Key Ideas in Summa I-II. Questions 71-77 (Vices) & 90-97 (Law)

Questions 71-77

The human species is rational in essence (or form), so vice is contrary to our nature because it follows the sensitive aspect rather than the rational one (Q 71. 2nd). Vicious habits stand half-way between the potential power to do something and the action itself (3rd). A human act is sinful when it is a voluntary act that does not conform to how things should be, so a sinful act includes not only the word, deed, and desire, but also the form itself, which is always contrary to God's eternal law (6th). Sin can be divided into spiritual and carnal sins because spiritual and carnal pleasures are two different categories (Q 72.2nd). Sin can be divided into sin against God, against oneself (i.e. reason), and against others (i.e. the social order), though sins against God also encompass sins against self and others, as sins against self also includes sin against others (4th). Sin is in many ways of a piece, sins of commission and omission overlap and can be found in the same action (6th), as sins of thought, word, and deed, while they can be discussed separately, really are all apart of one type of action in that they proceed from the same motives (7th).

medieval painting of a priest with a book and a church in his hands

However, this does not mean all sins are connected with one another since the sinner pursues contradictory perceived goods without the ordinate simplicity of will and purpose that the saint has (Q 73.1st). Sins that connect to an immediate misuse of the reason are more grave than others (3rd), so carnal sins are less guilty than spiritual sins all other things being equal. Spiritual sins are a turning from something, for example, reason and God, while carnal sins are a turning to something, that is a bodily impulse. Bodily impulses are stronger, so spiritual sins should be easier to resist. Lust, however, is more shameful in some ways than anger or theft (5th). While ignorance is a good reason for forgiving sin and, therefore, lessens it, it doesn't entirely excuse it or eliminate its consequences (Q 76.4th). 

Some sins begin in the agent and pass into an act, such as false teaching or murder, while other sins remain in the agent, such as heresy or hatred. The will is, therefore, involved in sin (Q 74.1st). Aristotle was not entirely right to say that the object of the will is always an apparent good because passion causes us not to consider in a particular instance what the reason knows in general to be wrong; the passion distracts the reason, opposes it, even fetters it, thus giving the reason contradictory distorted propositions, such as "fornication is wrong" but "pleasure is to be pursued" (Q 77.2nd). In a sense, every sin of passion is a sin of weakness because it is like a disease: it derives from an unsoundness in the body and in the  desires (3rd). While it is possible to argue that passion diminishes the sinfulness of an act because it renders it involuntary, it is also true that the strength of the desire intensifies the will toward what is wrong, thereby rendering it an even graver sin (6th). Sometimes reason can overcome passion through deliberation, and sometimes passion does not entirely hinder the reason. If however, the voluntary use of reason is entirely removed, then a sin is neither mortal or venial (8th).

Discussion Questions

  1. Is sin contrary to human nature? Why or why not?
  2. Are some sins worse than others? Why or why not?
  3. Are carnal sins different from spiritual ones in your own experience?
  4. Is Aquinas' model of passion and reason an accurate one? Why or why not?
  5. Does a sin have to be voluntary to be sinful?

Questions 90-97

Law is "a rule and measure of acts, whereby man is induced to act or is restrained from acting" (500). It, therefore, belongs to reason (Q 90.1st) and is directed toward the common good of universal happiness (2nd). By necessity, then, some must be competent to make the laws and represent the interests of the people (3rd). If a law is rational and for the common good and made by representatives, it follows then that for it to be in force, it must be promulgated (i.e. Ignorance of the law is an excuse if no one adequately informs its subjects) (4th). 

There are four kinds of law: 1) eternal law, which is the plan of Divine Reason for the universe (Q 91.1st); 2) natural law, which is the eternal law imprinted upon us to whatever extent our inclinations are in line with it and thereby ruled by it (2nd); 3) human law, which is human reason seeking to make practical the natural law (3rd); and 4) divine law, which is the revealed law that addresses what human law can not, especially our soul's interior state before divine judgment and salvation (4th). Divine law encompasses both the Old Law of the Jewish Torah and the New Law of the Gospel which has superseded and clarified its final intent (5th). 

The purpose of the law is to help its citizens acquire virtue by disposing them to it; therefore, it also assists the virtue already infused in a person by other means. At the very least a society's rulers must be virtuous, even if the citizens are only so by virtue of obeying the law (Q 92.1st). Even if citizens sometimes obey simply out of fear of punishment, they may over time grow to do so with delight and from free-will (2nd).

The eternal law in its essence in God cannot be known by humans, but we can know its reflection in the creation (Q 93.2nd). In the same way, human law is derived from eternal law when it accords with right reason, and when it doesn't, it is unjust law. However, human law is never equal with eternal law, some laws participating to a greater or lesser extent in the eternal (3rd). All human affairs are subject to eternal law to the extent that reason and passion are not distorted and darkened by sin (6th). 

Natural law begins with self-evident principles just as certain logical axioms must be self-evident to begin with. Some are admittedly only self-evident to the wise who truly understand the terms and concerns in question. Just as Being is self-evident and the Good is self-evident, so is the general principle that the good must be pursued and the evil avoided. Natural law concerns not only the goods of self-preservation, which it shares with all things, and the goods of bodily existence, which it shares with other animals, but also the goods of reason, such as the desire to know God, live in a just society, and so on (Q 94. 2nd). All virtues are to some extent prescribed by natural law because the reason dictates these (3rd). Natural law is concerned with practical, moral reasoning which must apply general principles to specific circumstances. At times, the circumstances will call for exceptions, so while the general principles never change, particulars may call for adjustments (4th). In that sense, natural law can change either by additions of clarification or, on occasion, by changes in the particulars that call for a new expression of the general principle (5th). The natural law can never be entirely abolished from the heart of people, though sin may do so for an instance or in a more through way by evil customs and habits (6th).

Human beings have a natural aptitude for knowledge and virtue, but especially in the later case, considering how the young are inclined, we need training by others--some by their families; others, who are more prone to vice, by the law and its power to punish (Q 95.1st). One can judge that a human law is derived from natural law as long as it doesn't defect from nature. Something may be derived from natural law as a set of conclusions from premises or as the particular details being made concrete. In the second sense, they only have force as human laws and not as also being from natural law, as those in the first sense do (2nd). Human law ought to be framed to reflect the majority of instances since it is concerned with the common good (Q 96.1st), and it can only address those vices which are most harmful to the majority and which are possible for the majority to abstain from (2nd). Likewise, it can only address those virtues directly pertaining to the common good, even though all virtues and vices have an impact on others (3rd). Human laws only bind a conscience if they are just. If they support a ruler's cupidity, encourage us to idolatry, violate God's commandments, or inflict unjust harm on subjects, they do not bind the conscience (4th). We may break the law in cases that call for immediate remedy only (e.g. rushing someone to the hospital), but in other cases we should wait for the decision of the magistrate (6th). Human laws may be changed to either perfect an earlier imperfect law or to account for changed circumstances (Q 97.1st), but we should not do this often since it tends to lessen respect for the custom and authority behind the law (2nd).

Discussion Questions

  1. Is ignorance of the law an excuse? Why or why not?
  2. What distinguishes eternal from divine law and human law from natural law?
  3. Do human beings actually have a natural law implanted in them? What does it look like? Do all share it equally?
  4. Can you legislate morality? If so, how effective can you expect to be?
  5. How do we know if human laws are subject to "right reason"?
  6. What makes natural law according to Aquinas different from biologically-based (or psychologically-based) legal reasoning?
  7. When can a law be disobeyed? When should it be changed?