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First Principle and Foundation


Ignatius’ “First Principle and Foundation” is section 23 of the Spiritual Exercises, located at the beginning of the chapter on the First Week. Although its place in the Exercises (whether or not it was intended as an explanation for the entire process) is disputed, it has become popularly recognized as an articulate expression of the boiled-down basics of Ignatian theology. This statement describes the orientation of one whose desires are aligned toward God. The theology understands that people often have “disordered affections,” which lead them away from God, and that by undergoing rigorous reflection through prayer and conversation, one can experience conversion and “order” his or her affections to be in line with God’s will. Thus, the First Principle and Foundation might be considered a statement of the meaning of (spiritual) life. It defines our freedom according to how we learn to order our desires and to love.

As printed in Saint Ignatius of Loyola: Personal Writings, translated by Joseph A. Munitiz and Philip Endean, Penguin Books, London 2004, the First Principle and Foundation reads as follows:

“The human person is created to praise, reverence and serve God Our Lord, and by so doing to save his or her soul. The other things on the face of the earth are created for human beings in order to help them pursue the end for which they are created. It follows from this that one must use other created things in so far as they help towards one’s end, and free oneself from them in so far as they are obstacles to one’s end. To do this we need to make ourselves indifferent to all created things, provided the matter is subject to our free choice and there is no prohibition. Thus as far as we are concerned, we should not want health more than illness, wealth more than poverty, fame more than disgrace, a long life more than a short one, and similarly for all the rest, but we should desire and choose only what helps us more towards the end for which we are created.” (p.289)

Theological Assumptions

Ignatius assumed a basic knowledge of Catholic doctrine in one who chooses to do the Spiritual Exercises. Although it is true that a non-Christian could complete the first week, which consists of removing distractions and bad influences in one’s life, the implicit theology in the Exercises necessitates an understanding of Christian theology in order to practice the next three weeks. We must keep in mind the Christian theological interpretation that Ignatius requires for a full appreciation of his text and the retreatant’s experience.

The First Principle and Foundation speaks first about two typical but “disordered” tendencies in human desires. Disordered affections are a two-fold result of original sin: the one rupture being between people, the other between people and God. From this theology, the other assumptions follow.

The first is our desire for either the wrong things, or good things in a wrong way. If “[t]he other things on the face of the earth are created for human beings in order to help them pursue the end for which they are created,” then we must be sure not to use objects and other people in the world for our own pride, envy, amusement, or gratification. At the same time, we must actively direct the aspects of the world outside of ourselves toward the goal to “praise, reverence and serve God Our Lord.” The person’s relationship with God is at the fore. All other things are under the person’s authority, ideally used to bring him or her closer to God; if they do not help in that capacity, they should be jettisoned from one’s life.

The second observation is that humans have an incomplete self-image; we don’t see ourselves as God does. The Exercises work to first clear away our distractions and misconceptions, so that through emotion, intellect, and the movements of the soul, we can see ourselves more in the way God does, that is, as His creatures, not to be defined by the other things He has created. “Thus as far as we are concerned, we should not want health more than illness, wealth more than poverty, fame more than disgrace, a long life more than a short one, and similarly for all the rest.” The “indifference” Ignatius proposes means the perspective of being God’s creations, not seeing ourselves as creators of anything of this world. With that supernatural understanding of ourselves and God, we can also achieve the second part of his purpose – not only to “praise, reverence and serve God our Lord,” but also to save our souls through God’s love.

The aspects of the human that Ignatius presents in the First Principle and Foundation are rooted in the basics of Christianity and a theology shared with Buddhism. The concept of the person’s “disordered affections” in need of reordering to better associate with God, though expressed with different vocabulary, is also at the heart of the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism.

Ignatius’ theology assumes an image of God that is not new, but is particularly important to the Spiritual Exercises. In the First Principle and Foundation, God is all-loving, all-powerful, all-knowing, and knows best for us. A relationship with him serves as a remedy to our natural, but flawed condition. Because we strive for the “end to which we are created” understanding ourselves in relationship with God, conversion is not a one-shot deal, but a repeatable experience. This idea is furthered in the Examen, the regular practice of which reminds us to see ourselves as God does. Ordering our “affections,” which are expressed in thought, word, and deed so that God is most important and things of the world are least important is a sort of corrective goggle for the distorted vision we have of ourselves.


The First Principle and Foundation has found a variety of translations in contemporary language to be more applicable to different audiences. Links to a few examples follow.

- “First Principle and Foundation in Contemporary Language” by John Reilly, S.J., December 15, 2006. This version is part of a daily application of the Spiritual Exercises for priests. [1]

- “Principle and Foundation” by St. Ignatius as paraphrased by David L. Fleming, S.J. This version is popular on Jesuit high school and university websites, as a modern language interpretation of Ignatius’ statement. [2]

- A 12-Step Approach to the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius by Jim Harbaugh, S.J. This book parallels the First Principle and Foundation, as well as the rest of the Spiritual Exercises, with the work of Bill Wilson, the co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous.

- “A Prayer Inspired by Ignatius’ Principle and Foundation.” This prayer converts Ignatius’ statement into a prayer relevant to one who seeks the goal for which Ignatius believes we are created – “to praise, reverence and serve God Our Lord.” [3]

Applications to contemporary Jesuit theology and institutions

The Society of Jesus is founded on a document called the Formula of the Institute, which states the order is “a society founded chiefly for this purpose: to strive especially for the defense and propagation of the faith and for the progress of souls in Christian life and doctrine.” Ignatius’ goals of devotion to God and the consolation of souls are present here in a way very similar to how they are presented in the First Principle and Foundation. The Spiritual Exercises serve as an intermediate and foundational step between Ignatius’ conversion experiences and the mission of the Society.

Jesuit universities and ministries often quote the First Principle and Foundation in conjunction with their particular mission statements as well. For example Marquette University, in Milwaukee, WI and St. Xavier High School in Cincinnati, OH have posted the statement on their mission and campus ministry websites. (See [4] and [5], respectively.) It serves well in this capacity, because it is often considered the foundation for other Jesuit values and mottos, such as “men and women for others” and “ad majorem dei gloriam.”

Posting the First Principle and Foundation as part of an institution’s mission sets high standards. An article in The University News at St. Louis University, entitled “Jesuit mission should be more than a catchphrase,” addresses the difficulty in living out a theology that can be ambiguous, and five hundred years after Ignatius, sometimes more easily expressed in words than in action ([6]).

Links for more information on the First Principle and Foundation

- “All My Liberty: Part One – Key Meditations of the Exercises: Chapter 1: Principle and Foundation of the Spiritual Life” by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J. [7]

- “Ignatian Spirituality,” Church of St. Ignatius of Loyola, Chestnut Hill, MA [8]