Earth tends toward the center, and fire tends away. Water and air move to places between the extremes. This — motion to natural place — was how Aristotle classified the elements. Modern chemistry, however, uses the term “element” in an equivocal sense, so that the classical elements are not considered. The Aristotelian notion of an element is meaningless in the context of modern science. The modern phases of matter with which they are frequently compared are not really equivalent, because they are defined by physical properties that have nothing to do with natural motion.
In like manner, virtue tends toward happiness, and vice tends away. This — motion to natural habit — was how Aristotle classified human practice. Modern ethics, however, use the term “practice” in an equivocal sense, so that the classical phronesis is not considered. The Aristotelian notion of practice is meaningless in the context of modern ethics. The modern concept of practice with which it is frequently compared is not really equivalent, because it is defined by emotional states that have nothing to do with eudaimonia.
The ancient and medieval worldview was always inescapably teleological. The natural motion of the elements toward their proper places was part of the same cosmic order as the natural habits which human nature had a duty to cultivate. Nowadays teleological language is common, but we are told by certain scientists (so called because they possess science in contradistinction to wisdom which they lack) that such language is improper, strictly speaking, and vestigial. In practice, we seldom act with the kind of consistency that our ancestors exhibited. The figure of speech remains, but more and more, we act as though our lives had no inherent purpose.
Virtue in the ancient, medieval, and Catholic sense was ordered to one thing: contemplation of eternal things. Those habits of an individual which tended toward contemplation were virtues, and those which interfered with it were vices. Societies were orded as an extension of the virtues, not only in that they were the outcome of their practice, but also in that they were intended to facilitate their practice. A good society necessarily produced virtuous men who were, by the fruits of their good habits and their social privilege, able to spend time in contemplation. Like the elements with their natural places, every person had a natural, necessary, divinely ordained role to play in the plan of society. The Christian order, if men would duly submit to it, was so blessed, so singularly privileged, that it allowed every individual member of its society to achieve supernatural contemplation.
By contrast, in the modern world, although one still speaks of “finding one’s place in the world,” it seems as though the great mass of humanity is superfluous. Like the modern elements, which are not teleologically organized, so the modern sense of the good is basically chaotic. Any focus on the cultivation of habits is immediately lost to the liberty of conscience which ordains these habits to conflicting ends. If one chooses the goal of contemplation for oneself, one must strive to achieve it in spite of the State or even one’s own family, not in concert with them.
Therefore there is no feeling of unity in the family, and the state is a Leviathan. It is almost impossible to make friends. We use one another and enjoy each other’s company, but we do not love. We do not will the good of our neighbor, because that is none of our business, not until it threatens our own pursuit of whatever we think to be happiness. The apostasy has brought these conditions about.
The art of managing the affairs of a state, a household, or one’s self is in each case a kind of economics. Atheistic communism declares man to be homo œconomicus, which means that these arts are considered only as ends in themselves. Likewise, the current secular mentality takes the question of “finding one’s place” to revolve around the prosperous management of one’s personal affairs, viz. career and investments. Even in the parish, young people have to be preoccupied with such questions as these: What do you do? Are you going to school? Where? What do you want to do when you graduate?
But such a frame of mind is not our natural place. These questions will definitely answer themselves if only we put God first. The more we meditate on our Lord and seek to know His will, the less attached we will become to the passing cares of the world, and the more fully will our economic decisions be informed by the virtue of prudence, which makes all of our actions tend back to the love and contemplation of Eternal Wisdom.
Lord, make me like Earth, firmly anchored to Thee, the divine Center of my heart.
Lord, make me like Water, willingly facing whatever circumstances in which Thou may place me.
Lord, make me like Air, never dwelling on what’s done, renewing my dedication as often as the changing weather renews the land.
Lord, make me like Fire, ever ecstatically heavenward.
Lord, make me like the Quintessence, heedless of what lower things may want me to become.Arboretus