Saturday, February 14, 2009

more thoughts on delight and its role in virtue

In Aquinas on the Function of Moral Virtue, the writer says:

Suppose, for instance, I find some worthy cause and decide it would be best to give money, and every month I send them some funding. However, every time I do it, it pains me. I do the right thing, but I'm not taking pleasure in it. My act is certainly continent, and I can be said to persevere—and those are perfections of a sort. But they are perfections that fall short of virtue. In my example, my reason is perfected: (1) I discover the right thing to do, and (2) my reason persists in holding the right view even though it pains me to give money. The discovery, the perseverance, and the giving are all good. However, there is something short of complete perfection here: My emotions do not completely follow where my reason leads. A virtuous person would respond differently. The person who has acquired moral virtue has trained his or her appetites to respond to the judgment of reason about what is worth pursuing. The appetites become good instruments of reason and follow its judgment. I will call this the "instrumental function" of virtue. Through this function, we perform right actions readily. That is because one component of our emotions is a bodily state, a state that makes us ready to perform acts of the sort the emotion inclines us to perform. Through this function we also take delight in acting. When my desires are satisfied, I am pleased. When the appetites are good instruments of reason, then when one acts as reason demands, one is pleased, even on a sensory level.

Virtue quite literally makes acting well feel good.
So does that mean that if I have to force myself to do something I know is good, that I might as well give up in discouragement? No, because doing something that is good is good, no matter how distasteful I find it, and Aquinas says that perseverance and continence are meritorious.

Does it mean that if I find some natural pleasure in doing good, for example I like eating temperately because I like fitting into my size 8 jeans, that I am virtuous? No, that is not the same thing as delight in virtue, the way I understand it. That's sort of a "mercenary" reward.

There is a bit more about this here, in Law and Virtue in Aquinas. This article is very interesting and relates to some other things I wanted to talk about sometime, but for right now I just wanted to bring out the point of the article, that there are three ways of doing something right, and they go in an ascending scale from least perfect to most perfect:

  • Because you are afraid of the consequences of doing wrong (ie punishment from the authorities, or perhaps natural consequences like getting fat if you eat too many desserts)
  • Because reason tells you to do right (you know it is healthier for your body to eat better food, perhaps; or perhaps you focus on how you function better when you are eating right? I am guessing a bit here. I think it relates to how St Paul says he knows the good but doesn't always DO it as a result, because his flesh wants to do otherwise).
  • Because you delight in the right act. (from the Psalms -- "My delight is in the law of the Lord". )
This last part is still somewhat puzzling to me and is the main reason I'm writing this out, but here are a couple of quotes from Aquinas:
It is not always through the perfect goodness of virtue that one obeys the law, but sometimes it is through fear of punishment, and sometimes from the mere dictate of reason, which is a kind of beginning of virtue...

... virtue is natural to man according to a kind of beginning. This is so in respect of the specific nature (of man), in so far as in man's reason are to be found instilled by nature certain naturally known principles of both knowledge and action, which are the nurseries of intellectual and moral virtues, and in so far as there is in the will a natural appetite for good in accordance with reason.
This is basically a formulation of St Paul's teachings in Romans 1 about the "law written upon our hearts". I get that part of it. The part that still puzzles me a bit is the part that goes beyond reason to delight in the good thing for itself. I think if I could figure out that part of it, it would be easier to do things well.... well, perhaps not easier, but I would be less conflicted.

Definition of terminology according to Thomas Aquinas, (I'm going to put it in a quote box even though I paraphrased the definitions a bit in a "catechism" format)

What is delight
? (aka pleasure) It is the proper accident of happiness but not its essence.
What is happiness?
It is the ultimate end for rational beings, including humans. It requires possession of the virtues.
What is virtue?
It is a habit or perfection of the soul, "Virtue, which is an operative habit, is a good habit productive of good works." (here)
Why is virtue a requirement for happiness? This was originally carefully worked out by Aristotle in natural terms, and a summary is here. Basically, because the highest power of man is a disposition to do good, and it's the only one that can't be taken away by misfortune, so it is the most properly human of all dispositions.
What's a habit? a quality by which a being or a power is well or badly disposed. There are habits of the body, e.g., strength and weakness, and habits of the soul. Grace is a habit in the soul as a whole ; the intellectual, moral, and theological virtues are habits in the parts of the soul.
What does essence mean?
(aka "very being") of a thing. The essence of a thing is stated in its (real) definition, which explains the proper accidents of a thing.
What's an accident? An accident is a predicate that is attributed to a subject in fact but not by necessity. Aristotle and Aquinas distinguish the proper accident of a thing from the essence of that thing.
So what's a proper accident? (aka accident per se). The proper accident of something accompanies it but does not explain it. But the essence of thing may explain or help to explain the presence of the proper accident.
That brings us back to the beginning of all this, What is delight?

Did that make sense?

Man is made for happiness. Delight accompanies happiness but does not explain it. Virtue is a requirement for happiness because it does not depend upon exterior things for its perfection. Satisfaction in exterior things tends to reach a point where the delight falls off. In other words, if you have too many brownies you feel miserable, even though you may still want to eat more. Having 20 houses is not really any more productive of delight than having 1, though people may think so for a time. Plus, since your housing can be taken away by mischance it is not yours in the same way that personal qualities are yours.

I get stuck there.... maybe I am over-intellectualizing (nah, couldn't be that!). I do think I tend to muddle distinctions when I'm doing this amateur philosophizing, and that causes problems. I don't totally apologize because anything worth doing is worth doing badly, as Chesterton says. But I probably have to be ready to put it on the back burner. St Therese of Lisieux said she was much more able to do things out of Love than Fear and I can certainly go along with that. When I'm trying to do something in a better way it works MUCH better to think of it as an act of love than some sort of avoidance of peril (peril paralyzes me).

I should like to resolve this some time, but perhaps I won't during my life.

No comments: