Summary Against Modern Thought: In What Way Poverty Is Good

Summary Against Modern Thought: In What Way Poverty Is Good

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The long and complicated arguments for and against poverty continue. There are arguments that will be countered next week.


1 So, then, in order to show the truth in regard to the foregoing arguments, and what view we should take regarding poverty, we shall make a consideration of riches. As a matter of fact, external riches are necessary for the good of virtue; since by them we support our body and give assistance to other people.

Now, things that are means to an end must derive their goodness from the end. So, external riches must be a good for man; not, of course, the principal one, but as a secondary good. For the end is the principal good, while other things are good because they are ordered to the end. This is why it has seemed to some people that the virtues are the greatest goods for man, while external riches are his least important goods.

Now, things that are means to an end must be measured in accord with the requirements of the end. Therefore, riches are good, to the extent that they advance the practice of virtue, but if this measure is departed from, so that the practice of virtue is hindered by them, then they are not to be numbered among goods, but among evils. Hence, it happens to be a good thing for some people to possess riches, for they use them for the sake of virtue, but for others it is a bad thing to have them, for these people are taken away from virtue by them, either through too much solicitude or affection for them, or also because of mental pride resulting from them.

Notes We may call this the Scrooge argument. You need the riches so that when you repent you can spread it around. Otherwise the story is not so interesting.

2 However, since there are virtues of the active and the contemplative life, both types have a different need for external riches. For the contemplative virtues need them only for the support of nature, but the active virtues need them for this, and also for the helping of others with whom one must live. Hence, the contemplative life is more perfect, even on this point, for it needs fewer things.

Now, it seems proper to this kind of life for a man to devote himself entirely to divine things, which perfection the teaching of Christ urges on man. Hence, for followers of this type of perfection a very small amount of external riches suffices, that is, just the amount needed to support nature. And so, the Apostle says, in 1 Timothy (6:8): “Having food and wherewith to be covered, with these we are content.”

3 So, poverty is praiseworthy according as it frees man from the vices in which some are involved through riches. Moreover, in so far as it removes the solicitude which arises from riches, it is useful to some, namely, those disposed to busy themselves with better things. However, it is harmful to others, who, being freed from this solicitude, fall into worse occupations. Hence, Gregory says: “Often, those who have lived a life of human activities have been well occupied, but have been killed by the sword of their own retirement.”

However, in so far as poverty takes away the good which results from riches, namely, the assisting of others and the support of oneself, it is purely an evil; except in the case where the temporal help that is offered to neighbors can be compensated for by a greater good, that is, by the fact that a man who lacks riches can more freely devote himself to divine and spiritual matters. But the good of supporting oneself is so necessary that it can be compensated for by no other good, since no man should take away from himself the support of life, under the pretext of obtaining another good.

4 And so, such poverty is praiseworthy when a man is freed by it from earthly concerns and devotes himself more freely to divine and spiritual things, provided, of course, that the ability remains along with it in man to support himself in a lawful manner, for which support not many things are needed. Thus, the less one’s way of living in poverty requires of solicitude, the more praiseworthy it is.

For poverty in itself is not good, but only in so far as it liberates from those things whereby a man is hindered from intending spiritual things. Hence, the measure of its goodness depends on the manner in which man is freed by means of it from the aforementioned obstacles. And this is generally true of all external things: they are good to the extent that they contribute to virtue, but not in themselves.


  1. Michael Dowd

    Good stuff. Too bad “Pope” Francis doesn’t see it this way.

  2. Sheri

    There are a lot of determined dictators and communists out there that will not like this. Unless they are honest and admit they want equal poverty for all, that being to make everyone miserable and unable to fight back. Which is not the way Thomas here explains the plus side to poverty. (Nor the Pope, as Michael notes. He seems on the communist/dictator side in this.)

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