Now and then I realize how much of my writing results from trying to make up for having answered someone’s good question badly.
Thomas Aquinas spends a good deal of time in the Summa discussing whether the detailed precepts of the Old Testament law are all the same kind of thing, or whether, instead, we should say that some of them are moral, some ceremonial, still others judicial – that is, some of them about how to live, some about how to worship, and still others about how to regulate the community.
This may seem like hairsplitting. One of my graduate students asked me recently what difference it makes whether we get the answer right. Here’s what I should have said.
Two things depend on getting the classification right, one of them practical, the other theoretical.
The first issue is whether any of those precepts could have been have been different than they were. Answer: Some couldn’t, some could; it depends on which kind of precept one has in mind. None of the moral precepts could have been different, because they reflect general precepts of natural law. Having created the good of creaturely life, for example, God will not now say “Go murder.” The wrong of murder is in the nature of the things that He made.
But the ceremonial and judicial precepts could have been different, because they are what are called “determinations” of the moral precepts: By divine authority, they pin down the precise way in which the moral precepts should be observed, in cases in which more than one possibility may have existed. Ceremonial precepts pin down the details of our duty to worship God Himself. Judicial precepts pin down the details of our duties of justice to man in God’s image.
Human law is like this too. The lawmakers cannot release us from the duty to take care for the safety of others. On the other hand, they can pin down whether we are to drive on the right or the left. In much the same way, not even God Himself can release us from the duty to worship Him and Him alone, for the rightness of worshipping Him inheres in Who He Is. Nor could he release us from the duty to do justice to our neighbors. On the other hand, some of the details of divine worship and executing doing justice might have been arranged differently than they were. This is why, for example, it was possible for Jesus to modify the Jewish Passover so that it became Holy Communion, and why we are no longer bound to punish adultery by stoning. There were good reasons for the old ceremonies and judicial regulations – but by divine authority, certain changes were possible.
By the way, by considering these good reasons for the old regulations, Christians can learn from the ceremonial and judicial precepts of Old Testament law too. The fact that we are not required to obey them does not mean that we should be indifferent to them. They were part of the divine pedagogy.
The second issue is why it matters whether we get any definition or classification right. Answer: Yes, because the mind uses these things to engage the shape of reality. Do we wish to understand how things really are, or don’t we? A dog is not a cat, nor a triangle a rhombus, nor a person, thank God, a thing. Contrary to the views of postmodernists and some Justices of the Supreme Court, we cannot change the basic structures of reality just by defining them perversely. At stake is the rational mind’s privilege and calling to know what is.
Now at the bottom of what is, we find Eternal Law: The pattern in the mind of God, by which He created and governs the universe. Although we cannot know it as His infinite intellect knows it, we can certainly know it through its reflections, by reason in natural law, by direct verbal proclamation in biblical law. This is how He imparts it to us.
Thus: Even if there were no practical reason to know how many kinds of
Old Testament precepts there are, it would be worthwhile to know the answer simply because knowing is our vocation. By doing what we are made for, we give homage to the Author of our minds.
When people say that the standard of virtue is declining, it is considered shrewd and knowing to reply “Every age thinks it was better in the old days.”
Perhaps every age does think it was better in the old days. But morally speaking, some ages really have been better, and some really have been worse. People in better days who say “It was better in the old days” are mistaken. And people in worse days who say “It was better in the old days” are right.
So maybe it was just as bad in the old days as in our days, but what makes us so sure? Perhaps we should work harder to avoid being smug, since the five most common ways to attain complacency seem unconvincing.
One is to consider the evidence selectively. After all, we no longer mistreat people in certain ways.
The second is to deny that our favorite vices are vices. How could anything we really want to do be misbehaving?
Third, and more radically, redefine vices as virtues. This is how the coarse and profane becomes frank and refreshing.
Conversely, redefine virtues as vices. Consider all the virtues at the mention of which sophisticates are supposed to smirk.
Fifth, simply deny the possibility of moral judgment. This is the most interesting, because it is the most irrational. Among other things, it implies that no one should even try to examine his own conscience.
For who is he to judge?
(To the tune of “I’m Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter,” here sung by Fats Waller.
I'm gonna sit right down and write a good objection
And then show why it can't be true
I’m gonna fill it up with smarts
It’s gonna fly right off the charts
A lot of comments on the margin
It’ll be a bargain
I’m gonna smile and say I hope I’ve got an answer
And close the way I always do
I'm gonna sit right down and write a good objection
And then show why it can't be true
We are not just knowers, but seekers, who spontaneously incline toward certain realities other than ourselves.
When I say that this attraction is spontaneous, I do not mean that it is arbitrary, because that is not the way that we experience it. One way of saying this is that we do not merely experience ourselves as drawn to things; we experience the things themselves as being such as to draw us. Our word for their being so – and there is such a word in every language – is “good”; goodness is the quality of being such as to draw us.
So another way to express what I am saying is that we experience certain things as good, and experience ourselves as drawn to them because of their goodness; we are designed to be so drawn.
We are magnetized.
With an air of demystification, subjectivists like Thomas Hobbes announced to us that it is the other way around. They deny that we are inclined toward things because they are good. Instead, they say, we call them good because we happen to be inclined toward them (as we may happen to be inclined to different things tomorrow). Goodness is merely a name, and inclination does not point outside itself after all; it just is.
But this is not just bad theory, it is a bad description of the experience. If you ask a man “Why do you love that woman?” he does not normally reply by telling you about himself – “I just do” – but by telling you about her – “Because she is wonderful.”
SURGEONS CONVERT MAN INTO JELLYFISH
St. Augustine seems to have allowed for prostitution on the grounds that the evil that would arise from stamping it out would exceed the evil of letting it be with restrictions.
We live in a polity that has already accepted homosexual acts and even homosexual "marriage". Should we take Augustine's attitude toward homosexual acts, or is homosexual behavior too destructive to be countenanced?
Take a look at Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, I-II, Q. 96, Art. 2. He agrees with St. Augustine that sometimes the attempt to suppress a vice causes even more harm than the vice causes by itself. “Now human law,” he concludes, “is framed for a number of human beings, the majority of whom are not perfect in virtue. Wherefore human laws do not forbid all vices, from which the virtuous abstain, but only the more grievous vices, from which it is possible for the majority to abstain; and chiefly those that are to the hurt of others, without the prohibition of which human society could not be maintained: thus human law prohibits murder, theft and such like.”
I should say that the danger to our own social order is not that a relatively small number of people engage in same-sex acts, but that a great number of people are approaching the view that the bodily powers have no purpose but physical pleasure, and that not even marriage has any necessary connection with either the procreation of children or the union of their parents. One might say that heterosexuals are coming to accept an essentially homosexual view of sex.
TEXAS CITY SUFFERS SUB-SUB-ARCTIC COLD
Portent of Global Cooling, Scientists Warn
AUSTIN, TEXAS (CMM) – An unexpected summer cold snap shocked the Texas capital yesterday as the mercury plunged to minus 17,966° F.
Nicholas Huffenpuff, director of development for the Climate Research Unit, East Anglia, U.K., warned of “an impending era of global cooling” and said “This is a wake-up call for the human race.”
A dozen environmental organizations including the Terran Planetary Trust, the Burnt Umber Club, People for Giving Ethics the Treatment, and the Weather Liberation Front issued press releases calling for a new climate summit.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., demanded an immediate tripling of the federal budget to deal with the problem. Republicans, as usual, had nothing constructive to say.
At the Vatican, an unidentified highly-placed source told reporters that the release of particulate matter into the upper atmosphere, blocking the rays of the sun, “has got to stop” and that an increase in greenhouse gasses is urgently needed to compensate. “About 50 billion metric tons annually should do it.”
On the street, Austin citizens seemed more puzzled than concerned. Munching on a taco at an outdoor food wagon, Michael Stubbistoe said “How can it minus 18 thou? Isn’t that almost, like, absolute zero?” Michelle Caterwaul, his companion, said “Feels like about 78° to me. I think someone’s weather app just made a mistake.”
Asked to comment, climate spokesman Huffenpuff said, “Attitudes like that are just anti-science.”