Friday, October 26, 2007

Fr. Schall on the Regensburg Address

Well, I'm back. From St. Bonaventure and the Scotus conference, that is. Before I left I came across this interview with Fr. Schall, whose essays I have read at various times; this particular one was a bit disturbing. He follows in the line of Pope Benedict's remarks concerning Scotus, but fills them out and draws some rather horrible conclusions. Much of it is the same old nonsense, as is to be expected in this day and age, but I find myself rather disturbed that otherwise intelligent people will just make crap up. He reads almost like the Cambridge Phantasists. Sure, it's just an interview. But it is also all over the internet. Some days, inflicted with despair I wonder what the point is. No one reads scholarly articles, no one actually cares; people impose their own fancies as if they were truth without checking the facts. No one reads this blog either, but mayhap if people do searches for Schall this entry will turn up on google or some blog search so here goes:

Q: The Holy Father included in his lecture a discussion of the roots of voluntarism, a theological idea that attempts to put no limits on God, defying even reason. What role does this factor play in Islam as well as in non-Muslim thought?
Father Schall: This question, of course, was already in Greek and medieval philosophy. It exists as a perennial issue for the human mind to resolve. Voluntarism did not originate with Islam, except perhaps in the sense that nowhere else has it been carried out with such logical consistency and backed by such force. "Voluntarism" here means not the spontaneous effort to do something to help others of which the Pope spoke in "Deus Caritas Est," but the philosophic and theological idea that the will is superior to the intellect and is not subject to reason. The Pope is quite careful to note that the same problem exists in the West via Duns Scotus, the great medieval philosopher and theologian. It goes from him to William of Ockham, to Niccolò Machiavelli and to Thomas Hobbes, and onward into modern political philosophy.

The usual foolishness. We are worried about something in the present, Islam, and looking for the roots of some of its ideas. As is usual with the cambridge phantasists, some of the ultimate motivations are not historical but political. What exactly are the links between Ockham and Machiavelli and Hobbes? "Voluntarism" is a convenient scapegoat. Of course, what does it mean? Bonnie Kent has traced the rise of voluntarism in the thirteenth century in her book Virtues of the Will, where she details all sorts of positions. The notion that the will is superior to the intellect does not entail that the intellect plays no role in eliciting volitional acts, nor that it is not subject to reason. Even Henry of Ghent (a more extreme voluntarist than Scotus) says that the intellect functions as a sine qua non cause of volition. Duns Scotus holds (Lectura II d. 25) that the intellect and will are essentially ordered co-causes of acts of willing.

I have just been reading with a class Heinrich Rommen's most insightful book "TheNatural Law," which spells out in much detail why legal voluntarism stands at the basis of modern positivism and historicism, subjects that Leo Strauss and Eric Voegelin were concerned with. From this point of view, the Regensburg lecture was directed at the heart of Europe and America, to those "justifications" that are in fact used by its laws and customs to justify the killing of the innocent. The Socratic principle that "it is never right to do wrong" still remains the bedrock of a philosophy not based on pure will.

Legal voluntarism? What does that have to do with metaphysical voluntarism and how is it not an equivocation? Again, what relation do Strauss and Voegelin have with Scotus? Did they read anything medieval?

Pure will can justify anything because it has evaporated any nature or order from man and the universe. Voluntarism allows no grounding for absolute principles of human dignity. If it is asked, if I might surmise a guess, why the Pope chose to begin his lecture with the conversation of the Greek Byzantine Emperor in the 1300's with a Persian gentleman, it was because it enabled him graphically to state the most pressing issue of our time, not merely "is it reasonable to extend religion by violence," but is it reasonable to use this violence on any innocent human being.

We've moved from "voluntarism" to "legal voluntarism" to "pure will" Neither Scotus nor Henry would have anything to do with pure will (I haven't read enough Ockham to know one way or the other). As for absolute principles of human dignity, it just doesn't follow that voluntarism cannot give them a ground. If the will wills in accordance with right reason (which Scotus maintains), then it would also will in accordance with nature...which itself is the usual complaint against voluntarism.

This is where the Islamic problem, in fact, is substantially the same as the Western problem. Both systems have to resort to a voluntaristic theory of state and being to explain why they are not immoral for using violence against those who are innocent and protected by the divine and natural law itself. We miss the point if we think voluntarism is not a theoretic system that seeks to praise God in the highest possible way. Voluntarism means that there is no nature or order behind appearances. Everything can be otherwise. Everything that happens occurs because God or Allah positively chose it, but who could have chosen the exact opposite. Some philosophers, not just Muslim, think that God cannot be limited in any way, even by the principle of contradiction. He can make right wrong, or even make hatred of God his will. It sounds strange to hear this position at first. But once we grant its first principle, that will is higher than intellect, and governs it, everything follows. This theory is why so-called Muslim terrorists claim and believe that they are in fact following Allah's will. They might even be acting on a good, if erroneous, conscience. Allah wants the whole world to worship him in the order laid down in the Koran. The world cannot be settled until this conversion to Islam happens, even if it takes centuries to accomplish. This submission to Allah is conceived to be a noble act of piety. There is in voluntarist principles nothing contradictory if Allah orders the extension of his kingdom by violence, since there is no objective order that would prevent the opposite of what is ordered from being ordered the next day. Again, I must say, that behind wars are theological and philosophical problems that must be spelled out and seen for what they are. This spelling out is what the Regensburg lecture is about.

The use of the potentia ordinata/potentia absoluta distinction of itself is not indicative of voluntarism; Thomas makes use of it as well. To be sure, if one is a voluntarist one may use it in a certain way, a way that might disturb people today. The fourteenth century saw a lot of crazy theories. But to label Scotus in with them all is just silly. Voluntarism certainly does not mean there is no order behind appearances, nor that God can perform a contradiction. Nor does any of this necessarily follow from the metaphysical claim that the will is "higher" than the intellect because that can be spelled out in so many different ways. According to Scotus, the precepts of the first table of the natual law are necessary because they concern the divine nature, which is necessary. Therefore he would not agree that God could make it "right" to hate him (God).


The very definition of God -- "I Am" -- was clearly something that was comprehensible in a philosophy itself based on reason. The Pope is quite careful to note that Paul's turning to Macedonia and not to some other culture had to do with a providential decision about what it means to comprehend revelation, particularly the Incarnation and the Trinity, the two basic doctrines that are denied in all other religions and philosophies. It is because of the unique contribution of Europe that this relation was hammered out, particularly by St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas and their heritage. To receive revelation of the word, of the inner life of the Godhead, we must have a preparation, a philosophy that allows us to comprehend what it being revealed to us. Not all philosophies do this, which is why it makes a difference what philosophy we understand to be true.

This is almost offensive, but not surprising. It is the usual Thomist claim (note the reference to the Augustinian-Thomist heritage). My point with all this (though it just look like a historian/medievalist whining about the need to take history seriously) is that terms used by philosophers have meanings, often very precise ones. It is a travesty to lump whole schools (all made up of devout Catholics whose teachings have never been censured) of thought together with modern political or terrorist movements we find offensive. I have no problem with appropriating the past in order to enrich the discussion of the present, but first we must understand the past.

No comments: