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.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Ignorance of the Wrong, Development of an Idea, St. Thomas

StTHOMAS AQUINAS'S VIEW ON IGNORANCE OF THE LAW seems to depart from the rigorism of his teacher, St. Albert the Great, and pattern itself more after the Franciscan savant St. Bonaventure. There are, it is true, statements in some of the works outside of the Summa Theologiae that could be invoked to support an argument that St. Thomas held a strict view along the lines of William of Auxerre and the early Franciscan school. Ignorantia iuris peccata est--ignorance of the law is sin--St. Thomas says in his De veritate.* Ignorantia iuris ad negligentiam reputatur--Ignorance of the law may be chalked up to negligence on the part of the actor--St. Thomas says in his De malo.**

But when St. Thomas treats the subject extensively, we see that his view is more nuanced, and takes into consideration instances where ignorance of the law--ignorantia iuris--may be excused, and thus may not lead to an actor being held accountable as having incurred fault or sin.

St. Thomas Aquinas (The Angelic Doctor)
Wearing a Four-Horned Doctoral Biretta

St. Thomas handles the issue of ignorance and sin in his Summa Theologiae (IaIIae, q. 76, questions. 1-4). He begins his analysis by distinguishing between the sort of ignorance which excuses from that which does not, and his focus is on the effect that the ignorance has on causing the voluntariness of the act, so that if the actor commits an act that--in the absence of the ignorance--he would not have done, then the ignorance is the cause of the act, and the actor is not guilty for the sin. If, however, the ignorance is "concomitant with the sin," that is, if the actor would engage in the act whether or not ignorant so that the ignorance really has no role in the voluntariness of the act, then ignorance will not excuse. There is a difference between a man acting "in ignorance," (peccat ignorans) and a man acting "from ignorance" or "because of ignorance" (propter ignorantiam).***

For St. Thomas, ignorance is a privation of knowledge, not mere nescience. Nescience is the absence of knowledge and implies no ability to know that knowledge. So, for example, a dog is nescient of any religious duty to God, and yet there is no fault involved in that since the brute animal has no capacity to know God. Ignorance on the other hand is privation of knowledge, that is lack of knowledge of those things which one has the natural ability to know. Accordingly, since man has a natural ability to know God as First Cause by the use of reason and his perception of the world and its intrinsic order and the need for an explanatory original and ending cause, the lack or privation of such knowledge is not mere nescience, it is ignorance.

Now it is evident that whoever neglects to have or do what he ought to have or do, commits a sin of omission. Wherefore through negligence, ignorance of what one is bound to know, is a sin; whereas it is not imputed as a sin to man, if he fails to know what he is unable to know. Consequently ignorance of such like things is called "invincible," because it cannot be overcome by study. For this reason such like ignorance, not being voluntary, since it is not in our power to be rid of it, is not a sin: wherefore it is evident that no invincible ignorance is a sin. On the other hand, vincible ignorance is a sin, if it be about matters one is bound to know; but not, if it be about things one is not bound to know.

Manifestum est autem quod quicumque negligit habere vel facere id quod tenetur habere vel facere, peccat peccato omissionis. Unde propter negligentiam, ignorantia eorum quae aliquis scire tenetur, est peccatum. Non autem imputatur homini ad negligentiam, si nesciat ea quae scire non potest. Unde horum ignorantia invincibilis dicitur, quia scilicet studio superari non potest. Et propter hoc talis ignorantia, cum non sit voluntaria, eo quod non est in potestate nostra eam repellere, non est peccatum. Ex quo patet quod nulla ignorantia invincibilis est peccatum, ignorantia autem vincibilis est peccatum, si sit eorum quae aliquis scire tenetur; non autem si sit eorum quae quis scire non tenetur.

S.T., IaIIae q. 76 a. 2 co.

Ignorance may excuse, in whole or in part, the guilt involved in an act, depending upon whether the voluntariness of that act is diminished or altogether erased b that ignorance.
Since every sin is voluntary, ignorance can diminish sin, in so far as it diminishes its voluntariness; and if it does not render it less voluntary, it nowise alleviates the sin. Now it is evident that the ignorance which excuses from sin altogether (through making it altogether involuntary) does not diminish a sin, but does away with it altogether. On the other hand, ignorance which is not the cause of the sin being committed, but is concomitant with it, neither diminishes nor increases the sin.

Ignorance may in some cases reduce or altogether eliminate the voluntary nature of an act, and without an act being voluntary, fault cannot be placed upon the actor. If the ignorance is voluntary, as, for example, when the ignorance is affected, cultivated, or purposefully or recklessly maintained (ignorantia affectata), then one can be held morally accountable for that ignorance. One cannot avoid sin by remaining in ignorance, when that ignorance is maintained purposefully. There is no ostrich-head-in-the-sand defense to sin.† This is particularly true when one is under a duty to know, but one is neglectful in complying or meeting that duty. In his Summa Theologiae, St. Thomas explains:

Therefore sin cannot be alleviated by any ignorance, but only by such as is a cause of the sin being committed, and yet does not excuse from the sin altogether. Now it happens sometimes that such like ignorance is directly and essentially voluntary, as when a man is purposely ignorant that he may sin more freely, and ignorance of this kind seems rather to make the act more voluntary and more sinful, since it is through the will's intention to sin that he is willing to bear the hurt of ignorance, for the sake of freedom in sinning. Sometimes, however, the ignorance which is the cause of a sin being committed, is not directly voluntary, but indirectly or accidentally, as when a man is unwilling to work hard at his studies, the result being that he is ignorant, or as when a man willfully drinks too much wine, the result being that he becomes drunk and indiscreet, and this ignorance diminishes voluntariness and consequently alleviates the sin. For when a thing is not known to be a sin, the will cannot be said to consent to the sin directly, but only accidentally; wherefore, in that case there is less contempt, and therefore less sin.

S.T. IaIIae, q. 76, art. 4, c.

Clearly, St. Thomas believed that ignorance, and its effect on voluntariness, comprehended both ignorance of fact and of law. In his De malo, for example, St. Thomas Aquinas uses ignorance of the law--in this instance ignorance of the law that fornication is sinful--as an example of ignorance that may excuse the voluntary nature of the act:
Thus, voluntary action is impossible in relation to the thing of which the subjected is ignorant. Wherefore, if in the same act something is known and something is not known, it can be voluntary only in relation to the thing known. However, it will always be involuntary in relation to the thing which is not known. As, for example, when a person does not know fornication is a sin. The person in such a state indeed commits fornication voluntarily, but he does not voluntarily commit a sin.

[P]raecedit enim ex necessitate actus intellectus actum voluntatis, quia bonum intellectum est voluntatis obiectum; et ideo sublata cognitione intellectus per ignorantiam, aufertur voluntatis actus; et sic tollitur voluntarium quantum ad id quod est ignoratum. Unde si in eodem actu aliquid sit ignoratum et aliquid scitum, potest esse voluntarium quantum ad id quod est scitum: semper tamen est involuntarium quantum ad id quod est ignoratum; sive ignoretur deformitas actus (puta cum aliquis nescit fornicationem esse peccatum, voluntarie quidem facit fornicationem, sed non voluntarie facit peccatum)

De malo, q. 3 a. 8 co. (Bertke's English translation).

Patently, St. Thomas Aquinas avoids a rigoristic view of the law, and his view, like that of St. Bonaventure, has become the common teaching of the Church. There are instances where ignorance, even ignorance of the natural moral law, can excuse the voluntariness of the act and therefore the blame imputable on the actor for that law's unknowing violation. It should go without saying that the act, though it may not be imputable as a sin upon the actor (because it lacks the voluntariness requisite to sin), it still is an objectively disordered act against the will of God and the law itself. Ignorance does not make the act good, it simply absolves the actor of any moral guilt for its unknowing and unknowable breach. Accordingly, someone may not be guilty of formal sin, and yet he may be involved in what would be called materially a sin.

*De ver., 17, 4, ad 5um.
**De malo, q. 3, a. 8.
***S.T. IaIIae, q. 76, art. 1, c.
†E.g., S.T., III, q. 47, art. 4, ad. 3. (ignorantia affectata non excusat a culpa)

†The following proposition was condemned by Pope Alexander VIII (Dec. 7, 1690): Tametsi detur ignorantia invincibilis iuris naturae, haec in statu naturae lapsae operantem ex ipsa non excusat a peccato formali. Given the invincible ignorance of the law of nature, this [invincible ignorance] operating in the state of fallen nature does not excuse formally from sin. The reverse is implied by the condemnation; namely, that in a state of fallen nature, there may be invincible ignorance of the natural law, and, if so, it may excuse from formal (though not material) sin.

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