Saturday, January 09, 2016

Aquinas on the Beatitudes (II): Virtues and Gifts

As with other scholastic theologians, Aquinas's thinking about the beatitudes is heavily linked with his thinking about the gifts of the Holy Spirit, an idea that they derive from Augustine, and with other major elements of Christian life: virtues, moral precepts, fruits of the Holy Spirit, petitions of the Our Father, and so forth. Aquinas's own account in the Summa Theologiae is primarily structured by the primary infused virtues -- love, hope, faith, prudence, justice, fortitude, temperance. This makes uncovering his account of how the beatitudes fit into the scheme fairly complicated, since there is no one place one can look. There are also a number of features in Aquinas's account that make the correspondences less than straightforward. The very basic scheme, which, as we will see, requires some nuance, could be summarized like this:

Virtue GiftBeatitude
Faith UnderstandingPurity of Heart
HopeFear of the LordPoverty of Spirit
FortitudeFortitudeHungering and Thirsting

Of the three obvious peculiarities of the scheme, we've already seen the reason for one of them: the beatitude of persecution is the summary beatitude, indicating completeness in all of the others, so it stands outside the main list of seven. The assignment of both understanding and knowledge, and thus of their appropriate beatitudes to faith has to do with the content of each gift. Aquinas makes no explicit assignment of any gift (and thus of any beatitude) to temperance; but he mentions in passing that the fruits of the Holy Spirit associated with the gift of fear are those that have to do with temperance, which suggests -- although it does not establish -- a connection between temperance to fear of the Lord and thus to poverty of spirit. (Which we find elsewhere; Bonaventure, for instance, takes temperance to correspond to fear and poverty of spirit.)

But the real reason for the peculiarities is that Aquinas does not think there is a single exact correspondence among these lists: you can relate them in different ways depending on what you are trying to do. For instance, in a sense we can associate every virtue with every gift: the theological virtues of faith, hope, and love are the principles of all the gifts, and the gifts contribute to the completion of all the virtues. When we associate the gifts and virtues we are not doing so exclusively but according to something they have in common. These commonalities are real (which is why several of the gifts share names with virtues), but there may be different kinds, and they may not always be equally important. The gifts and beatitudes have a more rigorous linkage, due to the authority and arguments of Augustine, but we also see here that Aquinas thinks there is more than one legitimate way to arrange their correspondences.

This comes up in several cases. One case in which it comes up explicitly is in the discussion of the gift of piety and its relation to the beatitude of meekness (2-2.121.2). There he notes that there are two major kinds of fit you could see between the gifts and the beatitudes. The first is that of order, and Augustine gives that kind of fit -- the ordering of one list corresponds in some way to the ordering of the other. In this conguity, the gift of piety corresponds to the beatitude of meekness. The second is that of the special nature of each, based on the kinds of objects they have in view and the kinds of acts involved with them. In this way of fitting them together, there is still some congruity between the gift of piety and the beatitude of meekness, but there is a much stronger fit between the gift of piety and the beatitudes of hungering and thirsting and of mercy. It gets even more complicated when Aquinas answers an objection by noting that by the second kind of congruity, piety and knowledge will share a beatitude (the beatitude associated with knowledge is mourning).

Thus, Aquinas explicitly accepts Augustine's linear ordering as a legitimate way of viewing the relations between gifts and beatitudes. But he thinks there is also another way in which the gifts and beatitudes are related, by content; and this is not linear, but a matter of greater or lesser similarity

The significance of this is quite considerable. When people talk about Augustine's correspondences, they often say that they fit very well sometimes but sometimes seem a bit strained. But Aquinas can avoid this problem entirely. As he sees it, what Augustine is doing is recognizing that the order of gifts corresponds to the order of beatitudes in important practical ways. This order does not depend on the precise nature of either the gifts or the beatitudes, because it is based on their relations to other gifts and beatitudes. As it happens, in a number of cases the correspondences you get by focusing on order are the same ones you get if you ask which beatitudes have the most in common with which gifts. But they do not need to be. (It is worth noting, though, that even the point at which Aquinas himself recognizes the most divergence, the gift of piety, he still holds that there is some commonality of content between the gift and the beatitude that corresponds to it according to order.)

I suspect a major reason for this, and also a reason for why the Augustinian order, while recognized, does not play a major role in Aquinas's account, is that his interest is less directly practical than Augustine's. Aquinas's discussion is not in any sense a how-to or a map for spiritual progress, and the beatitudes are a secondary matter, however important they may be as secondary matters. The structure of the Secunda Secundae is that of a manual for confessors, although it is more concerned with underlying principles than practical advice in the confessional; this is why it focuses almost entirely on virtues and vices, and fits everything else, including the beatitudes, around them: they need to be there because they concern the ends and effects, but they are not the point of focus. In his approach to the beatitudes, however, Augustine is explicitly interested in how to live according to the complete standard of Christian life. These are very different emphases.

There are other aspects of Aquinas's account of the beatitudes beyond all of this. He shows in general more interest in the relation between the virtues and the gifts, and the beatitudes to some extent come along with the latter. He also accepts various bits of lore about the beatitudes that I haven't looked at. For instance, in various places, he recognizes correspondences, also derived from Augustine, between the beatitudes and the petitions of the Our Father (2-2.83.9 ad 3). But a weakness in the Thomistic corpus is that we have no thorough discussion of the beatitudes: Aquinas discussion of them is either quick and general or scattered throughout his discussion of other things. One has to re-form Aquinas's account in order to see how it all fits together.

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