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St Thomas Aquinas on the Value of Self Love, and Its Place in Airline Safety Protocols

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Last week, I traveled by air for the first time since the lockdown. The process was just as unexciting as I recalled from before, and if anything even duller, as the wearing of masks gave me a heightened sense of being anonymous cargo, for all the efforts made by the airline staff. The occasion was a lesson to me, however, that even in the most ordinary of situations, little inspirations can be sent our way. In the course of the flight, I noticed a very practical application of the hierarchy of loves as outlines by St Thomas Aquinas.

I recently learned that according to St Thomas there is a hierarchy of loves. The hierarchy was at first sight as a surprise to me. In the Summa Theologica (II-II, Qu 26), he tells us that we must love God first, then ourselves, then our neighbor, and then our body.

It made sense to me that we love God first, for our love of God is simultaneously the acceptance of God’s love, and until we do that we are incapable of giving love to others. This I understood from Benedict XVI’s Deus caritas est in his description of the dynamic of the two loves, eros and agape. Eros is the ordered acceptance of love from another, and agape, the ordered gift of love to another. However, I was surprised by the ordering after that puts self before neighbor, and then our bodies last. In his explanation in Article 4, St Thomas explains that the ‘self’ refers to our spiritual nature, and the ‘body’ refers to our corporeal nature.
In practice, a combination of these loves is almost always occurring simultaneously, it occurs to me. So if one lays down his life for love of neighbor or God, as a martyr or a soldier might when acting virtuously, then he is sacrificing his body for the greater glory of God, or for the good of his neighbor respectively, but in so doing he saves his soul. This being the case, he is not only sacrificing his body for the sake of his spiritual soul, but for his whole self – body, and soul. For, if our souls are saved, then our bodies will be restored to us in heaven too. The loss of the body is only temporary.
Accordingly, we ought not to sacrifice our souls for the sake of the body. To be alive in this world is to face daily the temptation to do so, and so in many ways, this temptation to sin that this inversion of the hierarchy of loves represents, epitomizes the whole struggle for salvation. Put another way, if I save my soul, I save my body too, ultimately; but if I save your bodies at the expense of my soul, then I am damned.
This is not to say that we should despise the body. This is a hierarchy of loves, after all. We should love our bodies as the temple that houses the Holy Spirit. And sometimes we must save our bodies in order to be able to act lovingly for others. That virtuous soldier, for example, must first be in the peak of physical fitness in order to be able to fight well.
A symbol of this hierarchy of loves struck me as the flight the attendants took us through the standard description of the safety procedures. As usual, most of the words floated past me… “you will find the exits here, here and here” and so on. However, at the part where it described the protocol, we should follow if the air cabin pressure is reduced it occurred to me that this was ordered to a hierarchy of loves.
You will probably recall, the passengers are told that in the event of low pressure, oxygen masks will come down from above. The instructions are to put your own mask on before you help anyone else to theirs, even children.
The point, of course, is that I can’t help someone else if I am unconscious, so I must take air first. The first action here is the acceptance of the air which, in this little scenario, I thought, symbolizes the breath of the Spirit. Then once I draw this in, I am in a position to help others. And the loving action at this point is to direct those close to us first to their source of life, their ‘spirit’, and that means to help them to their oxygen mask.
 A plane from the airline of choice of St Thomas Aquinas whose in-house Thomists first developed the now-standard airline safety protocol…perhaps?


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