Sunday, February 28, 2010

Errores Philosophorum

There’s a famous passage in Betrand Russell’s History of Philosophy in which he declares that Thomas Aquinas was not a real philosopher, since the Catholic Church dictated to him in advance all the answers. What he did was not philosophy but special pleading. To anyone who’s even slightly familiar with medieval thought this statement is laughably ignorant, given the fierce centuries-spanning debates over crucial logical, psychological, physical and metaphysical issues that preoccupied the greatest minds between Augustine and Descartes and which prepared the ground (I mean this in both good and bad ways) for the developments of Renaissance and Enlightenment philosophy, in which Aquinas was only one (albeit an important) participant. I can only conclude that Russell had read very little Aquinas and practically nothing of other medieval thinkers.

On the other hand, the charge is also frequently leveled, especially by many Eastern Orthodox and Protestant Christians of a certain intellectual disposition, that the Latin West gave entirely too much ground to philosophy, doing an enormous amount of damage to theology especially in the time between Augustine and Descartes by using concepts, arguments, and methods derived from philosophy and applying them to divine matters, corrupting the purity of Revelation and Tradition with essentially pagan interpolations. Evoking the famous phrase of Pascal, they accuse medieval (and later) Catholicism of worshipping the God of the Philosophers, forgetting or abandoning the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

I find this charge just as uncompelling. It’s been said that when you’re attacked by two opposite extremes on two contradictory grounds, chances are you’re in a pretty good middle position.

I once read a fascinating little book called Errores Philosophorum, by Giles of Rome, an monk and bishop of the Augustinian Order of Hermits who died in the second decade of the fourteenth century. In it he examines the writings of the pagan, Islamic, and Jewish philosophers who were most influential in the Western intellectual climate of his day, and points out the places in their respective works in which each teaches or argues for positions incompatible with Christian doctrine. It’s full of interesting bits; my favorite chapter was the one on the Islamic thinker Alkindi, who tried to use physics to explain the the efficacy of astrology and “the magical arts” (artibus magicis). For Giles, as for any good Christian, astrology and magic are rank superstitions and any attempt to argue on their behalf will be a philosophical error.

The pertinent statement to which I wish to draw the reader’s attention, however, is in the chapter on Aristotle. Giles says, Quoniam uno inconvenienti dato multa sequuntur, ex uno malo fundmento protulit Philosophus multos errores, that is, “Because from one erroneous foundation many falsities follow, from one bad principle the Philosopher has advanced many errors.”

This one fundamental error of Aristotle’s, according to Giles, is the principle that nothing new comes into being without a preceding motion, from which follows the denial of creation, the assertion of the eternity of the world, and other things contrary to Christian teaching. But for my purposes there are two interesting things about the opening sentence just quoted. The first is that it’s also the opening sentence of Thomas Aquinas’ De Ente et Essentia, a metaphysical work building on Aristotelian principles but very unAristotelian in its arguments and conclusions (and, by the way, the content of which is in no way provided by Catholic dogma and with which many theologians disagreed). The second is that the statement, “From one erroneous foundation” etc., at the head of a chapter critiquing various philosophical errors of Aristotle, is taken from Aristotle (Physics I, 195a11) himself!

These facts illustrate the real attitude of the medieval scholastics toward philosophy, which was neither too credulous and open to deleterious influence, nor excessively critical and unwilling to accept a good idea where one could be found. Where a medieval thinker thought an idea, whether coming from a pagan, Muslim, or Jew, had reason on his side, he would accept it and incorporate it into his own scheme of thought. Where he thought a non-Christian philosopher was wrong, especially where the thinker argued for something contrary to Christian doctrine or something which implied such, the Christian would argue against him. But as often as not the Christian would not refute the infidel using the Bible, the pope, or some other Christian authority, but using the principles of the infidel philosophers themselves! I know firsthand of many, many cases where scholastics argue that Aristotle or whoever was wrong about such-and-such given Aristotle’s own principles, and where he came to a conclusion incompatible with Christianity, this is not simply because he lacked the True Faith, but also and especially because he had failed as a philosopher to discover the best arguments available to reason on the subject.

To use an image they themselves loved to reproduce, the medievals saw themselves as the Jews during the Exodus, who as they were leaving Egypt for the promised land despoiled the Egyptians of the riches owed to them for their generations of servitude (i.e. they claimed reparations). The riches of Truth for them came from God, and properly belonged to those who were God’s friends and faithful servants. If the pagans and infidels had come into possession some truth on their own, it belonged with just as much right to Christianity as well, and so Christians would appropriate good reasons and good arguments wherever they found them.

Of course in order to have such an attitude they had to have a profound confidence in the harmony of faith and reason, an assurance that truth could never be in conflict with truth. If Christianity were true and if the mind had the capacity to discover philosophical truth on its own, then as long as both were functioning properly in their own spheres, they could only complement each other, and not conflict. An apparent discordance was to be resolved by striving to find better theories, more encompassing explanations, deeper understanding, rather than by a retreat into either rationalism or fideism, the two opposed alternatives of the modern world.

N.B. This post is another recycle, very lightly edited. Although it's only a few years old, I'm surprised again at how overblown the style seems to me. Maybe I still sound like that and I just don't notice!

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Philosophical Comics

People who get to know me in person occasionally express shock or surprise when they learn about my occasionally lowbrow taste in pop culture, since I like cartoons , bad movies ,and all sorts of comics. I'm not entirely sure why this should be so. In my less charitable moods I'm tempted to think it's because some people use movies etc. as their primary source of intellectual stimulation, and so are snobby about the trash, whereas for me they are for amusement and relaxation, and I get my thinking material, er, elsewhere. I'm much more careful when choosing novels, since they're generally much more of a time commitment, though even here I do enjoy occasional light reading. I will admit, however, to being very picky indeed about music and poetry.

Anyway, it's always a delight when my lowbrow tastes overlap with my highbrow ones, to the confusion of phrenologists everywhere, and I was very excited to find out about Logicomix: An Epic Search For Truth, a fascinating and skillful comic book about the life of Bertrand Russell, and the quest for the foundations of logic and mathematics by Frege, Cantor, Russell, Whitehead, Wittgenstein, Gödel, and the rest. The art is good, the storytelling is good, the philosophy is all silly modernism but well portrayed and fascinating. I rate it five out of five formalities.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Beyond Being

We have remarked that Being, which for Plato is at times at least less than the Good or One, must be understood as finite Being. That this is the general classical view is stated by a number of modern commentators, not all of whom are prepared, however, to see what it implies for Plato and Plotinus. Fr Seeney, for example, rightly quotes with approval the remark of Fr Owens that 'Perfect Being for the Greeks meant limitation and finitude,' without at the same time admitting that to place the One beyond Being means for Plotinus simply to place it beyond finitude, to make it intrinsically infinite. Similarly Gilson regards the One beyond Being as a non-existent One. For these interpreters questions about the finitude of Being in the classical sense of the word do not arise. But here we may be merely playing with words. The question before us is not whether Plotinus said that the One is 'beyond Being,' but what he meant by saying this. And in view of the general Greek use of 'Being' to mean 'finite Being,' the prima facie meaning of the phrase 'beyond Being' should be 'infinite Being.'

-- John Rist, Plotinus: The Road to Reality, 24-25.

The relevance of this passage to Orthodox-Catholic dialogue should be obvious to the attentive reader! This is a point I have made in debate more than once, to little avail, I'm afraid.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

St Bonaventure and St Thomas

In the framework of medieval Christianity, their closeness is much more apparent than their opposition. There are those who believe that the universal authority of Saint Thomas overshadows that of the equally great Saint Bonaventure. In fact, however, Bonaventure by his inspired genius seems to respond more genuinely and more deeply to some of the exigencies of modern thought. Plainly, his ontology of participation and essence, derived from Plato through Augustine, Dionysius the Pseudo-Areopagite, and Hugh of Saint-Victor, does not have the same ring as Thomas' ontology of being and efficient causality. The Summa theologica represents the consummate mastery of theological data; it is the most coherent work available to the Christian as a means of understanding his Faith. In contrast, Bonaventure never considers the goal as being attained: he expresses faith in its upward surge, and sees understanding as a constant quest. Here, we recognize the "ascension" of Plato, which Augustine explained in terms of the constant striving of the Christian soul. This, perhaps, is what gives Bonaventure an original place even among the great Doctors of the Church, with whom he ranks in virtue of his religious and speculative genius.

--Bougerol, Introduction to the Works of Bonaventure

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Theology of Robert Barron

It's been a while since I examined contemporary representations of Scotus, so today lets look at Fr. Robert Barron's book:

bridging the Great Divide: Musings of a Post-Liberal, Post-Conservative Evangelical Catholic. Rowman and Littlefield, 2004.

Fr. Robert Barron is a professor of systematic theology at Mundelein seminary. He is a widely read author and commentator on catholic issues, reaching the educated and not so educated. That is why I feel he requires a response. When it comes to Scotus, he is just following in the steps of Milbank ("Milbank the mountebank" a professor of mine calls him) and his phantastical cohorts, and he really only has about 2 facts on Scotus and a few alleged consequences. It is really rather dull. Anyways, the book, which we shall examine below, embodies all that really irritates me about modern theology. In a word, lack of focus. The book is barely 272 pages, yet we meet Goethe, Dante, lots of Aquinas, Paul Tillich, Luther, Calvin, the Nouvelle theologie theologians, Rahner, von Balthasar, Plato, Aristotle, Schleiermacher, Jean-Luc Marion, the Communio crowd, basically everyone in the history of theology and philosophy. And yet who from among this august company is the only one to be excluded from the post-modern table of dialogue? John Duns Scotus.

Now for some quotes:

p. 62: "..creaturely being, though really distinct from God, is in an analogical relationship to the divine reality. But this means, in turn, that creaturely being is, by nature, ecstatic and not autonomous. It furthermore implies that every creature is connected through the center of its being to every other creature, so that Francis's statement about brother sun and sister moon could be not only a charming bit of poetry but a rather exact metaphysical remark. Now when this conception began to unravel, first through Duns Scotus's introduction of a univocal sense of being and then through the Reformer's distantiation of God, a properly secular realm emerged, that is to say, an arena of finite being that could ground itself. The breakdown of an analogical conception of being led also to a fundamentally antagonistic social ontology, the link between creatures having been eliminated... What makes the modern successors of Descartes and Hobbes incapable of the liturgical act? The disciple of Aquinas might respond: the loss of participation/creation metaphysics and hence the attenuation of any sense of an ecstatic and communitarian self."

fr. Barron claims:
1. Duns Scotus introduced a univocal sense of being.
2. A properly secular realm emerged = finite being could ground itself.
3. Rise of antagonistic social ontology because link between creatures eliminated

Lee Faber rebuts:
(1.) is true, if by 'sense' he means 'sense of the term' being.
(2.) Scotus never says finite being could ground itself or anything similar. In Scotus' view this would have to amount to creatures being self-caused. Other than that, it's not clear how univocity leads to the reformation or even how the reformation leads to secularism.
(3.) I don't see how analogy connects us all to each other. Analogy is a theory of how terms used by creatures are predicated of God. Nor do we participate in each other, we participate in God. Also, participation does not enjoy magisterial authority. Also, what was the world like before Aquinas expounded his theory of analogy? If fr. Barron is correct, wouldn't the analogical/participatory world view only have come into being with Aquinas? Then society should have been in terrible shambles before Aquinas came along, and the years between Aquinas' death and Scotus' birth must have been a veritable golden age of human flourishing. Also, what is the connection between univocity and an 'anagonistic social ontology'?

p.111: "Correllative to the doctrine of creation from nothing is the doctrine of the analogia entis. For Thomas, God cannot be construed, as we have seen, as one being among many; rather, he must be conceived as the act of being that is otherly other than the realm of beings. God and creatures are not--as in Duns Scotus--beings categorized as varying types in the genus 'existence'. Rather created things are participants in the primordial act of existence..."

Fr. Barron:
1. according to Scotus, Existence is a genus.
2. according to scotus, God and creatures are both in this genus.

Lee Faber rebuts:
First of all, there is a fundamental misunderstanding here; analogy of being is not the correllate of creation ex nihilo. Analogy pertains to natural knowledge of God, while creation to divine revelation.
contra (1.) Nobody in the middle ages thought this, certainly not about existence. All the scholastics agree that Aristotle proved that being is not a genus.
(2.) Cf. Duns Scotus, Ordinatio I d.8 pt. q.3 (ed. Vat. IV p. 169ff.): whether it stands with divine simplicity that God or something formally said of God is in a genus?

"There is another affirmative opinion, in the other extreme, which posits that God is in a genus...[the Vatican editors can identify no one who held this position] Against this [position] the first argument is posited [from earlier in the question]... I hold the middle opinion, that with divine simplicity it stands that some concept is common to himself and a creature, nevertheless not some concept common as a genus, because neither a concept said 'in quid' of God, nor one said of him by whatever kind of formal predication, is per se in some genus." [arguments follow]

So not only is there no agreement between God and creatures in reality, but not even generic agreement in concept!

p.113: "God is placed by Luther in a transcendent realm almost as a gesture of protection, as though any closer contact with the world would compromise him. This distantiation was made possible, furthermore, through the univocal conception of being introduced by Scotus and given fuller expression by Occam and his nominalist successors who in turn helped to shape Luther's philosophical vision."

RB's claims:
(1.) Scotus introduced a univocal conception of being
(2.) Occam gave fuller expression to this univocal conception of being.
(3.) Occam's successors influenced Luther.
(4.) Luther tries to save God from univocity.

LF refutes:
(1.) True, as long as we are clear we are talking about a concept, not a reality.
(2.) True, though Ockham generally rejects as much as he accepts from scotus, and reformulates it beyond all recognition.
(3.) True.
(4.) If this is true, so what. All it does is smear Ockham by association with late medieval nominalists, and Scotus by association with Ockham. To construct a geneology is not to construct an argument; it's a fallacy.

Omitted: p. 127, which contains a discussion of James Joyce 'A portrait of a young man' and how although the quote he offers is closer to Scotist haeceity than thomistic quidditas, it preserves intellectualism, esthetics, and the splendor formae.

p.133: "Umberto Eco carefully traced the evolution of the medieval understanding of the beautiful and noticed that a major shift occurred in the writings of Duns Scotus and William of Occam. Scotus's metaphysics of haecceitas and Occam's explicit nominalism both led to an attenuation of the ontology of beauty that we have been describing. When the individual thing has primacy, the interconnectedness of all creatures, the consonantia of the finite realm, is severely understessed... [quote from Ockham follows] And this cosmic disconnectedness is even more fully established when, as in Scotus, a univocal conception of being holds sway... But when being is taken univocally, God and creatures are instances of a general, overarching principle and hence exist, as it were, side by side, without an essential connection."

(1.) metaphysics of haecceity + nominalism ruined aesthetics.
(2.) emphasis on individual = interconnectedness of all creatures being understressed
(3.) univocity = cosmic disconnectedness
(4.) univocity entails God and creatures being instances of a general principle
(5.) univocity entails God and creatures exist side by side w/o essential connection

LF rebuts:

Almost too much here. But it amounts to the claim that "Scotus said something different than Aquinas" so I wont' delay much here.
(1.) Boo hoo. In the one passage on beauty I've seen in Scotus, he relates it to a proportion between parts. One suspects the analogical worldview is pretty weak to be unable to withstand that observation.
(2.) none of the scholastics talk about the interconnectedness of creatures. We are all related by species and genera, I suppose. But that's not very aesthetic.
(3.) That's why my zen garden looks so bad!
(4.) So there is a principle superior to God? I suppose that would have to be causal principle. This claim is on the level of Brad Gregory's claim that "God is univocal" or Matthew Levering's that the great whore of revelation is cast into the lake of fire for abandoning participation metaphysics. It's just the contemporary form the rivalry between scotism and thomism is taking.
(5.) But I thought univocity also entails God is made too transcendent and distantiated?
Dont' ask me what the essential connection is; I suppose it's because creatures aren't participating in each other or God (allegedly).

"the tired modernity of Merton's youth...was the consequence of the collapse of a participation metaphysics. One of the first causes this collapse was, oddly enough, a Franciscan friar, John Duns Scotus. When Scotus insisted that there is a univocal concept of being, he situated God and creation under the same great ontological canopy, effectively setting God alongside the world, one being (however great) among many. But the juxtaposing of God and creatures amounts to a negation of the participation metaphysics that Aquinas advocated. On the Scotist reading, the world is comparable to God, but it doesn't share in the to-be of God. And when this participation is denied, the essential connectedness of all creatures to one another is also undone. Scotus' univocal conception of being was carried further and deepened by William of Occam and the nominalists inspired by him, and they in turn had a decisive influence on Martin Luther. The Scotist-Occamist strain can be discerned in Luther's embrace of a radical theologia crucis and his effective distantiation of God from the world."

(1.) Scotus had a univocal concept being
(2.) Scotus placed God and creatures in the same genus
(3.) this denies participation metaphysics, which destroys essential connectedness of creatures to each other.
(4.) Scotus' doctrine of univocity was 'deepened' by Ockham and the nominalists
(5.) the nominalists influenced Luther
(6.) Luther distantiated God from the world.

LF rebuts:
The usual. (1.), (4.) and (5.) are true, although fr. Barron cites no literature, and it's not clear how this works as there is no scholarship that i know of on the topic of univocity in late medieval nominalism. (2.) as we saw above is false, therefore (3.) is not a result of Scotus' conception of univocity. Again, aside from sharing in genus and species, no scholastic talks about essential connectedness of creatures; participation is in God, not other creatures. As for (6.), again, this is just guilt by association.

"So many of the great Reformers were trained in the philosophical school of nominalism, with its roots in the speculations of the late medieval Franciscan William of Occam. Like his Franciscan predecessor Duns Scotus, Occam held to a univocal conception of being, according to which both the infinite existence of God and the finite existence of creatures are instances of a general, overarching category of being that contains them both... This denial of participation metaphysics conduced, as in Scotus and Occam, to a stress on the isolated individual--which can be seen in the theologies of both luther and John Calvin."

(1.) the reformation has roots in late medieval nominalism
(2.) Scotus and Ockham held to a univocal concept of being
(3.) Both God and creatures are in the genus 'being'.
(4.) this constitutes a denial of participation metaphysics, and leads to stress on isolated individuals.

(1.) and (2.) we've seen to be true, (3.) false from scotus' own writings, (4.) is another alleged consequence of (3.). But is true, Scotus does lay a lot of emphasis on the individual. And he doesn't mention in these contexts how the individual participates in God, or other creatures. Stupid Scotus, wasting all that time trying to figure out individuation!

St Gregory on Heretics, II

III.47. When they had lifted up their eyes, they did not know him. Now when heretics consider the deeds of Holy Church, they look up at her, because they are placed down below and when they see her works, what they regard is placed on high; but when the Church is set amid sorrow they do not know her. For she seeks to accept evils so that, being purged, she can come to the reward of eternal recompense. Often she fears prosperity and rejoices to learn from discipline. Therefore heretics, who desire present good as the great thing, do not recognize her covered with wounds. For they do not read written in their own hearts what they see in her. When therefore the Church profits even from adversities, they are stuck in their own stupor, because what they see is unknown to their experience.

48. They tore their clothes, and scattered dust to heaven upon their heads. As we and all the faithful receive the clothes of the Church, for which reason the prophet says: You clothe all these like a decoration; so the clothes of the heretics are all those who by agreeing with them and sticking with them are wrapped up in their errors. For heretics have this property, that they are not long able to stand on the level they came to on leaving the Church; but daily they fall down to lower places and by thinking worse and worse things they cut themselves into many parts and are divided from each other more and more by their arguments and confusion. Therefore because they tear into pieces those they join to their faithlessness, it is rightly said that the friends who come tear their clothes. When the clothes are ripped the body is revealed, because often when the heretical followers are cut away, the malice of their thought is openly seen; so that discord reveals the treachery that the burdensome guilt of their previous harmony concealed.

49. Now they scatter dust to heaven upon their heads. What should we understand by dust except things of the earth? What is designated by the head, except that which is our principle part, namely the mind? What is meant by heaven except the command spoken by heaven? Therefore to scatter dust to heaven on the head is to corrupt the mind with a secular understanding and to think earthly things about heavenly words. For they dissipate the divine words more than they receive them. Therefore they scatter dust because they bring against the commands of God an earthly understanding which is in fact beyond the power of their minds.

50. They sat with him on the ground for seven days and seven nights. In daytime, we can know what we see; at night either, being blind, we see nothing, or if it is dim what we see is doubtful. So day stands for understanding and night stands for ignorance. By the number seven the whole universe is expressed; so that this transitory time is completed in no more than seven days. What then does is mean that the friends of blessed Job sat with him for seven days and seven nights, except that, whether in those things about which they really see the light, or in those things about which they suffer the darkness of ignorance, they act in a pretending condescention towards the Church (as though towards an invalid), and under a show of kindness prepare the treachery of deception? And although, whether in those things which they do understand, or in those which they are unable to understand, among themselves they can think great things about themselves, swelled up with the character of exaltation, still sometimes they make a show of respect to Holy Church, and while they use soft words, they pour in the poison. Therefore to sit on the ground is to show something of the image of humility, so that while they fake being humble they can persuade their hearers of the pride which they teach.

51. The ground or the earth can also stand for the incarnation of the Mediator. So that it was said to Israel: Make for me an altar of earth. To make an altar of earth for God is to hope in the incarnation of the Mediator. Our offering indeed is accepted by God when upon the altar of faith in the Lord’s incarnation our humility places whatever we do. We place an offering upon an altar of earth when we solidify our actions with faith in the Lord’s incarnation. But there are some heretics who do not deny the fact of the Lord’s incarnation, but think differently from us either about the divinity itself or about the quality of the incarnation. So those who profess along with us the true incarnation of the Redeemer, as it were sit equally on the ground with Job. They are said to sit with him on the ground for seven days and seven nights because, whether they understand something of the fulness of truth or are blinded by the darkness of their stupidity, still they cannot deny the mystery of the incarnation. To sit on the ground with blessed Job, therefore, is to believe along with Holy Church in the true flesh of the Redeemer.

52. Sometimes the heretics rage against us with punishments, sometimes they pursue us with words alone, sometimes if we are quiet they provoke us, and sometimes if they see us silent they are quiet too; friends to the silent, they are enemies to us if we speak. So because blessed Job had not yet said anything to them it rightly follows: And no one spoke a word to him. For we have silent adversaries if we neglect to beget sons of the true faith by our preaching. But if we begin to speak what is right, we will immediately feel the heavy blows of their response; they will instantly leap forward in enmity and burst out against us with the voice of indignation, because they fear lest a voice speaking what is right lead to the heights the hearts which the weight of their stupidity has dragged to the depths.

- St Gregory the Great, Moralia in Iob, my translation.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

St Gregory on Heretics, I

III.42. In all this Job neither sinned with his lips nor said anything stupid against God. Therefore three friends of Job, hearing about all the evils that had happened to him, came each one from his own place: Eliphaz the Themanite, Baldad the Suhite, and Sophar the Naamathite. In the preface of this work we said that the friends of blessed Job, although they came to him with good intentions, nevertheless take on the appearance of heretics because they fall into guilt by speaking indiscretely. On account of which the same blessed Job says to them: I want to dispute with God, but first showing that you are weavers of lies and keepers of perverse dogmas. And so Holy Church in all the time of its pilgrimage is established in affliction, when she suffers wounds, when she grieves over the lapse of her members, and on top of this when she endures the enemies of Christ coming in the name of Christ. For to the augment of her suffering, in addition to her other troubles heretics also come and pierce her with unreasonable words.

43. But it is well said: They convened from their own place. Now the place of heretics is pride, because unless they were first swelled up in their hearts, they would not have come to the struggle with crooked assertions. So the place of the wicked is pride just as on the contrary the place of the good is humility. About which Solomon says: If a powerful spirit rises up against you, do not yield to him your place. As if he were to say openly: If you see that the spirit of the Temptor is stronger than you in anything, do not abandon the humility of penitence. Because he shows by the following words that our place is the humility of penitence when he says: Because to stop taking medicine produces the greatest sins. For what is the humility of weeping but the medicine of sin? Heretics therefore come from their place because they are moved against Holy Church from their pride.

44. Their perverse actions can be discerned from the interpretation of their names. For they are called Eliphaz, Baldad, and Sophar; and as we said above, Eliphaz interpreted means “contempt of God.” For unless they had contempt of God, they would never have thought perverse things about Him. But Baldad only means “age.” For while they avoid being beaten and by their perverse study they seek to be the victors, they neglect the behavior of the new life, and what they intend comes only from the old. Sophar means “destruction of the watchtower.” For those whose place is in Holy Church humbly contemplate with true faith the mysteries of their Redeemer; but when the heretics come with their false allegations, they destroy the watchtower, because they turn the minds of those they draw to themselves away from the watchfulness of upright contemplation.

45. But the places from which these men come are well described as congruent with the actions of heretics. For they are called Themanites, Suhites, Naamathites. Now Thema means “the South;” Suhi, “speaking;” Naama, “charming.” But who does not know that the South wind is hot? Therefore because heretics wish to taste of [divine things] more ardently, or as it were more than is necessary, they are eager to be inflamed with passion. Of couse ebbing away to the numbness of cold and again to the restlessness of an immoderate curiosity is each consistent with intemperate heat. And therefore because they desire to feel the heat of wisdom more than they ought, they are said to come from the South. Paul took care to temper the minds of the faithful away from this heat of an immoderate wisdom, when he said: Do not taste more than you ought to taste, but taste to sobriety. This is why David struck the valleys of the salt-pans, namely because our Redeemer in his severe judgment against those who think perverse things about him will quench the stupidity of an immoderate taste. But Suhi means “speaking.” Now you see that they desire to have this heat not in order to live well but in order to speak loftily. Therefore they come from Thema and from Suhi, that is, they are said to come from heat and from loquacity, because they like to show how well-studied they are in the scriptures; but they inflamed only with the passion of loquacious words and not with the heart of charity. Now Naama means “charming.” Because they do not wish to be learned, but to appear so, from erudite words they take on the appearance of living well; and through the heat of their loquacity they show in themselves a charming image, so that with the beauty of their tounges they can more easily persuade their hearers of perversities; and so they cleverly hide from the senses the foulness of their lives. Now the narration gives the names of these places in the right order. First it gives Thema, afterwards Suhi, and then Naama; because first inordinate heat kindles the heretics, then the sparkle of loquacity rouses them up, and then finally it shows men charming hypocrisies.

46. For they said to one another that they would all go visit and console him. Heretics speak to one another when they agree in thinking certain perverse things against the Church; and in certain things where they are all discordant from the truth, they harmonize together in falsity. For what do those do who teach us about eternity, but console us in the affliction of our pilgrimage? But the heretics, because they desire to teach Holy Church their own doctrines, approach her as consolers. Nor should we be surprised if those who are shown to be enemies are called friends, when it was said to the traitor himself [Judas]: Friend, why have you come? And the rich man burning in the fire of hell was called a son by Abaham; because although they refuse to be corrected by us, still it is fitting that we should name them not by their wickedness but out of our kindness.

- St Gregory the Great, Moralia in Iob, my translation.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Henry of Ghent on Instants of Nature

Henricus de Gandavo, Quodlibet V q.1 (ed. Badius, f. 153r):

"...primo et simplici intelligentia concipit ipsam essentiam sub ratione essentiae, et deinde negotiando circa essentiam conceptam concipit eam ut intellecta est, et ut intelligens est, et ut ratio intelligendi et quia in cognoscendo et intelligendo seipsam complacet ei in seipsa, deinde concipit eam ut volitum, volens et ratio volendi."

"First, by simple understanding he (God) conceives his essence under the aspect of essence, and then by engaging with the essence as conceived he conceives it as it is understood, and as it is understanding and as it is a means of understanding. And because in knowing and understanding himself he is pleased in himself, then he conceives his essence as willed, willing, and as a means of willing."

Here we have yet another example of Henry's profound influence on Duns Scotus. Scotus, as you may well recall, uses this type of language which posits quasi-temporal stages in the divine nature in his discussion of the production of created essences in intelligible being as well as his treatment of predestination. This became quite common after Scotus and Henry, as we saw from the Alnwick quote I posted several months ago, and was even adopted by some Thomists such as Hervaeus Natalis (whom I posted on earlier this month), one of the instrumental figures in Aquinas' canonization process. I am not sure if Henry originated this conceptual tool or not. It can, I think, like Scotus' version, be distinguished into four instants:
(1) God conceives the divine essence qua essence
(2) The divine intellect "moves" over the essence, knows it as known, knowing, and a means of understanding.
(3) God is pleased in or delights in his essence
(4) God conceives his essence as will, willed and a means of willing.

The divine attributes are distinguished by the divine intellect at (2); and attribute, on Henry's view, is the essence known under a specific ratio; the essence as the foundation of the attribute keeps the divine intellects concepts from being vain, while the differing rationes keep the divine attributes from being synonymous. Henry is quite clear that he thinks all of this goes on in the divine intellect, not the divine essence. All the attributes are relations of reason. However, in another passage, he admits there is a "quasi" potency prior to the act of divine understanding, which I think would have to be a real quasi potency, as Henry accepts the dictum that being is divided primarily into being inside the mind and outside the mind, and this potency is prior to the operation of the intellect. It is but a small step from here to Scotus' position that the divine attributes are distinct ex natura rei prior to the operation of the divine intellect, even in God's intuitive cognition of the divine essence. But more on this another time.

Uncut Pages

The pleasures derived from the use of a paper knife are tactile, auditory, visual, and especially mental. Progress in reading is preceded by an act that traverses that material solidity of the book to allow you access to its incorporeal substance. Penetrating among the pages from below, the blade vehemently moves upward, opening a vertical cut in a flowing succession of slashes that one by one strike the fibers and mow them down - with a friendly and cheery crackling the good paper receives that first visitor, who announces countless turns of the pages stirred by the wind or by a gaze - then the horizontal fold, especially if it is double, opposes greater resistance, because it requires an awkward backhand motion - there the sound is one of muffled laceration, with deeper notes. The margin of the pages is jagged, revealing its fibrous texture; as fine shaving - also known as "curl" - is detached from it, as pretty to see as a wave's foam on the beach. Opening a path for yourself, with a sword's blade, in the barrier of pages becomes linked with the thought of how much the word contains and concealed: you cut your way through your reading as if through a dense forest.

-- Italo Calvino, If On A Winter's Night A Traveler

I love this passage, which captures so well the unique pleasure that comes from reading a book with uncut pages. Nowadays there's an additional quality to this pleasure that comes from the fact that books aren't sold this way anymore. Only quite old books still have uncut pages, which means that, once you cut one, that's one less book that can give you this pleasure. There's a feeling in cutting a set of pages of doing something irreversible.

The other thing is that, since the book you're cutting is quite old, there's always mixed with the cutting and reading the knowledge, simultaneously melancholy and delightful, that no one has read the book before, despite its age. A little over a year ago I bought, very cheaply, a near-complete set of Sir Walter Scott's novels. They're nearly one hundred and twenty years old, and yet the pages were all uncut until I began to read them. When I started Waverly I couldn't avoid thinking about how many homes or libraries or used bookstores this set must have wandered through in twelve decades, with no one to read them, waiting for me to find them. It's like a romantic comedy with no girl.

When the book is, for instance, a Quarrachi edition of some scholastic author, however, the melancholy overcomes the delight, since theirs are usually the only editions available of these works, and the uncut pages means that not enough people have been reading the scholastics to exhaust decades-old printings.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

A Scotistic Argument

The original version of this argument had a pretty long section where I defined all my terms, but this doesn't seem too necessary and I'm omitting it here. I do want to repeat that Scotus does not explicitly make this very argument in just this way. When I wrote this I hadn't studied Scotus on this subject in nearly as much detail as I have by now, but I still think it expresses the mens Scoti pretty well. But the argument is from my own head, not out of Scotus' texts.

A Scotistic Argument that Divine Simplicity is Consistent With a Contingent Creation

1. God exists. (Proof omitted. Good arguments are ready to hand and in any case God’s existence is not controversial among orthodox Christians. Also worth noting with attempting to prove it here is that, given the notion of God as infinite being, etc., there can be only one such being. God is utterly unique.)

2. God’s existence is necessary. (Nothing can be prior to what is first, but God is the first cause; therefore nothing can cause God. God is the only possible infinite being, but infinite being cannot depend on finite being to obtain in any way. Therefore God is not contingent in any way.)

3. God is simple. (This means that God is not composed of any parts or elements, i.e. material parts, matter and form, substance and accidents, essence and existence, or any other compositional factors. Every composite being is posterior to its parts or elements, but God is posterior to nothing; therefore God is not composite. Every composite has a cause by which its disparate parts or elements have unity, but God’s existence and unity is necessary and uncaused; therefore God is not composite.)

4. There are no real distinctions in God. (This is a direct implication of #3. If there were real distinctions in God, then by definition one part or element would be really separable from another part or element. The conclusion is also implied in the understanding of God as infinite being, for if God had really distinct parts or elements, then one part or element would be limited and bounded by its distinction from the others; each part or element would be finite, and the aggregate could never constitute an infinite whole. If God is infinite, then he is unlimited, but real distinctions are real delimiting elements; therefore etc.)

5. God has knowledge and will. (Proof omitted. Again, this is not controversial among Christians.)
(a) God knows himself and all possibles. (Proof omitted. By a possible I mean anything that does not contain a contradiction within itself. God knows the divine nature, human nature, the men that exist and the men that might exist but don’t, and unicorns and dragons. He doesn’t know square circles or how to make a rock so big that he couldn’t pick it up.)
(b) God wills himself and his own goodness but not all possibles. (Given that being and the good are convertible [proof omitted], the infinite being is infinitely good. Given the nature of the will as defined, God wills unrestricted or infinite good, which is his own existence. God however cannot will the existence of every possible existent, since this would entail an infinite number of contradictions. God can will that I be smart or stupid but not both at once, that I exist or that I don’t exist, but not both at once, that something besides him exists or that nothing does, but not both at once. That would be contradictory.)

6. There are formal distinctions between God’s essence, knowledge and will. (God’s essence, knowledge, and will are not really distinct, since God is simple. But they are not merely conceptually distinct; therefore they are formally distinct. They are not merely conceptually distinct because they are different in ratio and not merely in our consideration: knowing is not convertible with being (while goodness and unity, on the other hand, are), and so forth. This applies within God’s knowledge and will as well. God knows in a single act all that he knows, so the divine ideas are not really distinct; but the ratio of one divine idea [say that of a cat] is not identical with the ratio of another [say that of a dog], since the difference between cats and dogs is not merely conceptual; therefore the divine ideas are more than merely conceptually distinct; therefore they are formally distinct. Again, God’s knowledge of the possible Socrates is not identical in ratio to God’s will that Socrates exist or not exist, but God’s act of knowledge and God’s act of will are not really distinct; therefore they are formally distinct.)

7. God necessarily wills his own goodness. (Given the necessity of God’s existence, the convertibility of God’s existence and his goodness, the real identity of—together with the formal distinction between—God’s nature and his will, and the definition of the will, God’s necessarily existing will cannot fail to will his own necessary existence and goodness.)

8. One act can have multiple distinct objects or termini. (This is an obvious principle. I can eat a meal in order both to nourish my body and to participate in a social function, even though these are distinct. A gunshot can produce both a wound and a loud noise, but these are distinct both in reality and in intention.)

9. God’s existence in itself does not necessarily entail the existence of creatures. (God’s existence is the existence of infinite being or pure act. But nothing in the nature of infinite being requires there to be finite being, or in the nature of unlimited act that there be a limited act. By nature God’s existence cannot be in any way caused or determined by anything outside himself; therefore the existence or non-existence of creatures leaves God exactly the same in himself either way. Since God’s existence is the existence of infinite being and infinite goodness, the existence of finite being and finite good adds nothing to God’s being and goodness, nor do their non-existence in any way detract from God’s being and goodness. Therefore God’s nature is in itself compatible both with the existence and with the non-existence of any other nature.)

10. The existence of creatures is contingent. (Nothing can be the cause of itself [self-evident principle], but every creature is caused; therefore every creature depends on something else to exist.)

11. Only God can produce creatures. (Within the creaturely order one creature produces another, i.e. my father produces me and I produce my children. But the creaturely order itself, i.e. that there are creatures at all, cannot be produced by creatures but only by God. A thorough proof of this would be the inverse of a proof for God’s existence.)

12. God produces some creatures and fails to produce others through his will. (If there are creatures, then they are produced by God. But there are creatures, therefore etc. God’s production of creatures is either natural or voluntary. But God’s nature is indifferent to the production or non-production of creatures, therefore the production or non-production of creatures is not natural, therefore it is voluntary.)

13. An act having multiple distinct objects may be necessarily determined towards one object and not necessarily determined towards another object. (This can be shown by examples. If I am to eat a meal, it is [conditionally] necessary that I chew my food, but the necessity of chewing my food does not affect the contingency of the meal also serving a social end. If I am to live it is [conditionally] necessary that I eat, but given this necessity it is not therefore necessary that I eat bread instead of meat; some further determination of the act is still required. One more example: if an archer fires an arrow from his bow, it is [conditionally] necessary that the arrow pass through the air, but not thereby necessary that the arrow hit target A, target B, or no target at all. Some further determination of the act is required. Furthermore, if per impossibile it were absolutely rather than conditionally necessary that the arrow be fired, whether the arrow hits or fails to hit a target is still completely contingent on some further determining factor. The act of firing an arrow in itself, in its nature considered as such, is indifferent to hitting or not hitting a target—it is just as possible that every shot hit the ground as it is that some shot hit a target.)

14. God wills himself and creatures by one identical act. (From God’s simplicity. See #3 and #4.)

15. God’s willing his own goodness and his willing the production of creatures are really identical but formally distinct. (From the formal distinction in the divine understanding between the ratio of God’s own [necessary] nature and the rationes of any other [contingent] natures. See #5 and #6.)

16. God’s act of will towards himself is necessarily determined. (It is necessary that God’s being and goodness exist; therefore given the nature of the will to will the good, if God wills anything about himself he wills his being and goodness. See #1, #2, #5, and #7.)

17. God’s willing his own existence and goodness does not in itself determine his will to create or refrain from creating creatures. (See #8-12 and especially #13. God is a voluntary agent like a man is an archer. If a man is to be an archer he must fire at least one arrow; if God is to be a voluntary agent he must perform at least one [and in this case, due to divine simplicity, only one] volitional act. If an arrow is fired it is necessarily entailed that the arrow at least pass through the air; if God wills he must at least will his own infinite goodness. The necessity to pass through the air entailed in firing an arrow does not in itself determine whether the arrow will perform the additional operation of hitting a target; similarly the necessity of willing his own infinite being and goodness does not in itself determine whether God’s act of will performs the additional operation of willing some finite being and goodness.)

18. Nothing besides God’s will can determine God’s will to create or to refrain from creating. (The created world, i.e. finite being, does not determine its own existence; the divine nature in itself qua infinite being is indeterminate with regard to the existence or non-existence of finite being. In other words the simple existence of infinite being in itself is a necessary but not sufficient condition for the existence of finite being: finite being cannot exist without infinite being, but infinite being can exist without finite being. Since the divine nature does not determine the divine will towards creatures, but only determines the divine will towards itself, and since nothing outside God can determine anything inside God in any way, therefore nothing whatsoever can determine the divine will as regards creatures precisely insofar as it is formally distinct from the divine nature and from the divine will as regards the divine nature, other than this will itself in its own ratio.)

Therefore I conclude:

19. God’s will to create or to refrain from creating is self-determined, i.e. free.

20. The existence of creatures is radically contingent on the divine will. The divine will itself is necessary with regard to the divine nature and neither necessary nor contingent with regard to creatures, but free. There is contingency in creatures but none in God. The one, simple divine act is in one sense absolutely necessary and in another sense absolutely free.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Divine Simplicity and the Formal Distinction, Part 2

The first part of this essay is posted here.

In order to grasp the kind of simplicity which all Christians acknowledge is proper to God it may be useful to look briefly, for contrast, at the conception of Neoplatonist philosophers like Plotinus. Plotinus’ theology has strong prima facie similarities to Christian theology. He posits an absolute first principle beyond the world, not a part of it, from which the world and all beings are produced or emanate. He posits three “primal hypostases,” the One, the Intellect, and the Soul, which seem to correspond to the three Persons of the Trinity. Upon examination, however, strong differences emerge. The three hypostases for Plotinus are not coequal, of one substance, and so forth. The One is really prior to and greater than the Intellect, which is prior to and generates the Soul. The One is “beyond Being,” in a way that recalls the formulations of some Orthodox theologians, and is absolutely simple in a way unacceptable to Christians. In the One there are no differentiations or multiplicities whatsoever, so there is no knowledge, no will, no properties, no relations—in a sense, nothing; in another sense, everything, but in a manner wholly without distinction. The first distinctions are reserved for the Intellect, which necessarily emanates from the One, similar to it but lesser, since it contains the first seeds of multiplicity. The Intellect knows all things and contains within itself the exemplary forms of all possible beings, in a single unified glance, but with the distinction of subject and object. The One has no thoughts, while the Intellect thinks all things within itself. However, the Intellect does not will or produce the world, but necessarily generates the Soul, which has the function of necessarily (no free and voluntary creation here) reproducing the Intellect’s Ideas in the lower world.
Without elaborating Plotinian philosophy at unnecessary length, the differences between this kind of theology and any Christian theology are enormous and unacceptable. As Christians we must affirm that all three hypostases in the Trinity are equal in substance, power, knowledge, glory, and everything else that applies to God. The Father can be no more simple than the Son and Spirit, nor less of a creator or less all-knowing. Everything that one has, all have. Neoplatonic philosophy can have really absolute simplicity because anything involving distinction or multiplicity can be relegated to the posterior and lesser divine hypostases. For Christians since the divine hypostases are coequal in every way, differing only in their origin, this is not a way out. If the Word of God has a multiplicity of knowledge or the Spirit of God a multiplicity of will, so must God the Father.
But we do want and need to say that there is some sort of multiplicity in God. Leaving aside the distinctions between the Persons of the Trinity, we have to say, for instance, that God is both wise and just. But wisdom and justice are not the same thing; they have different definitions; therefore God must have two attributes, wisdom and justice. Furthermore, God knows and thinks of me, and He knows and thinks of you. But I am not you; thinking of me is different than thinking of you; therefore God must have two thoughts, one of me and one of you. Further examples can be multiplied indefinitely. And yet in spite of this Catholics insist that God remains entirely without composition and therefore entirely simple.
How to get around this? Orthodox theology, to the probable knowledge of anyone reading this essay, does so by means of the essence/energies distinction. God’s essence is “beyond Being,” wholly unknowable, unapproachable, wrapped in the eternal divine darkness. Everything that can be known or experienced or spoken of in God relates to the divine energies, the logoi, the rationes, the predestinations, i.e. all of His thoughts, acts of will, operations, attributes, etc. These energies are uncreated; they are God and not His creatures or effects—and yet they are really distinct from the divine essence and from one another.
My intention here is neither to embrace nor critique this Orthodox formulation. On one interpretation of the real distinction between essence and energy in God, I believe it is either perfectly consistent with Catholic theology; on another interpretation it is certainly inconsistent with Catholic thought and (possibly) nonsensical in itself. My purpose for the present however is to show why Catholic theologians would not formulate any answer to the problem on these terms.
Recall that for the Latin tradition it is inappropriate to refer to God as “beyond Being” when, for reasons given above, Being is God’s own proper name. Recall also that Aristotle, who first formulated the term energeia, meant by the word what is translated in scholastic Latin as “actuality,” and not “operation,” as later Greek theologians used it. Recall again that God’s Being, since it is devoid of all potentiality, is therefore pure actuality, that in God essence and existence are one and the same, and that therefore to a Latin mind God’s essence and his energeia would very naturally be considered to be identical. This however tends to produce arguments about words, not substance. The real question is, do or can Latin thinkers posit along with Greeks a set of uncreated “somethings” distinct from God’s essence and from each other?
Well, the prima facie answer is no. The most familiar Catholic approach to this problem, the Thomistic one, would conclude that the Orthodox formulation introduces too much distinction into God and makes Him complex, composite, not supremely One.
For Thomas as for Orthodoxy the divine mystery surpasses all created understanding. God in His essence can never be exhaustively grasped. The fact that we know something about the essence, its proper name of Being, the fact that we know God to be ipsum esse subsistens, does not mean that we understand God’s Being, that we can put it in its place in our systems of categories. We know His name but we don’t know what it means; although we can know the essences of created things we can’t know what it is to be God. All knowledge and all concepts we have of God in this state of the viator are derived from His effects, His creatures, and while every creature reflects Him and can give us knowledge of Him, none does so fully or adequately. Because of this concepts that we have of God, which are true of Him, are necessarily separate and exclusive, while the reality in God which they (truly) reflect is identical. So from one creature I may derive the idea of God’s justice, and from another the idea of God’s wisdom, and in every creaturely instance that can present itself justice and wisdom are non-identical properties; therefore I am forced to think of God’s justice and wisdom as distinct, even though I know that due to His simplicity they are actually identical with each other. Everything that God has, he is: so for Him to be, to be just, to be wise, are all one and the same thing. God’s simple nature, his simple act of Being, in itself always wholly and entirely just and wise, is reflected and imitated in creatures now as justice, now as wisdom. Similarly God is His thought, and therefore thinks of you and of me and of all individuals in a single simple ineffable thought which is himself, and yet knows all these distinct composite beings in His own simple act of Being. This is incomprehensible to us since we are unable to think that way. And again, by His one simple act God produces now necessarily (in the Trinitarian processions) and now freely and contingently (in creation); in one action he voluntarily creates a multitude of effects, the way a skilled archer can shoot two arrows and hit two targets with a single shot. We see God’s thoughts, actions, and wills as distinct because of the limitation of our knowledge, not because there is actual composite multiplicity there. In other words, God’s essence and his attributes are notionally and not really distinct.
For the Orthodox theologian this sounds as though it cannot be right without producing a number of gravely unacceptable consequences. To name just one, how can God freely create if His necessary essence is completely identical with His will? Won’t His will have to be equally necessary? Won’t creation be reduced to a series of necessary emanations, as for Plotinus? To the Orthodox theologian it looks as though the Thomistic account allows too little distinction in God and thereby robs Him of distinctively Christian attributes.
Traditionally the Catholic way to truth has been to find the middle way between opposing positions. Sometimes this requires finding the truth that balances two opposing errors, the way Aristotelian virtues find the mean between two opposite vices. Here it would be gravely rash to accuse both Palamas and Thomas of being heretical; I find it much more likely to assume that neither of them are, and to look for a middle way which could see and affirm the truth in each.
In order to see what this middle way might consist of, I have to stop a moment and talk about distinctions. So far I have acknowledged two kinds of distinctions, real and notional or mental. It is relatively simple to grasp the meaning of each. Two things are really distinct when they are really independent, or when they can really be separated, or when one can really exist without the other. Corporeal parts are obviously really distinct in this way. So are metaphysical elements, such as matter and form: this matter can take other forms than the one it now has, and this form can inform other lumps of matter than the one it currently does. Two things are mentally or notionally distinct when in reality they are identical but in my knowledge or concepts they are separate. Mark Twain and Samuel Clemens are really identical but they may be mentally distinct. In the two formulas “2+2=x” and “3+1=y” x and y are notionally distinct but really identical.
It seems clear then that when Palamas posits real distinctions in God and Thomas merely notional distinctions, they are saying radically different things and they cannot both be right. However I suspect that this is not the case. For to take Palamas at face value seems to introduce real composition into God, and to take Thomas at face value seems to imply that even the Persons of the Trinity are really all one and the same, as well as problems with divine freedom, etc. Neither of these thinkers however would be at all willing to grant any of these conclusions and so, unless we want to convict one or the other or both of radical inconsistently, we must find a way to understand them which is not absurd or contradictory.
I think that this way is through Bl. John Duns Scotus’s formal distinction, the distinctio formalis a parte rei, formal distinction on the part of the thing. This kind of distinction finds the middle ground between fully real and merely notional distinctions, but it is subtle and more difficult to grasp than the other two. Let’s try to get a sense of it through a few examples.
Perhaps most people have seen those visual puzzles that seem to produce an optical illusion. On a piece of paper there is a single figure in black ink. What is it? Viewed in one way it is clearly a picture of two black faces turned towards each other with white space in the middle; viewed from another way it looks like a white cup with an incomplete black outline. Which is the true picture? Clearly both are “there.” When asked how many images there are we have to say that there is one figure or shape but two pictures or two images. They are not merely notionally distinct: a face is not a cup and a picture of one is not a picture of the other. And yet they are not really distinct: one cannot be removed or changed without destroying the other. The puzzle has been constructed such that here really is one shape or figure and two pictures or images, and these images are formally distinct.
Again, think of a book, say, the Iliad. It contains a number of different—well, we will call them formalities. It contains themes (the rage of Achilles, the horrors of war, the beauty of nature etc.), characters (Achilles, Hector, Odysseus etc.), a plot (the sequence of events from the quarrel of Achilles and Agamemnon to the truce of Achilles and Priam), as well as meter, vocabulary, the Greek Alphabet, and so forth. Now surely these are not all merely notionally distinct. The character of Achilles cannot be reduced to the letters of the Alphabet or to the instances in which the sequence of letters in his name occurs in the poem. The plot is not identical to the meter. And yet they are not really distinct either: each of these different formalities or elements is embodied in every other and is wholly inseparable from them. The characters and the plot and the vocabulary all shape and determine each other in a unique way to form this individual poem, and all exist simultaneously and in harmony in the very same determinate sequence of words and letters. Each set of formalities is identical with the poem, and each is formally distinct from the other.
Finally, to take a philosophical example that Scotus actually discusses, I in my individuality am not really distinct from my nature. I can not exist as this individual with my humanity (nor can humanity exist without being the humanity of some or other individual man). But my individuality and my humanity are not merely notionally distinct—it is not true for Scotus as it is for Thomas that matter is the principle of individuation and that therefore an individual person is merely a singular instance of the nature. For Scotus there is really a formal me-ness which makes me distinct from all other men—and yet, though this is my intrinsic and essential form, I also share the formal essence “humanity” with all men and my me-ness cannot be really distinct from this human-ness. Socrates is himself by his form; he is a man by his humanity and he is Socrates by his Socrateity. Socrateity and humanity then are a single substantial form in Socrates, but they are also and at the same time two formally distinct formalities. This implies no composition in Socrates’ form (although there is certainly composition in Socrates). Socrateity and humanity are not added or blended together to produce the whole. Rather each is the whole, each contains and is limited by the other.
By now the application of the formal distinction to the problem of divine simplicity should be obvious. With our third and middle distinction to show the way we can see how there can be a plurality in God without there being a true multiplicity. The infinity of ideas within God is a real infinity of formalities, without there being an infinity of separate forms in God. God’s free will and His necessary knowledge are not identical, they indicate a real difference; to the precise degree that to will and to know are different they indicate two formalities in God, and yet each is inseparable from the simple actuality of God’s infinite Being. Applications to Trinitarian theology should also suggest themselves. Paternity is not the same thing as Filiation; Fatherhood and Sonship are not identical; in the divine generation then there can be two (and three) distinct realities in the form of three distinct hypostases or supposits without there being a real multiplicity in being or substance. Since Fatherhood, Unbegottenness, Fontal Plenitude, Monarchy, or however the First Person is best characterized, is not entirely and completely identical with the Divine Being, there is a “real” distinction between the Father and the essence without there being a real distinction; that is, the Father can be God, and all of God, without this precluding the Son and the Spirit also being God. The way in which all this is fully and consistently elaborated, however, is of course, far beyond the scope of my present ambition.
Since this essay is not scholarly in character I cannot attempt to prove that this is the view implicitly looked for in both Thomistic and Palamite theologies, but hindered by a poverty of vocabulary and (perhaps) conceptual subtlety. Nevertheless I suspect strongly that such is the case. This Scotistic middle way both avoids the pitfalls of a real distinction between God’s essence and his attributes which seems (if the term “real” is stressed at all strongly) to lead inexorably to some form of composition in God, as well as those of merely notional distinctions in Him which seem not to allow for simultaneous contingency and necessity, for meaningful differences between being, knowing, willing, creating, and operating. Because Palamas does not want to introduce composition into God and because Thomas does not want to prohibit free unnecessitated creation, I believe that neither the one nor the other should be hastily accused of putting either too much or too little distinction in God. Rather, just as the medievals interpreted the Fathers charitably whenever a Father used words which seemed to conflict with known dogmatic truth, showing that the Father could be understood in an orthodox way as well as in the apparently heretical way, so we ourselves should charitably interpret the medievals. Thus before we accuse Thomas’ views of inevitably implying consequences which he himself would condemn as damnable heresy, it is our duty to ask ourselves if his views can be understood in a manner which does not imply such views. In any case, whatever a historian may eventually show St Thomas to have held, it seems to me clear that, thanks to Blessed John, Catholic dogma itself can certainly be interpreted in a way which attributes to God the right amount of distinction, neither too much nor too little.
When I began this essay I intended to devote a significant portion of it not only to the exposition of the problem and Scotistic solution of divine simplicity, but also on the effect that the doctrine has on Catholic mystical theology and deification. Orthodox writers frequently claim that their distinction between God’s essence and energies is necessary to preserve an authentic experiential mysticism and true theosis, and I intended to show that neither of these is absent in genuine Catholic tradition. I find now however that I have already gone on longer than intended and must only give the broadest sketch at this point.
As noted in the beginning, mystical theology has its seeds in the patriarchal walking, talking, wrestling with God, while dogmatic theology begins in the personal revelation of God as Being and as One. We cannot, however, divorce Moses and mysticism, for Moses saw the back of God as He passed by; Moses spoke with God face to face like a man does with His friend; and when Moses descended from the mountain the divine light shone from his face. In the obvious foreshadowing this event has of the Transfiguration we see a mystical experience tied to dogmatic revelation in a way that seems particularly “Orthodox,” while Catholic mysticism has tended to find its Old Testament exemplar with Elijah in the cave, listening to the still, small voice. For the Orthodox, mystical experience and the very joy of the blessed in heaven reach as far as the uncreated energies of God while leaving the divine essence “beyond Being,” untouchable, ungraspable, wholly shrouded in the dark cloud of unknowing. We with Moses can see the glory of God in His back, and participate in it, and this glory can shine forth from our countenance, but we do not see him face to face. Catholics however, insisting more on the divine simplicity than on the divine plurality, and holding that God is not “beyond Being” but IS being, do not take the revelation and experience on Sinai to be the final and definitive word. God IS unfathomable, he is ungraspable. But he dwells not so much in a divine darkness beyond being but in the infinite light of infinite Being, so bright that it blinds our finite minds and seems like darkness. And so the vision of God’s back in the end is not the best that humanity can do; after long acquaintance with the Word of God, after suffering and persecution and near-despair, we may find ourselves once again on a mountain with the glory and splendor and terror of the divine operations surrounding us. But though they do indeed reveal Him God is not really in the wind or the fire or the earthquake, but in the still, small voice speaking within us. Thus St John of the Cross’s distrust of mystical “manifestations”; to take the experience of the Light of Tabor as normative for Christian experience would I suspect strike him as rather bizarre.
For both Catholic and Orthodox the mystical experience of the viator is both foretaste and preparation for the fullness of the next life. Both affirm that by grace we become partakers in the divine nature. For the Orthodox however this is by participating in the energies of God, seeing him now like Moses on Sinai, and then like the Apostles seeing Christ on Tabor. But Catholic mysticism goes beyond this: though God dwells in light inaccessible, yet in His light we shall see light. Now we know in part, but then face to face. We will be like Him, for we will know Him as he is. These phrases have a different sense for the Catholic, for, with his emphasis on God’s simplicity, not considering the divine energies as in any way secondary “things” to God’s essence, he indeed hopes to see God in His very essence itself in the Beatific Vision.
Two things may be noted in connection with this. The first is the connection for the Catholic between simplicity and perfection in prayer. The deeper and the better I learn to pray, the more all my diverse faculties will be quieted, stilled, drawn up and united into a simple loving gaze focused on God. All of the complicated “practices” associated with Catholic prayer belong to its early stages. True prayer is like that of St John Vianny, who used to simply sit before the Sacrament and look at God as God looked at him. In this life we in no way draw near to God’s essence in prayer, but as our attention on him becomes more and more simple and reposed in a kind of loving knowledge, a kind of ever-deepening knowing love, we become better disposed for the vision of God’s essence upon glorification.
The second thing to be noted is that the kind of union attained upon the Beatific Vision is neither, as some Orthodox claim, a hypostatic union in which the distinction between Creator and creature is eliminated, and nor is it a devaluation of God’s transcendency, as though its possibility implied that the depths of divine being could be plumbed. True, in Latin theology the blessed are called “comprehensors,” they comprehend God when they see him whole. But the manner of this comprehension is like the way in which I see a great and profound painting: I see it all at once, for there is no part of it which I do not see. And yet I do not grasp its entire meaning and beauty; indeed, although in one sense as I continue to gaze on it I never see anything new, in another and more important sense the longer I look the more I see. The Beatific Vision is like that. It is a union, not of hypostasis, so that distinction of natures is erased, but a union of knowledge and love, in which our whole soul is informed by God as its object while remaining in its nature itself.
To conclude, may I say that it is immediately apparent that there are wide and significant divergences in Catholic and Orthodox prayer and mystical theology. As I hope this essay has to some extent indicated, the roots of these differences can be at least to some extent traced back to differences in dogmatic theology. While I have certainly been concerned, however, to justify the Catholic attitude and approach in all the matters dealt with, and to defend it against accusations of bearing false implications, I hope I have also indicated room for hope that between the two theologies (and therefore the two mysticisms) the gulf is not necessarily impassible. The two notions of Christian experience which seem so incompatible are based on two dogmatic accounts of the Godhead which themselves seem incompatible. And yet if, as I believe, an intellectually rigorous account of divine simplicity exists which ought to satisfy both sides, perhaps the two sides are not as far apart as they seem to each other, but may in fact eventually find one another mutually complementary.
There seems to be evidence on which to support this hope that neither side may prove in the end to have simply been wrong on dogmatic issues (although only a few could be touched on here). After all, throughout the centuries, neither Catholics nor Orthodox have ceased to produce saints.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Divine Simplicity and the Formal Distinction, Part 1

In response to a request I'm reposting the two essays I wrote for the old Pontifications some years ago. I didn't revise them, but I glanced over them, and it seems like I can pretty much still endorse their contents. This first one does seem rather overblown to me now, though. Don't judge too harshly, faithful readers.

The first essay is pretty long, and I'm posting it in two parts. The second part will follow tomorrow. The other essay - really just a single long argument - is shorter and I'll post it whole.

* * *

Revelation, in the sense of an experiential contact with God, began at the Garden of Eden and has continued throughout human history: God in his dealings with Adam, Enoch, Noah, and Abraham revealed Himself as Creator, Judge, and Lord. He spoke to the patriarchs and wrestled “face to face” with the fathers of Israel as he began the work of redeeming the human race, setting aside a people to himself as the first stage in the great plan. God’s personal interaction with Abraham and Jacob might be said to constitute the beginning of mystical theology, in which He is touched, argued with, grappled with in the darkness of divinity.
In another sense, however, Revelation begins centuries later than this. Moses, standing before the burning bush, asks his interlocutor, “When the children of Israel ask who sent me, what shall I tell them?” The Voice, the Word replies, “I AM WHO I AM. Tell them that I AM has sent you.” This, no less than the call of Abraham, is an epochal event in the history of the Church. Before this point the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob was known to the Israelites, but not by any name peculiar to Himself. They called Him God, Lord, the Most High, and so forth, but these were all names used by other peoples for other gods. This God was surely not one among these many gods, for He was the Creator of all; but how was he to be distinguished from them? At the burning bush God reveals Himself to His chosen people in a sense less intimately than to their fathers, for he does not appear in the likeness of human form; but in a more important sense He now becomes more intimate with them, casting off His created mask to unveil His own nature, separating Himself from the many names of the many gods by revealing His own proper Name. This is the seed and beginning, not of mystical theology, but of dogmatic theology. The Name, the vocal formulation, reveals a truth which the Israelites do not experience, but accept as definitive and authoritative; and yet in it God is more truly known than He was through patriarchal experience.
Based on this foundational moment western Catholic theology has continually affirmed that God has revealed among His many names His true and proper Name, and that name is Being. “I Am” is Who He Is. The stupidest thing the fool can say in his heart is “there is no God,” or “Deus non est.” Deus est! God is! This is taken to be a revelation of God’s very essence, His nature, so that while for every creature to be is something other than what the creature is, for God to be IS what God is: He is ipsum esse subsistens, substistent being Himself.
This is both a theological statement and a metaphysical statement. Revelation is not merely an interpersonal exchange; it has intellectual content. At the encounter with Moses in the burning bush the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob reveals Himself as at the same time the God of the philosophers.
Furthermore, in addition to His Name God revealed to Israel through Moses at least one more “dogmatic” fact, formulated in the “Shema”: “Hear, O Israel, the Lord your God, the Lord is One.” This, perhaps, is the whole essence of the theology of the first covenant: God is One, and we know His Name; these two facts provide the template for Jewish identity hereafter. These two dogmatic truths are also the essential precondition and presupposition of the Christian Revelation, for the most radical and Godlike statement Christ ever made was “Before Abraham was, I AM.” This is no mere claim of longevity, and the Jews knew it; Christ gives as his own the Divine Name; this is the mustard seed which contains the entire tree of Incarnational Theology, and hence, Trinitarian Theology.
All of this has been said by way of preface; for my intention is to write about the “problem” of Divine Simplicity. It seemed necessary before discussing the content of Catholic philosophical theology to defend it at the outset from certain characterizations which sometimes take the form of reproaches. Theology is both mystical and dogmatic; it takes place on the intersection between Revelation and Philosophy, between experience and authority. No adequate theology can afford to neglect one of these strands in order to privilege another, though this is not to imply that there is no hierarchy in the elements of theology—there is. Thus, though the theology of the Catholic Church is mystical as well as dogmatic (and I will have occasion to glance at how the doctrine of divine simplicity does indeed affect the doctrine and experience of deification), still it is in a sense dogmatic before it is mystical: the experience of God, the vision of Him face to face, is indeed the end and goal of all our theology, but we begin in the darkness of faith which relies on doctrine to guide our experience, to ensure that our experience never mistakes the false for the true. And again, if Catholic theology has a tendency in its pedagogy to begin with the One and proceed to the Many rather than the other way around, it claims as precedent the order of divine revelation itself.
For the Catholic theologian and philosopher, then, God is Being and God is One. The doctrine of Divine Simplicity exists to safeguard these absolute and fundamental truths. Before I look at how it may also be problematic, and at the solution to these problems, I will first examine how it serves a positive role in distinguishing God from everything else.
Every creature is composed. In the case of corporeal creatures this is obvious enough. A tree, a rock, a man, is composed of elements into which it can be dissolved and thereby destroyed. Science has not yet found a simple elemental particle devoid of all composition, and chances are never will. A tree can be actually divided into wood, bark, leaves, etc. The leaves can be removed from the tree and still exist (although remove enough bits and the whole tree will no longer exist). Components of this type, components into which the whole can be dissolved, I will refer to as parts. Corporeal things are composed of parts by way of continuity and contiguity, i.e. my parts have to be either continuous with themselves, like flesh, or attached by direct contiguity, like the way flesh is attached to bone. Having parts in this way requires having divisible spatial extension, and so I will refer to no other elements of composition as parts. Note that the whole is greater than its parts and is not its parts: I am not hands plus feet plus blood and so forth. Otherwise a collection of the same parts jumbled together any which way would make the same whole (which is the case with heaps and piles, but not with real substances), which they do not. My parts have to be composed according to something which is not a part or collection of parts, that is, the ruling idea, the form.
Clearly God is not composed of parts in this way. There are all sorts of reasons why God cannot have extension and corporeal structure, and I can only mention a few. If God were composed of parts that would mean he was posterior to them—after all, I certainly come later than the atoms which compose my body, and they will continue to exist when my body is dust. I depend on them to exist but they don’t depend on me. But if God had such parts then He could not be Being, but something composed out of beings. He could not be the source of all being, because He Himself would have some prior being as his source. Furthermore if God were composed of many individual parts He would not be One in the highest degree, and He could, perhaps, be dissolved back into His component parts the way other bodies can. This is all obvious enough and therefore all sane Christians admit that God is simple, that is, uncomposed, in this sense.
There are however other kinds of composition. My mind is not composed of extended, continuous or contiguous parts. It cannot be “decomposed” into more primitive structures, but is an indivisible whole. In this sense my mind is simple. However, as with the body the mind is composed of potency and act, and (according to some Catholic thinkers) of its own kind of matter and form, and (according to some others) of essence and existence. My mind has some potentialities which are not yet and may never be actual, concurrently with it present actualities. My essence, my nature whether specific or individual, is not the same thing as my actual existence. I can have my matter and a different form (within limits). I can have my current potential but be exercising different activities. There can be my essence without it having its own proper existence (Hamlet and Frodo Baggins have essence—I can say what and even who they are—but they don’t have existence). Even though my potency and act, my essence and existence, cannot be removed from each other and continue to be, the way parts can, they are still really differing principles that requires God to bring them together for the whole really existing me to be.
God is not composed in any of these other ways either. God can have no potentiality, or else something would have to be able to actualize it. God can’t have both matter and form, or else something prior would have to unite them. Most of all, God alone among beings cannot have an essence other than His own existence because He is Being. Who could give existence to His essence? Who could give being to Being? He is the source of being for all others things and can have no source himself.
One way to look at it is like this: God is sometimes called by theologians an infinite ocean of substance. Being is not an abstraction, like a sole mathematical point, with all determinations stripped away; Being is an overflowing fullness of substance, infinite where all else is finite. Essence in creatures is a contraction, a limitation, a narrowing of Being. Humanity, my essence, is not what it is to be, but what it is to be human, to be such-and-such, while arbority, the essence of a tree, is what it is to be arboreal, to be another sort of such-and-such, to be this way instead of that. To be a creature is to receive limited being from unlimited Being. God then, Being Himself, can have no such essence other than what He Is. What it is for God to be is not to be such-and-such, to be in this kind of way and not that, but simply to be. God then is not composed of principles (as opposed to parts) in this way, i.e. He is simple.
Again, the necessity of having a limited essence for creatures is tied up with the necessity of creatures to be composed of potency and act. Let me trot out a few terms here. Potentiality in Greek is dunamis, and is correlative with energeia, with in scholasticism is translated as actuality. All potentiality is a potency for some actuality; all actuality (for creatures) is the act of some potency. But not all actualities are the same; my actuality is different from that of a tree or dog; nor can the differences between them be reduced to differences in potentialities, since at its root potency is undetermined. The same atoms can be trees or dogs or me. The mediating principle then between potency and act is form, eide, or essence, to ti en enai, quod quid erat esse, what-it-is-for-a-thing-to-be. The essence of a creature is a limiting formal determination of the potentiality in question to this or that kind of actuality, simultaneously precluding it from being determined to other kinds. So if I have the essence humanity, if I have human nature, the range of actualities for me is restricted to human ones, excluding canine, arboreal, or angelic actualities. But God cannot have a limited and limiting essence in this way. God cannot fall under this genus of things and not under that. God cannot be one thing among many. If God is Being than all beings will all their determinations flow from Him and He can be limited by nothing. If God is Being than he can have no potential Being (what prior thing could bring Being to actuality?), but only actual Being. If God is Being he can have no limiting essence, nothing which determines an actuality this way or that way, but rather He must be actuality pure and simple; not the act of any potency, one among a range of possible acts, but absolutely unlimited, infinite actuality. God is existence with the finite limiting determinations of the essences stripped away. Therefore God is not a composite being like all created beings; therefore He is simple Being.
Let me note before moving on that Catholics do not say, with some Orthodox theologians, that God is “beyond Being.” We believe we must affirm that the God who says “I AM,” IS. Nevertheless He is not subsumed under rationalistic “categories of Being.” All such categories were formulated with respect to and only have relevance for creatures. No dichotomy of genus/species, substance/accidents, essence/existence, etc., applies to God. He is not a being among beings, He is Being from whom all beings have their source.
The claim that God is simple in the sense of wholly uncomposed is not controversial among Christians. What is controversial is the way in which God’s simplicity is to be reconciled with distinctions in God that everyone sees the need to make. Most obviously, God is not only One, but Three. How can we say that God exists in three Persons without saying that God is composed of three persons? How can we say that God both knows and wills without saying either that He is not absolutely simple or that for Him knowing and willing are the same thing (which is hard to understand or affirm)? How can we say that He knows each and every creature individually without positing in Him a multiplicity of concepts?

Assisi Manuscripts online

I seem to be the last to know, but the entire Assisi medieval mss. collection has been digitized and is available for free. So be sure to check out Ms. 137, the basis of the Vatican edition of Scotus, as well as various mss. of Alnwick, James of Ascoli, Antonius Andreas, Petrus Thomae and more!

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Philosophy Begins in Wonder

In his Commentary on the Metaphysics (Book I, lecture 3, para. 54-56), St Thomas Aquinas discusses Aristotle's saying that philosophy begins in wonder. Men long ago sought to overcome their ignorance, and enquired about the hidden causes of the things they saw, especially in the heavens. For doubt and wonder proceed from ignorance. When we see some manifest effect whose cause is hidden, we are led to wonder about that cause. From this it is clear that the philosopher is in some way a lover of myths and stories, and is akin to the poets. Whence the first men who treated about the principles of things in a mythical way are called the theologizing poets - for instance, the Seven Sages of ancient Greece.

The reason that philosophers are compared to poets is that each is moved by wonder. For the stories which the poets tell are made up of marvels (just look at Homer, or the Metamorphoses!), i.e. wonderful things. And philosophers themselves are moved to philosophize by wonder. And since wonder comes out of ignorance, it is clear that the early sages were moved to philosophize in order to flee from ignorance. And so for this reason they sought studiously, and not for the sake of any utility.

But we should take note that the name of wisdom has changed to that of philosophy. Pythagoras is said to have been the first to call himself a philosopher, in order to distinguish himself from the sophists, those who claimed to be wise. He would claim only to love wisdom, and not yet to be wise. And he seems to be a lover of wisdom who seeks it, not for the sake of something else, but for itself. For he who seeks something for another's sake, loves the thing on account of which he seeks it, more than what he seeks itself.

I think this notion of philosophy and its origins goes a good part of the way in resolving some of the earlier discussion on the history of philosophy. Why is, e.g., the debate over analogy vs. univocity being studied? In order to understand medieval history, or in order understand how we can know God? Of course one can have both goals, but which is prior? The motivation and attitude behind the study has, perhaps, more to do with whether you are studying as a philosopher than anything else.

The other point that interests me is Aquinas' account of wonder. Since wonder is tied, in this conception, to ignorance, which the philosopher wants to overcome, the wonder itself is not a goal. To philosophize is not to admire the starry heavens openmouthed and saying "like, wow, man!" To get lost in the labyrinth and mystery of being is not philosophy, unless you try to navigate it. A praiseworthy sense of wonder does not travel hopefully without any thought of its destination: it hopes to arrive, and regards the arrival as better than the travel. Not that we shouldn't enjoy the trip!

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Confession Once a Year

In his Sent. IV., St Bonaventure is discussing the obligation of all Christians to go to Confession at least once a year. Why should this be? The sacrament of penance is the "second plank" if one falls out of the Ark of salvation by sinning mortally after baptism. But what if one is very good and hasn't sinned this year?

To preface these remarks, remember that St Bonaventure was so holy those knowing him said they could believe that Adam never sinned in him. But here he says: "So long as we are in this life, one guilt succeeds another; and so it is necessary that confession and penitence need to be repeated . . . I believe that it is impossible, in the state of a viator, that anyone could go through a week or even a day without the gnawing of venial sin; but that someone should go a whole year, this I think is really impossible, and I scarcely believe that this gift was in anyone, except in Christ and his Mother, and therefore everyone is either aware of sin or ought to be, and ever hour to ask "Forgive us our trespasses", etc. For scarcely can anyone in this life be without venial sin, whether on account of its frequency, because the uproar of vices and venial sins always resound in the ears of our heart; or on account of ignorance, because we sin venially in many things and don't know it or think about it . . ."

We are not obliged to confess every venial sin, and if we have not sinned mortally in the last year, we should be grateful. But we remain sinners, and we are obliged to sacramentally confess our sinfulness and the multitude of minor sins every year, at least.

Of course, for those of us who don't have the problem of wondering whether we are too good for confession, we should be grateful that the second plank is available much more than once a year, and avail ourselves of it as often as we can.