Summary Against Modern Thought: The Way of Voluntary Poverty

Summary Against Modern Thought: The Way of Voluntary Poverty

Previous post.

St Thomas now begins his counter-attack from last week, which is also continued over the coming weeks.


1 Now, it seems that this problem may be better treated if we examine in greater detail the ways in which those who practice voluntary poverty must live.

2 The first way of so living is for each person to sell his possessions, and for all to live in common on the proceeds. This appears to have been the practice under the Apostles in Jerusalem, for it is said: “As many as were owners of lands or houses sold them and brought the price of the things they sold, and laid it down before the feet of the Apostles. And distribution was made to every one as he had need” (Acts 4:34-35). But it does not seem that effective provision is made for human life, according to this way.

3 First, because it is not easy to get a number of persons who have large possessions to adopt this life. So, if distribution is made among many of the proceeds derived from a few rich people, the amount will not be sufficient for any length of time.

4 Next, because it is possible and easy for such a fund to disappear, either through fraud on the part of the managers or by theft or robbery. So, those who follow this kind of poverty will be left without support for life.

Notes Embezzlement was always a problem.

5 Again, many things happen whereby men are forced to change their location. It will not be easy, then, to provide from the common fund gathered from such sale of possessions for those who will perhaps be scattered in various places.

6 Then, there is a second way of so living: this is to hold common possessions, from which provision is made for individual persons, according to their needs, as is the practice in many monasteries. But even this way of living does not seem appropriate.

7 In fact, earthly possessions are the source of worry, both in regard to taking care of their revenues and in regard to their protection against frauds and attacks. Moreover, the larger they are, the more people are required to take care of them, and, so, the larger must these possessions be to give adequate support to all these people. And thus, in this way, the very purpose of voluntary poverty vanishes, at least in regard to the many men who must concern themselves with the management of the possessions.

8 Again, common possession is usually a cause of disagreement. People who hold nothing in common, such as the Spaniards and Persians, do not seem to get into legal disputes, but, rather, those who do hold something in common. This is why there are disagreements even among brothers. Now, discord is the greatest impediment to giving over one’s mind to divine matters, as we said above. So, it seems that this way of living obstructs the end of voluntary poverty.

Notes Common ownership, i.e. communism, is a no go.

9 There is still a third way of living: that is for those who practice voluntary poverty to live from the labor of their hands. Indeed, this was the way of life followed by the Apostle Paul, and he recommended his practice to others by his example and by his teaching. For it is stated in 2 Thessalonians (3:8-10): “Neither did we eat any man’s bread for nothing, but in labor and toil we worked night and day, lest we should be chargeable to any of you. Not as if we had not power, but that we might give ourselves a pattern unto you, to imitate us. For also, when we were with you, this we declared to you, that, if any man will not work, neither let him eat.” But even this way of living does not seem to be appropriate.

10 As a matter of fact, manual labor is necessary for the support of life, because by it anything may be acquired. Now, it seems foolish for a man to give away what is needed and then to work to get it again. If, then, it is necessary after the adoption of voluntary poverty again to acquire by manual labor that by which a man may support himself, it was useless to give up all that he had for the support of life.

11 Again, voluntary poverty is counseled, so that a person may be disposed by it to follow Christ in a better way, because be is freed by it from worldly concerns. But it seems to require greater concern for a person to get his food by his own labor than for him to use what he possesses for the support of his life, and especially if he has possessions of modest size, or that are capable of being moved, from which something would be available to provide for the needs of life. Therefore, to live by the labor of one’s hands does not seem to be suitable to the intention of those embracing voluntary poverty.

12 Added to this is the fact that even our Lord, while taking away from his disciples solicitude for earthly things, in the parable of the birds and the lilies of the field seems to forbid them manual labor. For He says: “Behold the birds of the air, for they neither sow, nor do they reap nor gather into barns”; and again: “Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they labor not, neither do they spin” [Mat. 6:26-28].

13 Moreover, this way of life seems inadequate. In fact, there are many who desire perfection of life, for whom neither the ability nor the skill is available to enable them to spend their lives in manual labor, because they are neither brought up, nor informed, in such pursuits. Indeed, in this case, country people and workmen would be in a better position to embrace perfection of life than those who have devoted themselves to the pursuit of wisdom, but who have been reared in wealth and comfort, which they have left behind for the sake of Christ. It is also possible for some who embrace voluntary poverty to become disabled or to be otherwise prevented from the possibility of working. So, in such a case, they would become destitute of the necessities of life.

14 Again, the labor of no small amount of time is requisite for gaining the necessities of life; this is obvious in the case of many who devote all their time to it, yet hardly manage to make an adequate living. Now, if it were necessary for followers of voluntary poverty to make their living by manual labor, the result would be that they might take up the greater part of their lives in this kind of work; consequently, they would be kept away from other, more necessary activities, such as the pursuit of wisdom, and teaching, and other such spiritual exercises. In this way, voluntary poverty would be an impediment to perfection of life rather than a disposition helpful to it.

15 Moreover, if someone says that manual labor is necessary in order to avoid idleness, this is not an adequate objection to the argument. For it would be better to avoid idleness by occupations under the moral virtues, in which riches serve an instrumental role, for instance, in giving alms and things like that, rather than by manual labor. Besides, it would be futile to counsel poverty simply because men who have become poor would refrain from idleness and devote their lives to manual labors, unless it were done in such a way that they could devote themselves to more noble activities than those which are customary in the ordinary lives of men.

16 But, if someone says that manual labor is necessary for the mastering of fleshly concupiscences, this is not a pertinent objection. Our question is: whether it is necessary for followers of voluntary poverty to make their living by manual labor. Besides, it is possible to control the concupiscences of the flesh in many other ways, namely, by fasting, vigils, and other such practices. Moreover, they could use manual labor for this purpose even if they were rich and did not need to work to gain a living.

17 Then, there is still a fourth way of living: that is, the followers of voluntary poverty may live on the goods which are offered them by others, who, while keeping their own wealth, wish to make a contribution to this perfection of voluntary poverty. And it seems that our Lord and His disciples practiced this way of life, for we read in Luke (8:2-3) that certain women followed Christ and “ministered to Him out of their substance.” However, even this way of life does not seem proper.

18 For it does not seem reasonable for a person to part with his own goods and then live off another man.

19 Besides, it seems improper for a person to take from another and make no repayment to him, for, in giving and receiving, the equality of justice should be observed. But it can be maintained that some of those recipients who live on the bounty of others may render some sort of service to these others. This is why ministers of the altar, and preachers who supply the people with teaching and other divine services, are observed accepting, not inappropriately, the means of livelihood from them. “For the workman is worthy of his meat,” as the Lord says in Matthew (10:10). For which reason, the Apostle says in 1 Corinthians (9:13-14) that “the Lord ordained that they who preach the gospel should live by the gospel… just as they who work in the holy place eat the things that are of the holy place.” So, it seems improper for those who serve the people in no special function to take the necessities of life from the people.

Notes That “meat” is often translated “food” or “provisions”. I don’t know enough old Greek to know what’s best. But King James uses “meat”.

20 Again, this way of living seems to be a source of loss to others. For there are people who, of necessity, must be supported by the benefactions of others and who cannot provide for themselves because of poverty and sickness. The alms received by them must be decreased if those who embrace poverty voluntarily have to be supported on the gifts of others, because there are not enough men, nor are men much inclined, to support a great number of poor people. Consequently, the Apostle commands in 1 Timothy (5:16) that, if anyone have a widow related to him, “let him minister to her, that the Church may be sufficient for them that are widows indeed.” So, it is improper for men who choose poverty to take over this way of living.

21 Besides, freedom of mind is absolutely necessary for perfection in virtue, for, when it is taken away, men easily become “partakers of other men’s sins” (see 1 Tim. 5:22), either by evident consent, or by flattering praise, or at least by pretended approval. But much that is prejudicial to this freedom of mind arises from the aforesaid way of life; indeed, it is not possible for a man not to shrink from offending a person on whose bounty be lives. Therefore, the way of life under discussion is a hindrance to perfection of virtue, which is the purpose of voluntary poverty. Thus, it does not seem to suit those who are voluntarily paupers.

Notes We now see how journalists go wrong.

22 Moreover, we do not control what depends on the will of another person. But what a giver gives of his own goods depends on his will. So, insufficient provision is made for the control of their means of livelihood by voluntary paupers living in this way.

23 Furthermore, paupers who are supported by the gifts of others have to reveal their needs to others and beg for necessities. Now, this kind of begging makes mendicants objects of contempt, and even nuisances. In fact, men think themselves superior to those who have to be supported by them, and many give with reluctance. But those who embrace perfection of life should be held in reverence and love, so that men may more readily imitate them and emulate their state of life. Now, if the opposite happens, even virtue itself may be held in contempt. Therefore, to live by begging is a harmful way of life for those who embrace poverty voluntarily for the sake of perfect virtue.

Notes Anybody who’s been accosted by “professional” street beggers knows the truth of this.

24 Besides, for perfect men, not only evils must be avoided, but even things that have an appearance of evil, for the Apostle says in Romans 12:17 (1 Thes. 5:22): “From all appearance of evil refrain yourselves.” And the Philosopher says [Ethics IV, 9] that the virtuous man should not only avoid disgraceful actions, but also those which appear disgraceful. Now, mendicancy has the appearance of an evil, since many people beg because of greed. Therefore, this way of life should not be adopted by perfect men.

25 Moreover, the counsel of voluntary poverty was given in order that man’s mind might be withdrawn from solicitude for earthly things and more freely devoted to God. But this way of living by begging requires a great deal of solicitude; in fact, there seems to be greater solicitude involved in getting things from others than in using what is one’s own. So, this way of living does not seem appropriate for those taking on voluntary poverty.

26 Now, if anyone wants to praise mendicancy because of its humility, he would seem to be speaking quite unreasonably. For humility is praised because earthly exaltation is held in contempt, and it consists in riches, honors, renown, and things like that; but it is not praised for contemning the loftiness of virtue, in regard to which we should be magnanimous. So, it would contribute to the bad repute of humility if anyone in the name of humility did anything derogatory to the higher character of virtue. But mendicancy is derogatory to it: both because “it is better to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35) and because it has the appearance of something disgraceful, as we said. Therefore, mendicancy should not be praised because of its humility.

27 There have been some, finally, who asserted that followers of perfection in life should have no concern at all, either to beg, or to work, or to keep anything for themselves, but that they should look to God alone for the support of life-because of what is said in Matthew (6:25): “Be not solicitous for your life, what you shall eat or drink, nor for your body, what you shall put on”; and later: “Be not solicitous for tomorrow” (Mat. 6:24). Now, this seems completely unreasonable.

28 Indeed, it is foolish to wish for an end, and then to neglect the things that are related to the end. But human solicitude is related to the end of eating, for by it one obtains food for oneself. So, those who cannot live without eating ought to have some concern about obtaining food.

29 Besides, solicitude for earthly things need not be avoided, unless it hinders the contemplation of eternal matters. But a man endowed with mortal flesh cannot live unless he does many things whereby contemplation is interrupted, things like sleeping, eating, and other such actions. Therefore, solicitude for the necessities of life is not to be set aside on this basis, that it is an impediment to contemplation.

30 Moreover, there is a marvelously absurd consequence. For, on the same reasoning, one could say that he does not wish to walk, or to open his mouth to eat, or to avoid a falling stone or a Plunging sword, but would rather wait for God to do something. This is to tempt God. Therefore, solicitude for the means of living is not to be rejected entirely.


  1. Michael Dowd

    St. Paul says:
    “Now we command you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, to keep away from any brother who leads an undisciplined life that is not in keeping with the tradition you received from us. 7For you yourselves know how you ought to imitate us, because we were not undisciplined among you, 8nor did we eat anyone’s food without paying for it. Instead, in labor and toil, we worked night and day so that we would not be a burden to any of you.…

  2. C-Marie

    Voluntary poverty does not necessarily give rise to the right of the stopping of supporting oneself and anyone rightly dependent upon oneself.

    Regarding the lilies….Jesus was saying that we are to trust God for our needs…as we obey His commandments with our hearts….for that is what the lilies do…They do that for which they were created, and so are we supposed to do.

    Also, when Jesus said for us to not worry about tomorrow, He was saying the same….do not worry, for doing God’s will brings provisions from Him.

    As for those who sold houses and lands, we have no knowledge if all of those who were selling were men with no dependents, married couples in agreement to sell, people selling their extra lands and houses, etc.

    ” I robbed other churches by taking wages from them to serve you; 9and when I was present with you and was in need, I was not a burden to anyone; for when the brethren came from Macedonia they fully supplied my need, and in everything I kept myself from being a burden to you, and will continue to do so. ”
    2 Corinthians 11: 8-9.

    So, Paul did receive support at times from the church when needed.

    Plus, why does not St. Aquinas write that Jesus Christ Himself was a physical laborer as a carpenter??? But granted, Jesus did not do carpentry once His ministry began because that was not God’s call for Him.

    The answer to voluntary poverty is that each person seek God’s plan for their own life, and live it. That is true voluntary poverty, the recognition and acceptance of God’s Love for us which He fully expressed in the Gospel of John, for the better one knows God our Father, the less hold the world and all of its attractions has on one.

    ” 16“For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish, but have eternal life. 17“For God did not send the Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world should be saved through Him. 18“He who believes in Him is not judged; he who does not believe has been judged already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God. 19“And this is the judgment, that the light is come into the world, and men loved the darkness rather than the light; for their deeds were evil. 20“For everyone who does evil hates the light, and does not come to the light, lest his deeds should be exposed. 21“But he who practices the truth comes to the light, that his deeds may be manifested as having been wrought in God.” John 3: 16-21.

    God bless, C-Marie

  3. Are we ignoring that Tthis is what the Bible god/Jesus commands or did:

    Kills the firstborn humans and animals of the entire Egyptian nation and commanded that the event is celebrated yearly as Passover. (Exodus 12; 14; Romans 9:17)

    Dwarfs, people with flat noses, those lame, with broken feet, unrounded corners of beards, and all people other than one race, the Jews (who, not so coincidentally wrote the Bible words), are in disfavor. (Leviticus 21; 29; Numbers 14:2)

    People are condemned for ten generations if they have mutilated sex organs or are of illegitimate birth. (Deuteronomy 23:1-)

    Kills people for making an ointment, burning incense, taking a census (75,000 slaughtered), for not cutting the ends of young boys’ penises off, or eating fat. (Exodus 30:33; 2 Chronicles 26:19-;1Chronicles 21; Torah)

    50,000 threescore and ten men are killed for looking in a box. (1Samuel 6:19)

    Children were forced to wander and die in a wilderness for forty years because of the sins of the parents. (Numbers 14:33)

    Killing unbelievers is commanded. (Deuteronomy 13; 2 Kings 10)

    Children and their children, and a king who burned incense were condemned to leprosy. (2 Chronicles 26:19-)

    Orders that young boys who disobey their parents or curse them be stoned to death. (Exodus 21:17; Deuteronomy 21:18-21)

    Starved people, opened the earth to swallow them when they desired to eat, and then sent a plague to kill 14,700 more who complained about it. (Numbers 16)

    Killed people for working or gathering sticks on the Sabbath, and for profaning it. (Numbers 15:32-36: Exodus 31:14,15)

    Induced snakes to bite people and sent bears out of the woods to tear apart forty-two children who called a man “baldhead.” (Jeremiah 8:18; 2 Kings 2:23,24)

    Sent a famine that forced people to eat their children, and beheaded seventy innocent sons and put their heads in a pile as a lesson. (2 Kings 6:28-)

    Tells men to kill their wives (even if pregnant), children, and friends if they disagree with them on religion, commands no mercy be given and is wrathful if lives are spared. (Deuteronomy 13:6-; Exodus 32:27)

    Condoned Jael lying to a man and driving a tent peg into his temple while he slept. (Judges 4:17-21)

    Is partial to one race and keeps them in good graces if they commit murder, bash babies to the ground, and rip open pregnant women. (Exodus 22:20; Hosea 13:16; Joshua 10:1-42; 1 Samuel 15:3)

    Condones the practice of incest, adultery, genocide, sexism, keeping concubines (300 for Solomon), keeping and beating slaves (with the only limitation being to not injure their eyes or teeth). (Genesis 19; 20; 28; 29; Exodus 21; . . . throughout Torah)

    Commands the killing of adulterers and non-virgins brought to marriage. (Deuteronomy 22:20-)

    Commanded Jews to slaughter entire cities and to steal all their goods, kill and maim the animals, but keep alive the young virgin maidens to rape for their pleasure. (Deuteronomy 2:34; 3:6; 13; Judges 21; Numbers 31)

    Equates love with having himself in the form of Jesus sacrificially tortured to death. Guilt for this is collectivized by demanding that all people be responsible for the torture that was necessary to make amends for an original sin for which all humans but Adam and Eve had no part, but for which all of humanity is condemned to eternal torture in hell if they don’t agree. (Genesis 3; Romans 5:12,14;1John 1:8-10).

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