Aquinas on the “Buffoons and Comedians” of the Red Carpet (literally)

The Academy Awards are tomorrow, making it an opportune moment to reflect, not so much on what Aquinas might have said about the event, so much as what he actually did say about it. In his commentary on Aristotle’s discussion of the excess and vice of frivolous ostentation, Aquinas writes:

He says that the man who is immoderate in grand outlays—called banausos because he consumes his goods as in a furnace—exceeds the munificent person not in the absolute amount spent but in spending in a way contrary to what he should. The reason is that he uses much money in superfluous expenses, and wants to make lavish expenditures contrary to harmony, i.e., against the right proportion—which is said by way of metaphor—for instance, he entertains buffoons and comedians with nuptial banquets, contributes much to actors, even rolling out the red carpet for their entry, as the Megarians (certain Greek citizens) are in the habit of doing. He does all these and similar things not for some good but for making a show of his riches, thinking that he will be admired for this reason. However, he does not always spend lavishly but sometimes he falls short. Where he ought to spend much, he spends little; but where little, much. The reason is that he does not keep his eye on the good but on vanity. (Commentary on Aristotle’s Ethics, bk, 4, ch. 1, Litzinger trans.)


The Hobbits’ not-very-Thomistic view of treasure-finding

I happen to be teaching classes on both The Lord of the Rings and Aquinas’s economic theory at the moment, so you’ll understand why this stuff is on my mind.

In my recent post on the hobbits’ not-so-positive attitude towards possessions, I noted the passage in which Frodo had a “tussle with young Sancho Proudfoot (old Odo Proudfoot’s grandson), who had begun an excavation in the larger pantry, where he thought there was an echo. The legend of Bilbo’s gold excited both curiosity and hope; for legendary gold (mysteriously obtained, if not positively ill-gotten) is, as every one knows, any one’s for the finding–unless the search is interrupted.”

Contrary to Tolkien’s narrator, however, it’s not quite true that “every one knows” that legendary gold is free for the finding and taking. According to Aquinas, for example,

With regard to treasure-trove a distinction must be made. For some there are that were never in anyone’s possession, for instance precious stones and jewels, found on the seashore, and such the finder is allowed to keep [*Dig. I, viii, De divis. rerum: Inst. II, i, De rerum divis.]. The same applies to treasure hidden underground long since and belonging to no man, except that according to civil law the finder is bound to give half to the owner of the land, if the treasure trove be in the land of another person [*Inst. II, i, 39: Cod. X, xv, De Thesauris]. Hence in the parable of the Gospel (Matt. 13:44) it is said of the finder of the treasure hidden in a field that he bought the field, as though he purposed thus to acquire the right of possessing the whole treasure. On the other Land the treasure-trove may be nearly in someone’s possession: and then if anyone take it with the intention, not of keeping it but of returning it to the owner who does not look upon such things as unappropriated, he is not guilty of theft. In like manner if the thing found appears to be unappropriated, and if the finder believes it to be so, although he keep it, he does not commit a theft [*Inst. II, i, 47]. In any other case the sin of theft is committed [*Dig. XLI, i, De acquirend. rerum dominio, 9: Inst. II, i, 48]: wherefore Augustine says in a homily (Serm. clxxviii; De Verb. Apost.): “If thou hast found a thing and not returned it, thou hast stolen it” (Dig. xiv, 5, can. Si quid invenisti). (ST II-II.66.5, ad 2)

So there you go: even if young Sancho had found some treasure hidden in Frodo’s larger pantry, according to Aquinas, it would not have been his “for the finding,” but theft (but then you already knew that, didn’t you?).

Christ’s death not commanded by God, yet willed by him–not necessary, but free

Anselm’s Cur Deus Homo, part 11.

For Anselm, then, Christ’s suffering and death were not commanded by God, but this does not mean that they were not willed by him. As has been said previously, because of his perfect obedience as a human being, there was nothing in Christ’s specifically human nature that required his sacrificial death for the human race, yet the latter was nevertheless something which Christ willed to undertake as an act that went “above and beyond,” as it were, his mere human obedience. And like all proper acts of will, Christ’s will to suffer and to die came from God. God gave Christ the will to suffer and to die, in other words, not in satisfaction of his created human nature per se (for his human nature needed no such will for its perfection or completion), but simply as an act of Christ’s free will unnecessitated or uncompelled by his or any other created nature. The resulting paradox is that only as a free, uncoerced choice, absent of all moral duty or divine command, could Christ’s suffering and death be (as Anselm shall explain more fully later) a sufficient or suitable repayment of humankind’s debt of sin, and so fulfill God’s own uncommanded wish that the human race should be saved.

Intending the Necessary

Anselm’s Cur Deus Homo, part 10.

If Anselm’s account of the merely hypothetical or conditional necessity of Christ’s death for his exaltation gets us a step closer to the much more comprehensive and unconditional necessity at the heart of the Christian account of salvation, it is only a step. For as Anselm’s further explanation of this conditional necessity reveals, an important and illuminating difference remains between it and the kind of necessity he will go on to identify with the Incarnation itself. Summarizing the general principle involved in Christ’s post-mortem exaltation, Anselm asks us to “Suppose that we intend to perform some action (intendimus facere aliquid) but that we decide to do beforehand another action by means of which the intended action will be done.” Under such a circumstance, Anselm avers, “the intended action (fit quod intendimus) is rightly said to be done because of the fact that the preceding action, on account of which the intended action was delayed, has occurred…” The situation, then, is one in which an agent, in a two-step process of deliberation, first decides to perform a particular action (in God’s case, the act of exalting Christ), and afterwards chooses a second, preceding action (for God, the death of Christ) by which, or at least after which, the originally intended action will be achieved. Anselm further illustrates the point with the example of a man who wants to cross a river, but who also decides that he will only cross it by boat, even though he could also cross it by horse. Thus, the man may truly be said to have crossed the river “because” a boat was made available, even though there were other means for crossing it at his disposal. What is important to note is that in none of these cases is it the originally intended action itself—the end—that necessitates or requires the means or occasion upon which the end is brought about, but merely the fact that the agent in question happened to decide that the end should be brought about by this means and no other. This is important because this is basically the situation Boso—mistakenly, it will turn out—believes to be the case with the Incarnation. As we have seen, the question raised by Boso, in effect, is why God, given his first-order intention of saving or forgiving the human race of their sin, did not choose a more economical or felicitous means for doing so, implying that, for Boso, the end of human salvation did not, in and of itself, require or necessitate the means of Christ’s Incarnation and death. Anselm’s initial response, as we saw, was to counter by saying that the Incarnation is not so much inefficient as it is costly, precious, and fitting. From this point forward, however, Anselm’s larger purpose in the Cur Deus Homo will effectively be to argue that the end of human salvation, properly understood, while temporally and conceptually distinct from the means of the Incarnation, is nevertheless so logically and metaphysically bound up with the Incarnation that there really is or was no other possible means for accomplishing it. It is as though the original intention of the man in Anselm’s above illustration was not merely the generic goal of crossing-the-river, only to be followed later by a subsequent intention to cross the river in a particular way, but from the very beginning comprehended the more determinate and complex action of crossing-the-river-by-boat, making the specific action of using a boat not incidental, or even a mere condition of, but in fact essential to the particular action or end in view. Anselm’s strategy in the remainder of the dialogue, accordingly, will be to show that, however differentiable and hence separable the Incarnation and human salvation may seem to the finite, human mind, careful attention to and exegesis of the inner logic and “hidden necessities” of the whole problem of human sin and condemnation reveal a different story: that the entire means-end structure of human salvation comprises on God’s part an inherently undivided, organically interconnected, complex and con-created divine intention in which the very meaning and possibility of the end is lies precisely in its means.

The Conditional Necessity of Christ’s Death for His Exaltation

Anselm’s Cur Deus Homo, part 9.

While Christ’s suffering and death may have been accidental to his obedience, they were not on that account accidental to his exaltation. Boso had previously cited the Apostle Paul’s statement in Philippians 2:8-9 about how Christ “humbled Himself and became obedient to the Father unto death, even unto death on the cross; for this reason God has also exalted Him” (ch. 8). In saying this, Anselm now explains, the apostle did not mean to imply that Christ could only have been exalted through his obedience unto death (for as Anselm had just argued, Christ’s obedience did not require his death), or, therefore, that his exaltation could only be awarded for his obedience unto death. As Anselm points out, even prior to his death there was already a kind of exaltation of and reward given to Christ, as when he says that all things had been given to Him by the Father (Luke 10:22) and that all the Father’s possessions were His (John 16:15). Just as Christ’s obedience without his death was possible, at least so far as his obedience alone was concerned, so also his exaltation without his death, so far as his exaltation alone was concerned, was also possible. Nevertheless, unlike Christ’s suffering and death, which remained entirely accidental and therefore extrinsic (albeit divinely ordained) to his human obedience, even while being necessary and intrinsic to human salvation, Anselm asserts that there was a hypothetical or conditional sense in which Christ’s death was necessary for his exaltation, namely insofar as God had freely determined that, of all the ways in which it was in fact possible for Christ to be exalted, his exaltation would principally be achieved through his death. As Anselm puts it, “the Son, together with the Father and the Holy Spirit, had decreed (disposuerat) that He himself would manifest to the world, in no other way than by dying, the loftiness of His omnipotence.” It is in reference, finally, to this divine determination that Christ be exalted through his death, as opposed to all the other possible ways in which he might have been exalted instead, that Anselm says Christ’s death is “not unfittingly said to occur because of His death.” From the entirely accidental connection between Christ’s obedience and his death, to the merely hypothetical or conditional necessity of Christ’s death for his exaltation, Anselm has moved us a step closer to what he will show to be the much more comprehensive and unconditional necessity at the heart of the Christian account of salvation.

Christ’s obedience the per accidens cause and possibility of his death

Anselm’s Cur Deus Homo, part 8.

Even if we grant Anselm’s outsourcing of Christ’s labor and lowliness to his human nature, this comes with its own set of problems for Boso, principally how God could be just in commanding a good and innocent man to suffer and die. Much as he had previously denied that it was Christ’s divine nature that underwent his human suffering, Anselm now answers Boso by denying that Christ’s human suffering was in fact commanded or required by the Father, at least so far as Christ’s human obedience was concerned. As a human, what God required of Christ was nothing more than what he requires of every human being, namely their complete obedience and rectitude of will (ch. 9). As suffering and death are punishments for disobedience, because Christ himself was perfectly obedient, it follows that God did not and could not require suffering and death of him as a condition of his properly human obedience. Thus, while the ultimate argument of the Cur Deus Homo is that Christ’s suffering and death were necessary to accomplish humanity’s salvation, Anselm’s point here is that his suffering and death were nevertheless not necessary for, but were in fact the mere accidental consequence—even if divinely foreseen or ordained—of his obedience. His obedience, in other words, happened to lead, under the particular circumstances in which it was lived out, to his suffering and death, but these were not on that account at all logically required or necessitated by his obedience. (To use the distinction introduced by Aristotle and revived by later scholastics, Christ’s obedience, and prior to it, God’s command of that obedience, were only the per accidens rather than the per se causes of his suffering and death. Whereas a per se cause is one that has the production of a given effect as its proper intention, operation, or activity, a per accidens cause is one that does not normally, naturally, or necessarily produce a given effect, but just happens to do so in the course of producing those effects that are normally and per se attached to it.) Thus, as Anselm puts it, “God did not compel Christ to die, for in Christ there was no sin. Instead, Christ willingly underwent death—not by obeying a command to give up His life but by obeying the command to keep justice. For He persevered so steadfastly in justice that He incurred death as a result.” So far as his mere human obedience was concerned, therefore, Christ’s not dying was in fact possible, but so far as God’s purpose (and Christ’s purpose as the God-man) to save mankind was concerned, only here did Christ’s death become necessary. Not the Father’s prior command, accordingly, nor even the Son’s obedience in the abstract, but the Son’s actual obedience in a fallen world in which his perfect justice could and would lead to the jealousy, hatred, and reprisals of sinful men—this was the unique circumstance and possibility of the latter’s suffering and death.

Impassibility, or ‘Suprapassibility’? Christ’s Divine Nature as the Possibility of His Human Nature

Anselm’s Cur Deus Homo, part 7.

After an interlude in which Boso mounts an effective criticism of the Ransom Theory of Atonement (ch. 6-7), when Anselm presses him to state what it is precisely that people find in the doctrine of the Incarnation to be contrary to reason, Boso reiterates the earlier aesthetic objection with now an additional, economic twist: “that the Most High descends to such lowly things, that the Almighty does something so laboriously” (ch. 8). This time, surprisingly, instead of countering with an argument for the fittingness of God doing such things, Anselm responds by conceding the objection, all the while denying that it was the divine nature rather than the human nature of Christ that endured such labor and lowliness. According to Anselm, “For without doubt we maintain that the divine nature is impassible—that it cannot at all be brought down from its exaltation and cannot labor in what it wills to do… Therefore, when we state that God undergoes some lowliness or weakness, we understand this to be in accordance with the weakness of the human substance which He assumed, not in accordance with the sublimity of His impassible nature.” Anselm reprises here his position on divine impassibility from Proslogion 8, where he had argued that, because God has no passions and hence can have no “heart sorrowful out of compassion for the wretched—the very thing which being merciful is,” it follows that while God may be merciful “from our point of view” and in our experience of his “effects,” he is not merciful in himself or in his own “experience.” Yet Anselm’s argument may be set in contrast with his own discussion of divine sense perception only two chapters earlier in the Proslogion. Although God does not have a body, Anselm reasons, because sense perception is ordered towards knowledge, and “whatever in some ways knows is not unsuitably (non inconvenienter) said in some way to perceive,” and because God knows all things, God may be said not to lack sense perception so much as to be “supremely able to perceive” (Pros. 6). If so, then by the same reasoning we might conclude, contrary to Anselm, that insofar as creaturely passions such as mercy and vicarious suffering are ordered towards love, and God is love, neither should it “unsuitably be said” that God is merciful or that, in the Incarnation, there is a sense in which even the divine nature itself “undergoes some lowliness or weakness.” If it involved a created perfection, after all, for Christ’s human nature to experience these things, and if all created perfections preexist in the divine being (as Anselm argues, for example, in Monologion 9), then at some level we must affirm that all the goodness and sacrifice involved in the course of Christ’s human experience preexisted—albeit in an eminent and impassible, or as we prefer to say, superpassible fashion—there as well. On Anselm’s own theological metaphysics, in sum, it is what the divine nature of Christ is that is the foundation of every creaturely possibility, including the possibilities of Christ’s human nature.