- A Presumptuous Age?The Sin of Presumption In The Summa Theologiae As A Key To Understanding The "Age Of Entitlement"
Of forgiveness be not overconfident,adding sin upon sin.Say not: "Great is his mercy;my many sins he will forgive."For mercy and anger alike are with him;upon the wicked alights his wrath.Delay not your conversion to the Lord,put it not off from day to day;For suddenly his wrath flames forth;at the time of vengeance, you will be destroyed.Rely not upon deceitful wealth,for it will be no help on the day of wrath.(Sir 5:5-10)
IN CONVERSATIONS with those engaged in college pastoral ministry, a word I frequently hear spoken with frustration is "entitlement." A recent study claims that we are, in fact, "living in the age of entitlement."1 While the word is not found in any classical catalogue of vices, I suspect that what we call "entitlement" is the contemporary manifestation of an ancient vice—the sin of presumption. Saint Thomas Aquinas reckoned presumption a particularly serious sin—a sin against [End Page 247] the Holy Spirit—and dedicated two questions of the Summa theologiae to its manifestations, but the vice is little discussed in contemporary preaching or scholarship.2 If, as I am suggesting, entitlement is a contemporary manifestation of presumption, this ancient vice deserves a fresh look.
In the Summa, Aquinas approaches presumption from two such different perspectives—as a sin against magnanimity (STh II-II, q. 130) and against hope (STh II-II, q. 21)—that at times it is not clear whether he is speaking of the same phenomenon. For ease of reference I will call these two different manifestations of presumption "secular" and "theological" presumption respectively, but how precisely they relate to each other is not on the surface clear. How, for example, does an overestimation of oneself lead to an underestimation of God? We will see that Aquinas treats these two types of presumption as distinct, though related, sins. Understanding how secular presumption can—but does not always—lead to theological presumption will require appreciating the distorting effects of these sins on our relationships. In coming to understand what presumption means to Aquinas, I hope we will also begin to see why this vice is particularly prevalent in our own age.
I. Secular Presumption
While presumption first appears in the Summa as a sin against hope, Aquinas treats the sin again, somewhat more briefly, in his treatise on fortitude, of which the virtue of magnanimity is a part. Presumption is the first of four sins he lists that are opposed to magnanimity (along with ambition, [End Page 248] vainglory, and pusillanimity). This "secular presumption" is a more general fault than "theological presumption," so it makes sense to start our exploration with question 130 even if this involves moving backwards in the Summa.
To understand presumption, we must first understand what Aquinas means by magnanimity. On the surface, magnanimity might seem a rather dangerous Christian virtue, for Aquinas describes it as the virtue of seeking great honors.3 To be sure, such honors for Aquinas are always tied to virtue—that which is most worthy of honor—so we could describe magnanimity as striving to be worthy of great honor through great virtue.4 Aquinas is aware that such emphasis on honor seems to conflict with humility; he even allows that, in a sense, humility and magnanimity pull the subject in opposite directions.5 We must realize, however, that Aquinas is borrowing the virtue of magnanimity from Aristotle, and, as R. E. Houser has argued, for Aristotle magnanimity is opposed to humility.6 Mary M. Keys points out the significant ways in which Aquinas's treatment of magnanimity represents a critique and modification of Aristotle's account of the same virtue in the Nicomachean Ethics.7 Aristotle's "magnanimous man," she argues, is averse to being in any sense a debtor to others, seeing this as detracting from his self-sufficiency in virtue.8 Aristotle's sense of honor bristles at dependency on others. Aquinas, by contrast, undercuts Aristotle's individualistic focus by emphasizing the pursuit...