Observation reveals three kinds of people in the world: subhumans, the wild and lawless type, who are below nature; natural men who generally heed the natural law and abstain from committing heinous crimes; and supermen or “Christian saints” who are above nature.
If this classification is correct, and Christian charity and works of mercy are not natural to man, then we must ask how the saints are lifted above their nature.
Now charity unites the human race into one. It stands to reason that the cause of charity in men’s hearts seeks to achieve this kind of unity and moreover not just directly between humans but also through itself, as indeed a vine unites the branches. This cause is called God which we conclude loves mankind and wills that we do, too.
This argument, unfortunately, would be completely unpersuasive to natural men, because the very judgment that saints are superior to the unregenerated arises from an infusion of grace.
Thus, Henry Hazlitt writes confidently: “the ethics of the Old Testament, explicit and implied, are not a reliable guide to conduct for twentieth-century man.” (Foundations of Morality, 350) He quotes Morris Cohen: “there is not a single loathsome human practice that has not at some time or other been regarded as a religious duty. I have already mentioned the breaking of promises to heretics. But assassination and thuggery…, sacred prostitution (in Babylonia and India), diverse forms of self-torture, and the verminous uncleanliness of saints like Thomas a Becket, have all been part of religion.” (345)
This indictment suggests that natural men are incapable of distinguishing between subhumans and supermen. To them, both are filthy and even insane. It’s not that subhumans are beasts, and supermen are gods; but both are beasts.
Regarding the “ethics of the New Testament,” Hazlitt writes:
We can, in large part, command our actions; but we cannot command our feelings.
We cannot love all our fellow men simply because we think we ought to.
Love for a few (usually members of our immediate family),
affection and friendship for some,
initial goodwill toward a wider circle,
and the attempt constantly to discourage and suppress within ourselves incipient anger, resentment, jealousy, envy, and hatred, are the most that all but a very small number of us seem to be able to achieve. (350)
Obviously Hazlitt contradicts himself here: if we can “suppress hatred,” thereby straightforwardly “commanding feelings,” then perhaps we can cultivate charity, too. In fact, there is a reliable way to do the latter which consists in adhering to Christian justice, i.e., performing positive works of mercy, and not merely negatively abstaining from evil deeds.
Hazlitt raises a further question: “Are some of the ideals of Jesus’ teaching practicable? Would the life of the individual, or would the lives of the mass of mankind, be more satisfactory or less satisfactory if we tried literally to follow some of these precepts?” (351)
Let me answer within Hazlitt’s own utilitarianism. Charity makes the beloved another self. As a result, it makes possible genuine interpersonal utility comparisons. Hence a man can willingly optimize the distribution of goods toward maximum narrow happiness by sacrificing his own lesser good for the beloved’s greater good. Divine grace then increases human happiness at least in this rather shallow sense.
Kreeft argues: “Most of us, whatever our religious faith, or lack of it, can recognize that in the life of someone like Francis of Assisi human nature is operating the right way, the way it ought to operate.” (Handbook, 75) If that is true, then the argument pulls through. But I think Kreeft may be too optimistic and is mistaking grace for nature. Take Hume, for example:
Celibacy, fasting, penance, mortification, self-denial, humility, silence, solitude, and the whole train of monkish virtues;
for what reason are they everywhere rejected by men of sense, but because they serve to no manner of purpose;
neither advance a man’s fortune in the world, nor render him a more valuable member of society;
neither qualify him for the entertainment of company, nor increase his power of self-enjoyment?
We observe, on the contrary, that they cross all these desirable ends; stupefy the understanding and harden the heart, obscure the fancy and sour the temper.
We justly, therefore, transfer them to the opposite column, and place them in the catalogue of vices.
Or take Jerry Seinfeld: “that’s the true spirit of Christmas: people being helped by people other than me.”
Hence it may be false that, as Kreeft maintains, “You need not be a theist to see that St. Francis’ life was admirable, but you do need to be a theist to see why.” Ungraced nature produces only befuddlement regarding and contempt for the Christian saints.