Thursday, January 07, 2016

Aquinas on the Beatitudes (I): Merit and Reward

Rob has been discussing Augustine's account of the beatitudes (Part I, Part II), so I thought I would say something about Aquinas's account of the beatitudes and, in a later post, how he uses and modifies Augustine's account.

Aquinas, as one might expect, finds a lot of structure in the beatitudes. The beatitudes are concerned with objective happiness, but what is more St. Thomas takes them to be systematically so. There are three major accounts of what happiness is. Some say it is a life of pleasure; some say it is an active life; and some say it is contemplative life. Aquinas argues, independently, that happiness is properly attributed to the contemplative life (more precisely, to completeness of contemplative life), and that the active life is something that disposes us to this happiness, while the life of pleasure, since it tempts people to go no further, is an obstacle to happiness. This provides the basic structure of the beatitudes.

A life of pleasure involves two things: abundance of external goods (of some kind) and satisfaction of one's passions. The first beatitude, "Blessed are the poor in spirit", links happiness to humility and in particular nonattachment to external goods. The second beatitude, "Blessed are the meek", links happiness to restraint in matters of the irascible passions (like anger), and the third beatitude, "Blessed are those who mourn", links happiness to restraint in matters of concupiscible passions (like desire).

Active life is a life concerned with one's neighbor, in matters either of obligation or of graciousness. The fourth beatitude, "Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice", concerns the former, and the fifth beatitude, "Blessed are the merciful", concerns the latter. This active life disposes to contemplation by certain effects, one concerned with ourselves and the other concerned with other people. First, it purifies our passions, which is identified by the sixth beatitude, "Blessed are the pure of heart", and second, it brings us to good relations with other people, which is identified by the seventh beatitude, "Blessed are the peacemakers".

But what of the eighth beatitude, "Blessed are those who are persecuted for justice"? This is the summary beatitude, indicating the point at which all the others have achieved their full and complete form: when you hold to them even in persecution.

And what of the contemplative life? Each beatitude consists of a merit and a reward. The merits all have to do with removing obstacles or the active life that disposes us to contemplation; but the goal, contemplative life, being itself the happy life, is the reward of these eight merits.

The merits of the first three beatitudes consisted of withdrawing from false happiness. People pursue false happiness, however, because they confuse it with something suggestive of true happiness. The rewards of the first three beatitudes, then, are the features of true happiness that false happiness only mimics. We pursue external goods like wealth and honor as if they were happiness because we confuse them with excellence and abundance of good. Thus the reward for poverty in spirit is the Kingdom of Heaven, which is precisely this abundant excellence in God. People seek retaliation as if that could give happiness because they want security for themselves; thus the meek get the security of inheriting the earth. People treat self-indulgence as happiness because they are aiming for consolation or comfort; thus the reward for mourning, which opposes self-indulgence, is comfort.

The next two merits required working toward the good of others, either through justice or mercy. People shirk the former in order to increase their own good; so the reward for not shirking is to have one's fill of good things. People shirk the latter in order to avoid increasing the bad things they have; so the reward for being merciful is having one's own misery relieved through mercy.

The next two merits were concerned with disposing us directly to contemplation both internally and with respect to others. Purity of heart is rewarded with the clear vision of God, and peacemaking is rewarded with union with God as children of God (through, of course, the Son of God who is perfectly united to God). And the eighth, of course, being a summary merit, gets a summary reward; thus we get the same reward as the beginning to indicate that we go around again.

None of this requires on its own that the beatitudes be seen as an ascent; eternal happiness, which the beatitudes describe, is one thing. We just need to break it up to understand it, according to how it is merited and the way in which it aptly rewards those merits. But Aquinas does accept the Augustinian notion that the beatitudes do indicate some kind of ascent. The rewards of the beatitude are also in ascending order of excellence:

For it is more to possess the land of the heavenly kingdom than simply to have it: since we have many things without possessing them firmly and peacefully. Again, it is more to be comforted in the kingdom than to have and possess it, for there are many things the possession of which is accompanied by sorrow. Again, it is more to have one's fill than simply to be comforted, because fulness implies abundance of comfort. And mercy surpasses satiety, for thereby man receives more than he merited or was able to desire. And yet more is it to see God, even as he is a greater man who not only dines at court, but also sees the king's countenance. Lastly, the highest place in the royal palace belongs to the king's son.

This ascent will be relevant (as in Augustine) to the association of each beatitude with a gift of the Holy Spirit, which I'll talk about in the next post in this series.

The eight beatitudes are, in Aquinas's view, completely exhaustive. Whenever we find another makarism or beatitude in Scripture (and possibly elsewhere), we can reduce it to these eight. Thus Aquinas gives three examples from the Old Testament: "Blessed is the man whom the Lord corrects" (Job 5:17) is reducible to the beatitude of mourning; "Blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the ungodly" (Psalm 1:1) is reducible to the beatitude of purity of heart; "Blessed is the man who finds wisdom" (Proverbs 3:13) is reducible to the beatitude of peacemaking.

Besides the beatitudes in Matthew (the Sermon on the Mount), however, the most prominent makarisms in the Bible are a clearly related list of beatitudes in Luke (the Sermon on the Plain). Aquinas takes the standard Matthaean list to be adapted specifically to the disciples of Christ, i.e., those who had already spent a fair amount of time learning for Jesus, while he takes the Lucan list to be an adaptation of the beatitudes for the common multitude, who have spent less time improving their understanding of happiness. What does the multitude tend to treat as the good or happy or successful life? A life that has an abundance of external goods, a sufficiency of what the body requires, a joyfulness of heart, and the favor of others. Since treating the life of pleasure is the primary obstacle to genuine happiness, we have the four paradoxes corresponding to these four common assumptions about happiness: happy are the poor, happy are the hungry, happy are those who weep, happy are you when men hate you. Why? Because now you can seek true happiness instead of becoming mired in false happiness.

to be continued

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