QUESTION 130: OF PRESUMPTION
We must now consider the vices opposed to magnanimity; and in the first
place, those that are opposed thereto by excess. These are three, namely,
presumption, ambition, and vainglory. Secondly, we shall consider
pusillanimity which is opposed to it by way of deficiency. Under the
first head there are two points of inquiry:
(1) Whether presumption is a sin?
(2) Whether it is opposed to magnanimity by excess?
Article 1: Whether presumption is a sin?
Objection 1: It seems that presumption is not a sin. For the Apostle says:
"Forgetting the things that are behind, I stretch forth [Vulg.: 'and
stretching forth'] myself to those that are before." But it seems to
savor of presumption that one should tend to what is above oneself.
Therefore presumption is not a sin.
Objection 2: Further, the Philosopher says (Ethic. i, 7) "we should not listen
to those who would persuade us to relish human things because we are men,
or mortal things because we are mortal, but we should relish those that
make us immortal": and (Metaph. i) "that man should pursue divine things
as far as possible." Now divine and immortal things are seemingly far
above man. Since then presumption consists essentially in tending to what
is above oneself, it seems that presumption is something praiseworthy,
rather than a sin.
Objection 3: Further, the Apostle says (2 Cor. 3:5): "Not that we are
sufficient to think anything of ourselves, as of ourselves." If then
presumption, by which one strives at that for which one is not
sufficient, be a sin, it seems that man cannot lawfully even think of
anything good: which is absurd. Therefore presumption is not a sin.
On the contrary, It is written (Ecclus. 37:3): "O wicked presumption,
whence camest thou?" and a gloss answers: "From a creature's evil will."
Now all that comes of the root of an evil will is a sin. Therefore
presumption is a sin.
I answer that, Since whatever is according to nature, is ordered by the
Divine Reason, which human reason ought to imitate, whatever is done in
accordance with human reason in opposition to the order established in
general throughout natural things is vicious and sinful. Now it is
established throughout all natural things, that every action is
commensurate with the power of the agent, nor does any natural agent
strive to do what exceeds its ability. Hence it is vicious and sinful, as
being contrary to the natural order, that any one should assume to do
what is above his power: and this is what is meant by presumption, as its
very name shows. Wherefore it is evident that presumption is a sin.
Reply to Objection 1: Nothing hinders that which is above the active power of a
natural thing, and yet not above the passive power of that same thing:
thus the air is possessed of a passive power by reason of which it can be
so changed as to obtain the action and movement of fire, which surpass
the active power of air. Thus too it would be sinful and presumptuous for
a man while in a state of imperfect virtue to attempt the immediate
accomplishment of what belongs to perfect virtue. But it is not
presumptuous or sinful for a man to endeavor to advance towards perfect
virtue. In this way the Apostle stretched himself forth to the things
that were before him, namely continually advancing forward.
Reply to Objection 2: Divine and immortal things surpass man according to the
order of nature. Yet man is possessed of a natural power, namely the
intellect, whereby he can be united to immortal and Divine things. In
this respect the Philosopher says that "man ought to pursue immortal and
divine things," not that he should do what it becomes God to do, but that
he should be united to Him in intellect and will.
Reply to Objection 3: As the Philosopher says (Ethic. iii, 3), "what we can do by
the help of others we can do by ourselves in a sense." Hence since we can
think and do good by the help of God, this is not altogether above our
ability. Hence it is not presumptuous for a man to attempt the
accomplishment of a virtuous deed: but it would be presumptuous if one
were to make the attempt without confidence in God's assistance.
Article 2: Whether presumption is opposed to magnanimity by excess?
Objection 1: It seems that presumption is not opposed to magnanimity by
excess. For presumption is accounted a species of the sin against the
Holy Ghost, as stated above (Question , Article ; Question , Article ). But the sin
against the Holy Ghost is not opposed to magnanimity, but to charity.
Neither therefore is presumption opposed to magnanimity.
Objection 2: Further, it belongs to magnanimity that one should deem oneself
worthy of great things. But a man is said to be presumptuous even if he
deem himself worthy of small things, if they surpass his ability.
Therefore presumption is not directly opposed to magnanimity.
Objection 3: Further, the magnanimous man looks upon external goods as little
things. Now according to the Philosopher (Ethic. iv, 3), "on account of
external fortune the presumptuous disdain and wrong others, because they
deem external goods as something great." Therefore presumption is opposed
to magnanimity, not by excess, but only by deficiency.
On the contrary, The Philosopher says (Ethic. ii, 7; iv, 3) that the
"vain man," i.e. a vaporer or a wind-bag, which with us denotes a
presumptuous man, "is opposed to the magnanimous man by excess."
I answer that, As stated above (Question , Article , ad 1), magnanimity
observes the means, not as regards the quantity of that to which it
tends, but in proportion to our own ability: for it does not tend to
anything greater than is becoming to us.
Now the presumptuous man, as regards that to which he tends, does not
exceed the magnanimous, but sometimes falls far short of him: but he does
exceed in proportion to his own ability, whereas the magnanimous man does
not exceed his. It is in this way that presumption is opposed to
magnanimity by excess.
Reply to Objection 1: It is not every presumption that is accounted a sin against
the Holy Ghost, but that by which one contemns the Divine justice through
inordinate confidence in the Divine mercy. The latter kind of
presumption, by reason of its matter, inasmuch, to wit, as it implies
contempt of something Divine, is opposed to charity, or rather to the
gift of fear, whereby we revere God. Nevertheless, in so far as this
contempt exceeds the proportion to one's own ability, it can be opposed
Reply to Objection 2: Presumption, like magnanimity, seems to tend to something
great. For we are not, as a rule, wont to call a man presumptuous for
going beyond his powers in something small. If, however, such a man be
called presumptuous, this kind of presumption is not opposed to
magnanimity, but to that virtue which is about ordinary honor, as stated
above (Question , Article ).
Reply to Objection 3: No one attempts what is above his ability, except in so far
as he deems his ability greater than it is. In this one may err in two
ways. First only as regards quantity, as when a man thinks he has greater
virtue, or knowledge, or the like, than he has. Secondly, as regards the
kind of thing, as when he thinks himself great, and worthy of great
things, by reason of something that does not make him so, for instance by
reason of riches or goods of fortune. For, as the Philosopher says
(Ethic. iv, 3), "those who have these things without virtue, neither
justly deem themselves worthy of great things, nor are rightly called
Again, the thing to which a man sometimes tends in excess of his
ability, is sometimes in very truth something great, simply as in the
case of Peter, whose intent was to suffer for Christ, which has exceeded
his power; while sometimes it is something great, not simply, but only in
the opinion of fools, such as wearing costly clothes, despising and
wronging others. This savors of an excess of magnanimity, not in any
truth, but in people's opinion. Hence Seneca says (De Quat. Virtut.) that
"when magnanimity exceeds its measure, it makes a man high-handed, proud,
haughty restless, and bent on excelling in all things, whether in words
or in deeds, without any considerations of virtue." Thus it is evident
that the presumptuous man sometimes falls short of the magnanimous in
reality, although in appearance he surpasses him.