For our March roundtable, I have the distinct pleasure of offering the first response to William C. Mattison III’s “Aquinas, Custom, and the Coexistence of Infused and Acquired Cardinal Virtues.”
Mattison’s article addresses the relationship between acquired and infused virtues in the thought of Thomas Aquinas—an issue that Mattison explains has received increasing scholarly attention (and he offers helpful footnotes for anyone looking to delve further into that discussion). Mattison considers a pervasive example in these scholarly debates: the case of a person who still manages (consistently) to perform good actions even after he/she has lost infused virtue due to a mortal sin.
Mattison explains that there are conventionally two explanations for these good actions, and he adds that in his view both are wanting.
First, a person might have succumbed to mortal sin and replaced the virtues previously guiding his or her actions with a vice. In this case, the actions only seem good to outside observers, but they are done consistently in a fashion that makes them quite the opposite. He points to the miser who seems frugal and the hypocrite who prays not for cultivating a relationship with God but rather to win social acclaim.
Second, a person might have lost infused virtue but could fall back on the acquired virtues. This interpretation is the source of much debate.
Dissatisfied with both of these explanations as the only options, Mattison proposes custom, a “natural or quasi-natural inclination to do some action” in Aquinas’s account, as a third explanation.
Notably, Mattison is very precise in what he is trying to say about these debates. He is not suggesting that custom is the only explanation for every instance in which a person who once had the infused virtues performs good acts. Rather, he is arguing that it could apply in at least some cases. This is a feature of his article that I deeply appreciated because scholars are quick to overstate the significance of our claims. Mattison’s epistemic humility was a breath of fresh air and a fine illustration of scholarly virtue.
I think his precise point is very well made and very well taken. He constructs a compelling case for the possibility of custom as a stable guide for action even in the absence of virtue (a stable habit) and helpfully articulates how this can explain good actions after the loss of infused virtue.
In the absence of objection, then, I would like to focus on two implications to which Mattison gestures but that he acknowledges are beyond the scope of his immediate project.
First, Mattison closes his article with the observation that “this essay has ramifications for how further growth in infused virtue occurs once it is possessed” (24). This is an excellent point, and one that is quite illuminating.
I recall wondering in graduate school why anyone would bother with the acquired virtues when the infused virtues seemed so much more beneficial in Aquinas’s schema. I was pleased to discover Aquinas’s suggestion in the context of the unity of the virtues that “sometimes the habits of moral virtue experience difficulty in their works, by reason of certain ordinary dispositions remaining from previous acts” (ST I-II, q. 65, a. 3, ad. 2). He notes that this situation does not apply to acquired virtues “because the repeated acts by which they are acquired, remove also the contrary dispositions,” leaving one to conclude that this problem only emerges with the infused virtues, because they do not necessarily have the benefit of prior action to convert one’s bad habits over time. In essence, this suggests a value for the acquired virtues in the Christian life because they promote good habits that make it easier to live according to charity and the other infused virtues.
As I read it, Mattison’s account of custom reinforces this relationship. The infused virtues are habits (I-II, q. 55, a. 4), but they are unique in that they are not acquired by habituation. This raises questions about how one might “progress” in the life of infused virtue, but the idea of custom combined with Aquinas’s comments about the possibility of obstacles from past actions suggests that there is actually ample room for growth in infused virtue.
More specifically, when an agent who possess the infused virtues acts out of those virtues, he or she can dismantle the “certain ordinary dispositions remaining from previous acts” that are normally removed during the process of building up the acquired virtues but that might not be so removed with the graced infusion of virtue. This would seem to be a process of habituation, but it is hard to describe it in these terms because the agent already has a habit—in this case, the infused virtue—guiding the action and that habit is not changing. By attending to the influence of custom, however, there is a new locus for this transformation to occur, suggesting that one can continue to grow in infused virtue by chipping away at the customs that might tend toward other dispositions, replacing them with new customs more in line with the infused virtues. (Such that if one were to lose the infused virtues, as Mattison explores in his focal example, these new customs could yield the good actions in the absence of a virtuous habit.)
This view gives a logical coherence to Aquinas’s system, and I appreciate Mattison’s thorough account of custom for this reason alone.
Second, I found Mattison’s comments about the links between Aquinas’s account of custom and habit on one hand and educational theory on the other hand quite intriguing. As a teacher—and, honestly, more importantly as a parent—I think a lot about how good moral habits are formed, so any insight into this question is a godsend in my book. Here, Mattison lays out some basic ideas but does not delve into all the details because they are indeed outside the realm of his immediate project.
Generally, Mattison suggests that there can be a movement from one’s baseline disposition to the eventual adoption of virtue (as a reasoned choice) that moves through the development of custom, which does not require the same degree of intentionality and reasoned assent. This obviously has its clearest expression in the case of child development, where externally imposed customs (e.g., routines) are slowly internalized over time and then, once a child’s agency has strengthened and solidified, are either ratified or rejected by an internal act of the will. I think it also has implications for education and moral formation more broadly, though, particularly for the virtues that seem so difficult to habituate in ourselves.
As one example, I was thinking about the increasing role of technological attachment in daily life in the United States. When I discuss this issue with my students they regularly note their frustrations with how much time they spend on their smartphones in particular, but they suggest they cannot escape it. They would like to abide by a different virtue, say one of mindfulness or attention (in the Ignatian sense), but they are regularly pulled back into a life of connectivity in part because of the pressures of existing customs. If custom can help to form agents so that they are eventually more predisposed to a certain virtue, however, there might be a benefit to externally imposed customs like a smartphone fast for Lent—or just for a few days as a part of an assignment.
According to the model to which Mattison alludes, the good habits we seek can be formed not just through the internal force of the will but also through the reinforcement of custom along the way, and that seems to give some additional hope to the dispositions we want to counteract but struggle to overcome. I’d love to see these links developed further–maybe Mattison has another article on this point for us to look forward to!
In sum, Mattison’s article has given me much to think about. I’d encourage you to take a peek for yourself to see what considerations it unleashes for you.