Maybe you cover this in your new book on virtue, but I’m puzzled about how the virtues can “moderate” our desires. For example, does the virtue of temperance somehow “know” what is moderate? If not, then doesn’t everything really depend on the judgment of prudence? So in that case, what’s left for temperance to do? To put it another way, in the temperate person is reason embedded in the desires, or do the desires merely obey reason?
Any thoughts would be most appreciated!
I think I see what is puzzling you. Actually, the exercise of each moral virtue results from a partnership of two virtues. One of them is the moral virtue itself (in your example, temperance), and the other is the intellectual virtue of prudence, or practical wisdom.
Suppose, then, I am offered the chance of devouring a “You Can’t Eat it All!” ice cream Sundae at the local ice cream parlor, containing sixteen scoops of assorted flavors, along with bananas, cherries, pineapple, peanuts, walnuts, three different syrups, and whipped cream. What happens?
By itself, my temperance can’t locate the mean between deficiency and excess. It doesn’t “know” how much ice cream it would be appropriate to eat. On the other hand, it isn’t passive either. It really does have something to do.
First, through temperance I am habituated to not letting my appetites go hog-wild. So, even without knowing how just much it would be appropriate to eat, my appetite is probably not going to find the “You Can’t Eat it All” sundae an appealing way to conclude a meal of four cheeseburgers.
Moreover, through temperance my appetite listens to prudence, and prudence, unlike temperance, can locate the mean. Of course, depending on my health and circumstances, prudence may give me different instructions. Am I healthy or sick? Am I an overweight older man, or a young man with a lively metabolism who needs to take in lots of calories? Is it a feast day, an ordinary day, or a fast? That sort of thing.
So, yes, temperance really does moderate my appetite, but it doesn’t actually incorporate practical wisdom; it cooperates with it. It achieves the mean, not because it knows the mean, but because practical wisdom is its advisor. You might say that practical wisdom takes care of the fine tuning. Better, you might say that temperance is the virtue that enables me to respond to the counsel of prudence. Because of temperance, I desire the right ends; because of prudence, I pursue the right means.
As you can see, then, moral virtue and prudence are connected. On one hand, if I am intemperate I will find it much more difficult to achieve prudence about food and other pleasures – I will always be telling myself what I want to believe about the right thing to do. On the other hand, if I am imprudent I will find it much more difficult to achieve temperance itself -- I will have habituated my appetites improperly.
In fact, indirectly, not only will intemperance make it more difficult for me to acquire prudence, it will even make it more difficult to practice the other moral virtues such as justice and fortitude. Consider a young man who is intemperate about sex. Do you think he will be just to his girl friends? Or consider someone who has habituated himself to giving in to every bodily desire. Do you think he is likely to be courageous in the face of bodily danger and discomfort?
Hope this helps!
True story: At a private liberal arts college, four out of 16 students are failing the freshman writing course. The reasons: Failure to turn in the assignments on time (sometimes not at all); failure to address instructor’s comments on essay drafts; failure to use a sufficient number of sources in the research papers (sometimes not using any sources at all); inability or unwillingness to correct grammatical errors pointed out by the instructor.
The instructor meets with director of writing program to discuss plans for upcoming year. The same director had revealed, at a faculty meeting, that in her own writing classes she had given an A to every student.
Instructor asks whether it is likely that there will be courses for him to teach next year.
Director (sighs): "What do you think?"
Instructor: "I don't know, what do you think?"
Director: "Students pay a lot of money to come here, and they expect certain things."
Readers of this blog know that I have been waiting for the publication of my new book, Commentary on Thomas Aquinas’s Virtue Ethics. I am pleased to say that the book is available now both in print and electronic editions. (My author copies have just arrived.)
There on the cover is a statue of the Archangel Michael at war, calmly driving a sword down the flaming mouth of the Serpent: A fitting image of virtue conquering vice. It adorns the Basílica de Guadalupe in Mexico City.
This is the latest in my series of commentaries on aspects of the Summa Theologiae. The first was my Commentary on Thomas Aquinas’s Treatise on Law, which came with a free online partner volume, Companion to the Commentary. Among some writers on ethics, there is a certain tendency to separate rules too sharply from virtues, but as the Angelic Doctor knew, neither can be understood properly apart from the other.
Old Testament stories like the divine command to Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac present real difficulties, but the main difficulties are false ones.
The greatest false difficulty is expressed in the question, “How could God have approved child sacrifice?” He didn’t. Since God intervened to prevent the slaughter, the point of the story of the command to sacrifice Isaac is not that He wanted child sacrifice, but that Abraham needed to be trained to believe what God has promised him. For Abraham, the issue of trust arises because God has promised to make of his descendants a mighty nation, but now, in Abraham’s extreme old age, He instructs him to slay his only descendant. Indeed, as we learn when the divine law is given, much later in salvation history, God loathes child sacrifice -- but Abraham comes too early in history to know that. He is surrounded by nations that sacrifice their children to their gods. Perhaps it didn’t shock him.
By the way, Abraham did tell Isaac that the Lord Himself would provide a sacrifice -- and He did. It may also be that not only Abraham’s trust, but also Isaac’s trust is at stake. In a letter to the Christians at Corinth, St. Clement, one of the Patristic writers, maintains that “Isaac, with perfect confidence, as if knowing what was to happen, cheerfully yielded himself.” And as we know now, a substitute sacrifice has been provided for all of us.
Ever seen video of protestors dragged off by police? It may not be what you think – at least not in Berkeley, California.
When I read the item in the Wall Street Journal, I wondered whether it was a satire. Nope. You can check it out for yourself at the Event Planning Checklist provided by the Berkeley Police Department for groups planning protests.
First the checklist instructs the organizers to file event forms at the Recreation Department. (Did you know protests are recreation?) Next comes a section asking them to provide the Police Department with information about such things as the purpose of the protest, the route of the march, what the organizers will be wearing, and so forth. The provide-this-information section closes with the following questions:
• Do you want symbolic arrests?
• If so, where and when?
A good many Christians treat either liberal or conservative ideology as the authentic political expression of Christianity. For example, the left tends to view having compassion for the poor as practically identical with being liberal, and the right tends to view having respect for 'traditional values' as more or less the same thing as being conservative. Back in the ‘nineties, I wrote a pair of articles for First Things magazine to explore the problem -- one called “The Problem with Liberalism,” the other “The Problem with Conservatism.” Last year, The Austin Institute for the Study of Family and Culture asked me, not to give a rehash of the articles, but to reflect on the problems with liberalism and conservatism today. They talked First Things into sponsoring the lecture, and I’ll be giving it this very week.
The date is Thursday, April 27. The time is 5:30pm. The location is The University of Texas at Austin, Flawn Academic Center (FAC) Room 21, 2304 Whitis Ave #338, Austin, Texas. If you’d like to come, you can register to attend here. I hope you can come.
The Lord is Risen! This is an abbreviated outline of one of Thomas Aquinas’s homilies for the season of Easter. Besides being crisp and illuminating, it shows how he labored to extract every last grain of meaning from every pronouncement of Scripture. I think it’s an excellent model.
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Christ said, “I came from the Father and have come into the world; again, I am leaving the world and going to the Father." – John 16:28.
He “came forth from the Father” for three reasons: To He might manifest the Father in the world; to declare His Father's will to us; and to show the Father's love towards us.
He “came into the world” for three reasons: To enlighten it; to reconcile it to God the Father; and to deliver it from the power of the Devil.
He “left the world” for three reasons: Because of its wickedness; because of the perversity of its ingratitude; and to give us an example – “Do not love the world or the things in the world”; “You are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world.”
He “ascended to the Father” for three reasons: That he might intercede with Him for us; that He might give to us the Holy Spirit; and that He might prepare for us a place with the Father.
To which place may He lead us. Amen.