A Study Of “On The Character of Men And the Virtuous Life”: Part XXIV.

A Study Of “On The Character of Men And the Virtuous Life”: Part XXIV. August 1, 2011

Introduction and Part II

“God, being full of goodness and ungrudging bounty, not only created man with free will but also endowed him with the capacity to conform with God if he so wishes.”[1] When there is no wickedness within, one can then conform to God.[2] “If, then, man praises the good actions and virtues of a soul which is holy and enjoys the love of God, and if condemns ugly and wicked deeds, how much more so does God, who wishes for man’s salvation.”[3]

God gives to a person all that allows them to be good, because God is “goodness itself: this is why man was created by God.”[4]  Thus, a person “attracts evils to himself out of himself and out of the wickedness, desire and obtuseness within him.”[5] This is because the soul, though immortal, nonetheless is attracted to the pleasures of the body, allowing the body to take control over the soul instead of the soul over the body.[6] “It does not realize that what delights the body harms the soul; but, stupid and obtuse, it seeks out such delight.”[7]

All that exists, exists because God has brought it into existence. In its existence, it is good. There is, ontologically, no pure evil. Even Satan possesses good because Satan exists. “Evil cannot wholly consume good.”[8] This means that there is no singular, absolute, universal force for evil, because “while good ever remains, nothing can be holly and perfectly bad.”[9] All evil can only be the corruption of a given good, where the subject which turns to evil turns away from God, the absolute source of goodness, and unto themselves. As finite beings, they have finite good, and that good, when cut off from its source, is incapable of sustaining itself in the good; thus is slowly becomes less than what it was meant to be, it becomes, sub-natural.

God has created us out of his goodness, which is one with his love. “He made humankind for Himself, not because He needed humankind, but so that humankind can enjoy Him, for He could give nothing better.”[10] It is the nature of love to want to share itself with others; since God is love, God created free subjects so that they can share and experience that love. It is the nature of love to allow others to accept or decline the offer of love; God created everything so that they can have some share in his being, some share in his goodness, but God left it up to his subjects to open themselves up to him and to thrive in that good love. It is also out of his self-giving love, the love which is demonstrated on the cross, that God also has allowed those who turned their backs upon him to return to him, to restore them to their unity with him and to allow them to thrive once again in his love. “For he is our peace, who has made us both one, and has broken down the dividing wall of hostility, by abolishing in his flesh the law of commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby bringing the hostility to an end” (Eph. 2:14-16RSV).

God has given us free will, and he allows us to explore ourselves with or without him, to see what happens in each occasion, though he longs for those who have abandoned him to return to him, to share the greatest of all gifts, himself.  It is for this reason that he is slow to anger and quick to forgive, because he desires all that is good, and that goodness includes the salvation of all that exists, to have everything and everyone find itself restored to its pristine unity with him. The incarnation of the Logos is the express revelation of that love. And he showed this love in the deed of the cross. Even before his death, he pointed to the world God’s desire through words, saying, “For God sent the Son into the world, not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him” (John 3:17 RSV).

We must understand that our spiritual nature is what gives us freedom, and thus, allows us to move beyond mere necessity, as St Bonaventure explains:

To be sure, the soul is a form having existence neither by itself nor from the divine nature but brought into being by God from nothing through creation. It is a form possessing life not from extrinsic nature but in itself, not a mortal life but a perpetual life. It is a form intelligent, not only created form but also a ‘creating essence,’ made to God’s image in memory, intellect and will. It is a form having freedom of choice because it is always free from coercion and was free from misery and fault in the state of innocence though not in the state of fallen nature. This freedom from coercion consists in nothing but the faculty of will and intellect which are the principal powers of the soul.[11]

Our bodily nature, to be sure, is a part of us and so it is good, however, it acts with far less freedom. Its principle existence is material and thus acts in greater accord to necessity. The soul can direct and guide the body, to make sure bodily conditions lead to certain ends. When the soul turns away from God, away from the good which enlightens it, it has its body as its source and inspiration for its knowledge and so has far less options before it. The soul becomes trapped in its body, dominated by it, dominated by material necessity and therefore, lives and thrives in a fallen manner. That which is good, when directed by the soul, becomes the prison for the soul cut off from God. The person is turned away from the good and so becomes more and more corrupted. The result can only be said to be evil.

Even when fallen, the soul can and does have some ability to direct the body. It is weakened, but not entirely powerless. It can turn back to God. The process is difficult, but, thanks to the love of God which gives grace to all who ask for it, it is not impossible. Even in the world, even in the realm of matter, the soul can see through the body the actions of those who do good and learn from them. It can be directed by their example to follow them back to the good itself. If we praise those who do good, for the good they do, we slowly redirect ourselves to that good. The more good we direct ourselves to, the more we open ourselves to God who is the source of all that which is good. The more we do to open ourselves back to God, the more we see God has been working in and through others for our benefit, to lead us back to him and to share in the gift of his love. But woe to the one who does not see the good and follow it, who continues to cut themselves off from it, turning unto themselves and all the delights they find contained in their small existence. They will find that the pleasure they have attained is fleeting, and the suffering which comes out of it greater than the pleasure they once obtained.

We have, once again, rather typical ascetic ideas being expressed by our author. They have resonance with what we have already seen recorded of Anthony in St Athanasius’ Life.[12] All that is good comes from God. To attain it, Anthony tells us we must accept ascetic discipline, such as fasts, in order to purify ourselves; we must overcome the self-imposed prison of sin through self-denial, that is, dying to the self. We have also already seen how Anthony, in his letters, consistently calls us to follow our “intellectual being,” instead of our material, bodily nature. While this resonates with the body-soul duality established in these passages, the use of the terminology here is somewhat less than the intellect-body duality we expect. This does challenge us slightly, however, there are many ways this can be explained. Probably the best explanation is that the relationship between the intellect with the soul has already been seen as like a “soul within the soul,” so that one can simply discuss the soul with the implication that the intellect within the soul is already acknowledged. Of course, it is also possible that what we said at the beginning, that Anthony is borrowing and adapting ideas, can also be a source of our confusion here, since with such adaptation, precision can be lost. The general gist of these passages does not contradict Anthony’s general principles, and so does not give us much difficulty in accepting Anthony or an Anthonite source having its hand with this text.

[1] “On the Character of Men and on the Virtuous Life,” 344 -5 (#99).

[2] “On the Character of Men and on the Virtuous Life,” 345 (#99).

[3] “On the Character of Men and on the Virtuous Life,” 345 (#99).

[4] “On the Character of Men and on the Virtuous Life,” 345 (#100).

[5] “On the Character of Men and on the Virtuous Life,” 345 (#100).

[6] “On the Character of Men and on the Virtuous Life,” 345 (#101).

[7] “On the Character of Men and on the Virtuous Life,” 345 (#101).

[8] St Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica. Trans. Fathers of the English Dominican Province (New York: Benziger Bros. edition, 1947),  I-48.4.

[9] St Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, I-49.3.

[10] Hugh of St Victor, “On the Three Days” in Trinity and Creation: Victorine Texts in Translation. Trans. Christopher P. Evans. Ed. Boyd Taylor Coolman and Dale M. Coulter (Hyde Park, NY: New City Press, 2011), 74 [14.2]

[11] St Bonaventure, Breviloquium. Trans. Erwin Esser Nemmers (St. Louis, MO: B. Herder Book Co., 1946), 67.

[12] See Athanasius,  Life of Antony, 201, ¶19.

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