, for Abelard,

Jesus was not the Man of Sorrows carrying the burden of our guilt or the victim offered up to the Father as a recompense for our sins, so much as the divine Logos made manifest to the world, incarnate because he would reveal to mankind the path of righteousness. [J. G. Sikes, PeterAbailard (Cambridge, 1932), 208.] Much more widespread than Abelard’s view, however, was the one classically associated with Anselm, for whom the death of Christ brings us to God because it is a matter of `satisfaction’ (satisfactio).

The word `satisfaction’ was a key-term in Roman law. As F. W. Dillistone explains:

[I]t was a word bearing the fundamental idea that wherever the harmonious ordered working of the whole society has been disturbed by a failure to comply with its essential laws … an adequate reparation must be offered not only in the sense of doing now what was originally commanded but also of offering now an extra which can be accepted as sufficient payment for the delinquency.
[F.W. Dillistone, The Christian Understanding of Atonement (Welwyn, 1968), 188]

For Anselm, `satisfaction’ sums up the significance of Christ’s death since, in his view, the death of Christ made amends required to offset the consequences of sin. We have seen how he denies that sin can be simply forgiven by God. He thinks that compensation has to be made, and here he has in mind a giving back of what is not owed. That is to say, the compensation must be a matter of satisfaction. `Every one who sins,’ he argues, `ought to pay back the honor of which he has robbed God; and this is the satisfaction which every sinner owes to God. [Cur Deus homo? I.II.] And, for Anselm, the satisfaction owed here is provided by the death of Christ.

Why? To begin with Anselm suggests that, because satisfaction involves paying more than what is owed, it is necessary that the one who makes it `somehow gives up himself, or something of his, which he does not owe as a debtor’. [Cur Deus homo? 2.11.]  He then goes on to argue that Christ can satisfy for the sin of human beings by dying since sin deserves death and since Christ was sinless.

Is it not proper that, since what is human has departed from God as far as possible in sin, that which is human should make to God the greatest possible satisfaction? … Now nothing can be more severe or difficult for a human being to do for God’s honor, than to suffer death voluntarily when not bound by obligation. . . Therefore, the one who wishes to make atonement for human sin should be one who can die by choosing to do so. [Cur Deus homo? 2.11.]

According to Anselm, Christ made perfect satisfaction for sin, and thereby made it possible for others to turn to God and enter into the destiny originally intended for them, by going to his death without constraint and out of love for others.

Aquinas on Satisfaction
When Aquinas declares that we are freed from sin `by Christ satisfying for us’ he comes very close to Anselm’s position. For one thing, he believes in that in certain circumstances there is a need for satisfaction. He thinks that people who sin produce a kind of disharmony between themselves and God which needs to be erased if proper relationships with God are to be established again. How is it to be erased? Aquinas is clear that the sinner must refrain from sin. But he does not think that things are made right between sinners and God simply because sinners stop sinning. `If someone is parted from another’, he observes, `that person is not reunited to the other as soon as the movement ceases; the person needs to draw nigh to the other and to return by a contrary movement. [Summa theologiae 1a 2ae. 86. 2] On this basis, therefore, Aquinas maintains that repentance is in order. He also thinks that sinners must do something to make up for what they have done in sinning. His view is that sin deserves punishment since it transgresses the order of divine justice. So compensation must be paid.

A sinful act makes people punishable in that they violate the order of divine justice. They return to that order only by some punitive restitution that restores the balance of justice, in this way, namely, that those who by acting against a divine commandment, have indulged their own will beyond what was right, should, according to the order of divine justice, either voluntarily or by constraint be subjected to something not to their liking. [Summa theologiae 1a 2ae. 87. 6]

One might say that God can merely forgive a person who has sinned. And Aquinas would agree. But he would add that forgiveness without compensation does not do enough to meet the requirements of justice. If you wrong me, I may forgive you and act as if nothing has happened. But even my forgiveness cannot abolish the fact that something has happened and that you are, in a sense, indebted to me. By the same token, so Aquinas thinks, for the consequences of sin to be properly dealt with the sinner must take on some form of penance to atone for the sin, or must patiently bear with one imposed by God. [Summa theologiae 1a 2ae. 87. 6] In other words, sinners must acknowledge the need for satisfaction, which Aquinas also sees as having a remedial or healing effect. As he says in his commentary on the Sentences:

Satisfaction can be defined in two ways. One way is with respect to past faults, which it heals (curat) by recompense; thus it is said that satisfaction is a recompense for injury according to justice’s measure. This is also expressed in Anselm’s definition that satisfaction gives to God an honour due him, due because of a fault committed. Satisfaction can also be defined with regard to future faults, from which one is preserved (praeservat) by satisfaction.
[Scriptum super libros Sententiarum 4. 15. 1].

In the Sentences treatment of satisfaction, Aquinas is drawing on two influential definitions of ‘satisfaction’, one from the Liber ecctesiasticorum dogmaticum, 54 (thought by Aquinas’s contemporaries to be by Augustine, but actually produced by Gennadius of Marseille (c.470)), the other from Anselm’s Cur Deus homo? The first definition runs: `Satisfaction is to uproot the causes of sins and to give no opening to their suggestions’ (Satisfactio est peccatorum causas excidere et eorum suggestionibus aditum non indulgere). The second definition is: `Satisfaction consists in giving God due honor’ (Satisfactio est honorem Deo impendere).

In general, then, Aquinas is at one with Anselm in his view that sin requires satisfaction. He also agrees with another element in Anselm’s position. Anselm presupposes that it is possible for satisfaction to be made by someone other than the person who has sinned, and Aquinas shares Anselm’s presupposition here. He does not think that one person can satisfy for another where the satisfaction is thought of as only remedial. He accepts that satisfaction can have a healing effect in the sense that one who makes it behaves in a proper way and may be improved by doing so. But, since my improvement is a fact about me, not you, he denies that, if you make satisfaction on my behalf, it follows that you improve as well.

On the other hand, he allows that you may take on yourself the punishment due to me for my sin. In Galatians 6:2, St Paul writes: `Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.’ With this injunction in mind, Aquinas holds that, just as it is possible in law for people to pay fines on behalf of each other, so it is possible for people to take on themselves the penalty of other people’s sin. He writes:

Satisfactory punishment has a twofold purpose, viz, to pay the debt, and to serve as a remedy for the avoidance of sin. Accordingly, as a remedy against future sin, the satisfaction of one does not profit another, for the flesh of one person is not tamed by another’s fast; nor does one person acquire the habit of well-doing through the actions of another, except accidentally … On the other hand, as regards the payment of the debt, someone can satisfy for another, provided that the person in question is in a state of charity.
[Scriptum super libros Sententiarum 4. 20. 2.].

Elsewhere Aquinas makes the point by saying that `in some cases those who are different in their purely penal obligations remain one in will, through their union in love. [Summa theologiae 1a 2ae. 87. 7]

From all of this, it should be evident how the thinking of Anselm and Aquinas overlaps on the question of satisfaction. Not surprisingly, therefore, it also overlaps when it comes to satisfaction and the Incarnation. For with the Incarnation directly in mind Aquinas offers what one might readily be forgiven for reading as a paraphrase of Anselm’s Cur Deus homo? argument.

Justice demands satisfaction for sin. But God cannot render satisfaction, just as he cannot merit. Such a service pertains to one who is subject to another. Thus God was not in a position to satisfy for the sin of the whole of human nature; and a mere human being was unable to do so … Hence divine Wisdom judged it fitting that God should become human, so that thus one and the same person would be able both to restore the human race and to offer satisfaction.
Compendium Theologiae ch. 200

`A mere human being’, Aquinas observes at one point, `could not have satisfied for the whole human race, and God was not bound to satisfy; hence it was fitting for Jesus Christ to be both God and human. [Summa theologiae 3a 1.2]

People effectively make satisfaction for an offence when they offer to the one who has been offended something accepted as matching or outweighing the former offence. Christ, suffering in a loving and obedient spirit, offered more to God than was demanded in recompense for all the sins of the human race, because first the love which led him to suffer was a great love; secondly, the life he laid down in atonement was of great dignity, since it was the life of God and of a man; and thirdly, his suffering was all-embracing and his pain so great. [Summa theologiae 3a 48.2]

A sin committed against God, says Aquinas, `has a kind of infinity from the infinity of the divine majesty’. [Summa theologiae 3a 1.2 ad2] For proper satisfaction of sin, therefore, `it was necessary that the act of the one satisfying should have an infinite efficacy, as being of God and of what is human’. [Summa theologiae 3a 1.2 ad2]

Although one person can satisfy for another. . . that person cannot satisfy for the whole race because the act of one mere human individual is not equal in value to the good of the whole race. But the action of Christ, being that of one both divine and human, had a dignity that made it worth as much as the good of the entire human race, and so it could satisfy for others.
[De veritate, 29. 7.]

Aquinas also holds that the fact that Christ is without sin means that he can satisfy for sin properly. Commenting on the phrase `through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus’ in Romans 3: 23, he suggests:

It is as if someone, having committed some fault, became indebted to the king and was obliged to pay a fine. Someone else who paid the fine for this person would be said to have redeemed the person. Such a debt was owed by the whole human race because of the sin of the first parents. So it was that no other one apart from Christ was able to satisfy for the sin of the whole human race since he alone was free of every sin.
[Super epistolam ad Romanos lectura 3.1]

On this basis, Aquinas is able to say that Christ was both a priest and a victim, and that his work bore the character of sacrifice. Christ is a priest since he mediates between people and God and since `the characteristic function of a priest is to act as mediator between God and his people’. He communicates to people the things of God and somehow makes reparation for sin. [Summa theologiae 3a. 22. 1] Christ was simultaneously priest and victim, Aquinas goes on to say, since his priestly work was achieved by his offering of himself as a sacrifice (i.e. as something `placed before God with the purpose of raising the human spirit to him’). [Summa theologiae 3a.22.2]

Yet Aquinas’s teaching on the satisfaction of Christ is not quite that of Anselm. For, unlike Anselm, Aquinas does not think that God can only unite people to himself by means of satisfaction. Anselm does seem to think this. At any rate, he does not entertain the notion of it not being so. But the emphasis with Aquinas is different. As Romanus Cessario states, in his thinking satisfaction `is not something God requires of man, or even of Jesus, as a condition for accomplishing his saving plan. Rather it is the means whereby (God in very fact accomplishes his plan to bring all men and women into loving union with himself. [Romanus Cessario, OP, The Godly Image: Christ and Salvation in Catholic Thought from Anseim to Aquinas (Petersham, Mass., 1990), xviii.]

We have already seen that Aquinas explicitly holds that people can be brought to God without satisfaction since we have noted him maintaining that `God in his infinite power could have restored human nature in many other ways’ than by becoming incarnate. Or as he says in another place: `Simply and absolutely speaking, God could have freed us otherwise than by Christ’s passion, for nothing is impossible with God [Summa theologiae 3a 46.2] Now we need to note that he also maintains both that God can pardon sin without exacting any penalty and that there are important senses in which the passion of Christ was unnecessary. `If God had wanted to free people from sin without any satisfaction at all’, he writes, `he would not have been acting against justice.’

God has no one above him, for he is himself the supreme and common good of the entire universe. If then he forgives sin, which is a crime in that it is committed against him, he violates no one’s rights. People who waive satisfaction and forgive an offence done to themselves act mercifully, not unjustly.
[Summa theologiae 3a 46.2 ad 3]

As for Christ’s passion, says Aquinas, this was not necessary in the sense that it was something `which of its nature cannot be otherwise’, i.e. it was not logically necessary. [Summa theologiae 3a 46.1] Nor was it necessary in the sense of being forced on God or Christ by an agent apart from them. `It was not necessary for Christ to suffer from necessity of compulsion, either on God’s part, who ruled that Christ should suffer, or on Christ’s part, who suffered voluntarily.’  [Summa theologiae 3a 46.1]

With respect to satisfaction and Christ, Aquinas’s position is that satisfaction by Christ is necessary only in two senses. The first is a purely logical one. Given that God has ordained that people be brought to God by satisfaction through Christ, and given that God knows how people are to be brought to God, then satisfaction by Christ is necessary.

Since it is impossible for God’s foreknowledge to be deceived and his will and ordinance to be frustrated, then, supposing God’s foreknowledge and ordinance regarding Christ’s passion, it was not possible at the same time for Christ not to suffer and for people to be delivered otherwise than by Christ’s passion.
[Summa theologiae 3a 46.2 ]

Secondly, so Aquinas argues, satisfaction through Christ is necessary in the sense that it is a means of bringing people to God in a way that accords with God’s justice and mercy.

That people should be delivered by Christ’s passion was in keeping with both his mercy and his justice. With his justice, because by his passion Christ made satisfaction for the sin of the human race; and with his mercy, for since no single human being could alone satisfy for the sin of all human nature. . . God gave people his son to satisfy for them. . . And this came of more copious mercy than if he had forgiven sins without satisfaction.
[Summa theologiae 3a 46.1 ad 3]

Aquinas thinks that God could have acted only out of mercy. But he also thinks that in Christ’s passion God was acting both out of mercy and out of justice. He admits that people could have been brought to God without the Incarnation and, therefore, without Christ suffering. But he is governed by the recognition that the Incarnation and the death of Christ have, in fact, occurred. And he thinks it is good that this should be so. His line is that, where an offence against God is at issue, full satisfaction is possible, and that God has actually laid this on. Given the desirability of full (or, as Aquinas calls it, `condign’) satisfaction, his conclusion, then, is that everything possible has been done to set matters right between people and God. `It was’, he explains, `more fitting that we should be delivered by Christ’s passion than simply by God’s good will.’ [Summa theologiae 3a 46. 3]


St. Thomas Aquinas on Sin and the Goodness of the Incarnation – Fr. Brian Davies O.P.

February 17, 2011

Francisco de Zurbaran, Agnus Dei, 1640

ACCORDING TO I TIMOTHY 1:15: `Christ Jesus came into the world in order to save sinners.’ And Aquinas, of course, accepts this. `The work of the Incarnation’, he says, `was directed chiefly to the restoration of the human race through the removal of sin.’ [Summa theologiae 3a, 1. 5] According to him, God became incarnate so that sinners might be brought back to God. But how can the Incarnation lead to this effect? How can the fact that Christ was God do anything to bring us anything we might think of as salvation?

The General Picture
To begin with, we can start with what he says of the passage in Isaiah in which we read: `For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be upon his shoulder.’[Isaiah 9:16] Aquinas’s Latin Bible (the Vulgate) translates `to us. . . is given’ as datus est nobis, and `upon his shoulder’ as super humerum eius. Treating what `is given’ to us as Christ (the standard Christian reading, of course), he subsequently comments:

Noting the phrase datus est nobis, it can be said that Christ is given to us first as a brother [Song of Songs 8: 1];second as a teacher [Joel 2: 23] … third, as a watchman [Ezeiel. 3]; … fourth, as a defender [Isaiah 19: 20]; … fifth, as a shepherd [Ezekiel 34: 23]; … sixth, as an example for our activities [John 13:15]; … seventh, as food for wayfarers [John 6: 52]; … eighth, as a price of redemption [Matthew 20: 28]; … ninth, as a price of remuneration [Revelations 2:17]. Similarly it should be observed concerning the words super humerum eius that God placed upon the shoulders of Christ first sins, as upon one who satisfies [Isaiah:53:6]; … second a key, as upon a priest [Isaiah 22:2]; … third, principality, as upon a conqueror [Isaiah 9: 6]; … fourth, glory, as upon out who triumphs [Isaiah 22: 24]. [Super Isaiam, 9. I. I.]

The quotation here may seem to lack excitement, for there are no rhetorical flourishes, and the whole thing reads like a list. But the list is important, and its existence serves to tell one a lot about Aquinas’s approach to the life and work of Christ. In just a few lines, he is maintaining that Christ is our brother, watchman, teacher, defender, shepherd, example, food, and means of redemption. He is also telling us that Christ satisfies for sin, that he is our priest, and that he is our ruler and champion.

At the outset, then, we may note a significant fact about the way in which Aquinas conceives of Christ and the achievement of the Incarnation. This is that, unlike some Christian writers, he does not think that we rightly express the truth about Christ by focusing on only one concept or image. `Characteristically, he finds a place for all sorts of insights where others have been hypnotized by one model or another.’ [Herbert McCabe, OP, God Matters (London, 1987), p99] He has a whole range of ways for drawing out the purpose of the Incarnation. He thinks of the life and work of Christ as being significant for various reasons and as having a number of effects.

Just to say this, however, will do little to explain how Aquinas actually does view the life and work of Christ as being for us. To take matters further, therefore, we can turn to what he says about the fittingness of the Incarnation. His treatment of this topic leads him to make several points characteristic of him and is as good a point of entry into the details of his thinking on the life and work of Christ as any other which may be suggested.

Sin and the Incarnation
Presiding over the discussion is the quotation from I Timothy cited above: `Christ Jesus came into the world in order to save sinners.’ In the twelfth century, Rupert of Deutz (c.1075 — 1129/30) held that God would have become incarnate even if people had not sinned.[ He does so in his treatise De gloria et honore Fiji hominis. Rupert of Deutz was the first theologian clearly to articulate the question `Would the Incarnation have occurred if people had not sinned?']

The same view was taught by Grosseteste, and by later Franciscan thinkers including John Duns Scotus (c.1265— 1308).[ Grosseteste's position can be found in his treatise De cessatione legalium, in a sermon, Exiit edictum, and in parts of the Haexemeron. For Scotus's position see Reportata Parisiensia, book 3, d. 7, q. 4. For an account of other medieval authors considering the reasons for the Incarnation, see Peter Raedts, Richard Rufus of Cornwall and the Tradition of Oxford Theology (Oxford, 1987), ch. 9.]

But it is not Aquinas’s view. Or, at any rate, it is not his final view. In the Commentary on the Sentences he concedes that the Incarnation might have taken place even if people had never sinned.[Scriptum super libros Sententiarum 3. 1. 1] And, even in later works, he has no difficulty in entertaining the notion of an incarnation in a world without sin. `Even had sin not existed’, he writes, `God could have become incarnate. [Summa theologiae 3a, 1. 3]

He also declares that `the actual union of natures in the person of Christ falls under the eternal predestination of God’. [Summa theologiae 3a, 24. 5] So he does not take the Incarnation to be a kind of afterthought on God’s part. For him, God is one who eternally and changelessly wills to become incarnate. But, true to his theistic agnosticism, Aquinas’s mature verdict in the Summa theologiae is that we do not have sufficient knowledge of God’s will to be confident in holding that reason can assert that the Incarnation was inevitable. His view is that we must rely on revelation to tell us why God became incarnate. And he thinks that revelation tells us that the reason lies in sin. `Everywhere in sacred Scripture’, he observes, `the sin of the first man is given as the reason for the Incarnation. [Summa theologiae 3a, 1. 3]

Does this mean that our union with God cannot be brought about without the Incarnation? Before the time of Aquinas, the most important and influential treatment of this question was St Anselm’s Cur Deus homo?, where the conclusion reached was that the human race can only be united to God by virtue of one who is both divine and human. In Anselm’s view, human beings were created for happiness with God lying beyond this life, but there is an obstacle to them receiving this happiness. All people have sinned, and a state of cannot be rectified simply by God forgiving them.’ Anselm defines sin as `nothing else than not to render God his due’, and, on this basis, he argues that recompense or compensation must he paid in order for God’s purpose in creating people to be fulfilled.

He also argues that what is paid must be greater than everything other than God, and that the person to pay it must be greater than everything other than God, from which, he thinks, it follows that only God can pay it. At the same time, however, it is people who ought to make the payment, for it is they who have sinned. Thus, says Anselm, it is necessary for one who is both God and human (deus Homo) to pay what is owed, and, in this sense, the Incarnation was required for people to reach their final goal.[Cur Deus homo? I.11]

There is a great deal in common between this account and that of Aquinas. But Aquinas denies that the Incarnation was necessary for the restoration of humanity, if `necessary’ means that people could not have been restored without it. We can, he says, speak of something as necessary for an end to be achieved `when the goal is simply unattainable without it, e.g. food for sustaining human life’. With this sense of necessity in mind, he adds, `the Incarnation was not necessary for the restoration of human nature, since by his infinite power God had many other ways to accomplish this end’.  Here Aquinas invokes Augustine. `Let us point out that other ways were not wanting to God, whose power rules everything without exception.’ [Summa theologiae 3a, 46. 2]

Yet Augustine goes on to say that, assuming the Incarnation to be given, `there was no other course more fitting for healing our wretchedness’. [Summa theologiae 3a, 46. 2]  And Aquinas agrees with this too. We may also call a thing necessary, he says, `when it is required for a better and more expeditious attainment of the goal, e.g. a horse for a journey’. [Summa theologiae 3a, 1. 2] In this sense, he argues, the Incarnation `was needed for the restoration of human nature’. It was, he thinks, a specially fitting way of restoring humanity.

Why? One answer he gives is that the Incarnation shows us God’s goodness. We have already seen that Aquinas denies that the goodness of God entails that God must go out of himself and create. But he does think that goodness in things is caused by God and that it reveals (or `communicates’) something of what God is. He therefore reasons that the Incarnation may be taken as revealing God’s goodness in a special way. It is, he observes, `appropriate for the highest good to communicate itself to the creature in the highest way possible’. [Summa theologiae 3a, 1. 1] Given that Christ is God, he adds, we may look to him especially as an outpouring and reflection of God’s goodness. Nothing in creation can reveal God more than God incarnate.

Another point made by Aquinas is that the Incarnation gives us proper warrant for believing the content of faith. For faith is a matter of believing God, and, by virtue of the Incarnation, God has spoken to us in person. Here again Aquinas draws on Augustine. `In order that people might journey more trustfully toward the truth’, he writes, `the Truth itself, the son of God, having assumed human nature, established and founded faith. [The City of God, I 1. 2] He also suggests that, because of the Incarnation, we have the best possible guide for our behavior together with grounds for hope and charity. For, in the person of Christ, God himself serves as an example to us and shows us how much he loves us.

But Aquinas has more to say than this about how the Incarnation is a specially fitting way of restoring humanity. For he also holds that it was a proper, and indeed necessary, means for delivering people from sin and estrangement from God because it was a matter of `satisfaction’ (satisfaction). The goal of the Incarnation, he explains, is `our furtherance in good’. And it occurred `in order to free us from the thraldom of sin … by Christ satisfying for us’. [Summa theologiae 3a, 1. 2]. More on this in another post…


Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird by Wallace Stevens

February 16, 2011


Among twenty snowy mountains,
The only moving thing
Was the eye of the blackbird.

A startling if not disturbing beginning: a massive white landscape where the bird is a black speck and within the black speck, an eye – two zooms of the mind’s camera — one seems a repetition of the original view: the white sclera with a black pupil; like Aunt Jemima holding up a box with a picture of Aunt Jemima on it or the matryoshka doll where one is nested in the next. We have gone from the expansiveness of twenty snowy mountains to the solitude of the singular eye. But the eye is moving. It must be focused on something… The oddity here is such a massive landscape with nothing moving except the eye. It’s unreal, if not unsettling.  


I was of three minds,
Like a tree
In which there are three blackbirds.

The first person appears, perhaps recounting a memory or is he reacting to the earlier landscape of the first stanza . We know the expression of being of two minds but here Stevens takes the familiar and introduces THREE minds, which we would rarely ever think about. Does it mean three choices? No, he gives us the image of three blackbirds in a tree. Each blackbird corresponding to a different state of mind, perhaps? Will they startle and all fly away at once?


The blackbird whirled in the autumn winds.
It was a small part of the pantomime.

In the haiku parties of ancient Japan you had to rhyme or pun on the images of the previous haiku. To digress, a haiku by Basho and eight variations:

Shizukasa ya iwa ni shimi-iru semi-no-koe
Quiet and rock drilling in cicada’s voice

Amidst the quiet a cicada’s cry penetrates into the rock.

How quiet –
pierces rock   (13)

How still it is!
burning in the sun
Drilling into rock . . .   (3)

>From silent temple,
voice of a lone cicada
penetrates rock walls.   (2)

 silence itself is
in the rock saturated
are cicada sounds   (4)

So still:into rocks it pierces –
the locust-shrill   (8)

So still . . .
into the rocks it pierces,
the cicada-shrill.

The blackbird’s flight is carried by the wind, the bird “whirls”. Its flight is like “pantomime,” a drama played out through soundless motion. More juxtaposition:we move from winter to autumn, yet another haiku like transformation. But it’s only a small part of the play, something remains hidden like the object of the bird’s focus in stanza  one.


A man and a woman
Are one.
A man and a woman and a blackbird
Are one.

Another radical jump. In terms of a Christian anthropology, the sexual differentiation of mankind into man and woman is much more than a purely biological fact for the purpose of procreation. The biology is unconnected with what is truly human in mankind. In it there is accomplished that intrinsic relation of the human being to a Thou, which inherently constitutes him or her as human, the very basis of our personhood . . The likeness to God, the imago dei is, with regards to sexuality, prior to it, not identical with it.

This relation immediately expresses itself in and as relation also to others, which is realized in a privileged way through relation to another who is the same kind of being as myself, but differently: man and woman share a common humanity in the different ways termed male/masculine and female/feminine. Yet we are all part of nature, so even man woman and blackbird can be at one: atonement (at one ment) nothing alienated from the other. 


I do not know which to prefer,
The beauty of inflections
Or the beauty of innuendoes,
The blackbird whistling
Or just after.

A farther stretch, more abstract and symbolic but following on the “at one ment” of the previous stanza , the speaker is of two minds now (stanza  II) whether to prefer inflections to innuendos – a seemingly paradoxical choice but delicately related in the mind of any wordsmith. Both involve an alteration of sorts. An “inflection” is a sound that changes in tone. Birdcalls are full of inflections although blackbirds are noticeably harsh in their calls. Maybe I have the wrong blackbirds in my mind. See George Harrison for the singing variety.

An “innuendo” is a hint or suggestion, an oblique allusion, something implied but not stated outright but usually derogatory. The silence “just after” the bird whistle is like an “innuendo” because you can still hear the whistle in your head even as the sound has died away – it lingers, like the shock of the derogatory. The “at-one-ment” seems over now, a split, a suggestion of falling away.


Icicles filled the long window
With barbaric glass.
The shadow of the blackbird
Crossed it, to and fro.
The mood
Traced in the shadow
An indecipherable cause.

Suddenly all the images are informed by a mood. The dagger like crystals, a throwback to an image of modern glass, an incessant movement back and forth (like the eye of the blackbird in stanza  I?) now transformed to the shadow of the blackbird moving to and fro behind the glass and icicles. Mood is obscure to us, why do we feel the way we do? We are once removed from any reason or image – is the mood caused by the “indecipherable cause” in the shadow or is the mood, traced in the shadow an indecipherable cause? Being human is at once to be impenetrable to ourselves. Only God knows us and, with faith, we know him. By ourselves we know nothing.


O thin men of Haddam,
Why do you imagine golden birds?
Do you not see how the blackbird
Walks around the feet
Of the women about you?

“Haddam,” a vaguely Biblical name also the name of a town between Steven’s Hartford and New Haven. He faults the men of Haddam (men of Adam?) for imagining “golden birds,” while the blackbird is right there in front of them at the very feet of the women that surround them. Are these people who chase wealth, an empty idea, and neglect reality? The thinness alludes to a spiritual poverty. Golden birds are elusive, blackbirds don’t spook because of people.


I know noble accents
And lucid, inescapable rhythms;
But I know, too,
That the blackbird is involved
In what I know.

Like the golden birds of Haddam the speaker knows the elevated rhetoric and rhythms of classical poetry – filled with noble thoughts and compelling beauty. At the same time he knows that the pedestrian blackbird also plays a part in all that. But he only seems to be aware of an “involvement,” there seems little in the way of real knowledge.


When the blackbird flew out of sight,
It marked the edge
Of one of many circles.

The horizon can be likened to a circle surrounding us. The bird passes out of sight when it clears the horizon. Horizons are all relative – the bird’s horizon is one of many. Since stanza  one every view of the blackbird has included the blackbird – this is the first showing the absence of the blackbird.


At the sight of blackbirds
Flying in a green light,
Even the bawds of euphony
Would cry out sharply.

Blackbirds flying In a green light, blackbirds in spring, a sharp break with the previous seasons of winter and autumn in the poem. Bawds of euphony: a bawd is a woman who keeps a brothel; a madam, someone who arranges for someone else to buy pleasure, the Japanese called prostitution “Selling Spring”(baishun – not sure if Stevens knew that or not, but he was a connoisseur of Japanese and Chinese art) – someone who reduces a complex beauty (love, blackbirds in a field of green light) to a cheap pleasure. Even they would cry out sharply if confronted with an epiphany of beauty, a zen moment of satori. Is it a cry of pleasure or pain – or is the line thinly drawn?


He rode over Connecticut
In a glass coach.
Once, a fear pierced him,
In that he mistook
The shadow of his equipage
For blackbirds.

A sharp break with the character of the poem, the “I” is now a “He.” Observing himself on the move in the third person, the man becomes afraid when he sees the in the shadow of his coach (“equipage”) blackbirds. Glass harkens back to the stanza  VI, the icicles now a fear piercing. The shadows are the mood, now of fear. Blackbirds are long a symbol of death. I lived for many years in Japan and a folk image of the farmers who surrounded me was that on the day of someone’s death, blackbirds would circle the home of the deceased. “See the blackbirds around Ohashi’s farmhouse. The old woman died today.” And sure enough, there they were. I still remember my neighbors there.


The river is moving.
The blackbird must be flying.

The river is moving. Spring is approaching, the river is free of ice, the blackbirds must be on the move, flying. We are back in an all natural environment, away from the human preoccupations of the past stanzas. Subtly, a move from the past to the present.


It was evening all afternoon.
It was snowing
And it was going to snow.
The blackbird sat
In the cedar-limbs.

Further tense changes highlight the blackbird in an eternal pose. The day is so dark and cloudy that it looks like evening in the afternoon. Snow was falling and it will continue into the night. Stevens is mixing up tenses and time– we don’t really know when it will stop snowing. The snow is an immense backdrop to the day, like twenty snowy mountains. The blackbird sits in the cedar limbs. Is it motionless? A cyle is complete. But as the clock has turned (plus one) and we have considered the blackbird: a “shadow” that falls between potency and act, desire and consummation; between the man and the woman is the blackbird, one with them; between the man’s mood and his environment is the blackbird, the indecipherable cause of the mood — man’s response to nature(stanza vi); between the men of Haddam and their imagined golden birds is the blackbird, the real on which they construct their empty realities (stanza vii); between the haunted man and his protective glass coach is the terror of the blackbird shadows (stanza xi); it lies at the base of even our powerful verbal defenses, those beautiful glass coaches of euphony; it is, finally, the principle of our final relation to the universe, our compulsions; our extent in space (as well as in time) goes only as far as the blackbird goes – the blackbird is our “line of vision” (ix), as it is our line of thought: when we are of “three minds (stanza ii). The blackbird is by no means all – it is surrounded by the vastness of twenty mountains, the autumn winds, the snow – but though only a small part, it is transformed into the determining focus of relation. Helen Vender summed it up that way and I twisted some of her words around to suit my interpretations here. Sorry, Helen.  

We are still left though with the nagging thought, often said of any poetry or work of art: Well, what of it? “Throughout this development of scientific thought, one result has remained constant. In no field of experiment has science been able to reveal any purpose in the universe. Always, men have hoped that by investigating the mechanism, the organism and the dream, science would discover the use of the mechanism, the goal of the evolving organism, the interpretation of the dream. . .always the priests and philosophers. . .have tried to retire into the area in which science was not yet at work, saying: “The purpose is not in matter, it is in life; the purpose is not in life, it is in the soul.” But there is no room now for further retreat; science has penetrated the last defenses, and once again it has brought back no news of a purpose, but only a system of working. And men are asking in desperation: is existence, then, without meaning or purpose? . . . Indeed the despair is unfounded and the whole quarrel between science and philosophy a quarrel about nothing. The silence of science about purpose is certainly not a coincidence, but neither is it a proof that purpose does not exist.” (Dorothy L Sayers – A Statement Of Faith, 1941). Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird, perhaps


Introductory Papers On Dante – Dorothy Sayers

February 15, 2011


Wm Blake — The Vestibule of Hell and the Souls Mustering to Cross the Acheron

I could never have approached Dante and the Divine Comedy without Dorothy Sayers. She is one of the most discerning readers I have ever encountered. She radiates all of that and more in this book.  She makes me proud to be Catholic.


The Vestibule Of Hell
Let us, then, begin the journey – the journey of self-knowledge into the possibilities of depravity. We may find the gate anywhere in the dark forest, and there are no bolts upon it. It is, says Dante, “the wide open door,” “the gate whose threshold is denied to none.” We enter; we are in the Vestibule…it is populated by those whom both Heaven and Hell reject: those who were “:neither for God nor for His enemies.” Virgil speaks contemptuously of “this dreary huddle” whose “blind life trails on so low and crass” that it would welcome everlasting death.

No reputation in the world it has,
Mercy and doom hold it alike in scorn:
Let us not speak of these, but look and pass.”

…Here are the people who never come to any decision. Do we despise them? Or do we admire their wide-minded tolerance and their freedom from bigotry and dogmatism? They discuss everything and come to no conclusion. They will commit themselves to no opinion, since there is so much to be said on the other side. Like the Duke in Chesterton’s play, Magic, they never give a subscription to one party without giving one to the opposite party as well. They never abandon themselves wholeheartedly to any pursuit lest they should be missing something: neither to God lest they should bind them; they condemn nothing, for fear of being thought narrow. They chose indecision, and here in Hell they have it; they run forever after a perpetually-shifting banner; the worry and fret that torments them as of old stings them like a swarm of hornets. They sweat blood and tears, but in no purposeful martyrdom: the painful drops fall to the ground and are licked up by worms.

Let us not speak of them – let us at any rate not commend their wavering minds and their twittering little indecisive book. “But surely,” they cry, “all experience is valuable! All good and evil are relative! All religions are the same in essentials! One mustn’t draw hard-and-fast distinctions! One must be free to try everything! Look and pass.

Four Principles To Reading The Comedy
Great Poets mean what they say…And it is Dante himself who has setup the necessary sign-posts, in that Epistle To Can Grande which is now almost unanimously accepted as his and (oddly enough) almost unanimously ignored by his interpreters. He says there:

(1)  that the Divine Comedy is allegory…
(2)  he says that this allegory is to be interpreted at four levels; literal, political, moral and mystical…
(3)  the literal signification (only) is concerned with the state of soul after death…
(4)  the allegorical (i.e. the real and important)  signification is concerned throughout with the behavior of man in this life, “according as by good or ill deserving in the exercise of his free will he comes liable to punishing or rewarding justice.”

These four principles, laid down by the poet, seem to me to be indispensable to any intelligent or enjoyable reading of the Comedy …Dante is a difficult poet, in the sense that he deals with a great subject which is not to be mastered without thought, but he is not a willfully obscure poet…He uses no “private” imagery and preaches no esoteric doctrine; his poem is as public and universal as the Christian Faith itself.

Simile, Metaphor And Allegory
An allegory is a dramatized metaphor. A metaphor is a compressed simile. A simile is the perception of likeness in unlike things, presented in such a way that the understanding of the one helps to understand the other.
For example:

“The leading of a Christian life is sometimes attended with spiritual difficulties inducing sensations of alarm and despondency.” That is as dull and abstract statement as I can manage to produce on this exciting topic. Let us enliven it by a simile: “It is as though a man were fighting against a powerful enemy.” Let us now compress the thing into a metaphor: “The Christian soul is often the arena of a hard battle against alarm and despondency.” That is more vivid; “alarm and despondency” have ceased to be abstractions: they are already half-personified, and the “Christian life” is developing a kind of landscape of its own – there is a territory of undefined extent called “the soul” with a battleground in the middle of it and people fighting there. Now lets us take the final step and fully personify both the Christianity and the enemy: “Then Apollyon straddled quite over the whole breadth of the way, and said, I am void of fear in this matter; prepare thyself to die: for I swear by my infernal den thou shalt go no further : here will I spill thy soul.”

Conventional And Natural Symbols
But there is another kind of symbol, very different from [a conventional symbol] which is called a natural symbol. It is most important not to confuse the two kinds, otherwise we shall be falling into misconceptions, especially when we are exploring the borderland between religion and he arts. A natural symbol is a thing really existing, which by its own nature represents some greater thing of which it is itself an instance. Thus, the arch, maintaining itself as it does by the mutual thrust and pressure of all its parts, is at once an instance and natural symbol to that great dynamic principle of stability in tension of which the physical universe is sustained. Beatrice, a real and beloved woman, is, in the eyes of Dante, an instance and a symbol of all creation glorified by love.

The Incarnate life of God on earth, because it is a fact, is at once the supreme instance and the unique natural symbol of the whole history of man, and the whole nature of God and the relations between them. I lay stress on the last example, because it illustrates the comparision between the two uses of the word “symbol”. When certain people say that the story of the Incarnation is “merely symbolic”, they usually mean that it is not a historic fact. But if it is not historic, then it is either not symbolical at all, or else “merely” a conventional symbol. If on the contrary, it is a historic fact, then it is a natural symbol, and by contemplating it we can really learn something about God and Man. Because that, precisely, is the distinctive mark of the natural symbol; it is itself an instance of what it symbolizes: and therefore, by simple being what it is, it tells us something about the true nature of that greater thing for which it stands.

Literal And Allegorical Subjects
The literal subject of [The Divine Comedy] is the state of souls after death – of individual souls, or of souls in general. The allegorical subject – that is the real important subject – is Man, the being endowed with free will, in his whole relation with the God who is righteousness…the allegorical subject is wider that the literal subject and includes it….What happens to you and me after death is both an instance, and a natural symbol of the permanent relationship between Man and God, between free will and justice, whether in this life or in the next, whether seen in the individual soul or in the soul of society, whether in the religious or in the secular sphere, or in any section or department of those spheres.

The Story Of The Way Of The Soul
It [The Divine Comedy] is the story of the way of the soul at at all times. It is, for example, the way of the individual soul in this life. At that level of interpretation, the whole landscape (so to call it) of Hell, purgatory and Heaven, is within the soul. The vision of Hell – the profound and hideous pit narrowing from the weak compliance of a mutual indulgence, through abyss after abyss of ever-deepening corruption to that frozen horror of treachery in which every last vestige of truth and mutuality is paralyzed and atrophied – is the vision , deeper that the psycho–analysts plummet ever sounded, of  the possibilities of corruption in you and in me, of the will to death and chaos and of the lie in the self. The figures of Francesca and Farinata, of Thais and Ciampolo, of Master Adam and Ugolino and Judas are the figures of our own weaknesses and pride and greed and falsehood and treachery: their state is the state to which we may bring ourselves – in which it is possible for our free choice to rivet and fix itself, if, having lost Beatrice, who is grace we also lose Virgil, who is Humanity, Art, Accuracy, Decency –whatever it is of light and sanity that remains with us in our worst moments

All that he has to say about wrath is conveyed by the image of its appropriate expiation – the envelopment in a black and pungent smoke which chokes the breath, shuts out the light of the sun and hides each soul from its neighbor. That is what anger is – that blinding stinging smother which comes rolling upon one, so that one cannot see straight or breathe freely or realize what one is doing. That is the thing that has to be purged away – to be realized as a thing external to the self, and so patiently endured as its own punishment until one is quite sure that no taint of inward assent to it remains within the soul. For we shall remember that in the Purgatorio the duration for the soul’s detention upon any cornice is not imposed from without. The soul is its own judge; so soon as it feels itself free from stain it is free, and arises of its own volition to “go up higher.”

The Double Image Of Sin
In the second circle Dante shows us the double image – the sin as it seemed at the time to Paolo and Francesca; the sin seen sub specie aeternitatis for what it really is. He so manages the description,” says Charles Williams, “he so heightens the excuse, that the excuse reveals itself as precisely the sin…it is lussuria, luxury, indulgence, self-yielding which is the sin, and the opening-out of hell. The persistent parleying with the occasion of sin, the sweet prolonged laziness of love.”

Lust is not merely self-indulgence; it is mutual self-indulgence
. It may put on a specious appearance of generosity, even of self-sacrifice, it is an exchange in love, even if it is an exchange of deadly poison. The gradual and inevitable steps by which the perverted mutuality declines into selfish appetite, into mutual grudging, into resentment and sullen hatred: thence into violence and sterility and despair: and so on into the long and melancholy series of frauds and falsehoods by which human beings exploit one another, — those are the steps by which we painfully clamber down the hideous descent from Acheron to Malebolge.

All Truth Is A Shadow…
A great poem is not the perquisite of scholars and critics and historians: it is yours and mine – our freehold and our possession; and what it truly means to us is a real part of its true and eternal meaning…”All truth is shadow except the last truth. But all truth is substance in its own place, though it be but shadow in another place. And the shadow is a true shadow, as the substance is a true substance.”

Approaching The Imagery Of The Comedy
We [modern readers] are accustomed to poetry in which the language is very highly charged with metaphor, so that the fusion between the symbol and the thing symbolized takes place within the very structure of the image itself. Epithets are transferred from the one to the other; the two significations are not juxtaposed but superimposed – as for example T.S. Eliot’s lines:

There are no eyes here
In this valley of dying starts
In this shallow valley
This broken jaw of our lost kingdoms

Or in Dylan Thomas’ fine poem After The Funeral, in which the figure of the simple cottage woman, Ann, is fused with the monumental image which the poet makes of her in his verse:

Her fist of a face died clenched on a round pain,
And sculptured Ann is seventy years of stone.

This kind of writing is like the modern kind of music in which each discord is not immediately resolved, as in classical music, but the transition is made directly from discord to discord, taking the resolution for granted. Now, in the Comedy we find few examples of this kind of writing, but they are very few – so few that when they do occur the effect of them is quite startling. Nobody, I imagine, can read the first canto of the Inferno without being struck by the fused image of “dove il soltace – that place wherein the sun is mute”; or buy its echo in the fifth canto: “loco d’ogni luce muto – a place made dumb of every glimmer of light”, followed immediately by the paradoxical “che mugghia – bellowing like the sea in a storm”. Again, in the Paradiso, we have the wonderful compressed image:

L’altro ternaro, che cosi germoglia
In questa priavera sempiternal,
Che notturno Ariete no dispolgia.

Perpetualemente Osanna sverna
Con tre melode…

“the secondary ternary [of angels] which thus buds forth in this eternal Spring which nightly Aries does not despoil, incessantly unwinters Hosanna with three melodies…” Here the angels are first compared to flowers budding in spring time; then in the same sentence, to the birds which, in the troubadour’s phrase, are said to un-winter themselves” (this is to put off winter) by breaking into spring-time songs: finally, and still in the same sentence the song itself – the “Hosanna” –is made the direct object of the verb. So that in place of a double simile, we have the impacted metaphor: “They who here bud forth un-winter hosanna.”

The rare presence of this kind of writing in the Comedy shows that Dante could quite well do it if he chose, but that, on the whole, he did not choose. And that for a good reason. The Comedy, as T.S. Eliot pointed out , is itself one gigantic metaphor, susceptible, as we saw earlier, of a great variety of interpretation. Its content is complex: and it deals, especially in the Paradiso, with ideas which are difficult enough, even when straightforwardly stated. If Dante had complicated an already complex theme by highly–complex fused imagery, the effect would have been, from the merely artistic pint of view, to irritate and confuse the reader and to impede the swift pace both of narrative and argument.

The Origin Of Hell
“And if anyone causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to be thrown into the sea with a large millstone tied around his neck. If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life maimed than with two hands to go into hell, where the fire never goes out. And if your foot causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life crippled than to have two feet and be thrown into hell. And if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into hell, where

” ‘their worm does not die,
and the fire is not quenched.’ “

The doctrine of Hell is not “medieval”: it is Christ’s [as the quotation from Mark 9:43-8 above]. It is not a device of medieval priestcraft for frightening people into giving money to the Church: it is Christ’s deliberate judgment on sin. The imagery of the undying worm and the unquenchable fire derives, not from medieval superstition, but originally from the Prophet Isaiah, and it was Christ who emphatically used it. If we are Christians, very well, we dare not not take the doctrine of Hell seriously, for we have it from Him whom we acknowledge as God and Truth Incarnate…that is what Christ taught. It confronts us in the oldest and least “edited” of the gospels [Mark]…one cannot get rid of it without tearing the New Testament to tatters. We cannot repudiate Hell without repudiating Christ.

The Nature Of Heaven — Unconditioned Reality
God in Heaven is the only unconditioned reality. All other reality is derived from God, being either immediately created by Him, as engendered or evolved or manufactured by the mediation of His creatures, interacting among themselves. If we ask why God created a universe of beings, we have to acknowledge that:

[His primal] Why
Lies so deep hid, no wit can wade so far

Nevertheless, knowing by revelation that God is all-goodness and all-love, the Christian may meditate upon the matter: and the best conclusions of Catholic thought have never been more nobly summed up than in the passage in the 29th canto of the Paradiso:

Not that he might acquire any gain for Himself,
For that cannot be;
But in order that His splendor [i.e. the reflection of His glory from His creation] might,
Shining back to Him,
Declare “I am.”,
Therefore in His eternity
Beyond all time,
Beyond all limitation,
According to His good pleasure,
The Eternal Love unfolded Himself into new loves.

The Reason For Heaven
The reason Dante says, was generosity. God…as Plato had written…is not jealous; He wanted and wants to share his reality. He did not want to gain anything for Himself: that is impossible; for all things come from Him, and He could no more add anything to Himself by making a universe than a poet can add anything to himself by writing a poem. But he desired that there should be others, derived from Himself but distinguishable from Him, and with a dependent but genuine reality of their own, having each a true selfhood, which should reflect back to Him the joy and beauty and goodness that they received from Him….God is the light: the derived radiance of the creature is the splendore, the splendor. The right end of every creature is to shine back to God with that splendor, and to be able to say, thus shining (risplendendo): “I am subsisto.

That is a key passage to Dante’s thought and indeed to Catholic thought…For the Gnostic and Oriental religions…the outflowing of the One into the Many is a disaster. “The true end of the Many is to lose the derived self and be reabsorbed into the One…for the Christian the derived self is the glory of the creature and the multiplicity and otherness of the universe it its joy.

When we come to Angels, or “intelligences” in Dante’s phrase, they are thought of as possessing such super-personalities that the Schoolmen refused to think of them as being merely so many members of a species; they said that every angel was a separate species all to himself…the intention is clear; an angel is so triumphantly and perfectly himself that one of these blessed beings differs from another not as one man from another but as one class of terrestrial beings from another.

The Beatific Vision
In the definition of the Schoolmen: Heaven is the seeing of God in his essence.” That is the beatific vision, the true goal of every desire: that is the realization in which the true self of all spiritual beings is made real: behind all the tumultuous images of poet and musician and painter there lies that little dry abstract phrase. The images exist only to bring the significance of that phrase home to us. …”To know a thing in its essence meant to understand its inmost being as to se how all its manifestations and effects necessarily flow from it because they are involved in it.”

To human or angelic nature it is, in itself, impossible to be or to become deiform [“ingodded”, in Dante’s phrase], but to God all things are possible and by impressing His very self, essentially, upon the created spirit e can so transfuse it with the “light of glory” [lumen gloriae] that “in that light it can see the light”. For when assimilated to the essential being of God it can, up the measure of the initial capacity divinely bestowed, see God as He sees Himself. That, we may remember, is what St. Paul says “Then shall I know, even as I am known.”…”Up to its measure” for the infinite must remain in infinite excess of the finite. But the assimilation within that measure may be perfect and may constitute, to that spirit, the absolute fulfillment of its longing for perfect vision and for perfect blessedness…It will be the direct vision of perfect power, wisdom , love; of perfect goodness, truth, beauty; not as abstractions or ideals of our minds, but as the very Being of God, who is Being’s self….Eternity is not an unmeaning stretch of endless time: it is all times and all places known perfectly in one deathless and ecstatic present.

God’s Anger And Pity
Although the unity of Christ’s mystical body is such that the blessed dead are deeply concerned with the living whether to help, pity, pray for them, or feel indignation at their sins, yet in Heaven the powers of anger and pity are experienced pure, and not bound up with a whole complex of confused personal feelings. When God and His Saints are angry, anger does not tear them to pieces, distort their judgment and poison their lives: they pity, but pity does not ravage them with helpless torments and put them at the mercy of the blackmailing egotism which thrives by exploiting and playing up on the feelings of the tender-hearted; in C.S. Lewis’s admirable phrase: “The action of pity will live forever, but the passion of pity will not.”

Self Imagined Other Than God
Taking the situation as the theology of creation gives it to us, we see that the mere existence of a “self” that can in a real sense know itself as “other than” God, offers the possibility for the self to imagine itself independent of God, and instead of wheeling its will and desire about Him, to try and find its true end in itself and to revolve about that. This is the fall into illusion, which is Hell. The creature denies, or rebels against, its creaturely statue, and at once plunges itself into a situation which is bound to be full of frustration and misery, because it is at variance with the facts…Hell is a refusal of assent to reality.. a lack of humility in the face of the facts.

The Fall Of Man
The fall of man happens differently from [the fall of Angels] because man is not a pure intelligence, but partly material, and it is his nature to develop in time and space and grow gradually into the life of Heaven. Therefore his knowledge cannot be purely intellectual, but has to be gained by experience. He is created good, in a good world; but Satan suggest to him that there is a different way of knowing reality – it can be known not only as good, but also as evil. God says Satan, knows it both ways; if Adam and Eve eat the forbidden fruit, they also will know like God. Satan however, carefully omits to point out that God can know evil purely as an intellectual possibility, without experiencing it or calling it into existence; but that Man, if he is to know it at all, must know it, as he knows everything else, by experience. Adam and Eve, intoxicated by the idea of being  “as Gods”, disregard all warnings and eat; they have their desire, and know evil.

Hell And Purgatory
It is the deliberate choosing to remain in illusion and to see God and the universe as hostile to one’s ego that is of the every essence of Hell. The dreadful moods when we hug our hatred and misery and are too proud to let them go are foretastes in times of what Hell eternally is. So long as we are in time and space, we can still, by God’s grace and our own will’s assenting, repent of Hell and come out of it. But if we cay that determination and that choice through the gates of death into the state in which there is, literally, no time, what then? Death, which was the bitter penalty attached to man’s knowledge of evil, is also man’s privilege and opportunity. He is not allowed just to slip away easily, body and soul, into eternity, as the early Fathers imagined he might have done if he had never lost his innocence.

In knowing evil, Man had to know death as a crisis – the sharp sundering of mortal and immortal – and in the crisis he sees his choice between reality and illusion. As it passes out of the flesh the soul sees God and sees its own sin. This crisis and confrontation are technically known as the Particular Judgment. If, in the very moment of that crisis, the true self is still alive, however feebly; if deep down beneath all perversities of self-will, the absolute will is still set towards God’s reality, and the soul can find it in itself, even at that last moment, to accept judgment – to fling away the whole miserable illusion and throw itself upon truth, then it is safe. It will have to do in Purgatory, with incredible toil and without the assistance of the body, the training which it should have done on earth: but in the end it will get to where it truly wants to be. There is no power in this world or the next that can keep a soul from God if God is what it really desires…Hell is the perfect and simultaneous possession of one’s own will forever.

Hell And Heaven
Hell, in a manner, is Heaven in reverse; it is Reality seen as evil and seen so far more perfectly than it can ever be in this world. At the bottom of hell is the Miserific Vision, as the Beatific Vision is a the height of Heaven: and as the Beatific Vision is the knowing of God in his essence, so Hell is the knowing of Sin in its essence…the intimate analogy between the sin and the penalty shows that the suffering of Hell is punishment only in the sense that a stomach-ache and not a beating, is ”punishment” for greed.

What has gone is the glamour; gluttony loses its accompaniments of the bright lights and holiday atmosphere, and is known it its essence as a cold wallowing in dirt, a helpless prey to ravenous appetites. Covetousness and squandering are no longer dignified by names like: ”the economy of thrift and the economy of conspicuous waste” – they are known as meaningless squabble about a huge weight of nonsense; usury and sodomy – however we may like the world to segregate them in the very different spheres of high finance and high aesthetics – are lumped together on the same scorched earth – sterility left to scratch in its own dust-bowl.

The platform rhetoric, the propaganda, the sloppy romanticism, the endless stream of words, words, words dishonestly used to debase language and extinguish right judgment – it all pours down to the ditch of the Second Bolgia where the flatterers wallow in their own excreted filth. The schism that divides the Body of Christ, the sedition that splits the State, the malice that breaks up homes for the pleasure of making mischief, are experienced in the self…

The Subject Of The Purgatorio
The poet who writes of Satan and Hell …must show sin as attractive and yet as damned. If sin were not attractive nobody would fall into it; and because pride is its very root, it will always present itself as an act of noble rebellion. It is only too easy, especially in an age when order and hierarchy are perverted or discredited, to persuade one’s self that rebellion, as such, is magnanimous, that all control is tyranny, the under-dog is in the right because he is vanquished, and that evil is to be pitied the moment it ceases to be successful. But it is not true; “Here pity, or here piety, must die if the other lives.” [Infxx. 28-29]. The poet’s business is to show both the brilliant façade of sin and the squalor hidden beneath it; his task is to persuade us to accept judgment. Purgation is what happens to the soul which, accepting judgment moves out of illusion into reality, and this is the subject of the Purgatorio.

A Foretaste Of Beatitude Or Damnation
Both Heaven and Hell….have certain aspects in common, as direct opposites always must have. Both are eternal states – “absolutely elsewhere” as regards our familiar time-space continuum. Both have that finality and absoluteness which our “climate of opinion” finds so uncongenial. Both can be experienced in this life, if at all, only in moods and moments which, while giving as it were a foretaste of the quality of beatitude or damnation, are other than and discontinuous with, the pattern of daily life. Mystics intensely and many other people less intensely, know these moments of vision which open a window upon a different mode of existence.

Thomas Aquinas On Sin And Purgatory
Two things may be considered in sin: the guilty act and the consequent stain. Now it is evident that in all actual sins, when the act of sin has ceased the guilt remains; for the act of sin makes man deserving of punishment, in so far as he transgresses the order of divine justice, to which he cannot return except that he pay some sort of penal compensation which restores him to the equality of justice. Hence, according to the order of divine justice, he who has been too indulgent to his will, by transgressing God’s commandment, suffers, either willingly or unwillingly, something contrary to what he would wish. The restoration for the equality of justice by penal compensation is also to be observed in injuries done to ones’ fellowmen. Consequently, it is evident that when the sinful or injurious act has ceased, there still remains the debt of punishment.

But if we speak of the removal of sin as to the stain, it is evident that the stain of sin cannot be removed from the soul without the soul being united to God, since it was through being separated from Him that it suffered the loss of its splendor, in which the stain consists…Now man is united to God by his will. Therefore the stain of sin cannot be removed from man unless his will accepts the order of divine justice; that is to say, unless either of his own accord he take upon himself the punishment of his past sin, or bear patiently the punishment which God inflicts upon him; and in both ways of punishment has the character of satisfaction.

Now when punishment is satisfactory, it loses somewhat of the nature of punishment, for the nature of punishment is to be against the will: and although satisfactory punishment, absolutely speaking, is against the will, nevertheless, in this particular case and for this particular purpose, it is voluntary…We must therefore say that, when the stain of sin has been removed, there may remain a debt of punishment, not indeed of punishment absolutely, but of satisfactory punishment.

The Soul Is Self-Regulating
The only way the soul can injure or grieve God is by injuring itself; and the only thing it can restore to God is itself. It can only restore itself and purge the stain, which is separation from God, by accepting judgment and gladly submitting to have the stain scoured off it by any means, however painful; and this “cleansing of the filth” as Dante puts it, is itself the making of the satisfaction….Divine justice so goads that the fear is changed into desire….Nobody comes to release the soul; it is its own judge and when it feels that it is clean, it gets up and goes. It knows itself is clean because it is free to follow its will.

Appreciating Dante
To appreciate Dante it is not, of course, necessary to believe what he believed, but it is, I think, necessary to understand what he believed, and to realize that it is a belief which a mature mind can take seriously. The widespread disinclination today to take Hell and Heaven seriously results, very largely, from a refusal to take this world seriously. If we are materialists, we look upon man’s life as an event so trifling compared to the cosmic process that our acts and decisions have no importance beyond the little space-time frame in which we find ourselves. If we take what is often vaguely called “a more spiritual attitude to life,” we find that we are postulating some large and lazy cosmic benevolence which ensures that, no matter how we behave, it will all somehow or other come out right in the long run. But here Christianity says “No. What you do and what you are matters, and matters intensely. It matters now and it matters eternally; it matters to you and it matters so much to God that it was for Him literally a matter of life and death.”

Julian of Norwich Quotes
To me was shewed no harder hell than sin.

In every soul that shall be saved is a godly will that never assented to sink, nor ever shall…Though the soul be healed, its wounds are seen before God – not as wounds but as worships.

Whatever praises Dante the pilgrim, speaking in character may address to Virgil, Dante the poet knew and intended from the beginning that Virgil and his Humanism were inadequate to salvation. The action of the story tells us so. From the very beginning Humanism is presented to us as damned. In its own strength, it can never rise higher than Limbo; in its own wisdom it can only show us Hell. Grace sends it on its errand of salvation; even as far as Purgatory it can come only in company with a soul in grace, and here it does not of itself know the way and is subject to this authority of all the Ministers of Grace. The spiritual signification resides in the action and the development of the story as whole.

The Active Life And The Church
There is a fundamental error about the Church’s attitude to the Active Life – a persistent assumption that Catholic Christianity, like any Oriental Gnosticism, despises the flesh and enjoins a complete detachment for all secular activities. Such a view is altogether heretical. No religion that centers about a Divine Incarnation can take up such an attitude as that. What the Church enjoins is quite different: namely, that all the good things of this world are to be loved because God loves them, as God loves them, for the love of God, and for no other reason. That is the right ordering of love, about which so much is said in the Purgatorio. A full Active Life, rightly ordered, is therefore in no way incompatible with holiness or even with a rich Contemplative Life. Indeed many of the greatest Contemplatives have been masterly men and women of business – one need only instance St. Augustine of Hippo, St Theresa of Avila, or St Gregory the Great.

The Ways Corruption Is Reached And The Ways Of Restoration
We find it fairly easy to recognize the various stages by which the deep of corruption is reached. Futility; lack of living faith; the drift into loose morality, greedy consumption, financial irresponsibility, and uncontrolled bad temper; a self opinionated and obstinate individualism; violence, sterility, and lack of reverence for life and property including ones’ own the exploitation of sex, the debasing of language by advertisement and propaganda, the commercializing of religion, the pandering to superstition and the conditioning of people’s minds by mass-hysteria and “spell-binding” of all kinds, venality and string-pulling in public affairs, hypocrisy, dishonesty in material things, intellectual dishonesty, the fomenting of discord (class against class, nation against nation) for what one can get out of it, the falsification and destruction of all the means of communication; the exploitation of the lowest and stupidest means of mass-emotions; treachery even to the fundamentals of kinship, country, the chosen friend, and the sworn allegiance: these are the all-too-recognizable extinguishing of all civilized relations….

For Dante the restoration of society must come from within and not from without: the change of heart must precede the establishment of right institutions…The evil loves that have to be purged are the pride that seeks domination and cannot bear to see another person, class, or nation enjoying equal or superior privileges  the envy that is terrified of any sort of competition, lest another’s gain should be one’s own loss  the anger that exacts vindictive reparations and cannot forgive past injuries.

Then there is sloth, which may take the forms either of indifference, delay or despair. Then come the disordered love for things right in themselves but wrong when they are made and end in themselves (a) avarice, which is the love of money, whether in the sense of grudging thrift or conspicuous waste, and the lust for that power which money gives (b) the greed of a high standard of living; and (c) the lussuria which is the exaltation of emotional and personal relationships above all other loyalties, human or divine.

A Story of Conversion
The story of the Commedia is the story of a conversion, and the stages of the process are those which the accounts of many such experiences in real life have made familiar to us. Peculiar to Dante is the part played by Virgil. The sinner, who has fallen so far that he can no longer hear the call of religion, is reached, through the grace of God, at the rational level. He realizes, one may say, that he is on the point of betraying even the ordinary human decencies; and this salutary shock opens his eyes to his condition and starts him on the road to repentance.

This recognition of the cooperation of Nature with Grace is characteristically Catholic…Heaven like Hell is within the soul – it has to choose which possibility to embrace, and, having chosen Heaven, it must die to sin with Christ and make free its will so that it may become one with the will of Christ within it…if love is rightly ordered…it will keep the Law because it wants to keep it and find its freedom in that service.


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