Wednesday, January 13, 2021

The Problem of Universals

 

Abraham Janssens - Heraclitus
Our consideration thus far of the philosophical conceptions of Truth, Beauty, and Goodness have taken us from Ancient and Classical Greece, through the period of the Roman Empire, culminating in the triumph of Christianity in the Middle Ages with significant intellectual contributions along the way from Judaic and Islamic thought. Among the many approaches to philosophy there existed a widespread commitment to the idea that in spite of an apparent world of constant change, a closer examination reveals that the universe reflected order and purpose which might even be accessible to human reason. The search for an underlying unity and permanence came to dominate the aims of Western philosophy. This essay serves as a of summation of what we have heretofore discussed by considering a philosophical difficulty that became insurmountable towards the close of the Medieval period: the Problem of Universals. The attempted reconciliation by the Greeks of order and chaos, form and matter, the one and the many was fraught with challenges from the very beginning. The incorporation of Greek philosophy into Christianity offered solutions to some problems yet raised further difficulties. Ultimately, the uneasy synthesis tightly woven over the course of two millennia began to loosen and unravel in the 14th century, making way for a very different, scientific world view to supplant the vision of a purposeful universe.

Forms and Universals

Leonidas Drosis - Plato
The early Greek philosopher Heraclitus observed that though the material world was in an apparent state of constant strife, closer examination revealed that this was subsumed under a greater uniting intelligence he called the Logos. Alternatively, his near contemporary Parmenides held real being as a static and unchanging One while describing the world of sense as mere illusion. In response, Plato's great intellectual synthesis of earlier Greek philosophy resulted in his theory of the Forms: eternal, stable objects of the intuitive intelligence, the ideal as real being. Plato offered a hypothesis that man is animated by a rational soul that enjoyed a prior existence in the realm of the Forms and that his intellect properly directed empowers him to recognise the Forms in which sensible material things participate such as absolute truth, beauty, goodness, and other moral and aesthetic "transcendentals". Plato later extended his Forms to sensible qualities and particular objects so that the red of a rose might be said to imitate the Form of "redness" or dear old Socrates might participate in the Form of "man". What distinguished Plato's Forms from their temporal manifestations in sensible things was their incorporeal, eternal, completely independent reality that was fixed as perfect exemplars, never to change or perish.

Nevertheless, how does our material world result from a realm of transcendent, unchanging Forms? It's one thing to furnish an explanation for the patterns that we seem to recognise in nature but the Forms as described don't actually do anything. Plato's theory lacked an efficient cause of how material things came to resemble them. For this he resorted to a creation story of how a god-like being he called the Demiurge applied the order inherent in the Forms to pre-exisitng matter, at least to the extent that matter would imperfectly receive them. Yet such a myth is obviously a stand in for an unsolved difficulty in Plato's theory. Keenly aware of the problem, Plato's long time student Aristotle strove to reformulate his master's theory. 

Aristotle placed more emphasis than Plato on what Aristotle called the Physics: the study of our material world of sensible particulars subject to movement and change. However, he likewise profoundly addressed and critiqued Plato's theory of Forms in his pursuit of the Metaphysics: the study of unchanging substances that are insensible and eternal. Unlike Plato, Aristotle contended that we have no innate knowledge of transcendental Forms from a previous existence. Neither would Aristotle hold that things of this world imitate or participate in Forms located in some incorporeal realm; rather, they're right here with us, tied up in all of matter. In what he defined as a species, what we recognise is similarity across many individuals. This likeness is explained as due to our apprehension that there is a form that organises each species into what he calls the substantial form. Whereas the substantial form is essential to the species (that which enables us to define it), Aristotle accounts for subtle differences among the individuals of a species by non-essential, accidental forms such as size (quantity) and color (quality). 

Aristotle had an empirical leaning; he held that our entryway to knowledge of the world necessarily must begin in sense experience. Nevertheless, Aristotle contended that sense could never on its own lead to apprehension of the forms in things. Rather, it is our faculty of intellect that can reflect on the similarities we see across many particular things and abstract out of them an unchanging, organising principle. This intellectual abstraction of the form takes place only in the mind whereas the form itself remains "immanent", that is to say it never exists apart from the substance it informs. The abstracted form recoginised by the intellect Aristotle calls a Universal. Although we're obligated to abstract Universals from particular things, it is really the Universals, the formal aspect of existence that informs all of matter, generating the world of sense. However, are all of these Universals really there, tied up with the matter of particular substances? How can we be sure they're just not concepts we've made up in our head? And what of truth, beauty, goodness, and other of Plato's transcendental Forms which seem by Aristotle to be more descriptive of rational relations rather than pertaining to sensible substances?

The Neoplatonic and Christian Syntheses

To synthesise means quite literally to "place together" which is precisely what began to occur over time with Plato's theory of Forms and Aristotle's theory of Universals. One such notable philosophical synthesiser was Plotinus who presented a concept of God as a complete Unity, the One, and Source that transcends all contingent being of which we have experience. As such he claimed that there is no basis for abstraction from experience in which to form a concept of God. What appear at first as positive descriptions are nothing more than negations: God is invisible (not visible), infinite (not finite), immobile (not moving), incomprehensible (not understandable). Sure, we can say that God is The Good; however, not as a quality like things of our experience might possess, rather a necessary aspect of His essence. Yet again, that transcends our experience so to say that God is The Good is to say that we don't fully understand what He is and must resort to analogies.

As an explanation of how such a transcendent God can effect change without Himself changing, Plotinus offered the theory of emanation. He utilised the analogies of the sun giving light and heat whilst it remains unchanged or alternatively how a mirror may provide a reflected image without the source undergoing change to illustrate how the divine intelligence is like a shining forth or a reflection, the first direct emanation of God. Plotinus called this divine intelligence Nous and says that within it are contained all of the Forms as previously described by Plato. In the next stage of emanation, from Nous comes forth the World-Soul. In its higher aspect the World-Soul accepts the Forms from Nous whilst in its lower aspect it uses the Forms to animate pre-existent matter thus producing the cosmos. This Neoplatonist model preserves the Forms of Plato that exist apart in a transcendental realm, although it moves them from an independent existence into Ideas of the divine intelligence, Nous. Nevertheless, his description of the Forms is quite reminiscent of Aristotle's Universals since in our world of experience the Forms are always immanent, tied up in matter. Furthermore, in Plotinus' emanation model, matter has a more active role; the privation of Form accounts at least in part for the individual differences across an informed species.

Saint Augustine was well acquainted with the teachings of Plotinus and extended the synthesis by incorporating Neoplatonist concepts into Christian theology. Augustine eliminated the intermediary being of Nous and posited the eternal Forms as Ideas directly in the mind of God. He pointed out obstacles to the unaided human intellect's ability to abstract eternal Forms from nature as both the human mind and the world of experience were in constant states of flux. Augustine uses the metaphor of divine illumination to explain how God enlightens the human intellect so that it can exercise its capacity to see the Forms or Ideas reflected in contingent creation and more importantly to assent to eternal truths including the necessary existence of God.

The greatest synthesis of Platonic and Aristotelian philosophy (both with each other and additionally with Christian theology) must be credited to Saint Thomas Aquinas. In accord with the Platonic and Augustinian tradition, Aquinas affirms that the eternal Forms exist as exemplary Ideas in the mind of God, hence humans can come to know of the Ideas by divine illumination. However, he also asserts that the human intellect, while it does not have innate ideas from a former existence, is nevertheless made in the image of God and thus has an inherent capacity, a disposition towards rationality that can reveal at least some archetypal Ideas.

Following Aristotle, Aquinas proposed that corporeal things are a proper object of the human intellect. Such corporeal things are composed of substantial form and sensible matter. The form in things have their origin in the Ideas of God as does matter itself, form and matter coming into existence together as substance in an act of creation. The form is the Universal element, what constitutes the species, apprehended by the intellect whereas matter is apprehended by the senses, including the "common" sense that presents a unified perception to the intellect. For Aquinas, Universals certainly exist as concepts in the divine intellect, likewise being accessible by abstraction to the human mind. Nevertheless, whereas the substantial form retains this universal character in being shared across a given species, the matter component by contrast becomes designated by God, serving as the principle of individuation. As for unity, goodness, and truth, Aquinas maintained these as transcendental properties of being itself, manifest across all species and genera. Beauty, often referred to as a lost transcendental, although highly regarded by Aquinas didn't seem explicitly to make the transcendental cut.

The Medieval Breakdown

Perhaps due to Aristotle's original framing utlising species and genera, the clear outline of the problem of Universals may seem obscure. Fundamentally the question boils down to this: Is there anything in extra-mental reality that corresponds to our concepts? I think we'd like to believe that there is some basis for the commonalities that we encounter in experience beyond our minds inventing connections that are not really there. For example, when physicists and chemists explore the "genera" of atoms or choose to focus on the "species" of carbon or hydrogen, they of course don't examine each and every atom individually. They analyse a representative sample, abstracting properties from which they assume a common behaviour. Without at least a provisional acceptance of a common nature, that is to say a distributed necessity or physical determinism, empirical science would be impossible.

Nevertheless, certain problems with the conception of Universals as described by Aristotle were already recognised by the Neoplatonist philosopher Porphyry: "I shall omit to speak about genera and species, as to whether they subsist (in the nature of things) or in mere conceptions only; whether also if subsistent, they are bodies or incorporeal, and whether they are separate from, or in, sensibles, and subsist about these". The above might be restated as follows:

Are Universals merely concepts of the human mind or are they also subsistent entities, are they "real"?

Assuming they are real:

Are Universals corporeal or incorporeal?

Are Universals immanent in sensible things or are they transcendent?

Although Porphyry does a good job of outlining the problem of Universals he begs off addressing it. That task would be taken up a couple of centuries later by Boethius, an early Medieval Christian philosopher who was writing commentaries on both Aristotle and Porphyry. Boethius laid out an argument supporting that Universals were clearly concepts of the human mind yet at the same time maintain a reference to something extra-mentally. By his account, the mind can decompose or abstract form from matter conceptually although they are always found together "substantially" among individuals in nature. This would accord with Aristotle's view that Universals such as species and genera are immanent in sensible things. Moreover, the way in which Universals are conceived by the intellect are without bodies, incorporeally.

In the centuries following Boethius, the problem of Universals as presented by Porphyry was not seriously addressed. The general current of philosophical thought held to a Platonic-inspired Augustinian "exaggerated" realism of Forms, that they were at once perfect Ideas in the mind of God, reflected in the creation. For centuries Christian theologians expanded upon this model, maintaining that members of a species and genera were essentially the same, creative expressions of the divine Ideas only differing by privation of form, materially, or by some accidental qualities. However, in the High Medieval period there is a renewed distribution and interest in the philosophy of Aristotle and correspondingly a reemergence of the problem of Universals in the subsequent Late Medieval period that presented conflicts with the long synthesis of Greek metaphysics with Christian theology. 

There arose at this moment a growing tension between the omniscience and omnipotence of God, between the logical necessity of the intellect and the freedom of the will. The Franciscan Duns Scotus took exception to his interpretation of Thomas Aquinas or at least certain "Thomists", seeing a two-fold problem with the assertion that matter was the basis of individuality. First, God himself was immaterial thus what was the basis for His individuality? Secondly, if individuality is tied up with matter which does not survive the dissolution of the body at death, it would appear that there is only left the universal form of the species, no individual soul that might enjoy life after death. Scotus wanted to place greater emphasis on the unlimited will of God by saying that creation was not determined or limited by the Ideas in the divine intellect, rather was wholly contingent on God's act of will. In so doing, he posited that in addition to matter and a common nature of the species there must be an individualising form, what he calls a "thisness" that is included in God's act of creation. As such, God is an individual who creates individuals that he knows directly, thus at once safeguarding God's freedom of will and the possibility of life after death according to Christian doctrine.

We finally turn our attention to William of Ockham who on the one hand followed Duns Scotus in asserting the primacy of the will of God yet entirely rejects the Greek metaphysical framework of Forms and Universals. Ockham was an incredible logician who paid considerable more attention than his predecessors in how we use language, ever mindful of the danger of subtle equivocations. Below are a few important technical terms that arise in his logic:

signification - a term that refers to something particular, definite; e.g. "man"

supposition - a term that already has its signification and "stands for" something definite in a proposition; e.g. "man is mortal"

categorematic - a term that has self standing meaning; e.g. "man"

syncategorematic - a term that stands in relation to categorematic terms; e.g. "every" man

absolute - a term that refers to something particular, definite without reference to any other thing; e.g. "man"

connotative - a term that refers to something only with reference to something else; e.g. "father" 

conventional sign - a term written, spoken or otherwise that is arbitrary; e.g. "man" (English), "homme" French

natural sign - the logical significance of the term, the meaning, the reference

first intention - a sign standing for something that is not itself a sign, has direct reference; e.g. "man is mortal"

second intention - a sign standing for something that is a sign, stands for class names e.g. "species is a subdivision of genera"

universal - a term that signifies individual things and stands for them in a proposition

Thomas Aquinas and other scholastic philosophers had held that the similarity we find among particular things is owing to the Universal forms that bind them in the creation derived from the divine Ideas in the mind of God. William of Ockham rejected this entirely insisting that there are neither universals before things (Forms/Ideas) nor are they immanent in things (Universals), rather they are only intellectual concepts that we form after the perceived similarities we make by observing things. It's only these individual things that exist in reality. Therefore, when we use universal terms they have no corresponding reference to an universal reality. Moreover, Ockham eventually arrives to the conclusion that we don't even hold universal concepts in the mind. Instead, the universal is nothing more than the very act of referring, pointing to individual things in reality. Universals are fictions in the literal sense of something "made", subjective and psychological; Universals are not things in themselves, simply the mind at work in an act of referential understanding. Ockham stresses that when we find "agreement" between our concepts and extra-mental reality we must me careful not to equivocate. Such particulars only agree in that they "resemble" not that they "share" in some universal essence. Rather than a common nature there are a number of individual natures that appear similar.

For two millennia, from the dawn of Ancient Greek philosophy through the Late Medieval period we've been discussing, the prevailing scientific approach in Western civilisation which had been grounded in a formal, teleological perspective. The basis for the order of the cosmos lay in eternal Forms as described by Plato or the divine Ideas in the intelligence of God as converted by Neoplatonists and adopted into Christianity. Likewise, due to these Forms or Ideas the universe was conceived as coherent and purposeful, literally "one turn" of the divine compass. Created things were organised by their specific Form to fulfill their proximate "telos" or end. All things in turn were woven into a greater tapestry to serve the ultimate end, God. However, Ockham's critique was the beginning of the decline of the dominance of this teleological perspective. The formal and final causal arguments were undermined of their explanatory support for how things are in reality and reduced to something akin to anthropological psychology; metaphysics amounts to little more than talking about how certain humans conceive their reality rather than reality as it is. Of Aristotle's four causes only material and efficient causes remain, opening the door for the rise of an empirical, mechanistic science of matter and motion.

The next time I pick up the series we'll be inhabiting a new frontier where philosophy has experienced a rift with theology and finds itself in tension with the emerging mechanistic science. It will be interesting to explore the morphing conceptions of Truth, Beauty, and Goodness as philosophers transition toward the modern age.

 

Contributed by Patrick Webb


Saturday, December 26, 2020

The Proof of the Truthful

 

The contributions from medieval Islamic philosophers to the development of Western philosophy are undeniably numerous and profound. Here I'd like to pick out one argument from one philosopher as a noteworthy example: the Proof of the Truthful (برهان الصديقين) by Avicenna (ابن سینا‎). The proof purports to be a rational demonstration for why there must be a "necessary existent", something that must exist, a first cause for all contingent being. The "Truthful" refers to philosophers such as Avicenna himself. In contrast to the Koran that invites the masses to belief through a persuasive rhetoric or even the mullahs who approach the same subject through debate in a dialectic manner, Avicenna is indicating that the philosopher's method will be that of rigorous logical demonstration.

The point of departure for Avicenna's entire line of reasoning is nevertheless grounded in common human intuitions. We look around us with the palpable sense that everything we see is coming in and out of existence. The universe thus seems to cry out to the human mind for a reason for its own being. More than a millennium earlier the Greek philosopher Parmenides had coined the dictum, "nothing comes from nothing" in pursuit of his own metaphysical explanations. And nearly a millennium after Avicenna,  European philosophers such as Leibniz and Schopenhauer would revisit similar questions by means of what they described as the principles of sufficient reason. We ourselves are witness to a multitude of effects around us and can't help but wonder what is the cause of it all. Avicenna provides one of the most cogent arguments ever formulated for necessary being.

An initial presupposition of Avicenna is that there are three modes of being. There are things that are impossible, their vary essence precludes their being. An example might be a square circle which is contradictory by definition. Next there is the most familiar to us, contingent being. You and I could exist but we don't have to exist and in fact we eventually will cease to exist. Likewise, we're not even the cause of our present existence. Finally, he speaks of necessary existence. Something whose essence guarantees existence, is fundamental to its very nature. As we don't tend to question impossibility or contingency so his proof is focused on establishing a logical ground for necessary being.

Yet one may ask, why is the necessary even necessary? Might not contingent being suffice to explain everything? After all our notions of being seem primarily grounded in cause and effect. Yes, our being has a cause which we attribute to our parents, who had parents, perhaps ad infinitum. Similarly, existence might be occurring in cycles as a repeated loop so that the effect leads back to the cause; everything that has happened before will yet take place over and over, forever and ever. Certainly, ancient Eastern and Western religious beliefs and philosophical theories of an eternal universe posit such explanations. Avicenna rightly points out that this would lead to an infinite regress of contingent causes. Nevertheless, that is no objection in and of itself to its possibility. Avicenna must probe further.

If the universe were nothing more than an aggregation of contingent existence then would not the universe itself be contingent? Furthermore, if the universe is contingent on something that is itself contingent, by definition it would have to be included in the universe as defined as the collection of contingent being. Very quickly we find that holding to a universe of pure contingent existence tangles us in logical absurdity. Avicenna's argument could be rejected on the basis of an equivocation: just because the contents of the universe are contingent does not entail that the universe itself is contingent. The whole may be greater than or at least different from the parts. This objection however actually only seeks to prove the argument. At the very least, as the collection of contingent being, the universe must be necessary. If it isn't, than it is contingent on something that is not the universe. Avicenna favours the latter position and continues to make a philosophical articulation for the grounds of the Islamic conception of God as the one and only necessary being, a single unity. Included among this are his own arguments for various qualities that such a God must necessarily possess some perhaps being more convincing than others.

The Beautiful Names

"وَلِلَّهِ الْأَسْمَاءُ الْحُسْنَىٰ فَادْعُوهُ بِهَا (All the names of God are beautiful, so call Him by them)" - Surah 7:180

Many of the qualities attributed to God by Avicenna are again encountered in what are known as the "beautiful names" a list of 99 names or superlative attributes traditionally ascribed to God. Although the idea of the names comes directly from the Koran, the list is not strictly definitive; there are different iterations which contain names found both in and outside the Koran. The point of them is generally understood to serve as a means of directing praise to God by reflecting on his qualities. As such the names can found inscribed on Islamic rosary beads or "tisbah" (تَسْبِيح) literally meaning "glorify", the recantation being utilised for meditation and daily reflection.

Topping the list are the names of "most gracious" and "most merciful" found in the basmala (بِسْمِ ٱللَّٰهِ ٱلرَّحْمَٰنِ ٱلرَّحِيمِ) that introduces all but one of the surahs of the Koran. However, also included are  transcendental aspects of necessary existence as expressed in Classical antiquity. God is "the True" (ٱلْحَقُّ) and "the Good" (ٱلْبَرُّ). Moreover, I find it quite interesting that it is the quality of "the Beautiful" (الْحُسْنَىٰ ) that characterises, permeates, and infuses the entire list. To be clear, the translation of the Arabic "al-Hassan" is no mere reference to superficial prettiness, rather conveys the notion of excellence and harmony that similarly typify Classical conceptions of the beautiful. 

There exists some disagreement and controversy as to whether or not the world of Islam is part of Western civilisation. Admitting that such classifications are based on subjective judgements, I'm going to state that my own position is a definitive yes. The cultural exchange between Islamic intellectual, religious, and architectural traditions with their Jewish, Christian, and Classical counterparts is profound and in my view inextricable. This is especially the case for the Islamic societies of North Africa, the Levant, Baghdad and Persia that have had the deepest and most enduring cultural exchange with what is typically considered Western civilisation.

 

Contributed by Patrick Webb

Monday, December 21, 2020

Truth, Beauty, and Goodness in Saint Thomas Aquinas

 

Sandro Botticelli
St Thomas Aquinas 1482

If Saint Augustine deserves the lion's share of credit for fully synthesising Neoplatonic philosophy including its metaphysical conceptions of Truth, Beauty, and Goodness into Christianity, then Saint Thomas Aquinas must be acknowledged as having accomplished a similar feat with the philosophy of Aristotle. Although Aristotle's work on formal logic continued to be studied during the Middles Ages, much of his other writings were entirely lost for many centuries to the Western church. Neither was it propagated or widely known in the Eastern Orthodox church. Interest in Aristotle's philosophy during this early medieval period was instead zealously taken up by Islamic philosophers, beginning with Al-Kindi of Baghdad in the 9th century who translated much of Aristotle's corpus into Arabic. Al-Farabi and Avicenna were subsequent notable Islamic philosophers who wrote commentaries on Aristotle's philosophy and attempted to synthesise the metaphysics of Aristotle as well as that of Plato with Islamic theology. However, it was the 12th century Andalusian Averroës that would catch the attention of Catholic theologians. Averroës had written commentaries on almost all of Aristotle's philosophy which were translated into Latin thereby making them available to the West.

Averroës of  Córdoba
Averroës was of a mind that the philosophy of Aristotle and Islamic theology were ultimately irreconcilable. However, unwilling to reject either he proposed a theory of double truth wherein the truths of philosophy were said to be expressed clearly and logically. When these did not align with the revealed truth of theology than it indicated an allegorical interpretation of revelation was in order. Averroës went further in asserting that it was the philosopher who was in the best position to judge what was in need of interpretation and how it was to be interpreted. This subordination of theology to philosophy, as one might well imagine, did not sit well with the Islamic mullahs of Córdoba who sought and achieved his extradition on the grounds of heresy. 

A century later, with the translated works and commentaries of Averroës on Aristotle in hand, a cadre of theologians based out of the University of Paris were reaching similar conclusions with a similar response from the Church: condemnation for heresy wherein the Church was quite inclined to throw out the baby of Aristotelian philosophy with the bathwater of Averroist interpretation. It is in this controversial milieu that Saint Thomas Aquinas enters the Parisian scene with a far more moderating position. He was convinced that there was incredible value to be extracted from the philosophy of Aristotle, that faith and reason could and in fact must coexist. Yes, apparent contradictions might indicate the occasional allegorical interpretation of scripture is in order; however, it may likewise prompt a reexamination and moderation of philosophical positions. As brilliant as Aristotle was, only God is infallible. 

All Truth is God's Truth

Following Aristotle, Aquinas rejects that human beings enter the world with innate ideas, that is to say clearly defined truths. We have no a priori, prior knowledge of God or anything else for that matter. Everything we come to know (with one notable exception) come a posteriroi, meaning after the fact, from sense experience. Furthermore, what we sense are always particular things. Our world of sense is corporeal, made of bodies. Aquinas in accord with Aristotle recognises a dual nature of these bodies that he calls hylomorphic, "hyle" being the Greek word for "matter" and "morphic" indicating "form". The essence of corporeal things is thus a composite of matter and form that only exist together as a body, a substance. What makes particular things particular? Aquinas' view is that matter is subject to accidents of nature in such a way as to individuate the composite substance, leaving a permanent impression on it which varies slightly from body to body. Our senses only alert us to the particular, the composite body; however, humans have the additional unique capacity of intellect that inclines us toward essences. Our intellect empowers us to see the immaterial formal nature within the particular body, that which makes it the thing that it is. Moreover, we're able to identify upon reflection the same form manifest across multiple bodies. Aristotle and Aquinas call these dispersed forms universals and the intellectual act of reflection that recoginises them abstraction. 

Aristotle
Granting the Aristotelian presupposition that we've no direct knowledge of God, what if anything can our natural reason tell us about Him? Aquinas furnishes a number of proofs for God's existence grounded in the senses, assisted by the intellect. His proofs from motion and cause follow a similar pattern. We know from sense experience that everything that moves or that is an effect has a cause. However, also from experience we know that which initiates the movement or acts as cause must itself have a cause. From this point our intellect contributes, inclining us to think that to avoid an infinite regress of causes there must be a prime mover or first cause, something or someone responsible for the entire series. This could be thought of as first in time but more importantly first in importance, a supreme cause of the entire causal order. This is what Aquinas indicates as a logical proof for God. It tells us that God as a first cause must necessarily exist though admittedly it does little to say what God is. 

Nevertheless, Aquinas asserts that our senses and natural reason can get us yet even a little closer to the knowledge of God. He posited that there are objective properties of all existence such as truth, being, unity. As we can first find them in particulars then abstract them as universals, we reach a position to attribute them to God in a superlative sense. This act of attribution by the intellect he calls an analogy, "according to logic". Thus God is thought of by us as Truth, as Being, as Unity, etc. Of course, this is still not a direct knowledge of God, rather a similitude or extrapolation grounded in sense experience. In that respect it is acknowledged that it remains imprecise and incomplete. Thus, in defending Aristotle, Aquinas pointed out that an incomplete knowledge such as the philosopher held does not equate to falsity, rather the limitation of truth available to natural reason. Supplementing and surpassing this natural limitation is supernatural revelation. Such revealed truth may or may not be demonstrable to the senses. However, it remains available in its entirety to our faculty of natural reason which can subject revealed truth to rational scrutiny to ascertain that there is no logical contradiction, that it is possibly true. In fine, Aquinas sees our access through truth via natural reason, even supplemented as it is by revelation as being limited. Ultimate truth must await for a heavenly existence in the very presence of God.

Although Aquinas places a good deal of emphasis on the role of the intellect, he situates our motivation towards the pursuit of truth in the will, a will that has a measure of freedom. In so doing he utilises a modified version of the four causes of Aristotle. Obviously we exist as bodies and the material aspect of human nature acts a cause, one that holds potential as well as constraint as exemplified by the senses, our gateway to the acquisition of knowledge. Additionally there is a formal nature that makes us human and not something else. Our very form inclines the will to certain interests including the pursuit of well-being and the truth. At the same time there are efficient causes that impel us to take action in certain directions. Some of these come from without, others are an exercise of free will from within, we decide to pursue a course of action. And then there is the final cause, God that draws us towards him as the ultimate source of Truth. So the will although free does not exist in a causal vacuum. We have our own corporeal nature with its constraints and inclinations. Furthermore we are pushed from within and without and drawn from above. Human freedom of the will rests not in the ultimate end that we're already oriented towards, instead in the limited means of striving towards it.

Temporal and Eternal Goodness

For Aquinas God was more than the Form of the Good as per Plato or the source of Being as described by St Augustine. Not that they were incorrect in attributing those things to God; nevertheless, Aquinas saw something more essential to God. As previously considered, we are corporeal beings, hylomorphic in nature. Logically our matter and form are separable but substantially they're always found together. Our essence or being is that of a composite body. Neither aspect, be it our matter or form has any meaning if it does not exist. However, we're highly cognizant of the fact that we don't have to exist, it's not necessary. Bodies come in and go out of existence all of the time. To the contrary, it is patently obvious that we don't give ourselves existence; dependence is tied up in our very essence, our existence is contingent on something outside of ourselves. Aquinas says that such finite existence is contingent on God. He is unique in that His essence is not hylomorphic at all, rather His essence is to exist. God is that which exists independently and necessarily.

According to Aquinas we are always inclined, pushed, and drawn towards happiness, literally good or well-being which we pursue in proximate and ultimate ways. We posit existence as good and we share the desire to exist with other living things. As such we pursue activities of self-preservation in our own human way, notably what we might call the necessities of life: food, clothes, shelter, and medicine. And it's not just our own particular finite existence but also the preservation of the species that impels us towards reproduction, another impulse we seem to share with all living things. Apart from this human beings are rational and highly social. This presupposes that we can posit quite sophisticated goals of well-being. The cardinal or Greek virtues of prudence, temperance, courage, and justice are social in orientation. In recognition of our social nature, that we find greater fulfillment in community than in isolation, these virtues serve as a basis for the proximate well-being that the State can potentially provide. 

Aquinas once again modifies the four causes of Aristotle to demonstrate how the State can serve well-being. The community as such is the material cause of the State. Civil law serves to give the community order and structure acting as formal cause. The ruling authority acts as efficient cause of the State, constantly impelling it toward its final cause: the common good. Therefore, by this reasoning the State is natural to humans as a necessary condition for men to pursue well-being according to their nature as rational, social creatures. Nevertheless, Aquinas insists that the happiness to be found in the State is but a proximate, temporal good. Man has a longing for the ultimate, eternal good as only can be found in God. This is why there arises another community of man organised for the pursuit of true happiness and the highest good: the Church. The Church helps the community of believers to cultivate the theological virtues of faith, hope, and love necessary for reunion with God. 

Friedrich Kaulbach - Coronation of Charlemagne 1861

From where does the authority of the State and Church derive? According to Aquinas it is not arbitrary power rather a legitimate authority based in God. Divine wisdom is equated with Eternal law which, while perfect and necessary, is inaccessible to our direct apprehension. However, by man being made in the image of God, we have His law implanted in our very nature. It is from reflection upon our own inclinations under the rule and measure of reason that Natural law emerges. Furthermore, the State develops a body of Civil law based on the right reason of Natural law and adapted to particular circumstances for the common good. However, for Aquinas man's ultimate end and well-being is not earthly but heavenly and eternal in God. Therefore the Church promulgates the Divine law of revealed truth in scripture. As the State does with Civil law, the Church develops a corpus of Canon law that adapts Divine law to specific circumstances. For the most part Church and State have there own spheres of influence, the eternal and temporal well-being of mankind respectively. However, as man's ultimate end is eternal in God, the State ought to recognise the higher purpose of the Church and support Her care for the salvation of mankind.

The Object of Beauty

The Chapel of Our Lady of the Most Holy Trinity
Thomas Aquinas College, Santa Paula, CA
courtesy of Duncan G. Stroik Architect, LLC
"The beautiful is the same as the good, and they differ in aspect only. For since good is what all seek, the notion of good is that which calms the desire; while the notion of the beautiful is that which calms the desire, by being seen or known."

It can be said unequivocally that for Aquinas beauty is objective. From the quote above we can glean its intimate relation with the good and its connection to cognition. Although Aquinas references the senses, particularly sight and hearing, they are merely suggested as a medium the transmission of beauty. Our awareness of beauty occurs when it is literally "recognised", repeatedly brought forth as an object in the mind in an act of cognition. So what exactly is it that we are seeing or knowing with the mind's eye?

Initially, Aquinas relates harmony as an attribute of beauty. This includes the cognition of symmetry, quantifiable geometric proportion. However, in the sense used it also refers to qualitative relations such as those between cause and effect. This entails the idea of order, things being appropriate, each allocated in their appropriate place and the aforementioned calm engendered in recognition of that.

There is also a clarity associated with beauty. Again, the object of beauty in the mind must be recognisable to be appreciated. There is a sense in which the beautiful is also radiant, it shines forth, it arrests the attention, it draws one towards it. The analogy of light is associated with God so that when He illumes the mind it is not merely a cold intellectual apprehension, rather a enrapturing beatitude of total awareness.

Finally, there is integrity, that something exists and that it is true. In as much as something has being it can be said to have a measure of beauty. However, what we look for is truth, completeness. In this case not logical truth but ontological truth. In other words, is the object of our contemplation true to type, approaching its perfection in the sense of not lacking anything that it is essential to what it is? To be truly integral and whole involves not just proper being but existing as well, dynamically actualising its end, its purpose.

In our next essay we'll conclude the medieval period with a consideration of Duns Scotus and William of Ockham. This is a major transitory period in philosophy where the teleological, end oriented conception of reality begins to give way as a scientific world view in turn gains ground with significant implications for mankind's conceptions of truth, beauty, and goodness.


Contributed by Patrick Webb

Thursday, November 19, 2020

Saint Anselm's Ontological Argument

 
St Anselm, Canterbury Cathedral
Before moving on to discuss Thomas Aquinas' conceptions of Truth, Beauty and Goodness, I'd like to take a brief detour to consider one of his medieval predecessors, Saint Anselm, Archbishop of Canterbury. Specifically, Anselm's concept and defence of God as a perfect as well as necessary being, framed in what has come to known as the ontological argument, where ontology refers to the study of being or existence. It's a good moment to discuss the prevailing view of reality that philosophy until that time was operating under, the debt that Christian theology owed to especially Platonic philosophy, as well as how some of the underlying presuppositions of Christianity described a very different conception of God than that held by the Greeks. 

The Ontological Argument

I remember the first time I encountered the argument I was completely lost. First of all, it's hardly concise, being spread out over at least a couple of chapters that themselves cannot be easily extricated from a larger work. Furthermore, it just comes across as dense and overly self-reflective. The following excerpt from the Proslogion captures the gist of it:
 
"And, it so truly exists that it cannot be thought not to be. For, a thing, which cannot be thought not to be (which is greater than what cannot be thought not to be), can be thought to be. So, if that than which a greater cannot be thought can be thought not to be, that very thing than which a greater cannot be thought is not that than which a greater cannot be thought, which cannot be compatible [convenire, i.e. with the thing being such]. Therefore, there truly is something than which a greater cannot be thought, and it cannot be thought not to be."
 
Before you panic, stick with me. Various scholars have reformulated Anselm's argument into a simple syllogism. This particular example by Thomas Williams (available in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy) I find quite helpful: 
 
1. That than which a greater cannot be thought can be thought.
 
2. If that than which a greater cannot be thought can be thought, it exists in reality.
Therefore,

3. That than which a greater cannot be thought exists in reality. 

Stated in this manner I understand what the argument contends. However, upon a cursory reading it doesn't sound the least bit convincing. Because I can think of the greatest being...he must really exist. What kind of argument is that? It comes across as psychological scaffolding without a proper foundation attempting to wish God into existence. Well, as it turns it is an argument that implies its reader shares a view of reality informed by a number of unstated presuppositions that you and I likely didn't grow up with. Fortunately, I think it's not too much of a stretch to temporarily adopt that frame of reference.

A Teleological vs Mechanical Model

Sir Isaac Newton
Trinity College Chapel

I would expect that most of us are beneficiaries of a secular education (if not exclusively) that presents a roughly mechanical model of reality. Newtonian science describes a cosmos of bits and bobs, applications of forces that unfurls deterministically like some great big clockwork. To be fair I think science has somewhat moved on from that conception of reality to something more organic and relational; nevertheless, popular culture seems to lag behind. Yet at the time Newton and his contemporaries' ideas were revolutionary. So what was the previous model?

The most common view held amongst the Ancient Greeks was what is called a teleological model of reality, derived from the word 'telos', meaning 'end' or 'purpose'. The material world was conceived as more than just cause and effect, blind forces acting upon matter. Form and pattern were observed and accounted for as having a final cause that they were working towards, one that gave meaning to existence and provided explanation for why things proceeded in the manner that they appear to do so. The observable cosmos was one of order and harmony indicating that there was an intelligence underlying it all. It's not going out on a limb to say this is a rational view, one that accords with much of our experience. For example, we can easily observe that vegetation goes through its cycles of growth, maturity, and reproduction in a manner that satiates its appetites. Likewise animals do the same and additionally manifest a will of their own satisfying desires and avoiding pain. Reflecting on our own lives, we share these characteristics and have our own proximate goals that we seek to pursue. We seem to be willful, purposeful, goal oriented creatures.

The teleological model does not discount mechanical aspects of existence, rather subsumes them as instrumental means to achieve an ultimate end. This is not unlike how humans design various mechanisms with purpose in mind, often coming up with different designs that achieve the same outcome. Even for our own creative activity the means are not as important as the purpose or goal we're hoping to achieve. So what was the telos, the final cause, the ultimate end for the Greeks?

The Essence of God

In a word, God. Plato in particular belaboured to put this into philosophical language. The cosmos was accessible to human reason as it is characterised by order. The inner unity we see in things, that makes them identifiable as things at all, was attributed to a transcendental nature that he called the Forms. They were 'transcendental' because they did not depend on the particular existence of any one thing but are like an intelligence that lies underneath, give rise to the particular form any one thing may take and purpose they may carry out. However, he further observed that there appears to be an overarching order that unifies all the varied particulars of existence into a coherent cosmos that appears to be progressing in a certain orientation. This unity or Form of all Forms he at times calls God, at other times the Good.

This Greek, specifically Platonic view, shares many similarities with the Judaeo-Christian conception of God. God is a unity, the One. God is the Good. God is the intelligence underlying the world and the ultimate end. However, there are differences between the Greek and Christian conception that prove significant. The most noteworthy departure being that, for the Greeks, matter is eternal and independent of God. In its original state it is chaos, uncreated, formless and waste. God in some way or fashion, perhaps through intermediary beings, is ultimately what brings order out of this primordial chaos. In summary, for Plato what God imparts to matter is form and reunion with God, the actualisation of form is the highest, ultimate end.

In the Christian view this is an insufficient conception of God. God does not just impart form to matter, instead he imparts being itself. The essence of God is not just form rather existence itself. Therefore, there is no matter apart from God. The Christian conception of prima materia differs from the Greek conception of chaos. Primordial matter has no independent existence, is nothing more than potential for being...in the mind of God. God brings matter into being by imparting into it His essence, existence itself. In the Christian scheme God is thus the perfection of being, the complete actualisation of all potential. Such being implies certain characteristics: omnipotence (all powerful), omniscience (all knowing), infinite (without limitation), and impassible (cannot be changed or acted upon). 

At this point I think we've established enough of a background to lend some support to the underlying logic of Anslem's argument. If being is the ultimate good, than being in reality must be greater than being in conception in the same manner that actuality is greater than potential. So to have the conception of the 'greatest', ergo most actualised, being in the mind would be meaningless if he didn't exist in actuality. If being is your criteria he wouldn't be the greatest is he didn't actually exist, a logical contradiction. To avoid absurdity, the moment you can conceive of the greatest being he necessarily must exist to be the greatest. 

Convinced yet? Me neither. However, I have to confess it no longer sounds completely ridiculous. Once you understand that Saint Anselm was not making out his claim to be an empirically demonstrable proof for God, instead a reasonable, logically worked out proof based on specific presuppositions pertaining to a certain world view, it's not so difficult to follow. Understanding that for medieval Christian philosophers being itself was identified as good, and perfect being the Good and ultimate end sheds considerable light on their way of thinking and goes a long way in helping us to appreciate their contributions to philosophy.


Contributed by Patrick Webb

Saturday, November 14, 2020

Truth, Beauty, and Goodness in Saint Augustine

 

Sandro Botticelli - Saint Augustine 1480
As discussed in our previous essay, the early Church owed a significant debt to Greek philosophy in framing the theology of Christianity in a manner that could be more easily understood and palatable to the gentile community throughout the Roman empire. However, this was far from a seamless, unproblematic integration. The discrepancies in world views between Christianity and Greek philosophy were profound and primarily metaphysical. For Christianity as with Judaism the cosmos was created by God ex-nihilo, that is to say out of nothing. This was completely at odds with the original Platonic conception which followed Greek myth and religious precedent that matter had always existed as something substantially separate from God. Plato held that the cosmos was created ex-materia, the application of eternal Forms to pre-existing matter to imbue it with pattern and order. Stoic philosophy likewise had an influence on early Christianity; however, their metaphysics also departed significantly, although in a different direction. The Stoics held that God and Nature, the spiritual and physical world were merely two aspects of one reality. The Stoic cosmos was ex-deo, out of the very nature of God and identical with it. 

In time, Neoplatonism shifted slightly closer to Stoicism anticipating a panentheistic position which posited that from an initial outpouring of the divine there resulted the formation of intermediate states of being rising from an informed physical creation toward a World-Soul and Nous, culminating in the ultimate, unchanging One that exists outside of the hierarchy altogether. Further complicating the picture were Gnostic metaphysical conceptions that had penetrated both Judaism and Christianity. Gnostic dualism held that matter was entirely evil, a creation of the kingdom of darkness by the Demiurge and stood opposed in eternal conflict with the Great Father of the kingdom of light. Augustine of Hippo was raised Christian; however, upon adulthood he opted for Manicheism, an heretical Gnostic sect in which he participated for nearly a decade. Later disillusionment and opportunity led him to study Neoplatonism in Milan and ultimately back to Christianity. Augustine thus benefited from the ideal upbringing and education to salvage and reintegrate into Christianity what value he had encountered within the pagan and heretical views prevalent in the 4th century. The incredible work of synthesis undertaken by Saint Augustine would establish truth, beauty, and goodness as a tightly bound trinity that would deeply imprint the subsequent development of Christianity and Western culture.

The Good and Augustinian Metaphysics

Manichaean Bodhisattva Jesus
One of the issues that Augustine found unsatisfactory as an acolyte of Manicheism was its dualistic ontology that held there were two opposing realms of eternal being: a realm of the good, light, and reason contraposed against the realm of evil, darkness, and matter. In this scheme humans were the internally divided progeny of these warring factions, a soul and spark of the light entrapped in the darkness of an inherently evil body. There was no hope of an eventual vindication of good over evil. The best one could do was practise a life of strict asceticism waiting for one's divine spark to be relieved of and thereby saved from its diseased, mortal flesh. 

Augustine found that things improved slightly when he undertook his study of the Neoplatonic metaphysics of Plotinus. There remained two similar realms of eternal being: God and matter. However, matter was not considered inherently evil, just disorganised. By contrast, God was the Form of all Forms, the Good. What emanated from God were the Forms, eternal archetypes that ordered all existence, spiritual and material. To the extent that matter participated in the Forms, to that degree matter was good. Natural evil was nothing more than a deprivation, perversion, or corruption of goodness and formality, thus held no independent existence. Plotinus went on to relate another view of evil on moral grounds. Human beings were described as sitting at the nexus between material existence and the imbuement of form; as such they are able to choose between two orientations along the hierarchy of being. The higher orientation would lead to the pursuit of a life of reason, a cultivation of the active intellect that contemplates the eternal Forms, ultimately seeking reunion with the Good. Conversely, the lower path is to abandon oneself to the passions, a life of materials pursuits, seeking fulfillment of desires, and embodied pleasures. 

Much of this Neoplatonic view was considered worthy of salvage by Augustine upon his conversion to Christianity. However, a number of adjustments would have to be made to arrive at a respectable synthesis. What could be received unreservedly was that God was synonymous with the Good and the source of all goodness. However, unlike the Greek conception, for a Christian matter was not a pre-existent, distinct substance that God had later given form, rather God informed matter in the act of His creation and saw that "it was very good." The Neoplatonists conceived of God as perfect, complete, timeless, and unchanging. Beings such as the Logos, the World-Soul, down to human beings and the material cosmos were all emanations of the divine and they found these intermediary beings necessary in explaining how change was possible. Nevertheless, for Augustine it was unacceptable that Christ as the Logos or the Holy Ghost were different from God, or even similar to God. Augustine's Christianity demanded that they be of the very same essence of God, wholly good, not inferior beings on an hierarchy. 

“How can the past and future be, when the past no longer is, and the future is not yet? As for the present, if it were always present and never moved on to become the past, it would not be time, but eternity.”

For the Neoplatonists, God was changeless and outside the realm of time. Time was seen as limiting and perspectival, the ever changing image of the eternal Forms. Augustine wanted to agree that God was perfect in the Platonic sense yet his approach was slightly adjusted to account for God's appearing as the Creator and active in the material world of particulars. Augustine presents time as something coming into existence with the creation of the cosmos. God's omniscience means that all of our time is present to Him at once similar to a great leap of intuition that we may experience. Augustine relates that how we experience time ourselves gives an intimation of this perspective. For example, our view of the past is nothing more than a memory we experience in the present. Similarly, our conjecture of the future is nothing more than a present anticipation. Human beings thus phenomenally exist in an everlasting present. Augustine extrapolates this describing God as having a static, present image of time on a cosmic, eternal scale, and in a perfect manner. This is arguably not an entirely satisfactory explanation in the face of further scrutiny yet it is an undeniably significantly imaginative leap forward.

Truth, Light and Epistemology

"Where I found truth, there found I my God, who is the truth itself."

The aforementioned differences between Neoplatonic and Christian metaphysics have implications for their respective theories of knowledge. For the Neoplatonists, human intellect was the spiritual aspect of man, a residue of the very emanation of the divine. Therefore access to the truth was innate, straightforwardly an act of remembrance of one's previous existence. The means for distinguishing truth and falsehood was dialectical, a vigorous application of reason to argument. A tempered asceticism was likewise encouraged as the body was materially tied to a location whereas pleasures withdrew one's focus to the immediacy of sensation. Reason was to cultivate and exercise the civic virtues of temperance, prudence, courage, and justice in order to restrain the passions so that the intellectual practise of dialectic might proceed unfettered, the mind freed to travel temporally in recollection and spatially in imagination. The ultimate goal of dialectic was direct access to the transcendent truths of the Forms, reunification with the One, and the elimination of independent being.

Of course, for Augustine the idea that any aspect of human beings was consubstantial with the divine was necessarily rejected. Man was created by God like everything else. The soul may be incorporeal yet it has no pre-history, there is no pre-existence from which it can remember anything. Truth was therefore posited as something to be learned as an act of will rather than remembered as the exercise of intellect. Augustine strongly associated Truth with the manifestation of the Logos, God as the source of all Form. Augustine modifies the Neoplatonist concept of the emanating logoi spermatikoi to describe the Logos' rationes seminales, 'seeds of reason' that were implanted in the creation, subsequently ordering its development, each according to its kind. Likewise, Plato's eternal Forms that seemed to posses their own being independent of God were reenvisioned as the rationes aeternae, eternal ideas in the mind of the Logos. While God's truths were on the one hand immanent, directly observable in nature through the action of the rationes seminales, how could mortal man catch sight of the rationes aeternae, eternal ideas in the mind of God?

The answer Augustine provides is direct illumination of the human mind by the Logos. Jesus had indeed told his followers that he was "the light of the world." This light however is not truth in and of itself, rather it enables the truth to be seen. Furthermore, there is exertion required on the part of individual, the mind's eye must look, there must be an active effort to know. Although Augustine acknowledges that some truth has been revealed through revelation, the general illumination of the Logos has always been available to all of mankind. This conveniently accounted for why Plato and many of the pagan philosophers had uncovered so many truths. These men had put forth strenuous efforts to exercise their power of reason and the Logos had in turn illumined their vision. Hence, the existence of logical truths such as the law of non-contradiction (a thing cannot be and not be at the same time and in the same respect) as well as the law of self-existence that Augustine himself expressed thus: "Si fallor, sum" (If I am mistaken, I am.) Moreover, this justified the study of such pagan philosophies for in the final analysis "all truth is God's truth" wheresoever it may be found.

Beauty and an Ethic of Love

“Thou hast made us for thyself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it finds its rest in thee.”

The Conversion of Saint Augustine, Fra Angelico 1435
 

With those words Augustine opens his Confessions, an autobiographical account of his personal and philosophical journey leading to his conversion to Christianity. In Christianity Augustine finds what was lacking, although not entirely absent from Platonic philosophy: an ethic of Love. While Plato placed an heavy emphasis on reason and the intellect he did stress the importance of love when discussing beauty where he differentiates between the love of sensible things below and the more important love of their Form above. So for example, the sensible love for the harmony of a particular music or the agreeableness of a young maiden might serve as a path for the soul's ascension to a principled love of the transcendental form of Beauty in and of itself. Neoplatonism expands on this view illustrating beauty as a composite form, a well-ordered arrangement revealed in the proportion, harmony, and symmetry of the parts as they relate to a united whole. This compositional perspective would play a large aesthetic role in the reemergence of all things Classical during the Renaissance.

Augustine saw in Christianity that salvation did not come from what we know, rather from what we love. Love is a virtue not of the intellect but the will. Love is what motivates us and he describes it thus: "Since love grows within you, so beauty grows. For love is the beauty of the soul." Similar to Plato he distinguishes between a love of temporal, material things below (cupiditas), and the spiritual love for things eternal (caritas). Likewise, the beauty of the rationes seminales is revealed in the hierarchical arrangement and order of nature where everything has its place, where even the natural 'evils' inherent to mortality, decay, and death lead to a renewal of life thus serving the greater good and pointing to the realm above. God's creation is good, our senses exist to appreciate the beauty of nature, music, literature, etc. It is after all a love for truth that spurs us on to find the unity between the good and the beautiful in God as is manifest in the creation. Augustine goes on to redefine the Greek cardinal virtues in a Christian ethic of Love:

"I hold virtue to be nothing else than perfect love of God...that temperance is love keeping itself entire and incorrupt for God; fortitude is love bearing everything readily for the sake of God; justice is love serving God only, and therefore ruling well all else, as subject to man; prudence is love making a right distinction between what helps it towards God and what might hinder it."

Augustine's ethic of Love and its related cardinal virtues have acted as a guiding light for Christianity for 1,600 years. With it Augustine redeems the material, temporal, sensual life as being worthy of our contemplation and even love for it is in earthly goods we find the Good; in diverse truths we are directed to the Truth; in sensual beauties we are led to Beauty; in the harmony, order, and unity of form we are led inextricably to the One and what draws us forward is Love.

In our next essay we'll see the reemergent influence of Aristotle and its own influence upon Christianity via the medieval school of philosophy, Scholasticism and its most influential thinker, Saint Thomas Aquinas.


Contributed by Patrick Webb

Wednesday, November 4, 2020

New Testament and Early Church Conceptions of Truth, Beauty, and Goodness

 

Carl Heinrich Boch
Transfiguration of Jesus 1872

Upon undertaking a series of Christian perspectives on Truth, Beauty, and Goodness we quite understandably find echoes of what we've previously considered in Hebrew scripture and Jewish philosophical thought. Furthermore, there are overlaps and parallels with at least some Greek philosophical positions that gradually were integrated into Christian thought by the early church fathers. In Christianity there developed an openness between the revealed truth of revelation as inherited from the Jews and the truths of reason as encountered among the rapidly converting Gentiles. Despite significant secularisation over the past few centuries, social mores and societal structures based upon such an amalgamated perspective persist to this day, being broadly diffused through the culture of Western civilisation.

Goodness and Truth in the New Testament

"There is none Good but One, that is, God." - Matthew 19:17 KJV*

The insistence on the Unity of God is carried over from Hebrew scripture. God is One and God is the Good. God is absolute goodness, the only source. Nothing else is inherently good, rather only contingently so in as much as it partakes in God's goodness. In a relative sense, material things can be good if they fulfill their purpose. A "good" tree can be expected to produce "good" fruit. The goodness of human beings include purpose informed by knowledge. The "good" shepherd knows his sheep. Such examples are furnished only as parables or loose material analogies pointing to the good as something spiritual. 

"For I know that in me (that is, in my flesh,) dwelleth no good thing: for to will is present with me; but how to perform that which is good I find not. For the good that I would I do not: but the evil which I would not, that I do." - Romans 7:18, 19

Interestingly, what is here said to possess the body is evil not the good. Evil thus has a positive, that is to say tangible existence. This is confirmed by Saint Paul's further admonishment to the church of Corinth against pride, "Your glorying is not good. Know ye not that a little leaven leaveneth the whole lump?" - 1 Corinthians 5:6. In contrast to Greek and particularly Platonic thought, evil is not merely a deprivation of the good rather it maintains its own existence, one with potential to corrupt the good. The good appears to be not native to the body but a struggle for the Christian to adopt, something acquired through knowledge. To a point this accords with the teaching of Socrates that a lack of doing good is based on ignorance, to know good is to act right. While Saint Paul also preached that knowledge is essential; nevertheless, both he and Saint James goes on to insist that doing good is not automatic and that to know the good and not practise it was an even greater evil: "Therefore to him that knoweth to do good, and doeth it not, to him it is sin." - James 4:17

Pierre-Paul Prud'hon
Crucifixion 1822

"That they might know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom thou hast sent." - John 17:3.

Once again the unity of God is stressed but this time in connection with truth and the role of the Christ as an emissary, a mediator between God and mankind of that truth. Furthermore, the imagery surrounding Christ involves light, explicitly so in the account of the transfiguration where his body and garments glow in blinding radiance whereas by contrast, midday darkness typifies his death at the crucifixion. So it is that truth is associated with light throughout the New Testament and particularly in the personage of Jesus Christ, "That was the true Light, which lighteth every man that cometh into the world." - John 1:9. The immateriality of truth is consistently reinforced and commensurate with the spiritual essence of the divine, "God is a Spirit: and they that worship him must worship him in spirit and in truth." - John 4:24.

Truth was likewise associated with knowledge as divine revelation, both in the Law given to the nation of Israel as well as God's word as related by the prophets and finally through the gospel or good tidings of the Messiah, "And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free." - John 8:32. Repeatedly the spirit of truth is spoken of as being "in" the believer like a possession, described as a kind of "gnosis" or direct knowledge and awareness, a participation with the divine source of truth. While the faithful thus remained incarnate in this world and in their body, to become Christian was to be inhabited and thus transformed by spirit and truth. 

The Early Church Fathers and the Influence of Greek Philosophy

Saint Justin Martyr
With the rapid expansion of Christianity throughout the Roman empire, there would be inevitable contact and intellectual exchange with Greek philosophy, most notably in Egyptian Alexandria where Neoplatonism held sway. Many of the early church fathers had first been trained in Greek philosophy before coming to Christianity. This is a matter of autobiographical record for the 2nd century Justin Martyr who dabbled in Stoicism, progressing to Pythagoreanism before settling on Platonism prior to his conversion. Justin Martyr found accord between the Platonic concept of God as immaterial reason or Nous and the Christian view of God as spirit and truth. A Platonic cosmos ordered by the Demiurge matched up relatively nicely if somewhat imprecisely with a material world created by God that was thus good, being informed by divine purpose. How does Justin Martyr account for truth encountered in philosophy predating Christian revelation? His justification draws upon Stoic philosophical theory of the immaterial logoi spermatikoi immanent in matter, postulating that these men, "by means of the engrafted seeds of the Logos which was implanted in them, had a dim glimpse of the truth." 

Justin's successors, Clement of Alexandria and Tertullian, likewise place a great deal of emphasis on the Logos, seeking to reconcile the description by Saint John with that found in Greek philosophy, "In the beginning was the Word [Logos], and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made." - John 1:1-3. However, such an attempted reconciliation presents difficulties as the Platonic concept was of a cosmos ex-materia, an eternal material reality separate from God, one only organised by a distinct Logos. Alternatively, the predominant Neoplatonic conceptions were based on an hierarchy of being, emanations of the divine, a cosmos ex-deo in which the Logos is again not co-eternal as an independent being, rather is formed as an initial outpouring of the One. These are fundamentally very different metaphysics than the Jewish tradition inherited in Christianity of a creation by God ex-nihilo. Clearly, there is a lot to be hammered out over the next couple of centuries as to what exactly Christianity will be able to integrate from Greek philosophy. What has come down to us as orthodox Christianity is aided in its establishment by defining itself in contrast with what it rejects, both from Greek philosophy and even more so of competing ideas from further East.

The Rejection of Gnosticism

Just as Christianity encountered Greek philosophy as it spread West, it likewise came into contact with preexisiting theology coming from the East. Many of the ideas associated with Gnosticism can be traced back to Persia and Zorastrianism. Nevertheless, Gnosticism embraces many varied beliefs. What is of interest here are fundamental concepts commonly held by Gnostics who identified as Christians that were treated as heretical by the mainstream beliefs of later orthodox Christianity.

Gnosis, is a Greek word for "knowledge", not knowing how or what, rather knowing who. It describes the type of intimate knowledge when you say that you know someone e.g. The path to gnostic salvation did not rest in belief or faith in doctrine, instead only by achieving gnosis, that is to say a direct apprehension of divine truth. The gnostic metaphysic is essentially dualist. The material world is described not as fallen rather formed flawed right from the start. This wicked Demiurge maker is sometimes described as the errant progeny of the divine Sophia or wisdom and identified with Yahweh of the Old Testament. The matter from which the cosmos is formed has an ambiguous status. It seems to be pre-existent and separate from God. However, what animates it and us is said to be a spark of the divine captured in its darkness, providing a path of return from this alien existence as strangers in a strange land. Gnostic Christians did not expect salvation by Christ as much as they expected to become Christ themselves.

Such a dualistic metaphysic of matter as evil and spirit alone as good presented some conflict with a Christian belief of creation ex-nihilo. Mainstream Christianity might have viewed mankind as fallen but it saw the cosmos as God's creation, thus essentially good. This belief is what made the Incarnation of Christ as the last Adam, the perfect man possible. For a Gnostic, mortal flesh was evil and so he rejected a literal interpretation of the Incarnation, claiming that either the man Jesus was possessed or alternatively was a mere illusion projected by the divine. Another consequence to their dualistic stance was an extreme form of asceticism that preached withdrawal from especially sensual, pleasurable activities such as food, drink, and sex. The gnostic influence was present right from the beginning of Christianity as Saint Paul warns against such, "doctrines of devils...forbidding to marry, and commanding to abstain from meats, which God hath created to be received with thanksgiving of them which believe and know the truth. For every creature of God is good, and nothing to be refused." - 1 Timothy 4:1-4. At no time did Gnostic Christianity dominate; however, it did continue as a persecuted heresy well into the 13th century when the last of the Cathars in France were forced to convert to Catholicism or face massacre.

Carcassonne, France

Until this point in Christianity's development beauty has not been a point of focus to the degree of goodness and truth. However, that is all about to change with the writings of Saint Augustine which we'll consider in the next essay in the series.


*All passages are from the Kings James Version unless otherwise noted


Contributed by Patrick Webb

Wednesday, October 28, 2020

Fateful Attraction

 

Alfred Gilbert - Eros 1893
"Love is Love" or so the slogan goes as if love were trivial, univalent, and self-explanatory. To the contrary, the phenomenon of human attraction remains shrouded in mystery and tangled in complexity. The mythology surrounding love surviving from antiquity is at once comforting, distressing, and paradoxical. Among the ancient Greeks "Eros" arose before the gods, that which emerged out of the primordial chaos; a force of attraction that brought the male and female elements together to generate the cosmos. Yet later Eros is described reborn as a product of that very creation, the progeny of Aphrodite, the embodiment of sexual union. Expanding upon the Greeks, the Roman Cupid becomes but one of the "Erotes", by one account a full sibling of Hermaphroditus, the offspring of Mercury (Hermes) and Venus (Aphrodite), characterised by a bisexuality manifest in the flesh.

Giovanni Maria Benzoni
Hector and Andromache 1871

In Classical antiquity Love was primarily understood as a compelling force of attraction. Nevertheless, it was not considered value neutral, rather Love was laden, pregnant with meaning, much of which was ambiguous. For example, Love was not equated with the "Good". There were certainly fatal attractions for mortal men that ended heroes lives in tragedy and destroyed entire families. The Iliad is perhaps the most prominent example of a devastating act of love, that of Paris of Troy for Helen of Sparta, that serves as the catalyst for war, massacre, and the fall of an entire civilisation. In the same account, the hero Hector's love for his city and his own honour trumps the love of his wife and young son, driving him towards a certain, brutal death. Such mythologised accounts contain fascinating themes quite relevant to contemporary society.

The Greek concept of Love expanded in Hellenistic times, being incorporated into philosophy and ultimately Christianity where it merged with Jewish conceptions. In Western culture we have been thus bequeathed an hierarchy of Loves. Eros, that sexual passionate attraction shared with the animals is often associated with the fallen condition of mankind and beyond its necessity for reproduction has been held to be of questionable virtue. Next there is Storge, described as a familial affection that is likely to exist between parents and offspring. Though not considered sexual in character it describes natural bonds that we see again displayed by animals, in fact a bond that we may even share with an animal such as a pet with whom there is mutual loyalty and affection. The aforementioned "lower" Loves are necessary for procreation and nurturing to maturity. The first of the "higher" loves Philo literally means something like fraternity or brotherly love; however, it can extend to a more general sense of companionship and friendship. It is a voluntary attraction capable of rational agents based on common interests. Nothing is needed from the other party, philo is a love for love's sake, an uniquely human thing. Finally, at the top of the pyramid of Love lies Agape. In Christianity it is considered the highest virtue, a principled love of God for his truth, beauty, and goodness. It is an active, willful love not a passionate one. I have to say there is something a bit disinterested, cold, removed about it. Agape is held as what we "ought" to do, our highest moral obligation. Although active participation in religious practise has waned in the West I would contend that culturally we still hold Love, if in an increasingly muddled understanding, as the highest moral virtue for human beings. If only the world had more love!

All in the Family

That sexual attraction can be generative is uncontroversial, it was after all the very basis for our own conception. Subsequently, another aspect of love makes itself manifest upon birth, motivating parents to nurture their children to maturity. Neither is this love unidirectional; children naturally form strong attractive bonds for their parents. However, there arises difficulties in loving someone. First, the intensity of attraction will not be reciprocal. An imbalance of love leads of feelings of guilt, betrayal, and abandonment. Secondly and very much related, there always exists competition for love. Sons will often vie for the affection of their mother with their father; daughters do the same with their mother or other siblings for the attention of their father. This common pattern of jealousy and resentment betrays a taboo sexual undercurrent to what we want to imagine is nothing more than a "Platonic" love within the family. There are but some of the limitations with loving someone in the flesh. As there's only so much of them to go around, love is destined at some point to go unrequited. That sexual attraction can be destructive is likewise uncontroversial.

Edouard Toudouze - Farewell of Oedipus to the Corpses of His Wife and Sons 1871

All you need is Love?

Where might all of that unrecompensed attraction get directed? Obviously, children do grow up and in the normal course of life tend to fall in love and repeat the aforementioned cycle. However, if only that powerful, motivating attractive force could be harnessed and redirected! If only the object of love could be separated from the constraints of flesh and bone and made communal, psychological, spiritual even. Then perhaps it could serve as a limitless reservoir for an infinite amount of people! Such untapped potential has not been lost on savvy minds. And so we've a plethora of institutions that stand as gateways to love of God, love of country, love of ideology, love of love itself.  

As a brief aside, I should reiterate that humans aren't entirely unique as animals share a limited capacity for love. They'll almost always defend themselves, sometimes they'll fight for their mate, more often than not they'll sacrifice themselves for their young. Yet, humans have exponentially more capacity for love than any other creature that exists. Our love includes all of the above yet extends to concepts that prompt us to give much of our lives over to beliefs, to the extreme that we're often willing to sacrifice the natural bonds of family for them in a way that other animals lack the ability to even consider. Ironically the key to redirecting our attractive force towards a concept is that it must rematerialise. We need an idol, an avatar recipient for our love to flow. The receiving vessel can be a candidate, a guru, a revolutionary, a god. They can be alive or dead, real or imagined. What matters is that we believe. 

Clearly, that intangible sentiment we call Love is very powerful; moreover, it's potentially quite dangerous. I'd advise a cautious approach in its handling: be careful towards what and upon whom you bestow your love.


Contributed by Patrick Webb