A Heresy on Charity?

Many years ago I had a terrific argument with one of my Ethics students in which he gave the most cogently argued objection I’ve ever fielded as a teacher.  We were going over St. Thomas’s definition of enjoyment in the Summa which is, boiled down to simple terms, “to adhere lovingly to a thing for its own sake.”

My student (does he even remember that he did this, I wonder?) argued that this was an impossibility, since we would know that this brings us happiness and therefore “for its own sake” would be lost in favor of “for the sake of something else (my happiness).”  I don’t think he was working off of any research or prior reading.  I think he’d argued his way directly into a famous self-interest objection against eudaimonism.

We went back and forth a little and I went the boring route of talking about intention and whatnot and that was the end of that.  But for some reason this moment came back to me powerfully this year as I worked my juniors through another section of our Ethics class: Pieper on Prudence.

So here’s my potentially crazy thought.  What if I bite the bullet on my former student’s objection and say, “You are 100% correct.  We can never love any end with the kind of perfect self-forgetfulness necessary to meet this definition.  Our wills just don’t work that way.  And that is why we require the supernatural virtue of charity.”

Any time we adhere to a thing for the sake of something else we are willing it as a means, as useful.  Now in the ordinary course of human action, that’s not surprising—we will lots of things, maybe everything, as both means and end.  We will things in themselves to some extent and because they will get us to a further end.

But to really adhere to the Last End, for it to be truly last and truly end, there can be absolutely no admixture of “for the sake of something else.”  And if our will, as an appetite, is constantly locked in the reflexive action of seeking its own fulfillment, then any end will always entail a “for the sake of something else.”  It is the limit of the natural power.

We require, therefore, a divine action in us to make it possible for our will to accomplish what it cannot by nature.  Not just a one-off action, but a habit, a new, second, better nature from which our acts of the will can proceed.  With that divine power, the will becomes capable of truly self-forgetful love of the Last End, not because we are ordered to, not because of the rewards promised, not because I know it will make me happy—simply and truly and exclusively because the Last End is good in itself, for no other reason.

Without the theological virtue of charity this is impossible, and so all our voluntary actions are defective at root.  Sure, I can will a good object for a good proximate end in good circumstances, but I can never properly refer that action to the Last End as its remote, formal cause.  Boom! Natural law ethics meets its need for grace head on.

What else?  I think I can argue backwards from here to the necessity for the theological virtue of faith.  To lovingly adhere to the Last End in itself, for its own sake, I have to actually know it in itself.  It’s not enough to be the greatest whiz-bang metaphysician in the history of the world.  That and five dollars will get you a small coffee.  No, I need another supernatural virtue which perfects my intellect so that I can know the thing that I need to love.  Boom! Necessity of faith for salvation.

What else?  I’ve enshrined charity as the supreme and absolutely indispensable virtue for the moral and spiritual life.  Everything else in Ethics takes place down-stream from apprehension and volition of the end.  Charity is the perfection of the will at this stage, and so every other virtue is downstream from it (especially Prudence, which is exactly the topic I was teaching when this wacky idea came to me).

Now, what are some worries?  I’ve come down very hard on a famous question.  Can there be a natural end for the rational animal in addition to the supernatural?  Answer: absolutely not.  I’ve obliterated the possibility of that (I think).  I am of mixed minds about this, although I have to say that I am generally quite happy with the outcome.  But any time you bring down the hammer and destroy one side of a famous argument, you should check to make sure you are not missing something obvious.

Or again, this answer seems a little too specific and does not exactly comport with my previous muddled thoughts about the necessity for charity.  My normal approach to the need for charity would be along the lines of magnitudes: our will is too weak to love the Last End enough, with suitable intensity, etc.  Just as the intellective power lacks the strength to comprehend the infinite object of Truth, the volitional power lacks the strength to embrace the infinite object of Good.  Grace = power.

But now a counter-worry, for perhaps I have resolved something there—we typically say in our devotion that we never love God as much as God deserves.  But surely that would not be true if charity were that habit that perfected our will sufficiently to love God with suitable (infinite) intensity.  So perhaps this solution, along the line of mode, is better.

What to do now?  Of course there can be only one next step: read through STA on the virtue of charity again and see what he says.  I’m out of my element here, as my ethics class is far more focused on practical reason and acquired virtues.  But hey, what else am I gonna do…

I have to say, my mind feels quite a bit more nimble these days—and not just because I’m emerging from baby fog.  Having a real metaphysician on staff with me who likes to discuss these things has definitely sharpened my thoughts and allowed me to draw forth coherently a lot of the material I’ve been building up over the last ten years of teaching.  And, could it be the chess?

Unless this is a silly dead-end thought, in which case nevermind.

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