Sunday, June 22, 2014

A Passing Violet

In explaining Aquinas's account of natural evil elsewhere, I came up with this; it needs refinement, but I am putting it here so that I will remember it.

We can put it all in a picture, as well. Suppose you're given the opportunity to create a sandbox-universe, to make it beautiful. And suppose one of the things you can put into your sandbox-universe is a violet that is extraordinarily beautiful, but the kind of beauty it has is very fragile, so that it will likely last only one afternoon.

One way of approaching this, the Manichean way, is to say: "This violet is corruptible, inherently passing, and its corruptibility taints its beauty with ugliness. It could only be allowed if its beauty, or the beauty of things coming from it, were greater than the ugliness of its destruction."

But another way of approaching this, the Thomistic way, is to say: "Though the violet may pass away, it is extraordinarily beautiful, and thus will play an important role in the fullness of beauty that is the end of the sandbox-universe, even if we only have it one afternoon. As for its passing away, we can even set things up so that its contribution of beauty to the universe continues even when it is destroyed by its making possible other beautiful things. By giving up its beauty it will have a share in the beauty of others."


  1. I had to check out of that combox. Too much willful misreading from you-know-who. Kudos for sticking with it; this is a nice way of putting it.

    I do wonder though if you are sugar-coating Aquinas a bit though. Your way of presenting the violet focuses more on beauty and less on corruptibility; I think the corruptibility is more central for Aquinas. I think your way is certainly compatible with what he's doing, but he seems to leave the idea underdeveloped: we just need that kind of good, explanation deferred.

    The Manichaeism angle is a good reminder, since he's writing for guys whose first mission was to break the Albigensians...

  2. branemrys5:11 PM

    I think we have a tendency to conflate questions Aquinas would regard as distinct -- corruptibility as such is simply not relevant to the question of why God would create corruptible goods, since the bare fact that they are goods is all that is required to consider the matter. If they are good, there is reason for them to exist, if it is consistent with or required by the aim of the whole cosmos -- which we know from revelation is plenitude of goodness, so there's no problem at all there: the good of the cosmos requires all kinds of goods. The issue of how corruptibility factors into it all and what to do about it is, I think, a question downstream from this one.

    You're definitely right that a Dominican in the thirteenth century would take refutation of Manichaeanism to be an immensely more immediate and practical problem than we might. It puts into a different light the famous story about Aquinas suddenly shouting out at the banquet table of St. Louis!

  3. It's funny, the beginning and end of your first paragraph match my thoughts exactly...but I think I'm on the right side of it! He is, after all, long since done talking about goodness simply speaking and the providence of the universe. Now the questions are about multitude and distinction, and why there are evils, NOT about why God creates this kind of good. He's directly rebutting the claim that God only creates incorruptible goods, which in turn take care of the icky stuff (47,1 resp). His argument seems, to me, pretty explicitly focused on corruptible goods as crucially providing a grade of goodness that would otherwise be missing from the universe, which in turn would mean the universe misses out on a key way to reflect the goodness of God. That puts the strain directly on the specifier corruptible, I think.

    And again, I don't think that's inconsistent with your OP. "What is it about corruptibles that only they can provide?" is unanswered in these articles, and you give a plausible answer. You could do something with receptivity or sacrifice as a mode of goodness too I think. I just think the enthymemetic (sp?) appeal to the goodness of the violet is not his primary focus here, and you sound like you are going in that direction with your violet-paean (Chastek's spelling is rubbing off on me, I keep having to look up these words to make sure I'm not jobbing them).

  4. Imagine I dialed up a "Tom and Manny" dialogue about this. Started it last night, decided my day job needed more of my mental energy. Thanks for exchange.


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