On Wrath and Wine: How Virtue Can Surprise Us

One of the lessons we frequently meet in the lives of the saints is that true virtue can be very surprising. For instance, the “hilaritas mentis” (cheerfulness of heart) of many saints who were very ascetic — e.g., Saint Philip Neri — can be stupefying. But when we find the relevant passage in the Summa of Saint Thomas, we are once more surprised to discover that “right reason makes one abstain as one ought, i.e., with gladness of heart.” Whether Saint Philip read that part of the Summa or not, I don’t know; he lived it, and that is better.

Not all saints are as wondrous as Saint Christina the Astonishing, but the saints as a class often do astonish us when we see in them gentleness and clemency where we would expect severity, mercy in place of rigorous justice, wrath in the service of fortitude instead of meekness, silence in place of a profusion of words — or, vice-versa — a normally placid and serene man become ferociously vociferous in matters of justice, etc. We so often have a bloodless and gutless idea of virtue that we assume it means a respectable course of least resistance.

No, Christian virtue is no banal, bourgeois undertaking.

Along these lines, there are passages in Dr. Josef Pieper’s book, The Four Cardinal Virtues that made a stark impression on me when I read them. Dr. Pieper himself expresses how modern men may be “surprised” to find out the full and traditional Christian doctrine on the virtue in question. Two such passages are found in the book’s treatment of temperance, and they concern “the power of wrath,” and the necessity and utility of fasting.

The Power of Wrath”

In a chapter with this heading atop it, Pieper begins by establishing that neither the passions nor the body may be divorced from the life of virtue; both must be integrated into it:

In Christian parlance, the notions of “sensuality,” “passion,” [and] “desire” are customarily though very unjustly understood exclusively as “anti-spiritual sensuality,” “wicked passion,” “rebellious desire.” Such a constriction of an originally much broader meaning obscures the important fact that all these notions by no means have a merely negative sense; rather, they represent forces from which the essence of human nature is built up and draws its life. The same is true of the notion of wrath or anger. [p. 183]

Sometimes virtue demands that we pursue an “arduous good,” that is, something difficult to attain. Here, we are in the realm of the irascible, so it would be useful to recall that the the Latin word for “anger” or “wrath” is ira (as in Dies Irae: “Day of Wrath,” the liturgical sequence for the Requiem Mass). Dr. Pieper says some “surprising” things about wrath, beginning with a passage from Saint Thomas:

“The power of anger is given to sentient beings so that the hindrances may be removed whereby the force of desire is impeded from striving toward its object, whether because of the difficulty of achieving a good or because of the difficulty of overcoming an evil.” Wrath is the strength to attack the repugnant; the power of anger is actually the power of resistance in the soul. [p. 193]

Against the Stoics, Saint Thomas argues that:

“Because the nature of man is constructed of soul and body, of spirit and sensuality, it belongs to the good of man to devote himself utterly to virtue, namely with spirit, sensuality, and body alike. And therefore man’s virtue requires that the will for just retribution reside not only in the spiritual realm of the soul, but also in sensuality and in the body itself.” [p. 194]

For this reason, Saint Thomas argues that not all anger is evil; rather, anger that is in accordance with reason is good. Indeed, “one who does good with passion is more praiseworthy than one who is ‘not entirely’ afire for the good, even to the forces of the sensual realm” (p. 194). Saint Gregory the Great makes the point almost poetically when he declares that, “Reason opposes evil the more effectively when anger ministers at her side” (ibid).

Summarizing the “surprise” with which such ideas will be met in the sissified modern mind, Dr. Pieper argues that this indicates a defect in our ideas of the moral good, of man, and of created reality itself:

The surprise with which we reflect on these statements makes us aware once again how far we are from considering the whole man in our conception of the moral good. We realize how much we almost unconsciously tend to take the “purely spiritual” for actual humanity; how much, on the other hand, the “ancients” can teach us and make us once again embrace the full created nature of world and man, in its true reality. [p. 194-195]

It is only when the passions serve the order of reason that they help us in achieving the moral good. “Blind wrath” and “anger that breaks all bounds” are contrary to reason and therefore evil. Dr. Pieper, along with the classical and Christian tradition, rightly condemns such vice, pointing out that gentleness and meekness must temper anger so that it does not become unchained. Only the man who is thus self-possessed can efficaciously wield “the power of wrath” in the practice of virtue.

This reminds me of the wonderful scene near the beginning of Braveheart, where the irate boy, William Wallace, eager to take up arms precipitately, is given a stern message by his Uncle Argyle: “First, learn to use this [he taps William’s forehead], then I’ll teach you to use this [Argyle lifts the sword].” If anger is a sword, we must be masters of our minds first, lest we wield that weapon destructively.

Those points made, Dr. Pieper insists again that no authentic virtue serves to weaken wrath:

Gentleness, however, does not signify that the original power of wrath is weakened or, worse still, “mortified,” just as chastity does not imply a weakening of sexual power. On the contrary: gentleness as a virtue presupposes the power of wrath; gentleness implies mastery of this power, not its weakening. We should not mistake the pale-faced harmlessness which pretends to be gentleness — unfortunately often successfully — for a Christian virtue. Lack of sensuality is not chastity; and incapacity for wrath has nothing to do with gentleness. Such incapacity not only is not a virtue, but, as St. Thomas expressly says, a fault: peccatum [sin] and vitium [vice]. [pp. 195-196]

Applying Saint Thomas’ principles to the ever-present existential battle to become chaste in an unchaste world, Dr. Pieper argues that the power of wrath can come to our assistance even there:

[St. Thomas] likewise knows that the addiction to degenerate pleasure-seeking can by no means be cured through a merely negative approach, through convulsively “shutting one’s mind” to it. Thomas believes that the deterioration of one power of the soul should be healed and supplemented by the still undamaged core of some other power. Thus it should be possible to subdue and, as it were, to quench the limp intemperateness of an unchaste lustfulness by attacking a difficult task with the resilient joy generated in the full power of wrath. [pp. 196-197]

The great German philosopher concludes his thoughts on wrath with what amounts to a frightening picture of contemporary man, now worse off than he was when these lines were penned in the 1950’s:

Only the combination of the intemperateness of lustfulnes with the lazy inertia incapable of generating anger is the sign of complete and virtually hopeless degeneration. It appears whenever a caste, a people, or a whole civilization is ripe for its decline and fall. [p. 197]

Surely these sober words deserve to be pondered and taken to heart.

On Fasting”

In this chapter, which appears earlier in the book, we find another “surprise” that should get us thinking about how we neglect an obligation that falls on all ordinary Christians, in fact, upon all men. What follows is a lengthy passage, but it contains the very core of Dr. Pieper’s message I would like to transmit:

But what about fasting as a moral obligation? The reply leads us to heart of the matter, and to a point of information that may greatly surprise modern Christians. We are inclined and accustomed to see in the practice of fasting a traditional and surely very meaningful custom of the Church; a custom which somehow gathered obligatory force, but only by virtue of a purely disciplinary regulation of the Church, which is clearly ready to grant all kinds of alleviations and dispensations. Otherwise, fasting seems to us something extraordinary in every sense, linked at once to the idea of the ascetic and the saint. It is with some surprise, therefore, that we read in Aquinas, the “universal teacher” of the Church, that fasting is a commandment of the natural law, quite specifically intended for the average Christian. At this point it is important to recall that for St. Thomas the “natural law” is the fundamental source of obligation. The natural moral law is the ultimate “ought,” given and established directly in the nature of created reality, and as such endowed with supreme binding power. Consequently, the fasting regulations of the Church go back to this fundamental obligation, and constitute only a more accurately defined form, modified according to temporal circumstances and prevailing customs.

Whoever has not reached the maturity of perfection — that is, all of us ordinary Christians — could not preserve, without recourse to the medicine, the discipline, of fasting, that inner order by virtue of which the turbulence of sensuality is kept in check and the spirit liberated so that it may soar into the zone of its appropriate fulfillment and satisfaction. It is here, most particularly and strikingly, that the stern demands inherent in the Christian image of man become compellingly visible. Our natural duty obliges us to pay dearly so that we may become what we are by essence: the free moral person in full possession of himself. [p. 181-182]

Dr. Pieper penned these words before Pope Paul VI’s ironically named apostolic constitution, Paenitemini, which so attenuated the Church’s rules of fast and abstinence that Catholics of today would be virtually unrecognizable as such to our ancestors. In his magnificent Liturgical Year, the intrepid Dom Prosper Guéranger complained in his own day that the Church’s discipline on this point was already substantially mitigated. Dom Guéranger died in 1875.

But note, Saint Thomas says that this is a commandment of the natural law — a commandment, interesting to observe, that some alternative health devotees are discovering in our day, when the tremendous health benefits of fasting are becoming more widely known (see some informative links here). For us Christians, of course, higher principles are involved, as Dr. Pieper well knows:

Needless to say, this natural obligation to fast takes higher meaning and a deeper motivation from faith in Christ and from the supernatural love of God. The theme of perfection of nature through grace recurs here also. That perfection is represented in the very specifications which the “law of nature” experiences in the Church’s rules of fasting. [p. 183]

We are going to have to do something to recover the authentic Christian spirit concerning fasting.

To be sure, it can be overdone, and Saint Thomas says as much when he answers in the affirmative the question, “Can a man sin by fasting too strictly?” The virtue of which fasting is an act is abstinence, which pertains, says Saint Thomas, “to the art of healing”; therefore, whatever causes actual spiritual or physical harm (not mere pain, suffering, or inconvenience), must be ruled out.

Two passages from the Angelic Doctor are marshaled forth to show the vice committed in overdoing fasting:

“If one knowingly abstained from wine to the point of oppressing nature seriously, he would not be free of guilt”; and: “For a man it is sinful to weaken his sexual potency by too strict fasting.” [p. 183]

Saint Thomas was no Manichean; that’s for sure!

Both of these chapters are worth reading in toto and more than once. With what space remains to me, I will give Dr. Pieper the last word, returning to the idea of “cheerfulness of heart” that I mentioned only in passing at the beginning of these lines. It is no accident that these words about hilaritas mentis are written in connection with fasting; Our Lord’s sublimely supernatural words on the subject, from the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 6:16-18), evidently lay in the background of Dr. Pieper’s thoughts here:

Cheerfulness of heart, however, is the mark of selflessness. By this sign and seal one is sure to recognize that hypocrisy and all manner of tense self-involvement are done away with. Cheerfulness of heart is the infallible token that reveals the inner genuineness of discipline as selfless preservation of the self. [p. 185]