Denys Munby said to me once, “In Heaven there is no scarcity and in Hell there is no choice.” In the created world there are both. The dignity of free will would be meaningless if a choice of one good, such as apples, did not have what the economists call an “opportunity cost” in, say, oranges. If we could have all the apples and oranges we wanted, “living in idleness,” as Paul put it, with no “budget constraint,” no “scarcity,” we would live as overfed pet cats, not as human beings. If we have free will, and therefore necessarily face scarcity, we live truly in the image of God.
Scarcity is necessary for human virtues. Humility, said Aquinas, answers among the Christian virtues to the pagan virtue of great-souledness, or magnanimity, which Aristotle the pagan teacher of aristocrats admired so much. To be humble is to temper one’s passions in pursuing, as Aquinas put it, boni ardui – goods difficult of achievement. To be great-souled – which, in turn, is part of the cardinal virtue of courage – is to keep working towards such goods nonetheless. No one would need to be courageous or prudent or great-souled or humble if goods were faciles rather than ardui.
The virtue of temperance, again, is not about mortification of the flesh – not, at any rate, for Christian thinkers like Aquinas (there were others, descendants of the Desert Fathers, who had another idea). On the contrary, this side of Christianity says, we should admire the moderate yet relishing use of a world charged with the grandeur of God.
It is the message of the Aquinian side of Christian thought that we should not withdraw from the world. On the contrary, as Jesus was, we should be truly, and laboriously, and gloriously human.
Read it all From ABC Australia’s Religion and Ethics website.