Western Philosophical Conceptions of Truth, Beauty, and Goodness

Early Conceptions of Truth, Beauty, and Goodness in Classical Greece
Antonio Canova - The Three Charites
The conception of Truth, Beauty, and Goodness (TBG) in Western Civilisation has very deep roots indeed, long in development with notable contributions from a variety of cultures. Some of the strongest influences were undoubtedly bequeathed to us by the ancient Greeks. In this initial post I would like to briefly explore the initial striving towards a clear conception exhibited in ancient Greek religion and how these ideas came to be refined by the earliest known philosophers becoming modified by their emerging views of the cosmos.

Greek Religion 
Many of the religious practises of the ancient Greeks had an aura of mystery. Being only for the initiated, the rites of the cults were not written down rather memorised, acted out, thus embodied. Much of what we do know comes from the poetry of Homer and Hesiod and the theatrical productions of Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides. Their works were not seen as simply forms of entertainment, rather extensions of the religious life. The Mythos they expounded upon was intended to reveal truth; nevertheless, not truth of a literal nature, instead by the manner in which they were presented: in a fictive, poetic, naturalistic transmission of concepts of the sacred as well as life lessons of piety that were both acted before and performed with the audience.
Always prominently featured in these stories and performances was the cultivation of Arête, often translated as Virtue with the emphasis on excellence, the good. The preeminent virtues were courage, temperance, and justice. These were guided by a further virtue of prudence, or right reason in their exercise. In relation to the gods was the virtue of piety or grace. The goddess Kale, the head of the trinity of Charites or Graces, was beauty personified. It was therefore the beauty of the gods, their splendid excellence of form that provided the mortal attraction and motivating force for their worship. Nevertheless, the precise nature of those gods, the cosmos they perhaps had a hand in, or the chaos from which all being was thought to emerge remained deeply mysterious. 
Early Greek Philosophy 
Perhaps it was from the cultivation of prudence, the virtue of practical reason, which led to a search for an enduring wisdom. Whatever the origins, Aristotle credits Thales of Miletus (6th century B.C.) as the first philosopher, a lover of such an enduring, transcendental wisdom. With Thales a couple of suppositions began to be emerge. First, that the cosmos was typified by order and secondly, that order could be understood by human reason. From this seemingly inauspicious beginning off the coast of Anatolia, an human explanation for all that is began its long development. 
The notable philosophers that followed until the time of Socrates placed differing emphases on the the nature of truth, beauty, and goodness. Although a few of them make specific reference to TBG, more often they are embedded in a point of view, if considered at all. The definitions below are for the words in Greek most often corresponding to our own concepts: 
Alethiea (truth) - that which is unconcealed, evident

Kallos (beauty) - outer excellence, splendid as well as erotic in that it elicits desire

Agathos (goodness) - inner excellence, the most actualised from potential

“the good comes to be… 
through many numbers” 
- Polykleitos

Pythagoras was quite an interesting figure as his cult (not used in a pejorative sense) retained much from Orphism and the earlier Dionysian mysteries. However, a benefit of this was the confidence that mankind's inheritance from Dionysios bestowed upon them a measure of divine intellect. The Pythagoreans developed a committed belief to the ordered harmony of the cosmos. The gods had created order by setting limits upon chaos, thus weaving a cosmos and it was beautiful! The ritualistic practise of geometry, number, and music could reveal these patterns of being. His was a philosophy of mystic aspiration yet tangible results and later followers would ascribe all truth in philosophy to Pythagoras, a truth that was to be found in number and right proportion through which the universe could be unconcealed and made comprehensible. 
"To God everything is beautiful, good, and just; humans, however, think some things are unjust and others just."  - Heraclitus 
Here we begin to see something approaching the unity of truth, beauty, and goodness in Heraclitus. He is the first to characterise the generative principle of order as the Logos or world-soul. Subsequent philosophers, notably Aristotle, would begin to develop their systems on logical principles, that is to say according to the Logos. 
Parmenides shares the Pythagorean notion of the Monad. For him truth was eternal and revealed through reason whilst opinion as gained through the senses was illusory. This view of truth as incorporeal and pertaining to timelessness was to permanently attach itself to philosophical inquiry, being greatly expounded upon with Plato. 
At this point certain difficulties in acquiring true knowledge begin to be expressed. Anaxagoras notes, “Owing to feebleness [of the senses], we are not able to determine the truth.” This was not to say that truth did not exist or that we couldn't access it, just that the senses were going to present an obstacle. Perfect knowledge rested in an ultimate mind or Nous somewhat akin to Heraclitus' Logos. Although not clearly defined, Anaxagoras does introduce the concept that there is some telos, purpose to existence. 
Democritus is famous for his atomistic, mechanical model of existence; nevertheless, for him also difficulties of true knowledge acquired through the senses arise, “We know nothing truly about anything, but for each of us opining is a rearrangement of soul atoms.” However, he does posit a way out that Aristotle would later utilise, coming to distinguish between what Democritus describes as bastard (sensual) and legitimate (rational) knowledge. Instead of discounting what is acquired through the senses, he suggests using reason to verify and refine it thus to approach truth in a primitive inductive process.
The Sophists 
With consideration of the Sophists we enter the Athenian scene contemporaneous with Socrates. The Sophists were professional rhetoricians who sold their services as tutors or as counsel in legal disputes. A Sophist held with a modicum of respect by Socrates was Protagoras. He connected Anaxagoras' concept of telos or purpose with the virtues of temperance and justice, concluding that these amounted to the good for man, an earthly telos. On the other hand, Protagoras promoted the idea of relative truth at least in earthly matters. One opinion could be better than another for practical purposes but not truer than another in any meaningful way. His famous dictum echoes this view, “Man is the measure of all things.”
Whereas a handful of the Sophists such as Protagoras might have engaged in philosophy, for the most part they were using the faculties of reason for instrumental ends; they were teaching pragmatically, not truthfully or according to logic: rhetoric as power to persuade and manipulate. Their focus tended towards appeals to emotion in lieu of reason. Morals and virtues began to be taken as merely relative or a matter of convention. Truth was something to be manufactured not discovered. This scepticism reaches a crescendo with the Sophist Gorgias who claimed first, that nothing exists and even if it does, it's incomprehensible; concluding that even if it's comprehensible, it remains incommunicable. No truth. No understanding. No communication. The Sophist Thrasymachus' contribution to this is that justice amounts to nothing more than, "the interest of the stronger. 
At this point, in the hands of the Sophists we find the concept of beauty abandoned, goodness limited to the individual, and truth nothing more than relative opinion. We certainly seem a long way off from any profound respect for truth, goodness, and beauty as transcendental guiding aspects of human life or universal existence. However, in my next essay we'll witness the philosophical foundations for an apotheosis of truth, beauty, and goodness as a bound trinity being laid in one dialectic proof after another with the successive works of the three greatest philosophers of Greek antiquity: Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. 

Truth, Beauty, and Goodness in Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle
Socrates by Leonidas Drosis
Academy of Athens

Up until the mid-5th century B.C., Athens was mostly renown for being an economic powerhouse of seafaring trade but was hardly considered a centre of philosophic inquiry. Their Sophists, or "wise" men attuned their tutelage to the Athenian mercantile way of life offering wealthy youths training in rhetoric: instrumental skills in how to gain further influence in the democracy or win arguments in court. The Sophists appeared to be familiar with the activity of the various philosophers spread out among various Greek city-states over the previous 150 years; however, they seemed to be by and large sceptical of the mostly metaphysical theories that had been generated to that point. After all, Thales had claimed everything was made of water, Heraclitus fire; Democrtitus had promoted these strange things called atoms. Their theories all seemed quite unprovable and appeared to contradict each other, so what difference did devoting thought to them make? Better to leave such nonsensical musings behind and focus the mental energies on getting ahead and the business at hand.
In the midst of this intellectual milieu arrives Socrates. Outwardly, he appeared to be engaged in a similar project and was sometimes considered a Sophist himself. After all, Socrates was likewise considered a wise man and an instructor of the youth. However, there were a couple of distinguishing features of his brand of sophistry. First, he did not charge for his teaching. Secondly and more significantly, he was not helping students to prevail in their opinions; rather, his steadfast focus was to develop a thoroughgoing method of argument that would elicit the truth underlying the proper exercise of the virtues. For this reason, Plato and others christened him not just as one among many wise men but specifically as a philosopher, a "lover of wisdom".
To fully appreciate Socrates' method you have to understand his metaphysical grounding as it applies to that which animates the body: namely the soul. His view is that the soul is pre-existent and immortal and can be identified with intelligence and reason. From this stance emerges a doctrine of reminiscence. To learn of "pure" reason is the act of remembering the soul's former existence. Furthermore, from this belief is developed the Socratic method of eliciting the soul's memory through a series of careful questions, a process he referred to as dialectic. Dialectic typically begins with a request for a definition of an overarching term such as one of the virtues. An example might be, "what is justice?" The dialectical process does not merely solicit opinions, rather it uncovers or recalls from the soul's memory what "justice" e.g. must logically, necessarily consist of.
Socrates describes the philosopher's role in this process as that of a midwife. What he helps to coax and deliver from the soul is truth, that which is now and must be eternally so. As distinguished from opinion, truth is thus described as transcendent of the ever-changing physical world, being of the same nature as the soul and is in fact an integral aspect of each and every soul's awareness. The source of truth and the soul is the ultimate reality, what Socrates describes as the Good. Once the memory of truth is thus awakened, the individual can embody, act out, and orient his life towards the good, bringing body and soul into an intelligible harmony, what he calls the "good" life.
The philosophy of Plato expands Socrates' metaphysics upon which his own treatment of truth, beauty, and goodness critically depend. Plato likewise describes the pre-existence of an eternal, transmigrating soul; however, he further elaborates that this soul is quite literally individual, meaning that it cannot be divided, cannot undergo change or be destroyed, thus separate and distinct from physical things including bodies. The soul Plato describes is thus immaterial and a simple unity not a composite thing. It is this soul that he claims has real knowledge of the Forms which share its nature of being timeless, eternal, and unchanging.
What are the Forms? Well, nothing in particular. That is to say they stand independently, neither being a composite of many things or a part of anything else. They're the only things the soul can know for sure because they're stable, they never change. They're the real and only objects of knowledge, true everywhere and every when. According to Plato to use the word "knowledge" to describe experience gained through the senses is at best a metaphor, technically incorrect. Experience of changing, particular things is nothing more than opinion of which true knowledge is impossible. What Plato was in search of were the archetypal ideals that stand outside of any particular time and place. The Forms are thus "eternal truths", the very expression being a tautology since eternity (unchanging permanence) is the very essence of truth properly understood. 
As with Socrates, Plato's dialectical process in eliciting knowledge is one of recollection in which truth is revealed by means of reason alone. For Plato reason is an essential character of the soul and is occupied with pure ideals. The method of dialectic directs the soul's inner eye to look beyond the changing particulars of mundane existence, unlocking the soul's consciousness to focus on the Forms, the eternal truths, the knowledge of the Good. Complimenting truth, beauty is described as the expression of the Good. Plato outlines a journey of sensible beauty towards the very ideal of beauty itself. He imagines the commonplace occurrence of a young man, blinded by love, finding a specific girl's body beautiful as no other. In time the young man is likely to notice that physical beauty is a trait distributed among many women. Perhaps he may even come to sense that there is a beauty not quite physical, an inner beauty of the woman he loves. Should the young man mature into a philosopher, he may be drawn towards the ideal of beauty itself apart from any physical or particular manifestation. Whereas truth instructs the soul about the Good, beauty motivates the soul towards it.
For Plato philosophy rests on the critical distinction between mere appearances and a direct apprehension of reality, the Good. Such a pursuit is not an wholly abstract or disinterested study either. Man and his actions are not to be reduced to mere physiological and mechanical explanations. For Plato, man is both rational and societal, motivated by purpose, having goals and ends he seeks to attain. In his allegory of the cave, Plato compares the Good to the sun. Just as the sun makes physical things visible to eyesight, the Good illuminates the soul's reason making the eternal forms comprehensible. Thus for Plato there was nothing subjective about the "inner eye" of the philosopher's vision, he simply directly comprehends excellence, the Good.

Raphael - The School of Athens


Although as Plato's student, Aristotle shares many views and assumptions in common, there is a divergence in their metaphysics that has implications for his entire philosophy including his conception of truth, beauty, and goodness. Aristotle has a lengthy description of the soul; however, In regard to the human soul specifically he asserts, contrary to Plato, that it does not have a pre-existence or any existence at all apart from the body describing it as, “the actuality of a body that has life.” In other words, the soul is the animating aspect of the body. His view of the soul is in parallel with that of the Forms as being immanent in, rather than transcendent of particular bodies. Thus the human soul is "hylomorphic", a composite of immanent form actualised in a material body, an "informed" individual.
In the composition of the soul, Aristotle considers bodies the primary substance upon which forms are dependent. The soul of living things can be thought of as having elements or aspects that can be arranged in an ascending hierarchy. At the base sits what is described as the vegetal soul, the fundamental drives of nutrition and reproduction shared by all living things. Next is the animal soul that includes the additional capacities of sensation and locomotion. Finally, there is the defining trait of humans, the rational soul capable of reason. That said, according to Aristotle humans have all three of the aforementioned aspects of soul. Whereas Plato saw the human soul as imprisoned in an animal body that could be freed by a life dedicated to reason, Aristotle viewed man as a rational animal who ought to seek fulfillment in all aspects of his being, including the vegetal and animal.
To understand Aristole's view on what constitutes the Good, it is helpful to consider his explanation of causation. He states that the cause of any physical object living or inanimate can be attributed to 4 causes: material, efficient, formal, and final. Let's take the example of Socrates' statue pictured above. The material cause would be the material the statue is made of, in our example marble. Clearly had this statue been made of bronze, plaster or some other material that would very much effect how it could be made or might endure exposed to the elements. Secondly, there is the efficient cause, the craft of stone carving. Note that his view of the means of this statue coming into being is not attributed to the particular artisan, rather to the craft itself. Next there is the formal cause which refers to the shape or design of the statue, which, as the name indicates, gives it its form: Socrates dressed in his chiton, seated in thought. At last we come to the final cause, the purpose of the statue which ostensibly is to adorn the entrance to the 20th century Academy of Athens. For Aristotle the final cause has primacy among the causes, being the very raison d'être of all the others. In our example, if there was no need to adorn the Academy, a form and method of carving a selected material would never have come to pass. The Greek term he uses to describe such an end or goal is telos.
Having established a rough framework of Aristotle's metaphysics we can now get down to the business of his views on truth, beauty, and goodness. What we find is that the aforementioned concept of telos and the Good are very closely aligned. The Good is associated with fully actualising  form, order, and reaching maturity according to an initial potential. For example, what is good for plants is physical health by means of nutrition that allows them to reproduce. Animals have these basic goals but their senses and mobility allow them to also actively pursue desires and pleasures while avoiding pain. A dog can have a good life for himself by being well fed, eventually mating but also by avoiding injury and finding companionship in the pack. Aristotle admits that all of the aforementioned are good for human beings as well; nevertheless, we've a further capacity to exercise intellectual virtues and contemplative wisdom. By pursuing all of these in a balanced way we can attain what in Greek is called "eudaimonia", literally "well being", a telos synonymous with the good life, human flourishing.
However, as human beings are rational, our attaining the good life means knowing all of the moral virtues previously addressed by Socrates and Plato and how to apply them in life. As Aristotle contests the idea of innate knowledge resident in an eternal soul, seeking truth will need another means other than recollection through dialectic. The method Aristotle proposes is one of induction which originates in experience and the senses. Although the senses are notoriously unreliable, cumulative experiences can allow us to distinguish patterns. Aristotle describes an elevated "common sense" existing in the mind, where the experiences of all the other senses rushing in are unified into an orgasnised experience of memory. This memory is the product of the higher, common sense of reason comparing, contrasting, and finally verifying (literally "making true") in a revelatory moment of intuitive recognition of truth. It is through this process of subjecting sense experience to reason that we abstract the Forms, truths from particulars.
At the highest level of being, Aristotle identifies beauty with the Good; it is the Unmoved Mover, the final cause of all things that is desired for its own sake and sets the entire cosmos in motion by the attraction it exercises. Beauty engenders love which is held as the highest virtue, the driving and unifying force. Aristotle relates, “if all people competed for the beautiful, and strained to do the most beautiful things, everything people need in common, and the greatest good for each in particular, would be achieved."  Getting down to earth, the beautiful life is not egotistical but concerns itself with friendship and the common good, the highest fulfillment for a human being in this life.
Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle laid the foundation for over 2,400 years of philosophic inquiry to follow in the Western tradition. They solidified entire fields of rational inquiry regarding morals and ethics, asking how can we be sure of our knowledge, reflecting on what our purpose as human beings is, and what it is that motivates us towards those ends. Their provisional conclusion was that the Good, True, and the Beautiful at the highest actualisation of ultimate reality was indistinguishable as an unity: the One. And love is the force that draws us towards it. Nevertheless, they certainly weren't the last words on the subject. Our own concepts of truth, beauty, and goodness have been undoubtedly shaped and influenced by subsequent thought and writing about them. In our next essay we'll consider various schools that came to prominence in Hellenic Greece including the Cyrenaics, Cynics, Sceptics, and Epicureans.
Hellenistic Conceptions of Truth, Beauty, and Goodness

John William Waterhouse - Diogenes
In our previous essay we saw how Plato and Aristotle developed mythological and speculatively elementary concepts of truth, beauty, and goodness into a unified trinity that could be fully integrated into their robust systems of philosophy. These men had a number of contemporaries in the Classical period, as well as schools that would later arise in Hellenistic Greece that would either expand upon their philosophy or provide alternative viewpoints. Typically, these later philosophies lacked the holistic unity of truth, beauty, and goodness sought by Plato and Aristotle, manifesting a more selective focus that privileged only one or two of these ideals, often in isolation. Nevertheless, despite the differing perspectives or perhaps even owing to them, valuable insights were added to the edifice of thought in Western civilisation that are worthy of our present consideration.

The Cyrenaics

This was an odd school formed by Aristippus, a follower of Socrates, thus a contemporary of Plato. The Cyrenaics never developed a metaphysics beyond repeating Heraclitus' observation of an observable world in continuous flux. Rather, they assume a dogmatism about the possibility of knowing any truth about reality, even holding an extreme scepticism that extended to their own subjective thoughts and feelings. Their rejection of theories of reality and knowledge seem to feed into an ethic that can only be characterised as an egotistical hedonism. For the Cyrenaic, the Good amounted to nothing more than personal pleasure. Such pleasure Aristippus claims, “discerned the good by the single present time alone.” Aristipppus advocated for pleasure to be individual, immediate, and intense with a minimum of pain. He did not believe in deferring present pleasures for the sake of achieving better long-term consequences. Neither did he nor subsequent Cyrenaics have much use for the traditional Greek virtues. Whereas Plato viewed justice and temperance as virtues associated with rational, thus higher pleasure that led to a meaningful life of human flourishing, the Cyrenaics rejected any speech, thought, or purpose in life expressed through such so-called virtues as nothing more than arbitrary, cultural conventions. The good life? Seek bodily pleasure, don't think too much, and thereby avoid trouble in body and soul would pretty much sum up their world view.

The Cynics

Antisthenes began as an aristocratic follower of Gorgias the Sophist only to later became one of Socrates' most ardent disciples. He continued much of the central themes of Socrates' philosophy such as that the good life was one lived according to the virtues, therefore uncovering the truth regarding them was the highest pleasure. Although Antisthenes has been attributed as the founder of the Cynics, this is very much in dispute and seems unlikely. However, there were anticipations of the Cynics in his style of teaching as he did promote an aesthetic way of life that provided time for cultivation of virtue whilst avoiding the distractions of physical pleasures. Antisthenes likewise stressed the need to live in accord with nature in contrast to submission to the conventions of civilisation, in so doing disparaging many social obligations, material luxuries, and sensual pleasures.

Cynicism can more properly be attributed to Diogenes who took Antisthenes interpretations of Socrates' teaching to yet further extremes of asceticism. Also, he followed the Cyrenaics in rejecting the pursuit of metaphysics with specific criticisms directed at Plato. Diogenes demonstrated in his teaching a near total rejection of the conventions of civilisation. He was reported to live naked at the side of the road in a pithos, a large clay pot for storage of grain. Whatever men did in private, he did in public: eating, sleeping, defecating, even masturbation and sex. For this reason he and his followers were pejoratively called "cynics", because they were said to live like dogs (kynos). At times the Cynics showed anti-authoritarian tendencies; however, for the most part they preached indifference to society in lieu of self-sufficiency. As man's troubles were products of culture (money, marriage, family, etc.), peace and contentment was to be found in a return to nature.

According to the Cynics, nature offers the clearest indication of how to live the good life which is characterized by reason, agency, and freedom. Social conventions tend to hinder the good life, compromising freedom and setting up norms of conduct that are opposed to nature and reason. Diogenes considered parrhēsia, the freedom to speak the truth, “the most beautiful thing in the world”, a freedom that civilisation suppressed. The things men would strive to learn with the Sophists or appeal to the gods for, such as wealth, honour, or power was to Diogenes utter folly for which he, “would rebuke men in general with regard to their prayers, declaring that they asked for things which seemed to them to be good, not for such as are truly good.” I find it interesting that, though the contemporary meaning of "cynical" is quite different, aspects of the ancient Cynic's world view saw a resurgence in 19th century Romantic philosophy and is still very active and relevant today.

The Sceptics

I would characterise Scepticism as more of a disposition towards the world than a coherent philosophy. The word "sceptic" literally means "to reflect" which is precisely what this group of philosophers did with every claim of certain knowledge that they encountered. One of the leading Sceptics, Sextus Empiricus suggested that there were three possible conclusions one might draw when presented with a knowledge claim. You can think you've found truth (positive dogmatist). You can deny any possibility of truth (negative dogmatist). Or you can take the sceptical position of suspending judgement so as to carry on in reflection.

A real Sceptic would be even hesitant to say that "he does not know truth." After all he might!. He just doesn't know for certain whether he knows or not so that the Sceptic finds tranquility and contentment in suspending judgement. This Hellenistic scepticism was not so radical as to question subjective appearances such as what people sensed or felt. Rather, it specifically challenged the type of certain, eternal, transcendental truth claims that had been the subject of rational inquiry for philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle. On the surface, the purpose of this type of scepticism was not to deny that such truths were possible or discourage the pursuit of them. Instead, its purported aim was to unsettle dogmatism, rattle unwarranted confidence, so as to maintain an open mind towards further inquiry. Whether or not most Sceptics were sincere in their pursuit of truth or merely using their techniques in a rhetorical fashion to debunk arguments is a matter of some debate. Nevertheless, many of the tropes they developed remain quite useful in uncovering logical flaws often inherent in presuppositions of arguments as well as clarifying personal bias out of rational thinking.

The Epicureans

Unlike the previous schools that had a number of influences, Epicureanism was essentially a personality cult of one man: Epicurus. He adopted Democritus' physics of atomism, with one adjustment allowing for a bit of indeterminacy. In doing so he openly rejected not only Platonic and Aristotelian metaphysics but even the possibility of final causes or an immaterial soul. For Epicurus, everything including the soul was material; nothing pre-exists or survives the death of the body. His was a philosophy of the here and now, a life of "eudaimonia", literally "well-being", achieved through subordination to the virtue of prudence, practical reason. As this life is all there is, pleasure was to be the beginning and end of the good life. Likewise time for us is short. Because of this he promotes "ataraxia", imperturbability. Some physical pain and much psychological pain is self-generated. Freedom from disturbance often amounts to learning what not to care about.

Roberto Bompiani - A Roman Feast

For Epicurus, all human thought, speech, and ethics are conventional and a breeding ground of confused opinions.  Although we may at times misinterpret our impressions, it is our sensual experiences of pleasure and pain rather than abstract moral principles or concepts of good and bad that constitute our primary criterion of truth. The highest good is inherent, what is valued for its own sake. The highest good cannot be instrumental, for the sake of anything else: not for the gods, not for the good, not for love. Instead, he identifies well-being with personal pleasure; to his mind it's the only thing people do for its own sake. In the end, everything we do is egoistical, done for the sake of our own pleasure, even what might outwardly appear sacrificial or for the sake of virtue. This last sentiment is more what we mean by the term "cynical" nowadays.
Epicurus was likewise a thoroughgoing empiricist. Experience reveals truth in a representational manner. Our perceptive capacities immediately inform us that pleasure is good and pain is bad. There is an accurate correspondence between the source of sensation out there and what our sense organs report back to us. We don't need the pre-existent immaterial souls of Plato to recall transcendental Forms, instead we remember directly right here and now, quickly building up sense experience and extending ideas by analogy. Epicurus even has one of the best responses for some of his Sceptic colleagues' doubt concerning knowledge and truth. If the senses are so unreliable, where do the concepts of knowledge and truth come from and what business to Sceptics even have of using them in their arguments?
Once again, after an heroic attempt at a theory of being, of knowledge, and the unity of truth, beauty, and goodness by Plato and Aristotle we find the concept of beauty in jeopardy, the Good reduced to mere subjective experience, and the possibility of an eternal truth questioned if not altogether rejected. In my next essay, we'll take a slight detour by considering concepts of truth, beauty, and goodness held in Hebrew scripture and by a couple of notable Jewish philosophers.
Truth, Beauty, and Goodness in Hebrew Scripture, Philo of Alexandria, and Maimonides

Jacques Émile Édouard Brandon
Shema Yisrael
"Hear, O Israel! The Lord our God is one Lord and thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thine heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy might." - Deuteronomy 6:4,5 KJV*

As we continue our discussion of the tripartite transcendental virtues of truth, beauty, and goodness characteristic of Classical Greek philosophy, I would like to make a cursory, non-exhaustive segue way into some of the significant Jewish contributions that permeated and transformed nearly all subsequent religious, artistic, and intellectual development in Western civilisation.

The Hebrew Scriptures

There of course is a surplus of Hebrew scripture that one could consider including canonical, apocryphal, as well as countless Rabbinic commentaries. However, for the purpose of this essay I'll be limiting my sources to the Tanakh, that is to say the Torah (pentateuch), Nevi'im (prophets), and Ketuvim (other writings) that roughly correspond to what is otherwise known as the Old Testament or Hebrew bible. Certainly there is much to be expressed concerning truth, beauty, and goodness in the Tanakh which we'll subsequently consider.

It is easy to pick up on a correspondence with Greek, particularly Platonic philosophy in the concept of Love (as Eros) being the drawing, attractive force towards the One. Admittedly though, there is a different emphasis to be found in Hebrew scripture than Greek metaphysical thought. This is exemplified in the above cited Shema Yisrael, a central feature of the Jewish call to prayer (Barechu) in which God's unity is the point of emphasis. Our primary obligation towards Him is such love that surpasses mere attraction so as to indicate responsible action on our part. That virtue of love is to be manifested in its own tripartite arrangement: the metaphorical heart, soul, and might that correspond to our emotions, reason, and physical body; in other words the harmonious alignment of our entirety of being. Here we see a fascinating similarity with the hierarchy of being outlined by Plato of the vegetal, animal, and human souls that correspond to physical, emotional, and rational aspects of man appropriately proportioned in the harmonised individual. With a careful reading what begins to emerge here is the basis for a great deal of compatibility between these world views.

So what was the ancient Hebrew relationship to truth, beauty, and goodness? Well, let's start with the Good.  In the Hebrew cosmology God brings light, the earth, and all life upon it in six creative periods or "days" after which he reflects, "God saw every thing that he had made, and, behold, it was very good." - Genesis 1:31. Here we see it positively asserted that the physical creation, the material world is good. This is possible because God himself is repeatedly associated with the good to the point of complete identification. Therefore when he gives goodness, God gives of himself. When God shows us the good, he reveals himself to us and invites us to participate in that goodness. "He hath shewed thee, O man, what is good; and what doth the Lord require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God?" - Micah 6:8

If the Good is the very being of God then truth appears to be a closely corresponding manifestation, "truth shall be to them that devise good." - Proverbs 14:22. In the Tanakh we find the familiar metaphor of truth with light. Truth is thus revelatory and identified with the word of God, with his speech. Furthermore, such divine truth is eternal, "the truth of the Lord endureth for ever." - Psalms 117:2. He is described repeatedly as the God of truth, truth being what pours out from the good. Along with truth are associated countless other virtues, prominent among them: mercy, peace, and especially justice. In fact, it is the truth of God's word as recorded in his laws and commandments that provide the basis for a just society. The word of truth is in some way alive and animating. God searches for men of truth to follow in His way or path, to walk in truth as a dynamic activity. Here again, I think we can point to a certain shift of emphasis in Jewish thought that sees in the notion of truth more than the logical certainty of the Greeks. For the devout, truth was instead embraced as a highly motivational virtue that organises human life and must be not merely understood but acted out.

Alexandre Cabanel
Samson and Delilah
It would be uncharitable to say that beauty is given short shrift in the Hebrew scriptures; however, it is presented with a double aspect that must be acknowledged. Curiously we're advised that, "charm can lie, beauty can vanish." - Proverbs 31:30 CJB**. So here we're confronted with an aspect of beauty that is potentially opposed to truth and is not eternal. Father Adam, Samson, and King David all seem to be led astray by feminine beauty although it must be pointed out that in fact they fall prey to their own weakness, a possessive desire which leads to their moral corruption. Yet elsewhere beauty is described as a gift of God that we are to beseech him for. The tabernacle, later the temple, all the garments of the priests, and all of the implements within were to be beautiful. Beauty was thus strongly affiliated with that which was sacred, holy so as to represent God's earthly abode  "Zion, the perfection of beauty." - Psalms 50:2. The tension inherent to the concept of beauty is never fully resolved in scripture and its uncertain status as a virtue reverberates through time until the present day.

Jewish Philosophy

"For God, being God, judged in advance that a beautiful copy would never be produced except from a beautiful pattern and that no sense object would be irreproachable that was not modeled after an archetypal and intelligible idea." - Philo of Alexandria

In Philo of Alexandria we have a character that is at once very faithful to his Jewish upbringing yet quite well schooled in the Greek paideia: the Hellenistic education that involved training in the liberal arts and philosophy. Philo's writings make it patently clear that he was well versed in Greek religion, myth and the philosophical schools of Plato, Aristotle, Pythagoras, the Stoics, the Sceptics, and the Epicureans. Regarding divine truth, he partially adheres to the scepticism of Gorgias that in some sense God is “ineffable, inconceivable and incomprehensible”, at least by reason alone. Philo thus inverts the Platonic view that the One is distant yet knowable (through remembrance) by claiming that God is proximate yet inscrutable except by revelation and divine law. The Stoic concept of a divine Logos is modified from being precisely synonymous with God. Rather it is metaphorically recharacterised as the only begotten son of God; the eternal ideas of God personified as divine wisdom that act as both utterance and creator of all which is limited: the physical creation. The Logos manifests itself in human reason as exemplified through allegory by the prophet Moses who has divine truth revealed to him in thought as well as the high priest Aaron who serves as the rhetorical word of God to Israel.

It is not that Philo rejects the efficacy of human reason (since after all it is of divine origin); nevertheless, he subjects reasons to faith in revelation. This would establish an hierarchical relationship between faith and reason that would be heartily embraced by the early Church. At the same time he develops a theology of negation that claims the impossibility of making specific positive assertions about God. Such representations would be insufficient in discussing the ineffable; worship so directed would amount to idolatry. Otherwise the best we can do with our own intellectual resources is attribute qualities of the creation in a superlative analogy towards God, a self-confessedly insufficient representation of His infinitude. Hence is revealed Philo's motive for placing emphasis on the vital importance of revelation in granting us necessary truth concerning God.

For Philo the Good originates in God, manifestly one of His powers associated with creation. By contrast, he firmly rejects the Epicurean notion of the good as a life that maximises pleasure. This he explains would substitute a mere relative good for a perfect one. Philo likewise rejects the Stoic concept of a life led by reason alone as the telos or ultimate purpose of man. As with truth, Philo contends that reason alone is insufficient rather, "“the only good that is infallible and firm is faith in God.” Nevertheless, the influence of Greek philosophy as manifest in the interconnectedness of truth, beauty, and goodness is more evident in his philosophy than we can find directly in Hebrew scripture. Philo claims that Adam was created kalos kagathos, that is to say beautiful and good. Moreover, Philo presents a descending hierarchy of creation reminiscent of Plato wherein beautiful copies are created on the basis of archetypal beautiful patterns contained in the mind of God.

Over a thousand years later the philosopher Maimonides emerges from the intellectual millieu of Cairo, Egypt. Like Philo, Maimonides was a devout Jew whose philosophy is interwoven with theology. Among his foundational assertions is a fascinating reduction of the entire Mosaic law to two commands encountered in the Shema Yisrael: the love of God and the categorical rejection of idolatry.

The implication Maimonides makes is that love of God entails knowing the truth about God. Reason and revelation were two modes of divine truth, the former was explicit and intellectual whereas the latter was allegorical and non-philosophical thus accessible to common people. Human reason has limits; it can demonstrate neither the creation nor the concepts of eternity and infinity e.g. In this manner revelation is proven necessary and is complimentary to reason. Worship misdirected, involving a false understanding will result in something other than God as its aim which amounts to idolatry. Maimonides finds many truths in Greek philosophy which he accounts for as a mere accident of history. He speculates that such truth was revealed to Adam and again in patriarchal times but was partially lost in Jewish exile though echoes of it remain in the Tanakh. Nevertheless, truth is neither Jewish nor Greek, rather divine and eternal so that “you must accept the truth from whatever source it comes.

Maimonides proposes that there is a good for man, a flourishing and perfection of the intellect which necessarily involves the pursuit of truth. The scriptures are true; however, often times literal interpretations of it can be shown to be false. Therefore, metaphorical interpretations must be sought and literal interpretations ought to be rejected if they conflict with the truths uncovered in science and philosophy. There is a direct connection asserted between truth and the Good. Evil does not exist as such rather results from a lack of accurate knowledge, possessing imaginative and confused ideas which is to say deprivation of the Good.

God has perfect knowledge and is thus infinitely Good which is all we can directly say of him. In this regard Maimonides largely shares the aforementioned negative theology. However, he goes even further than Philo of Alexandria. Maimonides asserts that to talk of God by way superlative analogy would be to compare God who is infinite to man who is finite. To do so is nothing less than idolatry. We're presented with a metaphysical gulf between God and man. Maimonides illustrates that the truth regarding God can only be reached at indirectly. This was explained to us in the account of Moses and the burning bush where God did not reveal His essence (face) directly but only the effects of His being indirectly. Regarding beauty, Maimonides surprisingly says little beyond the observation that the appreciation of natural beauty as enjoyed in gardens can serve as a means of relaxation that can stimulate the vital work of contemplation in pursuit of truth.

This is hardly a comprehensive survey of all Jewish philosophical thought and really just aims to touch lightly on the philosophy of Philo of Alexandria and Maimonides as it relates to our ongoing consideration of truth, beauty, and goodness. In my next essay, we'll consider the last of the Hellenistic schools, the Stoics and explore how intellectual interchange with the East accompanied by theological ideas begins to exert an influence, blending and building upon the foundation of Greek philosophy in Neoplatonism and the early Christian church. 

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

Roman Conceptions of Truth, Beauty, and Goodness

Stoic Emperor Marcus Aurelius
Capitoline Hill, Rome
Under consideration in this essay will be certain Classical Greek schools of thought that came to particular prominence throughout the Roman empire prior to the broad acceptance of Christianity (upon which they exercised considerable influence). Stoicism, Neopythagoreanism (alternatively middle Platonism), and Neoplatonism clearly confess a debt to the earlier Greek philosophers Heraclitus and Parmenides as well as the schools of Pythagoras, Plato, and the Cynics. However, there is a notable departure from the metaphysics of a cosmos ex-materia wherein Plato in particular assumes a model of pre-existent, eternal, initially chaotic matter that is organised by transcendent forms. 

Such a dualistic conception of matter and form is gradually supplanted in the later schools by an increasingly monistic metaphysics that interprets the cosmos as coming into being ex-deo, as an overflowing of the divine. For the Stoics the world is explained as an unified existence that can be perceived in two aspects: God and Nature. The Platonist schools propose a variation of this in which a process of divine emanation constitutes an hierarchy of being from the divine towards the mundane. As we'll subsequently consider, such pantheistic conceptions of reality have implications for the relative importance and understanding of truth, beauty, and goodness.


No longer talk at all about the kind of man that a good man ought to be, but be such.” - Marcus Aurelius

Stoicism places a preponderance of emphasis on the Good which is associated with God, often referred to as Providence. The Good is the active principle that has infused and animated all of Nature so that they are in fact indistinguishable, two aspects of a single reality. The analogy is often presented of the cosmos as a body that is infused with a soul to constitute a living entity. However, unlike previous conceptions the soul is not a different substance, rather it likewise is material in essence. Entailed in this conception is an implicit trust that Nature is substantially Good; that we in our individual lives are part and parcel of the best possible existence. As Nature can be no other way than the Good, and as we are not separate from it, the conclusion follows that everything that exists and everyone's actions in the world are predetermined towards this end. In such a cosmos what does the Good mean for you and I?

Although our actions may be predetermined, our dispositions towards them are argued by the Stoics to remain free. Therefore, what is good for a rational creature such as man is cultivating a life of virtue, an aligning of the will to accord with Nature. Such virtue would include the specific Classical Greek virtues of justice, temperance, fortitude, and prudence. Beyond these, special emphasis is given to arete, the overarching concept of virtue or excellence that permeates and unites all the others. The locus of the virtuous path rests with the individual person and is open to anyone irrespective of social status or circumstance. Two of the most notable Stoics could not have come from more different backgrounds: the Emperor Marcus Aurelius and a man whose wisdom he greatly admired, the former slave Epictetus.

Unique to the Stoics is the virtue of apatheia, freedom from the passions. Stoic apathy is sometimes conflated with a prescription to be unemotional; however, this is not entirely correct. The passions refer specifically to emotions that are elicited by external stimuli that can overwhelm reason if we respond impulsively, passively, and thoughtlessly to them. There is the risk of placing an overemphasis upon or identifying ourselves with various pleasures or pains we may experience. For example, lusting for future pleasure because we conflate it with the Good may lead to our resentment for pleasures enjoyed by the wicked. Conversely, to fear future danger because we see pain as evil may lead us to avoid the development of virtue that comes with endurance through suffering. It is in this sense that the Stoic is encouraged to remain somewhat indifferent to externalities that we cannot control. It is a mistake to identify pleasure with good and pain with evil. To do so engenders a moral evil, a vice that allows the passions to supplant reason and prevent the cultivation of virtue.

According to the Stoics, the soul does not have a conscious pre-existence. Thus the human mind is like a blank slate at birth, possessing neither innate knowledge nor even the categorical structures as described by Aristotle. Although we are born with a predisposition or capacity for reason, everything must be learned through experience. The Stoics were therefore thoroughgoing empiricists who rejected the notion of Plato's transcendent Forms or Aristotle's universals abstracted by intuition from particulars. Rather they proposed what we would today call a representational theory whereby we acquire knowledge either through sense impressions or reflections upon our own mental states. In other words the most we can ever truly know is our own ideas. For the Stoic, the criterion of truth is described as a preconception, in other words a clear, distinct, intuitive awareness that upon reflection and scrutiny is completely irresistible.

However, it should be noted that the Stoics were less concerned with the validity of arguments, logical syllogisms, and deductive certainties than in developing moral character and progressing towards excellence as an human being. As Epictetus describes it: “What does it matter to me … whether the universe is composed of atoms or uncompounded substances, or of fire and earth? Is it not sufficient to know the true nature of good and evil, and the proper bounds of our desires and aversions, and also of our impulses to act and not to act; and by making use of these as rules to order the affairs of our life."

The three topoi or Stoic areas of discipline that Epictetus promoted did not promote truth for its own sake, rather truth as a practical means of developing nobility, necessary for pursuing the Good. It was vital to know the truth concerning desires and aversions to prevent the passions from succumbing to them. Instead, one ought to constrain the impulses under the rule of reason as a guide to proper behaviour in a social setting. Additionally, the Stoic sought to clear his mind of deception so as not to be hasty in his judgements nor quick to give his assent without clear reason.

Beauty does not consist in the elements of the body (in themselves) but in the harmonious proportion of the parts. The proportion of one finger to another, of all fingers to the rest of the hand, of the rest of the hand to the wrist, and of these to the forearm, and of the forearm to the whole arm, and in short, everything to everything else.”- Galen referring to the teachings of the Stoic Chrysippus

The Stoic concept of beauty is wrapped up with symmetry, the orderly and harmonious arrangements of the parts into a unified whole. The human body in this manner was a microcosm of Nature whereas the human soul was analogous to the Good. Everything that was good was likewise well proportioned and beautiful in body and soul. Beauty was thus appreciated as the perceivable outward expression of the Good. The philosophical precursor of the Stoics, Socrates had proclaimed that "the unexamined life is not worth living"; however, it might just be that the examined life that has attained virtue even in death may be considered beautiful.  

Manuel Dominguez Sanchez - The Death of Seneca 1871

Middle and Neoplatonism
At a quick glance it might appear that Stoicism and Platonism are quite similar. While it is true that they both were rooted in the teachings of Socrates, had continued to permeate each other in their subsequent parallel development, and shared many perspectives in common, there were also significant divergences between them that mark them as ultimately quite different philosophical outlooks. Whereas the Stoics have a monistic material view of all reality, the Platonists maintain a dualism between a material Nature and an incorporeal God. Furthermore, the Platonic view of the human soul is likewise incorporeal and pre-existent. As such they reject the notion of the mind as a blank slate, holding open the possibility of remembrance of a former, higher existence accessible by reason. A more evident tendency than with the Stoics, the philosophy of Platonism in this later period begins to elide into a primitive theology.

Expanding on the cosmology of Plato in the Timaeus, the middle Platonists begin to construct a model of being that takes the form of emanation. At the head, or alternatively above and outside of the hierarchy altogether, is that which is in some sense beyond being. Although positive descriptions are admittedly inadequate, terms such as the One, the Good, the Beautiful, or simply God are spoken of as a means of indication. That which is indescribable and all-inclusive is clearly antithetical to limitation by definition. As a result the Via Negativa, an entire language of negation is developed to describe the ultimate source of being by what it is not: infinite, immortal, invisible, etc. Being as such is purported to be a metaphorical outpouring from the Good, the Beautiful which permeates all further existence including the cosmos with goodness and beauty.

The first definable outpouring of the One is called Nous or the Logos which represents an ordering intelligence somewhat commensurate with Plato's Forms except that in a shift of viewpoint these Forms enjoy no independent being as distinct entities, rather existing only as archetypal ideas in the mind of the Logos. Whereas the Logos provides the forms of existence, next below it in the hierarchy of being is the World-Soul, anima mundi that permeates the cosmos and brings it to life, carrying along with it the seminal logoi, seeds of the Logos which bring divine intelligence and order to the creation. Together these three conceptions form the Platonic hypostates, literally an understanding or foundation of being. The three are not described as coequal, instead arranged in an hierarchy that we can perhaps think of as a nested trinity, the World-Soul outpouring from the Logos which in turn outpours from the One that contains all existence. 

There are conflicting understandings of the status of Nature in the hierarchy of being among the Platonists. Some cleave to Plato's understanding that unformed matter is eternal and maintains an existence separately from the Good. The continual outpouring upon Nature by the World-Soul imbues it with unity, goodness, and beauty thus creating an intelligible cosmos ex-materia, out of pre-existent matter. However, material Nature is essentially entropic, recalcitrant towards any efforts to keep it organised. Thus viewed Nature is 'evil' in the sense that it is forever resistant to the unity and goodness imposed upon it.

Later Platonists developed a more streamlined view by positing that if God is truly all-inclusive Nature must also be an outpouring of being, just further down on the hierarchy. The entirety of creation then must be ex-deo or out of God. In this alternative model there is no positive sense of evil, it has no distinct existence. To the contrary evil is simply described as privation of the Good, separated by distance, further afield in the emanation. Thus Nature must be good to the degree that the Good is operative within it. In both scenarios human beings are presented as a mixture of body and soul, Nature and the Good. Human beings therefore sit at the nexus of this tension between divine good and natural evil where they can either choose to practise moral virtue by setting their sights upon the Good above or succumb to moral evil, falling even further in the hierarchy by abandoning themselves to animalistic, irrational desires.

Until now we've been considering mostly the downward emanation from the One which from a Platonist view can be seen as a fall or descent. However, the Neoplatonist Plotinus describes this as only part of a cycle, its counterpart being epistrophe, an upward return or ascent back to the One. Whereas the Logos or divine intellect is what outpours into creation, Plotinus explains that eros or Love is what draws us back towards unity with the Good. This path of return begins with contemplation of the order and harmony inherent within Nature which through sensation elicits memory of the beautiful. As with the Stoics, cultivation of the virtues is necessary; however, the method offered by Plotinus is distinctly rational. The dialectical process as practised by Socrates is completely independent of sensation as it relies upon reason to aid the immaterial soul by logical demonstration. The dialectical process recalls from memory the truth of the virtues as the ideas of the Logos as well as its own former existence. The ascent continues as an intuitive direct awareness that culminates in the ecstatic state of dissolution of the self and a reunification experienced as complete identification with the One.

If much of what we've just considered sounds a bit familiar well, that's to be expected. Stoic and Platonic philosophy had a huge influence on the formation of Roman jurisprudence and Christian theology. In our next essay we'll explore how conceptions of truth, beauty, and goodness continued to morph and develop in the early Church. 
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
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 philophy 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 of 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.

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.

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.

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.

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. 

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.

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.

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

1 comment:

  1. WOW! So much in one place. I'm blown away. A short but thorough course in philosophy and the focus of classical education.