Principles of Catholic Morality VII: Scotus on the Greatest Commandment

For Aquinas, the fundamental axiom of practical reason is “Good is to be done; evil avoided.”  For Duns Scotus, it is “God is to be loved.”  He regards this commandment as, in fact, the only precept of natural law “strictly speaking”, in that it is a priori necessarily true.  Love is what is due to goodness, and God is the only being Who is absolutely good (indeed, subsistent goodness).  All other beings are only good in a qualified sense, so the requirement to love them is not as absolute.  On the other hand, loving them is generally connected to loving God, and we will see that the neighbor-directed moral laws, e.g. against murder and adultery, do belong to the natural law in a looser sense.

Unlike Aquinas, Scotus accepts Anselm’s idea of the will having two inclinations:  love of justice, and love of our own good.  Scotus, though, has a clearer sense of the distinction between nature and grace, between natural and infused virtues.  The love of justice, by which we are free beings, belongs to humans by nature (indeed is that nature’s distinctive feature); by our own natural powers, we can and should love God above all else.  Scotus spells out clearly what he means by “above all”.  First, we should prefer everything else cease to exist than for God to cease to exist.  Second, we should have a more intense affection for God than for anything else.  However, to love God fully and meritoriously, i.e. in a way fully pleasing to God, we need grace and the infused virtues.  Faith perfects the intellect by giving it knowledge of God.  Hope perfects our love of our own good by directing it to God, our end.  And charity perfects our love of justice by augmenting our love of God.  Having taken such a high view of our natural ability to love, Scotus seems to have trouble seeing in charity something qualitatively, as opposed to quantitatively, new.  He actually suggests that charity may act like a multiplier, magnifying our natural sense of justice.  True, charity alone is supposed to make meritorious action possible, but in Scotus’ framework, the fact the God finds charity but not natural love meritorious seems arbitrary.  Still, Scotus’ connection of Anselm’s two inclinations with the theological virtues is a very attractive move.

Charity does, in a sense, involve love of self and neighbor.  As for love of self, the argument was given by Augustine.  We must will to keep loving God, so we must will that we should have charity, which is also our greatest good.  Thus, charitable love of self is charity become conscious of itself.  As for love of neighbor, Scotus quotes Richard of St. Victor to the effect that a perfect love of God would not want to monopolize Him as if He were our private good, but we would also want others to love Him as he deserves.  After all, if someone doesn’t love God, that’s injustice, and charity perfects our love of justice.  Therefore, charity causes us to want others to have charity as well, and therefore to love them in this sense.  Scotus makes two qualifications, though.  First, charity does not compel us to wish others to love God if God does not wish for them to love Him (i.e. the reprobate).  Second, loving neighbor and self charitably doesn’t necessarily mean that we will them and us any other goods besides charity.  It is, of course, quite consistent with charity to want our neighbor to have bodily health, psychological happiness, and the like, but not absolutely required.  Scotus seems quite concerned to distinguish what is absolutely required by charity and what is merely in harmony with it.  We will see why.

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