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Sunday, 17 September 2017

Livin' in Leuven

The Institute of Philosophy at KU Leuven.*

I arrived in Leuven on Wednesday the 13th. I have begun to settle in to my living arrangement, and get used to the town itself. Leuven is a beautiful town, with several Gothic and Romanesque churches, many markets and shops, a few old monasteries (I'm living in one of them), lots of bikes, lots of pubs and breweries, and many other interesting things. Not least among the jewels of the quaint town is, of course, the university, KU Leuven, home to the Thomistic revival initiated by Cardinal Mercier in the 20th century, as well as the educational origin of many great names like Theodor Schwann, Otto von Hapsburg, and Charles DeKoninck.

Though historically a Catholic town and a Catholic university, it is, unsurprisingly, not especially easy to see Catholicism thriving in a very lively way here. Many of the churches are regularly kept locked; some of them are museums, or partially museums. As far as I can tell so far, the liturgy is not anything special anywhere here - apart from the fact that the monks at the Abbey of Keizersberg, where I am residing, sing parts of the mass and office in Latin, though otherwise the liturgy is less than ideal. It's a shame really. In my mind, the liturgy and the intellectual life have a very close connection, the former being something like the apex and culmination of the latter. The trajectory of the intellectual life is towards contemplation, and thus towards worship; so it seems natural that those who have a care for their intellects should also have a care for the manner in which they worship God. (I will write a lot more about this later... it is one of those profound thoughts which is simultaneously the most influential and the most mysterious to me.)

Sint Pieterskerk, in the town square and the center of Leuven

The Abbey Keizersberg, where I am residing, is an impressive, almost fortress-like building with parts of it from the 19th century - other parts of it were destroyed during World War II, but have been restored in accordance with the venerable and semi-ancient feel of the place. The abbey was founded by Blessed Columba Marmion, a great writer on Benedictine spirituality, who was its first abbot. The grounds of the abbey are open as a public park for visitors, and are extraordinarily peaceful and beautiful. I have already found it one of the best places to sit outside, smoke a pipe, do some reading, or take a walk and pray my rosary. The abbey sits on the top of a hill which is probably the highest point in Leuven, from which one can get an almost panoramic view of the city below. On the hill, there is an enormous and beautiful statue of the Blessed Mother holding the infant Christ, which one can see from certain spots in town.

Keizersberg Abbey

Courtyard within the cloister,
as seen from my bedroom window.

The giant statue on the hill.

I will be studying for an advanced research Master's degree at the Institute of Philosophy, at KU Leuven. The Institute consists of a small number of lovely buildings relatively close to the town center, less than a minute's walk away from the famous main library. The library at the Institute itself is also quite impressive, with a considerable collection of philosophical works from all the periods of history, stacked in four stories. I have only made one brief visit there so far, but I immediately fell in love, especially when I found the sections devoted to St. Thomas and to the Neoplatonists. I foresee many hours devoted to research and writing spent in this library, and probably a bit of blogging too. Here's hoping that the upcoming months will be highly productive, and that my time here will be well-spent in an undying devotion to and pursuit of wisdom and the good life.






*All photos taken by me.

Tuesday, 5 September 2017

Movin' to Leuven

The Institute of Philosophy, at KU Leuven

One week from today, I will be flying out to Belgium to begin my graduate studies at the University of Leuven (KU Leuven) - where Charles De Koninck and other greats received their education. I have rather little idea of what the world of graduate school will be like in practice, but I anticipate a full immersion into the studies of ancient and medieval philosophy, and a fuller encounter with the world of academic scholarship in a fairly specialized philosophical setting. At Thomas Aquinas College, my studies were very broad - they encompassed everything from theology to the mathematical arts. This sort of education was, I think, extremely beneficial to my formation as a whole, and if I were to ever have the chance, I would do it again and probably benefit much more from it the second time. (It is a rather obnoxious paradox that growth in wisdom also entails a growth in receptivity to wisdom, so that one will always look back upon one's prior education with some regret that one did not benefit as much as one could have, and that one could benefit much more now, did circumstance permit it.)

However, there is a place in education also for specialization, and my time has come to specialize in ancient and medieval philosophy. As I have summarized before, my primary interests will be in Plato, Aristotle, Neoplatonism, and Thomas Aquinas: the task is largely to rediscover the harmony between Plato and Aristotle, and the influence of Plato and Platonism on Thomas Aquinas - and this will, I think, shed further light on the precise way in which Thomas was influenced by Aristotle himself as well. As a Thomist, one of my interests will be to bring to the Thomist world a renewed appreciation for the depth of the philosophical tradition which St. Thomas himself inherited. This will - and indeed it has, in some measure, for me - deepen the understanding of St. Thomas' own thought, both in philosophy and theology. This project is something I hope to write more about on this blog, as I progress with my studies.

. . . . . .

The next couple of weeks are most likely going to be rather busy for me. This week I need to do some preparations of my own, and as soon as I arrive in Leuven there will be all sorts of official procedures that I will need to follow - registrations, orientations, housing arrangements, and so forth. School officially begins for me on the 25th of September. Until I am actually spending the majority of my time studying and writing - when this blog will hopefully become something like a notebook of my discoveries - the blog may be somewhat slower, as I make the move and prepare for school.

Keizersberg Abbey, where I will be residing in Leuven.

Wednesday, 30 August 2017

The Common Good


One of my quests in the intellectual life is to understand how metaphysics, the most abstract and seemingly obscure of all the sciences (besides Sacred Doctrine), has any concrete bearing on life. Philosophy is not merely supposed to be an abstract pursuit, confining itself to the mind, but should flower out from the mind into every aspect of human life, so that it is the whole man who is wise, and not just a partial man. In philosophy, traditionally, the parts that pertain to practical living are the sciences of ethics and politics. Aristotle stresses more than once that the purpose of these studies is not merely in knowledge, but in practice, namely living well.

The political doctrine of the common good is, I think, one especially important application of the metaphysics of participation, which I have been exploring much on this blog (and will continue to explore in even more depth, eventually). Aristotle expresses the doctrine of the primacy of the common good in these terms:
Even though the good be the same for one man and for the whole state, it seems much better and more perfect to procure and preserve the good of the whole state. It is admirable, indeed, to preserve the good of an individual but it is better still and more divine to do this for a nation and for cities. (Nicomachean Ethics, 1094b7)
In one essay (in The Aquinas Review, Vol. 14, 2007), John Nieto argues that the notion of the primacy of the common good is in fact axiomatic in character, i.e. a principle that is common to all the sciences, according to each of their particular modes - although it seems to belong to politics in a special way. Axiomatic principles, like self-evident first principles, are established first by metaphysics (though not demonstratively, since they are first after all), which is the first philosophy, according to Aristotle. Thus, in another essay Nieto writes that all the human sciences depend upon the fundamental axioms received from metaphysics, if they are to bear an ordination towards wisdom:
Only by resolution of these subjects to that of metaphysics do each of the other sciences properly bear the notion of philosophy. Each of them is in some way second philosophy; each takes part and shares in the power of first philosophy to reveal the first causes of all being. This notion alone grounds first philosophy's claim to wisdom. Unless, therefore, one grasps the causality proper to each subject of the sciences that examine some part of being, such as mobile being or the political order, in light of the first being as known to metaphysics, the science bears only the character expressed by its proper name, say 'physics' or 'politics.' Only for him who sees the subject of such a sciences as taking part of and taking part in he higher causality known by metaphysics does that science bear the notion of philosophy - secondarily but truly. (The Aquinas Review, Vol. 21, 2016, "Where Aristotle Agrees with Plato About Participation," 51-52)
Thus, it is expedient to understand the metaphysical meaning of this principle, the primacy of the common good, prior to inquiring about its application in the other sciences, especially politics.

In metaphysics, we stress that created things are good by participation in a highest Good. The perfection of created things is something partial, incomplete, and divided, in comparison to the perfection of God, in whom these same created perfections exist in an uncreated and wholly unified way. God, as the highest Good, diffuses His Goodness to all creatures. All creatures are likenesses, in some way or another, of God. But no single creature can perfectly represent God; therefore, in order for a more perfect likeness to be found in creation, God created a great multiplicity of things, each of which participates in some distinct aspect of God's own goodness. Thus, a more perfect relation is found between the whole of creation, the order in its multiplicity, and God Himself, than between an individual creature and God. The Goodness of God is more perfectly reflected by the order of the whole than by the part. (See St. Thomas, Summa Contra Gentiles, II.,45)

The goodness of things, moreover, is that which is most desirable in them insofar as they desire their own perfection, i.e. the actuality of their natures. All things tend towards actuality. But insofar as they tend towards an actuality which is their own, as individuals, they tend towards an actuality which is still only partial. Insofar as this actuality is a participation in the fullness of actuality, the uncreated perfection, which is God Himself, they tend towards God as their ultimate final cause. Thus, in a certain way, creatures desire God more than themselves, insofar as their own perfection is secondary and participatory in relation to God's perfection. But God's perfection, as stated above, is more perfectly reflected by the whole universe than by any particular creature. Therefore, every creature naturally desires the good of the whole more than its own individual good.

Thus we establish the fundamental metaphysical principle of the primacy of the common good. The political application should actually be rather easy to spot from here. In politics or ethics, the fundamental ruling principle is the concept of the good. Not rights, as in modern political philosophers such as Hobbes or Locke. Nor even duties, as in Kant. It is the good which regulates the true science of politics, and it is the concept of the good that is received precisely from the classical metaphysics of the good which I have just (inadequately) summarized in two paragraphs. On the basis of this doctrine, Aristotle is famously compelled to recognize a hierarchy of goods, when he investigates the nature of human happiness. I won't go through the argument here, but what I do wish to emphasize is that, for Aristotle, human persons are given the unique privilege among all created things of being able to grasp the highest common good directly by way of their intellect. -- I say "directly" only in comparison to how irrational creatures attain the highest good "indirectly," i.e. through man, whereas man grasps the highest good through a faculty in himself. Man's "direct" grasp of the highest good is, in Aristotle, nothing like the direct and immediate vision of God that is enjoyed by the blessed in heaven. -- A man, by his intellect, is capable of grasping the good consciously, apprehending it precisely as good, desiring it consequently, and directing his actions accordingly. The desire of all creatures for the good seems to reach its apex in man himself (as if they all "participate" in human desire in some way?), in whom this desire is rational and spiritual in nature.

The dignity of persons consists in the very directness and intimacy of knowledge with which they are able to grasp the highest good. This must be stressed rather emphatically. Persons are individuals, no less than any other creature; therefore their individual good is, as for every other creature, subordinate to the common good. Nonetheless, even as individuals, they possess a dignity that is infinitely greater than that of irrational creatures, because the common good, precisely as common, may be possessed by them in a direct manner that is proportionate to the nature of that good itself. -- Again, I say "proportionate" only in comparison to the lack of proportion between irrational creatures and the highest good. The highest good is highest and most common because it is intelligible and immaterial in nature, and among all creatures, it is therefore only intellectual creatures who may attain the common good in a manner proportionate to its nature - although, again, it is nothing like the proportionality of the intellects of the blessed to the nature of God. -- As the goodness of any creature consists more in the way it approaches the divine goodness, as something beyond itself, than in the way in which it remains according to its own individual goodness, so much more does the goodness of the human person consist more in the way he approaches the divine goodness, as something that transcends himself, than in the way he seeks his own individual good.

The good human life, according to Aristotle, consists in virtuous activity that is in accord with the best part of man, his reason or intellect, which is precisely that part of him by which he attains most directly to the common good. All of political philosophy, to which ethics is ordered (usually people get this the wrong way round), is directed towards educating the desire of men so that they desire most of all the goods that are most of common, and all other goods only in subordination. For a right ordering of life, all desire must be ordered and formed according to the hierarchy of goods. The goods of pleasure and economy, so often exalted by the moderns as the principal goods of society, must be desired in subordination to the highest goods, the goods known by the intellect in philosophic contemplation. This does not mean that men must devote all of their time exclusively to such contemplation; this is not only a practical impossibility, but it would mean neglecting the lower parts of the human being, which, though lower, are capable of being ordered by the higher. The highest activity of man is thus the contemplation of the good, and virtue consists first in this, and secondly in all other activities performed in accordance with this good. The more the activity of man is regulated by his reason, both in the activity of reason itself and of other faculties in accord with reason, the more perfectly does he tend towards the common good.

Oftentimes, moral philosophers find themselves preoccupied with a dichotomy between self-love and altruism, as if this were the fundamental tension in need of resolution in the study of ethics or politics. The classical doctrine of the common good, however, allows the philosopher, and the political man himself, to transcend this dichotomy. The common good is, by its very nature, the good of all individuals, an eminently personal good, but one which is shared by all without thereby being diminished. Indeed, the joy in possessing such a good is even increased, even made possible, by being thus shared. No individual struggles with the tension between self-love and altruism if he devotes himself to the common good, because thereby he works to ensure the good that by its nature diffuses itself to all equally, to himself and to all others who would receive it in common.

Not all men are willing to receive the common good, however. This indeed is the very basis of sin: when a lesser good is chosen over a higher good, when one subordinates the common good to the private good, even to the point of sacrificing it altogether. Sin also occurs when the common good is desired, not as common, but as if it were exclusively the good of the one desiring it, even to the point of wishing that others not also attain it. The error of personalism or individualism, against which Charles DeKonicnk controversially argued in On the Primacy of the Common Good Against the Personalists, essentially asserts the primacy of the personal or private good over the common good, as if the latter were no more than a means of attaining the former. The affirmation of the value of each person, as someone individual and unique, prescinds from the fact of commonality between him and other persons, i.e. a common potential ordination towards the common and thus the highest good. DeKoninck argued, on the contrary, that persons receive their true and greatest dignity only from the commonality of the good itself; they are not good apart from the good which communicates itself to many, nor, therefore, apart from the good of the many. Love, therefore, cannot be ordered aright unless it be also a love of the good as good for the many: "Hence one cannot love the common good without loving it in its capacity to be participated in by others. The fallen angels did not refuse the perfection of the good which was offered to them; they refused the fact of its being common, and they despised this community." (The Aquinas Review, Vol. 4, 1997, "On the Primacy of the Common Good," 24-25). And thus St. Thomas:
Thus to love the good in which the blessed participate in order to acquire or possess it does not make man well disposed towards it, for the evil envy this good also; but to love it in itself, in order that it be conserved and spread, and so that nothing be done against it, this is what makes man well disposed to this society of the blessed; and this is what charity consists of, to love God for himself, and the neighbor who is capable of beatitude as oneself. (Quaestiones Disputatae de Caritate, a.2; cited in DeKoninck, 24)
Again, the practical consequences of this doctrine are vast, pertaining to everything from concrete human actions to the interior dispositions of men in regards to love, and especially, in theology, in the virtue of charity. A kind of program emerges for the development of communities, which are the most perfect when united by a shared love of common goods. Likewise, the interaction between any two or few individuals, the raising of families, the building of villages, and the regulation of entire cities, cannot be carried out without reference to the common good. All of the arts and practical sciences , even down to the most mundane and servile, collaborate in common subordination to the political science, for the sake of promoting the common good. (This is why the political science is considered architectonic by Aristotle, and all other practical sciences fall under it, including individual ethics.) Above all, in view of the Christian religion, a profound doctrine of the relation between church and state emerges when the primacy of the common good is asserted in this sphere; and an ideal vision of political society emerges, in which the worship of God and the ultimate sanctification of the faithful is the final cause of all society, civil and ecclesiastical, the former in subordination to the latter. This is the doctrine that has come to be known as integralism, the perennial political doctrine of the Catholic tradition (which has been very nicely summarized here).

All of this goes to show how much is implied by "living the philosophic life": it has a truly universal application, that extends, not merely to the life of the individual philosopher, but to the whole of civil society. Political life itself, the life of a whole city, turns out to be a communal act of living philosophically, with a view towards the contemplation of God. In the context of Christianity, the ordination of the temporal state is not only towards the natural contemplation of God, but finally towards that supernatural contemplation of God which takes place in the life of the Church. 

Tuesday, 22 August 2017

On Being Home

Home.

During the last four years, while I was studying Liberal Arts at Thomas Aquinas College, my family in Northern California lived in four different houses - in fact, they lived in all four of these houses within the space of one summer, after my Sophomore year. After I moved out of the first house to go to college, the whole family moved into a rental home, which was considerably smaller but quite comfortable. Less than a month into that home - right around the fourth of July, when I was visiting friends in San Diego - the family came back from church one Sunday to find that the new rental home was on fire. Fortunately, the fire was suppressed before it damaged any of our most precious possessions (I was very relieved that it did not touch our very large family library), but we could not live there anymore. Quickly, we moved most of our things into storage, and had to crash in my grandmother's house in town. The subsequent weeks were chaos: a large family, imposing upon Nana's hospitality and infiltrating her house of many years - it proved to be quite cramped and unmanageable for everybody. But it helped us all to realize that we - including Nana - needed to move together into a larger, more convenient place. This happened towards the end of August. All this during one summer in the middle of my college years away from home. 

I am now finished with college, and back home after the summer, taking a kind of sabbath rest before I plunge into the strange world of graduate school. This version of home is, for some reason, particularly beautiful to me. We live at the border of town, where it starts to get a little more rural. Our house is in a cul-de-sac, in a small neighborhood of houses that look more or less the same, but each very beautiful with its own individualized landscaping to make it unique. And the landscaping is elegant and simple. There are green and growing things everywhere. Though we aren't strictly on farmland, we have a large backyard with enough room to grow some vegetables and fruit trees. Inside there is a lovely library and reading room. I love to spend most of my time there, or on the front porch, with a book, a pipe, and a glass of something. Every time I come home the experience is one of quiet simplicity and contemplation. This life is in many ways the life I imagine for myself once I have finished going to school and settled down with a family in a place of my own.

I realized the other day that this will be my first time at this home for anything more than three weeks: minus a few days away, I will be here for barely more than a month, after which I will head to Europe for two years. Granted, it isn't that much longer than three weeks, but it's the longest I shall have ever lived in this house. Somehow that realization has struck me with a particular force. This place, my home, the home of my family for these two years, is still something rather new to me after the events of that fateful summer; and yet I appreciate now more than ever the fact that it is my home. The longest, thus far, that I shall have ever been in this home is little more than a month, and I am about to go far away to a strange land for at least two years. 

I have also been struck, during my time in college, how strangely out of place I have felt for the last four years, even as I felt so much that I had rooted my identity in TAC's rich soils. Intellectually, there is much about my alma mater that is like home to me, and I am sure I will always feel that way when I go back to visit it. But I always felt a deeper sense in which it was not mine, though for a while I could never quite put my finger on precisely what that sense was. But now I suspect it was the feeling of transition, the deep awareness that college was only a step towards being finally settled and at home: I simply wasn't yet where I would end up one day... As my time at college progressed, this feeling became almost unbearable, and in the last months I felt myself sinking into a kind of depression and spiritual fatigue, notwithstanding the many good and beautiful things - and people - that were still in my life.  

When I'm home, I love to think.
When I think, I love to smoke.
Now that I am home, I am reflectively reliving the peace of my childhood - a peace of which I was not then aware, but which I can see now in my young siblings, who do not really feel, as I have, that urgent need of moving forward with their lives, because they can simply rest in the fixity and settlement of their circumstances. They are already home. And I can, in my own way, more consciously relive that childlike sense of peace during my interim month at home. Of course, being older, that experience is deeper for me than it is for my younger siblings, as I love to devote my time less to childish play than to leisurely reflection and contemplation; but the fundamental feeling of peace is the same. That nagging dissastisfaction and urgency which I felt at school was also, perhaps more profoundly, a painful sense of nostalgia for my childhood.

But I wonder at how well and long this childlike peace can last, in this life; the peace of being in a home that is, so to speak, one's contemplative playground. As we grow older, and less childlike, we begin to sense more deeply the urgency and neediness that is ingrained in our fallen natures. We begin to be nostalgic for the apparently settled and homelike quality of our childhood. I said above that the dissatisfaction I felt in college was due to a feeling of transition, a feeling that I needed to move forward and find a final resting place, a home; I was anxious for the future, I desperately wanted to find my home, where I could settle down in peace and finally be "where I was supposed to be." But how much can we really experience this feeling, as long as we live in this transitory world? All of this life is a mere transition; can I really hope to escape that feeling of having to constantly look forward? Barring death itself, can I ever cross the border between the land of my sojourn and the land that is my home? Many discussions with my father, and much observation of various families and communities in my experience, has led me to question how much one may realistically hope for a home on this earth. There will always be that feeling, in whatever degree, of transition, of waiting, of "not yet." Even as I enjoy the feeling of home for this short month, it is still only a month; I am moving on; I probably always will be. Did I deceive myself in thinking that, by escaping from college, I would be coming closer to the home, the settlement, that I hoped one day to make for myself? That I could definitively find a place to call my home before I pass from this ever transitory life? That I could ever, in this life, escape that nagging, tormenting feeling of transition, of not being where I was supposed to be, of intense nostalgia?

Indeed, the very transitiveness of our earthly home is all the more obvious to me in light of the events of summer in the year 2015, when my own family was like a tribe of wandering nomads for a few months; when it seemed that no home that they sought to inhabit in that time could be sustained. Their home was consumed by fire; they could not stay there. The Book of Revelation gives a terrible description of the destruction of the earth (which takes seven days - the undoing of Creation), beginning with a hail of fire from heaven, when the first angel blows his awful horn (8:7). We are obliged to feel the earth passing away beneath our feet; we are obliged to fear the day that this earth will burn away; we are obliged to long for a home that we will not find here; we are obliged to look ahead - not with anxiety, but with hope; we are obliged to feel the pain of nostalgia that cannot be quenched except by our crossing the threshold of death into the home that is the promised land, the House of God.
"And now the seven angels with the seven trumpets made ready to sound them. When the first sounded, there was a storm of hail and fire, mingled with blood, that fell on the earth, burning up a third part of earth, burning up a third of the trees, burning up all the green grass on it. " -- Revelation, 8:6-7

Saturday, 19 August 2017

Thoughts on "Splendor Formae"


Beauty was once defined, by the medievals, as the "splendor of form." By this it was understood that a thing is seen to be beautiful the more its inner nature shines forth, presents itself with a kind of radiance to the beholder. The experience of beauty, then, is really an intense awareness of the form, or nature, of a thing, insofar as that nature strikes one by its radiance. Mere knowledge of the truth of a thing is nothing more than simply the awareness of its form; but the experience of its beauty is the awareness of the form as something which radiates, shines forth, even overwhelms the knower with its inner light. Beauty has everything to do with knowledge; the very word "splendor" indicates brilliance, intense visibility, and so intense intelligibility. To know the beautiful thus seems to involve the experience, not only of the visible thing, but of the very intensity of its visibility. The form of a beautiful thing is not simply there in the thing, but it is there in such a way that it loudly declares its presence and displays itself to the eye.

Form is a kind of actuality; it is in virtue of its actuality that form is the principle of intelligibility in things. Thus, in a prior sense, it is simply speaking actuality that is the principle of intelligibility in things. As we have seen in our earlier discussion, the measure of a thing's participation in actuality is the measure of its intelligibility. Sensible creatures participate in actuality in a twofold sense: by their form and by their being (esse). Beauty is defined as the "splendor of form." Could this not also be extended to include the "splendor of being"? -- because it is the splendor of actuality, the splendor of a thing's inner intelligibility? To be aware of the beauty of things is to be aware of their intense inner intelligibility, which is the intensity of their actuality, both form and being. It is thus almost necessary to have some sort of intuition of the participatory structure of beings - it may be an incommunicable intuition; in fact it usually is. It is also necessary to be aware of the intelligible content of things, in order to see their beauty: one must be intensely aware of what it is, and that it is. The experience of beauty cannot really be separated from this awareness. 

(This makes me think that aesthetic experience and what I call "symbolic knowledge" - the knowledge of the symbolic meaning of things, through their forms - are very closely connected, perhaps inseparable. In describing the beauty of the world, one cannot neglect to attend to what the world is, and what is the nature of its parts, and their relation to each other, in detail.)

Beauty as a transcendental is not divorced from the particular beauty of things. Things are beautiful insofar as they are actual, and that actuality is splendorous. The degree of actuality in things differs, however, according to hierarchical order in the order of substances, as well as in the order of accidents. (I have a lot of thinking to do about accidental forms and participation, and symbolism in accidents...) Thus, things are beautiful according to the degree of their participation in what is fully actual: man by his substance is more beautiful than an animal, because he participates more perfectly in the actuality of form - his substance is more "taken over" by subsistent spirituality than any other cosmic substance, which falls short of true spirituality. But because man and the lower natural substances both participate in actuality in common, though in greater and lesser modes, beauty is something common to them all precisely inasmuch as actuality is common to them all. To this degree, beauty is a transcendental. All the more so in the sense that all things participate in actuality by having being (esse).

Another dimension of the experience of beauty might be the awareness of its very transcendence. In other words, an intense awareness of the participation of a particular thing in something much greater than itself, something universal, something that exerts its influence on a cosmic and even meta-cosmic scale. The more acutely one is aware of the actuality of a thing, the more one is aware of a nature or a meaning that extends far beyond the dimensions of this particular instance. Every particular holds a mystery, because by participation it brings into this finite moment and place an infinitesimal manifestation of something in itself unlimited. The ancients and the medievals loved to emphasize that in any whole, the perfection of the whole is greater than the perfection of the part. To see the part fully, then, was to see it not merely as an individual in its own right, but precisely as a part of something larger; and thus the larger meaning of the whole could be seen, in a contracted way, in the smallness of the part itself. In a paradoxical way, it is the individual perfection of the part that manifests the perfection of the whole, and yet in some sense the part seems to forget itself in that larger order, being transcended by a nobler and more universal perfection. The deepening of aesthetic experience - which is really a metaphysical experience, ultimately - relies on the vision of the multilayered actuality of things, their participatory structure, their ultimate reference to something that transcends them all individually. The soul of the beholder is opened up to what is the most universally beautiful, and ultimately to subsistent Beauty itself.

Monday, 14 August 2017

Participation and Incarnation

The Empyrean Heaven, in Dante's Paradiso

In my earlier post on the importance of studying Plato in the philosophy curriculum, I wrote the following paragraph: 
In short, I think that the philosophy of Plato and Aristotle, developed in the doctrine of St. Thomas, yields an important and profound insight into the nature and direction of the world, principally its incarnational character: divine forms making themselves present and known in sensible, material beings. The trajectory of philosophy is towards the divine, and this is only completed and fulfilled finally by something supernatural: the self-revelation of God. But God reveals Himself in the flesh, that is, in Jesus Christ. For Christians especially, it is important therefore to maintain a visionary disposition that is ever looking for God, but looking at things in the world; and it is precisely such a disposition that I think emerges from the philosophy of Plato and Aristotle together. The disposition of soul that such a philosophy fosters is precisely what is needed for the true reception and welcoming of the Word of God, who became flesh.

This is, in a way, why the whole discussion of the metaphysics of form and participation is so important. That discussion pointed out to us a strange conflict in the structure of beings between their very being (esse), or their actuality, and their tendency to non-being and contingency. On the one hand, everything that has existence and form - actuality - is given to us as a gift for knowledge; for the intellect is in proportion precisely to actuality, and thus, to the degree that things participate in actuality they draw the intellect on towards the full possession of knowledge. On the other hand, the things of human experience are mixed with a certain degree of potency, and thus their actuality is only ever incomplete. Hence, the desire for knowledge - the grasping of what is actual - is never really satisfied by things, though by their very actuality they seem to lead the intellect on towards what is fully actual. While it is important to maintain against certain Platonists the distinction between potency and privation, it is also important to remember that potency itself introduces into the composition of things a relative non-being, which is the source of all distinction and individuation, and is moreover a sign of the imperfection of things qua being or actuality. 

Furthermore, the human intellect itself, though in some way desirous of perfect actuality, is nonetheless conditioned and limited in its very mode of knowing, because it is human and thus composite: man does not, and cannot, have knowledge except by beginning with his senses. In other words, both the world in which man finds himself, and his very own nature, seem to limit his faculty of knowledge to the things of immediate sense experience. The evidence of this tension between being and (relative) non-being is twofold: objective and subjective. It is a tension that belongs to both the external world and the interior world of the human person himself. All things, and man himself in his very subjectivity, participate in actuality and seem to "desire" pure actuality; but they are all pulled by a contrary tendency, a principle of indeterminacy and contingency, a kind of nothingness. Consequently, the intellect finds itself in something of a pickle: its innermost desire is for the fullness of actuality, the infinity of being, but his nature and his situation place a strict limit upon his capacity for that very fullness of actuality. In other words, man is ordered towards the purity of Logos, but he is also stuck in the seeming messiness of the flesh.

"And the Logos became flesh!" 

From this point of view, the supernatural fact of the Incarnation is the most fitting remedy for the conflicted situation of man and the cosmos. In the Incarnation, the limited composition of natural substances and of human nature itself, and the desire of all beings and of intellect for the fullness of Being, are both perfectly respected. Jesus Christ, a man, retains a composite human being, but His human nature is united in a single hypostasis to the Pure Actuality of the Divine Nature. There, in one subject, I behold Pure Actuality itself, in a mere finite creature; and by faith, my intellect discovers, though in a hidden and imperfect way, the fullness of being that alone can satisfy its desire for knowledge, though its composite mode of knowing through sense experience is not compromised, but fully respected. 

In my Bachelor's thesis, I made this point in terms of the reality of symbolism. The basis of symbolism, as I expressed it in that thesis, is the participatory structure of created being: a being is symbolic to the extent that it participates in the likeness of God, i.e. to the extent that actuality is present in its composition. Since a symbol, loosely defined, is any entity which points the mind to something other than itself, it pertains precisely to the faculty of knowledge. Thus, it seems to me that the notion of symbolism, in the ancient sense, pertains especially to the metaphysical account of beings, in reference to the degree of their actuality. Consequently, every being, as a symbol, is in some way a revelation of God by its actuality, by which it participates in the nature of Perfect Actuality in some way, whether through its form or its esse.

From this it follows that the symbol par excellence is none other than Jesus Christ Himself, the Incarnate Logos - indeed, in a sense Christ is super-symbolic, inasmuch as the individuality of His being does not merely participate in actuality but is identified with it in some way: I may look at Christ the man and declare truly and unequivocally that He is God. In Christ, the utter infinite transcendence of actuality is fully immanentized. (This is not, of course, by entering into the composition of the man, or else the finitude of the human nature would be compromised; and in fact this would compromise the very mystery and paradox of the Incarnation, in which both divine and human natures exist intact in a single subject.) Every human desire - indeed, every natural desire, human or otherwise - finds its ultimate fulfillment in Christ. The desire of all things for their own perfection, for actuality, is realized in fact; likewise, the desire for some object of knowledge which simultaneously offers the intellect a taste of full actuality and does not tear man away from sense experience. 

It is at precisely this point that philosophy gives way to theology. Philosophy, at the highest summits of its capacity, begins to ask questions which can only be answered by the supernatural self-revelation of God. This self-revelation happens at the moment of the Incarnation. Christ is the answer to all questions. From that moment on, all human inquiry - all human desire - is totally transformed; it is given a new beginning, a new principle: faith. Faith also provides the first principles of the science of theology, and really the first principles of the whole Christian way of life, which is lived theology. By faith in the Incarnate Wordhuman life is impelled towards the definitive end that is the beatific vision: full and perfect communication with Being Itself. Through Christ, all things, and man himself, return finally and definitively to their first principle, the Actuality in which they all participate and which they all desire. 

Friday, 11 August 2017

The Importance of it all... Or "Why Philosophy is So Dang Hard"

A sad and perplexed philosopher
Thus far, on this blog, my thoughts have been of certain questions pertaining to form, as conceived differently by Plato, Aristotle, and St. Thomas. In the last post, I promised a less technical article explaining the importance of this discussion... Well, today I think I have hit somewhat upon the importance of the discussion, but without really successfully divorcing myself from the terminology. Maybe I'll try again later. For now, my readers will have to continue to bear with me for one more post.

The article of July 29 was a first, rather haphazard, exploration of form in Plato, specifically in regard to the question of its separateness from, and priority to, that which is formed. First we asked whether it were necessary that Plato's forms be conceived as individual hypostases of their own, such that there is a “Beauty Itself” subsisting apart from anything else, and which is the form of all beautiful things. We discovered that it is not necessary to hypostasize the form of beauty, while still maintaining the language of separation: separation emphasizes the distinction between form and the formed, and likewise between existence and the existent (esse and ens), a distinction firmly maintained by St. Thomas.

We discovered two meanings of form that seem to be confounded in Plato's use of the term, which I described as form-as-paradigm and form-as-image. In seeking for the essences of things, Plato perceives, in a confused way, two dimensions of form: its utter transcendence and divinity, and its immanence in the world of matter. His emphasis is clearly on the former aspect, but he does not forget the latter; indeed, he is very aware of the immanence of form, but he himself has difficulty trying to reconcile these two aspects. We discovered a possible step to this reconciliation, which is the distinction between paradigm and image – a distinction understandably overlooked by an initial exploration of form.

We then saw how the connection between paradigm and image is the condition for the possibility of knowing God, in whom the paradigmatic forms are contained as exemplar ideas, by way of the image-forms that subsist in concrete realities. This already hits upon the central point of all philosophy, and the central point of everything I hope to write on this blog: the knowledge of God, in whom all created perfections are present in an uncreated way. Every creature, by its form, is a manifestation of God who is pure actuality.


The article of August 3 had less evidently to do with Platonic form, at least immediately. It was an exploration of the concept of determinacy, and its many applications, according to St. Thomas and Charles DeKoninck. Today we will discover - scratching the surface - its relation to the doctrine of participation. We discovered two meanings of determinacy, and two corresponding meanings of indeterminacy:

1) Negative indetermination results from potential principles in relation to actual principles: matter in relation to form, or essence in relation to existence.
2) Positive indetermination results from the infinity of actual principles in themselves: form in itself is something universal and unlimited; likewise being or existence. (These are the two senses of indeterminacy noted by St. Thomas in Ia, q.7, a.1.)
3) Determinacy of essence, which coincides with positive indetermination, and refers to the fixity and necessity of infinite actuality.
4) Determinacy of individuation, which coincides with negative indetermination, and refers to the limitation of actuality that is “imposed” by principles of potency such as matter or essence, in relation to form or being, respectively.

The importance of this discussion has to do with modes of participation, which I explored in the article of August 8. The indeterminacy of potential principles such as matter and essence, in relation to form and being, reveals the imperfection of finite beings: their actuality is only ever partial; the mode of their assimilation of actuality is never complete; matter never holds the form within its grasp tightly enough to be completely actuated by it, for it still retains a considerable margin of potency to other forms. Thus it only participates in its form, in its own essence; it is not identified with its essence, with what-it-is; it has an identity that is not fixed, is subject to variation. Participation describes the relationship of potential principle to actual principle, and this is a relationship which is incomplete, in which something is always “left out.” Matter desires form, it desires actuality, and that is what matter is: pure desire. But it cannot seem to attain it. It always remain somehow, fundamentally, a mere potency.

This also radically affects how such things are known. Things which contain a principle of negative indeterminacy (such as matter) in their very composition are, to that degree, unintelligible; there is in fact less to know in them, because they are by nature unfixed, uncertain, in flux. To this extent, the reality they possess is limited, they have a lesser actuality; their truth appears only variously and in time and space, through the imperfection and variety of bodies. Knowledge of these things means less than it does of intelligible realities. Knowledge itself is better had of nobler objects, and yet it can only begin with the objects of sense experience, which are indeterminate and changeable, and to that extent less real. This is something of a paradox that longs to be resolved in the knower: the intellect is naturally desirous of perfect actuality, yet it can only know things “in the flesh,” as it were. How is this to be resolved?


Another paradox emerges: On the one hand, from the discussion of form-as-paradigm and form-as-image, we saw that things are a manifestation of God; for all immanent forms are but images of the divine ideas, imprints or impressions of the divine essence. Their actuality is the wonderful condition of their intelligibility; it makes them knowable. And what is greater still, their actuality is nothing other than a reflection of divine actuality. What wondrous possibilities are opened to the faculty of human knowledge! On the other hand, from the discussion of the indeterminacy and imperfection with which form is received by matter, we have seen that material things cannot seem to perfectly grasp actuality; matter desires form and actuality, but it is never something fully actual. This is a severe limitation on their knowability, their intelligibility; and suddenly the intellect finds itself blocked, impeded by the intrinsic uncertainty of things. What is to become of the knowledge – especially the knowledge of God – which he previously hoped to gain through things?

In other words, finite beings simultaneously reveal and conceal God, and this is almost necessarily a torment to the intellect, which tastes of actuality in things, but is never satiated by them. This is, perhaps, the very cause of all the frustration and confusion in all of philosophy and theology: the paradox that the intellect seems naturally fit for pure and infinite Being, but it is also limited by its finite nature, by which it is conditioned to know only finite things, whose being is something, so to speak, impure.

So many philosophies throughout history have wrestled, in some form or another, with this very problem. It may well be the fundamental tension of all philosophy, from Plato to Kant. Plato retained a sublime and enthusiastic confidence, despite difficulties, in the possibility of metaphysics – the knowledge of what is purely intelligible – and mysticism – the incommunicable experience of it; Aristotle's metaphysics was more modest and restrained, careful to maintain its contact with tangible, earthly realities, as well as strict reasoning; the Neoplatonists retained the old Platonic enthusiasm for the mystical and metaphysical, but saw the harmony of Plato and Aristotle; Scholasticism saw philosophy in the light of faith, under which the question of knowing the transcendent was taken to a new level. In the modern age, Descartes later questioned the possibility of knowledge beginning with the senses in the first place, and sought to establish metaphysics by a complete and unconditional reliance upon the powers of reason; Hume denied the possibility of real metaphysical knowledge at all, and reduced all knowledge to perception; and finally Kant, as it were, the apex of modern philosophy, brought about the complete destruction of metaphysics by glorifying human reason, and put forth the practical intellect as the only guarantee – a shaky "faith" – of transcendent reality. Rationalism and utlitarianism were thus born, and philosophy all but gave up on the perennial quest of seeking the contemplation of God; it now sought the glorification and satisfaction of man, and God became either a tool for this end, or simply irrelevant and non-existent, when, at last, man practically became a god unto himself in the philosophy of Nietzsche. The history of philosophy is the story of a conflict within man: the desire for infinity wrestling with an overpowering finitude. Modern man may think that he has become infinite, because he has become God; but in reality he has given up the possibility of knowing the truly infinite and transcendent God, he has been overpowered by finitude and limitation. As if to console himself, he tells himself that he is God; but it is a lie. It is a tale of despair and self-deception. It is the sin of Adam all over again: turning from the true God and setting up oneself as one's own idol...


…But I have waxed tragedic... I had hoped to convey, by that little digression, the importance of the whole discussion of form, as variously conceived by Plato and Aristotle. It is a crucial question for the knowability of God Himself, and thus it has everything to do with the entire life of man. The history of philosophy is evidence of its urgency, and every individual human life is a quest of insatiable seeking. We are always desiring; this is the very condition of our being: it is an orientation towards something great and unknown, beyond us, other than us, other than everything we experience. The evidence suggests that we seek for transcendence, for the metaphysical, the mystical. It is all evidence of the fundamental human desire to know, which Aristotle famously notices in the Metaphysics. Everything thus far is a question. What is the answer?

(Final note: Eventually I hope to continue this discussion of the importance of metaphysics, extending it more explicitly and specifically to the ethical, political, and even personal spheres.)