Angilbert (fl. ca. 840/50), On the Battle Which was Fought at Fontenoy

The Law of Christians is broken,
Blood by the hands of hell profusely shed like rain,
And the throat of Cerberus bellows songs of joy.

Angelbertus, Versus de Bella que fuit acta Fontaneto

Fracta est lex christianorum
Sanguinis proluvio, unde manus inferorum,
gaudet gula Cerberi.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Cardinal Mercier and the Natural Law, Part 2: The Question of All Questions

"IN THESE PAGES IS A MESSAGE FROM LOUVAIN." This is how Professor Peter Coffey begins the closing of his Preface to Cardinal Mercier's A Manual of Modern Scholastic Philosophy.
In these pages is . . . a little of the truth that is indestructible. For the time a great seat of learning lies desolate [as a result of World War I]. For the time: its voice will be heard again: rescissa vegetius resurget.*
Being cut down, Vegetius will make it rise again!*

Mercier's Manual handles ethics in Volume II of that work. His treatment of ethics is divided into two parts: general ethics and special ethics. His treatment of general ethics advances a theory of good and evil, and is divided into four chapters, one on the natural end of man, one on free will, one on the moral order, and the final one on conscience. Mercier's discussion of special ethics advances a theory of right and duty, and is divided into three chapters: one dealing with the rights of individuals, another dealing with the family, and the last dealing with the rights of the state.

It is not difficult to grasp the concept that man has a natural end. Everything that we see around us appears to have some aim, however complex or simple; nothing we see that is living really moves about aimlessly. They all seem to display what Aristotle and the Scholastics would call a final cause: id cuius gratia aliquid fit vel est, that on account of which a thing is done or is. It is precisely the inclination to this end that is a thing's nature:
The inherent inclination of a being toward its one end is called its natural tendency or, in one word, its nature. In its primary meaning, nature denotes the substance of a being in so far as it has within it a primary and internal principle of activity. . . . Nature, then, impresses upon the activity of a being a special direction, or tendency, towards a determinate end; this end is also called the good of this being.(212[4])**
Dogs pretty much incline towards being dogs. Cats pretty much incline towards being cats. Stones pretty much incline towards being stones. Stars pretty much act like stars. Even humans, who have a free choice in the matter compared to other beings and so have an added complexity unshared by other parts of creation, incline pretty much toward being humans. That inclination is nature.

Some things ought to be observed. Nature is something that inheres in us; that is, it is an intrinsic, inherent, vitally centrally part of us. To suggest that we not follow our nature whatever the apparent grounds, whether freedom or anything else however noble sounding, is to suggest that we become untrue to the deepest part of what we are. It is a recipe for inauthenticity, for disaster, and ultimately, it goes against our deepest inclinations and yearnings. It is a lie to the truth that is in us. It denies our primary principle of activity. It denies our internal principle of activity.

Nature is not imposed upon us ad extra as if it were some positive, accidental law, something artificially imposed, something extra. Rather nature is something within us; deeply intimate with us; nature is within us: ad intra. It is no less deep in us, and in fact, more deep in us, than it is in brute animals and the rest of creation, because it is in us to some extent passively, but to some extent through self-direction. This inclination is not "violent," that is, it is not an extrinsic or external impulse wrought on us. The inclination is intrinsic or internal to us, in other words, natural to us. The inclination we have is exercised through the power of "self-direction," unlike the inclination in animals or in plants, which is "passively directed." [213(5)] Our natural inclination may therefore be called voluntarily or spontaneously natural, where that of creatures that are not self-directed would be called natural simpliciter.

Man has freedom, therefore, to self-direct, and this gives him the freedom to act in such a manner as to order his will in accordance with his inner tendencies, or to act against them. But the exercise of this freedom is not inconsequential. That freedom, and that choice that goes along with self-direction, has serious consequences attached to it. It is absolutely consequential.
Man alone directs his actions in the full sense of the word, since he alone can freely order his will. He knows the end which is assigned him, he can freely direct himself towards it by suitable means, or, freely but culpably, turn himself from it.
[213(5)] What is this except for saying that we are responsible for our choices, and that there are deserts or punishments associated with them?

Since this inclination, this nature, bespeaks our end, and the end is our good (bonus est quod omnia appetunt, "good is that which all things seek"), and the good is the source of all self-perfection (bonus est perfectivum, "good is perfective"), to violate our nature is to go against our good and our perfection. We therefore injure ourselves, and make ourselves imperfect should we go against nature. It is a form of moral self-mutilation, self-loathing, self-abuse. Indeed, this may be said to be one of the natural punishments attached to going against nature. [244(52)]

Mercier distinguishes two basic kinds of end: proximate or immediate ends, and a last or supreme end.

Proximate or immediate ends are beneath the last or supreme end, and they are distinguished from the last or supreme end in that the latter has no ulterior end, that is, it has no end beyond it that may be referenced, or to which it points. When one gets to the last or supreme end, one is at the road's end, so to speak. A further distinction can be made based upon the end as it exists subjectively in the actor or agent (what the agent considers his end; his intention) and the end as it may exist in reality, objectively, "in the ontological order of natural ends and means." [213(6)]

What is good? In answer to this Mercier divides goods into a three-fold categorization.

The good that the will views as being good in itself, and not good for another reason, is called an absolute good.

If a good, however, tends to yet another object, that is, it is not viewed as a good in itself, but as a good that leads to another good, an ulterior good (whether mediate or ultimate), then that good is considered a relative good, a useful good or bonum utile.

The kind of good that is involved, whether absolute or relative, makes a difference for the will. For an absolute good is, from the will's perspective, its end; whereas a relative good is, from the will's perspective, a means.

In addition to being sought by reason, goods are also sought because of the delight or pleasure, intellectual or physical, they provide the agent who is conscious. So the will may pursue both the good and the pleasure which will accompany that good's attainment. The good, in itself and apart from the pleasure that its attainment may give the agent, is called the objective good. The pleasurable aspect that its possession creates in the agent is the agreeable or delectable good, the bonum delectabile.

There can be competition among goods, and there are times that a good is sought in a disordered manner. Regardless of whether goods are sought as means or ends, or as a means of the delight that is found in them, an object that is pursed by the will which is inclined "under the guidance of right reason," is called the bonum honestum, a moral or just or authentic good, an "honest-to-goodness" good.

Cardinal Mercier then approaches a question which has raised the ire of those who reject an Aristotelian, Thomistic, Scholastic, or Natural Law moral philosophy. That question is whether there is only one end, one fundamental tendency in man, and if so, whether it can be identified.

Is there a summum bonum, a greatest good, a good of all goods? Is there a finis ultimus, an ultimate end, and end of all ends?

We are at the edge of a watershed question: On the one hands stands the perennial philosophy. On the other hand, the moderns, guided by Hobbes and all his darkened minions.

Here is Hobbes' answer to the question:
To which end we are to consider, that the Felicity of this life, consisteth not in the repose of a mind satisfied. For there is no such Finis ultimus [utmost ayme,] nor Summum Bonum [greatest Good,] as is spoken of in the Books of the old Morall Philosophers.
The question of whether there is an utmost aim, a finis ultimus, or whether there is a greatest good, a summum bonum, is, in fact, the question of whether we intend to live in the shadows and imaginations of relativity or live in objective truth. It is the question of whether there is right and wrong objectively. It is, at root, the question of whether God exists or whether the soul is immortal. It is simply asked in another way.

Kant believed (and here I believe him right), that the possibility of a summum bonum is suggestive of the existence of God and the immortality of the soul, and that God's existence and the immortality of the soul are necessary conditions for there to be the possibility of a summum bonum.
The summum bonum, then, practically is only possible on the supposition of the immortality of the soul.

Now a being that is capable of acting on the conception of laws is an intelligence (a rational being), and the causality of such a being according to this conception of laws is his will; therefore the supreme cause of nature, which must be presupposed as a condition of the summum bonum is a being which is the cause of nature by intelligence and will, consequently its author, that is God.
Critique of Practical Reason, II.ii.4, 5 (Thomas Kingsmill Abbott, trans.)

Whether there is a summum bonum, a finis ultimus, is one of the most important questions in moral philosophy. It is a moral great divide.

On which side do we fall?


*I'm having difficulty with this phrase. Vegetius, though uncapitalized, appears a proper name, and seems to be a reference to Publius Flavius Vegetius Renatus, a Roman author of the 5th century A.D. who is famous for writing a military manual, De re militari (also known as Epitoma rei militaris), but also has a manual on veterinary medicine attributed to him, Digesta artis mulomedicinae. I assume, therefore, that it means that even though an animal is on its deathbed, Vegetius (the author of the book on veterinary medicine) can bring the animal back to health. Therefore, when Christianity is close to death, Mercier's Manual (like Vegetius's in the context of veterinary medicine) will serve to make Christianity rise again.

**Bracketed references are to page, with section number in parentheses.

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