New Course: Concepts Made Clear

“Now to cultivate something is to devote one’s attention to it. And we can cultivate something in two ways: either to make what is cultivated better, as we cultivate a field… or to make ourselves better by the cultivating, and in this way we cultivate wisdom.”
Thomas Aquinas, Commentary on the Gospel of St. John

Some can still remember when countless ‘ghettoes’ or other low-income areas were meticulously maintained. Edged lawns, flowers in window boxes, white-washed walls, tidy tool sheds, bikes and toys in good repair. There was a place for everything, and these modest homes and neighborhoods fairly shone with the pride and worldview of the inhabitants.

They didn’t have the money to pay someone to take care of things, and they didn’t need it. These people took care of things themselves.

By nature the human person is a cultivator. He is inclined to devote his attention to things—in order to take care of them. Somehow herein in his identity. But then, we can forget ourselves and forsake this identity. We can also work to rediscover and enact it.

Aquinas makes a characteristically revelatory distinction. ‘Cultivation’ can aim directly at two things: improving what is cultivated (as in cultivating a field), or improving the one cultivating (as in cultivating virtues). Here we should think in terms of an old dictum: distinguish in order to unite. Seeing the real distinction of two kinds of cultivation, we can discover how they can and should come together.

Cultivating fields, and many other such things, is a means also to cultivating the soul. By an amazing and unalterable order, the practice of taking good care of things is a path to become a better person.

The Latin verb ‘to cultivate’ (colere; past participle, cultus) stands at the root of some very important words, such as culture and cult (in the sense of worship). There are varied and beautiful ways that human persons ‘take care’ of things—including other people. And in this taking care, this cultivation, they in fact also take care of themselves. They become more practiced and ready for ever deeper cultivation, and for cult.

As summer comes on, two resolutions might be worth considering. First, we can look with news eyes at the material reality of our home, inside and outside. We can choose to make it an object of cultivation, of intentional care. Perhaps it is repairing, renovating, or beautifying, or simply keeping things more tidy. We might not change the whole neighborhood. But who knows what might start with our well-cared for home, especially by the work of our and our loved ones hands.

Second, we can assume the approach of a craftsman, a cultivator, in all that we do. Not a matter of this or that specific art, at root this is an inner attitude: an approach that can form even the little things. We put things away, do things carefully, make things that will last; we take the extra effort to attend to the details. Because in the end, we are cultivators, not simply of soils, but of souls.

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