Posted on: July 3rd, 2020 Premodern Human “Perfection”

I grew up in a wonderful family with a mom and a dad who loved each other, loved Christ, and were healthy in the sense that they were always repenting, always striving to be more faithful to Christ and to each other.

And yet … it was, in truth, a fundamentalist family. So some of the thematics would frequently emerge were, well, distinctive to that culture.

One example. A frequent tirade on the part of my father against “sinless perfection.” Apparently some Christians believed that it was possible to live a life in total utter obedience to God, with not a single shred of sin in one’s life. (Frequently my dad identified the precise target of his ire as followers of John Wesley and the occasional Baptist “Arminian.”) One interesting case study in this context was C. S. Lewis: while my family in general revered him with awestruck admiration (which, to this day, I still do), at times he seemed to imply a high view of “Christian perfection.”

What?!? Did he not get Luther’s point about semper justus et peccator?

It turns out—or so I’d argue these several decades later—that here as elsewhere Lewis was actually faithfully channeling a deep current of Catholic sensibility.

For premodern thinkers of the kind that Lewis strove to represent—thinkers such as Thomas Aquinas—”perfection” has a connotation somewhat different from my dad’s apparent grasp of it. It really begins with the notion of telos, since in Greek “perfect” is teleotês. It really just means a substance (in Aristotle’s technical language) doing its “work” so as to fulfill its purpose. When an acorn successfully becomes an oak tree, it is teleotês; it is fulfilling its purpose. Same for when a car gets you from point A to point B.

Yet no one in the premodern world would say that that acorn or the car is “perfect” in every respect. After all, the air conditioner in the car might be broken. Yet, if it gets you to point B, it is fulfilling its telos, and in that sense is “perfect.”

Now for most premodern thinkers after Aristotle, human beings are like acorns and automobiles: they have an objective purpose. (This is what Alasdair MacIntyre calls a “functional concept.”) Aristotle calls it eudaimonia, or “happiness.” He thinks, and Aquinas and C. S. Lewis agree, that humans are able to achieve happiness (in some sense).

One example of many would be St. Thomas’ Summae Theologiae, I-II, Q. 71 A. 1. There he states that

Virtue implies … a disposition whereby the subject is well disposed according to the mode of its nature: wherefore the Philosopher says (Phys. VII.17) that virtue is a disposition of a perfect thing to that which is best, and by “perfect” I mean that which is disposed according to its nature.

Note the way he speaks of perfection in this passage.

Does this make them “Arminian”? Not at all: it just means that the imagined something different from what we do when they thought of perfection.

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Filed under: Chesterton & Lewis, Me / Us, philosophy, theology / ecclesiology | Comments Off on Premodern Human “Perfection”