After chasing the woman from his room, Thomas Aquinas returned to his cell,"dropped the firebrand into the fire; and sat down on that seat of sedentary scholarship,"that chair of philosophy, that secret throne of contemplation, from which he never rose again.
When he calmly announced his intention to join a newly formed order of preachers and don the garb of a poor friar — a beggar, in fact — his family was both astonished and outraged. It were as if Napoleon had insisted on remaining a private soldier for the duration of his military career.(2) Anticipating the worst, he, with the master general of the order and three other friars, set out on foot to leave Rome and escape to Paris. His mother dispatched a message to two of her sons who were soldiers in the army of Frederick II. She ordered them to kidnap her fugitive offspring. The brothers did as they were commanded, forcibly apprehended the black sheep of their clan and imprisoned him at the fortress of Monte San Giovanni, near his birthplace in Roccasecca.(3)
During his eighteen-month period of incarceration, every means, fair and foul, was used to shake him from his resolve to become a Dominican preacher. Members of his family took turns in resorting to a wide assortment of strategies; kindness and harsh treatment, blandishments and threats, deprivation of food and books. His eldest sister, Marotta, who was sent to convert him, was herself converted by him and joined the order of Saint Benedict. The family’s patience must have been at the point of exhaustion when his brother Raynaldo adopted a more forthright and devilish plan of luring him from his purpose. (4)
Raynaldo was an upright and honorable man in the eyes of the world, but he lived and thought in accordance with the world. He introduced into the room where his youngest brother was sleeping a woman who has been described as a “courtesan of the most exclusive sort”,(5) a “pretty young girl, with all the charms of the temptress”.(6)
The young friar at the time was a full-blooded man of about nineteen years of age. He was a strong and healthy individual of impressive stature. No doubt he had learned, along with his brothers, how to mount and ride a horse and to execute other manly arts expected of men of nobility growing up in thirteenth century Italy. His long period of confinement and deprivation must have left him vulnerable to enticements of the flesh. Upon seeing the woman and immediately sizing up her purpose, he grabbed hold of a flaming firebrand, chased her out of the cell, and traced the sign of the cross on the door with the brand.(7) He was in no mood to reason with her. “Then”, according to one commentator, “he returned, and dropped it [the firebrand] again into the fire; and sat down on that seat of sedentary scholarship, that chair of philosophy, that secret throne of contemplation, from which he never rose again.”(8)
His family may have been convinced that their prisoner was incorrigible. They may have feared the wrath of Pope Innocent IV, who, by that time, had been alerted to the travesty that was taking place. Or his mother may have experienced a change of heart. For whatever reason, he was soon permitted to escape. He was lowered in a basket and received into the arms of joyful Dominicans. In the company of his fellow friars, he then set out for Paris, arriving without further interruption.
Neither his lineage nor the atmosphere that surrounded his arrival in the world could have augured his career as a white knight of God, a staunch champion of the spirit in its war against the flesh. Before he was born, however, a holy hermit is reported to have foretold his career, saying to his mother Theodora: “He will enter the Order of Friars Preachers, and so great will be his learning and sanctity that in his day no one will be found to equal him.”(9) It is ironic that one of the doctrines he propounded is that grace is a more important factor than either heredity or environment.
Toward the end of his life, in his late forties, he confided to his faithful friend and companion Reginald of Piperno the secret of a remarkable gift he had received that allowed him to do his work without ever experiencing the slightest disturbance of the flesh. After he had driven the temptress from his chamber, he earnestly implored God to grant him integrity of mind and body. His prayer was answered, and the gift bestowed upon him was made apparent to those who call him the “Angelic Doctor”.
His intellectual contribution was immense, involving an unprecedented synthesis between philosophy and theology, pagan thought and Christian faith, and the contributions of antiquity and the insights of the contemporary world. Because of this, Pope Leo XIII could say of him: “Among the Scholastic Doctors, the chief and master of all, towers Thomas Aquinas, who, as Cajetan observes, because `he most venerated the ancient doctors of the Church, in a certain way seems to have inherited the intellect of all.”(10)
Chastity is the virtue that brings the sexual appetite into harmony with reason. It requires, not the renunciation of sexuality, but the right or reasonable use of it. There are times when human beings should abstain from sexual pleasure, but it is not necessary to abstain from activities that are conducted in accord with reason. By reason, we are referring, not to an abstract and impersonal set of rules separated from life, but the capacity to be realistic. Reason is a light that illuminates what we are doing so that we can behave in a way that is consistent with our best interest.
One of the fundamental problems that unchastity brings about is a blindness that leads directly to acts of imprudence. A person who is inflamed by lustful desires is hardly in a position to do what is good for himself or anyone else. It is well known that prostitutes can operate very effectively as spies by first seducing their man and then educing from him the valuable information he possesses. The intemperate military leader Holofernes literally lost his head because of his lust for Judith: “Her sandal ravished his eyes, her beauty took his soul captive,...and her sword cut off his head.” (11)
Unchastity tends to destroy prudence and to prevent a person from maintaining the self-possession or integrity he needs in order to “be himself” in the proper sense of the term. In the absence of chastity, a person is easily seduced into doing things that are beneath his dignity, things that are shameful, things that do not accord with who he truly is. In writing about how unchastity corrupts prudence, the Thomist philosopher Josef Pieper writes: “Unchaste abandon and the self-surrender of the soul to the world of sensuality paralyzes the primordial powers of the moral person; the ability to perceive in silence the call of reality and to make, in the retreat of this silence, the decision appropriate to the concrete situation of concrete action.”(12)
Aquinas acted prudently in chasing the prostitute away. Had he succumbed to her enticements, he may very well, in addition to breaking a commandment of God, have forfeited the serenity he needed in order to achieve the status of preeminence as a philosopher and theologian. No doubt he had a premonition of what was at stake. Aquinas’ treatises on chastity indicate how clearly he saw the harm that unchastity posed for the moral and intellectual life. He lists the eight daughters of unchastity (or lust) as blindness of mind, rashness, thoughtlessness, inconstancy, inordinate self-love, hatred of God, excessive love of this world, and abhorrence or despair of a future world. (13) He explains that they wreak havoc with the four acts of reason and the twofold orientation of the will. Blindness hinders one’s ability to apprehend an object rightly. Rashness interferes with counsel. Thoughtlessness opposes judgment about what is to be done. And inconstancy conflicts with reason’s command about what is to be done. Inordinate self-love is contrary to the will’s proper end, which is God, while hatred of God flows from his forbidding acts of lust. Love of this world is inimical to the means man should will in relation to his end, while despair of a future world results from the distaste of spiritual pleasures brought on by overindulgence in the pleasures of the flesh.
Unchastity can be ruinous of a personality. In Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure, Angelo offers to spare the life of Isabella’s brother, Claudio, who faces death because of sexual misconduct, if she consents to sleep with him. When Isabella, who is a novice in a cloistered order of nuns, discusses the matter with her brother, she is horrified to discover what a despicable rake he has become as a result of his carnal misadventures. “Death is a fearful thing”, says Claudio, who has little regard for his sister’s chastity. “And shamed life a hateful”, replies Isabella. Claudio becomes more earnest in his plea: “Sweet sister, let me live: What sin you do to save a brother’s life,/Nature dispenses with the deed so far/That it becomes a virtue.” Her response is most emphatic:
O you beast!
She breaks off any further discussion by exclaiming that for Claudio, fornication was not a lapse but a life-style: “Thy sin’s not accidental, but a trade,/Mercy to thee would prove itself a bawd:/'Tis best that thou diest quickly.”(14) Claudio’s preoccupation with sexual pleasure, which had become a “trade”, or a cold-blooded way of life, poisoned his soul to the degree that his own sister’s honor meant nothing to him. In fact, poor Claudio had lost all sense of right and wrong. He loved his own life inordinately and to the exclusion of all else. Lust had taken possession of him.
Chastity is a most honorable virtue. It honors the self as well as the other. It may be a difficult virtue to attain, not because sexual desire is so intense, but because it is constantly being roused when society can think of little else. Friedrich Nietzsche, no friend of Christianity, recognized the validity of this point. In Thus Spake Zarathustra, he begins his chapter “Of Chastity” by stating, “I love the forest. It is bad to live in towns: too many of the lustful live there.”(15) Aquinas, long before there was mass media, understood too well the dangerous role environmental seduction could play: “There is not much sinning because of natural desires....But the stimuli of desire which man’s cunning has devised are something else, and for the sake of these sins one sins very much.” (16)
DeMarco, Donald. “Chastity”. In The Heart of Virtue, (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1996), 26-33.
Reprinted by permission of Ignatius Press. The Heart of Virtue was published in 1996, ISBN 0-89870-568-1.
The Heart of Virtue: Lessons from Life and Literature Illustrating the Beauty and Value of Moral Character by Donald DeMarco brings to life in an inspirational and memorable way what is at the core of every true moral virtue, namely, love. It presents twenty-eight different virtues and reveals, through stories that personify these virtues, how love is expressed through care, courage, compassion, faith, hope, justice, prudence, temperance, wisdom, etc...The Heart of Virtue is a veritable liberal education in itself, bringing together in a carefully balanced and readable manner, distinguished personalities from diverse enterprises and periods of history. The reader will be both astonished and edified by the determination of Winston Churchill, the compassion of Simone Weil, the courage of Edith Piaf, the humility of Charles Steinmetz, the patience of Walker Percy, the modesty of Flannery O’Connor, and the integrity of Jacques and Raissa Maritain.
Copyright © 1996 Ignatius Press
Not all articles published on CERC are the objects of official Church teaching, but these are supplied to provide supplementary information.