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Saturday, October 25, 2008

Ignatius and Aristotle (and Aquinas)

I saw a letter to England's Gordon Brown from Aristotle at Thinking Faith on the subject of the financial crisis, and probably wouldn't have been that intrigued, aside from the Aristotle-having-been-dead- awhile part :) but then I saw that Ignatius was involved, so thought I'd post just the beginning of the letter (read the whole thing at the link) ......

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Aristotle writes to Gordon Brown by Joe Egerton

Dear Prime Minister

Please don’t be alarmed at a missive appearing in your Inbox from somebody who has been what you call dead (and we call truly alive) for the last two thousand three hundred years. You may not think of me as the most obvious source of advice as you try to steer the country through the financial crisis, but let me offer you some food for thought. A number of us talk earthly developments over and I have learned from those who have arrived after me – as you will see from the four propositions that I now offer for your consideration, Thomas Aquinas and Ignatius of Loyola have especially enriched my own thinking.

First proposition – Greed is not the cause

It is a large error to regard the crisis in the financial system as caused by “greed”. Greed is the name of a particular type of desire, a particular motive for the activity of acquisition, the activity of obtaining more. To cause the crisis, people had to do things. They had to move from having an inordinate desire to putting it into effect. Ignatius pointed out that he had discussed this in his Spiritual Exercises[1]: when an evil thought comes to me, “I can sin venially by dwelling on it slightly, or admitting some pleasure in the senses, or when I am somewhat slack in repulsing the thought”[2]. Then “I can sin mortally in two ways. The first is when I consent to the bad thought, intending to carry it out if that is possible. The second is when one actually carries out the sin. This is graver… through [the] greater harm [it causes] to other persons.”[3]

Ignatius explains why greed may be a motive but it cannot be the action that causes a crisis. As he says, you need action to do harm – and harm certainly has been done. What was this action that caused the crisis? I say it must have been the activity of seeking more. Eudemus’s[4] note of what I said in my course on Personal and Spiritual Development[5] all those centuries ago is absolutely correct – but there has been a difficulty in translating the Greek. There is no exact equivalent in Latin or English for the words I used – pleonexia to name the defect opposed to the excellence or virtue of justice or integrity, and pleonektikos as the adjective applied to the one who lacks integrity[6]. Pleonexia is simply the activity of acquiring more. I did explain what I meant. I said that the unjust person[7] is pleonektikos, that is somebody who is going round the place always acquiring more good things – or avoiding bad things.[8]

Thomas Aquinas carefully explained exactly what I said in his Commentary [9] and then went on to take exactly the same position that I did in the Summa Theologiae. Because he did not have Latin words that exactly corresponded to the Greek words, he spelt out what he considered injustice to be[10] in the very terms I used. Thomas – according to his English translators - at various points uses covetousness to label this vice. It is highly instructive that that Thomas distinguishes between “covetousness” and “the daughters of covetousness”[11], a series of gravely wrong actions, including violence, perjury and fraud. To these Thomas added treachery, citing as an example Judas’s betrayal of Christ for 30 pieces of silver.

What caused the financial crisis was pleonexia – the activity of acquisition, not just by the bankers but, as far as I can see, by most of the western world; people were borrowing huge amounts to acquire. Of course as they did so – Thomas is quite right to point to the daughters of this vice of acquiring – some did all sorts of other wrong things as well. But only a tiny amount of the damage was done by fraud, and even less by violence. The damage to the system was done by nearly everyone trying to acquire ...........

[1] I am using the translation by George E Ganss SJ of the Institute for Jesuit Sources; references are preceded by EXX.
[2] EXX 35
[3] EXX 36-7
[4] The reference that follows is to fifth book of the Nicomachean Ethics (EN V) – a set of notes of a course on Personal Development given by Aristotle attributed to Nicomachus; but most modern scholars regard EN books 5 to 7 as coming from the set of notes of another course also given by Aristotle made by Eudemus. Anthony Kenny uses the term “Aris­totelian Ethics” to name the three books that are common to the Nicomachean Ethics (EN) and the Eudemian Ethics (EE). But it is probably easier to stick to the traditional way of referring to these texts, which places them in the EN.
[5] None of the works actually “published” by Aristotle in his lifetime (384-322BC) have come down to us other than the Constitution of the Athenians. The texts that have survived are usually described as “lecture notes”; although this is misleading as it gives the impression that Aristotle stood on a podium and “lectured” his pupils. The evidence we have suggests Aristotle conducted something much closer to workshop or seminar – a proposition that explains some of the problems with the texts that have come down to us.
[6] EN Book V section 1, 1129a30 – 1129b30
[7] If we translate “ho dikos” as “the person of integrity” rather than “just person” there is no English phrase that is its opposite in the way “ho adikos” is the opposite of “ho dikos” To get opposites, we need “the just” and “the unjust” or “the righteous” and “the unrighteous”
[8] Ibid, 1129b1 to 1129b11; pleonexia is used by Thucydides to describe the Athenians’ efforts always to expand their Empire; their success in growing their power drove the Spartans to war with them, a war that culminated in the complete defeat of Athens in 404BC.
[9] St Thomas Aquinas: Commentary on the Nicomachean Ethics, Book V, Lecture 1.
[10] ST IIa IIae Q59 Art 1.
[11] A phrase of St Gregory the Great discussed at ST IIa IIae Q118 Art 8

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3 Comments:

Blogger victor said...

Crystal, my wife is sewing and she's allowed me another beer but between you and me she has not had the time to read my latest post yet.

I hear ya! Does she really care to read any of them?

Anyway those spirit in this bottle are sure in a hurry to show me how much they know so I'm letting them chew on this paragraph below so that they don't drive us all crazy by commenting on them all..

>First proposition – Greed is not the cause
It is a large error to regard the crisis in the financial system as caused by “greed”. Greed is the name of a particular type of desire, a particular motive for the activity of acquisition, the activity of obtaining more. To cause the crisis, people had to do things. They had to move from having an inordinate desire to putting it into effect. Ignatius pointed out that he had discussed this in his Spiritual Exercises[1]: when an evil thought comes to me, “I can sin venially by dwelling on it slightly, or admitting some pleasure in the senses, or when I am somewhat slack in repulsing the thought”[2]. Then “I can sin mortally in two ways. The first is when I consent to the bad thought, intending to carry it out if that is possible. The second is when one actually carries out the sin. This is graver… through [the] greater harm [it causes] to other persons.”[3]<

Take it away guys!

We don't mind Victor but remember like Jesus The Christ did, we must use only examples of your life.

Go for "IT" Guys!

You sure your wife and her two sister and/or their angels are no where around?

Trust me! If they're around they're in on "IT".

Ok! If you say so! Are you sure Crystal won't mind you taking UP so much of her post?

Come on enough already! Beside one of Crystal's cell and I have made love in a prior life time so let's get on with IT! Time is a wasting!

Here goes! Don't be blaming "Greed" for everything sinner vic cause he's tired of getting all the bad wraps! For example take nineteen eighty-nine when you were short of money living in that little house on the hill at 204 Oakwood Avenue. No! Victor, forget it cause we're not taking a detour just because some of your spiritual five girls at this moment want to reminisce on the good old days. Forget it! As I was saying "Greed" helped you out by increasing the value of your home from 25,k to 40,k. "Greed" made you happy did "Greed" not do that?

Gee I didn't think that you would get that personal!

Do you ever really think Victor? For example, why can't you believe that we are made in The Image of God and The Alpha Boys are just here to help US all out?

Fall ball guys!

Forgive US but we got carried away! Now where were we?

Oh Ya! Oh ya! "Greed" helped you out Victor but you were not satisfied with that! Were you?

A few months later, we increased the value of your home to $61,ks and you tried to get even more out of "Greed". Did you not?

Come on guys! You're starting to bring clouds in my eyes! Did I not stop in time?

Yes! But only after they would not accept the counter sign of 68ks. Between you and me Victor, your nuts are blessed but that’s another story!

Careful guys, we might have a few bishops listening in on this little chat.

Hey! We forgot about all of them Victor so we're going to close now by saying that you were lucky that Jack had permission to accept the offer cause "Greed" had decided to bring you back to 40, ks. and even lower than that!

I could go on and on but enough is enough don't you think?

Never mind don't answer that one! :)

God Bless,

Peace.

3:11 PM  
Blogger SusieQ said...

You always provide such food for thought with your posts.

That was an interesting letter from Aristotle to Gordon Brown. I used your link and read the entire thing.

I am not convinced that acquisition is the main reason we have a worldwide economic problem today. Surely it is much more complicated than that. For instance, I wonder how much our government may have contributed to the problem by requiring banks to take lending risks they would not have taken otherwise. It seems to me that this resulted in the need of banks to get rid of these high risk loans through new financial products which they sold to other lending institutions who were unaware of what was being bundled together in the way of mortgages. But who am I to question Aristotle.

I was interested in Aristotle's take on housing prices. I think the 30 year mortgage with 10 percent down contributed greatly to the rising cost of housing. It used to be that if a person wanted to buy a house, he needed 30% down in order to secure something like a 10 year loan. But when the 30 year mortgage came to be, it allowed more people to enter the real estate market and that law of supply and demand kicked in and home prices began to go up.

Another thing that contributes to the cost of housing is zoning with its restrictions on the use of land. A lot of the cost of housing is tied to the value of the land. The less land that is available to build on, the more valuable remaining land becomes.

It is not uncommon in Europe for extended families to share the same home. Grandma and grandpa live with their children. Or young married couples live with mom and dad until they can afford to get out on their own. We do a little of that here, but it is frowned upon by our society today unless the circumstances are dire. My husband and I have had to open our home up to our adult children and their children a couple of times due to under-employment and in one case a divorce. Actually it was fun to bunk up together and fortunately my husband and I had the space.

One thing that concerns me about these troubling economic times is what will happen to the economy to make it worse if we all tighten our belts and only buy what we truly need. I've advised our adult children to do just that, tighten their belts and not buy anything they do not truly need. A lot of people are doing this, but it is hurting certain businesses. I've noticed it in our area. Some restaurants are beginnning to hurt. The Walmart and the Aldi stores are actually doing better as people search for bargains and are willing to settle for less quality in order to save money. Whole Foods stores are beginning to feel the pinch as well as other businesses that are more costly. So I wonder where this belt-tightening will lead ultimately.

President Bush got a lot of flack (still does) for telling people to go out and shop after the 9/11 incident. Some people thought he meant shopping to be a way for folks to sort of relax and quit worrying about the terrorist attack. In reality, he meant it as a way to help the economy which was unsteady. People were afraid to leave their homes and go to the mall for instance. This was destined to hurt business and the economy in the end.

Oh, I suppose I have other thoughts on this subject, but I will quit for tonight. Thanks for the mental exercise, Crystal.

Hey, Crystal, you had a post up a few days ago about Peter Singer, but you took it down. I was going to try and respond to it too. Maybe another time.

9:37 PM  
Blogger crystal said...

Hi SusieQ,

You know a lot more about financial stuff than me - I'm pretty lost in this area

I moved back in with my mother after I was divorced, so I know what you mean.

Shopping as therapy :) Things are not going well for me and my sister financially know. She's helping me but her husband is out of work so our belts are pretty tight. I do still get a few things at Whole Foods, though :)

You can find that Singer article here - What's So Special About Man? if you're still e in reading it.

10:31 PM  

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