The Life of Virtue – Clemency
A distorted form of clemency is ‘favoritism’ where a person is less demanding in relation to one he prefers than he is to one he does not love so much, but at least it shows the connection between clemency and love. The real opposite of clemency, however, is cruelty. Aquinas says that to take pleasure in the sufferings of another human being is to lack normal human affections since even at a natural level we are inclined to love, and to feel for, other human beings. To be cruel to another, therefore, is to be mad.
Clemency’s tendency to mitigate punishment when this is the reasonable thing to do aligns it with epeikeia in relation to legal justice: a virtue which enables us to know when a strict and severe application of the law would be contrary to right reason.
Here is an interesting thing: most of Aquinas’s consideration of clemency and gentleness depends on the work of the pagan philosophers Aristotle, Cicero and Seneca. Where is the teaching and example of Jesus, we might begin to wonder? In the first three articles of the question (Summa theologiae II.II 157,1-3) there are just two scriptural references, to Matthew 5:4 on the beatitude of meekness and to Galatians 5:23 on gentleness as a fruit of the Spirit. In the final article however, 157,4, what might seem like a simple endorsement of pagan morality is thrown into a completely different key. Now his authorities are biblical, with additional comments from the Christian teachers Ambrose, Augustine and Pseudo-Dionysius.
Are clemency and gentleness the greatest of virtues, Aquinas asks? Who would have thought so? Perhaps only someone who has come to know Jesus Christ, and the Father through him. Faith, hope and charity are the greatest of virtues, Thomas replies. However, among virtues that help us to resist depravity, the distortion of our souls, gentleness and clemency are the most powerful, the first because it tempers anger enabling us to be calm enough to accept the truth, and the second because it already comes close to charity, the greatest of all the virtues.
The person who is clement and gentle is merciful and so has become like the Heavenly Father. If the structure of Aquinas’s thought is taken from the great pagans, the light that animates it is the light of the love of God revealed in Jesus Christ.