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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.)

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...