Monday, May 08, 2006

So That's Where He Got It!

One of the many things I enjoyed about David Bentley Hart's The Beauty of the Infinite was his analysis of the modern market mentality.

As I've written in a fuller review elsewhere:

Where most Christians criticize the market for being too "materialist," he accuses it of disguising or rejecting material reality. What the market buys and sells is not "things" and "stuff," but novelty, popularity, or happiness. (Looking at advertising throughout history is always an enlightening activity.) It is not the physical, material worth of an object that determines its price, but its immaterial value. The reason for this, he says--and this is a brilliant point--is that material needs can be fulfilled, at least for a time. When you've eaten enough, you leave the table. But when your needs are not physical or material, they are eternal, and will never be satisfied. You'll always buy more--especially when your need is for novelty!

I thought this was (as I said) a brilliant point, but it was not original! Apparently, Hart has read his Thomas. (Big surprise.)

From the Treatise on the Passions, ST I-II 30.4:

I answer that, as stated above, concupiscence is twofold; one is natural, the other is not natural. Natural concupiscence cannot be actually infinite: because it is of that which nature requires; and nature ever tends to something finite and fixed. Hence man never desires infinite meat, or infinite drink.
[Thomas then makes the point that humans desire food in successive infinity--that is, we will get hungry again--rather than actual infinity.]
But non-natural concupiscence is altogether infinite. Because, as stated above, it follows from the reason, and it belongs to reason to proceed to infinity. Hence, he that desires riches may desire to be rich, not up to a certain limit, but to be simply as rich as possible.

In other words, any desire that is prompted from our animal nature is a desire that belongs in the natural order of things, and will be limited. I hunger, I eat, I am filled. I feel cold, I clothe myself, I am warm. Any desire that comes from our reason, however, which pertains to our infinite soul and is designed to perceive things as rational beings (God, angels) perceive them, is at least potentially infinite in scope and duration. But as his example makes clear, either the object of the desire or the working of the Reason may be wrong. My fallen Reason may perceive something as good, though it is, in fact, bad, and lead me to desire it infinitely.

But there is a second way in which infinite vs. finite desires may be parsed: whether they are means or ends.

Another reason may be assigned. . . . Because concupiscence of the end is always infinite: since the end is desired for its own sake, e.g., health: and thus greater health is more desired, and so on to infinity. . . . On the other hand, concupiscence of the means is not infinite, because the concupiscence of the means is in suitable proportion to the end. Consequently those who place their end in riches have an infinite concupiscence of riches; whereas those who desire riches, on account of the necessities of life, desire a finite measure of riches, sufficient for the necessities of life, as the Philosopher says.

This starts to sound like Augustine (although he's taking it from Aristotle, of all people!!): whatever object is desired as an end will be desired without limit. But the implication is that placing the wrong object in the position of "end" will lead to an inordinate desire of it. There are appropriate ends to desire--good health, happiness, friendship, and, ultimately, God. These things ought to be desired as ends, and certainly God ought to be desired infinitely. Placing that which ought to serve as a means in the place of the ends--money, food, reputation, "stuff"--disorders their pursuit, such that one pursues them with the infinite desire with which one ought to pursue the truly good (ultimately, God).

Brilliant stuff.

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