In a recent article for First Things, Paul J. Griffiths takes aim at the notion of natural desires and their supposed role in natural law thinking. According to Griffiths, while human desires were natural before the Fall and will be natural again after the resurrection, for humans suffering from the derangement of sin, “no particular desire is natural,” even those “drives we have genetically: our urges for sex and food and violence.” Reflection on natural desire, Griffiths insists, “must begin with the fact that human desire has been deranged.” He concludes that “we lack natural desire because our desires have been removed from their proper arrangement.”
In a previous piece for Public Discourse, I responded to similar objections, typically but not always raised by Protestants of a Calvinistic bent, against the “Manhattan Declaration” and Robert P. George. Like the Catholic Griffiths, those critics think that sin renders the natural law problematic since human nature is vitiated as a moral or logical foundation. The always nuanced and brilliant Griffiths, however, requires an independent response.
Griffiths begins by arguing that, given sin, our desires are no longer properly harmonious, no longer configured and ordered, but open, “free to wander in an open range without limits.” As utterly open, we cannot say our desires are natural since they do not, by nature, desire anything in particular—we desire, yes, but we do not by nature desire this or that, here or there.
He argues that the particularity of desire—that I desire this but not that—is configured or trained in accidental fashion. Children have tastes formed by “local habit, custom, and discipline” and so are formed to delight in some things rather than others—but “none of these tastes is natural.” That certain foods are desired and others found disgusting is the result of custom, that certain music is praised while other forms disregarded comes about from instruction, and formation applies to each and every desire you or I might, or might not, have.
Griffiths claims his understanding would be objectionable to many “Thomistic philosophers,” but I fear he portrays these philosophers as hopelessly naive. In my earlier piece, I explained how Thomas Aquinas fully incorporated the reality of sin into his theology and still held that humans could follow right reason. Griffiths knows that Catholic theology and Thomistic philosophy accepts and gives place to human derangement in its anthropology and moral philosophy. Aquinas did, after all, know his Augustine, including Augustine’s anti-Pelagian works. Still Griffiths almost writes off Thomism on the issue of derangement. Why? I find his reason utterly surprising, and incorrect.
In parrying the (never explained) Thomistic objections to his account, Griffiths states that one of the intellectual currents of our times is one encouraging us to “discover who we are and to act accordingly” by a “gaze with the inward eye on our glassy essence and to respond to what we find there.” But, counters Griffiths, such a gaze provides only multiplicity, a “vast range of identities: of gender and sex and ethnicity, of trait and temperament and passion.” Rather than discovering our glassy essence, our true being, we discover ourselves as unfixed, as utterly open and in flux, capable of being formed in almost any direction, including (hopefully) in proper directions, but “there is no glassy essence to discover.”
This response to his Thomistic interlocutors is remarkable and mistaken. I always find something worthwhile in Griffiths’s writing and lecturing, but on this point he seems to have gravely misunderstood the Thomistic impulse and underestimated its cache of resources.
The notion of a glassy essence, of a mental substance to which we have privileged access through self-immediacy, is entirely foreign to Thomism. The “invention of the mind,” as Richard Rorty termed it, as a glassy and mirror-like self-presence is modern, not Thomistic, as I’ve argued elsewhere. Descartes may think we have such an essence, Locke may think we can access it immediately, and perhaps even Augustine agrees, as some think, but this is not Thomas.
John Finnis, a leading proponent of natural law philosophy, makes clear that one does not know human nature or the self by an immediate introspective look at our substance. He argues in Fundamentals of Ethics:
one proceeds by reflecting on one’s own wanting, deciding and acting; and this reflection must not be an attempt to peer inside oneself, or to catch oneself as it were in a mirror out of the corner of one’s eye: those empirical methods, based on the uncritical fancy that understanding is just a matter of opening one’s eyes (or other senses) and looking, yield nothing but illusions.
Finnis sounds much like the Jesuit thinker Bernard Lonergan. For Lonergan, author of the monumental work Insight, the notion that knowledge is somehow like taking a look is a “cognitional myth” responsible for a whole panoply of epistemological and metaphysical errors: “as merely seeing is not human knowing, so for the same reason merely hearing, merely smelling, merely touching, merely tasting may be parts … but they are not human knowing itself.” Consequently, since no human knowledge consists of taking a look pure and simple, neither is self-knowledge gained by looking inward at the self as if it were a glassy object to be gazed upon: “People are apt to think of knowing by imagining a man taking a look at something, and further, they are apt to think of consciousness by imagining themselves taking a look into themselves.” Both images are mistaken.
Lonergan, like Finnis and Aquinas, rejects the notion that knowledge is like looking, and thus rejects the notion that one can look inside and see a pure self. Aquinas’s account of knowledge is rooted in understanding, of the grasp of intelligibility, while sensation provides only phantasms, the intellectual matter, as it were, from which the intellect apprehends intelligibility and about which it judges. But Thomas never suggests that we know by gaping; rather, we know by abstracting or understanding intelligibility.
When it comes to self-knowledge, the Thomistic method does not introspect but rather infers, and does so based on the many objects of desire. As Lonergan describes the Thomistic method: “through objects we know the acts, through the acts we know the habits, through the habits we know the potencies, and through the potencies we know the essence of soul.” To know the soul, then, we do not examine the soul. This cannot be done, since we cannot look inward to a glassy essence with the eye of the mind. Instead we examine our intentions, that is, the intelligible objects of our desires.
Finnis agrees: “reflection on practical reasoning and human action … seeks to understand human capacities by understanding human acts and to understand those acts by understanding their object(ive)s.” The Thomist never looks at the soul to find some natural shape to its structure; the Thomist examines the intentions of the human being, the “why?” and “what for?” of action. A person does x. Why? Well, for the sake of y. He or she intended y and so chose x. This is the domain of intelligibility, of form.
Since the Thomist never intends to look inward and find a static, glimmering orb or glassy essence, the Thomist is quite unperturbed to learn that one might find, as Griffiths suggests, “a vast range of identities.” Turning inward, Griffiths complains, “we find only phantasms”—just so! Aquinas told us that sensation creates phantasms or sense images, not the form of the thing; Lonergan suggests that inward looking is a mythical action we cannot actually perform; Finnis suggested that the inner look yielded “nothing but illusions.” Griffiths has made a rather Thomistic point: looking for a glassy essence is a fantastic exercise in futility.
Since the Thomist never expected the glassy essence, we shouldn’t be surprised to discover that the Thomist also welcomes historical change, cultural difference, plural expressions of identity, open-ended desires, and the need to form habits into certain shapes. Not only was Thomas indebted to virtue ethics, and thus quite willing to embrace the moral necessity of habit, he was fully aware that particular desires are in flux, and also aware that the flux could be deranged and sinful. Of course our particular desires are in flux; how else would we distinguish natural desire from those we happen to have at any particular point in time?
Griffiths seems to think, if I read him correctly, that for Thomas natural desires are fixed, invariant, universal properties because they stem from a fixed, invariant, universal and observable glassy essence. If that were Thomas’s position, then noticing the empirically obvious reality that desires can be open-ended might pose some difficulty. But if desires are to be understood, then natural desires are not known by observing my many desires—nothing is understood merely by observation—but by grasping the intelligible intentions or object(ive)s of the acting person. The variability of particular desires defeats the naturalness of desire if and only if the variability somehow surpasses intelligibility, if the flux resists understanding.
But it doesn’t. Griffiths is entirely correct that we always seek a particular, that our “sexual, gastronomic, and intellectual appetites are unbounded in what they might desire” but always in the end fix on some particular. Sexual desires might in the end be particularized by marriage, or pornography, or masturbation, or rape. Gastronomic desires may very well fix on “horses and snails,” “citrus-tinged Pinot Gris” or “roast cat,” to use his examples. Intellectual appetites might turn to literacy and logic, or to entertainment and spectacle. Of course.
Yet each and every of these particular desires can be rendered intelligible by asking “why?” or “what for?” Why does one wish to eat a snail? Why does one wish to use pornography? Why does one wish to avoid Latin and watch a reality show instead? These questions make sense; it is not strange and confusing to position a particular desire within the standpoint of intentionality and ask what is being sought by the desire.
In the Summa Theologiae’s discussion of law, Aquinas suggests that inclination is the hint to understanding the natural law. As a substance, the human is inclined towards existence; as an animal, the human seeks children and their well-being; as rational, the human is inclined towards knowledge, friendship, and so on. There is very little reason to think this list is exhaustive, but it does demonstrate a pattern, namely, that particular desires can be investigated and rendered sensible by their finality, by their end or telos, by what they want.
Aquinas clearly distinguishes the particularity of sensible appetite from the generality of rational appetite. A sensible appetite is particular, it wants this car or that cake, and comes to be when evoked. That is, we desire the car or cake when we sense it, although we could expand such evocation to include cultural and historical catechesis without much of a problem—we desire the Pinot Gris or the roast cat only in response to cultural formation. Rational appetite, on the other hand, desires not this or that good but the total flourishing of the human being. Note: the human good is an order, a properly arranged nexus of various human goods necessary and conducive for human flourishing. One doesn’t observe this good like one can observe cars and cake; one understands this good by understanding our intentions, by grasping intelligently what we are after when we are after all those particular goods. An ordered life seeks basic human goods—naturally desirable goods—not because our static essence drives us to them, still less because we can look inside and intuit natural desires a, b, and c, but because we try and make sense of our lives, and subsequently can reflect and understand how we tried to make this sense.
Now, whether one can discover in these intentions a set list of basic human goods, as Finnis thinks, or discover a structured heuristic nexus of intentional goods, as Lonergan thinks, is a big and difficult question, and one that I will not take up here. My point is not to defend natural law theory of any particular sort, new or old, but simply to argue that Thomism is markedly more differentiated on natural desire than Griffiths portrays.
R. J. Snell is an associate professor of philosophy and director of the Philosophy Program at Eastern University.