St. Thomas Aquinas is known by Catholics and non-Catholics alike as one of the greatest (if not the) greatest thinker of medieval times. His steadfast balance of contemplation and preaching led the Church to declare him a Doctor of the Catholic faith.
In his masterpiece, The Summa Theologica, Aquinas showcases his style of thinking through the strategy known as via negativa. Through this method, he takes every possible objection to truths about the faith and then scrutinizes them so as to siphon from the deposit of faith the philosophical and theological truths for his answers.
I’ve taken the liberty of using Aquinas’ via negativa strategy to lay out the arguments of how social media affects the soul.
Aquinas on Social Media’s Effect on the Soul
Secunda Tertia Pars Question 91
Article 1. Whether social media is good for the soul
Objection 1. It would seem that social media harms the soul due to its innate temptation toward narcissism on behalf of the soul that uses it. Accounts are opened willfully through the use of one’s intellect and posts are curated to provide an audience only the positive actualizations that befit one’s progress toward attaining “likes” and “followers.”
Objection 2. Such platforms create within one’s soul a higher degree of digital connectivity with other users leaving access to real-world communities ignored and, to a certain extent, avoidable. This occurring because the social media user prefers their curated digital communities over the flesh-and-blood connections, partly because of the ease that social media provides them and partly because they lack the social skills to flourish in an actual one-on-one interaction with other human beings.
Objection 3. Further, social media is said to be addictive by nature. Its constantly streaming colors and sounds appeal to the senses and create within the soul a mental dependency which overcomes the agent intellect and produces behavioral addictions based on social cravings and communal acceptance.
Objection 4. Social media is the primary source of communication for human life. Under the guise of being the most efficient, progressive, and easy way to advance ideas, humanity has degraded oration and intercommunicative operations as secondary means to articulating present realities.
On the contrary,
It is written “A good person out of the store of goodness in his heart produces good, but an evil person out of a store of evil produces evil; for from the fullness of the heart the mouth speaks” (Lk. 6:45).
I answer that, social media use and, consequently, those who use it are able to garner from it sufficient meritorious value if governed by the virtues of prudence and temperance. According to Pius VI, “The Church recognizes that these media, if properly utilized, can be of great service to mankind, since they greatly contribute to men’s entertainment and instruction as well as to the spread and support of the Kingdom of God,” and “the Church recognizes, too, that men can employ these media contrary to the plan of the Creator and to their own loss” (Inter Mirifica).
It holds then, that social media can and should be used as a unique tool to advance personal sanctification through the intake and production of content that is suitable to actualize one’s state from one potentiality to another of a higher degree. Hence, the use of social media, and by cross-activity with other platforms within the Internet, the soul can grow in knowledge, relationships, and evangelistic zeal when the content is proportioned to advance the souls sanctity.
But, one must be “wise as serpents and innocent as doves” (Mat. 10:16) when using such tools. Constant and consistent reflection of conscious can help determine if the soul’s current state is in danger of falling into any number of temptations brought upon it by the evil one. Hence, it belongs to the virtues of prudence (II-II q.47) and temperance (II-II q.141) that the soul is able to find use for the digital tools as opposed to having the tools use it.
Reply to Objection 1. Narcissism is a product of a soul who has deprived itself of pure goodness. If social media use is governed by virtuous prudence and temperance, it becomes an act of worship, a means to glorify God in both thought and deed. Such effects are the fruits of a soul who has been given the Divine grace of wisdom and right judgement.
Reply to Objection 2. Love manifests itself in a myriad of ways, but all degrees in which love is given are overshadowed by God, who “is love.” If prudence temperance rightly govern social media use, the soul’s longing for love, both through digital connectivity and flesh-and-blood interactions, will find their total reality in God. As St. Paul states, their “hearts may be encouraged as they are brought together in love, to have all the richness of fully assured understanding, for the knowledge of the mystery of God, Christ in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (Col. 2:2–3).
Reply to Objection 3. Addiction is caused by a lack of self-control in a soul. Attachment to social media is comparable to attachment to food, drink, lust, etc. Hence, St. Paul encourages ”Do not conform yourselves to this age but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and pleasing and perfect” (Rom.12:2). In avoiding sin and pursuing virtue, social media becomes a manned tool of agent intellect and not a dictator of reason.
Reply to Objection 4. As stated in I q.34 a.1, “according to the Philosopher (Peri Herm. i) vocal sound signifies the concept of the intellect. Again the vocal sound proceeds from the signification or the imagination, as stated in De Anima ii, text 90. The vocal sound, which has no signification cannot be called a word: wherefore the exterior vocal sound is called a word from the fact the it signifies the interior concept of the mind.” Since vocal words have this apparent reality, the same applies to written words and inferred meanings from pictographics. They can, therefore, be used for the betterment or detriment of one’s soul based on whether the mind from which they come is motivated by virtue or by vice.
image: A statue of St Thomas with copies of his most famous work, the Summa Theologiae, behind him. Photo by Fr. Lawrence Lew, O.P. / Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)