Front Page Titles (by Subject) QUESTION LXXIII.: OF THE COMPARISON OF SIN WITH SIN. - Aquinas Ethicus: or, the Moral Teaching of St. Thomas, vol. 1 (Summa Theologica - Prima Secundae, Secunda Secundae Pt.1)
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QUESTION LXXIII.: OF THE COMPARISON OF SIN WITH SIN. - St. Thomas Aquinas, Aquinas Ethicus: or, the Moral Teaching of St. Thomas, vol. 1 (Summa Theologica - Prima Secundae, Secunda Secundae Pt.1) 
Aquinas Ethicus: or, the Moral Teaching of St. Thomas. A Translation of the Principal Portions of the Second part of the Summa Theologica, with Notes by Joseph Rickaby, S.J. (London: Burns and Oates, 1892).
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OF THE COMPARISON OF SIN WITH SIN.
Article I.—Are all sins connected one with another?
R. A person acting according to virtue in pursuance of reason, has a different intention from the person who sins and wanders wide of reason. For the intention of every one who acts according to virtue is to follow the rule of reason; and therefore intention in all virtues makes for the same point; and on this account all the virtues have a common connexion one with another in a right method of conduct, which is prudence. But the intention of him who sins is not to recede from what is according to reason, but rather to tend to some desirable good, from whence the sin has its species. But these sort of goods to which the intention of the sinner tends when it recedes from reason, are different, mutually unconnected, nay, sometimes even contrary. Since therefore vices and sins are specified according to the objects to which they turn, it is manifest that sins have no connexion one with another. For sin is not committed by passing from multitude to unity, which transition is made in virtues, and causes their connexion; but rather by receding from unity to multitude.1
§ 1. St. James (ii. 10) speaks of sin, not on the part of the turning to the good that perishes, on which is founded the distinction of sins, but on the part of the turning from the good that perishes not, inasmuch as man by sinning recedes from the commandment of the law. Now all the commandments of the law are from one and the same lawgiver; and therefore the same God is despised in every sin; and in this respect the text says that “whosoever shall offend in one point is become guilty of all:” because in committing one sin he incurs a debt of punishment by slighting God; and it is from the slight put upon God that the debt of punishment in all sins is grounded.
Article II.—Are all sins equal?
It was the opinion of the Stoics that all sins are equal. They were led to it by considering sin merely as a privation, or a departure from reason: hence absolutely reckoning that no privation admitted of more or less, they laid it down that all sins were equal. But looking at the matter carefully, we find two sorts of privations. There is one absolute and pure privation, which consists, so to speak, in destruction as an accomplished fact; and such privations do not admit of more or less, because there is nothing left of the opposite habit. Thus a man is not less dead the first day after death, and on the third or fourth, than a year after, when the corpse is fallen to decomposition; and the house is not more dark if the light is covered with many screens, than if it is covered with one only screen enough to cut off all the light. But there is another privation, not absolute, but retaining something of the opposite habit: which privation consists rather in a process of destruction than in destruction as an accomplished fact. Thus sickness is a privation of the due commixture of the humours, yet so that something of that commixture remains, else the animal would not keep alive; and so of ugliness and the like. Privations of this sort admit of more or less on the part of what remains of the contrary habit. So of vices and sins: the privation of due reasonableness that they carry with them does not go the length of a total eclipse of the order of reason: for the substance of the act, or affection of the agent, could not endure unless there were something left of the order of reason. And therefore it makes a great difference to the gravity of the sin, whether the departure from right reason be more or less; as it makes a great difference in point of sickness or ugliness, how far the departure from the due commixture of the humours or due proportion of the limbs extends. Thus not all sins are equal.
Article III.—Does the gravity of sins vary with their objects?
R. Because sins have their species from their objects, the difference of gravity considered in the objects is the first and principal difference, as following upon the species.
§ 2. It is from undue turning to some good that perishes that there ensues a turning away from the good that perishes not: which turning away makes the essence of evil. And therefore, according to the difference of objects turned to, there ensues a difference of gravity of malice in sins.
Article V.—Are sins of the flesh less culpable than sins of the spirit?
R. Sins of the spirit are more culpable than sins of the flesh. This is not to be understood as though any and every sin of the spirit were more culpable than any and every sin of the flesh; but we mean that, considering for the present this only difference of belonging to the spirit or to the flesh, sins of the spirit are graver than other sins, other conditions being equal. For this position a triple reason may be assigned. First, on the part of the subject: for spiritual sins belong to the spirit, in whose choice it rests either to turn to God or to turn away from Him; while sins of the flesh arise out of the pleasure of the fleshly appetite, to which appetite the turning to bodily good principally belongs; and therefore the sin of the flesh, as such, has more of the turning to the good that perishes, and more of positive adherence about it; but the sin of the spirit has more of the turning from the good that perishes not, from which turning away the essential element of culpability springs; and therefore the sin of the spirit, as such, has the greater culpability. A second reason may be drawn from the consideration of what it is that is sinned against; for a sin of the flesh, as such, is against the sinner’s own body, which is less to be loved in the order of charity than God and our neighbour, against whom sins of the spirit are committed; and therefore sins of the spirit, as such, are more culpable. A third reason may be drawn on the part of the motive: because the stronger the impulse to sin, the less is the sin; but sins of the flesh are committed under a stronger impulse, namely, that very concupiscence of the flesh which is born in us; and therefore the sins of the spirit, as such, are the more culpable.
Article VI.—Does the gravity of sin vary with the cause of sin?
R. Of sin, as of anything else, we observe two manner of causes: one the ordinary and proper cause of sin; and that is the mere will to sin. The greater the will to sin, the more grievous the sin. Other causes of sin may be observed, extrinsic and remote, whereby the will is inclined to sin; and over these causes we must make a further distinction. Some of them induce the will to sin, following the nature of the will itself, as does the end in view, which is the proper object of the will; and by the operation of such a cause the sin is increased: for he sins more grievously whose will is inclined to sin by the intention of a worse end. Others incline the will to sin quite beside the natural course that the will takes of itself, it being the nature of the will to move freely by its own determination according to the judgment of reason. Hence the causes that impair the judgment of reason, as ignorance, or abridge the free motion of the will, as infirmity, or violence, or fear, diminish the sin as they diminish voluntariness; so much so that, if the act be altogether involuntary, it has no longer the character of sin.
§ 2. If under the head of concupiscence is included also the motion of the will, at that rate the greater the concupiscence, the greater the sin. But if by concupiscence is meant a passion which is a movement of the concupiscible faculty, at that rate the greater the concupiscence antecedent to the judgment of reason and the motion of the will, the less is the sin: because he who sins under the incitement of greater concupiscence falls under severer temptation; hence less is imputed to him. But if this concupiscence be consequent upon the judgment of reason and the motion of the will, then the greater the concupiscence, the greater the sin. For concupiscence is sometimes heightened by the will bursting through all restraint in pursuit of its object.
Article VII.—Is sin aggravated by circumstances?
R. “It is the nature of everything to be increased by that whereby it is caused,” as the Philosopher says. But manifestly sin is caused by defect of circumstance: for one departs from the order of reason by acting in disregard of due circumstances. Hence it is manifest that it is in the nature of things for sin to be aggravated by circumstances. This happens in three ways. In one way in so far as circumstance transfers a sin to a new kind: as the sin of fornication consists in a man cohabiting with a woman who is not his wife; but by the addition of the circumstance of the woman with whom he cohabits being the wife of another, the sin is transferred to a new kind, namely, injustice, inasmuch as he takes to his own use what belongs to another; and in this way adultery is a more grievous sin than fornication. Sometimes again circumstances do not aggravate the sin by drawing it over to a new kind of sin, but by multiplying its sinfulness: as if a spendthrift gives when he ought not and to whom he ought not, he sins in a more manifold way, but in the same kind of sin as if he only gave to whom he ought not; and so his sin is more grievous, just as that sickness is more grievous which affects more parts of the body. In a third way circumstance aggravates sin by increasing the deformity that arises out of another circumstance: as taking what belongs to another constitutes a sin of theft; but the additional circumstance of taking much of another’s property will make the sin more grievous: though of itself taking much or little bears no character of good or evil.
Article VIII.—Does the gravity of sin vary with the harm that it does?1
R. There are three possible relations of harmfulness to sin. Sometimes the harm that arises out of sin is foreseen and intended, as when one does anything with a mind to harm another, as a murderer or a thief does; and then the quantity of the harm directly increases the gravity of the sin, because then the harm is of itself the object of the sin. Sometimes, again, the harm is foreseen, but not intended: as when one passing through a field to go by a short cut to commit fornication, knowingly does harm to the crop sown in the field, though not with a mind to harm it; and in this way also the quantity of damage done aggravates the sin, but indirectly, inasmuch as it comes of a will so strongly bent upon sinning that the sinner sticks not to do damage to himself or to another, which absolutely he would not wish to do. Lastly, sometimes the harm is neither foreseen nor intended; and then if the harm is only accidentally connected with the sin, it does not aggravate the sin directly: but on account of the agent’s want of consideration of the damages that might possibly follow from his action, the evil that does ensue apart from the man’s intention is imputed to him as matter of a legal penalty, if he was compassing an unlawful purpose. But if the harm follows as the natural and ordinary consequence of the act of sin, howbeit it be not intended nor foreseen, it directly aggravates the sin: because all the ordinary consequences of a sin belong in some sort to the very species of the sin: for instance, if one commits fornication in public, there results the scandal of many; and though the sinner does not intend this result, nor perchance foresee it, the sin is directly aggravated thereby.1
§ 2. Though harm done aggravates sin, it does not follow that sin is aggravated only by the harm done. The harm done aggravates sin by making the act more inordinate. Hence it does not follow that sins against our neighbour are the most grievous: for there is much greater inordinateness found in sins against God and in some sins against self. At the same time it may be observed that, though none can hurt or harm God in His substance, still men may go about to harm the things of God, as by extirpating the faith or violating what is sacred, which are most grievous sins. A man also sometimes knowingly and willingly does harm to himself, as in cases of suicide.
§ 3. The argument that seduction should be a more grievous sin than murder, as doing greater harm, is inconclusive for two reasons: first, because the murderer directly intends his neighbour’s hurt, while the fornicator who tempts the woman intends not hurt but pleasure; secondly, because the murderer is of himself a sufficient cause of the death of the body, but of the death of the soul none can be to another of himself a sufficient cause of that, because none dies the death of the soul except by his own will in sinning.
Article IX.—Does sin increase in gravity according to the condition of the person sinned against?
R. The principal ends of human acts are God, the agent himself, and his neighbour. In respect of these three ends we may distinguish a greater or less gravity in sin according to the condition of the person sinned against. First of all in respect of God, sin is more grievous by being committed against a person more united to God, whether by virtue or by office. In respect of the agent himself, it is manifest that sin is more grievous for being committed against a person more united to the sinner, by the tie of kindred, or of benefactions, or any other tie whatever: because the sin seems to be committed more against self, and to be therefore the more grievous, according to the text: “He that is evil to himself, to whom will he be good?”1 In respect of our neighbour sin is more grievous, the more persons it touches; and therefore a sin against a public personage, a king, or a prince, who bears the person of a whole multitude, is more grievous than a sin against a private individual; hence it is said expressly: “The prince of thy people thou shalt not curse.”2
§ 1. He who does an injury to a virtuous man, does what in him lies to trouble that man’s peace, both within and without. The fact that the sufferer’s inward peace is not troubled, is to be set down to his goodness; but that is no diminution of the sin of the other who does him wrong.
§ 2. The harm that a person does himself in matters subject to the dominion of his own will, as in matters of property, is less sinful: but in matters not subject to the dominion of the person’s own will, such as natural and spiritual goods, it is a more grievous sin to harm oneself than to harm another. Thus suicide is a more grievous sin than murder.
§ 3. It is no “respect of persons”1 if God punishes more severely any one who offends against persons of greater distinction: the reason being that such offence redounds to the harm of the greater number.
Article X.—Does the greatness of the person sinning aggravate the sin?
R. There are two sorts of sin. There is a sin of surprise, arising from the infirmity of human nature; and such a sin is less imputed to him who is greater in virtue, because he is less negligent in repressing such sins, of which however the infirmity of human nature does not allow him to go entirely free. Other sins there are that come of deliberation; and these sins are more imputable to any one the greater he is. And this may be for four reasons: first, because greater persons, as excelling in knowledge and virtue, can more easily resist sin: hence our Lord says, “That servant who knew the will of his lord, and did it not, shall be beaten with many stripes.”2 Secondly, for ingratitude; because every good gift whereby any man is made great is a benefit of God, to whom man is ungrateful by sinning; and in this respect any greatness above the common, even in temporal goods, aggravates the sin, according to the text: “The mighty shall be mightily tormented.”1 Thirdly, on account of the special inconsistency of the act of sin with the greatness of the person; as if a prince should violate justice, who is set up as the guardian of justice. Fourthly, on account of the example or scandal: for the sins of great people come to the knowledge of more persons, and men are more shocked thereat.
§ 3. To the objection that no one ought to reap disadvantage from a good thing—but a great man would reap disadvantage from his greatness, if his actions were the more imputable to him on that account for blame—it is to be said that the great man does not reap disadvantage from the good that he has, but from the evil use of it.
[1 ]The idea seems to be borrowed from a line of poetry quoted by Aristotle, Ethics, ii. 6: ἐσθλοὶ μὲν γὰρ ἁπλω̂ς, παντοδαπω̂ς δὲ κακοί—“Good way, narrow and one: all manner of ways of evil.” (Trl.)
[1 ]This article bears on the question of Utilitarianism. Ethics and Natural Law, pp. 183—187. (Trl.)
[1 ]This observation holds, so far as the tribunal of conscience is concerned, in all those cases, and in those alone, in which it can be truly said that the sinner wilfully failed to trouble himself about these consequences. (See q. 74. art. 5. § 1.) The exterior tribunal always presumes that a man has before his eyes the natural and ordinary consequences of his actions in doing them. (Trl.)
[1 ]Ecclus. xiv. 5.
[2 ]Exodus xxii. 28.
[1 ]Coloss. iii. 25.
[2 ]St. Luke xii. 47.
[1 ]Wisdom vi. 7.