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St. Thomas Aquinas on the Virtue of Mercy

DM 101: Week 18

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By Dr. Robert Stackpole, STD (Nov 4, 2005)
St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) defined the virtue of "mercy" in his great Summa Theologiae (ST II-II.30.1) as "the compassion in our hearts for another person's misery, a compassion which drives us to do what we can to help him." For St. Thomas this virtue has two aspects: "affective" mercy and "effective" mercy.

Affective mercy is an emotion: the pity we feel for the plight of another. In this respect, St. Thomas says, human mercy is grounded in a "defect" in our nature: the defect of human vulnerability to suffering. We feel pity for those who suffer because we too are subject to such miseries. Thus, our affective sympathy for others arises from our capacity for empathy. St. Thomas notes: "Those who reckon themselves happy and so powerful that no ill may befall them are not so compassionate" (II-II.30.2). To some extent, however, the intensity of our affective mercy for the plight of another also depends upon how closely we are united to others in friendship (II-II.30.2): "The person who loves regards his friend as another self, and so he counts his friend's troubles as his own, and grieves over them as if they were his own." An affective bond, we might say, easily forms between friends, and this renders good friends all the more capable of sympathy for each other's plight.

Effective mercy, on the other hand, is something that we do, a positive action for the good of another, taking steps to relieve the miseries or meet the needs of others. According to St. Thomas, the Latin word "misericordia" literally means "having a miserable heart"—both affectively and effectively—for another person's misery.

St. Thomas observes that there are three kinds of "misery" in this life. First, there is the suffering that goes against our natural appetite for existence and life, such as the misery of a sick man. Secondly, there is suffering that strikes us suddenly and unexpectedly, such as sufferings arising from accidents. The third kind of suffering, however, is the worst of all: suffering that strikes a person when he consistently pursues the good, yet he meets only overpowering evil. St. Thomas here has in mind those sufferings and misfortunes that strike those who in no way deserve them, the undeserved miseries of the innocent and the virtuous.

St. Thomas argues that the human virtue of mercy necessarily will be both affective and effective. However, to be the authentic virtue of "mercy," it must manifest two additional characteristics. First, it must be rooted in "right reason"—that is, in the truth about the sufferings of others, and what is in fact the objective "good" for the other whom we seek to help. Secondly, the virtue of mercy is proven in effective action for the good of others, as circumstances permit. If we merely "sympathize" with the plight of another and "share their pain" without making the best of the opportunities we have to help them, then virtue of mercy does not abide in us in any significant degree.

St. Thomas asks two related questions. First, is mercy the greatest of the human virtues? It certainly implies a measure of grandeur and nobility, insofar as effective mercy is the generous relief of the needs and miseries of others out of one's own abundance. We help others out of our store of wealth, or knowledge or skill or strength, when we see others in need of such help. In that sense, mercy is an act of condescension from one person who has a greater abundance of some good to another person lacking in some good. If the merciful person has a superior (that is, someone with an even greater abundance of goods to share) then his chief virtue will be what unites him with his superior. In the case of human beings, the virtue of "charity" is what unites him to God (since God is not in need of our mercy!): "Since man, therefore, has God above him, charity which unites him to God is greater than mercy, which relieves the wants of others" (II-II.30.4). On the other hand, when we consider which of the virtues should govern our relationships with other human beings, then it is clear that mercy directed to our neighbors in need is the supreme virtue in man (II-II.30.4).

Secondly, St. Thomas asks: Is mercy the greatest attribute of God? Since God is the absolute superior, the perfect and self-existent creator, St. Thomas says, He is never self-seeking, but acts only and always with selfless generosity, pouring out good gifts out of His abundance on his creatures. Showing mercy is therefore proper to God in a special way, for it manifests His infinite perfection, and His infinite abundance and generosity. St. Thomas writes (II-II.30.4): "If we consider a virtue in terms of its possessor, however, we can say that mercy is the greatest of the virtues only if its possessor is himself the greatest of all beings, with no one above him and everyone beneath him." This, of course, is properly true only of God Himself. Thus, mercy is, in that sense, the greatest attribute of God.

(This series continues next week on the Mercy theology of St. Thomas Aquinas)

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