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St. Thomas’ Guide to Life

September 21, 2013

The words “Self-Help” are usually associated with authors and speakers like Tony Robbins, Michael Hyatt, Norman Vincent Peale, Dale Carnegie, and Oprah. The self-help genre is filled with writings ranging from wisdom to fluff, with the fluff tending to dominate. Most people looking for a book that will help them live their life will look to a 200 page self-help book rather than a 3,000 page work of theology. Trainers, celebrities and “life coaches” are often sought for their advice on life. People rarely look to saints.

But the saints have many surprisingly practical words of advice for us, ones we would do well to take to heart. One of these comes from St. Thomas Aquinas and his massive book, the Summa Theologiae. In Summa I,5,6, the question titled “Whether Goodness is Rightly Divided into the Virtuous, the Useful, and the Pleasant?”, he writes:

…in the movement of the appetite, the thing desired that terminates the movement of the appetite relatively, as a means by which something tends towards another, is called the useful; but that sought after as the last thing absolutely terminating the movement of the appetite, as a thing towards which for its own sake the appetite tends, is called the virtuous; for the virtuous is that which is desired for its own sake; but that which terminates the movement of the appetite in the form of rest in the thing desired, is called the pleasant…”

Peter Kreeft explains this passage:

The thesis that there are only these three kinds of good [virtuous, useful, pleasant] is radical and practical, for it means that there are only three reasons why anyone should ever do anything: because it is morally virtuous, practically necessary, or fun. How much of what we do is not good by this standard? (E.g., doing things just because ‘everyone is doing it,’ or because it is ‘expected’,) St. Thomas’ classification of goods is a philosophical justification for a wonderful simplification of our lives.

What are some of the practical ways that this principle can simplify our lives?

For starters, it can get rid of a lot of the pressure that comes with having to conform. Obviously, there’s the example of high school students who simply must have the newest Xbox 720 or Tommy Hilfiger Jeans (clearly I have not been keeping up with pop culture). However, there are more subtle ways that this happens. As a music fan, I often feel a subtle pressure to “keep up” with all the new music that I haven’t listened to yet. There’s a voice in my head that keeps telling me that I should go listen to the new Alt-J album instead of the Matthew Perryman Jones CD that I know I like, because the Alt-J album is new, and I can cross it off my never-ending list of bands to listen to. This sort of thinking leads me into listening to all sorts of bands not because I actually like them, but because they are new, or worse, “important.” St. Thomas’ classification of goods (henceforth referred to as “The Thomas Principle”) keeps me from falling into that trap. If I prefer to listen to The Dave Matthews Band over Black Flag, so much the worse for Black Flag.

Another thing it can get rid of is intellectual pressure. At my college, I hear a lot of talk about how “everyone here is so competitive about grades.” I myself am not particularly competitive about grades. I am, however, competitive about knowledge. It is easy for people with an intellectual bent to feel that they have to be the smartest person in the room. This can result in a frantic search for knowledge motivated more by a fear of ignorance than a love of truth. I have to read these books on political science, even though I’m not studying it, because I can’t be ignorant of it. I have to write a better essay than everyone else, because I have to be the best student in school, because I have to save Western civilization, all by myself. This kind of striving after intellectual achievement is precisely the kind of thing that keeps intellectual achievement from actually happening. Anyone who is frantically trying to be “the best” in a given area will end up being more focused on the process of succeeding than on the thing he is actually succeeding in.

Yet another thing that the Thomas Principle can help us avoid is false penance. I suspect a lot of people do things, not because they want to, but because they feel like they are making up for some defect of character by doing it. Because I, or someone else, has done something very bad, therefore I need to “do something about it,” even if that thing isn’t particularly helpful. I feel bad about not hanging out with my friends enough, so I’ll watch Mean Girls with them, even though I know I’m going to hate it. I feel bad about hanging out with my friends too much, so tonight I’ll just sit in my room alone. I have a feeling that much of what we call “political correctness” comes from this sort of feeling. I feel vaguely guilty about the Holocaust, therefore, I must get very offended by Jewish jokes.

A final thing that the Thomas Principle can help us avoid is what might be called “misguided individualism”–the idea that “personal integrity” is worth preserving above all else. “I am the master of my fate / I am the captain of my soul” says the poem “Invictus” by William Ernest Henley. “I did it My Way” sang Elvis Presley. The idea is that the most important thing in life is to “be yourself,” to “follow your heart,” to stand by your convictions simply because they are yours, to cherish your “individuality” and independence as the greatest of all virtues. “Better to reign in Hell than to serve in Heaven” says Milton’s Satan. It’s an attractive idea, perhaps even a beautiful one.

There are, however, two problems with this mindset. 1.) It’s stupid, and 2.) it’s miserable.

This mindset is the idea that, if I want to stick a fork into an electrical outlet, then dammit I’m going to stick a fork into an electrical outlet! The fact that I will get electrocuted if I do it is not consequential–it’s my idea and I want to do it. This attitude manifests itself in different ways. For example, I happen to get really bothered by the mandatory chapels at my college. There’s worship music with four chords and prayers thanking God for things. People are happy. Oh no, a girl just raised her hands and closed her eyes! I can’t be part of this. This will ruin my rebellious, free-thinking, punk-rock persona that I’ve built up in my minds. If I actually act sincere about my belief, I will be doing what everyone else is doing and it will be Groupthink. Worse yet, it will be corny. I can’t do this. I saw the Angry Samoans once! I’ve got street cred! I’ve got…(long pause as I rationalize my behavior to myself)…I’ve got to be myself! I hate chapel! I hate Anglicans! Look how rebellious I am!

This is pathetic for several reasons. First, it’s conducted to an audience of one–myself. No one else is buying my “I’m-so-cool” act. If anyone is noticing me, they’re probably seeing me make several pained facial expressions as I listen to the chaplain’s speech. Second, it’s very fake. It’s not as if I was an actual rebel against the college and its administration. I’m simply being a jerk. And finally, it doesn’t achieve anything good. It’s not practically necessary at all. It’s definitely not fun. And there is nothing inherently morally superior in being glum and gloomy all the time. The whole act reeks of self-absorption. It is, in fact, an act of idolatry.  The Thomas Principle can help me avoid such stupid moments in my life, and move on to better things.

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