The cartoon showed Smith in a nineteenth century London club glowering while informing another member, “It’s new story by that Dickens fellow — about a worthy banker named Scrooge who finally degenerates into a sentimental weakling.” Harry Truman once remarked he was pleased that he was smart enough to understand Shafer’s points in his humor.
Anyway, a thing frequently overlooked in characterizations of Uncle Ebenezer is his fundamental honesty. Even the great film version by Alastair Sim (1951) hinted that Scrooge’s scrupulous rectitude might not be all that it should be.
|"Dishonest? Try rediscounting a bill if you're word's not good!"|
This is a pity, for the story loses a great deal if we ignore one of the main points Dickens was making. By worldly standards, Scrooge was a good man. Dickens was quite clear about that. As he said on the first page, “Scrooge's name was good upon ’Change for anything he chose to put his hand to.”
Dickens in fact went out of his way to make certain the reader understood that essential fact about his hero. If Scrooge said something, you could bank on it — literally.
This is key to the story, for if Scrooge said he had been visited by three spirits (plus Marley's), it had to be true. After all, if you were approached by someone whom you knew to be a cheat and a liar and who prated that he was now a completely changed character because he had been visited by three spirits and the ghost of a former associate, would you want to do business with him, or even turn your back?
No, you’d keep a tighter grip on your wallet or purse.
|"Mankind was my business!"|
Dickens’s point in A Christmas Carol — at least as we see it — is not that Scrooge is evil so much as incomplete. He is a good man of business (as was his partner Jacob Marley), but that’s all he was.
And that brings us to the point of our story, and the relevance of Dickens’s tale to social and economic justice. Just as being a good man means more than being a good man of business who is honest to a fault, being socially just means more than being individually just and charitable, even on a grand scale.
Fortunately, understanding the distinction between individual virtue and social virtue doesn’t require visits from three spirits and a dead business partner (although it might take that to wake up some people!). All it needs is a decent grasp of Pope Pius XI’s breakthrough in moral philosophy.
The key to understanding Pius XI’s development of a doctrine of social virtue was his theory of how the human person gains direct access to the common good. It is actually fairly straightforward once the basic premise is understood.
|Individual virtue is direct, social virtue is indirect.|
In Pius XI’s thought, traditional individual virtues benefit individuals directly, and society indirectly. Social virtues, on the other hand, benefit society directly, but individuals indirectly.
Through acts of social virtue, human persons can effect necessary changes directly in the social environment — “the system” — conforming the institutions of the common good more closely to human nature. This establishes and maintains the proper environment for the acquisition and development of virtue. People can more easily become more fully human, because the system encourages them to become virtuous.
Pius XI realized that it is possible to bring the human person together with others in solidarity. Significantly, solidarity is not a mere feeling, but acceptance and internalization of the principles that define a group as that specific group.
Through organized action directed at building or perfecting the common good, people can secure their natural rights and restructure institutions to conform to human nature as far as possible. The work of social justice never ends, because institutions as human creations can never be perfect.
|Took a few things for granted.|
This is in sharp contrast to the principles of socialism that seek to absorb or subsume the human person into the State or collective. Socialism tries to change human nature by abolishing natural rights and conforming it to “ideal” institutions as defined by some élite.
Leo XIII’s program in Rerum Novarum took for granted what individualists and collectivists alike did not even consider possible: that people can directly access and reform the common good. Pius XI’s breakthrough in moral philosophy was the recognition of social justice as a particular virtue directed to the common good with a defined act of its own. This resolved one of the major difficulties with the social program (as distinct from the social doctrine) of Leo XIII.
Building on Leo XIII’s thought in this manner was a major advance in developing a sound theory of personalism consistent with natural law and Aristotelian-Thomist philosophy. Personalism being any school of thought or intellectual movement that focuses on the reality of the human person and each person’s unique dignity, it demands that the institutions of the common good be equally accessible by every natural person, i.e., by every human being, and thus that every person have power.
|George Mason: Life, Liberty, Private Property|
Full and direct access to the common good in turn requires more than every person being able to exercise the full spectrum of the classic individual virtues (specified in Thomism as the natural virtues of prudence, temperance, fortitude, and justice, and the supernatural virtues of faith, hope, and charity) and rights. (The natural rights of life, liberty, and private property) This is because individual virtues and rights only grant indirect access to the common good. A holistic understanding of rights and virtues at both the individual and social levels, however, requires that each person have direct access to the common good and all its institutions through the free exercise of the social virtues, especially social charity and social justice.
Two factors seem to have kept people from understanding the social virtues as something distinct from the individual virtues. First and foremost is the failure to realize that the social virtues are not directed to individual goods or natural persons at all.
Social virtues (acts or habits) are directed to the “objects” of the common good and “artificial persons” — institutions that affect persons. Second, the efficient cause or subject (that which carries out the act of a virtue) of both individual virtue and social virtue is the human person.
|Father William J. Ferree, S.M., Ph.D.|
There is, however, a difference between the efficient cause of an individual virtue and that of a social virtue. Where the efficient cause (that which carries out the act) of an individual virtue is the individual person as an individual, the efficient cause of a social virtue is the individual person as a member of a group. As Father William Ferree explained,
It is surely nothing new to suggest that man is the efficient cause of the act of social justice; but something that has not been sufficiently adverted to is that only the member of a group is capable of such an act. A completely isolated individual [e.g., Ebenezer Scrooge] cannot practice social justice, even though he be a man in possession of all his powers. . . . All men, utterly regardless of any theories Aristotle may have had about foreigners, resident aliens, slaves, mechanics, and laborers, are efficient causes of social justice, insofar as they can perform any act of virtue, i.e., be in possession of the “use of reason” and exercise of their will. (Rev. William J. Ferree, S.M., Ph.D., The Act of Social Justice. Washington, DC: The Catholic University of America Press, 1942 (© 1943), 194-195.)
Pius XI’s social doctrine thereby solved one of the most serious problems of modern life: the powerlessness and thus alienation of the human person from society — but with one critical omission. Social justice and its commanded act told precisely the theoretical who, what, when, where, and why, but it left the practical how incomplete.
|"God bless us, every one!"|
And that was Scrooge's problem. It wasn't that being a good man of business was bad, but it was incomplete. As Marley said to Scrooge when the latter pointed out that Jacob had been a “good man of business” and was applying that virtue to himself, “Mankind was my business!” Yes, but making humanity your business does not mean giving up your personal business. As Pius XI built into his social doctrine, human beings are both individual and social, a unique combination we call political.
Thus, when Scrooge reformed, he didn’t give up his business, but became a member of the human race, a good man as well as a good man of business . . . and still kept his word as honestly as he always had, and then some. Scrooge had pledged his word to reform, and you could count on him to keep it, both the letter and (if you’ll pardon the expression) the spirit:
Scrooge was better than his word. He did it all, and infinitely more; and to Tiny Tim, who did not die, he was a second father. He became as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man, as the good old city knew, or any other good old city, town, or borough, in the good old world. Some people laughed to see the alteration in him, but he let them laugh, and little heeded them; for he was wise enough to know that nothing ever happened on this globe, for good, at which some people did not have their fill of laughter in the outset; and knowing that such as these would be blind anyway, he thought it quite as well that they should wrinkle up their eyes in grins, as have the malady in less attractive forms. His own heart laughed: and that was quite enough for him.
He had no further intercourse with Spirits, but lived upon the Total Abstinence Principle, ever afterwards; and it was always said of him, that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge. May that be truly said of us, and all of us! And so, as Tiny Tim observed, God Bless Us, Every One!