|Antonio Canova - The Three Charites|
|“the good comes to be… |
through many numbers”
|Socrates by Leonidas Drosis|
Academy of Athens
|Raphael - The School of Athens|
|John William Waterhouse - Diogenes|
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.
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.
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.
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|
Jacques Émile Édouard Brandon
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.
Samson and Delilah
"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.
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
Stoic Emperor Marcus Aurelius
Capitoline Hill, Rome
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.
|Carl Heinrich Boch|
Transfiguration of Jesus 1872
|Saint Justin Martyr|
|Sandro Botticelli - Saint Augustine 1480|
|Manichaean Bodhisattva Jesus|
|The Conversion of Saint Augustine, Fra Angelico 1435|
|Giovanni Maria Benzoni|
Hector and Andromache 1871
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!
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.
|St Anselm, Canterbury Cathedral|
"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.
|Sir Isaac Newton|
Trinity College Chapel
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?
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.
St Thomas Aquinas 1482
|Averroës of Córdoba|
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.
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.
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.
|The Chapel of Our Lady of the Most Holy Trinity|
Thomas Aquinas College, Santa Paula, CA
courtesy of Duncan G. Stroik Architect, LLC
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 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.
"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.
|Abraham Janssens - Heraclitus|
|Leonidas Drosis - Plato|
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?
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.
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
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.
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
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.