Saturday, 6 January 2018

An Announcement - and Some Thoughts

As of Christmas day, I have become engaged to the love of my life, a woman of remarkable talent, beauty, intelligence, and strength of character, whom I have found to be a most fitting partner in my unique adventure of pursuing Wisdom. And by this I mean, not merely that she helps me in my studies (which she does very much, but that would be a poor reason to marry her!), but that, more than any other person I know, I have been able to share with her a life that is in pursuit of the best things, the noblest virtues, and contemplation itself. The last year of experience, in the context of a loving relationship discerning the possibility of marriage, has taught me a great deal about power of persons to transform life, to transform love, and to order it to the One who is Good. In perhaps the most important way, this is the very reason why I hope to marry the woman who is now my fiancé: in her I have discovered a common good - the common Good, and our love for each other has grown to define itself as a shared love of the Good. Of course, we still have much more growing to do, to an overwhelming degree. But this is, in a way, what marriage is for: it is one of God's chosen and most intimate ways of bringing persons together so that, by loving each other in Him, they may sanctify each other in being the vehicles through which they love God Himself more and more. 

Who are the persons involved? Of course, the man and woman are the most obvious. As a couple - the first of all multitudes - they discover their ability to share their lives to the greatest degree, and in the noblest degree, for the love of God. But of course, this therefore involves the person(s) of God in an intimate way as well: God loves His own Goodness most of all, because He is supereminent Goodness and Love Itself. All our love can only be a participation of His, for He is the principle and end of all true love. God is not merely the first and highest object of love; He is the principle of love, both the final and the agent cause, and first in both lines of causality. No love is possible if it is not both directed to Him as the final end, and rooted in Him as the first agent. In any human relationship, the human persons involved realize their greatest dignity as lovers only when they realize their status as secondary causes (both agent and final) in an order than transcends them both. Only the person of God is both first and last in the order of love.

Another person is involved, and that is the person of the child brought forth as the fruit of the marriage bond. In a remarkable way, the child of a marriage resembles God by dint of having the character of the common good. A few days ago, we celebrated the feast of the Holy Family, which is somehow the archetype of every family. In a discussion with my dear fiancee about the mystery of the day, I reflected on the fact that in the Holy Family, the child is none other than God Himself, the absolute and highest common good. Thus, I realized that every child is a symbol of God in this way, as the common good for which the parents share their love; the final cause of the parents' love; that which is most sacred and most divine about the marriage bond. The procreation of offspring is the first and primary of the ends of marriage, not over and against the union of the spouses, but as its very purpose and meaning. The birth and nourishment of a child, born in the image and likeness of God, is ultimately what makes the love and fidelity of the spouses meaningful and beautiful. Every love of persons for each other is made more beautiful by its common ordering to a common good, which reflects back upon the love itself and makes it more beautiful in its own right. In marriage, the common good, in the image of God is found in a concrete way first in the child, whose role in the family is thus most of all divine.

My fiancee and I have often found all of the above - principally the truth of love in relation to the common good - to be confirmed by our own experience together, in both the big and the smallest ways. We are indeed happiest, in some sense - in the most desirable, if not always the most obvious sense - when there is something beyond us, some third thing, some common good, in the enjoyment of which we may together participate. (It is, of course, important that we participate together, and not just happen to enjoy the same thing.) The common good is instantiated and encountered in many ways and in many different contexts - in children, in other persons, in philosophizing, in the contemplation occasioned by the arts of cooking, in classical music, in natural scenery, in prayer, and in the liturgy of the Church - and the list goes on. It is easy for persons in love to become heavily absorbed with themselves and each other, and to look no further. It is good, of course, for persons to love both others and themselves; but to become absorbed in oneself closes one off to the goodness of another; and moreover, for a couple - self and another - to become absorbed in themselves as a couple-unit, like the two halves of Aristophanes' two-faced spherical people in the Symposium, to the exclusion of the goodness of something other than the both of them, is to be closed off to the common Good. A romantic relationship is particularly prone to this temptation of enclosure with one another, in which the otherness of the common Good is forgotten, and the partners see only themselves and each other and nothing else. My beloved and I have found it important to look for other things besides ourselves, in order to keep our love open, holy, and pure. It is important to have good and beautiful things in life; in them, one finds the good instantiated. By cooking together, reading together, walking together through rolling hills, catching a sunset, or having some sort of activity to do together, we let our love for each other stretch itself by little increments towards the Good which is most common - straining to see more and more clearly the sunlight that is the Good itself.

I am happy to be embarking on this journey to the sunlight of the Good with another person. Although a philosopher is, supposedly, the most self-sufficient of any man, according to Aristotle (and I doubt whether this is true of me), there are few things more desirable than making the philosophic journey with another like-minded soul. This is proper to all virtuous friendships, of course; but inasmuch as in the relationship of marriage, there is such an intimate union for the sake of a common good, it seems to me that marriage is in some way an archetype of human friendships.* I have always been something of a romantic (although also, in my lesser moments, a calculative rationalist). My personality is somewhat introverted, my temperament melancholic; I think of myself as a rather private, solitary soul. A few years ago I would have preferred my own company to that of the friends I tried to make, but never seemed to get anywhere with. More recently, however, I have begun to appreciate more the value of friendship, inasmuch as I have begun to see how true friendship is built on contemplation itself, which is most highly valued by a solitary soul such as mine (either because I am melancholic or because I am a philosopher...). One of my favorite poems - which I once shared with my beloved near the dawn of our relationship - is a short sonnet on Solitude by John Keats, in which he praises solitude but begs to be able to share his solitary contemplation with a like-minded soul; and this is the root of their love:

O Solitude! if I must with thee dwell,
Let it not be among the jumbled heap
Of murky buildings; climb with me the steep,—
Nature’s observatory—whence the dell,
Its flowery slopes, its river’s crystal swell,
May seem a span; let me thy vigils keep
’Mongst boughs pavillion’d, where the deer’s swift leap
Startles the wild bee from the fox-glove bell.
But though I’ll gladly trace these scenes with thee,
Yet the sweet converse of an innocent mind,
Whose words are images of thoughts refin’d,
Is my soul’s pleasure; and it sure must be
Almost the highest bliss of human-kind,
When to thy haunts two kindred spirits flee.

Keats may not have been thinking of marriage here, I do not know... But I read this poem and I think of married love, as the archetype of shared contemplative love, par excellence. Few things are sweeter to me than the image of two lovers who together turn themselves towards beautiful things.

Jon and Greta
Christmas, 2017

*I have seen some controversy sometimes over the question of whether spouses ought to be "best friends." I can understand the sentiment of those who would answer nay, but at the same time, I see in marriage something which other friendships seem to have in a lesser degree, namely the intimacy of union in common love of a common good. Friendships may have this more or less; the degree of intimacy in which married spouses are united, for love of their children, is almost predetermined by the nature of that relationship, as a kind of archetype. This is, however, my own speculation on the matter... Anyone may challenge me on it.

Saturday, 16 December 2017

On the Identity of the Knower and the Known (2)

Edmund Husserl

In my studies of the phenomenology of Edmund Husserl, I have been struggling with the all-too-infamous question of whether Husserl falls within the realist or the idealist camp. It is a vexing question - and I don't yet know Husserl enough to settle it. Husserl makes what appears to be a realist move against Immanuel Kant by eliminating the radical separation between the subject and the object, in which Kant posited "objects" that were so mind-independent as to be inherent unknowable. This was an absurdity, for Husserl. So the eliminated the distinction - not necessarily eliminating the subject and the object themselves, but eliminating their absolute independence from each other. The question is whether this makes objects immanent to the consciousness of the subject, whether mind-dependence entails idealism, in the sense that the independent existence or subsistence of objects is ruled out, and objects are made into mere moments of consciousness itself - or, to think of it in another way, whether subject and objected are constituted by relation to each other, thus making the category of relation prior, in a sense, to substantiality. Husserl is by no means a relativist, certainly; objects are not creations of the mind. Nonetheless, the question of their ontological status remains. Does his radical affirmation of the intentionality of the subject entail that the ontological status of the object is somehow conditioned by a subjective mode of existence? Does it have its own actuality, outside the mind, or is it only actual in the mind?

In a way, this question cannot be answered simply. Even for Aristotle, one might speak of a very qualified sense of idealism insofar as the intelligible as such only exists in the mind. This is why Aristotle asserts, following a tradition that originates in the pre-Socratics, that knowledge is essentially a sort of identity of the knower and the known, in respect to the form or species of the thing known. Even in sensation, there is identity at least to the degree that the sensible species is impressed upon the sensory faculty; although as actually sensible the object exists apart from the subject, unlike the intelligible, which exists actually only in the intellect itself. So it seems that for intellectual and sensitive cognition, the object is more or less within and more or less outside the subject. The principle that knower and known are identical is true to a greater and lesser degree, in intellectual and sensitive beings respectively. In this sense, even Aristotle's realism admits of a certain measure of idealism, if the latter be taken to refer very broadly to the belief that that which is known is in the mind of the knower. 

But this is itself an ambiguity: idealism may mean many things. Usually, it is associated with a kind of skepticism about the possibility of knowing mind-independent objects. This is, again, exemplified by Kant, following the British Empiricists (especially Berkeley and Hume). For these thinkers, the mind is capable only of knowing itself; all that is outside the mind is, by that very fact, unknowable in principle. The mind knows its own ideas, it cannot know things. This is fundamentally incompatible with Aristotle's realism, which asserts that the mind knows things, though it knows them through its ideas in some way. But again, I would contend that perhaps there is a distinct, though related sense of idealism which may be attributed to Aristotle, that is not to the detriment of his realism, insofar as the species of things, as the media of the mind's (or the sense's) cognition, are the very things themselves existing according to the mode of being of the mind (or the sense). The knower becomes the known, in respect to the form or species of the latter. In other words, this is just to reassert that knowledge is the identity of the knower and the known: the more a thing is known, the more it exists as an "idea." This is certainly an ambiguous word, but I take it to mean simply a immanent moment of subjectivity, rather than an external and physical object in space and time. In this sense, the Empiricists may indeed have been on to something; but error usually comes by way of the emphasis of one side of an issue, at the expense of the neglect of another. 

I note, in accordance with my previous post, that a pure idealism is only appropriate (from an Aristotelian-Thomistic point of view, but also somehow Platonic - more on this later) when speaking of God. In other words, only in God are the knower and the known perfectly and indistinguishably identical. There is a tendency among the moderns that manifests itself in various ways, which is to ascribe to human knowledge a mode of knowing that is more properly attributable only to divine knowledge. Perhaps the modern trends of idealism are one instance of this tendency. God knows by an operation that is perfectly immanent and intransitive; God does not go outside of Himself in order to know, but rather He is Himself the eternal and self-sufficient Concept or Idea by which He knows. All that He knows is contained in Him according to His own perfect mode of existence. For God, to be is to be known, and to be is to know. God is His own intellect, His own concept, His own object, and His own act of understanding. God is perfectly interior to Himself. Modern idealism tries to ascribe to human knowing a degree of interiority that cannot belong to man (though it is not metaphysically consistent). It is Berkeley who famously says that to be is to be perceived. The being of things, as man perceives them, is no more than their being perceived by him; they exist only as his perceptions, or as his ideas. The object exists in no way apart from the perceiving subject, but it is wholly interior to the subject, in a way that Aquinas would say could only be true of that Being who is His own act and object of knowing.

The proper balance between idealism and realism can only be found, from a Thomistic point of view, by recognizing that the identity of knower and known comes only in distinct grades of hierarchy. Idealism, as a description of a mode of knowing, is less true of creatures than of God, for the more creaturely is the mode of knowing, the less identical is the subject with its object, and its act of knowing. The more creaturely is the mode of knowing, the more ecstatic it is, because the more must it emanate outside of itself - it is more transitive and external in its proper operation.

(Note: Ecstasy is a going-out-of-oneself, but one that necessarily retains an interiority of a properly spiritual nature. I think sensation is not properly ecstatic - perhaps analogously - because although it is a going-out-of-oneself, it has not the interiority of spirit. Non-sensate beings are even more exterior to themselves, precisely because they lack cognition altogether; and consequently their exteriority - mere physical separation - is in no way ecstatic, properly speaking. Ecstasy is the exteriority of interiority precisely as interior; where there is no interiority, there is no ecstasy. And yet where interiority is perfect and pure, as it is in God, again there is no ecstasy, because God is His own object and His own activity, which is thus entirely intransitive.)

What does this have to do with Husserlian phenomenology and the doctrine of intentionality? I am not sure... But it certainly provides a metaphysical framework within which alone any phenomenological claims about the relationality of subject and object must be properly situated. Husserl's project to provide a phenomenological description that is universal - that is, equally applicable to gods and men (he claims) - seems quite implausible to me, given a Thomistic metaphysical framework. If it were a pure sort of idealism, it could only apply to God; if it were only a partial idealism, it could only apply to something less than God - for God does not know in parts. 

Thursday, 14 December 2017

Note on the Identity of the Knower and the Known

A theme that is showing up in my recent studies of Plato, Neoplatonism, Aristotle, Thomas Aquinas, Charles DeKoninck, and Edmund Husserl: the identity of the knower and the known; or in other words, at least the intimate relationality of the knower and the known. Husserl is trying to eliminate the radical distinction between subject and object that was put forward by Kant, and which effectively makes knowledge imposssible. Husserl wants to make knowledge possible again by somehow bringing objects, in their very objectivity, into the sphere of subjectivity. How this is like and unlike Aristotle and Aquinas is a complicated question; it is difficult to see whether Husserl winds up forgetting or discarding the independent actuality of objects as beings; for Aristotle and Aquinas, things are knowable objects precisely in virtue of being in actuality, and the more actual they are, the more knowable they are in principle (though perhaps less knowable to us); and the more actual, the more subsistent and independent is their being. So it is confusing trying to square Husserl's insistence on the relationality of subject and object with Aristotle and Aquinas's insistence on the subsistence of objects, precisely by virtue of which they are knowable to a knowing subject. Nonetheless, Husserl's instinct is profoundly realist, and indeed Aristotelian, since Aristotle too asserts that knowledge is in some way the union of the knower and the known; knowledge comes to be insofar as the object enters into the immanent subjectivity of the knower, forming his intellect according to its own form and structure, but also being formed in its own way according to the intelligibility of the intellect itself; they enter into relation with each other.

Plato, likewise - as interpreted by Neoplatonists such as Plotinus (not as interpreted by many moderns) - posits an identity of Intellect and intelligible, in some sense. Knowledge in the ideal sense is precisely this identity - not a going out of oneself to some external object, but a profoundly interior self-reflection. Thus, the divine Intellect - the demiurge - is, for Plato, the locus of the Forms; indeed, it is itself the Forms. This is the Neoplatonic interpretation, at least. Moreover, this is the basis for the meaning of the myth of recollection and reincarnation in Plato's dialogues, in particular the Meno and the Phaedo. I am fascinated by the idea that Platonic reincarnation is not a doctrine, but a myth meant to symbolize a deeper truth about knowledge. Plotinus takes it to mean that knowledge is a matter of plunging the depths of one's own mind, to find the seeds of all truth hidden there, in the vestiges of the divine Intellect from one has fallen. The divine Intellect is the place of the Forms; and the individual human intellect is nothing other than a participation in this Intellect, therefore having within itself, from the beginning, the seeds of all knowledge. This conception of intellect is, in its essentials, Aristotle's own conception of the divine Intellect, the first mover, which he describes as "thought thinking itself," although, for complicated but fascinating reasons, Aristotle would not extend this simply to the human mode of knowing, as Plotinus and Plato would appear to do. Nonetheless there are important similarities; and the Platonic-Plotinian insight that knowledge is the identity of knower and known is also present in Aristotle.

So, there are lots of subtle similarities and subtle differences between all of these thinkers, and it is hard to nail it all down. It seems true to me to say that, in an ideal sense, knowledge is most properly an immanent activity, a self-reflection and self-contemplation, beginning and terminating the interiority of the self, self-identity of subject and object. Aquinas teaches that God is His own intellect, His own object, and His own act of understanding. Everything about knowledge, in God, is identical. All other created forms of knowing are participations in this way of knowing, grades of approaching this full identity of knower, knowing, and known. But they are also grades of falling-short of this full identity. (See also DeKoninck on the deduction of the infra-angelic universe.) Angels, in ascending hierarchical order, are more and more adequate unto themselves to represent to themselves the scope of their knowledge; they know by fewer concepts, the closer they are to God, and thus they are closer and closer to being identical with the very species by which they know. No angel is indeed the species by which it knows, but it approaches this identity as a limit. Every angel still receives its species-concepts from God; its knowledge is still, to this degree, ecstatic, because it is dependent on something external. Below the angels, there is man; his knowledge too is a mode of identity of intellect and the intelligible; but man more than angels must go outside himself. His object is not innate, as in the angel; it is not identical to himself from the very dawn of his intellectual life, except only potentially. He achieves this identity only by first going outside of himself and performing the feat of abstraction. And even the identity which achieves is a lesser identity than that possessed from the beginning of an angel's intellectual life: the angel is devoid of matter, so it lacks the composition by which man is not completely identical to himself, and thus, neither completely identical to his intelligible objects. Man achieves a partial identity to the intelligible only in what is itself a part of himself, namely his intellect; as a material being he remains separated from himself and from his object. At the level of sensation, this identity is severed at yet another level; for, lacking immateriality, all animal operations involve a greater procession towards the outside. Action is less and less immanent, and more and more transitive. And where all cognition and life is lacking, things are separated by absolute discontinuity.

There are levels of act and potency. God is pure Act, and it is on account of this that all the moments of His knowledge are identical. An angel is composed of act and potency, with a distinction of essence and existence; thus, the identity with its object which an angel possesses is already merely partial. Man is composed not only of essence and existence, but his essence is composed of form and matter. The more a being is composed of act and potency, the lesser is its identity with itself, and the lesser is the identity of its cognition with its object; and at the lowest level of being, where act is most of all limited by potency, there is no cognition, there is the least degree of self-hood and self-identity. 

Tuesday, 5 December 2017

Prayers Requested for Thomas Aquinas College and Ventura County

A photo, taken last night, of the "Thomas Fire" sweeping over
the hills near Santa Paula and Ventura, in Southern CA. 

Last night, a wildfire popped up about a mile south of my Alma Mater, Thomas Aquinas College, in Southern California. The fire exploded overnight, due to extremely heavy winds, and now covers an area of more than 31,000 acres - it is still uncontained. Named after the college, the fire is now being referred to by the media as the "Thomas Fire." There is a giant wall of fire stretching over ten miles from Thomas Aquinas College, in Santa Paula, to the Pacific beaches of the city of Ventura. Thousands of homes have been evacuated, thousands destroyed, thousands of people (including many dear friends of mine) are currently homeless. If you are a prayerful person and you are reading this, your prayers for this wonderful little Catholic, Liberal Arts college, and for the community surrounding it, and for the thousands of people who inhabit Ventura County, would be much appreciated. 

I have had a home destroyed by fire once, although in a much less dramatic way than is taking place now in beautiful Ventura County. The current flames which are swallowing up one of the most beautiful areas on the planet are even more potent reminder of the last days, on which I have reflected before. Everything on this earth shall pass away in flames one day. But such will be only a temporal flame, no matter how violently it rages. Everything will be subjected to purgatory on the last day. May God preserve us in that day - and may he preserve the people of Ventura County now.

Monday, 4 December 2017

Saved by Accident

In a couple of previous posts (here and here), I wrote about form as that principle in things which commands an attitude of reverence. It is perhaps an unusual way of thinking about form, but I think it is very grounded in traditional philosophy, from Plato and Aristotle, to Aquinas and Richard Weaver. In the second post, I briefly mentioned the issue of accidental and artistic forms in relation to reverence. Today I am thinking about this issue again, with some more detail. I think it is an important issue, that has not been much written about, as far as I know; but I think deserves some attention, and possibly some more development in its metaphysics.

This is a question which I think can be raised, for example, when liturgical ritual is brought into the picture, as it was in my other post. Ritual involves forms that are predominantly accidental perhaps not all of its forms, but certainly a great many of them. The interpretation of symbols in religious ritual is largely based on merely accidental qualities possessed by certain objects of nature. Ritual itself, moreover, seems to be an accidental sort of unity, possessing an accidental form that is the result of a kind of art.

But this does not apply only to ritual, in the strict sense in which it applies to liturgical worship. It applies also to an enormous scope of traditional, political, and cultural forms, all of which are artificial in some way, the practical results of human reason and creativity. A particularly poignant way in which man expresses the image of God in which he is made is by means of art, in which he reaps the fruit of his contemplation and applies his intellect to the task of bestowing form upon matter. The love of beauty in nature gives rise to the inclination to reproduce it by art, and the same reverence which is rendered towards natural beauty is given likewise to art forms which seem to replicate, sometimes even elevate, that beauty. Art is the result of the reverence for form, of which beauty is the splendor; and the artwork itself becomes a thing of beauty, whose form is splendorous, and worthy of reverence.

Politics and culture are essentially matters of accidental forms. Human society is an accidental unity. Governments are accidental forms, largely structured according to what is, at first sight, a mere  human convention. Patterns and customs of behavior, standards of polite manners, rules of economics and trades, etc., are all accidental forms, apparently constructed by arbitrary conventions. So much seems arbitrary, that one might begin to think that the conservative project to elevate rules and laws and customs and traditions seems doomed from the start.

One might even base this objection on traditional metaphysics: it seems more fitting that substantial form, and not accidental form, should be the primary object of reverence; for it is substanceand not accidents, which, in Aristotle's metaphysics, primarily exemplifies the meaning of being itselfAccidents are beings only secondarily, i.e. in dependence upon substance. Hence, it seems that substantial, more than accidental, forms are deserving of our reverence; and it seems unfitting that an instance of, not merely accidental, but also artificial forms, namely the liturgy, should be the occasion for the highest degree of reverence.

This sort of objection is, I think, not unexpected, though it appears in various forms. In general, I have noticed a kind of dismissive attitude, in simple academic discussions of form, towards accidental and artificial forms. Oftentimes an artificial (and hence accidental) form - such as "chair-ness" - is used as an example of form in general, but then it is quickly dismissed as somewhat unimportant compared to what is really the issue: natural and substantial forms. I think this is related (perhaps not identical) to the general disregard for forms that seems to mark contemporary political and cultural discourse. It is really a certain irreverence for forms that lies at the basis of the modernist contempt for tradition and high culture, and the sheer thirst for novelty and autonomy for its own sake. Especially since these things, tradition and culture, seem to be instances of artificial forms arbitrarily imposed upon individuals, it seems not unfitting that they be thrown off as unnecessary. So the question now is this: why is reverence due to forms that are accidental and artificial? Or, perhaps, is the "traditionalist" demand for reverence simply exaggerated and disproportionate to the lesser status in terms of being that belongs to such forms? They are, after all, "merely accidental"...

I respond that accidental forms are very often a kind of outward expression of the very essences of things, by which they have their substance. That is to say, there are accidents which, though accidents, nonetheless belong to things in virtue of "flowing forth" from the essence itself, as a kind of sign of it. Indeed, St. Thomas notes, rather surprisingly for an Aristotelian, that "even in the case of sensible things, the essential differences themselves are not known; whence they are signified through accidental differences which rise out of the essential ones, as a cause is signified through its effect; this is what is done when biped, for example, is given as the difference of man" (De Ente et Essentia, 5). Which is immediately to say that just because something is "merely accidental," it does not follow that it is unimportant, merely arbitrary, or easily disregarded. On the contrary: we know essences themselves only through their proper accidents. Accidents are signs and symbols of the essences from which they properly flow forth, as expressive perfections of them.

Accordingly, it is quite irrational to posit an opposition between what is natural about man and what is accidental and "artificial" about human society. Just because human society - and consequently, human government - is an accidental and artificial unity, it does not follow that it is therefore alien to human nature. On the contrary: man is by nature a political animal; and thus by nature people tends to come together in society with his fellow man, forming families and villages and cities for the sake of living and of living well, in shared pursuit of the common good. In a similar way, art is not necessarily something alien to nature simply because it is merely artificial. On the contrary: art imitates nature, and it is moreover a specifically human virtue proper to man according to his nature as a rational animal. The virtuous practice of art is thus the true expression of human nature, something flowing forth from the very substance of the artist as man. 

This objection reminds me of an objection which Charles DeKoninck addresses in On the Primacy of the Common Good Against the Personalists. DeKoninck identifies the intrinsic common good of the universe, and thus of all political societies, as peace or order, which is in fact a kind of accidental unity, an accidental form. The objector proposes the objection that it seems more fitting that the highest good should pertain, not to the unity of an accidental form, but to the unity of a substantial form, because substance is more properly being, and thus things are more noble according as they are more perfectly substances. Thus, the highest good should rather be the good of the individual substance, as opposed to the common good of an accidental unity, such as the whole cosmos or a political society. DeKoninck responds quoting St. Thomas:
It is because of its substantial being that each thing is said to be absolutely (simpliciter); whereas it is because of acts added over and above the substance that a thing is said to be in a certain respect (secundum quid).... But the good has the notion of perfection, which is desirable, and consequently it has the notion of end. That is why the being which possesses its ultimate perfection is said to be good absolutely speaking; but the being which does not possess the ultimate perfection which belongs to it, even though it has a certain perfection from the fact that it is in act, is not nonetheless said to be perfect absolutely speaking, nor good absolutely, but rather in a certain respect. (Summa Theologiae, (Ia, q.5, a.1, ad.1)

The proper goodness of things, in other words, is expressed only through accidents. Being and the Good are convertible, indeed, but they are said according to different rationes. Hence, what is being simply speaking is good in a qualified sense; whereas what is good simply speaking is, as such, being only in a qualified sense. 

The final cause, the cause of all causes, is first in intention but last in execution. It is attained only at the end, in a manner that is extrinsic, as it were, to the being or substance of a thing, though it proceeds from within. The attainment of the final cause, the final union with it, for the sake of which a being exists, towards which it is wholly and entirely oriented - this is something "merely accidental." Union with the end is a perfection that is added to the being of a thing. It is not essential to it. Nonetheless, it is its proper perfection - certainly in a way that is determined by the inner substance of the thing, as an actuality is only the actuality of a specific potency. A particular being has specific potencies for specific actualities - i.e. for specific perfections. The attainment of these perfections is indeed desired by the thing according to its own, inner, substantial nature. But the attainment of the end is not itself the substantial nature of the thing. The attainment of the end is an accident of the being that attains the end.

Especially is this true of man, for whom, above all other creatures (besides the angels), his perfection comes from outside of him (although, again more than all other creatures, the potency for this perfection is indeed within him); and he must proceed from within himself towards what is outside, transcendent, Other, in order to be united to the Good, which is his own good. The attainment of perfection is a matter of ecstasy, which is going outside of oneself. A human person is not a subsistent relation; but he is saved only by entering into a relation.

Man is saved by accidents. Virtues are accidents of the soul. Knowledge is an accident of the soul. Grace is an accident of the soul. The light of glory is an accident of the soul. The Church is an accidental unity. The forms of the Sacraments are accidental unities. We are united to our neighbors in an accidental unity, by the virtue of charity. Our own attainment of our final end, union with God Himself, is an accident of the soul. Suddenly, contrary to all of our initial intuitions, the best and most important things in life come to us in the form of accidents; suddenly we owe the most reverence to things which are accidental - second only to what we owe to God. Without all these accidental things, human life would not only be utterly pale, boring, minimalistic, and iconoclastic; it would also be destined only for death. 

Saturday, 2 December 2017

Phaedo 96a-102a and the Platonic Project

In the painting, The Death of Socrates,
Jacque-Louis David depicts Socrates pointing upwards,
towards the realm of metaphysics, as Raphael likewise
depicted Plato in the School of Athens. 

Giovanni Reale refers to this passage of the Phaedo, 96a-102a, as the summary of the entire project of Platonic philosophy, and more broadly of all of traditional Western Metaphysics, in which Platonism manifests itself as the "perennial philosophy." The Platonic project is essentially the resolution of all sciences to the first philosophy, or metaphysics - or the resolution of all reality back to the first and supersensible causes. (Note: broadly speaking, this is also the project of Aristotelian philosophy. Even if Aristotle is more respectful than Plato towards the natural sciences, Aristotle nonetheless recognizes the need to refer the natural sciences back to metaphysics and the account of separate substances as the first causes of all things. Without metaphysics, human knowledge is incomplete. On the surface, Plato and Aristotle may seem to disagree about the nature of the separate substances; but at least in terms of the general project of philosophy, Aristotle is both an inheritor and a teacher of Platonic philosophy.)

From the Phaedo, the Magna Carta of Platonic philosophy:
When I was young, Cebes, I had a prodigious desire to know that department of philosophy which is called the investigation of nature; to know the causes of things, and why a thing is and is created or destroyed appeared to me to be a lofty profession; and I was always agitating myself with the consideration of questions such as these:—Is the growth of animals the result of some decay which the hot and cold principle contracts, as some have said? Is the blood the element with which we think, or the air, or the fire? or perhaps nothing of the kind—but the brain may be the originating power of the perceptions of hearing and sight and smell, and memory and opinion may come from them, and science may be based on memory and opinion when they have attained fixity. And then I went on to examine the corruption of them, and then to the things of heaven and earth, and at last I concluded myself to be utterly and absolutely incapable of these enquiries, as I will satisfactorily prove to you. For I was fascinated by them to such a degree that my eyes grew blind to things which I had seemed to myself, and also to others, to know quite well; I forgot what I had before thought self-evident truths; e.g. such a fact as that the growth of man is the result of eating and drinking; for when by the digestion of food flesh is added to flesh and bone to bone, and whenever there is an aggregation of congenial elements, the lesser bulk becomes larger and the small man great. Was not that a reasonable notion?
Yes, said Cebes, I think so.
Well; but let me tell you something more. There was a time when I thought that I understood the meaning of greater and less pretty well; and when I saw a great man standing by a little one, I fancied that one was taller than the other by a head; or one horse would appear to be greater than another horse: and still more clearly did I seem to perceive that ten is two more than eight, and that two cubits are more than one, because two is the double of one.
And what is now your notion of such matters? said Cebes.
I should be far enough from imagining, he replied, that I knew the cause of any of them, by heaven I should; for I cannot satisfy myself that, when one is added to one, the one to which the addition is made becomes two, or that the two units added together make two by reason of the addition. I cannot understand how, when separated from the other, each of them was one and not two, and now, when they are brought together, the mere juxtaposition or meeting of them should be the cause of their becoming two: neither can I understand how the division of one is the way to make two; for then a different cause would produce the same effect,—as in the former instance the addition and juxtaposition of one to one was the cause of two, in this the separation and subtraction of one from the other would be the cause. Nor am I any longer satisfied that I understand the reason why one or anything else is either generated or destroyed or is at all, but I have in my mind some confused notion of a new method, and can never admit the other.
Then I heard some one reading, as he said, from a book of Anaxagoras, that mind was the disposer and cause of all, and I was delighted at this notion, which appeared quite admirable, and I said to myself: If mind is the disposer, mind will dispose all for the best, and put each particular in the best place; and I argued that if any one desired to find out the cause of the generation or destruction or existence of anything, he must find out what state of being or doing or suffering was best for that thing, and therefore a man had only to consider the best for himself and others, and then he would also know the worse, since the same science comprehended both. And I rejoiced to think that I had found in Anaxagoras a teacher of the causes of existence such as I desired, and I imagined that he would tell me first whether the earth is flat or round; and whichever was true, he would proceed to explain the cause and the necessity of this being so, and then he would teach me the nature of the best and show that this was best; and if he said that the earth was in the centre, he would further explain that this position was the best, and I should be satisfied with the explanation given, and not want any other sort of cause. And I thought that I would then go on and ask him about the sun and moon and stars, and that he would explain to me their comparative swiftness, and their returnings and various states, active and passive, and how all of them were for the best. For I could not imagine that when he spoke of mind as the disposer of them, he would give any other account of their being as they are, except that this was best; and I thought that when he had explained to me in detail the cause of each and the cause of all, he would go on to explain to me what was best for each and what was good for all. These hopes I would not have sold for a large sum of money, and I seized the books and read them as fast as I could in my eagerness to know the better and the worse.
What expectations I had formed, and how grievously was I disappointed! As I proceeded, I found my philosopher altogether forsaking mind or any other principle of order, but having recourse to air, and ether, and water, and other eccentricities. I might compare him to a person who began by maintaining generally that mind is the cause of the actions of Socrates, but who, when he endeavoured to explain the causes of my several actions in detail, went on to show that I sit here because my body is made up of bones and muscles; and the bones, as he would say, are hard and have joints which divide them, and the muscles are elastic, and they cover the bones, which have also a covering or environment of flesh and skin which contains them; and as the bones are lifted at their joints by the contraction or relaxation of the muscles, I am able to bend my limbs, and this is why I am sitting here in a curved posture—that is what he would say, and he would have a similar explanation of my talking to you, which he would attribute to sound, and air, and hearing, and he would assign ten thousand other causes of the same sort, forgetting to mention the true cause, which is, that the Athenians have thought fit to condemn me, and accordingly I have thought it better and more right to remain here and undergo my sentence; for I am inclined to think that these muscles and bones of mine would have gone off long ago to Megara or Boeotia—by the dog they would, if they had been moved only by their own idea of what was best, and if I had not chosen the better and nobler part, instead of playing truant and running away, of enduring any punishment which the state inflicts. There is surely a strange confusion of causes and conditions in all this. It may be said, indeed, that without bones and muscles and the other parts of the body I cannot execute my purposes. But to say that I do as I do because of them, and that this is the way in which mind acts, and not from the choice of the best, is a very careless and idle mode of speaking. I wonder that they cannot distinguish the cause from the condition, which the many, feeling about in the dark, are always mistaking and misnaming. And thus one man makes a vortex all round and steadies the earth by the heaven; another gives the air as a support to the earth, which is a sort of broad trough. Any power which in arranging them as they are arranges them for the best never enters into their minds; and instead of finding any superior strength in it, they rather expect to discover another Atlas of the world who is stronger and more everlasting and more containing than the good;—of the obligatory and containing power of the good they think nothing; and yet this is the principle which I would fain learn if any one would teach me. But as I have failed either to discover myself, or to learn of any one else, the nature of the best, I will exhibit to you, if you like, what I have found to be the second best mode of enquiring into the cause.
I should very much like to hear, he replied.
Socrates proceeded:—I thought that as I had failed in the contemplation of true existence, I ought to be careful that I did not lose the eye of my soul; as people may injure their bodily eye by observing and gazing on the sun during an eclipse, unless they take the precaution of only looking at the image reflected in the water, or in some similar medium. So in my own case, I was afraid that my soul might be blinded altogether if I looked at things with my eyes or tried to apprehend them by the help of the senses. And I thought that I had better have recourse to the world of mind and seek there the truth of existence. I dare say that the simile is not perfect—for I am very far from admitting that he who contemplates existences through the medium of thought, sees them only 'through a glass darkly,' any more than he who considers them in action and operation. However, this was the method which I adopted: I first assumed some principle which I judged to be the strongest, and then I affirmed as true whatever seemed to agree with this, whether relating to the cause or to anything else; and that which disagreed I regarded as untrue. But I should like to explain my meaning more clearly, as I do not think that you as yet understand me.
No indeed, replied Cebes, not very well.
There is nothing new, he said, in what I am about to tell you; but only what I have been always and everywhere repeating in the previous discussion and on other occasions: I want to show you the nature of that cause which has occupied my thoughts. I shall have to go back to those familiar words which are in the mouth of every one, and first of all assume that there is an absolute beauty and goodness and greatness, and the like; grant me this, and I hope to be able to show you the nature of the cause, and to prove the immortality of the soul.
Cebes said: You may proceed at once with the proof, for I grant you this.
Well, he said, then I should like to know whether you agree with me in the next step; for I cannot help thinking, if there be anything beautiful other than absolute beauty should there be such, that it can be beautiful only in as far as it partakes of absolute beauty—and I should say the same of everything. Do you agree in this notion of the cause?
Yes, he said, I agree.
He proceeded: I know nothing and can understand nothing of any other of those wise causes which are alleged; and if a person says to me that the bloom of colour, or form, or any such thing is a source of beauty, I leave all that, which is only confusing to me, and simply and singly, and perhaps foolishly, hold and am assured in my own mind that nothing makes a thing beautiful but the presence and participation of beauty in whatever way or manner obtained; for as to the manner I am uncertain, but I stoutly contend that by beauty all beautiful things become beautiful. This appears to me to be the safest answer which I can give, either to myself or to another, and to this I cling, in the persuasion that this principle will never be overthrown, and that to myself or to any one who asks the question, I may safely reply, That by beauty beautiful things become beautiful. Do you not agree with me?
I do.
And that by greatness only great things become great and greater greater, and by smallness the less become less?
Then if a person were to remark that A is taller by a head than B, and B less by a head than A, you would refuse to admit his statement, and would stoutly contend that what you mean is only that the greater is greater by, and by reason of, greatness, and the less is less only by, and by reason of, smallness; and thus you would avoid the danger of saying that the greater is greater and the less less by the measure of the head, which is the same in both, and would also avoid the monstrous absurdity of supposing that the greater man is greater by reason of the head, which is small. You would be afraid to draw such an inference, would you not?
Indeed, I should, said Cebes, laughing.
In like manner you would be afraid to say that ten exceeded eight by, and by reason of, two; but would say by, and by reason of, number; or you would say that two cubits exceed one cubit not by a half, but by magnitude?-for there is the same liability to error in all these cases.
Very true, he said.
Again, would you not be cautious of affirming that the addition of one to one, or the division of one, is the cause of two? And you would loudly asseverate that you know of no way in which anything comes into existence except by participation in its own proper essence, and consequently, as far as you know, the only cause of two is the participation in duality—this is the way to make two, and the participation in one is the way to make one. You would say: I will let alone puzzles of division and addition—wiser heads than mine may answer them; inexperienced as I am, and ready to start, as the proverb says, at my own shadow, I cannot afford to give up the sure ground of a principle. And if any one assails you there, you would not mind him, or answer him, until you had seen whether the consequences which follow agree with one another or not, and when you are further required to give an explanation of this principle, you would go on to assume a higher principle, and a higher, until you found a resting-place in the best of the higher; but you would not confuse the principle and the consequences in your reasoning, like the Eristics—at least if you wanted to discover real existence. Not that this confusion signifies to them, who never care or think about the matter at all, for they have the wit to be well pleased with themselves however great may be the turmoil of their ideas. But you, if you are a philosopher, will certainly do as I say.

Tuesday, 28 November 2017

Syrianus in Response to Aristotle

Today I am thinking about some of Aristotle's objections to the Platonic theory of Forms, and the response to these objections that is given by the late Neoplatonist, Syrianus. What is notable about Syrianus' response is that he seems to employ Aristotle's own concept of focal predication to refute the latter's objections. While Syrianus' refutation of Aristotle is quite polemical and heavy-handed at times, Syrianus clearly has a great deal of respect for Aristotle. One might describe his dialogue with Aristotle as an attempt to bring Aristotle back into line with what he views as the essential tradition of Platonism. His correction of Aristotle is thus not absolute; rather, by his correction of Aristotle he attempts to show that Platonism is indeed compatible with the most fundamental principles of Aristotelian philosophy, despite Aristotle's own failure to recognize this compatibility. 

Aristotle's arguments are presented in a few places. In Book A chapter 9 of Metaphysics, he summarizes some of his most important arguments; and Book M contains a parallel rewritten version of these same arguments. Aristotle's arguments are founded on the presupposition of a dichotomy of absolute univocity versus absolute equivocity – i.e. synonymy versus homonymy – between the Forms and their instances. To recall the theory of Forms, Plato posits the Forms as the exemplars of their particular instances, such that this individual man is only said to be a man by virtue of the Form of Man itself; or the beautiful is said to be beautiful only in virtue of the Beautiful itself. Aristotle is presupposing that the term "beautiful" is said either univocally or equivocally of both the Form and its individual instance, or of Beauty Itself and of this beautiful thing. On either assumption, or univocity or equivocity, Aristotle supposedly discovers that Plato's theory must necessarily fail.

On the presupposition that Forms and particulars are synonymous or univocal, Aristotle cannot see how Plato really succeeds in maintaining any meaningful understanding of the transcendent causality of Form. For example, the Form turns out to be just another particular, perhaps differing in degree of perfection, but still needing another Form to explain it, and so on ad infinitum – the famous “Third Man” argument. On the presupposition that Forms and particulars are homonymous or equivocal, there would seem to be no real community between Forms and their particulars, but only a common name, and perhaps a completely accidental similitude. To describe Forms as “paradigms” in which particulars “participate” is only to utter “empty talk and poetic metaphors.” Nor, however, will Aristotle admit of some middle way between synonymy and homonymy - e.g. a partial overlap of definition, with the added qualifications that Forms are eternal or intelligible, while particulars are temporal and sensible. For it would seem to be completely arbitrary how these properties are added to the definitions of each: i.e. the Form of Circle and a particular circle may share the same definition; but a definition has parts – e.g. a plane figure comprehended by a single line that is equidistant at all points from a single point not on that line, namely the center. To which part of this definition is the attribute “intelligible” or “sensible” to be added, or to the whole? In these, and other related ways, Aristotle seeks to disprove the Platonic position.

In response, Syrianus shows that there is a legitimate third option between pure univocity and pure equivocity; and this he shows by applying Aristotle's own device from Book Γ, the pros hen (πρός  ἔν) manner of predication. Syrianus approves of Aristotle's use of this technique, in his own commentary on Book  Γ, and he appears to reapply this very same reasoning, in his commentary on Book M, in response to Aristotle's own objections against the Forms of Plato in book M: Forms are neither synonymous nor straightforwardly homonymous with their particulars; rather, they are analogous (to use the term which would be employed by the medievals - not necessarily Aristotle's term here; this is an interesting and controverted issue in itself). That is to say, particulars are named homonymously with this qualification, that they nonetheless bear a common focal reference to their Form, which is primary and paradigmatic. Just as substance is the primary being with respect to its accidents, and communicates its being to them, so to speak, so is Form the primary being with respect to its particulars, and it communicates its being to them as their universal paradigmatic cause. Accidents are called beings only with reference to substance - and they are beings only by participation in the being of substance. Likewise, all sensible particulars are what they are only with reference to, and by participation in, their exemplar Forms.

Of course, Syrianus does not solve all questions with this response. Nonetheless, the specific objections of Aristotle, insofar as they rely on the dichotomy of synonymy versus strict homonymy (and an incomplete consideration of some middle ground) - and especially the "Third Man" argument - are at least rendered less convincing. But questions remain concerning how exactly the forms cause anything, as they are meant to; and, moreover, just what kind of things they actually are.