Aquinas on Grace

What’s new in my Ethics class these days?  New insight (for me) on the structure of STA’s Prima Secundae.  Because of it, I did a much better job teaching the necessity of grace this time around.

When I teach STA’s ethics, I work the boys slowly through I-II Q6-19 (a few technical spots omitted for time and condescension to adolescent frailty).  When we get to the end of Question 19, all of Christian ethics is laid out before us waiting to be developed in detail.

It’s a critical moment, in the wonderful Greek sense of that word.  If we stop right here after Q19, I run the risk of teaching something very close to pure Pelagianism.  And yet, mirabile scriptu, if we stop right here after Q19 we actually have everything necessary to avoid Pelagius entirely.

The crowning achievement of Q19 is STA’s treatment of conscience–human reason as the measure of human acts which is in turn measured by eternal law.  For good and for bad, human reason is our natural access to the eternal law necessary for those right actions that bring us to our last end–happiness itself, Good Itself, God.

By the very nature of the two things–eternal law and human reason–it is obvious that discrepancy between them is in principle unavoidable.  And that’s a huge problem, because the final articles of the question argue that the human will, directed by human reason, must conform to the Divine Will not just in some vague and general sense but as the form of our every action.

If all we needed for good action was to do a good thing for a good end in the right mode, Pelagius would have a leg to stand on (and the Summa would be a lot shorter).  But Aquinas argues that for any action to be good it must be directly motivated by the Last End, God, and the Last End’s will.

Never one to gesture vaguely toward a gist, Aquinas marches on for the next 90 questions showing how utterly impossible it will be for us to manage this.  The principled problem of human reason being inapt upholds a series of other problems:

  1. Since we are animals, we are moved (powerfully!) by passions (Q22-48).  We fail to do the good because we are afraid or disgusted or aroused or reckless.  We cover the short version of this in Q6 a6-8, but now we get the full treatment.
  2. Humans have history.  For ease of use we start out investigating the voluntary action in isolation, but our voluntary acts build up habits (Q49-70).  We establish patterns of behavior through our lives.  This can be really, really good–he spends some time borrowing against the future to talk about the good here–but it can also be really, really bad.  The worst are the patterns of behavior we don’t even realize we are trapped in, and which are directing us away from our last end.
  3. Our old friend Original Sin (Q71-89), back-handed compliment to Pelagius for helping us to get clear on it.  Want to know what makes doing good hard?  Having an inclination to malice baked into our composition.  Thanks, Adam.  A fuller investigation into the evil discussed previously but more generally in Q18-19 leaves us pondering a grim position for the moral agent.

So what we need is, for lack of a better pair of words, illumination and strength.  We can’t see enough what we need to do and we don’t have the power to do it.

Wait, here’s a solution: Law (Q90-108)!  By showing us what is good and offering the threat of punishment, Divine Law seems to address the problems–certainly the need for illumination, and possibly the need for strength.  Except, oh wait, St. Paul.  If we were purely rational, perhaps the Law would be enough.  Sadly, we experience it as a force of oppression and even death, since we can’t do it.

What we need is some kind of…I don’t know, Super Law.  It wouldn’t have to say anything new, since the Law is perfectly good at telling us what is good.  It would just need to be something in a different mode, a new mode, a New kind of Law.  I don’t know, maybe a…New Law?  It could consist in the divine power to do what the previous law, call it for convenience the Old Law, pointed out but did not make possible?

For years I thought it a little strange that Aquinas gave such a short little treatment of grace at the end of Prima Secundae.  A little later I realized that, of course, the entire next volume–Secunda Secundae–is his treatment on grace.  But what I realized for the first time this year is that I-II Q109–on the necessity for grace–is almost a joke.

By the time Q109 rolls around, it seems that no worry could be less pressing than this.  We’ve been arguing for the last 100 questions that grace is absolutely necessary!

Q6-21, the technical stuff, shows that we are incapable of knowing and directing ourselves to the Last End by reason even in principle.  Q22-48 shows that our animality leads us astray early, often, and with great power.  Q49-70 shows that we weave ourselves into prisons of bad habits, Q71-89 reminds us of the devastating impact of Original Sin, and Q90-108 shows the insufficiency of the Law to fix the problem.

Q109 is just getting some of the finer points and the side issues down.  It’s a consolidation question, a catch-your-breath, here-put-this-harness-on moment right before Aquinas kicks us off the edge of the cliff to base-jump down into Secunda Secundae‘s worlds of grace.

And, to bring this home, Aquinas already told us all of this in Question SIX.  I tell my students every year–just keep re-reading Q6 over and over all semester and you’ll do fine.  Everything we read all semester is just a finer and finer return to the basic points made at the very beginning.

Begin with the end in mind, folks.

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