Aquinas: Virtue and Perfection

There’s a fun one this week – in 95.3, Aquinas asks about Adam and Eve’s virtues in the Garden of Eden. He points out that some virtues basically revolve around resisting vice, or resisting bad impulses or whatever, and suggests that Adam and Eve didn’t have those bad impulses in the first place, so would never have needed those virtues before the Fall. Therefore, if Adam and Eve developed new virtues after the Fall, the original creation isn’t really perfect, because humans are missing all these important bits that only arrive after the onset of sin. And that seems weird.

Aquinas gives some examples of these resistance-based virtues, citing temperance and courage as curbing “immoderate longing” and “immoderate fear” respectively. He argues that Adam and Eve wouldn’t have had immoderate longing or fear, so temperance and courage are non-existent virtues, only coming into existence after the Fall. Aquinas also mentions repentance, pity, and faith, arguing that none of these would have existed either. Those are probably more compelling examples, for my money – repentance doesn’t make sense in a sinless world, pity doesn’t make sense if there’s nothing sad to feel pity over, and faith seems weird and unnecessary in a world where you’re literally chatting with God and angels.

In response, Aquinas argues that there’s a distinction between not having something and not needing it. You’d never find a situation in the Garden where Adam and Eve needed pity or repentance, but if you did somehow magically find that impossible situation, they would’ve been very good at pity and repentance. They had the virtues, but never needed them. It’s a funny little response, because it suggests that God built these things into humans that are functionally useless in a perfect state. Pity and repentance are the virtue equivalent of the appendix. They only start functioning once the Fall kicks in. Notice as well the implication that in heaven, all those virtues will become useless again. We won’t need pity, repentance, faith, temperance, or courage in heaven, because they all revolve around our fallen state and we won’t be fallen any more.

From one perspective, it kinda makes sense that faith and repentance will be redundant in heaven. We’ll be able to see God, so faith doesn’t seem necessary, and there won’t be sin, so repentance can go too. That’s all fine from our normal-person perspective. But for Aquinas, there’s a bigger issue. He doesn’t explicitly name it, but you can tell he’s wrestling with it. In Aquinas’s theory of How Stuff Works, there’s this perfect state of perfection, and when everything’s perfect it all works properly and everything’s great. Things have degenerated into imperfection because of sin, but Jesus fixed it and things will be perfect again sometime in the future. The perfect state, for Aquinas, is all-encompassing. It represents the ultimate fulfillment of your being, and, importantly, it’s a singular state. There’s only one perfect state. That’s the basic problem with this virtue stuff. Here’s the process:

  1. Virtue is good
  2. More virtue is better than less virtue
  3. More virtues exist after the Fall than before the Fall, because some virtues (faith, pity, repentance) are only relevant in a fallen world
  4. Humans have more virtues after the Fall and are therefore better (ie closer to their perfect state) than they were before the Fall

Step 4) is a problem for Aquinas, because humans were in a perfect state before the Fall. It doesn’t make sense to say that fallen humans are somehow better than the perfect humans – because the perfect humans should be the best type of human. So to maintain the integrity of his model, Aquinas has to show how those post-Fall virtues actually already existed before the Fall. He has a bunch of different explanations for how they were all integrated, and you can go look them up in your own time, because they’re not that important to my point right now.

There’s a subsequent problem that Aquinas never quite addresses. Most of the virtues get integrated in some bullshit way – for instance, in the first half he argues that some virtues can’t exist in a perfect state because they respond to bad things, and there are no bad things in Paradise. In the second half, he acts like a pedantic weasel and argues that although in Paradise bad things don’t exist in the self, they can exist externally, and so perfect humans can have the virtues that respond to external bad things. For example it’s a virtue to be angry at evil, and perfect humans could have had that virtue by being angry at evil demons, which are external figures. What a pedantic weasel.

So okay, Aquinas incorporates some virtues into the perfect human form, in a way that some readers may or may not find convincing. But some virtues he doesn’t incorporate at all. He describes a bunch as existing “in basic attitude, but not in action,” especially repentance and pity. But doesn’t that create a problem for Aquinas’s theory of perfection? Let me put it this way – within the perfect human form, what’s the purpose of repentance and pity? They don’t have one. Like I said above, they’re the virtue-appendix. But that means that God created something without reason. He created these virtues that are not relevant to our perfect selves, to our complete and total and truest fullest selves. You could respond that God created these virtues so that when we inevitably fell, we’d be equipped with the relevant virtues – and that seems very sensible. But if it’s true, then Aquinas is still stuck with his basic problem. Our perfect bodies are supposed to be the fullest and most completely actualised versions of ourselves. But repentance and pity have no place within that perfect body. They don’t have any meaningful function. Therefore, God either created perfect humans with virtues that are meaningless, suggesting He created without a purpose, or He created humans with virtues that specifically only applied to the fallen body, suggesting that the perfect body is not, in fact, the fullest realisation of the human form.

What I’m trying to say here is that Aquinas’s theory of how perfection works is dumb. It’s dumb and I don’t like it. When I finish with Aquinas I’m going to do a couple posts on things I actually like from his work, and things that I don’t. This topic is definitely going to come up again when that happens. In the meantime, I’ll leave you with this. Aquinas’s theory of perfection basically says that the perfect human is like a Big Mac, and that imperfection is like taking out ingredients at random. His problem is that imperfect humans are more like a Chicken McCheese – they’ve got bits that actually just aren’t in the original product. He’s trying to solve the issue by proving that the Big Mac always had a chicken patty, when really they’re just two different burgers and that’s fine.

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