Sunday, August 28, 2011

Matt Talbot and the Character of Christian Conversion

While the excerpt below (pages 35-37) from a journal article may, at first glance, appear intimidating if we are unfamiliar with Thomistic theory, there may still be personal value in reading it for additional information about Matt Talbot’s life and conversion.

Please note that Matt Talbot is mentioned in other sections of this article. And there is certainly value in reading the whole article to put this excerpt into greater perspective.


Michael S. Sherwin, O.P.

University of Fribourg


The Thomist 73 (2009):29-52


The example of this poor Irish laborer is of interest to us because of an event that occurred one Saturday afternoon in early 1884 outside a pub in a poor section of Dublin.(21) Talbot, who had spent the week drinking, was awaiting the arrival of his coworkers. It was payday in Dublin, and although he hadn't worked he looked forward to receiving a few free drinks from his friends. As he slouched beside the door of the pub, Matt Talbot would not have been viewed as the embodiment of the classical ideal of virtue. Indeed, Aristotle would most certainly have classified Talbot among those who "from the hour of their birth . . . are marked off for subjection."(22) In other words, Aristotle would have classified Talbot among the natural slaves, who, like beasts of burden, are incapable of virtue because of the poverty of their natural gifts and of the environments in which they were raised. Aristotle held out little hope for one raised in bad habits from birth. As he states in the Ethics, "It makes no small difference whether we form habits of one kind or of another from our very youth; it makes a very great difference, or rather all the difference."(23) Talbot had certainly been raised in bad habits from his youth. The second of twelve children, all but one of whom drank to excess, Talbot in great part received his education running free in the streets of the poor neighborhoods by the docks of Dublin. His formal education consisted of two years at a school run by the Christian Brothers, during much of which he was absent doing chores at home. In spite of whatever positive influence he may have received from school and from the example of his devout mother, by the time he was fifteen, Talbot was an inveterate drunk who lived for alcohol. For the next thirteen years, until he was twenty-eight, his daily routine was to work hard all day, and to drink hard all night. He worked to drink. On payday he would give his entire earnings to the pub manager and drink freely for as long as his wages lasted.(24)

But on that Saturday afternoon in 1884, he had no wages, because he had spent the week drinking. That fact and the events surrounding it--not the least of which was that none of his coworkers would buy him a drink--led Talbot to change his life radically. That very day he stopped drinking, never to drink again. Moreover, from a life dedicated to the love of alcohol, he turned to a life dedicated to the love of God: to prayer, sacrifice, and the service of the poor. A turning point occurred that Saturday afternoon, a metanoia, a transformation. Earlier events may have prepared the way, but that afternoon was nonetheless a recognizable turning point.

Matt Talbot's life is an example of Christian conversion and points to the incomplete character of both Aristotle's conception of virtue and of the Scotistic tradition's theory of the sufficiency of the theological virtues. Talbot would agree with Aristotle that the habits we develop from youth make a very great difference, but do they make all the difference? The Christian experience of conversion points instead to the fact that in the grace of conversion other virtues are given--virtues of which Aristotle was unaware and the existence of which the Scotists deny. Even though one may still struggle with the remaining effects of one's acquired vices, in the grace of conversion we have the infused capacity to live a life directed to a higher goal. We now have the capacity to judge rightly and do those actions that lead us to union with God in heaven. In short, we receive the infused cardinal virtues. The example of Matt Talbot is instructive because it sheds light on the complexity of the divided self: the experience of one who not only has faith, hope, and charity, but also has a new phronesis (a new capacity to reason practically) and a new dynamis (a new power) in his will and passions, even though he still feels drawn to his addiction. Talbot, for example, began to make judgments and to act in ways that radically reoriented his life toward God, judgments and actions he seemed incapable of making before his conversion. Nevertheless, he still retained, especially in the beginning, a strong desire (and inclination) to continue drinking and to return to his former way of life. Talbot's experience seems to embody Aquinas's affirmation that although sanctifying grace infuses cardinal virtues within the convert, the convert may still struggle with the residual effects of his acquired vices.(25) In what follows, I shall first sketch Aquinas's teaching on the infused cardinal virtues; I shall then propose some of the implications of this teaching for our understanding of moral development and of cases such as Matt Talbot's.