Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Ruminations on the Fall

A post over at Vox Nova caused me to pause and think (imagine the scene in Fellowship where Gandalf suspects the ring might be the 'One' and sits in the corner muttering and smoking). Much of the content is standard pseudo-Dionysianism; God is beyond all being, predication, affirmation, negation, etc. etc., though no one ever seems to draw the obvious conclusion from this, viz. that God is completely unknowable. Longtime readers will already know the standard Scotistic responses that I could trot out, that there is a univocal concept of being, that theology presupposes said univocal concept, that the object of the intellect is being, and so on. I was more interested in their view that the fall has corrupted human nature, even that logic has been corrupted. Not just that the human capacity to reason has been corrupted, but that 'logic' was as well (I suppose then that if Adam hadn't sinned, not only would no one ever commit a fallacy of equivocation but fallacy's of equivocation would have been valid? and in light of recent posts here, perhaps square-circles would be possible beings?).

It is interesting to note that Scotus stands as opposed to this appearance of christian platonism, if it is that, rather than some baleful influence of Luther, as he does to negative theology. He really seems to have been one of the post positive theologians of the middle ages. Forget Doctor subtilis et Marianus, we should call him the Doctor Positivus. For his view of human nature with respect to the fall seems to be summed up in the notion that what was lost by Adam's sin was rectitude in the will. There was no darkening of the intellect, weakening of nature, etc., or anything of the kind. To be sure, the preternatural gifts were lost, though perhaps only immortality. A hasty consultation of Ott's Fundamentals reveals that these in fact are the only two effects of the fall that are 'de fide' (that is, loss of immortality and sanctifying grace; the latter of these Scotus would associate with a quality in the will). This trend towards the negative and pessimistic is by no means restricted to the vox nova crowd; they are just echoing what really seems to be the common opinion of the contemporary thomist-platonist movement. I suspect this may be the root cause of the hatred (yes, I say hatred) of the Cambridge Phantasists (for our newer readers, that is our preferred name for 'radical' 'orthodoxy'), who seek to counter nihilism by embracing a negation; Scotus is their polar opposite on this as well as probably many other issues.

I will close by nuancing somewhat Scotus' positive position. Although he does not think that the fall has corrupted human nature or damaged all our natural powers, his view that being is the object of the intellect requires qualification. For if true, we would expect that since God is infinite being, and being is the object of the intellect, our intellects would be moved by God in this life. Or to put it another way, we would know everything that falls under the concept of being. Scotus denies this, and says that pro statu isto, as far as the wayfaring state is concerned, the object of the intellect is the quiddity of sensible things. He says this may be part of the punishment of original sin (punishment; still not a darkening, though it may amount to what the endarkeners mean by the term), or part of the natural concord of the powers, or merely from the will of God. Whatever the reason, it is not from the nature of the intellect as intellect.


Vox said...

Just thought I would quickly say a few words:

First, I would like to say -- this is a fine engagement with my post. While I do know we do not agree on many things, how you went about the disagreement is the way positive dialogue happens -- we can even accept disagreement.

Second, I have no hatred for Bl. John Duns Scotus. I respect him very much. I've thought there has been too much criticism of him and his thought in the negative sense.

Third, I come into the discussion as one who respects and learns from the scholastics, but I am Byzantine and follow Eastern theological reflections as well. So that should explain where I am coming from -- which differs from the Thomists (who I respect but I am not one of theirs either).

Fourth, I would be careful in turning to Ott alone. While it is a useful tool, as is Denzinger, neither are sufficient in themselves. It is a common theological reflection to discuss the darkening of the human intellect after the fall-- and to see how sin distorts our abilities. Eastern theologians deal with this much, but you can see it is discussed in other areas, such as here:


"As regards spiritual faculties this deterioration consists in a darkening of the intellect's capacity to know the truth, and in a weakening of free will. The will is weakened in the presence of the attractions of the goods perceived by the senses and is more exposed to the false images of good elaborated by reason under the influence of the passions. However, according to the Church's teaching, it is a case of a relative and not an absolute deterioration, not intrinsic to the human faculties"

I will agree -- the essence remain unchanged, and good, but the relative, personal reflection is where the influence of sin is felt.


Henry Karlson said...

Sorry, that was me, and I was still logged on to the Vox Nova email account.

Michael said...

Mr Karlson,

the interesting thing in your quote is that someone with a "voluntarist" psychology might counter that the darkening of the intellect is in this case only a side effect of the corruption of the will, since if the will were less disposed to follow the passions it would not be so disposed to ignore or distort the reason.

If you take the will to be the "dominating" faculty of the soul, then the will influences the intellect even more than the intellect does the will, to the extent that the will decides whether to think of something or whether to reject sound reasoning in favor of the passions. The will can't just decide that 2+2=3, but it can decide to ignore or not investigate its error and act as though it were true.

Michael said...

My trusty Sacrae theologiae summa seems to take Scotus' part here (without mentioning him) in saying that nothing properly natural to man was removed or destroyed in the fall, but only supernatural and preaternatural goods (vol. 2 par. 989). "Although God could punish original sin in this life either by the privation or the diminishment of a natural good (which would in no way be consistent with his potentia ordinata, especially if attaining one's final end depended on the good in question), it can in no way be proved from the principles of faith or reason that he has done so." (ibid., para. 993)

Part of the difficulty in this discussion is in determining just what constitutes man's nature. Clearly the eastern tradition has a more expansive conception of what is properly included in nature than the western does.

Henry Karlson said...

I think a good discussion of the will, and how the will itself is naturally good, but the mode of willing is what is fallen is in St Maximus the Confessor's debate with Pyrrhus. And I think we are more in accord than not. The point I am making is not that human nature/human will/or human intellect, in its very nature, has been destroyed or made less, but rather our application of them has been (hence, one could say a fallen mode of reasoning vs reasoning if one likes). I am discussing the phenomenon, not the essence; in essence, we agree, and it is whether Luther (and others) go wrong. But in the modality, our use of reason has been hurt, and fallen modality of reason leads to the construction of logic based upon that modality.

Henry Karlson said...

"and it is where..." not whether.

Lee Faber said...

Thanks for responding. I had originally meant to include remarks indicating that I did not classify you with radical orthodoxy, but, well, it was early in the morning and I forgot. I recall the anti-narratives post that was made on the blog you linked to.

I am aware of the weight of tradition on the matter, though Ott made the same points as JPII in the quote but did not give them any dogmatic weight. To be sure, one would not want to reject everything below de fide (especially now since some of the levels seem to have collapsed), but, in the case of conflict within the tradition I think one can choose which strand of the tradition to follow.

But since you aren't arguing that the essence of the intellect was somehow damaged, which was the point of my reflections anyway, I think you're right, we don't disagree all that much.

Henry Karlson said...


Right, I do think there is room for a diversity of opinions, even if some are more common than others. And that is one of the reasons why I get upset with the "CCC only" mentality of some Catholics. I just wanted to add that Ott, Denzinger, etc are indeed good, but not to press their authority too far (the way some Thomists do with St Thomas Aquinas, ignoring everything which has developed since him).

And in theology and philosophy, there really is the need for various speculative directions like this -- ones which try to stay within the tradition, even if they take up a minority position -- as long as it doesn't get them into errors (which I do not think you have).

Finally -- right, I think if I just changed it to the more specific "mode of reasoning" instead of the phenomenological approach, things would have been clearer.

I have strong affinities with the Franciscan tradition, and so -- I am glad someone is taking Scotus seriously and not just to reduce him as "the source of all problems" as some have recently done.

Lee Faber said...


I generally find Ott useful for quick reference, and wouldn't swear by him, that is, believe anything because he says its so. After all, he gives Aquinas' view of analogy a dogmatic note, a view I would probably reject or heavily modify. But unlike a lot of other manuals of the period, he is respectful of the scotist school, and though he generally rejects their positions, he doesn't try to prove that one can't hold any of their theses as does Garrigou-lagrange (who reduces every scotist doctrine to a violation of the nicene creed). Plus, on issues pertaining to the beatific vision, I find Ott's dogmatic propositions, even at the 'de fide' level, are at times not supported by the magisterial text he cites.

Lee Faber said...

In fact, the whole issue of the beatific vision seems to my mind to be largely unresolved. Most contemporary academics I've talked to or books I've read all assume that everything Thomas says on the subject is gospel, but back in the 1330's John xxiii, who was a heretic on the beatific vision, relied heavily on aquinas for his position and pushed through his canonization probably for his own ends (not that I disagree with the result). But Benedict xiii's resolution of the controversy was framed in scotist terms, and ambiguities in the documents of the council of vienne seem to have led to extensive debates on the lumen gloriae in the 1350's (long after Benedict and Vienne), and uproar among theologians when they were released; Thomas Wylton (secular scotist) and Peter Auriol (unaligned) both seem to have come quite close to declaring the council heretical, rather shocking for theologians of that rank and caliber. Anyway, all this to say, I go to Ott for quick reference, that's all.

Henry Karlson said...


I agree with you -- the questions surrounding the Beatific Vision have not been resolved. I have not been too fond of the modern approach to the answer which basically says (in a very simplified summary)that the question is only apparent and not real because once we die we are in eternity, and we all enter eternity in eternity all at once because there is no time. They also use this to engage Protestants on purgatory. It's not too convincing to me at least.

Of course, I think the East adds to the question, and I think Thomists are too quick to dismiss Palamite thought, which tries to deal with the issue you raised in your post about knowledge and God. I do not know how familiar you are with St Gregory Palamas, but I gave a rough introduction to his thought, dealing in part with this question, in an old post you might find interesting here:


Lee Faber said...

Thanks for the link; I know little of Palamas, though I have been interested for quite a while. My co-blogger Michael has read a lot more, and was done a lot of thinking on the similarities bewtween franciscan thought and Palamas. he just won't write any of it down.

Anthony said...

A few years ago Mr. Sullivan did a couple posts on Pontifications on the compatibility between Eastern theology (specifically Palamism) and Western theology (specifically Scotism, if I recall). Since those old posts have long since disappeared, would he be willing now to repost them on The Smithy? Or email them to interested parties?

Michael said...

Anthony, I still have those writings, but they are several years old now. I would need to look them over and decide if I need to change anything. However, I will certainly think about putting them back up in some form or other.