That we should love God unselfishly

I’ve criticized teleological natural law theories before for teaching what can seem like elevated selfishness.  However, in his Disputed Questions on Charity, their master Thomas Aquinas proves himself well aware that some things should be loved for their own sake, and not just ours.  His discourse on charity below is, I think, magnificent.  Note how he emphasizes the social aspect of heaven, and how he explains what it means to love God for his own sake.

[from Whether charity is a virtue from the Oxford World Classics’ Aquinas: Selected Philosophical Writings]

Now the good pursued by the virtue special to human beings as human beings is connatural to human beings, so that in their wills by nature their exists love of this good, the good of reason.  But if we consider the virtue of human beings in a context other than that of their human nature, then such virtue will need to have added over and above what they will by nature a love of the good to which the virtue is ordered.  A craftsman will not act well unless he acquires a love of the good pursued in the exercise of his craft; so that Aristotle says that to be a good citizen you must love the good of your city.  Now if a human being, when admitted to a share in the good of some city and made a citizen of that city, requires certain virtues disposing him to do the things citizens should do and love the good of that city, then in the same way a human being, when admitted by divine grace and favour to a sharing in heavenly bliss–which consists in seeing and enjoying God–becomes so to speak a citizen and associate in that blessed society we call the heavenly Jerusalem (“you are fellow citizens of God’s people, members of God’s household” [Eph. 2]); and the human being, so enrolled in the heavens, requires certain graciously instilled virtues, the proper operation of which presuppose a love of the common good of all that society, which is the good of God Himself, the object of all bliss.

Now a city’s good can be loved in two ways:  with a possessive love or which a caring love.  Possessive love of a city’s good doesn’t make one a good citizen, since even tyrants love the good of a city in this way wanting to be lord of it–and they are loving themselves rather than the city.  But a caring and preserving love for the good of a city is true love of the city and makes one a good citizen, to the extent that some people are prepared to lay themselves open to the danger of death and risk their own private good in order to preserve and develop the good of their city.  In the same way then a possessive love for the good which the blessed share doesn’t make a man well disposed to bliss, for even bad men desire that good; but loving that good in itself, that it might last and be spread and have nothing done against it, does dispose a human being well to that blissful society.  And this is the love of charity:  a love by which we love God for Himself, and our neighbors–those capable of bliss–as ourselves, repelling everything that hinders such love in ourselves and others, so that it is never able to coexist with those fatal sins that hinder bliss.

And so clearly charity is not only a virtue, but the most potent of all virtues.

One Response

  1. […] Next, Aquinas considers human nature’s various “inclinations”, meaning the things that everyone recognizes as goods of human nature:  existence, procreation, knowledge, from which we derive the natural law dictates for behavior and institutions that foster these goods.  It all still seems distastefully selfish.  Aquinas uses two Aristotelian motifs to introduce other-directed elements to his ethics.  First, there is the idea of friendship, whereby we love another for his own sake.  Aquinas will argue, as we will see, that charity means us becoming friends of God.  Then there’s the idea of the common good, either of our Earthly or heavenly city.  A person can see the common good as having greater import than his private good, and he can love the common good selflessly.  For the kingdom of heaven, for whose citizenship we are equipped by the theological virtues, God Himself is the common good. […]

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