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CHAPTERS CXXXII, CXXXVArguments against Voluntary Poverty, with Replies

THERE have been found persons to condemn voluntary poverty, thereby going against the teaching of the gospel, Of these Vigilantius was the first. He has had imitators, men making themselves out to be doctors of the law, not understanding either what they say or about what they affirm (1 Tim. i, 7).795795A reference to William de Saint Amour, the great opponent of the religious Orders in the University of Paris, against whom St Thomas, about the same time that he penned these chapters, wrote also his two Opuscula, Against the assailants of the worship of God and religion, Of the perfection of religious life. As long as religious lived apart in monasteries and lonely places, they encountered no rivalry and their institute was little questioned. But the Friar Preachers and the Friar Minors, coming into towns and universities, soon provoked jealousy and set men’s minds questioning the whole notion of religious life. Saint Amour’s invective against the Friars was entitled, Perils of the latter days. Vigilantius was a contemporary of St Jerome, who one night in the year 406 sat up and finished a Liber contra Vigilantium at a sitting. They have been led by these and the like reasons.

Arg. 1. Animals that cannot find the necessaries of life at any time of the year, have a natural instinct for gathering such necessaries at a time when 299they can be found, and laying them up, as we see in bees and ants. But men need many things for the preservation of their life, which cannot be found any time. Therefore man has a natural tendency to gather together and lay up such things, and it is against the law of nature to scatter them again.

Reply. Still it is not necessary for every one to be busy with this task of gathering: as even among bees not all have the same duty, some gather honey, others make cells out of wax, — to say nothing of the queen-bees being exempt from all such occupations. And so it must be with men: for many things being necessary to human life, for which one man by himself cannot suffice, different functions have to be undertaken by different men, — some have to labour in the fields, some to tend cattle, and some to build. And because human life needs not only corporal but also spiritual aids, some have to devote themselves to spiritual things for the benefit of the rest; and these persons should be set free from the care of temporals.

Arg. 2. As every one is bound by natural law to preserve his life, so also his exterior substance, as being the means whereby life is preserved.

Reply. For them who relinquish temporal things there still remains every likelihood and hope of finding the sustenance necessary for life, either through their own labour, or the benefactions of others, whether in the shape of possessions held in common or of food daily given: for what we can do through our friends, in a manner we can do of ourselves, as the Philosopher says (Eth. Nic. VIII, xi).

Arg. 3. Man is by nature a social animal. But society cannot be maintained among men except on a system of mutual aid. To take their part in this system of aid they render themselves incapable, who fling away their exterior substance.

Reply. It is a greater thing to aid another in spirituals than in temporals, spiritual things being the more necessary to the end of final happiness. Hence he who by voluntary poverty strips himself of the ability to aid others in temporals, in order to the acquirement of spiritual good, whereby he may aid others to better advantage, does nothing against the good of human society.

Arg. 4. If it is an evil thing to have worldly substance, a good thing to rid neighbours of evil, and an evil thing to lead them into evil, it follows that to give any of the substance of this world to a needy person is evil, and to take away such substance from him who has it is good: which is absurd. It is therefore a good thing to have worldly substance, and to fling it entirely away by voluntary poverty is evil.

Reply. Wealth is a good thing for man, so far as it is directed to rational good, but not in itself:796796“As the various organs of the body have no function, and therefore no real existence apart from the living body, so particular good things (virtue, health, beauty, wealth) have no existence, except as elements of the noble life. The Idea of the Good is the unity of good things, and that by reason of which they are good, — that definite system of order, by belonging to, and observing which, particular things are said to be good, rather than pleasant, or otherwise attractive to mere sense . . . . Νοῦς in man, like φύσις in the plant and animal worlds, recognises and imposes definite limits. Particular details are valued by it, not for themselves (for if they were, no limit could be assigned to their desirable multiplication) but for the sake of the beautiful Life which transforms them.” — Professor J. A. Stewart, Notes on the Nicomachean Ethics, Vol. I, p. 96, ed. 1892. hence poverty may very well be better than wealth, if by poverty man finds his way to a more perfect good.

Arg. 5. Occasions of evil are to be shunned. But poverty is an occasion of evil, leading men on to thefts, flatteries, perjuries, and the like.

Reply. Neither riches, nor poverty, nor any other exterior condition is of itself the good of man. Such things are good only as tending to the good of 300reason. Hence vice may arise out of any of them, when they are not turned to man’s use according to the rule of reason. Still not for that are they to be accounted simply evil, but only the abuse of them is evil.

Arg. 6. Virtue, lying in the mean, is spoilt by either extreme. There is a virtue called liberality, which consists in giving where one should give, and holding one’s hand where one should hold it. On the side of defect is the vice of stinginess, which holds its hand in all cases indiscriminately. On the side of excess is the vice of lavish giving away of everything, as is done by those who embrace voluntary poverty, a vice akin to prodigality.

Reply. The golden mean is not determined according to quantity of exterior goods, but according to the rule of reason. Hence sometimes it happens that what is extreme in quantity of some exterior commodity is the mean according to the rule of reason. There is none who tends to great things more than the magnanimous man, or who in expenditure surpasses the munificent, or princely man.797797St Thomas deals with the Aristotelian virtues of magnanimity and munificence in Sum. Theol. 2a-2ae, qq. 129, 134 (Aquinas Ethicus, II, 261, 278). The rule of reason does not measure the mere quantity of commodity employed, but the condition of the person and his intention, fitness of place, time, and the like, also many conditions of virtue. Therefore one does not run counter to virtue by voluntary poverty, even though one abandon all things. Nor is this an act of prodigality, seeing that it is done with a due end and other due conditions. To expose oneself to death, under due conditions, is an act of fortitude and a virtue: yet that is going far beyond the abandonment of one’s possessions.


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