Archive for the ‘Aristotlian-Thomism’ Category


Aquinas and Natural Law Theory 2 – Edward Feser

May 1, 2013
As the neo-Scholastic natural law theorist Michael Cronin has summed up the Thomistic view, "In the fullest sense of the word, then, moral duty is natural. For not only are certain objects natural means to man's final end, but our desire of that end is natural also, and therefore, the necessity [or obligatory force] of the means is natural" (Science of Ethics, Volume 1, p. 222). Clearly, the "naturalness" of natural law can, as I have emphasized, only be understood in terms of the Aristotelian metaphysics to which Aquinas is committed.

As the neo-Scholastic natural law theorist Michael Cronin has summed up the Thomistic view, “In the fullest sense of the word, then, moral duty is natural. For not only are certain objects natural means to man’s final end, but our desire of that end is natural also, and therefore, the necessity [or obligatory force] of the means is natural” (Science of Ethics, Volume 1, p. 222). Clearly, the “naturalness” of natural law can, as I have emphasized, only be understood in terms of the Aristotelian metaphysics to which Aquinas is committed.

Given what was said earlier, human beings, like everything else in the world, have various capacities and ends the fulfillment of which is good for them and the frustrating of which is bad, as a matter of objective fact. A rational intellect apprised of the facts will therefore perceive that it is good to realize these ends and bad to frustrate them. It follows, then, that a rational person will pursue the realization of these ends and avoid their frustration.

In short, Aquinas’s position is essentially this: practical reason is directed by nature towards the pursuit of what the intellect perceives as good; what is in fact good is the realization or fulfillment of the various ends inherent in human nature; and thus a rational person will perceive this and, accordingly, direct his or her actions towards the realization or fulfillment of those ends.

In this sense, good action is just that which is “in accord with reason” (ST I-11.21.1; cf. ST I-11.90.1), and the moral skeptic’s question “Why should I do what is good?” has an obvious answer: because to be rational just is (in part) to do what is good, to fulfill the ends set for us by nature. Natural law ethics as a body of substantive moral theory is the formulation of general moral principles on the basis of an analysis of these various human capacities and ends and the systematic working out of their implications.

So, to take just one example, when we consider that human beings have intellects and that the natural end or function of the intellect is to grasp the truth about things, it follows that it is good for us — it fulfills our nature — to pursue truth and avoid error. Consequently, a rational person apprised of the facts about human nature will see that this is what is good for us and thus strive to attain truth and to avoid error. And so on for other natural human capacities.

Now things are bound to get more complicated than that summary perhaps lets on. Various qualifications and complications would need to be spelled out as the natural human capacities and ends are examined in detail, and not every principle of morality that follows from this analysis will necessarily be as simple and straightforward as “Pursue truth and avoid error.”

Particularly controversial among contemporary readers will be Aquinas’s application of his method to questions of sexual morality (SCG 1-II.122-126; ST II-I1.151-154). Famously, he holds that the only sexual acts that can be morally justified are those having an inherent tendency towards procreation, and only when performed within marriage. The reason is that the natural end of sex is procreation, and because this includes not merely the generation of new human beings but also their upbringing, moral training and the like, which is a long-term project involving (in the normal case, for Aquinas) many children, a stable family unit is required in order for this end to be realized.

Any other sexual behavior involves turning our natural capacities away from the end set for them by nature, and thus in Aquinas’s view cannot possibly be good for us or rational. This rules out, among other things, masturbation, contraception, fornication, adultery, and homosexual acts.

This is a large topic which cannot be treated adequately here. (I discuss Aquinas’s approach to sexual morality in detail in my book The Last Superstition.) But this much is enough to provide at least a general idea of how his natural law approach to ethics determines the specific content of our moral obligations. The method should be clear enough, whether or not one agrees with Aquinas’s application of that method in any particular case.

What has been said also suffices to give us a sense of the grounds of moral obligation, that which makes it the case that moral imperatives have categorical rather than merely hypothetical force (to use the distinction made famous by Kant). The hypothetical imperative (1) If I want what is good for me then I ought to pursue what realizes my natural ends and avoid what frustrates them is something whose truth Aquinas takes to follow from the metaphysical analysis of goodness sketched above. By itself, it does not give us a categorical imperative because the consequent will have force only for someone who accepts the antecedent.

But that (2) I do want what is good for me is true of all of us by virtue of our nature as human beings, and is in Aquinas’s view self-evident in any case, being just a variation on his fundamental principle of natural law. These premises yield the conclusion (3) I ought to pursue what realizes my natural ends and avoid what frustrates them. It does have categorical force because (2) has categorical force, and (2) has categorical force because it cannot be otherwise given our nature. Not only the content of our moral obligations but their obligatory character are thus determined, on Aquinas’s analysis, by the metaphysics of final causality or natural teleology.

As the neo-Scholastic natural law theorist Michael Cronin has summed up the Thomistic view, “In the fullest sense of the word, then, moral duty is natural. For not only are certain objects natural means to man’s final end, but our desire of that end is natural also, and therefore, the necessity [or obligatory force] of the means is natural” (Science of Ethics, Volume 1, p. 222).

Clearly, the “naturalness” of natural law can, as I have emphasized, only be understood in terms of the Aristotelian metaphysics to which Aquinas is committed. But it is also illuminating to compare the natural law to the three other kinds of law distinguished by Aquinas. Most fundamental is what he calls the “eternal law,” which is essentially the order of archetypes or ideas in the divine mind according to which God creates and providentially governs the world (ST I-1I.91.1).

Once the world, including human beings, is created in accordance with this law, the result is a natural order that human beings as rational animals can come to know and freely choose to act in line with, and “this participation of the eternal law in the rational creature is called the natural law” (ST I-II_91.2). The “natural law,” then, can also be understood in terms of its contrast with eternal law, as the manifestation of the latter within the natural order.

Now the natural law provides us with general principles by which individuals and societies ought to be governed, but there are many contingent and concrete details of human life that the natural law does not directly address. To take a standard example, the institution of private property is something we seem suited to given our nature, but there are many forms that institution might take consistent with natural law (cf. ST 11-11.66.2).

This brings us to “human law,” which is the set of conventional or man-made principles that govern actual human societies, and which gives a “more particular determination” to the general requirements of the natural law as it is applied to concrete cultural and historical circumstances (ST 1-11.91.3). Human law, then, is unlike both eternal law and natural law in that it is “devised by human reason” and contingent rather than necessary and unchanging.

Finally there is “divine law,” which is law given directly by God, such as the Ten Commandments (ST I-II.91.4-5). This differs from the natural law in being knowable, not through an investigation of the natural order, but only via a divine revelation. It is like human law in being sometimes suited to contingent historical circumstances and thus temporary (as, in Aquinas’s view, the Old Law given through Moses was superseded by the New Law given through Christ) but unlike human law in being infallible and absolutely binding.


The Fundamental Truth 3 – Etiénne Gilson

November 8, 2012

“Through this intellect, every man is a person and through the same intellect he can see exactly the same truth as any other man can see, provided they both use their intellects in the proper way. Here, and nowhere else, lies the foundation for the very possibility of a philosophia perennis; for it is, not a perennial cloud floating through the ages in some metaphysical stratosphere, but the permanent possibility for each and every human being to actualize an essence through his own existence, that is to experience again the same truth in the light of his own intellect. And that truth itself is not an anonymous one. Even taken in its absolute and self-subsisting form, truth itself bears a name. Its name is God.”
Etiénne Gilson

It does no good to praise Aristotle’s method if we refuse to follow it, and above all if we misconstrue its meaning. The last chapter of the Posterior Analytics is extremely important in this regard. Aristotle speaks there of the knowledge of principles. The assumption that they are innate is absurd, because if they were we would possess, unknown to ourselves, knowledges more certain than any demonstration. On the other hand, how could we formulate these principles within ourselves without having a faculty or power to acquire them?

What is this power? In order to satisfy the conditions of the problem, it is necessary, Aristotle says, “that that power be superior in accuracy to the knowledge itself of principles (Posterior Analytics 2.19, 99b31-34). This statement has been interpreted to make it say less than it does, but in vain, for however the agent intellect is conceived in Aristotle’s doctrine, even if it is reduced to the status of an indeterminate light and as indifferent to the intelligible apprehensions it causes, the statement of the Posterior Analytics means that this light belongs to a higher order and certitude than that of the principles it makes us know.

It is not easy to state clearly St. Thomas’s opinion on the subject, but we have to get used to a certain way of not understanding, which is nothing but a modest stance in the face of a purely intelligible object. One who understands everything is in great danger of understanding badly what he understands and not even to suspect the existence of what he does not understand.

The obscurity surrounding the origin of principles is exactly the same as that which partly hides their nature. It is agreed that in the Thomistic epistemology the agent intellect immediately conceives the principles by way of abstraction from sensible experience, and that is correct. It is added, then, that the intellect suffices for this operation, that it accomplishes it by its own natural light, without needing for its explanation to have recourse to the additional illumination of a separate Intelligence, not even, as some Augustinians would have it, to the light of God, the Sun of minds, the interior Master, finally the Word who enlightens everyone coming into the world.

And that too is correct, but it is not the whole truth. Thomas is the less scrupulous about not taking away anything from nature as, completely filled with the presence of God, like air with light, nature cannot be belittled without doing injury to the creator. Nothing can be denied to the essence of a being that God has made to be what it is.

In this spirit, at the very moment when St. Thomas in his Summa theologiae (1.84.5) places limits on the Platonic noetic of St. Augustine (qui doctrines Platonicorum imbutus fuerat) nevertheless holds the essence of the Augustinian thesis and the truth of his words. The intellectual soul knows material things in the eternal reasons, but this does not require the assistance of divine light added to that of the intellect.

The latter suffices, “for the intellectual light within us is nothing else than a certain participated resemblance of the uncreated light, in which are contained all the eternal reasons (that is, Ideas). So it is said in Psalm 4:7, “Many ask: who will make us see happiness.” The psalmist replies: “The light of your countenance is imprinted on us, O Lord.’ It is as though he said: Everything is shown to us by the very seal of the divine light within us.”

Thus, while maintaining the necessity of sensible experience at the origin of all human knowledge, St. Thomas intimately binds the human intellect to the divine light itself. It is because that light (which is the divine esse) includes, or rather is, the infinity of divine ideas (which are the divine esse) that the agent intellect of each one of us, being a participation in the divine light, has the capacity of forming intelligible concepts on contact with the sensible world. That intellect is not the divine light; if it were, it would be God.

But it is a created product of that light, and in a finite way it expresses it and imitates its excellence. Hence its capacity to discover in beings, which are also made in the image of the divine ideas the intelligible forms in which they participate. The agent intellect in itself has the power to recognize outside itself the resemblance of the first cause, which is the source of all knowledge and intelligibility.

We shall have to return to this theme after trying to grasp St. Thomas’s very special notion of participation. For the moment, let us simply examine that doctrine of knowledge such as it is; or, rather, let us attempt to do so, for how can we succeed? In one sense it begins by following Aristotle, but the genuine Aristotle who, from the level of sensation, sees empirical notions develop in an ascending induction, experience itself being the starting point of art in the order of becoming and of science in the order of being.

But above science and its demonstrations there is an intuition of principles. Because demonstrations depend on principles, they themselves are not objects of demonstration. They do not provide science with its demonstrations; science does this for itself in their light. And since their light is thought itself, in the final analysis it is the intellect itself that is the cause of science (Post Analytics 2.19).

If this is so, why are we surprised that principles do not yield their full meaning always and to everyone? Their evidence and necessity themselves constrain the intellect which they rule by enlightening it, but which submits to them for want of being able to make their certitude that of a science, which the intellect itself would cause. The only way to approach these supreme intelligibles is with respect and modesty. The various simple formulas used to dispatch them in a few words are tautologies only for those who do not try to plumb their depths.

In a second sense — already implicit in the first and nourishing it from within and giving it infinite riches –, St. Thomas follows the Augustinian way, which itself belongs to Christian philosophy. What is astonishing is that, with St. Thomas, these two ways become one in his own doctrine. Even when he happens to name them, they can no longer be distinguished, for the two have become identical.

The universe we know is henceforth composed of things created in the likeness of a God whose essence, that is to say, the act of being, is at once their origin and model. The intellect that knows these things is itself the product and image of the same God. In this doctrine, in which everything in nature is natural, but in which nature is essentially a divine product and a divine image, it can be said that nature itself is sacred. It is not surprising that the first intelligible object an intellect of this sort discerns in such a real world is the primary notion of being, and that with this origin, this notion surpasses in every way the mind that conceives it

Here is the truth dimly perceived by those who mistakenly, teach the unity of the agent intellect They are wrong in that respect, but it is true to say that Aristotle calls our agent intellect a light that our soul receives from God. In this sense it is even truer to say with Augustine that God illumines the soul, of which it is the “intelligible sun.” These philosophical disputes over: details lose their sharp edge from the theological heights we have reached. In Augustine’s view, knowing is contemplating in the soul a reflection of the Ideas; in Aristotle’s opinion, knowing is an act of the agent intellect throwing light on the intelligibility of the sensible world. The doctrines differ in structure, but in the final analysis they are in agreement: “It matters little whether we say that it is the intelligibles themselves in which the (intellect) participates from God, or that the light producing the intelligibles is participated.” [Aquinas, Tractatus de spiritualibus creaturis 10 ad 8m] In either case God is at the origin of knowledge.

From St. Thomas himself to his most recent interpreters this truth has often been lost from sight Turned to folly, it was sometimes corrupted in ontologism. Reduced, in reaction, to the limitations of an almost physical empiricism, it cut itself off from its source, which is the being of God himself. Preserved in its fullness, it offers itself as a naturalism similar to that of the Greeks, but in which, owing to its dependence on God in its very being, nature is filled with a divine energy and so to speak always points to infinitely more than what it is.

Since this is true of knowledge as well as of being, it should be enough to banish the phantom of a metaphysics based on nothing but regulative formulas. Wisdom begins with notions that are certainly abstract but endowed with a content extracted from the real world by a mind whose light discovers in forms the light itself of which our mind is an image. For metaphysics, the primary notion of being is given to us before all others; it is at the same time apprehended as such and illuminated by the light of Him Who Is, the cause of every intellect and of every intelligible object.

This datum, and the intellectual experience we take from it, is the true principle of metaphysics. All philosophical wisdom is virtually contained in the meaning of the word “is.” So we should not make it a “starting point,” as some call it We must dwell on it at length and leave it only to come back to it as quickly as possible. Being is the most universal and evident of all notions, but it is also the most mysterious, as befits the very name of God.

This is the only reason for the differences among metaphysics. As Suarez very aptly said, it is evident an ens sit (that being is), but not quid sit ens (what being is). Ens does not signify a word but a thing, and that thing is so simple that it cannot be defined but only described.

Every metaphysics presupposes a notion of being, presented for the metaphysician’s reflection, as a truth of that simple intuition which Aristotle justifies by the surpassing excellence of the intellect over the principles themselves that it posits. There is no science of the cause of science. Moreover, the controversies among great metaphysicians are fruitless as long as they oppose each other on the level of conclusions, without first confronting each other on the level of principles.

But they do not like to compare their interpretations of principles, for they have the same first principle, they only understand it differently. No demonstration will make them understand it in the same way, as we see from the fact that all the great Christian philosophies continue to exist side by side. In all of them God is being. As Augustine says, “He is ‘Is.” [Deus non aliquo modo est, sed est est: Confessions 13.31 (46)]

But for one, ‘Is’ means the Immutable Being; for another, that whose nature it is to exist (natura existendi, natura essendi); for still others being is real essence, the inner principle and ground of all the actions and operations of a subject The objection should not be raised that these are concepts of real being, not of the being of reason which is the concern of metaphysics.

If metaphysics were only directed to an abstract notion it would be nothing but a logic. As a science of reality, the first philosophy has for its object existing being, and that is why, again in the apt words of Suarez (DM 2.2.29), if there were neither God nor angels there would be no metaphysics. [DM 2.2, Vives ed. 25: 79 §29. In §30 Suarez says that if no immaterial beings existed there would probably still be room for one part of metaphysics concerning being and the transcendentals.] Everything happens as though the metaphysicians were dispersed within the same intelligible space, which is too immense for them to have the good fortune to meet each other.

There is no trace of skepticism here. We only ask not to be placed in the position of playing the role of the indisciplinatus by demonstrating that whose nature does not allow it to be demonstrated. Moreover, it can be demonstrated that the first principle is being. Even those who dispute it, as Descartes did in a certain sense, are obliged to use it. What did he assert when he said “I am”?

Finally, it is possible and even necessary for a metaphysician to relate at length the meaning he ascribes to the first principle to the contents of experience. If he can find a meaning of the word that does justice to all the properties of beings inasmuch as they are beings, and that arranges them in thought in the order they have in reality, the philosopher will give his assent to that notion without qualification, hesitation, or doubt It will be his first principle, and most certainly, because as he conceives it this notion dispenses with all the others, for it includes them eminently, whereas all the others taken together do not measure up to its intelligibility.

Accordingly, metaphysics is a science from the moment when, having laid hold of the principle, it begins to deduce its consequences; but the fate of the doctrine depends on the understanding of the principle. A true metaphysician will rarely be caught in the act of contradicting himself. At the start he must adopt his doctrinal positions, and he must meditate at length on the mind’s first approach to its formation of principles before committing himself to them. The capacity of the principle to elucidate reality under all its aspects will undoubtedly confirm its truth in the course of constructing the doctrine, but it is the principle’s own evidence, which the mind sees in the very act of conceiving it, on which its certitude essentially rests. Once the meaning of the principle is grasped, the doctrine unfolds in its light It does not make the doctrine true, it simply makes its truth evident

In teaching metaphysics, then, the main concern should not be the sequence of conclusions. Dialectic masters this so easily that it can correctly deduce all the conclusions of a principle without seeing its truth or understanding its meaning. This is the source of the impression opponents in a dispute have of always being misunderstood. And indeed they are, for each judges the other’s sequence of conclusions in the light of his own understanding of the meaning of the principles.

This is not how the good teacher of philosophy proceeds. After lengthy reflection, he says what he sees and tries to lead others to see it. For this purpose, before undertaking to demonstrate what is demonstrable, he elucidates the truth that is indemonstrable to show the evidence for it

This is a whole art in itself. As old as metaphysics, the art is so well known since Plato that there is no need to insist on it here. Starting with images, we must transcend them in order to reach, as by flashes of light, the intelligible principle. Though we only catch a glimpse of it, we can expect that this insight will arouse others to see it as well, as we proceed to an explanatory analysis of the contents of the notion. That will only happen by stepping down a little below it, every time we use our judgment to clarify its pure intelligibility. We can withdraw from it, provided that we do not for a moment lose our hold on it, as we must step back a little from a beautiful face in order to see it

The elucidation, then, should take place at the center of this intelligible insight itself. It need not be very extensive; it is sufficient for itself. As far as others are concerned, it can only lead the way to invite them to set out in pursuit Moreover, because it is linked to the simple apprehension from which the first judgment springs, it will soon run short of words, as is all too evident from what has just been said about it.


The Fundamental Truth 2 – Etiénne Gilson

November 7, 2012

“Not merely to learn philosophy, but to become a philosopher, this is what is now at stake. It does not involve giving up philosophy as a science; it rather involves aiming at possessing philosophy in a different and more exalted way as included in wisdom itself, to which it is in the same relation as a body to its soul. Then also does the philosophical life truly begin, and its beginning does not consist in any addition to already acquired learning; it rather looks like falling in love, like answering the call of a vocation, or undergoing the transforming experience of a conversion.”
Etiénne Gilson

St. Augustine never thought of God in any other way than in terms of essence. Commenting on the ‘I Am’ of Exodus, he explains its meaning as follows: “In fact, since God is the supreme essence, that is, since he supremely is, and therefore is immutable, he has given being to the things he has created from nothing, but he has not given them the supreme being he himself is. He has given to some more being and to others less, and thus he has arranged natures according to the degrees of their essences.”

There can be no misunderstanding this notion of God. Finite essences are arranged in a hierarchy according to the degrees of being. At the summit there is the supreme essence, which is not more or less but purely and simply the highest essence. Being the fullness of essence, it has nothing to gain or lose. The sign of its supremacy in the order of essence is its immutability. We should weigh St. Augustine’s words themselves, as he tries to understand better (perspicacius intelligere) what God said to Moses through his angel in Exodus 3:14: Cum enim Deus summa essentia sit, hoc est summe sit, et idea imrnutabilis sit … [De civitate Dei 12.2]

St. Thomas is far from denying any of this. On the contrary, he finds in these words the starting point of the fourth way (of proving the existence of God), ex gradibus quae in rebus inveniuntur (from the degrees found in things [SummaTheologicae 1.2.3]). This is all very well, and the mind can stop there. He himself, however, takes a further step. Penetrating more deeply into this summa essentia which is called ‘Is’ (Est), Thomas adds, et haec Dei essentia est ipsuin suum esse (and this essence of God is his very being [CC 1.22.7]). Thomas grants very correctly and without reservation that God is the supreme essence. He simply specifies that the sole essence God has is his being: Deus igitur non habet essentiain quae non sit suuin esse (God, therefore, does not have an essence that is not his being: Contra Gentiles 1.22.2).

This is the exact moment when we go beyond the theology of Augustine and enter that of Thomas Aquinas. The transition presupposes that we have already conceived, or that we conceive at the same time, the notion of being as an act beyond essence, or, if you prefer, that of an essence whose whole essentiality is being. Augustine had no idea of this; neither had John Damascene nor Anselm of Aosta. Alerted by Thomas Aquinas, John Duns Scotus preferred to stay on the path opened up by St. Augustine, adding to it, in the spirit of John Damascene, the important precision introduced by the notion of the divine infinity. Ens infinitum, for Duns Scotus, is the proper object of our theology.

There is no room for uncertainty here, for he too, as was only natural, commented on the ‘I Am’ of Exodus, and in his interpretation he does not refer to the Thomistic esse but to the Augustinian essentia. Not only is God essence, but perhaps he is the only one who is. God is an entitas realis, sive ex natura rei, et hoc in existentia actuali. Or, in the language of Augustine himself, because being most truly and properly belongs to God, we should say that he is most truly essence: verissime dicitur essentia. [Gilson, Jean Duns Scot: Introduction]

So we come back to the same problem: In order to interpret the statement of Exodus, where, when, and how did St. Thomas demonstrate that, on the level of being, it was necessary to go beyond the notion of a being (ens), conceived until then as a simple notion, to divide it into two others, namely essence and being (esse), and then to assert that one of these two notions, namely being (esse), denotes within a being. itself the supreme perfection and actuality of the other? St. Thomas clearly crossed this threshold. The only question is: how did he justify it? No reply is forthcoming. If he delivered the proof, neither Duns Scotus nor Suarez understood it or was convinced by it, and they were no mean metaphysicians.

The only reasoning that resembles a proof begins with the contingency of creatures. If essence is other than being in a finite being, being and essence must coincide in God in order to preserve his simplicity.

But, as we have seen, the non-necessity of a finite being does not require that it actually be composed of essence and being. The point would be expressed no less exactly if we were to say, along with most theologians, that the actual existence of a finite substance, whose essence of itself is a pure possibility, is contingent. A finite being does not possess its existence from itself. In order to be it must receive being from necessary being, which is God. But this is in no sense a proof that in order to confer actual existence on a finite being God must con-create within it an essence endowed with an act of being which, though distinct from it, forms with it a being (ens) or that-which-has-being.

If it is difficult to find a proof of this, it is not because St. Thomas neglected to speak of it When he does talk about it, however, it is usually to say that, without a limitation of the act of being by an essence, this act will be the pure act of being and it will be infinite, that is, it will be God (Contra Gentiles 1.43.5). Thus everything depends here on the Thomistic notion of God: “We have shown (Contra Gentiles 1.22) that God is his subsistent being. Therefore nothing besides him can be its being. So it is necessary that in every substance besides him the substance itself is other than its being” (Contra Gentiles 2.52.2).

This amounts to saying that, if the essence of God is his being, everything else must be composed of being and an essence other than this being. And nothing is clearer if it has really been demonstrated that God is the pure act of being. Now, as we have seen, eminent theologians either have not read that truth in the text of scripture; or, even alerted to the fact that it was there, they have not been able to bring themselves to acknowledge it is there. They did not find it in scripture for the simple reason that it did not enter their mind.

Here we are apparently caught in a kind of dialectic, the two terms of which perpetually evoke each other. God is pure being because, if in him essence were distinct from being, he would be a finite being and would not be God. Conversely, the essence of a finite being is other than its being because if its essentia were identical with its esse, that being would be infinite and it would be God. There are external signs of this difficulty, of which it will suffice to mention one: the very widespread resistance the Thomist notion of esse meets not only, as is natural, in other theological schools, but even in the one claiming the name of St. Thomas. Aquinas. And that is curious, to say the least, but it is a fact.

The worst attitude to adopt in the face of this difficulty is to deny its existence or to banish it from the mind as an annoying’ thought The Church recommends Thomism as the norm of its theological teaching. How would it have made this choice if the doctrine in the last analysis were based on a vicious circle? The objection should not be made that here it is not a matter of philosophy but of theology. That is true, but it does not remove the problem. St. Thomas’s theology is a scholastic theology.

Its object is God, known through his word, but it tries to understand it, and it cannot do this without bringing into play the resources: of philosophy. A master must have the skill to train the servants he employs for his service, and these servants must exist and be themselves in order to render the services he expects of them. If the theologian put into play a philosophy that would be nothing but a disguised theology, as long ago Averroes very unjustly accused Avicenna of doing, he would deceive himself before deceiving others.

There is no more frequent objection made to scholasticism. Authentic Lutheranism on the one hand, and philosophical rationalism on the other, have never ceased accusing it of corrupting everything: the word of God by philosophy, and philosophy by faith in a revelation unsupported by reason. The persistent attempts of certain Christian philosophers to clear themselves of the suspicion of teaching a “Christian philosophy” have no other source than the fear of seeing themselves charged with a hybrid speculation that is neither faith nor reason: something equally contemptible to those who are concerned to preserve intact the supernatural transcendence of faith, and to those whose absolute respect for reason resists every compromise with the irrational, or, what amounts to the same thing for them, anything super rational.

Here it is fitting to recall the bitter controversies that have made Christian speculative thought so unproductive, but we should not dwell on them. First, because the controversy is quieting down. Though it was necessary at one time, it itself was an inferior form of mental exercise. Above all, however, because it is not in one’s power, speaking for the truth, to dispose minds to receive it, and lacking this, his words are really addressed to the deaf. It is good, however, to speak to oneself, to open one’s mind to the truth, and to oppose the accusation of giving way to prejudices, with the firm resolve not to entertain any of them, neither those with which we are charged, nor those with which they who impute them to us are unconsciously imbued.

After all, it is not certain a priori that all the sins against reason are on the side of those who profess to be its true witnesses and claim to monopolize its use. Too many scholastics have forgotten the true nature of philosophical knowledge because they yielded to the unfounded demands of some of their opponents. It was they, however, and not their opponents, who stood for the full use of reason in its complete independence.

We cannot admire enough the attitude of these scholastic philosophers who are well aware of having two wisdoms at their disposal and find it so easy to divide their domains. “Wisdom, or perfect science,” one of them said, “is twofold: one that proceeds by the supernatural light of faith and divine revelation, the other that proceeds by the light of human reason. The latter is philosophy, the former is Christian theology, a science supernatural in its roots and by reason of its principles. Philosophy, then, will be defined as knowledge of ultimate causes proceeding by the natural light of reason.”

These statements are completely true and they conform to the teaching of St. Thomas. They raise no problem as long as we remain on the level of formal distinction. Problems pile up,” on the contrary, if it is claimed that these two wisdoms cannot” live and work together in the same person, in the same mind. Will philosophy have nothing to say about the teachings of theology, a science whose principles are supernatural? And will theology give no thought to the teachings of philosophy, which proceeds by the light of natural reason?

St. Thomas, at least, asserts the exact opposite, for he holds so strongly the formal distinction of the two lights and the two wisdoms only to allow them to collaborate better, without any possible confusion, but intimately and without any false scruples. St. Thomas wanted to make the natural light of reason penetrate right into the most secret parts of revealed truth, not in order to do away with faith and mystery, but to define their objects.

Even the mystery of transubstantiation can be formulated in philosophical language. But the opposite relation can be established as well, for the theology of St. Thomas has the right of inspection in its philosophy, and it does not neglect to exercise it for the greatest good of philosophy. Those who claim the contrary are mistaken, and if they do it for apologetic reasons they miscalculate, for there is no other effective apologetic than the truth.

What is most remarkable in this regard is that they would like to separate revelation and reason to satisfy the requirements of a notion of philosophy that never existed. No philosopher ever philosophized about the empty form of an argument lacking all content. It is one and the same thing to think of nothing and not to think. If we mentally remove everything specifically religious in the great Greek philosophies from Plato to Plotinus, then everything specifically Christian in the philosophical speculation of Descartes, Malebranche, Leibniz, even Kant and some of his successors, the existence of these doctrines becomes incomprehensible.

A religion is needed even to make it stay “within the limits of reason.” The importance of Comte in this regard is that, having decreed that theology was dead and its transcendent God forgotten, he realized that in order to build up a philosophy whose tenets would be drawn from science, he had to look for the principles outside of science.

In order to find them, he created a new religion and substituted for the God of Christianity a Great Fetish, furnished with its church, its clergy, and its pope. The early “positivists” were indignant about this as a deviation from the doctrine, but Comte knew what positivism is better than they. They understood nothing about it, as can be clearly seen in the pitiful history of their “absolute positivism,” reduced today to a verbal dialectic whose object is science, but for whom science itself becomes incomprehensible.

For all wisdoms draw life from the highest among them, and if religion is eliminated, metaphysics dies with it, and philosophy in its turn dies along with metaphysics. Neo-Scholasticism is not immune to this malady, when it wanted to be a-Christian, it quickly degenerated into an abstract formalism whose utter boredom is bearable only by its authors, for to bore is not always boring. Sometimes it is asked with concern why this philosophy is so lifeless. The reason is that it is deliberately tied to a metaphysics that has no object.

There is a twofold mistake in saying that the object of metaphysics is the concept of being as being, explicitated in the light of the first principles. First, metaphysics does not treat of the concept of being as being any more than physics treats of the notion of becoming. If they did, these sciences would be turned into logics. Physics has to do with changing being itself, as metaphysics has to do with being insofar as it is being. We emphasize, with being itself and not only with the concept of being. Nothing can be inferred from the concept of being as being; everything can be said about being as being. But for that we must first reach it, and if we do not comprehend it, at least we get in touch with it, and then never lose contact with, it, under pain of losing our way in an empty verbalism.

The facility enjoyed by the dialectician is his greatest danger. It is always possible to begin with nominal definitions, of being, substance, and cause in order to deduce their consequences with the help of the first principle. If it cannot be done easily, it can at least be done successfully. Some even do it with the mastery of virtuosos that compels admiration, but they gain’ from it nothing but an abstract sketch of a possible metaphysics. At best, they give themselves the pleasure of picturing it to themselves after the event, portrayed all at once in a kind of synthesis that enables them to embrace it with a single glance.

But at that moment it is lifeless; they should not have gone about it like this in the first place. From this arises the deadly conflict between the mode of exposition and the mode of invention. For those who “exhibit” are very rarely those who invent; or when they are the same, while exhibiting they conceal from us their act of invention, so that we ourselves do not know how to reinvent by following in their footsteps, which is, however, the only way to learn. Then, too, when lectures are afflicted with this curse, we see students learning without understanding, while others lose confidence in their own philosophical abilities, even though the best proof of these abilities is that students at least realize that they do not understand.

These tendencies are particularly hard to explain in masters who claim to follow Aristotle’s philosophy and defend its sound empiricism against the idealism of their contemporaries. Professing in all matters to begin with experience, it is paradoxical for them to turn away from it in metaphysics, whose principles govern the whole body of knowledge. Nevertheless, Aristotle’s work is there, and if one is not interested in how it was constructed, the repeated statements of its author should be a sufficient warning of the danger.

Speaking of the absolutely primary rules of judgment, namely the principles of non-contradiction and the excluded middle, Aristotle points out that each scientist uses them as valid within the limits of his own science (Posterior Analytics. 2.11, 77a22-25). When it is a question of the knowledge of reality, one does not reason about reality from principles but in agreement with them and in their light.


The Fundamental Truth 1 – Etiénne Gilson

November 6, 2012

Thomas is held in the Catholic Church to be the model teacher for those studying for the priesthood. The works for which he is best-known are the Summa theologiae and the Summa Contra Gentiles. One of the 35 Doctors of the Church, he is considered the Church’s greatest theologian and philosopher.

Et sic fit ut ad ea quae sunt notissima rerum, noster intellectus se habeat ut oculus noctuae ad solem, ut II Metaphysicorum dicitur (Summa contra Gentiles 1.11.2).
["So it comes about, as is said in Metaphysics 2, that our intellect is related to the most knowable things as the eye of an owl is related to the sun." Aristotle, Metaphysics 2.1, 993b9.]

Few philosophers avoid the temptation of philosophizing without other presuppositions than thought itself. Fichte yielded to it without reservation in building his well-known immense structure. No Christian philosopher has gone that far, but some of them do not conceal their displeasure when they are urged to consider and, if possible, to see a primary truth which as such cannot be demonstrated. That is why, holding the composition of essence and existence in finite beings as the fundamental truth of Christian philosophy, they could not tolerate the idea of leaving it as an arbitrary assertion and have tried to demonstrate it.

In order to avoid any confusion, let us say at the outset that the distinction (or composition) of essence and being in finite beings is indeed demonstrable under certain conditions, but it is extremely important to understand their nature.

An excellent study of the De ente et essentia reduces to three the main types of arguments by which St. Thomas establishes the famous scholastic distinction. The first, which certainly originates in Avicenna but which St. Thomas could have read in the works of William of Auvergne, is clearly set forth in De ente et essentia : “Everything that does not belong to the concept of an essence or quiddity comes to it from without and forms a composition with that essence, for no essence can be conceived without its parts. Now, every essence or quiddity can be conceived without knowing anything whatsoever about its existence. I can conceive what a man or a phoenix is and yet not know if they exist in reality. It is clear, therefore, that being is other than essence or quiddity.”

The argument is irrefutable, but what does it prove? First of all that actual being is not contained in the notion of an essence. As Kant will later say, in the notion of a hundred thalers the notion of a thaler is the same whether it be a question of simply possible thalers or real thalers . [Kant, Critique of Pure Reason A 599/B 627, trans. Norman Kemp Smith, 2nd ed. (London: Macmillan, 1933)]

Next, as St. Thomas explicitly says, it proves quad esse est aliud ab essentia vel quidditate (that esse is other than essence or quiddity). For an essence to pass from possibility to being, then, an external cause must bestow actual existence on it No Christian theologian or metaphysician has ever doubted the soundness of this conclusion. Because a finite being is not the cause of its own existence, it must hold it from a higher cause, who is God.

In this sense, what is called the distinction between essence and being simply means that every finite being is a created being. Now all theologians grant this, but many refuse to conclude from it that a finite being is composed of two metaphysical principles: its essence and an act of being through which it exists. It is one thing to say that the essence of a finite being does not contain the cause of its being, which is all the dialectical argument of Avicenna, taken up by William of Auvergne and St. Thomas, proves. It is another thing to say that in this same finite being existence comes from an actus essendi to which it owes precisely its actual being. This by no means follows from the above argument

Here is a good subject for meditation. Excellent philosophers and theologians have devoted their lives to the study and teaching of the Thomistic doctrine without ever suspecting the true meaning of this fundamental thesis. They have seen in it only a formula, a little more abstruse than others, for saying that every finite being is contingent and created. If nothing more than this were involved, every theologian without exception would teach the distinction between essence and existence, which we know well is not the case.

Let us move on to the second group of arguments. They are said to have the following general form: “There must be only one being in which essence and existence are not distinct, whose essence itself is its existence, because it could not be multiplied without being diversified, and there is no way in which it can be diversified. Hence being is distinct from essence in all created beings.

Once again, the argument is conclusive, and now it results in establishing the truth of the distinction between essence and existence. Here is undoubtedly the theologians’ royal and favorite road, for if God is the pure act of being he is the only one who can be it. What would lay claim to this title would be ipsum purum esse, and this would be God. That is why so many Thomistic theologians often accuse of pantheism those who, deaf to their arguments, deny the distinction between essence and existence in finite beings. These theologians give themselves an easy advantage, for in order that their demonstration be conclusive it would first be necessary to establish that, for God, to be Being is to be the pure act of esse, whose essence is being itself. Hence the value of the argument depends entirely on the validity of a certain notion of God which, whatever its real worth, never seems to have entered the mind of many theologians, some of whom were saints.

The proofs in the third group, “drawn from the nature of created being, corroborate these conclusions.” The historian summarizes them for us with great subtlety. Since by definition it is caused by another, “created being does not subsist by itself, as the being whose essence is to exist subsists necessarily. On the other hand, being an effect cannot be a property of created being because of being itself; otherwise every being would by essence be an effect, and there would not be a first cause. Hence being an effect is a property of created being by reason of a subject distinct from its being.”

Nothing makes us see more clearly the fundamental difficulty all these demonstrations face. The proof that, because created being is not essential to being itself it can only belong to being by reason of a subject distinct from its being, presupposes the conclusion it was intended to demonstrate. For if we grant the premises of the argument, how do they lead to the conclusion that the subject of created being is really distinct from its being? Now it is precisely this and nothing else that is at stake.

Every theologian will agree that by definition a created being is not identical with its existence. It is not, because, being created, it must receive existence in order to be. But, on the other hand, for a created essence to exist it suffices that God make it exist, which properly speaking is to create it. It might be true that God cannot create a finite being without conferring on it an act of esse really distinct from its essence, but supposing this to be demonstrable; the argument has not demonstrated it.

These arguments, and all those of the same type, are alike in. presupposing the conception of being, not in the sense of a being (ens, habens esse, that which is), but rather of the act of being (esse) which, combining with essence, makes of it precisely a being, a habens esse. Now, as soon as this properly Thomistic notion of esse is conceived, there is no further problem; there remains nothing more to demonstrate.

To be convinced of this we have only to refer to the texts of. St. Thomas which his interpreter cites by way of proofs. Two things clearly stand out in them. First of all, that the notion of pure being (ipsum puruin esse) thus understood is always presented in them as something taken for granted. Second, it is taken for granted in them only because, for the theologian, it is the proper name of God. To think pure esse is to think God.

The progressive dialectic of the Summa contra Gentiles leads St Thomas to establish “that in God being and essence are the same” (Contra Gentiles 1.22). He already conceives, then, the possibility of their distinction. Now, if he does conceive it, the question is already answered. Indeed, engaged here in establishing God’s simplicity, St. Thomas must deny of him every conceivable distinction. That is what he does in demonstrating, with Avicenna, that when there is a necessary being (tertia via) it exists of itself. Now it would not exist of itself if it had an essence distinct from its being, for in this case its being would belong to that essence and depend on it (Contra Gentiles 1.22.2). More briefly, and even as briefly as possible: “Everything is through its being. Hence, what is not its being is not through itself a necessary being. Now God is through himself a necessary being. Therefore God is his being” (Contra Gentiles 1.22.5).

It is impossible to go further along the same road, for only one other operation would remain to be carried out if this were possible. This would be to prove that the necessity of necesse esse is indeed the same as the necessity of what St. Thomas calls ipsuin esse, the pure act of being, beyond essence itself, which in this unique case is as it were consumed by it. Now it must be admitted that a great number of theologians are in doubt about this notion or even dispute its validity.

As far as we know, St. Thomas himself nowhere gives a demonstrative proof of it No doubt he argues, “If the divine essence were other than its being (esse), the essence and being would thereby be related as potency to act. But we have shown that there is no potency in God but that he is pure act God’s essence, therefore, is not other than his being” (ContraGentiles 1.22.7).

This is undeniable, but the conclusion would be the same if, instead of conceiving being as the act of essence, it were simply conceived as the actual essence itself. Far from being unthinkable, such a notion of God seems to be common to all the theologians who, coming before or after St. Thomas, have adopted a metaphysics of being different from his own.


Natural Science vs The Philosophy Of Nature – Edward Feser

October 16, 2012

Two Adirondack chairs sit vacant on a dock along the misty shore of the Androscoggin River in Turner, Maine. Alright, it has nothing to do with hylomorphism, the philososophy of nature or the natural sciences but I have identified a good place to go and think about them. Bring a friend, there are two chairs.

This was a response that Ed Feser had on his website and highlighted a difference that many atheists tend to blow by in their assumptions of how the world works. Let me reblog it here:


A-T (Aristotelian/Thomist) philosophers usually distinguish between natural science on the one hand and the philosophy of nature on the other. Philosophy of nature is essentially concerned with general metaphysical questions about how it is possible for there to be an empirical world of the sort we experience in the first place. Its results are held to be necessary rather than contingent. Natural science is concerned instead with the details of how the actual world happens to work. It’s results are contingent, at least in one sense. (I’ll explain that qualification in a moment.)

So, for example, the Aristotelian theory of act and potency is a paradigm example of philosophy of nature. Its aim is to explain what makes it possible for there to be a world of changing things at all, contra the claims of philosophers like Parmenides and Zeno. Whatever substances happen to exist in the empirical world — that is to say, whatever the scientific facts turn out to be — they will all be composites of act and potency. That is a presupposition of there being any empirical world for scientists to study in the first place. So, it is not the sort of thing that could meaningfully be refuted by empirical science; it is subject only to philosophical analysis and criticism.

The periodic table of elements, by contrast, is a finding of natural science, and tells us how the actual world happens to be. But it could have been different; the elements could have been other than the ones we find are correctly described by the table. So we need to rely on careful empirical investigation to confirm it, unlike the theory of act and potency, which is so general that it would apply to any empirical evidence in the first place, whatever it turns out to be.

(The promised digression: To be sure, there is a sense in which A-T regards the laws of nature as necessary. But what that means is that “laws of nature” are taken by A-T to be shorthand for the ways things will tend to act given their essences, and this is not a contingent affair. Given that there is in fact such a thing as helium, there is no way even in principle for helium to have properties other than the ones it does have. Still, the world could have been such that no helium existed in the first place. End of digression.)

So, philosophy of nature is more fundamental than natural science and its business is to investigate the necessary presuppositions of natural science. Thus, questions in philosophy of nature and questions in natural science have to be kept carefully distinguished.

Now, the question of whether there are formal and final causes is not a question of empirical science, but rather a question of philosophy of nature. In fact, A-T holds that the form/matter composition of material objects is just an application of the general theory of act and potency to the analysis of concrete empirical substances. The empirical world has to be made up of hylemorphic (matter/form) compounds, on this view, at least at some level of description.

Natural science can certainly help us to determine what the formal causes of specific things are and which entities turn out to be true substances with true formal causes (e.g. a stone) and which merely accidental arrangements without true formal causes (e.g. a pile of stones, say, or an artifact). But whether there are any form/matter composites at all and thus whether there are any formal causes at all is not a question for natural science, but rather for philosophy of nature.

The dispute between A-T and a “mechanical” conception of the world, then, is at bottom a dispute in philosophy of nature rather than natural science. Hence, for example, atomism (a precursor to mechanism that Aristotle himself responded to) wants to deny that the ordinary objects of our experience are true substances, and thus to deny that they have formal causes. The atomist wants to say in effect that they are more like piles of stones than like stones — mere collections not united by any principle like substantial forms.

The A-T theorist will reply that even if this were correct, the atomist (or any mechanist of another stripe, for that matter) is going to have to arrive at something with a form/matter composition at the bottom level of material reality (the atoms, or whatever). Whatever the details turn out to be, hylemorphism [hylemorphism or hylomorphism (Greek ὑλο- hylo-, "wood, matter" + -morphism < Greek μορφή, morphē, "form") is a philosophical theory developed by Aristotle, which conceives substance as a compound of matter and form.] of some sort or other must be true, and this is something we know from philosophy of nature rather than natural science.

The only remaining question is whether we find true Aristotelian substances, true form/matter composites, at higher levels than the bottom level. But once we’ve admitted formal cause of some sort, the whole motivation of the mechanist view — to get rid of such causes entirely — goes out the window, and thus the pressure to get rid of formal causes wherever one can elsewhere in nature is removed.

So, to return finally to your question: When you ask whether there are examples of formal causes being useful, I would answer as follows. First, if by that you mean to imply that the question of whether any formal causes at all exist is a question of natural science, then that is a category mistake, because it is in fact a question in the philosophy of nature. And it is at that level that the A-T/mechanist dispute has to be resolved. Naturally, I would say that the A-T view is the correct one.

If on the other hand what you mean to ask is about whether formal cause — the reality of which at some level is taken for granted for philosophy of nature reasons — can be fruitfully applied in any more specific concrete cases in the natural sciences, then I would say “Yes, everywhere in the natural sciences, and there are lots of examples.” But arguing about that is probably pointless unless the more general philosophy of nature questions are settled first.

For example, in philosophy of chemistry, one finds writers like Scerri, Hendry, and van Brakel arguing against reductionism, and claiming that the chemical level of description cannot be either defined in terms of the physical level, or eliminated in favor of the physical level. For example, the periodic table cannot in the view of some of these writers be derived from quantum mechanics.

The A-T philosopher will say “Look, here we can see that formal causes exist even at the level of chemistry. That’s what the chemical level of description gives us, in effect — substances that cannot be reduced to their microlevel parts.” The mechanist will reply “No, no, we can give some sort of reductionist, or eliminativist, or supervenience-oriented account if only we work at it hard enough.”

Who is right? I would say the A-T philosopher is, but the debate clearly reflects certain background philosophical assumptions, and therefore it has to be settled at the philosophical level rather than the empirical one, even if empirical considerations play a role. And that is true of every example that could be offered — in physics, chemistry, biology, psychology, wherever.


Problem And Mystery In Thomism – Etienne Gilson

April 13, 2011

St. Thomas Aquinas from by Carlo Crivelli, 1476


It has been rightly insisted that we must distinguish whatever separates the problem from the mystery, and upon the need for the metaphysician to pass beyond the first plane into the second. But neither is to be sacrificed for the sake of the other. When philosophy abandons the problem in order to immerse itself in the mystery, it ceases to be philosophy and becomes mysticism. Whether we like it or not, the problem is the very stuff out of which philosophy is fashioned. To think is to know by concepts. Yet as soon as we begin to interpret the real in terms of quidditative concepts we are right into the problem. We are here face to face with the inescapable, and even those who tend most strongly to escape from it must perforce recognize it. “What cannot be problematized, cannot be examined nor objectified and this by definition.” 26

If philosophizing is a kind of examining of the real, philosophy can only deal with the real to the extent that the real can be problematized. The philosopher can only get to God by way of the problem of His existence, which the problem of His nature follows hard upon. He is then confronted with the problem of God’s action and of God’s government in the world. There are as many problems as there are mysteries, and they are not only met when philosophy talks about God. Man’s science is alive with mysteries, as knowledge and liberty so eloquently testify.

Nor does mystery dwell only in the world of matter. Reason has for centuries been challenged by such obscure facts as efficient causality and the presence of quality. To renounce the problematizing of mysteries would be to renounce philosophizing. This is not the way to seek the solution of the crisis confronting philosophy today. But if we must not leave the problem alone, neither ought we to leave the mystery alone either. The real danger begins where the problem is confronted by the mystery and pretends to be sufficient to itself and to lay claim to an autonomy which it does not actually possess.

The moment a philosophy makes this mistake it is victimized by its own combinations of abstract concepts and enters a game which will never finish. It moves into the realm of the antinomies of pure reason. Kant was not wrong when he said that escape was impossible. We need only add that everything invites philosophic reason not to enter, because such reason ought not to be discussion of pure problems or flight from mystery. It ought to be a perpetually renewed effort to treat every problem as though it were bound up in a mystery. It ought to problematize the mystery by examining it with the help of the concept.

There is a mystery which can be called the object par excellence of philosophy, since metaphysics presupposes it, namely, the act-of-being. The philosophy of St. Thomas locates this mystery in the heart of the real and so insures itself against the risk, so fatal to metaphysical thought, of growing sterile in the very purity of abstraction. To a certain point, Aristotle had already walked in this way. His reformation had been to give philosophy an object which was not the ideal essence conceived by thought but was real being as it is and as it behaves. With Aristotle, the ouaia reality, is no longer the Idea, it is the substance properly so designated. In order to measure the scope of this revolution we have only to compare the solutions to the problem of the first principle of all things proposed by Aristotle and Plato. When Plato takes up the problem, he sets out from an analysis of the real which disengages the intelligible element from it and then proceeds back from one intelligible condition to another until he comes to the first condition.

It is the Good in itself; an Idea, that is, an hypostasized abstraction. Aristotle sets out from the concrete substance given in sensible experience, that is, he sets out from the existant. Then, contrary to Plato, he begins by bringing into evidence the active principle of its being and of its operations. Then he proceeds back from one ontological condition to another until he comes to the first condition. Thus pure Act becomes the highest reality because it alone fully deserves the name of being. On it everything else depends because everything else imitates it in an eternally recommenced effort to imitate in time its immovable actuality.

The peculiar work of St. Thomas has been to carry on into the interior of being itself. He has pushed back as far as the secret principle which establishes, not the actuality of being as substance, but the actuality of being as being. To the age-old question (even Aristotle referred to it as old) What is being? St. Thomas replied: it is that which has actual existence. An ontology like this sacrifices nothing of the intelligible reality accessible to man under the form of concepts. Like Aristotle’s, it never grows tired of analyzing, classifying, defining. But it always remembers that in what is most intimate to itself, the real object it is struggling to define is incapable of definition. It is not an abstraction; it is not even a thing. It is not even merely the formal act which makes it to be such and such a thing. It is the act which locates it as a real being in existence, which actualizes the very form that makes it intelligible.

A philosophy like this is at grips with the secret energy which causes its object. It finds in the direction of its limitations the principles of its very fertility. It will never believe that it has come to the end of its inquiry because its end is beyond what it can enclose within the bounds of a definition.

We are not dealing now with a philosophy which leans against existence and consequently cannot see it. Rather we have to do with a philosophy which stands in front of existence and never stops staring it in the face. Of course we cannot see existence, but we know it is there and we can at least locate it, by an act of judgment, as the hidden root of what we can see and of what we can attempt to define. This is also why Thomistic ontology refuses to be limited to what the human mind knew about being in the thirteenth century. It even refuses to allow itself to be checked by what we know about it in the twenty-first. It invites us to look beyond present-day science toward that primitive energy from which both knowing subject and object known arise.

If all beings “are” in virtue of their own act-of-being, each one of them breaks through the enclosing frame of its own definition. Better, perhaps, it has no proper definition: individuum est ineffabile. Yes, the individual is ineffable, but because it is too big rather than because it is too little. St. Thomas’s universe is peopled with living essences sprung from a source as secret and rich as their very life. His world, by a filiation more profound than so many superficial dissimilarities might indicate, projects into Pascal’s world rather than into Descartes’.

In Pascal’s world, the imagination is more likely to grow weary of producing concepts than nature to tire of providing them. There “all things hide a mystery; all things are veils hiding God.”  Is not this what St. Thomas had already said with a simplicity no less striking than Pascal’s: God is in all things, and that intimately — Deus est in omnibus rebus, et intime? For of such a universe two things can be said at the same time. Everything in it possesses its own act-of-being, distinct from that of all others. Yet, deep within each of them there lies hidden the same Act-of-Being, which is God.

If we want to recapture the true meaning of Thomism we have to go beyond the tightly-woven fabric of its philosophical doctrines into its soul or spirit. What lies back of the ideas is a deep religious life, the interior warmth of a soul in search of God. There have in the recent past been prolonged and subtle disputes as to whether, according to St. Thomas, men experience a natural desire for their supernatural end. Theologians must ultimately decide such questions. They have to reach some kind of agreement about expressions and formulas which concern God’s transcendence and still do not allow man to be separated from Him. The historian can at least say that St. Thomas leaves questions only partially settled, like the projecting stones of an unfinished wall awaiting the hand of a second builder. The very gaps in St. Thomas’s work suggest that nature awaits the finishing touches of grace.

At the basis of this philosophy, as at the basis of all Christian philosophy, there is a deep awareness of wretchedness and need for a comforter who can only be God: “Natural reason tells man that he is subject to a higher being because of the defects he discerns in himself, defects for which he requires help and direction from some higher being. Whatever this being may be, it is commonly spoken of as God.” 

This is the natural feeling which grace excites in the Christian soul and which the perfection of charity brings to fulfillment when this soul is the soul of a saint. The burning desire of God which in a John of the Cross overflows into lyric poems is here transcribed into the language of pure ideas. Their impersonal formulation must not make us forget that they are nourished on the desire for God and that their end is the satisfaction of this desire.

There is no point in seeking, as some appear to do, an interior life underlying Thomism which is specifically and essentially different from Thomism itself. We ought not to think that the learned arrangement of the Summa Theologiae and the unbroken advance of reason constructing stone by stone this mighty edifice was for St. Thomas but the fruit of a superficial activity beneath which there moved deeper, richer and more religious thinking. The interior life of St. Thomas, insofar as the hidden stirrings of so powerful a personality can be revealed, seems to have been just what it should have been to be expressed in such a doctrine. Nothing could be more desirable, nothing more indicative of an ardent will than his demonstrations fashioned from clearly defined ideas, presented in perfectly precise statements, and placed in a carefully balanced arrangement.

Only a complete giving of himself can explain his mastery of expression and organization of philosophic ideas. Thus his Summa Theologiae with its abstract clarity, its impersonal transparency, crystallizes before our very eyes and for all eternity his interior life. If we would recapture the deep and intense spirit of this interior life, there is nothing more useful than to re-assemble for ourselves, but in terms of the order he gave them, the various elements that go to make up his remarkable Summa. We should study its internal structure and strive to arouse in ourselves the conviction of its necessity. Only that will to understand, shared between ourselves and St. Thomas the philosopher, will serve to make us see that this tremendous work is but the outward glow of an invisible fire, and that there is to be found behind the order of its ideas that powerful impulse which gathered them together.

Only thus does Thomism appear in all its beauty. It is a philosophy which creates excitement by means of pure ideas, and does so by sheer faith in the value of proofs and denials based on reason. This will become more evident to those who are disturbed by the very real difficulties encountered in the beginning, if they consider what St. Thomas’s spirituality really was. If it were true that his philosophy were inspired by one spirit, his spirituality by another, the difference would become apparent by comparing his manner of thinking with his manner of praying. But a study of the prayers of St. Thomas which have been preserved and which are so satisfying that the Church has placed them in the Roman breviary, shows that they are not characterized by the note of rapture or emotion or spiritual relish common enough in many forms of prayer.

St. Thomas’s fervor is completely expressed in the loving petitioning of God for what He should be asked for, and in becoming manner. His phrases tend to be rather rigid because the rhythms are so balanced and regular. But his fervor is genuine, deep and readily recognizable and reflects the careful rhythms of his thought: “I pray Thee, that this holy Communion may be to me, not guilt for punishment, but a saving intercession for pardon. Let it be to me an armor of faith and a shield of good-will. Let it be to me a casting out of vices; a driving away of all evil desires and fleshly lusts; an increase of charity, patience, humility, obedience, and all virtues; a firm defense against the plots of all my enemies, both seen and unseen; a perfect quieting of all motions of sin, both in my flesh and in my spirit; a firm cleaving unto Thee, the only and true God, and a happy ending of my life.”

Spirituality like this is more eager for light than for taste. The rhythm of his phrases, the pleasing sonority of his Latin words never modifies the perfect order of his ideas. But the discriminating taste can always perceive, beneath the balanced cadence of his expression, a religious emotion that is almost poetic.

Indeed, because he serves reason so lovingly, St. Thomas actually becomes a poet, and, if we believe a disinterested judge, the greatest Latin poet of the Middle Ages. Now it is remarkable that the lofty beauty of the works attributed to this poet of the Eucharist depend almost entirely on the aptness and concentration of his expressions. Poems like the Oro to devote and Ecce pans angelorum can almost be called little theological treatises and they have supplied generations of faithful Christians with inspiration and devotion.

Perhaps the most distinctive of all his poems is the Pange lingua which inspired Remy de Gourmont to say, in words matching, almost, the flawless beauty of the style he was attempting to describe: “The inspiration of St. Thomas is fired by an unwavering genius, a genius at once strong, sure, confident and exact. What he wants to say, he speaks out boldly, and in words so lovely that even doubt grows fearful and takes to flight.”

Pange lingua gloriosi corporis mysterium
Sanguinisque pretiosi quem in mundi pretium
Fructus ventris generosi Rex efudit gentium.

Nobis datus, nobis natus ex intacta Virgine
Et in mundo conversatus, sparso verbi semine
Sui moras incolatus miro clausit ordine.

We pass from St. Thomas’s philosophy to his prayer,  and from his prayer to his poetry without becoming aware of any change of level. And indeed there is no change. His philosophy is as rich in beauty as his poetry is laden with thought. Of both Summa Theologiae and Pange lingua we can say that his is an unwavering genius, strong, sure, confident and exact. What he wants to say, he speaks out boldly and with a firmness of thought that doubt itself grows fearful and takes to flight.

Nowhere else, perhaps, does so demanding a reason respond to the call of so religious a heart. St. Thomas regards man as marvelously equipped for the knowledge of phenomena; but he does not think that the most adequate human knowledge is the most useful and most beautiful to which man can aspire. He sets up man’s reason in its own kingdom, the sensible. But to equip it for exploring and conquering this kingdom, he invites it to prefer another which is not merely the kingdom of man but of the children of God. Such is the thinking of St. Thomas. If we grant that a philosophy is not to be defined from the elements it borrows but from the spirit which quickens it, we shall see here neither Platonism nor Aristotelianism but, above all, Christianity. It is a philosophy that sets out to express in rational language the total destiny of the Christian man. But it has constantly to remind him that here below he travels the paths of exile where there is no light and no horizon. Yet it never ceases to guide his steps toward that distant height from which can be seen, far off in the mists, the borders of the Promised Land.


Distinguishing Philosophy And Scholasticism – Etienne Gilson

April 11, 2011

Does philosophy consist in these abstract essences taken in the state of abstraction in which we are right now considering them? To say yes is to become involved in a philosophy of the quiddity. We mean by this not simply a philosophy that calls upon quiddities, for this necessity is co-essential to all human knowledge, but a philosophy whose notion of the real reduces it to the essence, or quiddity. History shows us many such philosophies. Indeed their very classifications are innumerable, but there is no need to go into them here. This attitude concerns us primarily in that it expresses a natural tendency of the reason to think by “clear and distinct ideas,” and consequently to reject as obscure and confused whatever does not allow itself to be included within the limits of purely quidditative notions. From this point of view, the “simple natures” on which Descartes worked are no different from the essences of the tree of Porphyry which he denounced as sterile.

Let us go further. Whatever method we invoke, and even if we begin by admitting that the concept cannot be the ultimate object of philosophy, we end up in actual fact with a philosophy of the quiddities whenever we fail to carry research beyond the level of abstract notions. A simple glance at the history of the various philosophies leads to this same conclusion. Restricting ourselves to Thomistic philosophy, we have to choose between locating its ultimate object in the grasping of the essences out of which the concrete real is made up (in which case our highest mode of knowing is a sort of intellectual intuition of pure essences) or assigning to Thomistic philosophy as its ultimate term, rational knowledge of the concrete real through the essences engaged in the metaphysical texture of that concrete real.

Whatever we may think, there can be no doubting that the thought of St. Thomas, in first intention, turned toward knowledge of the existing concrete given in sensible experience and of the first causes of this existing concrete whether they be sensible or not. The whole philosophy we have been studying, from metaphysics to moral philosophy, bears testimony of this. This is why it is and remains philosophy in the proper sense and not, in the widely spread pejorative sense of the term, a “scholasticism.”

Every philosophy engenders its own scholastic presentation, its own school-doctrine, its own scholasticism. But the terms “philosophy” and “scholasticism” designate specifically distinct facts. Every philosophy worthy of the name starts out from the real and returns thereto. Every scholasticism starts from a philosophy and returns thereto. Philosophy degenerates into scholasticism the moment when, instead of taking the existing concrete as object of its reflections in order to study it deeply, penetrate it, throw more and more light upon it, it applies itself rather to the statements which it is supposed to explain, as if these statements themselves and not what they shed light on, were the reality itself.

To fall into this error is to become quite incapable of understanding even the history of philosophy. Because understanding a philosophy is not merely reading what it says in one place in terms of what it says in another; it is reading it at each moment in terms of what it is actually speaking about. An error like this is far more harmful to philosophy itself than to the history of philosophy. St. Thomas’s teaching has degenerated into scholasticism whenever and wherever it has been cut off from the real, the only object on which its illuminating rays can properly be focused. This is not a reason for believing that Thomism is a scholasticism, for its object is not Thomism but the world, man, and God, attained as existing beings in their very existence. It is therefore true that in this first sense the philosophy of St. Thomas is existential in the fullest sense of the word.

Beyond this first sense, there is another far more radical one which commands our attention even more imperatively. In this case, however, the very expression “existential philosophy,” which is so inviting in itself, lends itself to so many misunderstandings that we stand in dread of the birth and spread of new “scholastic” controversies if, that is, certain necessary precautions are not taken. It is a rather modern expression; and although it has arisen out of problems as old as Western thought, it can hardly be applied to the doctrine of St. Thomas without giving the impression of striving to rejuvenate it from without by fitting it up in modern dress. To attempt something like this is hardly wise. It even has the effect of aligning Thomism with philosophies which in certain fundamental points are its direct contrary.

To speak of “existential philosophy” today brings immediately to mind such names as Kierkegaard, Heidegger, Jaspers and so on. In these we find divergent tendencies. No Thomism conscious of what it really is itself could under any circumstances fully align itself with any of them. To do so would only lay it open to the charge of seeking artificial rejuvenation, of postponing its threatening dissolution by laying claim to a title generally conceded to recent philosophies still full of vitality. The whole undertaking would be undignified and profitless to all parties concerned and could only lead to misunderstandings which it would take generations to remove.

The first and most serious of these misunderstandings would be to give the impression that Thomism was one more existential philosophy; whereas what really ought to be the issue at stake is whether or not these philosophies to which Thomism is being likened have really any right to be called existential philosophies at all. Assuredly these are philosophies very much concerned with existence. But they really only deal with it as an object of a possible phenomenology of human existence, as though the primacy of existence signified chiefly that primacy of ethics which Kierkegaard so strongly insisted upon.

If we look here for a philosophy that passes beyond the phenomenological and establishes the act-of-being as the keystone of metaphysics, we shall look in vain. But this is just what St. Thomas has done. As philosophy of the act-of-being, Thomism is not another existential philosophy, it is the only one. All those phenomenologies which are on the hunt for an ontology seem unconsciously to be moving in its direction as though driven on by the natural desire of their own justification.

What characterizes Thomism is the decision to locate actual existence in the heart of the real as an act of transcending any kind of quidditative concept and, at the same time, avoiding the double error of remaining dumb before its transcendence or of denaturing it in objectifying it. The only means of speaking about the act-of-being is to grasp it in a concept, and the concept which directly expresses it is the concept of being. Being is that which is, that is, that which has the act-of-being. It is quite impossible to come to the act-of-being by an intellectual intuition which grasps it directly, and grasps nothing more.

To think is to conceive. But the proper object of a concept is always an essence, or something presenting itself to thought as an essence; in brief, an object. The act-of-being, however, is an act. It can only be grasped by or in the essence whose act it is. A pure est is unthinkable; but an id quod est can be thought. But every id quod est is first a being. And because there is no concept anterior to this, being is the first principle of knowledge. It is so in itself; it is so in the philosophy of St. Thomas. Such a philosophy has every claim to be called a “philosophy of being.”

If it is true that even the possibility of philosophy is tied up with the use of the quidditative concept, it is also true that the name which correctly designates a philosophy is drawn from the concept its first principle is based on. This cannot be the act-of-being because, taken in itself, the act-of-being is not the object of a quidditative concept. It must, then, inevitably be being. To call Thomism an existential philosophy does not call into question the legitimacy of its traditional title, but only confirms it. Since existence can only be conceived in the concept of being, Thomism is always a philosophy of being, even though called existential.

It seems proper to make this point because the abstract notion of being is, by its very definition, ambivalent. In a “that which is” (id quod est), or a “having being” (esse habens), we can spontaneously emphasize either the id quod and the habens or the esse and the est. Not only can we do this, but we actually do so and usually it is the “that which” (id quod) and the “having” (habens) which we emphasize because they place before us the “thing” which exists, that is, being as the object of the quidditative concept. This natural tendency to abstract and to confine ourselves to the abstract concept is so strong that it has been responsible for the appearance of several forms of Thomism in which esse, that is, the very act-of-being, seems to have no effective role to play. By yielding to this natural tendency, we abstract from esse and make Thomism a philosophy of the id quod. In order to rectify this situation, it is just as well to qualify Thomism as an “existential philosophy.” To recall in this way the full meaning of ens in St. Thomas’s language is to guard against impoverishing both ens itself and the philosophy whose first principle it is. It is to forget that the concept signified by ens implies direct reference to existence: nam ens dicitur quasi esse habens.[In XII Met., I; ed. Cathala, n. 2419]

It might be argued that a new expression like this is superfluous, because everyone is quite aware of what it is meant to express. This may be so. But it is not enough that everyone know it. Everyone must think it as well, and it is perhaps harder to do this than might be suspected. The history of the distinction between essence and existence and the endless controversies to which the same distinction is giving rise in our own day show that there is a very real difficulty. The very controversy itself is revealing. It shows how easy it is to substitute the abstract concept of existence for the concrete notion of the act-of-being, to “essentialize,” the act-of-being, to make an act into the object of a simple concept.

The temptation to do this is so strong that scholars began to do it in the first generation after St. Thomas. So far as we can tell from research done up to the present, Giles of Rome is the starting point of the controversies over essence and existence. Now it has often been noted that this resolute defender of the distinction spontaneously expressed himself as though essence were one thing, existence another. Whether he consciously went so far as to reify the act-of-being has not been adequately demonstrated. But for our purposes it is quite enough merely to observe that his language betrays a marked tendency to conceive of esse as though it were a thing, and consequently to conceive the distinction between essence and existence as between two things. Indeed, he actually writes: “Existence and essence are two things.” [Aegidius Romanus, Theoremata de esse et essentia, ed. Edg. Hocedez, S.J., Louvain, 1930, p. 127, r, 12. On the interpretation of this expression, see the Introduction to this work, pp. 54-56. As Father Hocedez puts it, the distinction inter rem et rem, taken literally, amounts to making the distinction between essence and existence a distinction between essence and essence (p. 55)] Many other professed Thomists since his time have expressed themselves in identical terms. But little is to be gained by making this distinction if existence itself is taken as an essence. To call Thomism an “existential philosophy” serves to focus attention on this very important point.

But we have still to come to the chief justification of the expression “existential” as applied to Thomistic philosophy. It is not enough to say of all being that its concept connotes its esse, and that this esse must be taken as an act. It must also be said that this esse is the act of the same being whose concept connotes it. In every esse habens the esse is the act of the habens which possesses it, and the effect of this act upon what receives it is precisely this — to make a being of it.

If we accept this thesis in all its force and with all its ontological implications we come immediately to that well-known Thomistic position: nomen ens imponitur ab ipso esse.[In IV Met., 2; ed. Cathala, S58] So we might as well say that the act-of-being is the very core of being since being draws everything, even its name, from the act-of-being. What characterizes Thomistic ontology thus understood is not so much the distinction between essence and existence as the primacy of the act-of-being, not over and above being, but within it. To say that Thomistic philosophy is “existential” is to stress more forcibly than usual that a philosophy of being thus conceived is first of all a philosophy of the act-of-being.

There would be no advantage in making a great to-do about the act-of-being to the point of forgetting about the reality of the essence or even in allowing oneself to belittle its importance. Essences are the intelligible stuff of the world. Hence ever since Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, philosophy has been one long hunt for essences. But the great question is to know whether we will bring home the game dead or alive. An essence is dead when it is deposited in the understanding as a quiddity, without preserving its contact with the act-of-being. It is certainly a lot easier to handle dead essences. Reason surrounds them from all sides through the definitions she can give them. The mind knows what each of them contains, is assured that none of them either is or can be anything other than it is, and is secure against surprise from any quarter. One can, without fear, deduce a priori the properties of essences, and even calculate beforehand all their possible combinations.

But a philosophy of the act-of-being cannot be satisfied by such methods. It wants to know which, among all the possible combinations of these essences, has actually been realized. This will very probably lead it to assert that many real combinations of essences are the very ones which would have been regarded as rather unlikely or perhaps even judged a priori to be impossible. No doubt living essences find in their own acts of existing a fertility and invention quite beyond the powers of the bare definitions of their concepts. Neither essence nor existence has any meaning apart from the other. Taken separately they are but two abstractions. The only finite reality which the understanding can fruitfully explore is concrete being itself, the original, unique, and, in the case of man, unpredictable and free actualization of an inexhaustible essence by its own act-of-being.

It is rather difficult to find in St. Thomas a single concrete problem whose solution is not ultimately based on this principle. He is primarily a theologian; and it is in constructing his theology with such striking technical originality that he best proves his fertility of mind. Wherever his philosophy touches his theology there is to be seen that new light with which the act-of-being illumines all it touches. Sometimes, when St. Thomas brings up problems and notions not central to his real interests, he allows them to stand like hardened essences in the margin, as it were, of his work. He neither takes the time to rejuvenate them by bringing them into contact with the act-of-being, nor appears to feel the need for doing so. But had he undertaken to do something like this, his philosophy would still remain with its face turned to the future. It will always be thus because the principle to which he makes his appeal is the fertile energy of an act rather than the fixed expression of a concept. A universe like this will never stop surrendering its secret unless, some day, it ceases to be.

This is because it is an ordered plurality of real essences perfected by their acts-of-being. Such must perforce be the case, since this universe is made up of beings, and since a being is “something having an act-of-being.” Each being has its own proper act-of-being, distinct from that of every other: Habet enim res unaquacque in seipsa esse proprium ab omnibus aliis distinctum.[Summa Contra Gentiles, I, 14, ad Est autem] Let us go further: it is by this act-of-being which it has that it is a being, because it is by it that it is — unumquodque est per suum esse.[Summa Contra Gentiles, I, 22, ad Item, unumquodque] And if we can say, as it is often said, that a being’s acting proceeds from its act-of-being — operatio sequitur esse — it is not merely in the sense of “like being like operation,” but also, and especially because the acting of a being is only the unfolding in time of the first act-of-being which makes it to be. It is this way that we get a notion of the efficient cause which is in agreement with the immediate certitudes of common sense and confers on them that metaphysical profundity which they lack by nature. There are many who feel that the efficient cause extends right to the very existence of its effect. And it is here precisely that they find complete justification: causa importat influxum quemdam in esse causati. [The bond tying the operations of substance to its act of esse has been well pointed out in a fairly recent work: J. de Finance, Etre et agir dans la philosophie de saint Thomas, Paris, Beauchesne, n. d. (1943). For the text quoted, see In V Met., i, i ; ed. Cathala, 751]

God is the only being to which this formula, which is valid for others, cannot as such be applied. Of Him it cannot be said that He is by His act-of-being, He is His act-of-being. Since we can only think in terms of being, and since we can only grasp a being as an essence, we have to say that God has an essence. But we must hasten to add that what in Him serves as an essence is His act-of-being: In Deo non est aliud essentia vel quidditas quam suum esse.[Op. cit., 2, 2 r, ad Ex his autem] The act-of-being is the act of acts; it is the primary energy of a being and from it all operations proceed (operatio sequitur esse). Since God is very Esse, the operation belonging to Him and only to Him is the producing of acts-of-being. To produce an act-of-being is what we call creating. Creating is, therefore, action proper to God: Ergo creatio est propria Dei actin. And as it is as Act-of-Being that He alone has the power to create; the act-of-being is His proper effect: esse est ejus proprius efectus. [2, 22, ad Item, omnis virtus]

The linking of these fundamental notions is rigidly necessary. As God is by essence the Act-of-Being itself, the created act-of-being must be His proper effect: Cum Deus sit ipsum esse per suam essentiam, oportet quod esse creatum sit proprius effectus ejus. [Summa theologiae  I, 8, 1] Once this conclusion has been reached, it becomes in its turn the principle of a long line of consequences, for every effect resembles its cause, and that by which the effect is most profoundly indebted to its cause is that by which it resembles it most. If therefore being is created, its primary resemblance to God lies in its own act-of-being: omne ens, in quantum habet esse, est Ei simile [Summa Contra Gentiles,II, 22, ad Nullo autem. See also, II, 53: "Assimilatio autem cujuslibet substantiae creatae ad deum est per ipsum esse."]

From this we see right away that it is the act-of-being in each being that is most intimate, most profound and metaphysically primary. Hence the necessity, in an ontology which does not stop at the level of abstract essence, of pushing right to the existential root of every being in order to arrive at the very principle of its unity: unumquodque secundum idem habet esse et individuationem. [Questiones. disp. de Anima, r, ad 2. To avoid possible equivocation, let us make it clear that this thesis does not oppose the thesis that, in corporeal substance, matter is the principle of individuation. For matter to individuate, it has to be; now it only is by the act of its form which in its turn only is by its act-of-existing. Causes cause one another, though under different relationships.]

Such is, in a particular way, the solution of the problem of the metaphysical structure of the human being. Where the essence of the body and the essence of the soul are taken separately, there can be no return to that concrete unity which a man is. The unity of a man is first of all the unity of his soul, which is really only the unity of his own esse. It is the same act-of-being which has issued forth from the divine Esse, which passes through the soul, which animates the body, and which penetrates even the tiniest cells of that body. When all is said and done, this is why, although the soul is a substance, its union with the body is not accidental: “It does not follow that the body is united with it accidentally because the self-same act-of-being that belongs to the soul is conferred on the body.” [22Op. cit., r, ad i. Let us note, for the theologian, that this solves the much-debated question about the point at which grace is inserted in the soul. See also, Summa theologiae, I-II, 550, 2, ad 3].

Thus that knowing being, man, is bound to God by its deepest ontological root, and has to look no further for the entrance to the paths which will lead it to the knowledge of its cause. If it pursues its metaphysical analysis far enough, any being whatsoever will place it in the presence of God. God is in everything as its cause. His action affects it in its very act-of-being. Hence it is at the heart of what it is that God is actually present: Oportet quod Deus sit in omnibus rebus, et intime. [Summa theologiae, I, 8, x.]

To prove God is to re-climb by reason from any finite act-of-being whatsoever, to the pure Act-of-Being which causes it. Here the knowledge of man reaches its ultimate terminus. When God has been established as the supreme Act of-Being, philosophy ends and mystical theology begins. More simply put, reason asserts that what it knows depends in its very root upon the God it does not know: cum Deo quasi ignoto conjungimur [Et hoc est ultimum et perfectissimum nostrae cognitionis in hac vita, ut Dionysius dicit in libro De mystica theologia (cap. i) cum Deo quasi ignoto conjungimur: quod quidem contingit dum de eo quid non sit cognoscimus, quod vero sit penitus manet ignotum." Summa Contra Gentiles, III, 149].

To understand St. Thomas in this way is not at all to de-essentialize his philosophy. It is rather to restore real essence to it, to re-establish it in its full right. Essence is far more than the quiddity which satisfies reason; it is that by which, and in which, being has existence: quidditatis nomen sumitur ex hoc quod diffinitionem significat; sed essentia dicitur secundum quodper earn et in ea ens habet esse [De ente et essentia, cap. i ; ed. Roland-Gosselin, p. 4] There is nothing further to be said. But it is worth repeating, because the human mind is so constituted that anyone is quite capable of forgetting it.


The Thomistic Hierarchy Of The Universe — Etienne Gilson

April 8, 2011

This sense of hierarchy shows the profound influence of the PseudoDionysius on the thought of St. Thomas. There is no denying this influence; and it explains why some have wished to rank the author of the Summa Theologiae among the disciples of Plotinus. Only when we strictly limit its range does such a thesis become acceptable. The Areopagite furnishes the framework of the hierarchy. He firmly implants in thought the need for a hierarchy. He makes it impossible not to consider the universe as a hierarchy. But he left for St. Thomas the task of completing it; and even though Dionysius assigns the various grades in the hierarchy, he does not know the law which governs their arrangement and distribution.

But is it true to say that St. Thomas thought of the content of this universal hierarchy in a neo-Platonic spirit? If we except with numerous reservations the case of pure spirits, it is quite apparent that the answer is no. The God of St. Thomas the Christian is the same as St. Augustine’s. That St. Augustine was under neo-Platonic influence does not mean that his God could be confused with the God of Plotinus. Between Plotinian speculation and the theology of the Fathers of the Church there stands Jehovah, the personal God who acts by intelligence and will, and who freely places outside Himself that real universe which His Wisdom chose from an infinity of possible universes.

Between this freely created universe and God the Creator there is an impassable abyss and no other continuity than the continuity of order. Properly speaking, the world is an ordered discontinuity. Must we not see that we are here far removed from neoPlatonic philosophy? To make of St. Thomas a Plotinian, or even a neoPlatonizer, is to confuse him with the adversaries he resisted so energetically.

The distance between the two philosophers is no less noticeable when we move from God to man. We said that St. Thomas’s God was not the God of Plotinus but the Christian God of Augustine. Neither is St. Thomas’s man the man of Plotinus. The opposition is particularly sharp right at the heart of the problem: in the relation between soul and body, and in the doctrine of knowledge which results from this. In Platonism there is the affirming of the extreme independence and almost complete aseity of the soul; this allows for Platonic reminiscence and even for the momentary return to the One through the ecstatic union. But in Thomism there is a most energetic affirming of the physical nature of the soul and vigilant care to close all paths which might lead to a doctrine of direct intuition of the intelligible in order to leave open no other road than that of sense knowledge.

Platonism locates mystical knowledge in the natural prolongation of human knowledge; in Thomism, mystical knowledge is added to and co-ordinated with natural knowledge, but is not a continuation of it. All we know about God is what our reason teaches us about Him after reflecting upon the evidence of the senses. If we want to find a neo-Platonic doctrine of knowledge in the Middle Ages, we will have to look elsewhere than in St. Thomas.

This becomes clearer when we put aside the consideration of this particular problem and examine directly the Thomistic hierarchy of the universe. We have had a great deal to say about God and His creative power, about the angels and their functions, about man and his operations. We have considered, one after the other, all creatures endowed with intellect, and the First Intelligence itself. What we have seen is that the nature and compass of the many kinds of knowledge it has been given to us to acquire have varied very considerably according to the greater or less perfection of the reality which was its object. One who wishes to extract a clear notion of the spirit of Thomistic philosophy must first examine the ladder of being, and then inspect the values which locate each order of knowledge in its proper degree.

What is knowing? It is apprehending what is. There is no other perfect knowledge. Now it is immediately apparent that all knowledge, properly so-called, of the higher degrees in the universal hierarchy is relentlessly refused us. We know that God and pure intelligences exist, but we do not know what they are.

There is no doubting, however, that the awareness of a deficiency in our knowledge of God leaves us with a burning desire for higher and more complete knowledge. Nor can it be doubted that, if knowing consists in grasping the essence of the object known, God, angels and, generally speaking, anything of the purely intelligible order, is by definition beyond the grasp of our intellect. This is why, instead of having an intuition of the Divine Essence, we have but a vast number of concepts which, taken together, are a confused sort of imitation of what would have been a true notion of the Divine Essence. When all that we have been able to say about such a subject is put together, the result is a collection of negations or analogies, nothing more.

Where, then, does human knowledge find itself at home? When is it in the presence of its own object? Only at that point where it comes into contact with the sensible. And although it does not here totally penetrate the real, because the individual as such implies or presupposes matter and is therefore beyond expression, still reason is in control of the field in which it is working. In order to describe man, that is, the human composite, to describe the animal and its operations, the heavenly bodies and their powers, mixed bodies or the elements, rational knowledge remains proportioned to the order or rank of the objects it is exploring.

Although its content is incomplete, it is nevertheless positive. What is original and truly profound in Thomism is not an attempt either to establish science more solidly or to extend it. St. Thomas places the proper object of the human intellect in the sensible order, but he does not consider the study of this order to be the highest function of the knowing faculty. The proper object of the intellect is the quiddity of the sensible, but its proper function is to make the sensible intelligible. [Summa Theologiae II-II, 180, 5, ad 1]

From the particular object on which its light falls it draws something universal. It can do this because this particular object carries the divine image naturally impressed upon it as the mark of its origin. The intellect is, in the proper sense of the term, born and made for the universal. Hence its straining toward that object which is by definition vigorously inaccessible, the Divine Being. Here reason knows very little, but what little it knows surpasses in dignity and value any other kind of certitude. [ Summa Contra Gentiles I, 5, ad Apparet]

All great philosophies, and St. Thomas’ is no exception, present a different front according to the particular needs of the age which turns to them. It is hardly surprising, then, that in a time like ours when so many minds are seeking to re-establish between philosophy and concrete reality bonds which idealism has broken, Thomists of different varieties should be insisting upon the notion of the act-of-being in his philosophy. The fact that they have reached analogous conclusions quite independently of one another makes their convergence still more significant. Restricting ourselves to recent statements, we can find any number of remarks like the following: The proper object of the intelligence is being, “not only essential or quidditative but existential.” Or again: The entire thought of St. Thomas “seeks existence itself, though not, as in the case with practical philosophy, to produce it, but to know it.” [Jacques Maritain, A Preface to Metaphysics (Seven Lessons on Being), London, Sheed and Ward, 1943, PP. 2r, 24. The lectures published in this volume date from 1932 to 1933.] Or again: “Thomistic philosophy is an existential philosophy.” Mr. Maritain, the author of these statements, explains them at length in a special section of his A Digression on Existence and Philosophy.

When Maritain speaks in this way about St. Thomas, he is trying to make us understand that all human knowledge, including the metaphysician’s, begins from sense knowledge and ultimately returns to it “not in order to know their essence. It (i.e., metaphysics) does so to know how they exist, for this too metaphysics should know, to attain their mode of existence, and then to conceive by analogy the existence of that which exists immaterially, which is purely spiritual.” Jacques Maritain, A Preface to Metaphysics (Seven Lessons on Being)

This is a lesson of the greatest importance. The only trouble is that the various statements of it are so compact that they tend to obscure its full significance. To insist on the existential character of Thomism in the above sense is to resist the very natural tendency of the human mind to remain on the level of abstraction. The very art of teaching fosters this tendency. How is anyone to teach without explaining, simplifying, abstracting? We tend to keep both ourselves and others on this level of conceptual abstraction which is so satisfying to the mind. First we disentangle essences from concrete reality; then we hold back the moment when we must again blend these essences into the unity of the concrete. We are afraid that we may fall back into the confusion from which we set out and which it is the very object of analysis to remove.

Some hold back this moment so long that they never allow it to arrive. In this case, philosophy is reduced to making cuts into the real, following the cleavage-plane of essences, as if knowing from what essences the real is composed were the same as knowing existing reality. This reality is only directly apprehended by us in and through sensible knowledge and this is why our judgments only attain their object when, directly or indirectly, they are resolved into it: “In other words the res sensibilis visibilis, the visible object of sense, is the touchstone of every judgment, ex qua deberus de aliis judicare, by which we must judge of everything else, because it is the touchstone of existence.” [Jacques Maritain, A Preface to Metaphysics (Seven Lessons on Being)]

Lest the metaphysician forget this principle, or rather, lest he be unaware of the point of view which it imposes on him, he should immerse himself in existence, enter ever more deeply into it “by means of as keen a sensitive (or aesthetic) perception as possible, and also by his experience of suffering and of existential conflicts, in order that, away up in the third heaven of the natural intelligence, he may devour the intelligible substance of things.”

After this comes the almost inevitable remark: “Need we add that the professor who is only a professor, who is withdrawn from existence, who has become insensible to this third degree of abstraction, is the direct opposite of the true metaphysician? Thomistic metaphysic is called scholastic, from the name of its most bitter trial. Scholarly pedagogy is its particular enemy. It must ceaselessly combat and subdue the professorial adversary attacking from within.” [Jacques Maritain, A Preface to Metaphysics (Seven Lessons on Being)]

It could hardly be put better. But just let us see what happens when we neglect to push judgments beyond abstract essences to the actually existing concrete. St. Thomas has noted that the properties of the essence are not the same when it is taken abstractly in itself as when taken in the state of concrete actualization in a really existing being. In fact he explains himself so explicitly on this point that we might as well let him speak for himself.

“Whatever be the object considered in the abstract, we can truly say that it contains no foreign element, that is, nothing outside and beyond its essence. It is in this way that we speak of humanity and whiteness and everything else of this kind. The reason for this is that humanity is then designated as that by which something is a man, and whiteness as that by which something is white. Now, formally speaking, a thing is only a man by something pertaining to the formal reason of man. Similarly, a thing is only formally white by what pertains to the formal reason of whiteness. This is why abstractions like these can include nothing foreign to themselves.

It is quite different in the case of something signified concretely. Indeed, man signifies something possessing humanity, and white, something that has whiteness. Now the fact that man has humanity or whiteness does not prevent him from having something else which does not depend on the formal reason of humanity or whiteness. It is enough that it be not opposed to it. This is why man and white can have something more than humanity and whiteness. Moreover, it is for this reason that whiteness and humanity may be called parts of something, but are not predicated of concrete beings themselves, because a part is never predicated of the whole of which it is a part.”
[In Boet. de Hebdomadibus, II, in Opuscula Omnia, ed. P. Mandonnet, I, 173-174]

If we apply these observations to philosophy, we shall see how, in the approach to problems, perspectives vary according to whether we avoid or face them. The philosopher begins with the experience common to everyone. And he ought in the end to return to this same common experience in so far as it is this which he set out to explain. The only way to succeed is to begin with an analysis, pushed as far as possible, of the various elements included in the factual data which go to make up this experience.

Here we have as first task the breaking up of the concrete into its intelligible elements. Whatever we find out has to be separated into its parts and each part isolated from the others. This can only be done by means of a distinct concept for each element. A necessary condition in thus distinguishing any concept is that it contain everything its definition includes, and nothing else.

This is why every abstract essence is distinguished from the others as its concept is from theirs, and is only distinguished from them in that it excludes them. Humanity is that by which a man is a man, and it is that exclusively. So far is humanity from including whiteness, that there are men who are not white. Inversely, whiteness is that by which what is white is white. This does not include humanity. There can be an incredible number of white beings none of them men. Thus our inquiry into the real leads us to break down the confusion of the concrete into an enormous number of intelligible essences each quite distinct insofar as it cannot be reduced to the others.


The Constants In St. Thomas’ Philosophical Outlook — Etienne Gilson

April 7, 2011

From an online bio:  “Étienne Henri Gilson was born into a Roman Catholic family in Paris on 13 June 1884. He was educated at a number of Roman Catholic schools in Paris before attending lycée Henri IV in 1902, where he studied philosophy. Two years later he enrolled at the Sorbonne, graduating in 1907 after having studied under many fine scholars, including Lucien Lévy Bruhl, Henri Bergson and Emile Durkheim.

Gilson taught in a number of high schools after his graduation and worked on a doctoral thesis on Descartes, which he successfully completed (Sorbonne) in 1913. On the strength of advice from his teacher, Lévy Bruhl, he began to study medieval philosophy in great depth, coming to see Descartes as having strong connections with medieval philosophy, although often finding more merit in the medieval works he saw as connected than in Descartes himself. He was later to be highly esteemed for his work in medieval philosophy and has been described as something of a saviour to the field.

Gilson’s Gifford Lectures, delivered at Aberdeen in 1931 and 1932, titled ‘The Spirit of Medieval Philosophy’, were published in his native language (L’espirit de la philosophie medieval, 1932) before being translated into English in 1936. Gilson believed that a defining feature of medieval philosophy was that it operated within a framework endorsing a conviction to the existence of God, with a complete acceptance that Christian revelation enabled the refinement of meticulous reason. In this regard he described medieval philosophy as particularly ‘Christian’ philosophy. In 1951 he relinquished his chair at the College de France in order to attend to responsibilities he had at the Institute of Medieval Studies in Toronto, Canada, an institute he had been invited to establish in 1929. Gilson died 19 September 1978 at the age of ninety-four.” The following are reading selections from a chapter devoted to a summary of Thomism.


One has no doubt perceived the unified character of a doctrine which provides an explanation of the universe and of man from the point of view of human reason. This character is due to the fact that the texture of Thomism is made from a very small number of principles which are finely interwoven. Perhaps, when all is said and done, all these principles are various aspects of one central notion, the notion of being. Human thought is only satisfied when it grasps an existence; but our intellection of a being never limits itself to the sterile apprehension of a given reality.

The apprehended being invites our intellect to explore it; it invites intellectual activity by the very multiplicity of aspects which it reveals. Inasmuch as a being is not distinguished from itself, it is one. In this sense we can say that being and oneness are the same. No essence divides itself without losing at the same time its being and its unity. But since a being is by definition inseparable from itself, it lays the basis of the truth which can be affirmed about it. To say what is true is to say what is, and is to attribute to each thing the very being which it is. Thus it is the being of a thing which founds its truth; and it is the truth of a thing which underlies the truth of thought.

We think the truth of a thing when we attribute to it the being that it has. It is thus that accord is established between our thought and its object; and it is this accord which provides the basis for what is true in our knowledge just as the intimate accord which subsists between its object and the eternal thought which God has of it establishes the truth of the thing outside our thought. The line of the relationships of truth is therefore only one aspect of the line of the relationships of being.

We find exactly the same thing in the case of the good. Every being insofar as it is knowable is the basis of truth. But insofar as it is defined by a certain quantity of perfection and consequently insofar as it is, it is desirable and presents itself to us as a good; and hence the movement to take possession of it which arises in us when we find ourselves in its presence. Thus the same being without the addition of anything from outside, displays before us its unity, its truth and its goodness. Whatever the relationship of identity which our thought can affirm in any one of the moments of the doctrinal synthesis, whatever the truth we set forth or good we desire, our thought always refers to being in order to establish its accord with itself, in order to assimilate its nature by way of knowledge or to enjoy its perfection through the will.

But Thomism is not a system if by this is meant a global explanation of the world deduced or constructed, in an idealistic manner, from a priori principles. The content of the notion of being is not such that it can be defined once and for all and set forth in an a priori way. There are many ways of being, and these ways must be ascertained. The one most immediately given to us is our own and that of corporeal things among which we pass our life.

Each one of us “is,” but in an incomplete and deficient manner. In the field of experience directly accessible to us we only meet substantial composites analogous to ourselves, forms engaged in matters by so indissoluble a bond that their very “engagement” defines these beings and that God’s creative action, when it puts them into existence, directly produces the compounds of matter and form that constitute their beings.

However imperfect such a being may be, it does possess perfection to the extent that it possesses being. We already find in it transcendental relations of unity, truth, goodness and beauty which are inseparable from it and which we have defined. But we note at the same time that, for some deep reason which we have still to determine, these relations are not fixed, closed, definite. Everything takes place — and experience verifies this — as though we had to struggle in order to establish these relationships instead of enjoying them peacefully. We are, and we are identical with ourselves, but not completely so. A sort of margin keeps us a little short of our quiddity. [vocab: In scholastic philosophy, quiddity was another term for the essence of an object, literally its "whatness," or "what it is."] We do not fully realize human essence nor even the complete notion of our individuality.

Hence, it is not simply a matter of being, but of a permanent effort to maintain ourselves in being, to conserve ourselves, realize ourselves. It is just the same with all the other sensible beings which we find around us. There are always forces at work. The world is perpetually agitated by movements. It is in a continual state of becoming, like man himself ceaselessly passing from one state to another.

This universal becoming is normally expressed in terms of the distinction of potency and act, which extends to all given beings within our experience. These notions add nothing to the notion of being. Act always is being; potency always is possible being. Just as Aristotle had stated the universal extension of this principle without attempting to define it, St. Thomas readily uses it without explanation. It is a sort of postulate, a formula stating as a fact the definite modes of being given to us in experience. Any essence which does not completely realize its definition is act in the measure in which it does realize it, potency in the measure in which it does not, and privation in the measure in which it does not realize it. Insofar as it is in act, it is the active principle which will release the motion of realization.

It is from the actuality of form that all endeavors of this kind proceed; it is the source of motion, the reason of becoming; it is cause. Once more, it is the being in things which is the ultimate reason of all the natural processes we have been stating. It is being as such which communicates its form as efficient cause, which produces change as motive cause, and assigns to it a reason for being produced as final cause. We are dealing, then, with beings which are ceaselessly moved by a fundamental need to save and complete themselves.

Now we cannot reflect upon an experience like this without becoming aware that it does not contain the explanation of the facts it places before us. This world of becoming which grows active in order to find itself, these heavenly spheres continually seeking themselves in the successive points of their orbits, these human souls which capture and assimilate being by their intellect, these substantial forms forever searching out new matters in which to realize themselves, do not contain in themselves the explanation of what they are. If such beings were self-explaining, they would be lacking nothing. Or, inversely, they would have to be lacking nothing before they could be self-explaining. But then they would no longer move in search of themselves. They would repose in the integrity of their own essence realized at last. They would cease to be becoming and enjoy the fullness of being.

It is, therefore, outside the world of potency and act, above becoming, and in a being which is what it is totally, that we must look for the cause of the universe. But this being which thought can reach is obviously of a different nature than the being we have been talking about, for if it were not different from the being which experience gives, there would be no point in positing it. Thus the world of becoming postulates a principle removed from becoming and placed entirely outside it.

But then a new problem arises. If the being we postulate from experience is radically different from the one given to us in experience, how can we know it through this experience and how shall we even explain it in terms of this experience? Nothing can be deduced or inferred about a being from some other being which does not exist in the same sense as the first one does. Our thought would be quite inadequate to proceed to such a conclusion unless the reality in which we moved formed, by its hierarchical and analogical structure, a sort of ladder leading toward God.

It is precisely because every operation is the realization of an essence, and because every essence is a certain quantity of being and perfection, that the universe reveals itself to us as a society made up of superiors and inferiors. The very definition of each essence ranks it immediately in its proper place in this hierarchy. To explain the operation of an individual thing, not only must we have the notion of this individual, but we must also have the definition of the essence which it embodies in a deficient manner. And the species itself is not enough because the individuals which go to make up the species are ceaselessly striving to realize themselves. Thus it becomes necessary either to renounce trying to account for this operation or else to seek for its explanation at a higher level, in a superior grade of perfection.

From here on, the universe appears essentially a hierarchy and the philosophical problem is to indicate its exact arrangement and to place each class of beings in its proper grade. To do this, one principle of universal value must always be kept in mind: that the greater or less can only be appraised and classified in relation to the maximum, the relative in relation to the absolute. Between God who is Being, pure and simple, and complete nothingness, there come near God pure intelligences known as angels and near nothingness material forms. Between angels and material nature come human creatures on the borderline between spirits and bodies. Thus the angels reduce the infinite gap separating man from God and man fills in the gap between angels and matter.

Each of these degrees has its own mode of operation since each being operates according as it is in act and as its degree of actuality merges with its degree of perfection. The orderly and arranged hierarchy of beings is thus made complete by the orderly and arranged hierarchy of their operations, and in such a way that the bottom of the higher degree invariably comes into close contact with the top of the lower. Thus the principle of continuity gives precision and determination to the principle of perfection. Actually, both of these principles but express the higher law governing the communication of being. There is no being save the divine being in which all creatures participate; and creatures only differ from one another by reason of their greater or lesser degree of participation in the divine being.‘ Their perfection must, accordingly, be measured by the distance separating them from God. It is in thus differentiating themselves from one another that they arrange themselves into a hierarchy.

If this is true, it is analogy alone which enables our intelligence to arrive at a transcendent God from sensible things. It is analogy, too, which alone permits us to say that the universe has its existence from a transcendental principle and yet is neither confused with it nor added to it. The similarity of the analogue has, of course, to be explained, and it can only be explained by means of what the analogue imitates: “For (being) is not said of many equivocally, but analogically, and thus must be reduced to unity.” 2

But at the same time that it possesses enough of its model’s being to require it as its cause, it possesses it in such a manner that the being of this cause does not become involved in that of the thing caused. And because the word “being” signifies two different modes of existence when applied to God and to creatures, no problem of addition or subtraction can arise. The being of creatures is only an image, an imitation of the divine being. Even as reflections appear about a flame, increasing, decreasing and disappearing, without the substance of the flame being affected, so the likenesses freely created by the divine substance owe all their being to this substance. They subsist only through it, yet borrow nothing from its per se mode of being, a mode very different from their own. They neither add to it nor subtract from it even in the least degree.

These two principles, analogy and hierarchy, enable us to explain the creature through a transcendent Creator. They also permit us to maintain relations between them and to extend bonds between them which become the constitutive principles of created essences and the laws which serve to explain them. Whatever physics or natural philosophy ultimately shows to be the nature of things, it has necessarily to remain subordinate to a metaphysics of being. If creatures are similitudes in what concerns their basic origin, then it is to be expected that analogy will serve to explain the universe just as it explains creation. To account for the operation of a being, we shall always have to show that its operation is based, beyond its essence in its act-of-being. And to give account of this essence will always be to show that a definite degree of participation in being, corresponding exactly to what this essence is, ought to have a place in our universe.

But why was such a determined similitude required by a universe like ours? It is because the similitudes of any model can only be essentially different if they are more or less perfect. A finite system of images of an infinite being must have all the real degrees of likeness which can appear within the bounds assigned to the system by the free will of the Creator. The metaphysical explanation of a physical phenomenon must always be concerned with putting an essence in its place in a hierarchy.


Philosophy In An Age Of Science – Dr. Ralph Mclnerny

March 2, 2011

Raphael's Stanza della Segnatura in the Vatican Palace painted in the years 1508 to 1511 during the papacy of Julius II, the Ceiling Medallion Representing Philosophy

IT IS OFTEN SAID that twentieth-century philosophy is defined in terms of its interest in language. The linguistic turn followed on the epistemological turn and the suggestion was that language was the source of philosophical problems. But these problems are due to misunderstanding and must be addressed by a therapy aimed at showing that they should never have arisen in the first place.

The aim of philosophy is to put philosophy out of business. Unfortunately, this seems to be an endless business. On the Continent it was held that Greek and German are the only philosophical languages and that they are the House of Being. Heidegger is its shepherd, making him, as Harry Redner has wittily pointed out, the German Shepherd of Being. But surely it is the rise of the sciences that characterizes modernity.

Nietzsche lamented that modern man, having acknowledged the death of God and the folly of Christianity, transferred his allegiance to science and made of the scientist a kind of priest. There are certainly those who, dismissing all pre-Copernican efforts, would tie the possibility of knowledge exclusively to the sciences. What is the status of philosophy vis-a-vis the sciences? One might of course simply identify the two, or, as a variation on this, describe philosophy as a reflection on the procedures and attainments of the scientist.

But what are we to make of the fact that, during the very centuries when science gained its ascendancy, the most influential philosophers were questioning the ability of the human mind to know the world? Enamored of Newton and chastened by Hume, Kant despaired of knowing things as they are, what he called “noumena”; insofar as we do know things we know them as we know them — that is, as spatio-temporal, as causing and caused, and the like. But these are categories of our sensibility or of our understanding which, while they organize our experience, cannot be taken to be an account of how things are in themselves. How are things in themselves? By definition, we can never know.

Pure Reason bears on the a priori conditions of sensibility and understanding, the epistemological cookie-cutters that shape our experience. And where is the world of action? Kant allows that somehow in acting we are involved in the real world; but that can scarcely provide the measure of what we ought to do. Kant notoriously provides the most abstract rule of action, the categorical imperative. This is the Kantian version of the fact/value split, to which we will turn in a moment.

Can it be the case that all pre-scientific knowledge must be swept away and must cede its place to a scientific account? The question can be understood either with reference to the past or as a present issue. Have all previous — at least pre-Copernican — statements about the natural world been confined to the dustbin of history? It is helpful to transpose the question to the present. What is the status of my knowledge of the world that antedates, accompanies, and survives scientific explanation? It will not do to say that all non-scientific knowledge must be discarded.

For one thing, it provides a necessary point of reference to scientific explanation. Everyday physical objects are solid; they weigh in the hand; they have a taste; and they cool or warm the hand that holds them. Color, taste, smell — aren’t these the secondary qualities which are replaced by a quantitative account of them? But consider the claim: Quantitative accounts are accounts of things attained in ordinary experience. If the color I see is illusory, there is nothing to explain, only something to explain away. This does not do away with the scientific revolution, of course. But our description of what happened may be less exuberant. If we have come to prefer quantitative accounts of qualitative experiences because they are more amenable to manipulation and to gaining control over our environment, then, that is what happened. But this does not show that the original experience was illusory.

This leaves open the question as to the value of accounts and analyses of this so-called pre-scientific experience. Obviously, much philosophical analysis is a version of this, and whatever value it has can scarcely be stated in “scientific” terms. Furthermore, such fundamental analysis as that already referred to at the beginning of the Physics has not been ruled out of court by methodological fiat. The analysis of change into three components—subject and contrary states of the subject — and of the product of change — a subject under a description — when taken on their own terms, as the first and most general things that one can say about physical objects, are as good now as they ever were. And what of the analyses of place and time and motion offered by Aristotle? Have they really all been swept away?

It is not nostalgia that prompts such questions. Unless such analyses as those Aristotle undertakes in his natural philosophy and those undertaken today by philosophers who are certainly not doing science can be appraised by criteria other than those of science, science itself becomes unmoored and ceases to be a human enterprise.

The Fact/Value Split
Modern moral philosophy defines itself in terms of the unbridgeable difference between facts and values, between Is and Ought.
When G. E. Moore defined the “naturalistic fallacy” in his Principia Ethica of 1903, he made canonical the import of a skeptical question of David Hume and the practice of Kant. When we evaluate something (i.e., call an action good), there is nothing in what the action is that accounts for its having this value.

A gap is opened up between descriptive and evaluative statements that can never be closed. The belief that a more thorough and careful description of a situation will reveal why it must be called good or bad is fallacious. Moore thought we just intuit goodness the way we do yellow, but could offer us no help when intuitions differ. The slogan became: Anything whatsoever can be called good. Nature neither justifies nor prevents a positive evaluation. Value terms express our subjective reaction to the objective and are unanchored in it.

Alasdair MacIntyre has written that what began as one meta-ethical theory among others eventually swept the field. We are all emotivists now. Universal Emotivism, he called it, meaning that moral disagreements have universally come to be regarded as conflicting subjective reactions to states of affairs. Since such conflicts cannot be adjudicated by objective appeals, various dark possibilities loom.

This is of course untenable. Such an account of human action amounts to a denial that there are objective starting points for human action. Moral principles are as arbitrary as any application of them. This has to be addressed in the way that sophistic attacks on first principles are addressed. The position must be seen to be incoherent. A convenient way of seeing this is by considering the infamous Kennedy Decision. U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice Anthony Kennedy, in an opinion rejecting restrictions on abortion, opined that it is a fundamental human right to be able to define existence, human life, and the universe itself as one wishes. Of such a statement one may say: If it is true, it is false. If I have such a fundamental right, I can employ it to define Justice Kennedy, his decision, and indeed the Supreme Court out of the universe. The Kennedy decision is not simply false. It is literal nonsense. And it can be taken as an adequate stand-in for Universal Emotivism.

Like Gibbon looking out over the ruins of imperial Rome, we can survey the moonscape of modern philosophy and find in it a powerful incentive to devote our time to the reading of Plato and Aristotle and the classical philosophy that was so cavalierly dismissed by the father of modern philosophy.

Philosophy And Religion
In its classical origins, philosophy was theistic.

In the Christian era, there was a succession of attempts to establish a modus vivendi between philosophical inquiry and religious belief. The liberal arts tradition, which characterized medieval education from Augustine to Aquinas, sought to summarize the whole of secular learning into seven liberal arts, divided into two groups. The arts of the trivium (grammar, rhetoric, and logic) and the arts of the quadrivium (arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music) were ways because they were considered to be preparatory to the study of Sacred Scripture.

Cassiodorus Senator, who lived a century after Augustine and was a contemporary of Boethius, gave this a definitive statement in his Institutiones. With the recovery of Greek philosophy and the introduction of Arabic science in Latin translation beginning in the late twelfth century, the matter of faith and reason had to be rethought, since reason was now seen to have a far greater reach than the liberal arts tradition had realized. During the thirteenth century, most notably in Thomas Aquinas, a new synthesis was achieved. But this began to unravel almost as soon as it had been achieved, and by the fourteenth century the reach of reason had been considerably diminished. Nominalists questioned our ability to grasp the natures of things since they doubted there were natures to be grasped; the existence of God and the immortality of the soul, truths which Aquinas considered capable of being established by natural reason, were now said to be tenable only on the basis of the faith, because they had been authoritatively revealed. With the Protestant Reformation came the idea that for centuries the Christian message had been distorted by Rome and that the solution was for every believer to become his own pope, consult the Scriptures, and attend to the Spirit in grasping their truth. The dissolution of Christendom was underway.

When Nietzsche’s madman comes into the marketplace crying that he is looking for God, he becomes an object of derision. The scoffers have not yet recognized that God is dead, but they have killed him. With Nietzsche begins the post-Christian age, which can be defined as the time when it is assumed that there is no God and that religion can be accounted for in psychological or economic terms. In any case, the search for truth no longer has any positive interest in theism; furthermore, it must be seen as in a polemical relation to Christianity. This is where we more or less are today.

Why I Am A Thomist
IN 1879 POPE LEO XIII issued an encyclical called Aeterni Patris, which inaugurated the revival of the study of Saint Thomas Aquinas. Leo looked out over the modern world and did not see the sunny prospect many of his contemporaries saw. Indeed, the pope found influential views of man and nature and human society to be severely flawed. It is one thing to appraise the modern world with the eyes of faith; it is another thing to do so with the common principles of human thought, that is, philosophically. It was a philosophical revival that Leo hoped for, and as its paladin, he pointed to Thomas Aquinas.

It is because, as a philosopher, Thomas found his principal inspiration in Aristotle that he can serve the function Leo envisaged for him. The foregoing sketch has doubtless revealed my conviction that philosophy must enter the third millennium on an Aristotelian note. But this must be properly understood. It must not be understood as the suggestion that, while there is a plurality of viable philosophies, we ought to choose Aristotle. If that were the case, the choice would be arbitrary. If it is not the case, it is because there is no radical plurality of viable philosophies. Differences among philosophers are only radical when one of them is wrong. Where there is truth there is compatibility.

Thomas, we are sometimes reminded, was not aThomist. Indeed he was not. Nor was Aristotle an Aristotelian. Both denials are correct because what the two engaged in was not a kind of philosophy. They simply did philosophy. Philosophy is what proceeds from principles which guide all human thinking. It is because we live in a time when these very starting-points have been called into question that the first order of business is to defend the range of reason. Perhaps it is no accident that it is John Paul II, in his encyclical Fides et Ratio (Faith and Reason) who urges philosophers to regain the sense of the power and scope of human reason. The believer cannot view his faith as elevated on the rubble left by modern philosophy. If one accepts truths beyond the capacity of human reason to comprehend, as one does by the gift of faith, there is needed a contrast with truths which are grasped by human reason and within the reach of all. In that sense, faith needs philosophy.

Philosophy is the lingua franca of believers and nonbelievers alike. It has fallen on evil days. But the seeds of its renewal are present in every human mind, in the starting-points which can only be denied at the price of incoherence. Aristotle said it, but it was true before he said it and it is still true today. “All men by nature desire to know.”


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