Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Jesus of Nazareth - The Temptations of Christ and St Augustine

The aid of the West to developing countries based on purely technical-material principles, that doesn't only leave God to one side, but has also led men away from Him because of their pride in their own self-importance, has made the Third World into the Third World in the modern sense. This assistance has put to one side existing religious, moral and social structures and has introduced its own technicalist mentality into the vacuum. They think that they can change rocks into bread, but they have given stones in place of bread. The primacy of God is at question. It concerns recognizing Him as a reality, a reality without which nothing else can be good. One cannot govern history with mere material structures leaving God aside. If the heart of man isn't good, then nothing else can become good. And goodness of heart can only come from He who is Himself goodness, the Good. [p56, Unofficial translation from the Italian]

This commentary on the temptations of Jesus, and in particular Satan's suggestion that Christ change stones into loaves of bread struck me very deeply. I don't want to harp on about this point, but the above passage is proof (if proof were needed) that the Holy Father is a thoroughgoing Augustinian. What we have above is a development of St Augustine's doctrine (found in, for example, his late anti-Pelagian work ‘Against Julian’) that the acts of man cannot be pleasing to God unless they are rooted in the theological virtues of Faith, Hope and Charity. St Augustine affirmed something which would certainly strike many modern ears as outrageous. He argued that the virtues of pagans were ultimately vices, as they did not draw on the source of goodness and were not properly oriented to their proper end due to the absence of what we would now call the theological virtues. St Thomas Aquinas, on the other hand, laid down a theology of virtue which afforded more space for so-called natural virtues.
Now, I'm not sure that we can attribute the Augustinian doctrine in its full rigour to Pope Benedict - in his anti-Pelagian polemic, Augustine sometimes ended up taking positions which further reflection theological development ended up moderating. (And indeed, the Augustinian position, as developed by later authors has much to commend it over the Thomistic theory.) However, it is clear from the above passage that in his social thought (as already expressed in Deus Caritas Est), Pope Benedict is very much thinking along Augustinian rather than Thomistic lines. He very clearly sees that even what appear to be man's most worthwhile ‘secular’ projects are ultimately harmful and misguided if the primacy of God is ignored or denied.


Papa-Lu said...

I think we can still leave room for the natural virtues without rejecting the Augustinian/Benedictine thesis.

Since so much of the developing world isn't Christian, it seems that the Holy Father is implicitly recognizing the natural virtues those societies possessed and is arguing that the technocratic solutions imposed upon them in a spirit of materialistic hubris ultimately destroyed or severely harmed the social fabric those virtues helped form.

Now, of course, the westerners left aside their own Christian heritage when they turned to providing aid based on the "technical-material principles," but I think this passage can be read as a lament over the loss of not just the theological virtues, but also of the very natural virtue of humility.

I don't mean to quibble with your point, since ultimately this is a book about Jesus, and so surely the Holy Father is also pointing out that aid inspired and guided by Christian principles would be more effective. But I think that the reason it would be more effective is because it would not only be guided by the true good, but also be done with an authentic humble respect for "existing religious, moral and social structures."

aelianus said...


Whether moral virtues can be without charity?

On the contrary, It is written (1 John 3:14): "He that loveth not, abideth in death." Now the spiritual life is perfected by the virtues, since it is "by them" that "we lead a good life," as Augustine states (De Lib. Arb. ii, 17,19). Therefore they cannot be without the love of charity.

I answer that, As stated above (63, 2), it is possible by means of human works to acquire moral virtues, in so far as they produce good works that are directed to an end not surpassing the natural power of man: and when they are acquired thus, they can be without charity, even as they were in many of the Gentiles. But in so far as they produce good works in proportion to a supernatural last end, thus they have the character of virtue, truly and perfectly; and cannot be acquired by human acts, but are infused by God. Such like moral virtues cannot be without charity. For it has been stated above (1; 58, A4,5) that the other moral virtues cannot be without prudence; and that prudence cannot be without the moral virtues, because these latter make man well disposed to certain ends, which are the starting-point of the procedure of prudence. Now for prudence to proceed aright, it is much more necessary that man be well disposed towards his ultimate end, which is the effect of charity, than that he be well disposed in respect of other ends, which is the effect of moral virtue: just as in speculative matters right reason has greatest need of the first indemonstrable principle, that "contradictories cannot both be true at the same time." It is therefore evident that neither can infused prudence be without charity; nor, consequently, the other moral virtues, since they cannot be without prudence.

It is therefore clear from what has been said that only the infused virtues are perfect, and deserve to be called virtues simply: since they direct man well to the ultimate end. But the other virtues, those, namely, that are acquired, are virtues in a restricted sense, but not simply: for they direct man well in respect of the last end in some particular genus of action, but not in respect of the last end simply. Hence a gloss of Augustine [Cf. Lib. Sentent. Prosperi cvi.] on the words, "All that is not of faith is sin" (Romans 14:23), says: "He that fails to acknowledge the truth, has no true virtue, even if his conduct be good."

RC2 said...

Thanks for this. In any case, your post suggests that the dramatic headlines we've seen the past few weeks about Pope denouncing the Western rape of the third world were rather missing the point. This seems to be not an economic critique at all, and to the extent he has something specific in mind, it's Western aid (esp. population) programs more than, say, Coca Cola. (Not that the Pope's defending big corporations, just that he isn't attacking them as such, either, which has been the implication of the headlines). Is that a fair conclusion, on your reading?

I think his point about the West creating the "Third World" as such bears meditation. That's profound.

Zadok the Roman said...


Many thanks for your comment. I had forgotten to point out the importance of the Augustinian humilitas in what the Holy Father was saying.
There's certainly justice in what you say, and I wouldn't want to deduce too much from such a short snippet, beyond the fact that the Holy Father is very clearly thinking along Augustinian lines, albeit making a different point to St Augustine.

Aelianus, I'm not quite sure why you're posting that passage of St Thomas.
I appreciate that my summary of the Thomist position doesn't do justice to St Thomas's own position, but I think it will be granted that Thomas (and the Thomistic tradition) affords a place to the 'natural virtues' (even if they are not properly called virtues when charity is lacking) that Augustine does not.
On a mostly unrelated note, it's interesting that in the passage from the Pope's new book that I quote above, that the theological virtue that's most evidently lacking in the situation described is faith.

Zadok the Roman said...

RC2, I shan't comment much until I've read a lot more... but I will say that the press are missing the real point.
Pope Benedict doesn't seem to mention big corporations or their (alleged?) exploitation of the 3rd World in this passage. I can't comment on what he might have written later in the book.
You're probably right in detecting a subtle (or not so subtle...) reference to population control programmes.
The big point that the press is missing is that the Pope's key point is that the big lesson we can take from the temptations of Christ is that when we try to deny or ignore God's proper place in our human actions then we are necessarily going astray, even though we might seem to be doing good or seem to have good intentions. That's a fairly radical statement when you consider that he doesn't just apply that principle to the everyday life of believers, but also to such human activities as the West's aid to the Third World.
Earlier in this chapter he says that the core of every sin (as we see in Christ's temptations) is the removal of God. Thus, our attempts to order the world ourselves, without God, by relying only on our own capacities are ultimately sinful.
Now, Pope Benedict isn't proposing a theocracy, or anything of the kind, but if I'm understanding him properly, then the average American's understanding of the 'separation of church and state' and the average European's understanding of the 'lay' or 'secular state' would be profoundly challenged by what he has to say.

Aelianus said...

I don't think Augustine and Thomas differ. Thomas just makes more distinctions.

Zadok the Roman said...

In their conclusions, you're quite right that they don't differ.
However, the extra distinctions that Thomas makes on this point are significant in that they seem to afford more scope for the natural virtues.

Aelianus said...

I think we need to bear in mind that St Thomas is talking about the natural virtues in themselves both when they accompany Charity and the infused cardinal virtues and when they don't. Augustine calls these virtues vices when they are not accompanied by Charity and the other infused virtues. Thus we are not always comparing like with like. As moral habits directed at something other than the true end of man Thomas's position implies that the natural 'virtues' in pagans are in fact vices just as much as Augustine does. Augustine is often quoted as saying "The virtues of the pagans are but splendid vices". I don't think he actually says it quite like that but it sums up his position. He does appreciate the splendidness of the pagan's vices he just insists that they are vices. Thomas is saying precisely the same thing in a more irenic way. The faith/charity thing seems to me to be a red herring as you cant have charity without faith anyway.

Zadok the Roman said...

I didn't mean to suggest that one could have the virtue of faith without the virtue of charity, but I think that it's suggestive that when the Holy Father is speaking about there being something 'missing' when man tries to do things whilst leaving God out of the equation, he speaks about faith rather than charity.
It's more a question of emphasis than anything else.

Again, when we are dealing with Thomas and Augustine, I'm not saying that they differ in terms of their ultimate evaluation of the natural virtues when unaccompanied by the theological virtues. However, it would be anachronistic to suggest that Augustine's theology of 'the natural' corresponds in every way to that of Thomas and the Thomistic tradition.
The scholastics themselves recognised this, with St Albert the Great famously commenting Augustine does not write well about nature.
Thomas is far more willing to speak of these natural virtues and their natural ends, and explicitly admits the idea of their being able to accomplish particular goods (ST I-II, q109, a2) and attain particular ends, albeit not being properly able to attain these ends without the theological virtues which bring man to the last end.
Augustine, on the other hand, is more suspicious of the category of 'virtue' and indeed prefers not to apply that term to the theological virtues. As regards the 'natural virtues' he doesn't seem to consider their ends in the same way that St Thomas does - namely he doesn't seem to afford them quite that degree of independence that Thomas does.

We're speaking more of different tendencies of thought, rather than doctrinal differences between Thomas and Augustine. Perhaps the difference can be best understood when we consider what happens when the thought patterns of Augustine and Thomas are pushed beyond the bounds of orthodoxy. Augustine and Thomas come to the same orthodox conclusion about the 'virtues of pagans.' However, Augustinianism, when pushed too far, leads to statements such as the condemned thesis of Baius, All the works of those had not believed are sins, and the virtues of the philosophers are vices. (DH 1925 - Bull Ex Omnibus Afflictionibus, St Pius V, 1567)
However, the space given by St Thomas for natural virtues and particular goods accomplished by natural virtue (when Augustine would prefer to speak of merely a mitigation of vice), we see that St Thomas's thought is, whilst consistent with Augustine, leading in a different way - namely, if his thought on the natural virtues were exaggerated to a heretical extent, it would lead to semi-pelagianism.

I'm not proposing a difference of doctrine between St Thomas and St Augustine, but one can identify differences of tendency between them - indeed, it would be extraordinary that so many centuries of theological and philosophical development didn't lead to a difference of tendency.

I still think that the way in which Pope Benedict describes the relationship between 'goodness' and what man attempts to do without God, has a decidedly Augustinian flavour.