The Roots of Despair

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This paper is an exploration of the Thomistic vice of despair, one of two vices opposed to the theological virtue of hope. Aquinas’s conception of despair as a vice, and a theological vice in particular, distances him from contemporary use of the term “despair” to describe an emotional state. His account nonetheless yields a compelling psychological portrait of moral degeneration, which I explain via despair’s link to its “root,” the capital vice of sloth. Cases in which sloth and its offspring vices progress into full-fledged despair raise interesting issues about whether and how despair might be remediable. I conclude by considering puzzles regarding despair’s disordered effects on the intellect and will and weighing three possible means of remedying it. My purpose in this paper is to understand despair—despair, that is, in its technical Thomistic sense, as a vice opposed to the theological virtue of hope. Aquinas’s conception of despair as a vice, and a theological vice in particular, distances him from contemporary use of the term “despair” to describe an emotional state. Nonetheless, his account yields a compelling psychological portrait of moral degeneration and raises interesting issues about whether and how despair might be remediable. In this paper, my focus will be to explain despair’s link to its “root,” the capital vice of sloth. The conclusions I draw will thus be my attempt to reconstruct Aquinas’s view of the connection and character of these two vices. By way of preliminaries, I should be clear that I will not attempt to offer a comprehensive account of the vice of despair, and while I will be drawing from the questions on the passions in the Summa theologiae (discussed by Aquinas at ST 1–2.40), his work there will chiefly serve to illuminate despair as a vice.1 Secondly, I should note that my task is made difficult 1 Summa theologiae (1948) (hereafter ST), trans. Fathers of the English Dominican unless indicated otherwise. The Latin critical edition of all Aquinas’s works cited in this essay can be found at http://www.corpusthomisticum.org/. I will only hint at connections between Aquinas’s account to Kierkegaard’s account of despair in The Sickness Unto Death (1983) (another extensive treatment of despair as a vice by a Christian thinker), and will forego making connections to other philosophical accounts of despair, for example, those of twentieth-century existentialists.