In considering the relative gravity of sins, Aquinas considers pride in itself as graver than murder, since pride, in its proper meaning, is by its very nature a turning away from God.
Query: Murder in its nature constitutes an unjust taking of life, and turning away from God is its consequence, not its essence. However, we don't usually say that blasphemy or unbelief is worse than murder, even though that too is a turning away from God. I think the reason we say it about murder but not about blasphemy or unbelief is that a concrete act of murder involves not only the unjust taking of like but also a turning away from God. If I'm right, this would make murder graver than blasphemy. Do you think this makes sense?
Reply: I take it that you're reflecting on Summa Theologiae, II-II, Q. 162, Art. 6. You make a good point, but there is more to be said. Perhaps St. Thomas would offer considerations something like the following.
First, remember that he is not speaking of particular acts of pride and murder, or of murder as a result of pride, but of pride in itself and murder in itself. When we are making comparisons, he says, "that which belongs to a thing by its nature is always of greater weight than that which belongs to it through something else." So we need to consider the matter from more than one perspective.
Pride—understood not as, say, satisfaction in having done a job well, but as turning away from God and treating ourselves as gods—is the father of all sin, because it radically disorders us. If our minds refuse God's governance, then they are no longer capable of governing the passions, the appetites, or for that matter themselves. Moreover, tearing our minds from His keeps us from understanding the proper relationship among proximate goods, because we no longer see them in their true relation to our ultimate good, which is nothing but Himself.
If turning away from God is worse than murder, why doesn't human law treat it as worse than murder? Mainly because human law is in charge of the temporal common good, not the spiritual common good of union with God. A secondary reason is that unbelief is an invisible movement of the heart, which human beings cannot see; human law can address itself only to outward acts, which it can see. Still another is that faith cannot be coerced; if unbelief were made illegal, the consequence would not be a nation of unbelievers, but a nation of hypocrites. The state is not is neither commissioned to look into hearts, nor capable of doing so.
On the other hand, human law does consider treason and betrayal the worst of the sins it does have authority over—and there is an analogy here with divine law, because contempt for God is the worst of all possible treason and betrayal. By it, we destroy not just our bodies, but our souls, which are infinitely more important. Moreover, by expressing our contempt for Him outwardly, through deliberate blasphemy, we endanger our neighbors' souls too. Murder only destroys their bodies.
But if we think of the intrinsic gravity of sins rather than whether it is fitting to punish them by human law, I think St. Thomas would say that things look different. As he says, "aversion from God and His commandments, which is a consequence as it were in other sins, belongs to pride by its very nature." Let's think about this.
When my children were small, whenever they disobeyed the parental precepts—for example by snatching each other's toys instead of sharing them—they certainly put themselves at odds with us. One could say that in that sense they were also withdrawing themselves from the order of honor to parents, and so committing not one wrong but two. True. Even so, they didn't snatch the toys because they had contempt for us; they snatched them merely because they wanted them. If they had acted directly from contempt for us, the wrong would have been much, much worse. I suspect that when the children did these things, they were not thinking of us at all—or that if they were, they were thinking only of how to keep from getting caught. So even though disobeying them had the effect of withdrawing them from the order of honor to parents, it was not the same as the sin the very root of which was to dishonor us.
Could it be the same with the case you mention? Murder has the effect of withdrawing us from right relationship with God and destroying charity, but it is not the same as the sin the very root of which is contempt for God and rejection of charity, and that is far graver.
To have contempt for my neighbor, who is made in God's image, is one thing, but to have contempt for the God in whose image my neighbor is made—the very Being from Whom my neighbor draws his life and because of Whom that life has such enormous value—is quite another. God is the reason why we and our neighbors are sacred; it is He alone who makes us persons, He alone who lifts us above being whats to the dignity of being whos.
For all these reasons, we might even say that a murder is just a murder, but that the sin of pride virtually contains all murders.
J. Budziszewski. "Is pride worse than murder?" Underground Thomist (May 1, 2023).
Reprinted with permission from the author.
J. Budziszewski is professor of government and philosophy at the University of Texas. He writes at Underground Thomist, and is most recently the author of Commentary on Thomas Aquinas' Treatise on Law, Cambridge University Press.Copyright © 2023 J. Budziszewski
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