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CHAPTER CXXXIVIn what the Good of Poverty consists

LET us observe in riches what is to be thought of poverty. Exterior riches are necessary to the good of virtue inasmuch as by them we support the body and succour other people. Means to an end must derive their goodness from the end. Exterior riches therefore must be some sort of a good to man, still not a principal but a secondary good: for the principal good is the end, — other things are good as subordinate to the end. Therefore it has been held that the virtues are the greatest of good things to man, and exterior riches the least. Now the means to any end must be checked by the requirements of that end.801801This is the great Aristotelian and Ignatian maxim, “the end in view prescribes limits to the means” (Politics I, ix: Spiritual Exercises, Fundamental Principle: also the quotation in note, p. 299). Riches therefore are so far forth good as they make for the exercise of virtue. But if that measure is exceeded, and the exercise of virtue impeded by them, they are no longer to be counted among good but among evil things. Hence it comes about that the possession of riches is a good thing for some men, who turn them to a virtuous use; and an evil thing for other men, who thereby are withdrawn from virtue, either by excessive solicitude or excessive affection for their wealth, or by elation of mind thence arising.

But there are virtues of the active life and virtues of the contemplative life; and these two orders of virtues make use of riches in different ways. The contemplative virtues need riches solely for the sustenance of nature:802802Not also for the purchase of books and scientific instruments? or again for the building and furnishing of the glorious churches, which some contemplative Orders erect, to the glory of God, and the joy of men to whom it is given to see their glory? the active virtues as well for this purpose as also for the further purpose of helping a neighbour. Hence the contemplative life is more perfect in this, that it requires fewer earthly aids, its attention being wholly given to divine things. Hence the Apostle says: Having food, and wherewith to be clothed, with these let us be content (1 Tim. vi, 8).

Poverty then is praiseworthy, inasmuch as it delivers a man from the vices in which some men are entangled by riches. Again, inasmuch as it removes the solicitude that goes with wealth, it is useful to some persons, namely, to those who have the gift of occupying themselves with better things; but hurtful to others, who, set free from this solicitude, busy themselves about worse things.803803“On the saying of Gregory, ‘Often they who might have contemplated God in peace and quiet, have fallen and given way under the burden of occupations; and others who, had they had occupation, would have lived well and profitably to mankind, have perished under the sword of their own peace and quiet,’ — it is to be remarked that persons of strong passionate inclinations, which tempt them to impetuous actions, are, absolutely speaking, better fitted for an active life, owing to the restlessness of their Spirit. Hence Gregory Says: ‘Some are so restless that if they get rest from labour, they labour all the more grievously, because the more liberty and free time they have for their own thoughts, the worse storms they endure in their hearts.’ Others again have naturally a purity and peace of soul fitting them for contemplation; and if these persons are totally set aside for active occupations, they will suffer loss (Sum. Theol. 2a-2ae, q. 182, art. 4: Aquinas Ethicus, II, 390). But in so far as poverty takes away the good that comes of riches, namely, the helping of other people, and hinders self support, it is simply an evil, except in so far as the loss of the power of helping neighbours in temporals may be compensated by the advantage of a free attention to divine and spiritual things. But the good of one’s own subsistence is so necessary, that the lack of it can be compensated by no other good: for on the offer of no other good should a man deprive himself of the means of supporting his own life. Poverty therefore is praiseworthy, when 306it delivers a man from earthly cares, and he thereby arrives to give his mind more freely to divine and spiritual things, yet so that he retains the means of lawful self-support, whereunto not much provision is requisite. And the less solicitude any method of poverty involves, the more praiseworthy is that poverty. But poverty is not more praiseworthy, the greater it is:804804Again, probably, a remark directed against the Fraticelli. The reader of the Nicomachean Ethics will recognise the Aristotelianism of this paragraph, the “outfit sufficient for happiness.” for poverty is not good in itself, but only inasmuch as it removes from a man’s path the obstacles of his freely applying himself to spiritual things: hence the measure of such removal of obstacles is the measure of the goodness of poverty. And this is a general principle with respect to all creatures: they are good only in so far as they lead to virtue, not in themselves.805805St Thomas here speaks of moral, not of physical goodness. All creatures are physically good in themselves (Chap. VII); but what is morally good for us is not the mere having and enjoying of this or that particular creature, but the use that we put it to. Possessions perish and change hands: the credit of the use we put them to alone is eternal. Their works follow them (Apoc. xiv, 13).


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