St. Augustine, Penance, and the Forgiveness of Sins

In the early Church, the practice of the sacrament of confession was not a very common affair. While there is certainly testimony to the confession of light sins in the sacrament of confession, it was most associated with severe sins that demanded a canonical and public penance. St. Augustine frequently connects the forgiveness of light sins to the prayer "forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us":

Therefore baptism is sealed with the seal of Christ, that is, when you are dipped in the water, and as it were passed through the red sea. Your sins are your enemies; they follow, but only unto the sea. When you enter it, you will escape them, they will be destroyed, as the water covered the Egyptians while the Israelites escaped through dry land. And what does the Scripture say? Not one of them remained. You have sinned many sins, you have sinned few sins; you have sinned great sins, you have sinned small sins. What of it, when not one of them remained? But since you are going to live in this world, where no one lives without sin, therefore the forgiveness of sins is not only in the washing of holy baptism, but also in the Lord's prayer, a daily prayer, which you will receive after eight days. In it you will find your daily baptism, as it were, so that you give thanks to God, who gave this gift to his Church, which we confess in the creed, so that when we say “holy Church,” we add “forgiveness of sins.” (Sermon 213)

When ye have been baptized, hold fast a good life in the commandments of God, that ye may guard your Baptism even unto the end. I do not tell you that ye will live here without sin; but they are venial, without which this life is not. For the sake of all sins was Baptism provided; for the sake of light sins, without which we cannot be, was prayer provided. What hath the Prayer? “Forgive us our debts, as we also forgive our debtors.” Once for all we have washing in Baptism, every day we have washing in prayer. Only, do not commit those things for which ye must needs be separated from Christ’s body: which be far from you! For those whom ye have seen doing penance, have committed heinous things, either adulteries or some enormous crimes: for these they do penance. Because if theirs had been light sins, to blot out these daily prayer would suffice. (The creed: A Sermon To The Cathechumens)

The canonical penance, like baptism, could only be made once. This did not necessarily imply despair over the salvation of the salvation of those men who fell back into sin while undergoing penance or afterward, though it might suggest some doubt about the certainty of the genuineness of repentance:

There are some men whose wickedness goes so far that, after having undergone penance, and been reconciled to the altar, commit the same sins again, or even worse sins. And yet God, who makes his sun rise even over such persons, does not grant any less than before the gift of life and salvation. And although they are given no opportunity for penance in the Church, God does not forget his patience toward them.

If one of them says to us: “either give me again an opportunity for penance or proclaim as beyond hope, so that I may do whatever I want, so far as my resources and human laws allow me, having intercourse with prostitutes and abandoning myself to all kinds of lust that are condemned in the eyes of God though praised by most men. Or if you call me away from this iniquity, tell me if for the future life it is of any value for me to despise the blandishments of illicit pleasure, for me to deny the incitements of lust, if in order to chastise my body I deny myself even many things licit and granted to me, if I torment myself even more than before in penance, if I groan with greater sorrow, if I weep more abundantly, if I live better, if I give more bountifully to the poor, if I burn more ardently with the charity that covers a multitude of sins?” who of us is so foolish as to say to that man, “none of that will benefit you in the future; go, enjoy at least the sweetness of this life”? May God keep us from such a monstrous sacrilege and madness!

Although, therefore, for reasons of prudence and for the sake of the salvation of souls the Church's discipline provides opportunity for humbling oneself in penance only once, lest the medicine be seen as cheap, and thus less useful for the sick, seeing as the less it is despised, the more salvific it will be, who will dare to say to God: “Why do you again forgive this man who after having once embraced penance again bound himself in the snares of sin?” (Epistle 153)

Although Augustine generally distinguishes grave sins, for which one must be separated from the Body of Christ, and undergo a period of penance, from light sins, forgiven through the Lord's Prayer–"Forgive us, as we forgive others"–this distinction does not consistently line up with the distinction mortal-venial.

17. … Whenever that carnal or animal sense introduces into this purpose of the mind which is conversant about things temporal and corporeal, with a view to the offices of a man’s actions, by the living force of reason, some inducement to enjoy itself, that is, to enjoy itself as if it were some private good of its own, not as the public and common, which is the unchangeable, good; then, as it were, the serpent discourses with the woman. And to consent to this allurement, is to eat of the forbidden tree. But if that consent is satisfied by the pleasure of thought alone, but the members are so restrained by the authority of higher counsel that they are not yielded as instruments of unrighteousness unto sin; this, I think, is to be considered as if the woman alone should have eaten the forbidden food.

But if, in this consent to use wickedly the things which are perceived through the senses of the body, any sin at all is so determined upon, so that if possible it is also fulfilled by the body, then that woman must be understood to have given the unlawful food to her husband to eat it together with her. For it is not possible for the mind to determine that a sin is not only to be thought of with pleasure, but also to be effectually committed, unless also that intention of the mind yields, and serves the bad action, with which rests the chief power of applying the members to an outward act, or of restraining them from one.

18. And yet, certainly, when the mind is pleased in thought alone with unlawful things, while not indeed determining that they are to be done, but yet holding and pondering gladly things which ought to have been rejected the very moment they touched the mind, it cannot be denied to be a sin, but far less than if it were also determined to accomplished it in outward act. And therefore pardon must be sought for such thoughts too, and the breast must be smitten, and it must be said, “Forgive us our debts;” and what follows must be done, and must be joined in our prayer, “As we also forgive our debtors.” For it is not as it was with those two first human beings–in that case, each one bore his own person, and so, if the woman alone had eaten the forbidden food, she indeed alone would have been smitten with the punishment of death; we cannot say this in the case of a single human being now, that if the thought, remaining alone, be gladly fed with unlawful pleasures, from which it ought to turn away directly, while yet there is no determination that the bad actions are to be done, but only that they are retained with pleasure in remembrance, the woman as it were can be condemned without the man. Far be it from us to believe this. For here is one person, one human being, and he as a whole will be condemned, unless those things which, as lacking the will to do, and yet having the will to please the mind with them, are perceived to be sins of thought alone, are pardoned through the grace of the Mediator. (On the Trinity XII, ch. 12, emphasis added.)

Inasmuch as the Church's belief is manifested in her practice, the discipline of penance in the Church may support one or another interpretation of the common courses of a Christian's life.

While not having a strictly logical connection with it, the practice of having penance after baptism be a one-time only affair would harmonize with the idea that the fundamental orientation of people's lives cannot be expected to rapidly and frequently change, and in this sense the early practice of the Church would support with a certain interpretation of a fundamental option.

Aquinas on Mortal Sins of Passion

Though Aquinas clearly affirms that the influence of passions on the will can decrease the degree of voluntariness, and thus the merit or demerit of good actions or sins, when it comes to gravely disordered acts, such as fornication, masturbation, or theft, he still sees the issue as basically black or white: either the act is voluntary, and then it is a mortal sin; or it is not voluntary, and then it is not properly a sin at all. He affirms this position both in the De Malo, and in the Summa Theologiae.

De Malo, question 3, article 10

Whether sins committed out of passion are imputed to man as mortal fault

It should be said that since men sometimes commit adultery out of weakness or passion, and do many crimes or shameful things, as Peter did when he denied Christ out of fear, no one should have any doubt that sins perpetrated out of passion are sometimes mortal.

To understand this we should consider that the necessity based on something one's will has power over does not keep an act from being a mortal sin, just as, if someone stabs a dagger in someone's vital members it is necessary that that man die, but stabbing him is voluntary. Hence the death of the man who is stabbed is imputed to the one who struck him as a mortal fault.

And it is similar in the case we are considering; for given that reason is bound by passion, it is necessary that a disordered choice follow, but the will has the power to repel this bond of reason. For it was said that reason is bound due to the soul's intention being vehemently drawn to the act of the sensitive appetite; hence it is turned away from considering in particular that which it knows universally. But the will has the power to turn the intention to something or not. Hence it has the power to keep reason from being bound. Therefore the act committed on account of reason's being bound is voluntary; hence it is not excused from fault, even mortal fault. But if the bond of reason by passion goes so far that it is not in the will's power to remove such a bond, as if someone becomes insane through some passion of the soul, whatever he commits would not be imputed to him as fault, as neither would it be imputed to any insane person—unless perhaps such a passion was voluntary from its very beginning; for then the will could from the beginning prevent the passion for going so far; thus murder committed through drunkenness is imputed to man as fault, since the beginning of drunkenness was voluntary.

Summa Theologiae I-II, Question 77, Article 8

Whether a sin committed out of passion can be mortal

It should be said that mortal sin, as was said above, consists in turning away from the last end, which is God; this turning away pertains to the reason in its deliberation, since it is reason that orders things to the end. Therefore the only way in which the soul’s inclination to something which is contrary to the last end can be not a mortal sin, is because reason is unable to resist this inclination by its deliberation, as is the case in sudden movements of the passions. But when someone out of passion goes on to do a sinful act, or to deliberate consent, this does not happen suddenly. Hence reason by deliberating can resist this further act; for it can get rid of, or at least prevent it [from leading to action], as was said above. Hence if it does not resist it, it is a mortal sin. Thus we see that many murders and adulteries are committed out of passion.

In response to the third objection, which argues that mortal sin consists in turning away from God, and only man's spiritual faculty of reason can do this, while passion cannot strictly speaking turn toward or away from God, Aquinas argues:

It should be said that passion does not always impede reason totally from its act; hence it retains free judgment, so that it can turn away from or toward God. If, however, the use of reason were totally taken away, there would be neither a mortal nor a venial sin.

This response of Aquinas seems to indicate that his position is in fact quite a bit stronger than that “sin committed out of passion can be mortal”–that in his mind, every act that is objectively gravely disordered, if it is at all voluntary, though committed under the influence of passion, is a mortal sin.

Mortal Sin and Fundamental Option 2

In the previous post I attempted to describe a man who, as far as morally possible, related to his family in a manner analogous to the manner a Christian relates to God, so that even things that normally are not incompatible with marital love would exclude it.

We could also consider a more realistic case, in which a man's fight with his wife isn't incompatible with loving for her. There are, still, individual acts that are quite incompatible with love for her, e.g., attempting to kill one of their children, or signing over all his property to another woman for whom he has strong feelings. In this case, too, it's psychologically not possible for him to go rapidly back and forth from loving her to performing such acts incompatible with loving her, unless those acts are not really voluntary—and are performed only due to being drunk, for instance. Such acts that involve breaking off his love for his wife in most cases only complete and manifest a process begun long ago, of failing in love for her.

Aquinas on the Sin of Drunkenness

From the De Malo to the Summa Theologiae Aquinas apparently makes a shift in his judgment about drunkenness. While in the De Malo he says that getting drunk is of itself a venial sin, in the Summa Theologiae and in the Commentary on Romans (as well as the Commentary on 1 Corinthians), which are widely considered to be of a later date than the De Malo, he says that getting drunk is of itself a mortal sin.

De Malo

In the De Malo, q.2, a. 8, Aquinas asks whether a circumstance can make a venial sin into a mortal sin. The third objection argues that getting drunk once is a venial sin, while getting drunk many times is a mortal sin. Hence a circumstance (the frequency) makes a venial sin into a mortal one. He replies:

To the third it should be said that getting drunk many times is not a circumstance that constitutes a species of sin, and therefore as getting drunk once is a venial sin, so getting drunk many times is a venial sin, speaking per se; but accidentally and by way of disposition getting drunk many times can be a mortal sin, as for example, when by the custom of drinking someone comes to have so great complacency in drunkenness that he would be willing to get drunk even if it involved the contempt of a divine precept. (De Malo, q.2, a. 8 )

Again in q. 7, a. 4, where the same question comes up again, a similar objection is raised:

1. Augustine says in a sermon on Purgatory that if anger is held onto for a long time, and if drunkenness is a regular (assidua) occurence, they are then numbered among mortal sins. But such sins are generically venial sins–otherwise they would always be mortal sins. Therefore a venial sin becomes mortal through the circumstance of regularity or duration. (De Malo, q. 7, a. 4)

He makes a similar reply, though with a different argument.

It should be said about drunkenness, that it in itself makes the reason actually not turned toward God, i.e., so long as the drunkenness lasts the reason cannot be turned toward God. And since a man is not obliged at all times to actually turn his reason towards God, drunkenness is not always a mortal sin; but when a man gets drunk regularly, it seems that he is not concerned about whether his reason is turned toward God, and in such a case drunkenness is a mortal sin, for it seems that on account of the pleasure of wine he despises the turning of his reason toward God. (De Malo, q. 7, a. 4, ad 1)

Summa Theologiae

In I-II, q. 88, a. 5, he asks whether some circumstance of an act can make a venial sin into a mortal sin. The first objection is of particular interest, because it is almost exactly the same as that in De Malo, q. 7, a. 4. Aquinas writes:

Augustine says in a sermon on Purgatory that if anger is held onto for a long time, and if drunkenness is a regular (assidua) occurence, they are then numbered among mortal sins. But anger and drunkenness are not generically mortal sins, but venial sins–otherwise they would always be mortal sins. Therefore a circumstance makes a venial sin into a mortal sin. (I-II, q. 88, a. 5)

In reply, he says:

About drunkenness we should say that that it has in itself the character of a mortal sin; for when a man without necessity and merely for the sake of the pleasure in wine, make himself unable to use his reason, by which a man is directed to God and avoids committing many sins, such an act is expressly contrary to virtue. But it can be a venial sin on account of some sort of ignorance or weakness, as when a man is ignorant of the strength of the wine, or of his own incapacity (for drinking), so that he does not expect to get drunk; for in such a case the drunkenness is not imputed to him as a sin, but only the excessive drinking. If, however, he gets drunk frequently, this ignorance can no longer excuse him, and his will seems to choose drunkenness rather than refraining from an excess of wine; hence the sin becomes again what it is by its own nature [namely a mortal sin]. (I-II, q. 88, a. 5, ad 1)

Again in the Secunda Secundae, q. 150, a. 2, where he takes up drunkenness specifically, and asks whether it is a mortal sin, he gives the same reply:

Someone may be well aware that he is drinking immoderately and thereby getting drunk, and yet he would rather be drunk than abstain from drink. Such a man is the one who is properly speaking called a drunkard [in contrast to persons who drink too much without knowing it, or get drunk without expecting it], because moral character comes not from things that occur accidentally and aside from the intention, but from that which is directly intended. In this way drunkenness is a mortal sin, because then a man willingly and knowingly deprives himself of the use of reason, bu which he performs virtuous deeds and avoids sin, and thus he sins mortally by running the risk of committing  sin. For Ambrose says in the book On the Patriarchs: "We say that one should avoid drunkenness, since it keeps us from avoiding grievous sins. For the things we avoid when sober, we unknowingly commit through drunkenness." Therefore drunkenness, speaking per se, is a mortal sin. (Secunda Secundae, q. 150, a. 2)

In the reply to the first objection he interprets Augustine's saying in the same way as he does in the Prima Secundae.

His treatment in his Commentary on Romans and on 1 Corinthians is very much like that in the Summa Theologiae.

How to Account for the Difference?

The divergence between the account in the De Malo and in the later writings could be explained in several ways:

(1) Aquinas may have become stricter in general, and thus stricter in his judgment of drunkenness. (This would be an interesting subject of research. I don't know of any studies investigating such a line of thought).

(1b) He may have gained more experience of the harmful things people do when drunk, and pronounces judgment accordingly.

(2) He may be envisioning quite different contexts. In the De Malo he may be envisioning, e.g., a monk in his cell who gets drunk by drinking too much wine, and the principal or only harmful consequence is that he can't pray or contemplate at that time, while in the other works he is envisioning a person engaged in various activities and in active relationships with other persons, who is liable to damage things or injure other persons if he is drunk.

Mortal Sin and Fundamental Option

One of the reasons why many theologians have been attracted to the theory of a "fundamental option" is that it seems in certain respects to correspond better to real-life experience. If we consider visible human relationships, between two married persons for example,we don't find persons who go frequently back and forth from being totally committed to each other, to selfishly rejecting each other, back to total commitment, and so on. As a rule, the relationship will overall either be gradually improving or deteriorating, and individual quarrels don't completely disrupt the relationship. If a man ceases to love his wife on account of a single dispute or fight, that would be taken as a sign he didn't really love her in the first place, or that he had been neglecting his love for her, letting various selfish interests break it down, and that the quarrel is only the terminus of a long process.

Leaving aside the theological aspect, based on God's covenant with man, the supernatural virtue of charity, etc., what is happening when a person resolves to live a certain manner of life, and yet occasionally, or perhaps frequently, performs concrete acts that are inconsistent with that? For example, he resolves to live for his family, and looks for his happiness within his family (and in the wider sense, within his society). But he sometimes performs acts, such as staying out excessively late drinking with his fellow workers, that don't make sense within that framework, but only make sense on the supposition of a preference for something else above happiness as a member of his family, within a framework in which what he wants is the ultimate point of reference, where self-love is the final measure. Or in other words, in terms of the end/means relationship, certain acts he does objectively can't be truly ordered towards the end of family happiness as a final goal, but only towards some other end, that may be thought of more vaguely (living a pleasant life), but that at any rate is some other final goal.

One might explain the situation in several ways:

1. The ultimate goal of his life is, and remains, the common good of his family and his happiness within that family, though he performs individual acts that don't make sense and are unreasonable in terms of that goal.

2. The ultimate goal of his life is all along some vague goal (living a good life, a social and pleasant life, or the like), in which his family's good is one element among others, though an important one.

3. The ultimate goal of his life is the good of his family most of the time, but when he does acts objectively contrary to that goal, then when he is doing those acts, he thereby re-orientates himself towards another final end, and remains directed towards that end until he makes a fresh resolve to live his life as a whole for his family.

The first and second explanations do seem, on the face of it, more plausible interpretations of what is going on than the third.

If we accept the first explanation, what would that mean in terms of the voluntariness of the man's acts? Since whatever one wills, one wills for the sake of one's final end, the man is therefore willing, for the sake of his final end, to do something actually inconsistent with that final end. This would seem to imply that his act is not perfectly voluntary, at least not in the respect in which it is contrary to his ultimate end. (This distinction, though it is often forgotten or overlooked, is an important one. An act may be completely voluntary in the sense that it is the result of a very conscious and explicit choice, without all of the goodness or badness of that act necessarily being voluntary).

The analogy one might make with love for God and the performance of sinful acts is, I think, clear. For the time we will continue to leave aside the issues pertaining to charity as an virtue infused by God and dependent on grace. A person who resolves to life his live above all for God, and yet on not so infrequent occasions does things objectively inconsistent with taking God as the rule for one's life, is like the man in the example above, who resolves to live for his family, and yet fails at certain times to act in consistency with that resolve. If one held that he continues, in fact, to be seeking God as his ultimate end, it seems one would similarly have to say that the acts objectively inconsistent with that end, or at any rate the badness and stupidity of those acts, are not entirely voluntary. Thus they would constitute venial sins by reason of a lack of full voluntariness.

But on this account, would any acts be fully voluntary? I'll return to this question in another post.

Why We Need Habits

Why do we need habits? If what makes people different from animals is their ability to know truth as such, wherever it is to be found, and not only some limited environment, and again, their capacity to love and seek for goodness, wherever it is to be found, habituation seems to be a kind of degradation of the human being. To act from habit is like acting from instinct, rather than from judgment and choice, insight and love.

To this I would say that it might, indeed, in some sense be ideal if we could have complete insight into the situations in which we live, know all of the implications and effects on human goods and relationships that various possible actions would have, and in view of all this, make a conscious choice before doing any new action.

All this, however, is mere fantasy, or at least speculation (maybe Adam could actually have made decisions that way before the fall). It is totally impossible for us to have every single aspect of a situation in mind, and to explicitly trace all of the particular goods involved in our actions (health, pleasure, the good of laughter, relationship with friends, material goods, etc.) in a detailed manner back to the supreme good, God himself. If we were to attempt to do so, we would take a ridiculous length of time to decide, for instance, when shopping, whether to buy a cheaper but slightly less good tasting or less healthy food  or a more expensive but better food.

In order to make decisions in a reasonable time frame and to act upon our decisions, we need to be immediately inclined to many particular goods to be loved and pursued: to the good of our family and friends, the good of society, the good of studying, the good of music, etc. Moreover, we need to be able to easily and readily make a judgment of the proportion of one good to another, as in the example of spending a little more money for better food.

This "readiness" and inclination to pursue certain goods, to favor one over another, to make a certain balance between them, is the result of a conditioning that occurs over time, as the result of many particular actions and we do, reactions we have to events that happen, our favorable or unfavorable perceptions of other person's behavior, especially those we consciously or unconsciously see as role models. When this conditioning acquires a kind of stability, it is what Aristotle and St. Thomas call a "habit."

In English we reserve the name "habit" for the kinds of conditioning that lead us regularly to a particular action, even without thinking about it. We don't give the name "habit" to primarily perceptive capacities, such as an acquired ability to readily recognize the music of Chopin, or to the acquired capability of quickly weighing up the advantages and disadvantages of one purchase or another. The name "habit" is mostly restricted to inclinations to actually perform a certain action. And even then, we usually don't use the term "habit" to the disposition to perform a certain action if a conscious decision is involved. E.g., if a husband has acquired the readiness to stop watching television, or to take out the trash, or other such things, as soon as his wife asks, we wouldn't tend the use the term "habit." But essentially the same kind of conditioning has occurred that occurs when we get into the habit of pressing the snooze on our alarm clock in the morning, of ruffling our hair, of arriving early (or late), etc. The main difference is that some of these habits (or dispositions) involve mostly our reasoning or perceptive faculties, others involve our instincts, others involve the whole person, with thought, choice, and emotion. We speak of habits mostly in reference to those dispositions that involve instinctive or even mostly unconscious action.

One disadvantage of this usage in speech is that we may not recognize all the parallels between this sort of conditioning, and the conditioning of our person–thought processes,  decision making processes, and emotional reactions–that is essential for virtuous behavior.

More Notes on the Goodness of the Passions

When a man is affected by a passion, things seem to him greater or smaller than they really are, as to a lover, what he loves seems better, and to him who fears, what he fears seems more dreadful. Consequently owing to the defect of right judgment, every passion, considered in itself, hinders the ability of deliberating well. (Summa Theologiae 44:2).

St. Thomas thus argues that while fear inclines us to think about how to avoid the thing or danger we are afraid of, it has the tendency to distort our judgment of the matter. From this it might seem to follow that it would be ideal never to feel fear, that we would thus act most reasonably and humanly. Thomas does not, however, draw this consequence, but affirms the value of fear for human, rational action.

If fear is moderate, not disturbing the reason very much, it conduces to acting well, insofar as it causes a certain solicitude, and makes a man deliberate and act with greater attention. If, however, fear increases so much as to disturb the reason, it hinders action even on the part of the soul. (Summa Theologiae 44:4)

In this passage Aquinas grants the point he made above, that even moderate fear has a certain tendency to incline our judgment to it, and in this way to make our judgment less objective. But when fear is moderate, and when it is directed to something that is a real danger, a real possible evil, then the benefits outweigh the harm.

In general the effect of such emotions, which is to make us focus on certain aspects of what is before us, and to judge them accordingly, has potential benefits and potential risks: (1a) Though an emotion such as fear may make us overestimate the fearfulness of an evil, (1b) if we would otherwise have underestimated it, then it brings our estimation closer to the truth; again, (2a) though the emotion may make us overlook certain things, (2b) it may also bring certain things to our attention, which we would otherwise not have given attention to.

In the larger picture, the largest factor determining whether passions and emotions are beneficial or detrimental for truly human action, is the formation of the emotions, which takes place through the acquisition of virtue. When an emotion itself is a formed and reasonable passion, the overall effect is almost always good.

A note on Aquinas's use of scripture here: In the Sed Contra of 44:4 he cites St. Paul, "With fear and trembling work out your salvation" (Phil 2:12), and remarks in the body of the article that though excessive fear hinders us from acting well, St. Paul is not speaking of this kind of fear. This seems to be an indication that Aquinas is not simply using St. Paul as a "proof text" for an opinion he gets from, say, Aristotle, but sees a real and significant doctrine on the role of emotions in Christian life in the Sacred Scriptures, though of course, in this systematic work, he does not go into all detail of exegetical questions.

With fear and trembling work out your salvation

Aquinas on Pleasure as the Measure of Morality

In his treatise on the passions in the Summa Theologiae, Thomas Aquinas, discussing the goodness of pleasure, asks whether pleasure is the measure or rule for judging moral goodness or badness. He argues that it is, on the basis of the three principles that (1) moral goodness depends upon the will, that (2) the goodness of the will depends chiefly upon the end to which it is directed, and that (3) pleasure or delight is most of all an end, since it is not desirable for the sake of anything further.

Moral goodness or badness depends chiefly on the will, as was said above (q. 20, a. 1); and it is chiefly from the end that we discern whether the will is good or evil. Now the end is taken to be that in which the will rests, and the rest of the will and of every appetite in the good is pleasure. And therefore man is judged to be good or bad chiefly according to the pleasure of the human will, since that man who takes pleasure in the works of virtue is good and virtuous, and that man who takes pleasure in evil works is evil (Summa Theologiae, I-II, q. 34, a. 4).

The difficulty we encounter, however, is that pleasure itself always has a further measure–we take delight in an action that which we find or perceive to be good. Thomas consistently affirms that actions themselves are the ends of pleasures, in the sense that pleasures are explained by actions (e.g., we find pleasure in eating, and in seeking truth, because these things are naturally good for us). Now the most fundamental relationship we have to the good is not that of taking pleasure in it, but that of love for it. So it seems the criterion of the just man, or of the humble man, should be that he love justice or humility, not that he take delight in them. This is also fits with of virtue as the "order of love." If we look at virtue as St. Augustine does, as the "order of love" within us (ordo amoris), it seems we should rather say that love is the measure of moral goodness, rather than pleasure or delight.

From the perspective of historical influence and authorities, one thing to remark here is that Aquinas is here following Aristotle's Ethics in describing pleasure as the measure of moral goodness. The only other place I'm aware of where Aquinas unfolds this view of pleasure as the measure of goodness in detail, is in his Commentary on the Nichomachean Ethics.

Is Thomas Aquinas simply being inconsistent here, putting together the Augustinian (and his own) view where love has priority in regard to moral, human, and Christian goodness, with Aristotle's view? No, Thomas himself is aware of the difficulty, and addresses it in the first objection and reply to it in this article. The objection argues that love and desire come prior to pleasure, and therefore have more the character of a governing principle or measure. In response, Thomas says:

Love and desire precede pleasure in the order of generation. But pleasure precedes them with respect to the account of an end, which in actions has the account of a principle, by which judgment is most of all made, as by a rule or measure.

The "end" here is that which one comes to last, and which thus manifests everything that comes before it. The reason why an act of justice is morally good is indeed the love for justice from which it springs, but the manifestation of the goodness of justice is the delight the just man takes in acting justly. And since a measure or rule has to be readily known, it is pleasure which is described as the measure of goodness, rather than love.

Holy Envy

You might have thought occasionally, with holy envy, about the adolescent Apostle John, quem diligebat Iesus – whom Jesus loved. Wouldn’t you like to deserve to be called ‘the one who loves the Will of God’? Then take the necessary steps, day after day. (St. Josemarie Escriva, The Forge)

St. Thomas Aquinas defines envy as sadness over some good or excellence another person possesses, inasmuch as one perceives this good or excellence as taking away from one's own good. Understood in this way, envy is said to be bad "in itself", and indeed "in its species"

Now the focus of a person's sadness might be on his own not having what the other person has, with an accompanying wish to have it himself, or it might be on the other person's having what he doesn't, with the accompanying wish that the other not have it. (He gets to have a day off, and I don't! If he gets to, then I should too!… I don't get to have a day off, but he does! If I can't have one, he shouldn't either!)

While the latter type of envy is the worse of the two, both types are bad if and inasmuch as they consider the good of another person, in relation to one's good, as something bad and undesirable. This is contrary both to truth and to charity: to truth, since it is not truly bad, but good; to charity, which seeks the good of others.

What about "holy envy"? How does that relate to the usual meaning of envy?

While there are a couple of usages of holy envy, the most exemplary one is probably an admiration for a true and noble good that another person has, which one either cannot or does not have, accompanied by a longing so strong as to cause pain, or nearly do so. Inasmuch as there is a pain involved, a pain that somehow arises from not having something someone else has, it is similar to envy in the usual sense of the term. The difference is that the pain or sadness is not really about the other person's possession of good, but is caused by one's own great desire to possess that good. Supposing that this yearning and any consequent pain is not excessive, but remains without reason, and is not depressing, but motivating one to pursue that good, this yearning is itself good. This yearning for something truly good that one sees in another, this great desire that is or verges on being painful, is what is meant by "holy envy."

The Moral Goodness of the Passions

Can passion or emotion increase the moral goodness of human action, or does it always decrease it? It might seem at first that it always decreases it, since human or moral action is an action that is chosen deliberately, which implies a rational judgment. But passion tends to win reason's judgment over to itself: whenever we feel as though something is pleasant or unpleasant, good or bad, possible or impossible, etc., we will be inclined to judge the matter to be really so. Insofar as passion tends to sway reason over to itself, it impedes the judgment of reason. Thus it seems that passions or feelings make our judgments, and in consequence our decisions, less true, and consequently less good from a moral perspective.

Now, given that feelings or passions can be in accord with reason and with man's true good, and that they can be indirectly voluntary, being willed or permitted (see the previous post The Moral Value of the Passions), it is clear that this is something good. It is a moral good not only to do an act of kindness for someone, but it is also a moral good to feel kindly toward them.

Yet it is not simply a matter of two separate moral goods. Feeling kindly, if one also wills to be kindly, may increase the person's overall attention to and intention of being kind, and in this way intensify and perfect the human act as a voluntary act.

What about the objection, that passion always hinder rational judgment and choice? The first response to this is that sometimes passions or feelings actually come from rational judgment and choice, and so if they affect reason and choice afterward, it is by way of supporting them, not tearing them down. In such a case the passion does not decrease the moral goodness of an action. We may and should admit, however, that a judgment and choice which is largely the result of passion or emotion is less good or less bad than a similar judgment and choice that does not result from passion. Thus someone who strikes another person out of anger performs an act less morally bad than someone who strikes another person out of simple dislike for that person. Similarly someone who does an act of kindness for another person simply because of feeling pity for them, performs an act less morally good than someone who does an act of kindness for another person because that other person is a fellow human being and created in the image of God.

Does this mean, though, that the ideal is to never have any passions or emotions except those that are the result of rational judgment and choice? Yes and no. Considering only the abstract relationship between passion and reason, this is an ideal. But taking into account our actual situation and our limited ability to make rational judgments without the data of emotion, such an absolute priority of reason over emotion is not an ideal to be striven for. First of all, it is impossible. Secondly, it is actually undesirable for us in our present state, for several reasons: (1) we often need to react somehow or other to an event, before we have time to think. And it is better to react well in most such cases, and badly in a few, than to always do badly by failing to react in time; (2) we would often overlook many important aspects of a situation or of a person, if various feelings did not direct our attention to them; the feeling of pity, for example, often draws us to give more and more appropriate attention to the need of other persons than we would otherwise.