Front Page Titles (by Subject) QUESTION CLVI.: OF INCONTINENCE. - Aquinas Ethicus: or, the Moral Teaching of St. Thomas, vol. 2 (Summa Theologica - Secunda Secundae Pt.2)
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QUESTION CLVI.: OF INCONTINENCE. - St. Thomas Aquinas, Aquinas Ethicus: or, the Moral Teaching of St. Thomas, vol. 2 (Summa Theologica - Secunda Secundae Pt.2) 
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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Article I.—Does incontinence belong to the soul or to the body?
R. Everything is attributed rather to that which is its ordinary cause than to that which merely affords it occasion. But whatever there is on the part of the body, merely affords occasion for incontinence. It may happen from the disposition of the body that violent passions arise in the sensitive appetite; but passions, however violent, are not a sufficient cause of incontinence, but only an occasion: for while the use of reason lasts, man can always resist his passions. And therefore the ordinary cause of incontinence is on the part of the soul, which does not resist the passions by the use of reason.
§ 3. The concupiscence of the flesh in the incontinent man overcomes the spirit, not of necessity, but by some negligence of the spirit not resisting vigorously.
§ 1. Man can avoid sin and do good, not however without the divine assistance, according to the text: “Without me you can do nothing.”1 Hence man’s need of the divine assistance in order to be continent, does not exclude incontinence from being a sin, because, as is said, “What we can do by our friends, we can in a manner do of ourselves.”
Article III.—Does the incontinent man sin more than the intemperate?2
R. Sin, according to Augustine, lies principally in the will: for “it is by the will that we sin or live aright.” And therefore, where there is greater inclination of the will to sin, there is more grievous sin. But in the intemperate man the will is inclined to sin by its own choice, that proceeds from a habit acquired by custom:3 whereas in the incontinent man the will is inclined to sin by some passion. And because passion quickly passes off, whereas a habit is a quality difficult to change, it follows that the incontinent man repents at once, when the fit of passion is over, which happens not with the intemperate man: nay, the latter is even glad to have sinned, because the act of sin by habit has become connatural to him. Hence it is said of such that they “are glad when they have done evil, and rejoice in most wicked things.”4 Hence it is clear that the intemperate man is much worse than the incontinent, as the Philosopher also says.1
§ 1. Ignorance of the understanding sometimes precedes the inclination of the appetite, and causes it; and where that is the case, the greater the ignorance, the less the sin, which even may be totally excused inasmuch as ignorance causes involuntariness. In another way, conversely, ignorance on the part of the reason follows the inclination of appetite; and the greater such ignorance, the more grievous the sin, because it argues a stronger inclination of appetite. Now the ignorance as well of the incontinent as of the intemperate man arises from the fact of the appetite being inclined somehow, whether by passion as in the incontinent, or by habit as in the intemperate. But greater ignorance is hereby caused in the intemperate than in the incontinent. This appears in one way in point of duration, because in the incontinent the ignorance lasts only while the passion lasts, like the access of a fever; but the ignorance of the intemperate lasts continually on account of the permanence of the habit: hence it is likened, as the Philosopher says, to consumption or any chronic disease. There is another way in which the ignorance of the intemperate is the greater, and that is in respect of the matter of which he is ignorant. For the ignorance of the incontinent man is in respect of some particular object of choice, which he here and now takes to be worthy of choice; but the intemperate man labours under ignorance touching his very end and aim, judging it to be a good thing to yield himself to his lusts without restraint. Hence the Philosopher says that “better is the incontinent man than the intemperate, because in the former the best thing, namely, the principle, is saved,” to wit, a right estimate of the end and aim of life.
§ 2. For the cure of the incontinent mere knowledge is not sufficient, but there is required the inward aid of grace mitigating concupiscence, and also an application of the external remedy of admonition and correction; by which means the man begins to resist his passions, and such resistance weakens passion. And by the same means the intemperate man also may be cured, but his cure is more difficult for two reasons. The first is regarding his reason, which has got warped in its estimate of the final end and aim, which end and aim is in practice what a principle is in demonstrative science. But it is more difficult to bring back to the truth one who errs in a matter of principle; and in like manner in practical things, it is more difficult to bring back one who errs in respect of the end and aim of life. The second reason regards the inclination of the appetite, which in the intemperate man is a thing of habit, and that is hard to remove; but the inclination of the incontinent man comes of passion, which can be more easily repressed.
§ 3. The lust of the will, which increases the sin, is greater in the intemperate than in the incontinent. But the lust of concupiscence of the sensitive appetite is at times greater in the incontinent, who never sins except under grave concupiscence; whereas the intemperate man sins even under slight concupiscence, and at times anticipates concupiscence.
Article IV.—Is the man who is incontinent of anger, worse than him who is incontinent of concupiscence?
R. The sin of incontinence may be considered in two ways. In one way, in respect of the passion whereby reason is overcome; and in this way incontinence of concupiscence is more disgraceful than incontinence of anger, because the motion of concupiscence has a greater inordinateness than the motion of anger. And this for four reasons: first, because the motion of anger is in some way partaker in reason, inasmuch as the angry man is striving to avenge an injury done him, a course that reason in some sort dictates, yet not altogether, because he does not seek the due mode and manner of vengeance: whereas the motion of concupiscence is entirely according to sense, and nowise according to reason. Secondly, because the motion of anger follows more upon a bodily constitution prone to anger than concupiscence follows upon a bodily disposition thereto: but what comes of a physical disposition of the body is accounted more pardonable. Thirdly, because anger seeks to go to work more openly, but concupiscence seeks lurking-places and comes in by stealth. Fourthly, because under concupiscence a man acts with pleasure; but under anger he acts as it were under the coercion of an antecedent annoyance. In another way, the sin of incontinence may be considered in respect of the evil into which one falls by departing from reason; and in this way incontinence of anger is generally the more grievous, because it leads to the hurt and damage of one’s neighbour.
[1 ]St. John xv. 5.
[2 ]The intemperate man here does not mean the mere drunkard, but the man who has a confirmed habit of any or all of the vices that are directly opposed to the cardinal virtue of temperance, and who sins by habit and on principle, whereas the incontinent man sins by the impulse of one hour and is sorry for it the next. (Trl.)
[3 ]On habit and custom, see Ethics and Natural Law, p. 67. (Trl.)
[4 ]Prov. ii. 14.
[1 ]The reference is to the famous chapter of the Nicomachean Ethics, VII. viii., which chapter, with this Article of St. Thomas, well reveals the folly of the old Jansenist treatment of relapsing penitents, as though such people were all intemperate, whereas they are, most of them, merely incontinent. The intemperate man does not come to confession, except from motives of hypocrisy, when the way of the world about him takes him there. The words incontinent and intemperate here of course are used, not in their common English meaning, but in the technical sense of St. Thomas and Aristotle, for which see once more I-II. q. 58. art. 3. § 2. note. (Trl.)