Today is St. Thomas’s feast day according to the pre-Pauline calendar of the Roman Rite. He died on March 7, 1274 at the abbey of Fossanova while on his way to the second Council of Lyons.
January 28 is the feast of St. Thomas Aquinas in the 1969 General Roman Calendar. Happy feast day!
After Jean-Luc Marion’s critique of Aquinas as an ontotheologian in L’idole et la distance (1977) and Dieu sans l'être (1982) people made a big deal of an alleged retraction in “Saint Thomas d’Aquin et l'onto-théo-logie” (1995) published in Revue thomiste. The text was even inserted into the 2013 edition of Dieu sans l'être as a supplement. In Marion’s “defense” of Aquinas against the charge of ontotheology in the Revue thomiste article he tells us that we should seriously consider the possibility that the esse that Aquinas predicates of God has no positive content but is purely a nom négatif. Indeed,
pourquoi pretendre le traiter comme un nom affirmatif, fournissant l’équivalent d’une essence, l’équivalent d’une concept, l’équivalent d’une définition, l’équivalent d’une connaissance?
Is this Marion channeling Sertillanges? Is he in earnest or is it all in jest?
I think it was the latter. Marion published an article in a 2004 issue of Conférence in which he argued once again, as he had before 1995, that Aquinas limits God’s transcendence by predicating esse of him.
Marion’s argument in the 2004 piece is weak, to say the least. He begins, harmlessly enough, by explaining that, for Aquinas, God’s esse and essentia aren’t really distinct from each other, as they are in creatures, but identical. This means that God isn’t simply an ens. However, he goes on, this won’t do to ensure God’s transcendence.
Que la transcendance de Dieu ne joue plus à l'intérieur d'un concept d'étant […] ne suffit pas à la libérer; puisqu'elle ne s'ouvre encore que dans l'interstice entre l'essence et l’esse, donc definitivement dans l'horizon de l’être.
It’s unclear whether être here is meant to refer to Heideggerian Sein (which Marion had mentioned in the previous paragraph). If it is, then Sein, being finite (as it surely seems to be), would necessarily limit God’s transcendence were he subject to it. But why should we think that esse and essentia as Aquinas predicates them of God can be reduced to Sein? If this is what Marion has in mind, he doesn’t explain why we should buy it. On the other hand, if être isn't Sein but has a more indefinite reference, why should we think it limits God? Marion doesn’t explain. Of course, we know that Aquinas holds that divine esse is unlimited (cf., e.g., ST, Ia, q. 13, a. 11). If God is without limits, then he can’t help but be transcendent. How does Marion show that Aquinas is wrong to think that divine esse is unlimited? He doesn’t.
The title of the 2004 article is “L’impossible pour l’homme – Dieu.” Marion presented an English version of it at one of John Caputo’s “Religion and Postmodernism” conferences at Villanova. But I don’t remember whether that was before or after the French version appeared.
Several years ago I thought about publishing something about all of this but I never got around to it. Maybe it doesn’t require any drawn-out discussion. The basics can be noted without much ado. In any event, let this blog post suffice for now.
(This is a reblog of a post of mine at the AMU Philosophy Department blog.)
Post scriptum (12.7.18): I should make it clear that I do think that, for Aquinas, esse as predicated of God does have some positive content. It’s not merely a negative name, as Marion suggests in the Revue Thomiste article. In the general debate about Aquinas’s apophaticism, I side with Maritain (and Garrigou, Cajetan, and — with some qualifications — Milbank) against Sertillanges.
Edward Feser and Joseph Bessette's new book By Man Shall His Blood Be Shed: A Catholic Defense of the Death Penalty and the Pope's recent remarks on the death penalty have revived the Catholic debate on the topic.
On Friday Catholic World Report published an essay of mine entitled "Is opposition to the death penalty Thomistic?" In it I compare Pope Francis's remarks with St. Thomas's teaching. I think the Holy Father's defense of Amoris laetitia as Thomistic encourages this sort of exercise. I also assume that my discussion may be of interest to some of our readers.
In Summa theologiae, Ia, q. 75, a. 1, Aquinas writes:
[A]d inquirendum de natura animae, oportet praesupponere quod anima dicitur esse primum principium vitae in his quae apud nos vivunt animata enim viventia dicimus, res vero inanimatas vita carentes. Vita autem maxime manifestatur duplici opere, scilicet cognitionis et motus. Horum autem principium antiqui philosophi, imaginationem transcendere non valentes, aliquod corpus ponebant; sola corpora res esse dicentes, et quod non est corpus, nihil esse. Et secundum hoc, animam aliquod corpus esse dicebant.
In Discours de la méthode, AT, 37, Descartes writes:
Mais ce qui fait qu'il y en a plusieurs qui se persuadent qu'il y a de la difficulté à le connaître [i.e., God], et même aussi à connaître ce que c'est que leur âme, c'est qu'ils n'élèvent jamais leur esprit au delà des choses sensibles, et qu'ils sont tellement accoutumés à ne rien considérer qu'en l'imaginant, qui est une façon de penser particulière pour les choses matérielles, que tout ce qui n’est pas imaginable leur semble n'être pas intelligible.
But then, after seeming to express the same insight as Aquinas, Descartes goes on to suggest that people who accept the dictum according to which “n'y a rien dans l'entendement qui n'ait premièrement été dans le sens” (“nihil est in intellectu quod non sit prius in sensu”) have the same problem. Indeed, the dictum itself is an indicator of that problem!
Ce qui est assez manifeste de ce que même les philosophes tiennent pour maxime, dans les écoles, qu'il n'y a rien dans l'entendement qui n'ait premièrement été dans le sens, où toutefois il est certain que les idées de Dieu et de l'âme n'ont jamais été. Et il me semble que ceux qui veulent user de leur imagination, pour les comprendre, font tout de même que si, pour ouïr les sons, ou sentir les odeurs, ils se voulaient servir de leurs yeux : sinon qu'il y a encore cette différence, que le sens de la vue ne nous assure pas moins de la vérité de ses objets, que font ceux de l'odorat ou de l'ouïe; au lieu que ni notre imagination ni nos sens ne nous sauraient jamais assurer d'aucune chose, si notre entendement n'y intervient.
Descartes is either unaware of the scholastic explanation of the dictum (cf. e.g., De veritate, q. 2, a. 3, ad 19) or doesn’t accept it. My hunch is that it’s the latter. But not being an expert on Descartes, I would be glad for help on this.
Bill Vallicella poses the following problem:
Consider a time t before there were any human animals and any finite minds, and ask yourself: did the nature humanity exist at t?
Vallicella points out that, for Aquinas, the answer would be that at t humanity existed in God’s mind. He comments on Aquinas’s answer thus:
This may seem to solve the problem I raised. Common natures are not nothing because they are divine accusatives. And they are not nothing in virtue of being ausserseiend. This solution avoids the three options of Platonism, subjectivism (according to which CNs exist only as products of abstraction), and Meinongianism.
What Vallicella is talking about here, of course, is Aquinas's doctrine of divine ideas. But he isn’t satisfied with the solution this doctrine offers.
The problem with the solution is that it smacks of deus ex machina: God is brought in to solve the problem similarly as Descartes had recourse to the divine veracity to solve the problem of the external world. Solutions to the problems of universals, predication, and intentionality ought to be possible without bringing God into the picture.
I don’t see any reason to concede this deus ex machina (DEM) objection against Aquinas's doctrine. Why ought solutions to the problems of universals, predication, and intentionality to be possible without bringing God into the picture? Vallicella doesn’t say. What if I instructed you in the following way: “Solve the problem of human knowledge without appealing to an immaterial intellect”? You could legitimately ask why I’ve barred the path of inquiry in this way. What if our reflection on the evidence indicated that an immaterial intellect had to be a part of the solution? (If you’re a naturalist, suppose I tell you to solve the problem of human knowledge without appealing to the brain.) Vallicella needs to explain why God can’t be involved in the solution of the above problems.
Vallicella references an earlier post where he considers what’s wrong with arguments that rely on a DEM. Let's look at this post to see if we can find out why he wishes to object to Aquinas in the way he does.
Vallicella suggests in this post five possible ways to understand what is meant by the DEM charge when it is leveled in philosophy. Vallicella’s DEM catalogue, however tentative, is very useful and appears to fill in a gap in the literature. Here are the possibilities he proposes:
(1) Any appeal to a supernatural agent in a theory of natural phenomena is a DEM.
(2) An appeal to a supernatural agent in a theory of natural phenomena is a DEM iff no independent reasons are given for the existence of the supernatural agent.
(3) An appeal to a supernatural agent in a theory of natural phenomena is a DEM iff no reasons are supplied for the existence of the divine agent.
(4) An appeal to a supernatural agent in a theory of natural phenomena is a DEM iff EITHER no reasons are supplied for the existence of the divine agent, OR the working of the agent violates natural laws.
(5) An appeal to a supernatural agent in a theory of natural phenomena is a DEM iff EITHER no reasons are supplied for the existence of the divine agent, OR the working of the agent violates natural laws, OR the agent’s intervention in nature is miraculous in the sense in that it takes over a job that ought to be done by a natural entity.
Vallicella doesn’t think we should a priori rule out arguments to God as the cause of natural phenomena. So, he says that (1) can’t be what a DEM is. (Actually, he doesn't argue exactly like this but this is how I interpret him.)
Vallicella also concludes that (2) can’t be what a DEM is. Here's how he explains its flaw:
Why would the reasons for the supernatural agent have to be independent, i.e., independent of the job the agent is supposed to do? Suppose the appeal to a divine agent takes the form of an inference to the best or the only possible explanation of the natural explananda. Then the appeal to the divine agent would be rationally justified despite the fact that the agent is posited to do a specific job.
I’m not quite sure what Vallicella’s view of (3) is. He seems to think that it constitutes a DEM but isn't the only form it can take. It can also take the form of (4) and (5).
But if we construe DEM as (3), (4), or (5), Aquinas's doctrine of divine ideas isn't conspicuously guilty of DEM. Aquinas doesn't fail to offer reasons for the existence of the divine agent whose mind contains the ideas (cf. ST, Ia, 2, 3). There is no obvious way that the doctrine of divine ideas violates natural laws (presumably the laws of the physical world that the natural sciences investigate). And, finally, it doesn't give a job to God that ought to be done by a natural entity.
With respect to the last point, Aquinas takes the divine ideas to be God's understanding of his essence as imitable by any creature (cf. ST, Ia, 15, 2). No natural entity as such could have God's understanding of his essence. Ergo, God isn't doing a job some natural entity should do, for no natural entity could do it.
So, I'm perplexed by Vallicella's suggestion that Aquinas's doctrine of divine ideas is an instance of DEM.
Vallicella is a careful, sharp thinker, so I assume that I have misunderstood him or he has only incompletely expressed himself. It’s possible that we do simply disagree but I suspect that the point of disagreement has not yet been identified.
Prima facie some people might think that Aquinas’s epistemology is susceptible to the brain in a vat (BIV) objection. Two things could suggest this: (1) Aquinas is a direct realist (in something like John Searle’s sense of the term minus the biologism and perhaps a few other things) and (2) he believes that, for human beings, it is our senses that first put us into cognitive contact with the world (and in which all our subsequent natural knowledge of things is rooted).
But I don’t think that Aquinas really needs to worry about BIVs. He doesn’t need to because nobody needs to, that is, no reasonable person does. But before I tell you why I think this, let’s consider the objection.
If I may, I shall use Hilary Putnam’s formulation of the objection as he presents it in Reason, Truth, and History. Putnam, of course, thinks he has an argument that shows that the BIV objection is self-refuting. I’m not going to adopt Putnam’s argument or evaluate it. I’m just going to use his account of the objection. Here it is:
Imagine that a human being (you can imagine this to be yourself) has been subjected to an operation by an evil scientist. The person's brain (your brain) has been removed from the body and placed in a vat of nutrients which keeps the brain alive. The nerve endings have been connected to a super-scientific computer which causes the person whose brain it is to have the illusion that everything is perfectly normal. There seem to be people, objects, the sky, etc.; but really, all the person (you) is experiencing is the result of electronic impulses travelling from the computer to the nerve endings. The computer is so clever that if the person tries to raise his hand, the feedback from the computer will cause him to “see” and “feel” the hand being raised. Moreover, by varying the program, the evil scientist can cause the victim to “experience” (or hallucinate) any situation or environment the evil scientist wishes. He can also obliterate the memory of the brain operation, so that the victim will seem to himself to have always been in this environment. It can even seem to the victim that he is sitting and reading these very words about the amusing but quite absurd supposition that there is an evil scientist who removes people’s brains from their bodies and places them in a vat of nutrients which keep the brains alive.
Against direct realists like Aquinas, who hold that, in general, our senses reliably deliver an extra mentem world to us, the objection is supposed to show that they can never be certain that this is the case, they can never be certain that such a knowable extra mentem world exists. Cue the dark chuckling of the skeptic.
But why are Aquinas and other direct realists condemned to this uncertainty? I take it that it is essential to the BIV objection that, by hypothesis, there would be no noticeable difference between the worlds experienced by us whether the ontological/epistemic situation is as the direct realist thinks or whether we are BIVs. In other words, in both worlds, things would look exactly the same. This being so, the poor direct realists just can’t say for sure that they aren’t BIVs. And, presumably, they should give up their direct realism or, at the very least, not be too smug about it.
I’m afraid, however, that I’m just not convinced that direct realists should be all that anxious in the face of the BIV objection. The reason why I think this way is easy to state. According to the hypothesis, you could never have any evidence that you are a BIV, for if you did, you could know you were a BIV. You might understand that it is a logical possibility, but it is a logical possibility for which you have zero evidence and (again, according to the hypothesis) never could have any evidence. In the Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, David Hume tells us that “[a] wise man ... proportions his belief to the evidence.” Who could disagree? But if I should proportion my belief to the evidence, then I should never take seriously the proposal that I am a BIV. And if I am a direct realist, I should never give up my direct realism because of it.
Consider an analogous case. The controversy over Shakespeare’s real identity is well-known. It seems to me to be logically possible that the real Shakespeare is a Norwegian playwright who became proficient in English. But suppose no evidence ever turns up that suggests that this is more than a logical possibility. Without any evidence, the Shakespeare scholar who takes the Norwegian possibility seriously is a perfect fool.
Aquinas and other direct realists need not worry about BIVs (nor need anybody else).
Of course not!
And yet some people -- who apparently have either not read Aquinas or not read him carefully -- persist in thinking that he holds that God (along with creatures) is a participant in being. You can find this, for example, in some Barthians (and perhaps even in Barth himself).
Consider this passage from Angela Dienhart Hancock's recent book on Barth:
The analogia entis, a scholastic term famously formulated by Thomas Aquinas, means that God and human beings (and all creation) are similar in that they participate in something called “being.” Hence we can figure out what God is like by looking at the created order, because everything is connected to everything else in the great chain of being, which stretches all the way up to being itself (God) (Karl Barth’s Emergency Homiletic, 1932-1933: A Summons to Prophetic Witness at the Dawn of the Third Reich, p. 186, n. 142).
Three things. First, I have never found the term analogia entis in Aquinas's writings. I do not deny that the idea is there formally (although not in the way suggested by Prof. Dienhart Hancock). I only say that I have not been able to find the term itself. Second, if God is being, as is suggested at the end of the above passage, how can he participate in being? Third, the first sentence, as a statement about Aquinas's doctrine is simply false.
There are many places where Aquinas makes his doctrine clear. One such place is this passage from the commentary on the Sentences:
[C]reator et creatura reducuntur in unum, non communitate univocationis sed analogiae. Talis autem communitas potest esse dupliciter. Aut ex eo quod aliqua participant aliquid unum secundum prius et posterius, sicut potentia et actus rationem entis, et similiter substantia et accidens; aut ex eo quod unum esse et rationem ab altero recipit, et talis est analogia creaturae ad creatorem: creatura enim non habet esse nisi secundum quod a primo ente descendit: unde nec nominatur ens nisi inquantum ens primum imitatur; et similiter est de sapientia et de omnibus aliis quae de creatura dicuntur (Prol. q. 1, a. 2, ad 2). (The Creator and the creature are reduced to unity not by a univocal commonality but by analogy. Now, such a commonality can be twofold. It can either be because certain things participate in something according to an order of priority and posteriority, as potency and act participate in the concept of being as also substance and accident do; or this commonality can be because a thing receives its being and its concept from another, and such is the analogy between creature and Creator. In fact, the creature only has being insofar as it descends from the first being [i.e., God]. Thus, it is only called being because it imitates the first being. And the same must be said of wisdom and everything else that is said of creatures.)
What more needs to be said?
Two years ago I published a two-part interview on this blog with Raymond Dennehy on Maritain's political philosophy (here and here). In particular it was about a couple books by Maritain that were being reissued, Christianity and Democracy and The Rights of Man and the Natural Law. I had entitled the interview "The return of Thomistic political philosophy." In the comments box John Lamont wrote: "Reprinting Maritain's work is in no way a revival of Thomistic political philosophy, because Maritain's thought was completely different from that of St. Thomas in this area." I tend to think that Dr. Lamont's criticism was justified. I posted twice more on this topic (here and here), taking a rather harsh line toward Maritain's political thought -- not that I had not been skeptical of it prior to considering Dr. Lamont's objection. Quite the contrary is true. The issue was not whether Maritain's political thought had problems but whether it could properly be called "Thomistic."
In this present post I ask what an authentically Thomistic approach would be to the problem of religious freedom. Religious freedom is especially on the minds of many Catholics in the U.S. now as Catholic institutions fight against the H.H.S. mandate. But it seems to be a topic of perennial importance.
Anyhow, I would say that it is obvious that no ostensibly Thomistic political thought would accept the notion that all religions have an equal right publicly to teach and practice their beliefs. This would not mean that it would not be prudent in many circumstances to tolerate false religions nor does it take a stand on what would be permissible in private. Recently, I have tried to articulate my thoughts on these questions in a short essay. The essay focuses on Dignitatis Humanae but also incorporates Aquinas on a key point. Here are some relevant excerpts from the essay:
In the Catholic tradition religion is considered a moral virtue falling under justice. This understanding of religion can be found, for instance, in Aquinas and, more recently, in the Catechism of the Catholic Church. For Aquinas, religion is fundamentally rendering the true God the honor that is due him. The Catechism sees the moral virtue of religion in a similar way.
As with all virtues, religion has corresponding vices. According to Aquinas, the opposite of religion is superstition, the offering of worship to whomever or whatever does not deserve it. Idolatry, for Aquinas, is a species of superstition. The Catechism too treats the vices of superstition and idolatry, although what Aquinas says about these appears to be dealt with in the Catechism solely under the heading of idolatry. Idolaters, the Catechism tells us, “venerate other divinities than the one true God.”
If religion as a moral virtue honors the one true God, then religions that do not are not truly religions or could justly be called false or defective religions. This is not to say that they contain no elements of truth. It is rather to say that their orthodox practice and teaching, taken as a whole and objectively considered, do not lead to God. To follow or promote religions of this sort would be to act against the moral law. This consideration evidently raises more and deeper problems for religious freedom.
But if false religions run contrary to objective moral order—as they must if they are moral vices, as we have observed—then, in principle, only prudent toleration could prevent legislation against them. In other words, there is no absolute right to follow and teach a false religion. By “absolute right” I mean one that cannot in any circumstances be legitimately violated. An “absolute right” would be a right that accrues to us simply by virtue of being human persons. You could call it a “human” or “natural right.” Such a right would transcend all cultures and political communities, requiring recognition by all. That can not be true for adherents of false religion.
If false religion is a moral vice, plainly no one has any natural right to practice it, for no one can have a right to do evil. Were there a natural right to do evil, there could not be a natural moral law that bound us to do good. We certainly are not naturally bound to do good if we have a natural right to do evil.
I would be grateful for feedback on my essay from readers.
Of course, you may query whether the "authentically Thomistic approach" to religious freedom is also the right approach. I would argue that it is and would be happy to pursue a discussion of its validity at some point in the future. No doubt there are also some who would wonder whether what I am calling the authentically Thomistic approach to religious freedom really is just that. I would welcome that discussion too.
A few years ago I translated Angelo Campodonico's essay “Il pensiero filosofico di Tommaso d’Aquino nell’interpretazione di H.U. Von Balthasar” for the English edition of Nova et Vetera . It was published as "Hans Urs von Balthasar's Interpretation of the Philosophy of Thomas Aquinas" in vol. 8 of Nova et Vetera on pp. 33-53. I recently uploaded it to my Academia.edu page. You can find it here.
Since Thomists and Balthasarians often find themselves at odds, this makes Campodonico's essay all the more interesting, or so it seems to me. In fact, Campodonico argues that Aquinas had a profound influence on Balthasar's thought. He even makes the (in my view) provocative claim that...
[t]he influence of Thomas Aquinas on the formulation of Balthasar’s theology and philosophy is clear and shows that Balthasar regarded him with perhaps more esteem than any other theologian in history (33-34).
Balthasar the Thomist? Well, certainly not a Thomist of the strict observance. If he is a Thomist at all, he is probably what Fr. Weisheipl would call an "eclectic Thomist." (Perhaps some of my fellow Thomists would say that even that is going too far!)
A word about Campodonico. He teaches in the philosophy department at the University of Genova. To date Campodonico has written three books on Aquinas: Alla scoperta dell'essere. Saggio sul pensiero di Tommaso d'Aquino (Milan: Jaca Book, 1986), Integritas: Metafisica ed etica in San Tommaso (Florence: Nardini, 1996), and La pretesa del bene. Etica e teoria dell'azione in Tommaso d'Aquino (Naples: Orthotes 2012). The last book was written with Maria Silvia Vaccarezza. You can find Campodonico's faculty page at the University of Genova here.
I would like to thank Dr. Osborne and Dr. Long for bringing the principle of sufficient reason up for discussion on Thomistica. I think it is a worthwhile discussion. My personal view is that some version of PSR is compatible with Thomism and can be "read back into" Aquinas's texts.
I am not going to defend that view now or get into the debate about whether the Leibnizian version of PSR is tenable or compatible with Thomism or how far Garrigou-Lagrange's concept of PSR is Leibnizian (or Spirian). I do not have the time for any of that at the moment but I hope to be able to have the time in the not too distant future.
For the nonce l would simply like to present and briefly comment on Norris Clarke's defense of a Thomistic version of PSR in The One and the Many (p. 181):
Some contemporary Thomists, like Gilson, insist it is against the spirit of Thomas to appeal to any general principle of sufficient reason. The reason they give is the danger of confusing it with the rationalist Principle of Sufficient Reason first explicitly introduced into modern philosophy by Leibniz, the great rationalist. But the Principle [as I understand it] is quite different from the Leibnizian rationalist one. The latter interprets the sufficient reason as some reason from which we can deduce by rational necessity the existence of the effect. It looks forward: given an adequate cause we can deduce the effect as flowing necessarily from it. It follows, of course, that no efficient cause can be free, and that God creates the world out of necessity, not freely, i.e., that to be rational God must create the best possible world. Our Thomistic interpretation is quite different. It does not try to deduce anything; it looks backward , i.e., given this effect, it needs such and such a cause to explain it. The cause must be adequate to produce it, be able to explain it once this is there. But in no way does this require that the cause has to produce it; in a word, our world needs an infinite Creator to explain it. But this in no way implies that such a Creator had to create it. It is not, like that of Leibniz, a deductive principle, deducing the effect from the cause, but as St. Thomas expresses it [sic!], like most other metaphysical explanations, it is a "reductive explanation," tracing a given effect back to its sufficient reason in an adequate cause. Given this key difference from any rationalist principle like Leibniz's. it seems to me that this general Principle of Sufficient Reason is a quite legitimate development of Thomism, with the advantage of summing up in one basic formula the principle of intelligibility of being that is implied in all of Thomas's specialized formulas of the Principle of Causality.
How does Clarke formulate PSR? Thus: "Every being has the sufficient reason for its existence (i.e., the adequate ground or basis in existence for its intelligibility) either in itself or in another" (p. 21).
I find nothing immediately to object to in what Clarke says. In fact, I am inclined to agree with his take on a Thomistic PSR although I do not know that I am prepared to endorse it definitively. I do also have to confess that I know very little about Leibniz's understanding of PSR, so for the present I will hold off on pronouncing on the validity of Clarke's interpretation of Leibniz.
I would be very happy for readers' comments on what Clarke says about PSR.