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

A Study Of “On The Character of Men And the Virtuous Life”: Part XXXV October 10, 2011

Introduction and Part II

“Goodness is hidden, as are the things in heaven. Evil is manifest, as are earthly things. Goodness is that with which nothing can be compared. The man who possesses intellect always chooses what is best. Man alone, by virtue of his intellect, can attain an understanding of God and His creation.”[1]

“The intellect manifests itself in the soul, and nature in the body. The soul is divinized through the intellect, but the nature of the body makes the soul grow slack.”[2] Every body manifests nature, but not all souls manifest an intellect, “and so not every soul is saved.”[3]

Sin has hindered the natural powers of the human person. It prevents the intellect from apprehending the spiritual reality in which the material world resides. What is invisible to our eyes should be perceptible. Once we turned our attention to the physical world to the exclusion of the spiritual forms, our ability to apprehend the spiritual reality atrophied. Now much, if not most, of creation lies beyond our perception. When we unduly attach ourselves to our physical bodies, and limit our intellectual natures so as to serve material powers, our souls weaken, unable to direct the body properly. For the soul of one attuned merely to the physical forms will listen to the demands and desires of the body over the insight of the intellect and put them higher on the hierarchy of goods than they belong.

God created everything, that which is visible and that which is invisible to us. However, that which is invisible to us now is meant to be perceived, and we must find a way to perceive it if we want to find what is good. Spiritual powers are hidden from bodily senses, and these powers are what provide essences for those things we do see. If we want to understand the world at large, if we want to perceive the underlying goodness of creation, we must purify our intellect. Then the good behind all things will be seen, because we will be able to apprehend the spiritual world behind them. Then, moreover, the hierarchy of being with its proliferation of what is good will be able to be apprehended, and we will properly know (instead of having to guess), the path of the good and with grace, we will be able to follow it to its proper end, God. But it is quite difficult, especially because we are used to perceiving the world in our limited, sensual form. Thus, St. Bonaventure wrote, “There is a perfect knowledge that as person has who knows perfectly the substance, power, work, causes, and reasons for something. All things are hard for us, because power is hidden and substance remote from the senses.”[4]

Temptation pushes forward an apparent good. It must do this, because we naturally seek what we believe to be good, knowing that goodness leads to happiness. If we have not searched out for the real good, we will likely follow the apparent good, leading us, of course, to evil – the evil which is attained by our inordinate acceptance of a lesser good for the good. Evil is always before us, not because evil is a substance of itself, but because evil always masks itself in an easily ascertained good. It imitates the good, the highest good, and tries to present itself as such to us. When we desire wrongly, it is not because we do not seek good, but we fail to see the real good and so let the false good in. Our desire, no matter how fallen it is, nonetheless follows through with this pursuit for the highest good and attaches itself to that which it finds, even if it is not really such a good, as St. Bonaventure also relates, “Therefore human desire seeks nothing except the highest good or what leads to or has some likeness to it. So great is the power of the highest good that nothing can be loved by a creature except out of a desire for it.”[5]

Temporal goods have real value, and evil hides itself under such temporal, earthly goods, tempting us to pursue them beyond their real value. Everything which has physical form is manifesting a hidden, spiritual nature. This nature is, in itself, good. Thus, when looking to such physical forms, we must not say that there is no good contained within them, but rather, the value we place on that good is in error. Evil is delusional, for it creates a false worldview based upon the exterior appearance of the real, while trying to disconnect the real from its interior essence. Without an intellect looking for the spiritual powers behind the world, evil is able to seduce us with its apparent goodness. We must not succumb to mere appearances.  We must look for the hidden, spiritual reality behind the world and act according to our spiritual apprehensions and not just on the exterior, apparent reality we live in. This means our intellect needs to be strengthened, to regain the life it lost from its lack of use, if we want it to lead us to the good; but if we work with it, and continue to let it develop so it achieves its proper functioning ability, it can lead us to the good which, then having seen it, we will know is best to follow because such goodness will only give us happiness in return.

When talking about evil in humanity, what Peter Lombard says follows with all that has been said above: “From this it is gathered that, when man is called evil, nothing else is meant than an evil good.”[6] A human person is a good, created good by God, but, due to sin, the person no longer follows the good they were meant to attain. They are an evil good. That goodness, that original face of humanity, remains, so that we must look at each human person with respect. But for each person, that evil must be overcome, that fallen nature must be abandoned, and their intellect must be exercised in order to attain salvation. They must look to the spiritual reality behind the world, to the essences underlying creation. This will lead them to happiness they seek. For, “… knowledge of things makes us use everything skillfully, for, in the case or particular skills, the person who has knowledge of that skill uses the instruments and material properly. Therefore, since felicity comes from the acquisition and correct use of good things, and since knowledge of the good bestows this, knowledge of the good contributes mainly, or rather totally, to felicity.”[7] This is true for one reason: through goodness, we can and will find God, who is the source and foundation of every good.  By looking for the good in all things, we are brought back to God, and it is in and with God such happiness can be eternally attained.

These two paragraphs continue themes already explored in our root text. They once again present the need to follow one’s intellect, a common theme in Anthony’s letters. They show an awareness of how charming evil can be, something which an ascetic would take note. Indeed, the whole understanding of how the body can make us grow slack is common with asceticism. As such, there is nothing surprising in these two paragraphs which would make us doubt a connection to Anthony being behind them.

[1] “On the Character of Men and on the Virtuous Life,” 349 (#134).

[2] “On the Character of Men and on the Virtuous Life,” 349 (#135).

[3] “On the Character of Men and on the Virtuous Life,” 349 (#135).

[4] Saint Bonaventure, Commentary on Ecclesiastes. Trans. Campion Murray, O.F.M. and Robert J. Karris, O.F.M. (Saint Bonaventure, NY: Franciscan Institute Publications, 2005), 114.

[5] Saint Bonaventure, “The Soul’s Journey Into God,” in Bonaventure: The Soul’s Journey Into God; The Tree of Life; The Life of St. Francis. Trans. Ewert Cousins (New York: Paulist Press, 1978), 84.

[6] Peter Lombard, The Sentences Book 2: On Creation. Trans. Giulio Silano (Ontario: Pontifical Institute of Medieval Studies, 2008), 172.

[7] Marsilio Ficino, The Philebus Commentary. Trans. Michael J.B. Allen (Tempe, AZ: Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, 2000), 122.

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  • Peter Paul Fuchs

    As the Proverbs say: “The Glory of God is to conceal the word.”

    As Jesus said: “When you pray go into your room and close the door..”

    Only then will the Father in Heaven see what no man sees.