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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.)

Tuesday, 8 August 2017

Form, Being, and Participation

Participation in St. Thomas refers to the relation of a potential principle to its actuating principle, in any composite being. Participation occurs on at least these two levels: existential and essential. On the existential level, we say that essence is to existence (esse) as potency to act; therefore essence is said to participate in existence. In seeking to define essence or quiddity, St. Thomas notes the connection between esse and essentia: “Sed essentia dicitur secundum quod per eam et in ea ens habet esse.” (De Ente et Essentia) The fundamental meaning of essence, then, is that through which any existing thing has existence; it is the potency for the actuality which is existence, or esse. Participation describes the relationship between these two principles from the aspect of their relative universality: esse, being, considered in itself, is simply the most unlimited and universal actuality – it is the act of all actualities. The manner in which esse is “instantiated” in an essence is more limited and particular than esse considered in itself, such that no existing essence, nor even the sum of all existing essences, can exhaust the possibilities of being, so long as essence and existence are distinct. This relationship of particular to universal is described as a relationship of participation.

A analogous explanation applies on the essential level, that is, within the very essence itself, when the essence is composed of matter and form. Matter is to form as potency to act, and the actuality of form is a certain analogy to that of existence, but within the essence itself. In this case, participation describes the relationship of matter to form, inasmuch as matter individuates a form which, considered in itself, is something universal; and thus no individual matter-form composite, nor the sum of all such individuals, will exhaust all the possibilities of the form. Form, which considered in itself is unlimited and universal, becomes limited and particular when it is received in matter. Accordingly, there is a relationship of particular to universal, a relationship of participation.

Already, St. Thomas has done something to unite both the Platonic and the Aristotelian conceptions of participation and substantiality: each concept, with modifications, is explained with reference to the other. For example, the composition of a substance by matter and form is described also as the participation of matter – or in another sense, of the substance as individuated by this matter – in the form itself. St. Thomas extends this also to the composition of essence and existence – a distinction not found explicitly in Aristotle, but which certainly has its roots in Plato and the Neoplatonic tradition: essence – or the existent that has this essence – is said to participate in existence itself. What is crucial here is the emphasis that St. Thomas places on the simultaneous separation and unification of a substance and its form – or of an existent thing and its existence: a substance is not the same as its own form or essence, although it is what it is only in virtue of the inherence of the form in it; likewise, an existent is not the same as its existence, although it only exists (quite obviously) because of its existence. The emphasis on the non-identity of a thing with its form, and likewise its non-identity with its very being, is a characteristically Platonic emphasis. In Plato, this emphasis is often taken to amount to the dualistic claim that form and being subsist by themselves apart from their instantiations, in a separate “intelligible world,” so to speak. I think this reading of Plato is unnecessary, although it is understandably difficult to reconcile the transcendence of Platonic form with the immanence of Aristotle's forms in concrete substances – and for a similar reason, it is difficult to reconcile the transcendent Being, of which Plato speaks in the Sophist, with the being or esse which St. Thomas' describes as subsisting only in existent things. But St. Thomas himself has found a way to speak of form and being as both transcendent and immanent, as really prior to their participants but only discoverable in them.

St. Thomas distances himself from the supposedly Platonic doctrine of subsistent forms in order to avoid the error that God, who alone is pure actuality – unlimited being, and unlimited form – is unequivocally the very act of being of His creatures. This error is essentially pantheism; it amounts to the claim that God enters into composition with essence and with matter, as the being of essence and the form of material things. This is an error that may easily result from a first attempt to reconcile the transcendence and the immanence of actuality – as either being or form – in relation to its participants. The naive Neoplatonist will satisfy himself that God's transcendence has been maintained when He asserts that God's absolute and independent subsistence in Himself is in no way compromised when He enters into His effects so as to make them real. In fact, however, this is not to assert that creatures are real, but that their reality is simply speaking nothing other than the reality of God; their very being, their act of existence, is nothing other than God Himself. Having no reality in themselves, creatures become nothing more than the appearances of God through clouds of nothingness. Such a pantheism may congratulate itself for maintaining both the transcendence and the immanence of being/form/God; but it denies reality to the world in its own right.

Perhaps some philosophers' consciences will allow them to accept this, but not St. Thomas'. St. Thomas makes another crucial distinction between the esse that does not subsist except in existing things – or esse commune – and the ipsum esse subsistens that is God Himself, in whom there is no composition of essence and existence, or matter and form, or act and potency of any kind, but who is pure actuality, in whom essence and existence are not distinct but identical. Every actuality other than God is always the act of some potency, always the form of some matter, or the being of some distinct essence; it never subsists in itself, because it is always in relation to some potency, it is always an element of some composition. But it remains, in some sense, transcendent, insomuch as it is the common image or impression of the divine actuality itself upon some receptacle – that is, essence or matter – and thus the term of some relationship of participation. Transcendence belongs first to the divine actuality, which is the first exemplar or paradigm of all created actualities; and insofar as they are images of this first actuality, they share in its transcendence, as common to a multiplicity of participants beneath them.

St. Thomas thus succeeds in preserving the Platonic instinct for transcendence, but with a clarity not always possessed by the Platonists themselves. They recognized the transcendence of form and of being, but often failed to distinguish between the transcendence of form-as-image and the transcendence of form-as-paradigm, i.e. divine exemplar – at the very least, they did not see through to the full consequences of this distinction. Plato himself was aware of this difficulty, as he wrestled with the tension between transcendence and immanence in his self-critical dialogue, the Parmenides. Thomas resolves the difficulty by conceding a limited transcendence to form and being as they subsist in individual existents, and in positing an absolute and paradigmatic transcendence that subsists in itself in the divine being. Moreover, in this very endeavor, St. Thomas likewise succeeds in preserving the Aristotelian instinct for immanence, and the internal composition of substances, but with a considerably keener sense for the other-reference of things than Aristotle ever seemed to cultivate. The concepts of participation and substantiality end up coinciding in an unexpected and marvelous fashion.

It may not be clear yet how much of this directly clarifies or builds on anything from the previous post – on determinacy according to St. Thomas and Charles DeKoninck – but there are certainly patterns and coincidences to be observed here. The two degrees of negative indetermination occur at the existential and the essential levels: 1) at the existential level, because essence and existence are distinct, and thus the existence of an essence is contingent and indeterminate – it may or may not be; 2) at the essential level, because within the essence itself, in some things, there is a composition of matter and form, in which matter is the principle of indeterminacy: the form of matter is not determinate, but may be this or that form; matter is in potency to all forms, this is not fixed. This observation about determinacy and indeterminacy will necessarily affect the mode of participation – both of essence in existence and matter in form. I hope to pursue this more closely in another post. 

In the meantime, however, I hope to devote the next post to something slightly different. I want to briefly drop the highly technical discussion and talk briefly about why any of this is important. I won't be able to entirely distance myself from the technical terms, but I can at least try to make them more tangible and relevant. Stay tuned.

Thursday, 3 August 2017

Thomas and DeKoninck on Determinacy

I think a lot about form these days. My thoughts are diverse, but all with a view towards the same immediate end, which is a cohesive grasp of the comparison between the Platonic and Aristotelian conceptions of form. I have been suspecting a harmony between the two, which I have glimpsed from various signs or hints. I am seeking, in various ways, to explore these hints. Today's post explores this subject from the angle of the question of determinacy. As will be usual, critical commentary is always welcome.

In an important passage from the Summa, St. Thomas explains a crucial distinction between two different senses of indeterminacy – the word he uses is infinity – as it pertains to matter and form. The text follows:
We must consider therefore that a thing is called infinite because it is not finite. Now matter is in a way made finite by form, and the form by matter. Matter indeed is made finite by form, inasmuch as matter, before it receives its form, is in potentiality to many forms; but on receiving a form, it is terminated by that one. Again, form is made finite by matter, inasmuch as form, considered in itself, is common to many; but when received in matter, the form is determined to this one particular thing. Now matter is perfected by the form by which it is made finite; therefore infinite as attributed to matter, has the nature of something imperfect; for it is as it were formless matter. On the other hand, form is not made perfect by matter, but rather is contracted by matter; and hence the infinite, regarded on the part of the form not determined by matter, has the nature of something perfect. Now being is the most formal of all things, as appears from what is shown above. Since therefore the divine being is not a being received in anything, but He is His own subsistent being as was shown above, it is clear that God Himself is infinite and perfect. (Ia, q.7, a.1)

Here, St. Thomas identifies two senses of indeterminacy or infinity: the indeterminacy of matter, and the indeterminacy of form.

Matter is indeterminate because it is in potency to indefinitely many forms: in itself, matter is not some kind of thing, it has no actual existence. It receives actual existence only when it receives form, and is thus determined by form. Accordingly, it is made more perfect by the determination of form.

Form is indeterminate insofar as, in itself, it is common to many particulars, and this is in some sense its perfection. It is made more determinate insofar as it is limited to this one particular thing as opposed to that one, that is, insofar as it is received into matter. This determination of form is a kind of imperfection, insofar as its determination contracts it and makes it something smaller, so to speak, than it is in itself.

Thus, we have two senses of indeterminacy and determinacy for form and matter, according to which 1) matter possesses an indeterminacy which “desires” to be determined by form; whence the determination of matter is a greater perfection; 2) form considered in itseld possesses an indeterminacy which, as it seems, is already its proper perfection; whence the determination of form by matter to particular thing is an imperfection.

Charles DeKoninck, in a few different essays, seems to add another set of meanings for these terms which, though different, corresponds to St. Thomas' use of the terms in the above passage. Principally, if my understanding is correct, DeKoninck is not only interested in the distinction between how these terms apply to form and to matter (though this is important to his account), but also in maintaining a hierarchical continuum in which one perceives, from the lowest to the highest grades of being, an ever increasing degree of determinate existence. Thus, DeKoninck notes, as St. Thomas does in the above passage, that prime matter is essentially indeterminate, because it is the furthest grade of being away from the being of God Himself, who is necessarily at the opposite end of the spectrum: pure and absolute determinacy. Note the difference: whereas St. Thomas above spoke of the indeterminacy or infinity of God, DeKoninck here is speaking of the absolute determinacy, though both begin with the indeterminacy of matter.

It is crucial to realize that this is no contradiction – an equivocation, yes, but the equivocal terms are intricately related to each other. DeKoninck notes a difference between positive and negative indetermination, and he notes that “absolute determination is the very source of the highest form of positive indetermination, which is essentially perfection.” (Thomism and Scientific Indeterminism) Note how DeKoninck employs St. Thomas' terms here: the infinity of God, which is essentially His perfection, is sheer positive indetermination. But this “results” (this is necessarily inadequate language when speaking of God) from the absolute determination of God's being, His absolute necessity, the completeness of His actuality.

God's absolute determination, which corresponds to His infinity – positive indetermination – is to be contrasted with the determinationfinitude – of composite beings, which, precisely insofar as they are composed, possess a degree of negative indetermination, which is the source of their contingency. Finite immaterial beings, such as angels, are composed of essence and existence; therefore their being is to this degree contingent, since their essences do not necessarily exist. Since, in such things, existence is to essence as act to potency, essence as a potential principles ushers in a certain indeterminacy and thus contingency: it may or may not be. DeKoninck writes: “This form of indetermination is essentially imperfection.”

Thus, again DeKoninck writes, “In other words, there exists a constant relation between the degree of essential determination and the degree of positive indetermination.” The more determinate is an essence, i.e. the more necessary is its existence, the greater is its positive indetermination – its approach to absolute infinity. By contrast, the less determinate is an essence, i.e. the more contingent is its existence, the greater is its negative indetermination.

In material beings, matter itself ushers in a new kind of negative indetermination that is part of the essence itself, for matter is itself a principle of indeterminacy in relation to form. “In cosmic beings there is not only indetermination of the essence relative to its existence:” - as is the case with angels – but “there is a negative indetermination within the very essence.” “Such an essence cannot be considered as purely determinate even in the order of essence, for its matter remains in potency to other forms.”

Thus, matter is negative indetermination, pure potency, that is given some degree of determinacy by form. The matter-form composite essence thus possesses a limited degree of formal determinacy, that is nonetheless checked by a margin of material (and negative) indetermination, since its matter is still in potency to other forms. But the more perfected matter becomes by the reception of higher forms, the more does it approach pure determination (though it never reaches it), and thus the higher does it approach positive indetermination, which is the perfection of spirituality. The highest degree of essential determination, and hence positive indetermination, that a material creature can attain is in the case of man, who has got a foot in two worlds at once: the world of matter, and the world of spirit. Man has a certain participation in the determinacy of form that belongs to the angels – a certain subsistence and necessity – although he is still limited and individuated by matter. Man is like the angels in possessing the determinacy which results in subsistent spiritual existence, and the positive indeterminacy which gives rise to true perfection and freedom.

There are at least four senses of determinacy/indeterminacy at play in this discussion. 1) Negative indeterminacy, which results from a) matter, or b) essence relative to a distinct existence; 2) positive indeterminacy, or unlimited actuality, which itself corresponds to a certain 3) determinacy of essence, which involves the fullness of actuality; and 4) determinacy of individuation, which results from a) matter in the case of form being determined to a particular individual; or, in the case of angels, from b) the identity of an angel to its own essence.

DeKoninck draws some interesting conclusions from this account of determinacy and indeterminacy. One conclusion has to do with the nature of science. Matter is something in flux; hence certainty means something much less for the natural sciences than it does for philosophy. The intellect's grasp of any sphere of objects is proportional to the inherent certainty and fixity – determinacy – of that sphere. But the natural sphere, i.e. beings of matter and motion, essentially involves a degree of indeterminacy, whence it is inherently less certain. Its being, its actuality, is something incomplete precisely because it is material. This means that, rather than holding to a fixed standard of philosophical certainty and dismissing all knowledge that does not and cannot attain that certainty, the philosopher should respect the natural sciences according to the place that they occupy in the larger scheme of things. It is wrongheaded to dismiss the sciences as untrustworthy because 'scientists can't seem to attain certainty about anything.' Of course the certainty of natural science is something less than philosophic, because the very objects of the sciences have less in them that can be known with certainty - that does not mean there is no certainty to be had. There is a certainty that belongs to science that is in proportion to the objective certainty – determinacy – of material being, which may be lesser, but is still real. An authentic attitude towards the sciences will see them in their proper places, and will accept the certainty which they offer in proportion to the determinacy of their objects. (A clearer explanation of all this is given by a former tutor of mine at TAC, here.)

More significantly, DeKoninck draws another startling conclusion, which is that evolution culminating in man is a necessary result of the potency of matter for all form in hierarchic order; that is, matter is potency, a desire for actuality, and the most actual that a material being can be is to be man. Man alone, among all material creatures, possesses spirituality of form. The realization of matter's potency must necessarily be accomplished through time – there is no other way for material potency to be actualized; hence the being of man is necessarily something historical and evolutionary. Indeed, the being of the whole cosmos is something evolutionary, because it is ordered to man as the term of its becoming. This is a very complex subject, (not to mention controversial,) which DeKoninck treats most fully in his work, Cosmos. But it is worthy of note simply in itself that DeKoninck is a rare example of a staunch Thomist with a great respect for the the natural sciences, and whose very Thomism gives him a basis to defend the theory of evolution as something good and even necessary for any theist to hold, in full harmony with a traditional hierarchical view of the cosmos. 

More thoughts to come soon, hopefully, exploring the possible ramifications of this for Platonism...

Saturday, 29 July 2017

A Few Thoughts on Form


These reflections might not all be perfectly lucid or sound; they are just reflections. No cohesive or systematic program of thought went into any of this, just a flow of thought about logical possibilities. Later, when I am able to devote more of my time explicitly to texts and research, I will hopefully provide much more in-depth thought on these subjects, and more. Critical commentary welcome below.

Note: What follows applies principally to the forms of sensible things. Beings such as angels are a discussion of their own.

Form, in Plato, is the intelligible identity and the reality of a things. A thing is not its form; but its reality, its actuality, its whatness, is indeed its form. A thing is distinct from that which makes it what it is; it is distinct from its whatness. Its whatness, its form, is thus distinct from itself; it is separate. Is it a mistake to interpret Plato's theory of forms as a theory of “two worlds”? Must the separation of form imply a distinct “world” of intelligibles parallel to the world of sensibles? Or does separation mean anything more than the distinction between a thing and its essence? In sensible things, even St. Thomas admits this distinction, without feeling the need to hypostasize the essence or form of a thing. This is St. Thomas' (and Aristotle's before him) critique of Plato, that the forms seem to acquire the status of individual hypostases. Perhaps this is an easy mistake to make, in interpreting Plato. We note, further, that Thomas himself had very little direct experience of Plato's texts. Perhaps, however, if he himself had read the dialogues of Plato, he might have approved of Plato's intuitive grasp of the distinction between things and their forms or essences; he might also have very much approved of Plato's insistence that this form or essence constitutes the very reality of the thing itself, more so than its matter constitutes this reality – and more, perhaps, than the composite itself of form and matter?

This last thing remains to be settled in my mind: Which is more real: form, or the composite of form and matter? In an absolute sense, to be sure, the mode in which anything exists as purely formal, that is, as Pure Act, is more real than the mode in which it exists as composite; i.e. its existence in the mind of God is, simpliciter, more real than its existence in itself as composite. (This is not to exclude other senses, secundum quid, in which the composite existence is more real; but that is for another discussion.) The doctrine of the divine ideas is St. Thomas' appropriation of the Platonic theory of forms. The divine ideas are the formal exemplars of things, as they are conceived in the divine intellect. Their existence in the divine intellect is the absolute condition of their existence and intelligibility as composite beings, the condition of their entire being – in themselves and in the intellects of non-divine beings. They exist as composites of form and matter – or in the case of immaterial substances such as angels, of essence and existence (either way, composites of act and potency) – only because they exist in the first place as purely formal, or purely actual, in the mind of God. The Platonic doctrine of form is really based on an intuition of the absolute priority of actuality, which is a priority admitted by both Aristotle and Thomas. This absolute priority of actuality is the condition for all posterior modes of existence – and modes of intelligibility.

Therefore, Plato asserts that the reality of things, namely their form or essence, is something divine. It is, in a sense, other-worldly – not to literally posit a “two-world” theory of forms, but rather drawing attention to the transcendence of form that is, at the same time, immanent in things. For anything to be real is for it to participate in something transcendent and divine, something more than the mere composition of form and matter that makes it to be “this thing.” To attend to the most real reality of a thing, one would do better to attend not merely to what constitutes it as this or that individual thing, but to what constitutes it as this kind of thing; and even better, one would attend to the relation which it bears, not merely to the principles of its own inner constitution, but to the divine reality which is its exemplar. There is here a process of ascent: first one perceives the thing in its own individuality, its existence as a composite, a “this” or a “that.” Second, one abstracts from the phantasm of this object its intelligible form, by means of the agent intellect, thereby distinguishing it in kind from all other kinds. Thirdly, one rises even from this form, the intelligible species, to the divine species of which it is but a participation and a reflection. In this threefold process, one ultimately knows God, in whom things exist in the most real way, absolutely and unconditionally, through the limited and conditioned existences of things which one encounters in the world of perception. One discovers the divinity of pure form, pure actuality, which is itself the very reality and condition of all composite things, as well as of the understanding of such things.

But the composition of form and matter – or existence and essence, or any act and potency – is not the composition of God with things. For God does not enter into composition; He is not the actuality of any composite. St. Thomas perceived another danger in the Platonic account as he understood it, namely that it entailed a certain pantheism. But could not one avoid this, while maintaining the essential elements of the theory of forms? St. Thomas himself admits of many modes of existence, even of a single thing. As a composite being, it exists in a state of actuality, but an actuality which is the act of some potency (hence its composition). Or it may exist in a state of potency in the unformed matter of which it is partly composed, along with form; it is form which bestows actuality upon this matter, thereby bringing about its actual composite existence. But there is also a mode of existence which is actual – not the act of any potency, but purely actual and uncomposed. This is the mode of existence which belongs to God. In this mode, all beings exist as ideas in the divine intellect. This is a purely formal mode of existence. In the coming to be of a composite mode of existence, God, or God's idea, does not enter into composition with matter, but He impresses His idea upon matter as a seal upon wax, such that the form received by the wax is an image of the divine idea itself. The potential existence of that being in matter is actualized by the reception of a form from the stamp of a divine idea. There is almost some truth to the claim that the form in the wax is the form of the seal; it is at least its image. Indeed, one would say that the pattern of the seal is the same pattern received in the wax. One does not distinguish the pattern of a patterned thing – in the patterned thing – from the pattern “itself by itself,” even if the seal is a separate entity from the formed wax. There is neither a straightforward sameness nor a straightforward separation from the two things, but a relationship of image to the paradigm; and the paradigm is both transcendent and immanent to its images.

Form, then, comes to refer to both the paradigm and the image of the paradigm which inheres in the composite being(s), not by a mere equivocation, but by a real analogy. The richness, and perhaps the very ambiguity, of Plato's doctrine of form lies in the simultaneous (and perhaps confused?) awareness of the analogy of paradigm and image. It is an awareness which, though perhaps confused, is quite necessary to the philosopher: that there is a Unity responsible for the commonality of many. The philosopher knows by abstraction a commonality amidst multiplicity, a form or a species of many composite individuals. It is a common pattern which they all follow, a nature which gives them their very reality. It strikes the eye of his mind with such a force that it almost seems more real than they, for it is their very meaning – it is their reality. The more he is aware of it, the more mysterious does it seem, the more intensive is its being, the more powerful is its influence; it seems something divine. At this point the attention of the mind is less to the things of his experience than to the unity of form that makes them what they are. Certainly, things in his experience have led him on this voyage of discovery, but what he has discovered is not them, but a reality that transcends them. He is here witnessing the very impression of the divine seal upon things, the relationship of image to paradigm. By attending ever so closely to the meaning and mystery of things, it is as if he has been sucked in to the mystery to gaze upon the startling, blinding light that casts all images. Form, as the image of a paradigm, is the portal through which the paradigm itself may be glimpsed; and the whole symphony of earthly forms together, a magnificent symbol by which the terrifying Unity of all Form is simultaneously concealed and revealed. Through form-as-image, we know the God who is pure form-as-paradigm, who is present in all and absolutely beyond all things.

These reflections have not been systematic. They have just been a train of thought. The hope is to arrive at a conception of form that unifies, or harmonizes, the Platonic and Aristotelian conceptions. Plato's conception of form need not be a hypostasized version of form, such that each among the multitude of forms acquires its own individuality; though he rightly emphasizes the separateness and distinction between form and the formed: the one a unity and the other a multiplicity of composite individuals. Form is accordingly something transcendent, because it is a paradigm distinct from all its instances; it is also something immanent because it is a paradigm that is realized – in only a participated fashion – in all its instances. (What I mean by “a participated fashion” I hope to explain in a later post.) Whereas Plato emphasizes the transcendence of form, though by no means prescinding from its immanence, Aristotle explicitly emphasizes its immanence, and the necessity of attending to the particular in order to gain true knowledge. After all, abstraction is only from particulars; knowledge begins from sensation. Form is encountered first in composition, individuated by matter. The grasping of intelligible form begins with sensible form, but is itself ordered to the contemplation of subsistent Being Itself.

Wednesday, 26 July 2017

Plato and Platonism in the Philosophy Curriculum

Plato, from the "School of Athens" by Raphael

I have done much thinking recently on the place and importance of Plato and the Platonic tradition in courses on the history of philosophy. At most Catholic, liberal arts institutions, as far as I can tell, the philosophy of Plato is somewhat sidelined: Plato is read as a handy and thought-provoking introduction to the perennial tradition, as the philosopher who gets us asking the right questions, the profound questions, and who gives us a first attempt at the right answers - but who, nonetheless, fell short of the right answers. Plato's answers, his positive philosophical accounts of the world and human nature, are given an initial cursory consideration and then dismissed as a good but ultimately inadequate attempt at getting to the truth of things. 

Enter Aristotle, the Philosopher himself, who has all the answers to Plato's questions, and the corrections to Plato's answers. We read Aristotle as our primary teacher; we identify ourselves first and foremost as Aristotle's disciples; Aristotle is, for us, the dominating influence on the Catholic Thomist philosophy which we likewise claim as our own. Plato seems to be all but forgotten. We may fondly and condescendingly remember the days in Freshman year when we read his dialogues to discover the fundamental questions of philosophy; or we remember the naively esoteric, imprecise, and unsystematic answers which he attempted to give, in order  to know, by contrast with them, the more mature and reasonable solutions of Aristotle and St. Thomas. Plato's body of thought, considered on its own merits, is deemed finally wrong, incomplete, and lacking in systematic unity.

I submit that this is a rather unjust way to read Plato, as the brave but somewhat naive philosopher whose endeavors would later be surpassed by his successors. On the contrary, Plato' positive insights - not just his questions - deserve a more serious consideration, and often hit upon nobler and profounder truths of philosophy than many Aristotelian scholastics give him credit for. Despite the possible imprecision of their formulation, the Platonic doctrines of form, participation, of the soul and its embodiment, as well as the doctrines of love and the nature of philosophy in general, should be read for their profound hidden truths and the inner "spirit" which characterizes them. Hidden in these doctrines is the conception of philosophy as an inherently mystical and even religious pursuit - this is at least its trajectory. The pursuit of wisdom, which is the knowledge of the supreme Good, is much more than a scientific or academic specialization, but a spiritual transformation of the whole man, who detaches himself from what is merely partial in the realm of being, and becomes one with the whole, with the most universal, with what is unqualifiedly the best and noblest. Plato even described the seeds of an entire ascetical way of life that conduces to this mystical ascent to the Good. Likely drawing much influence from ancient Egyptian religious sources, Plato conceives of the philosophic life as a rite of purification by spiritual death and rebirth, in preparation for the final death after which one is free to gaze upon the universal truth of things completely unimpeded. Philosophic education is an education of the whole man, not something partial and constricted, but something which gradually opens the man to the actual intelligible and all-encompassing universality of Beauty or the Good.

Furthermore, Plato's thought has indeed given rise to a number of coherent "systems" of thought (though "system" is a dangerous word) in the Neoplatonic schools. Granted, these various systems do not always agree with one another; but this is true of any variety of offshoots from an original intellectual branch of thought - even that of Aristotle or St. Thomas. The ambiguity of the original master is not necessarily a condemnation of him; it may be a sign of the richness and inexhaustibility of this thought in the first place. (Sometimes, to be sure, there is an ambiguity which is almost deliberately non-committal, an ambiguity which is guilty of shying away from the truth; but this is not always the case. While, on the one hand, the philosopher should certainly not indulge in such muddiness of thought, nor, on the other hand, should he overrate clarity and distinction of thought, as is characteristic of the Cartesian rationalist.) Moreover, even in spite of the disagreement of Plato's many disciples, there are profound truths to be learnt from all of them, individually and as a group. To read Plato well, one must also be acquainted with his disciples and commentators - among whom Aristotle himself is in fact included! - so as to comprehend and penetrate the depth, riches, and yes, even the "systematic" unity of his teaching (again employing the term "systematic" with some reservation). The mark of the Neoplatonists was their inclination to organization, rooted in an intimate familiarity with the original texts of Plato. Though perhaps less so with Plotinus, who is described as the "father of Neoplatonism," his disciples, Porphyry, Iamblichus, Proclus, and Damascius were great organizers; philosophy, for them, was very much a science, as well as a quasi rite of transformation. This tendency to organize and systematize would have an immense influence on the later medieval scholastic period, in which the Summa would become one of the predominant forms of philosophical and theological composition.

Aristotle
In this vein, I think there is a serious case to be made for a harmony rather than the conventional dichotomy between the thought of Plato and Aristotle. In the famous painting by Raphael of the School of Athens, Plato is depicted as gesturing towards the heavens, while Aristotle points to the earth, signifying the loftiness and almost other-worldliness of Plato's philosophy in contrast to Aristotle's rootedness in the earth and sensible reality. There is indeed a contrast between emphases here; but I would put forward that these two figures represent two necessary elements of philosophy as a whole: philosophy has an upward trajectory toward the heaven of divine Ideas, but it discovers these Ideas only in their earthly reflection, which is the form identified by Aristotle as one of the principles of natural beings. The mystical direction of philosophy is preserved by a necessary element of Platonism, and the grounded, "down-to-earth" character of Aristotelianism is necessary for keeping this Platonism in touch with reality. I think it would not be unfair to say that, ultimately, one cannot be a good philosopher without being a Platonist, nor a good Platonist without being an Aristotelian. Moreover, it would be simply naive to read Aristotle while ignoring the evidently Platonic and upward trajectory of even his philosophy, which is exemplified in the tenth book of the Nicomachean Ethics, where he defines the essence of happiness as the philosophic contemplation of the best and noblest things. This is not far off from Plato's own conception of wisdom, which is the contemplation of the supreme form of the Good. 

Again along similar lines, I think there is a case to be made for the heavy influence of Platonic thought on St. Thomas Aquinas. Much of this influence was certainly unknown to himself, but St. Thomas was a devoted disciple of St. Augustine and Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite, who were unabashed Platonists; and Thomas himself later in life became well-acquainted with a couple of crucial texts of Neoplatonism, namely the Liber de Causis by an anonymous author (whom most at the time thought to be Aristotle, but Thomas himself showed otherwise), and also the Elements of Theology of Proclus. Too often we suppose that St. Thomas as a philosopher was simply an Aristotelian; but in fact, as Josef Pieper argues, it is impossible to situate the Angelic Doctor within one single and exclusive school of thought. St. Thomas was a synthesizer, in the best sense, of a multitude of traditions which he inherited from many different sources. Certainly, St. Thomas played a large role in bringing Aristotle to the table, in the context of a medieval academic world which was perhaps more influenced by Platonism at the time; but St. Thomas was no outsider to his time, and it is mistaken to suppose that the primary struggle of that period in the history of philosophy was between Platonism and Aristotelianism as competing philosophies. St. Thomas is proof, not of the competition between them, but of their wonderful compatibility.

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.

I do not claim to have all the solutions to the questions of how Plato and Aristotle and St. Thomas harmonize together; but there is already good work being done on this question by various renowned scholars. Among such scholars are Dr. Wayne Hankey of Dalhousie University, Dr. Lloyd Gerson of the University of Toronto, Dr. Eric Perl of Loyola Marymount, and others, have written extensively on this and related subjects. Moreover, there is a whole host of other recent publications which delve into these questions, which I hope to utilize in my own researches. This blog will hopefully include a slow record of my own eventual and gradual discoveries...

Thursday, 20 July 2017

An Education in Beauty

Socrates and Diotima

These words of the prophetess, Diotima of Mantineia, to the young Socrates, adequately describe what I think belongs to the philosophic education as such: more than an academic specialization, but a formation of the whole man, so that his nature is gradually fulfilled by an ever greater union with the universal form of Beauty itself. True education leads (educare) the whole man from the mere partial messiness and indeterminacy of earthly beauty, and raises him up unto the perception of the absolute Beauty which gives itself to all earthly beauties. This is not merely an education of the mind, but of the heart also; not only a progression in knowledge, but a journey of love. The philosopher is not a wise man, Socrates points out in the Phaedrus, but a lover and a seeker of Wisdom - and indeed, of Beauty. The journey, the pursuit, the gradual taking of possession, is described in this wonderful passage from the Symposium, which I think ought to be taken as a model for all programs of liberal education. 
"For he who would proceed aright in this matter should begin in youth to visit beautiful forms; and first, if he be guided by his instructor aright, to love one such form only-out of that he should create fair thoughts; and soon he will of himself perceive that the beauty of one form is akin to the beauty of another; and then if beauty of form in general is his pursuit, how foolish would he be not to recognize that the beauty in every form is and the same! And when he perceives this he will abate his violent love of the one, which he will despise and deem a small thing, and will become a lover of all beautiful forms; in the next stage he will consider that the beauty of the mind is more honourable than the beauty of the outward form. So that if a virtuous soul have but a little comeliness, he will be content to love and tend him, and will search out and bring to the birth thoughts which may improve the young, until he is compelled to contemplate and see the beauty of institutions and laws, and to understand that the beauty of them all is of one family, and that personal beauty is a trifle; and after laws and institutions he will go on to the sciences, that he may see their beauty, being not like a servant in love with the beauty of one youth or man or institution, himself a slave mean and narrow-minded, but drawing towards and contemplating the vast sea of beauty, he will create many fair and noble thoughts and notions in boundless love of wisdom; until on that shore he grows and waxes strong, and at last the vision is revealed to him of a single science, which is the science of beauty everywhere. To this I will proceed; please to give me your very best attention:  
"He who has been instructed thus far in the things of love, and who has learned to see the beautiful in due order and succession, when he comes toward the end will suddenly perceive a nature of wondrous beauty (and this, Socrates, is the final cause of all our former toils)-a nature which in the first place is everlasting, not growing and decaying, or waxing and waning; secondly, not fair in one point of view and foul in another, or at one time or in one relation or at one place fair, at another time or in another relation or at another place foul, as if fair to some and-foul to others, or in the likeness of a face or hands or any other part of the bodily frame, or in any form of speech or knowledge, or existing in any other being, as for example, in an animal, or in heaven or in earth, or in any other place; but beauty absolute, separate, simple, and everlasting, which without diminution and without increase, or any change, is imparted to the ever-growing and perishing beauties of all other things. He who from these ascending under the influence of true love, begins to perceive that beauty, is not far from the end. And the true order of going, or being led by another, to the things of love, is to begin from the beauties of earth and mount upwards for the sake of that other beauty, using these as steps only, and from one going on to two, and from two to all fair forms, and from fair forms to fair practices, and from fair practices to fair notions, until from fair notions he arrives at the notion of absolute beauty, and at last knows what the essence of beauty is. This, my dear Socrates," said the stranger of Mantineia, "is that life above all others which man should live, in the contemplation of beauty absolute; a beauty which if you once beheld, you would see not to be after the measure of gold, and garments, and fair boys and youths, whose presence now entrances you; and you and many a one would be content to live seeing them only and conversing with them without meat or drink, if that were possible-you only want to look at them and to be with them. But what if man had eyes to see the true beauty-the divine beauty, I mean, pure and dear and unalloyed, not clogged with the pollutions of mortality and all the colours and vanities of human life-thither looking, and holding converse with the true beauty simple and divine? Remember how in that communion only, beholding beauty with the eye of the mind, he will be enabled to bring forth, not images of beauty, but realities (for he has hold not of an image but of a reality), and bringing forth and nourishing true virtue to become the friend of God and be immortal, if mortal man may. Would that be an ignoble life?"  (Symposium, 210a-212a)