Economics is a Wisdom

I’m teaching a philosophical theology elective this fall, with Aquinas (surprise, surprise) serving as the backbone of the course (though with a good measure of Anselm and Tolkien thrown in as well). One of the central themes of the class, moreover, is what I refer to as Aquinas’s “grammar and logic of divine action”: the way in which he draws from the fundamental principles of human action–including such concepts as ends, goods, intellect, will, choice, power, etc.–in order to articulate what we can know (albeit analogically and negatively) about God’s own being and action; but also the way in which, in doing so, Aquinas effectively establishes God as the first, ideal or paradigmatic actor against which all human action, including specifically economic action, is ultimately to be compared and understood. For Aquinas, in sum, our theology of divine action is both informed by and informative of the grammar and logic of human action.

The Aquinas readings in the course begin where Aquinas himself commences his two great works of theology and philosophy, the Summa Theologiae and the Summa Contra Gentiles. In the opening passages of these works I identify at least four distinct levels or respects in which I think economics might be seen to be not only relevant but integral to Aquinas’s overall theological and philosophical project. The first (I’ll address the other three in subsequent posts) has to do with the fact that, as Aquinas argues in Summa Contra Gentiles 1.1 (see passage below), the most universal and encompassing mode of all human inquiry and knowledge is philosophy, or “wisdom,” which he characterizes as the knowledge of things in their ordering towards their end. Thus, a particular branch of philosophy or wisdom, such as architecture, he says, consists in the knowledge of particular things as they are ordered to a particular end, while a more universal wisdom, such as theology, is that which understands a more universal order of things as they are ordered to a more universal end. But if so, then economics, which I define, in a certain Thomistic revision of Lionel Robbin’s well-known and influential definition, as the science of action in its use of scarce means as they are ordered to a desired end, is to be properly classified as a branch or sub-discipline within philosophy or wisdom. Economics, in short, is a wisdom. 

SCG 1.1: “The Office of the Wise Man”

The usage of the multitude, which according to the Philosopher is to be followed in giving names to things, has commonly held that they are to be called wise who order things rightly and govern them well. Hence, among other things that men have conceived about the wise man, the Philosopher includes the notion that “it belongs to the wise man to order.” Now, the rule of government and order for all things directed to an end must be taken from the end. For, since the end of each thing is its good, a thing is then best disposed when it is fittingly ordered to its end. And so we see among the arts that one functions as the governor and the ruler of another because it controls its end. Thus, the art of medicine rules and orders the art of the chemist because health, with which medicine is concerned, is the end of all the medications prepared by the art of the chemist. A similar situation obtains in the art of ship navigation in relation to shipbuilding, and in the military art with respect to the equestrian art and the equipment of war. The arts that rule other arts are called architectonic, as being the ruling arts. That is why the artisans devoted to these arts, who are called master artisans, appropriate to themselves the name of wise men. But, since these artisans are concerned, in each case, with the ends of certain particular things, they do not reach to the universal end of all things. They are therefore said to be wise with respect to this or that thing; in which sense it is said that “as a wise architect, I have laid the foundation” (1 Cor. 3:10). The name of the absolutely wise man, however, is reserved for him whose consideration is directed to the end of the universe, which is also the origin of the universe. That is why, according to the Philosopher, it belongs to the wise man to consider the highest causes.

Did Adam Dream?

According to Aquinas, yes.

In his Disputed Questions on Truth 18.6, Aquinas raises the question, “Could Adam in the state of innocence be mistaken or deceived?” (See his parallel article in ST I.94.4). One of the objections he raises concerns Adam’s ability to dream:

Obj. 14. In the state of innocence man would have slept, and likewise would have dreamed, as Boethius says. But every man is deceived in dreams, since to some extent he considers the likenesses of things as if they were the things themselves. Therefore, in the state of innocence Adam could be deceived.

Aquinas answers:

Reply 14. Some say that in the state of innocence Adam did not dream. But this is not necessary, for the vision of dreams is not in the intellective, but in the sensitive, part. Hence, the deception would not have been in the understanding, which does not have free exercise in sleep, but in the sensitive part.

Adam could not be deceived in his intellect, but this is not to say that things could not appear otherwise than they are in the senses. And this is where the “deceptions” of dreams take place.

Eve on the (Non-)Possibility of Talking Serpents

Another project has me working on Aquinas’s “economics of Eden” at the moment, and I thought Aquinas’s brief discussion of what Eve must have thought about a talking serpent would be of interest here. In Summa Theologiae I.94.4, Aquinas raises the question of “Whether Man in His First State Could Be Deceived,” with his answer being in the negative. The second objection he raises against his position, however, comes from no less than Peter Lombard:

Obj. 2: Further, the Master says (Sent. ii, D, xxi) that, “the woman was not frightened at the serpent speaking, because she thought that he had received the faculty of speech from God.” But this was untrue. Therefore before sin the woman was deceived.

And Aquinas’s reply:

Reply Obj. 2: The woman thought that the serpent had received this faculty, not as acting in accordance with nature, but by virtue of some supernatural operation. We need not, however, follow the Master of the Sentences in this point.

In the previous article, ST I.94.3, Aquinas had argued that Adam would have had perfect natural knowledge of all things, and in the sed contra in particular he makes the point that “Man named the animals (Gen. 2:20). But names should be adapted to the nature of things. Therefore Adam knew the animals’ natures; and in like manner he was possessed of the knowledge of all other things.” Adam, therefore, knowing all creaturely natures by a direct act of divine illumination, would have known that serpents can’t talk. Whether Eve also possessed such comprehensive knowledge or not Aquinas doesn’t say–his unfortunate view of woman’s imperfection in comparison to man would suggest not. What he implies here, at least, is that she also would have known that serpents can’t talk by their natural power, and so would have surmised that the serpent was only able to speak “by virtue of some supernatural operation.” By “supernatural power,” it’s unclear whether Aquinas means any power above the serpent’s own, natural power–in which case Eve’s supposition would have been technically correct, on the supposition that the serpent was speaking by angelic power, and Lombard would have been mistaken–or whether he means, with Lombard, God’s own power–in which case Eve would have been mistaken, if not exactly deceived, but then it’s not clear what Aquinas’s disagreement with Lombard is. Either way, even if Eve had been born yesterday, for Aquinas, she seems to have known an impossibility when she saw one.

Manwë’s Thomism After All?

I posted last week on the un-Thomism of Manwë’s statement that, because of the great beauty in song that will result from the Noldor’s rebellion, “evil [will] yet be good to have been.” After revisiting another passage from Aquinas today, however, I’m prepared to acknowledge that Manwë’s statement may have been more Thomistic than I realized, and that, if so, this fact might reflect well on neither Manwë’s Thomism nor St. Thomas’s.

To review, I had juxtaposed the above statement by Manwë with Aquinas’s argument, in Summa Theologiae I.19.9 ad 1, that, whatever the good that may come of evil, it is nevertheless “not correct” to say that “it is good that evil should be or be done.” Aquinas gives as an example the good of the patience of the martyrs brought about through the persecution of tyrants: because “it was beside the intention of tyrants that the patience of the martyrs should shine forth from all their persecutions,” he argues, “It cannot therefore be said that such an ordering to good is implied in the statement that it is a good thing that evil should be or be done, since nothing is judged of by that which appertains to it accidentally, but by that which belongs to it essentially.” For Aquinas, in other words, even if good is brought out of evil, even good that otherwise would not have existed were it not occasioned by the evil, one cannot rightly say of any given instance of evil that it was “good” for it to happen, since there is no essential, but only at best an accidental relationship between the evil that occurred and the good that was brought about as a result or in response. The Noldor’s rebellion may have brought about beauty that otherwise would not have existed (which is not to say that there would have been any less beauty–but only a different beauty–had they not rebelled), but it does not follow that it was therefore “good” that they rebelled.

Only a few questions later, however, in Summa Theologiae I.22.2 ad 2, Aquinas would seem to reverse his above argument in a way that sounds, well, awfully Manwë-ish. First is the following objection that Aquinas raises to his thesis that “everything is subject to the providence of God,” which reads:

a wise provider excludes any defect or evil, as far as he can, from those over whom he has a care. But we see many evils existing. Either, then, God cannot hinder these, and thus is not omnipotent; or else He does not have care for everything. (ST I.22.2 obj. 2)

In his reply, Aquinas counters that, on the contrary,

It is otherwise with one who has care of a particular thing, and one whose providence is universal, because a particular provider excludes all defects from what is subject to his care as far as he can; whereas, one who provides universally allows some little defect to remain, lest the good of the whole should be hindered. Hence, corruption and defects in natural things are said to be contrary to some particular nature; yet they are in keeping with the plan of universal nature; inasmuch as the defect in one thing yields to the good of another, or even to the universal good: for the corruption of one is the generation of another, and through this it is that a species is kept in existence. Since God, then, provides universally for all being, it belongs to His providence to permit certain defects in particular effects, that the perfect good of the universe may not be hindered, for if all evil were prevented, much good would be absent from the universe. A lion would cease to live, if there were no slaying of animals; and there would be no patience of martyrs if there were no tyrannical persecution. Thus Augustine says (Enchiridion 2): “Almighty God would in no wise permit evil to exist in His works, unless He were so almighty and so good as to produce good even from evil.” It would appear that it was on account of these two arguments to which we have just replied, that some were persuaded to consider corruptible things—e.g. casual and evil things—as removed from the care of divine providence.

What is interesting is that Aquinas uses the exact same illustration of the tyrant and the martyr, only this time to argue the almost opposite conclusion. Here Aquinas’s point is that there are some goods proper to the created order which are not possible except in the event of real (moral) evil. As Aquinas clearly implies here, there is a kind of good that would be “hindered” if God were not to allow its corresponding, occasioning evil, such that (we might presume) the total level of good in the universe would be less, and what is more, the good of creation would go unrealized, if God were not to allow for it. This, I submit, is not only a different claim, but an even contrary one to what he had argued in question 19, cited above. Based on this version of Aquinas, in other words, Manwë could indeed claim that it was “good for evil to have been.” But I still maintain that in saying this, neither Manwë nor Aquinas are being properly Thomistic.

Aquinas on the “Buffoons and Comedians” of the Red Carpet (literally)

The Academy Awards are tomorrow, making it an opportune moment to reflect, not so much on what Aquinas might have said about the event, so much as what he actually did say about it. In his commentary on Aristotle’s discussion of the excess and vice of frivolous ostentation, Aquinas writes:

He says that the man who is immoderate in grand outlays—called banausos because he consumes his goods as in a furnace—exceeds the munificent person not in the absolute amount spent but in spending in a way contrary to what he should. The reason is that he uses much money in superfluous expenses, and wants to make lavish expenditures contrary to harmony, i.e., against the right proportion—which is said by way of metaphor—for instance, he entertains buffoons and comedians with nuptial banquets, contributes much to actors, even rolling out the red carpet for their entry, as the Megarians (certain Greek citizens) are in the habit of doing. He does all these and similar things not for some good but for making a show of his riches, thinking that he will be admired for this reason. However, he does not always spend lavishly but sometimes he falls short. Where he ought to spend much, he spends little; but where little, much. The reason is that he does not keep his eye on the good but on vanity. (Commentary on Aristotle’s Ethics, bk, 4, ch. 1, Litzinger trans.)

Aquinas’s Shepherd Angels

Now that my book on Tolkien’s Thomistic metaphysics is published, it’s of course time for me to start noticing all the things I (inevitably) failed to include. In this discussion, for example, of the power of Aquinas’s angels over the physical world, one of the passages that might be added is the following objection and Aquinas’s response to the role of the angels in bringing the animals before Adam to name (ST I, Q. 96, art. 1):

Objection 1: It would seem that in the state of innocence Adam had no mastership over the animals. For Augustine says (Gen. ad lit. ix, 14) that the animals were brought to Adam, under the direction of the angels, to receive their names from him. But the angels need not have intervened thus, if man himself were master over the animals. Therefore in the state of innocence man had no mastership of the animals.

Reply Obj. 1: A higher power can do many things that an inferior power cannot do to those which are subject to them. Now an angel is naturally higher than man. Therefore certain things in regard to animals could be done by angels, which could not be done by man; for instance, the rapid gathering together of all the animals.

To the angels’ many other powers, accordingly, Aquinas adds this: an (unexamined and unexplained) capacity to gather animals together in a short amount of time. Aquinas may not, unlike Tolkien, have sub-creative angels, but he does allow for shepherd ones.

Impassibility, or ‘Suprapassibility’? Christ’s Divine Nature as the Possibility of His Human Nature

Anselm’s Cur Deus Homo, part 7.

After an interlude in which Boso mounts an effective criticism of the Ransom Theory of Atonement (ch. 6-7), when Anselm presses him to state what it is precisely that people find in the doctrine of the Incarnation to be contrary to reason, Boso reiterates the earlier aesthetic objection with now an additional, economic twist: “that the Most High descends to such lowly things, that the Almighty does something so laboriously” (ch. 8). This time, surprisingly, instead of countering with an argument for the fittingness of God doing such things, Anselm responds by conceding the objection, all the while denying that it was the divine nature rather than the human nature of Christ that endured such labor and lowliness. According to Anselm, “For without doubt we maintain that the divine nature is impassible—that it cannot at all be brought down from its exaltation and cannot labor in what it wills to do… Therefore, when we state that God undergoes some lowliness or weakness, we understand this to be in accordance with the weakness of the human substance which He assumed, not in accordance with the sublimity of His impassible nature.” Anselm reprises here his position on divine impassibility from Proslogion 8, where he had argued that, because God has no passions and hence can have no “heart sorrowful out of compassion for the wretched—the very thing which being merciful is,” it follows that while God may be merciful “from our point of view” and in our experience of his “effects,” he is not merciful in himself or in his own “experience.” Yet Anselm’s argument may be set in contrast with his own discussion of divine sense perception only two chapters earlier in the Proslogion. Although God does not have a body, Anselm reasons, because sense perception is ordered towards knowledge, and “whatever in some ways knows is not unsuitably (non inconvenienter) said in some way to perceive,” and because God knows all things, God may be said not to lack sense perception so much as to be “supremely able to perceive” (Pros. 6). If so, then by the same reasoning we might conclude, contrary to Anselm, that insofar as creaturely passions such as mercy and vicarious suffering are ordered towards love, and God is love, neither should it “unsuitably be said” that God is merciful or that, in the Incarnation, there is a sense in which even the divine nature itself “undergoes some lowliness or weakness.” If it involved a created perfection, after all, for Christ’s human nature to experience these things, and if all created perfections preexist in the divine being (as Anselm argues, for example, in Monologion 9), then at some level we must affirm that all the goodness and sacrifice involved in the course of Christ’s human experience preexisted—albeit in an eminent and impassible, or as we prefer to say, superpassible fashion—there as well. On Anselm’s own theological metaphysics, in sum, it is what the divine nature of Christ is that is the foundation of every creaturely possibility, including the possibilities of Christ’s human nature.

Is Aesthetic Fittingness at Odds with Rational Necessity?

Anselm’s Cur Deus Homo, part 6.

To Anselm’s list of the ways in which the Incarnation is fitting, Boso responds by invoking once again Anselm’s theology-as-art metaphor, stating that Anselm’s account amounts only to so many “beautiful pictures, as it were” (pulchra et quasi quaedam picturae suscipienda sunt), but that without “a solid foundation upon which they rest, they do not seem to unbelievers to suffice for showing why we ought to believe that God was willing to suffer these things of which we are speaking” (ch. 4). Instead, Boso insists that “first of all we must exhibit the truth’s firm rational foundation, i.e., the cogent reasoning which proves that God should or could have humbled Himself to undergo those things which we proclaim,” and only this has been done should such “considerations of fittingness … be set forth as pictures of this body-of-truth.” According to Boso, showing the aesthetic fittingness of a belief is one thing whereas demonstrating its rational necessity is something else entirely, a view that some scholars have interpreted Anselm to share in and therefore as determining the structure of the subsequent argument of the dialogue.[1] As we have already seen, however, the aesthetic perspective of the Cur Deus Homo is one that Anselm commits himself to before the fictional framework of the dialogue even begins, and as I further argued, the whole criterion of aesthetic fittingness is one that is indissociably bound up with his view that such theological investigations can at best approximate an otherwise unfathomable truth and therefore only ever attain an at most provisional kind of necessity or certainty. Corroborating this interpretation, moreover, is that in his reply to Boso, Anselm says nothing that would concede to Boso the validity of his distinction between mere theological word-pictures on the one hand and putatively more “rational” considerations on the other. Instead, he merely reasserts his principle that fittingness comes with it its own form of necessity: “Do not the following considerations,” Anselm rejoins, “seem to constitute a very cogent argument for why God ought to have done those things about which we are speaking?: viz., that the human race—His very precious work—had utterly perished; and it was not fitting that God plan for man should be completely thwarted; and this plan of Gods’ could not be carried out unless the human race was set free by its very Creator.” In the following chapter, finally, it is not Anselm who yields to Boso’s distinction between necessity and fittingness, but in his plaintive question as to whether there was not a “much more tolerable” (multo tolerabilius) way in which this liberation might have been accomplished, it is Boso who yields to Anselm’s identify of necessity with fittingness (ch. 5).

[1] Sandra Visser and Thomas Williams express this view in their critique of Brian Leftow’s interpretation of the argument of the Cur Deus Homo along aesthetic lines when they argue that, for Anselm, “appeals to what is fitting are superfluous from a strictly philosophical point of view; Anselm does not use them to establish the truth of the Christian account of redemption, but to show the attractiveness of that truth once it has been established. Indeed, Boso insists from early on in Cur Deus Homo that Anselm not appeal to considerations of fittingness as though they could serve as independent philosophical considerations in favor of the Christian account of redemption. Anselm tries to use such considerations in response to Boso’s initial statemnt of unbelievers’ objections to the Christian account, but Boso immediately rejects them as unpersuasive… In deference to Boso’s complains, Anselm does not raise the ‘poetic parallels’ that Leftow cites from Cur Deus Homo until after he has established that it is necessary for God to become incarnate and lay down his life as recompense for human sin.” Visser and Williams, Anselm, 219. Counter to Visser and Williams’s latter claim, however, and in addition to the argument I make presently, Anselm continues to appeal to considerations of fittingness throughout the remainder of book one of the Cur Deus Homo.

Cur Deus Homo: A Tale of Two Aesthetics

Anselm’s Cur Deus Homo, part 5

Anselm’s stress on the aesthetic and artistic dimensions of the doctrines of the Incarnation and Atonement is fitting for a further reason, which is that, as Boso goes on to indicate, much of the case against these doctrines turns on a similarly aesthetic objection to them. In Boso’s words, “The unbelievers who scoff at our simplicity raise against us the following objection: that we dishonor and affront God when we maintain that He descended in to the womb of a woman, that He was born of a woman, that He grew, being nourished by milk and food for human beings, and—not to mention many other things which seem to be unsuitable for God (multa alia taceam quae deo non uidentur conuenire)—that He experienced weariness, hunger, thirst, scourging, and (in the midst of thieves) crucifixion and death” (ch. 3). Anselm’s response to Boso’s aesthetic objection to the Incarnation, however, is to posit an even more insistent counter-aesthetic, as he ticks off a litany of ways in which the salvation accomplished through the Incarnation and Atonement of Christ perfectly corresponds to the story of humankind’s original rebellion and fall. As Anselm protests, “We do not at all dishonor or affront God,” but instead praise him for his manifest mercy, goodness, love, and grace in saving us in a manner so “appropriate” (convenienter) and “proper” (oportebat), and concludes that what we have here is “manifest a certain inexpressible beauty (inenarrabilem pulchritudinem) in our redemption’s having been accomplished in this manner.” Fundamentally at issue in the Cur Deus Homo, in other words, is two conflicting and irreconcilable theological aesthetics or visions of what is and what is not fitting for God to do.

Bad Theologians as Bad Artists

Anselm’s Cur Deus Homo, part 4

In his argument for the necessity of the Incarnation in the Cur Deus Homo, Anselm describes the subject matter of the present inquiry as “Him who is beautiful in appearance above the sons of men” and so “adorned” with a divine “rationale which exceeds human understanding.” For this reason, he confesses to feeling a certain burden that the form of his own argument should appropriately approximate the beauty of God’s own reasoning manifested in his accomplishing so marvelous a salvation. Anselm’s “fear,” he says, is “that just as I am accustomed to become indignant with untalented artists when I see the Lord Himself portrayed with an uncomely countenance, so it may happen to me that I provoke indignation if I presume to explore such an elegant topic by an inelegant and contemptible discourse.” The incompetent theologian, in other words, is like an inept artist, depicting what is beautiful beyond compare as something ugly and base. Anselm’s interlocutor, Boso, building on Anselm’s metaphor, seeks to allay his concerns by noting that the latter has already given license to those who can “to say these things better,” and reminds him that neither has he forbidden anyone who “does not like your discourse from writing more beautifully” himself. It is at this point that Anselm makes his caveat, stated earlier, that although his purpose is to prove the Incarnation “rationally, it should be accepted as certain only in the sense that it appears to me for the time being to be thus, until God somehow reveals the matter to me more fully” (ch. 2). As the artist-theologian, in sum, Anselm’s task is to represent the beauty and intelligibility of the faith as best he can, all the while continuing to wait in humility and hope for an even greater—both logically and aesthetically—representation of the “deeper rationale” (altiores rationes) yet to be unveiled. For Anselm, the reason the “rational” necessity of the Incarnation is only ever at most an aesthetic or “fitting” necessity is that, given the finitude of human reason, it is for the present always at most a “provisional” or “possible” necessity.

Cur Deus Homo: Anselm’s Theological Sub-Creation

Anselm’s Cur Deus Homo, part 3

Connected with Anselm’s increased attention to the aesthetics of reason of the Cur Deus Homo is his choice of the dialogue form to convey the “fitting necessity” or “necessary fittingness” of the Incarnation. In the Monologion Anselm had represented his method of proceeding by “reason alone” (sola ratione) as sufficient to persuade even an unbeliever who was either ignorant or skeptical of what Christians believe about God (ch. 1). Yet in his prologue he had also indicated that the “unbeliever” from whose vantage point this meditation was conducted was in fact none other than his own self as he donned “the role (sub persona) of one who by reflection alone investigates, and disputes with himself about, points which he had previously not considered.” As Eileen Sweeney has aptly summarized the purpose behind Anselm’s pious dissimulation, in the Monologion we have an author who “crafts a persona in whose voice he writes… a voice not exactly the same as his own…. [but] of a somewhat naïve beginner as Anselm tries, by taking an unexpected perspective, to invigorate and enliven the meditation, making fresh insight possible.”[1] Not unlike the substitutionary model of the atonement Anselm will defend in the Cur Deus Homo, accordingly, in the Monologion it is as though Anselm presents us with an almost vicarious form of unbelief, one in which reason, conducted under the silent yet watchful tutelage of Anselm’s own faith, is defamiliarized so that it might be recovered again in its proper theological role as faith’s possibility. That having been said, in the Cur Deus Homo we find an Anselm even more conscious of, or at least more candid about, the artistry or sub-creation involved in his own theological reasoning. In contrast with the Monologion’s direct meditation on God, for example, in the Cur Deus Homo Anselm opts for the mediation of a “question-and-answer” (per interrogationem et responsio) dialogue which he condones for its being “clearer, and hence more acceptable, to many minds—especially to minds that are slower.” Aside from its pedagogical effectiveness, however, is the way in which the dialogue form allows Anselm to re-enact the kind of give-and-take of many of the real-life conversations upon which the fictional exchange in the Cur Deus Homo was no doubt based. Thus, after the commencement of the dialogue proper, when Anselm represents himself as fearful that the present undertaking will prove beyond his abilities, his interlocutor Boso encourages him by saying that “You ought not so much to have this fear as you ought to remember that in a discussion of some problem it often happens that God discloses what a first was hidden.” For Anselm, theological discourse—whether in the form of informal conversation with one’s friends or pupils, or in the later reconstructions of a carefully composed treatise or dialogue—involves far more than the communication of ideas or arguments one already holds to be true, but as a veritable art form can itself be the means for genuine theological disclosure and discovery. In keeping with this is Anselm’s concession to Boso in the following chapter that, “to the best of my ability, and assisted by God and by means of your prayers, I will attempt not so much to exhibit the solution you are seeking as to seek it with you” (ch. 2).

[1] Sweeney, Anselm of Canterbury, 116, 118. For a related discussion, see also Adams, “Anselm on Faith and Reason,” 51.

From Necessity to Fittingness: Anselm Goes Aesthetic

Anselm’s Cur Deus Homo, part 2

Another similarity to the Monologion is Anselm’s explanation in the opening chapter of the Cur Deus Homo that the impetus behind the present investigation was the request made by others that he should provide the “rational bases (rationes) of a particular problem of our faith,” viz., the problem of the necessity of the Incarnation and Atonement of Christ. Yet a subtle but important difference between the method of the Monologion and the approach he will take in the Cur Deus Homo quickly emerges. In the Monologion, the criterion for demonstrating what Christian’s believe about God was simply what “rational necessity (rationis necessitas) would tersely prove to be the case, and truth’s clarity (veritatis claritas) would openly manifest to be the case.” At the same time, Anselm had also conceded that, even if his conclusions followed as “a necessary consequence of reasons which will seem good to me, it is not thereby said to be absolutely necessary, but is said only to be able to appear necessary for the time being” (Monol. 1). Anselm reiterates precisely this point, moreover, in the Cur Deus Homo when he says that, “even though I seem to prove [the Incarnation] rationally, it should be accepted as certain only in the sense that it appears to me for the time being to be thus, until God somehow reveals the matter to me more fully.” New to the Cur Deus Homo, however, is the unprecedented way Anselm now casts this whole notion of a provisional, “possible” necessity in more overtly aesthetic terms. He mentions, for example, how his acquaintances, more than merely finding his arguments logically compelling, also “say that these rational considerations please (placere) them; and they regard them as satisfactory (satisfacere),” and that they “make their request not in order to approach faith by way of reason but in order to delight (delectentur) in the comprehension and contemplation of the doctrines which they believe” (ch. 1). As for the present topic concerning the necessity of the Incarnation and Atonement, Anselm deems that the solution, while difficult, is nevertheless one that is “intelligible to everyone and is commendable (amabilis) because of the utility and elegance of the reasoning (rationis pulchritudinem).” For Anselm, as it will turn out, inasmuch as God is the inventive creator of his own possibilities—and therefore also of his own necessities—so proving the truths about God will inevitably involve considerations of beauty and aesthetic “fittingness” (convenientia) as much as those of pure logic or rational necessity.

The Possibility of Anselm’s Cur Deus Homo

Anselm’s Cur Deus Homo, part 1

In his Cur Deus Homo, Anselm sets forth his argument for the necessity of Christian view of redemption. Yet the first question Anselm feels the need to answer concerns how it is even possible, after a full millennium of Christian reflection on this topic, to say anything that has not already been said before. To this end, in his prefatory “Commendation of This Work to Pope Urban II,” Anselm rehearses many of the methodological notes with which he began the Monologion and the Proslogion. While the present work, on the one hand, aims “to confound the foolishness of unbelievers and to break through their hardheartedness,” on the other hand he recognizes that this kind of undertaking is only really possible for those “who, having hearts already cleansed by faith, delight in the rational basis of our faith—a rational basis for which we ought to hunger once we have the certainty of faith.” But what is not possible, Anselm is eager to make clear, is that either now or in the future anyone should ever surpass those things already laid down by the holy Fathers. That having been said, it is equally clear, Anselm takes it for granted, that neither was it possible for these same Fathers to say everything that could have been said on any given subject, which is what makes it possible for us in the present to build upon their insights and extend their arguments into areas left unexamined or undeveloped by them. More than this, the nature of the truth itself is “so extensive and so deep” that no amount of expertise, time, or consideration could ever succeed in plumbing such depths anyway. Finally, it is the Lord himself who, through his gifts and his promise to be with his Church, and through his command in Scripture itself, has given both the ability and the divine sanction for our searching out by reason those things once and for all delivered to the saints.

God without givens

In his book God and Necessity, Brian Leftow stipulates as a principle of perfect-being theology that “God is (directly or indirectly) the Source of All that is ‘outside’ Him” (20). As Leftow formulates the principles:

GSA. for all x, if x is not God, a part, aspect or attribute of God or an event, God makes the creating-ex-nihilo sort of causal contribution to x’s existence as long as x exists.

Leftow goes on to claim that this principle is equivalent to the denial that there are any givens for God, or:

NG. (x) (if x is not God or a part etc., and is not an event x is not a ‘given’ for God) (21)

A “given” for God, as Leftow helpfully explains, would be “something God finds rather than helps account for, and must either accept or work around.” For Leftow, a God who is perfect and the “Source of All” must be a God without givens.

Augustine, the possibility of Anselm

(The Monologion‘s Theology of the Possible, part 3)

Yesterday’s post touched on the role that such conditions as friendship, conversation, and community played in motivating and shaping Anselm’s thought. Even more to the point is Anselm’s testimony in his prologue that, upon reviewing the argument of the Monologion, he was unable to find anything in the work “inconsistent with the writings of the Catholic Fathers—especially with Blessed Augustine’s writings.” If true, the harmony between his conclusions and those of his theological forebears could hardly have been the work of accident or afterthought, but only made possible by a faculty of reason that had first been trained in the school of Scripture, the fathers of the Church, and St. Augustine in particular.[1] Consistent with this is Anselm’s declaration that in the present work he has also sought to avoid teaching anything new, and his invitation to the reader who might suspect otherwise to “first look carefully at the books of On the Trinity by the aforementioned teacher, viz., Augustine, and then let him judge my work in the light of these books.”[2] It is Augustine, as Anselm virtually admits, who has made his own insights, such as they are, to be possible.[3] In the Monologion, then, the proper use of reason within theology is clearly not to stand in judgment of those things taught in Scripture or tradition, but consistent with Anselm’s later expression of “faith seeking understanding” (fides quaerens intellectum), reason’s role is instead to demonstrate after the fact the rational necessity or coherence—the “ratio fidei,” as he will term it—of those things already or otherwise received by faith.[4]

[1] On Anselm’s debt to Scripture in his reasoning, see, for example, Southern, Saint Anselm, 69-70.

[2] On the influence of Augustine’s On the Trinity on Anselm’s Monologion, see Asiedu, From Augustine to Anselm and Gersh, “Anselm of Canterbury.”

[3] As Southern writes: “the seeds of nearly everything [Anselm] said are to be found in Augustine—but they are seeds, not flowers. Anselm was not a writer of florilegia: his flowers are always his own… Just as he never uses the Bible to provide texts to prove his conclusions, but only to provide a starting point for his meditations, or a premonition of his conclusions, so it is with Augustine. He absorbed Augustine as he had absorbed the Bible: he made them both an integral part of his experience… He looked on himself as an explorer of territory opened up by the Bible and by its great expositer, Augustine. They provided the maps to the country over which he had to find his way under their guidance. He never challenged anything he found in them; but they left him free to find new experiences of the truths they contained, perhaps new proofs of their truth, certainly new ways of expressing their truth.” Ibid., 72-3.

[4] In Sweeney’s striking image of Anselm’s frame of mind, “Thus the discontent, the restlessness, and drive towards understanding is not from reason as the serpent whispering in faith’s ear but from within faith itself.” Sweeney, Anselm of Canterbury, 123. For Anselm as much for his later disciple Nicholas of Cusa, it is true that, in Dermot Moran’s words, “in faith all understandable things are enfolded, whereas in knowledge they are unfolded.” Moran, “Nicholas of Cusa and Modern Philosophy,” 185, citing Cusa, De docta ignorantiae 3.11.244.

Friendship, conversation, and the possibility of theology

(The Monologion‘s Theology of the Possible, part 2)

The previous post introduced Anselm’s Monologion with its method of investigating those things believed about God, not through an appeal to Scripture or any other authority, but through “reason alone” (sola ratione). Yet the rational method of the Monologion should not be confused for a modern, methodological rationalism. For our purposes, the latter error might be defined as the possibilistic presumption of a pure, presupposition-less reason, capable of discovering—independently and in advance of all that God has actually made or revealed in creation, Scripture, or tradition—those doctrinal possibilities (if any) to which faith might afterwards be allowed to give assent. On the contrary, Anselm’s Monologion, literally a “speaking to oneself,” while representing a form of rational, theological soliloquy, is nevertheless no isolated inquiry of a presumptuously self-starting, autonomous reason. The first indication and illustration of this, ironically enough, may be seen in the fact that, as Eileen Sweeney has astutely pointed out, Anselm only “undertakes this [rational] method of reflection not on his own initiative,” but on the insistence and direction of his religious cohorts at Bec.[1] In more than one sense, it is the peculiar community in which Anselm existed that made the Monologion for him possible. In his later dialogue on the necessity of the Incarnation, Cur Deus Homo, Anselm captures something of the intellectual debt he felt he owed to his conversations with others when, after professing his insufficiency for the task, he represents his friend and interlocutor Boso as encouraging him thus: “You ought not so much to have this fear as you ought to remember that in a discussion of some problem it often happens that God discloses what at first was hidden.”[2] For Anselm, theological discourse—whether in the form of real-time, informal conversation with friends, or in the later reconstructions of a carefully composed treatise or dialogue—involves far more than the communication of ideas or arguments one already holds to be, but is often itself the means for further theological invention or “discovery.” In David Moss’s summary of the role friendship played in opening up and so making possible Anselm’s own theoretical insights, “[t] he scene of friendship then unfolds, as it were, the hermeneutical path of intelligibility and meaning—as an encounter with Otherness—and this it does as passion and in passion—as, one could say, bidding, appeal, request, supplication, thanksgiving, and precisely not in the fulfilment of any prior transcendental conditions.”[3] In this we have just one small example of the many ways in which Anselm’s thought and writings owe their origins and hence possibility to the very real, extra-rational circumstances of monastic and spiritual friendship, discipline, and devotion in which he lived and moved and had his being.[4] If Anselm came to realize, as we shall see later, that what is ultimately metaphysically possible, even for God, is a function and consequence of what God himself has already made actual, paralleling this insight was his own awareness of the extent to which his rational thought received its possibility from the very real, concrete conditions lying outside of his own self and reason.

[1] Sweeney, Anselm of Canterbury, 117.

[2] Cur Deus Homo 1.1.

[3] Moss, “St. Anselm, Theoria, and the Convolution of Sense,” 136.

[4] For a discussion of the necessity for Anselm of not only faith (about which more anon), but also spiritual experience, humility, obedience, and discipline for proper reasoning about divine things, see Visser and Williams, Anselm, 20.

Monologion: Anselm’s rational necessities

(The Monologion’s Theology of the Possible, part 1)

Anselm’s first major theological work, the Monologion, is also the first in importance for laying the foundation of his theology of divine possibility. Composed in 1076 at the behest of some of his fellow monks at the abbey at Bec, the Monologion contains Anselm’s lengthiest reflection on the doctrine of God proper, addressing questions of his existence, his principal attributes, and finally even his triune nature. What his brothers had specifically asked him for was a model “meditation” (meditatio) on what Christians believe about the divine essence (divinitatis essentiae), yet the work was intended to be no ordinary religious or spiritual exercise, as they forbade him to support any of his views on God through an appeal to Scripture or any other authority. Instead, and in keeping with Anselm’s own established practice, they required that he found all his claims about the divine nature only on what “rational necessity” (rationis necessitas) and the very “clarity of the truth” (veritatis claritas) could show to be the case. In the opening chapter of the work, Anselm describes the strategy as one of proceeding “by reason alone” (sola ratione), and goes so far as to conjecture that even a willing unbeliever—someone of average intelligence but otherwise ignorant of what Christians believe about God—could persuade himself of the validity of his arguments. Clearly, the very first possibility taken for granted in the Monologion is its assumption of the rational explicability and defensibility of those truths about God otherwise held by faith.

Does a Phoenix Have an Essence?

In a well-known passage from his little metaphysical treatise On Being and Essence, Aquinas illustrates his famous essence-existence distinction with the example of a fictional creature, the phoenix: 

For all that does not belong to the concept of the essence or quiddity, is coming to it from the outside and makes a composition with the essence, because no essence can be understood without those things which are the parts of the essence. But every essence or quiddity can be understood without something being understood about its being; for I can understand what a man is or a phoenix, and still not know whether it has being in reality. Therefore, it is manifest that being is something different from essence or quiddity.

In short, I can know what a phoenix is (i.e., its essence) without knowing whether or that a phoenix is (i.e., its actual existence).

This argument has bothered me for a couple of years, and for a couple of distinct but related reasons. The first has to do with Aquinas’s own thought, and the second having to do with Tolkien. First, Aquinas’s argument about the phoenix has never struck me as consistent with Aquinas’s otherwise metaphysical realism and existentialism (with its adherence to the primacy of the real and the actual), but seems to have more in common with the essentialism of Avicenna. To say that I can know the essence of something in isolation from the question of its actual existence is to insinuate that I somehow have an access to the nature of things that bypasses their existence and my experience of that existence. In brief, it makes the intellectual apprehension or understanding of a thing’s essence to be “existence-optional” (which is on its way to making the essences of the things themselves to be “existence-optional”).

A second concern is a Tolkienian one, which is that the parity of man and phoenix in Aquinas’s above illustration overlooks the obvious fact that one of these is an essence created by God whereas the other is a fictional “essence” sub-created by man. And if its “essence” is of a sub-created being, then it stands to reason that its existence can only be a sub-creative existence.

Dorothy Sayers, Metaphysician

In the course of three paragraphs in her The Mind of the Maker, Dorothy Sayers manages to connect a number of these I’ve been thinking and posting about here recently: how sub-creation changes everything, the non-existence of non-existing possibles, and how non-being is not a correlate but the creation of Being:

What I want to suggest is that Being (simply by being) creates Not-Being… So that though, in the absence of Being, it would be meaningless to say that to say that Not-Being precedes Being; yet, in the presence of Being that proposition becomes both significant and true, because Being has made it so. Or, to use the most familiar of all metaphors, “before” light, there was neither light nor darkness; darkness is not darkness until light has made the concept of darkness possible. Darkness cannot say: “I precede the coming light,” but there is a sense in which light can say, “Darkness preceded me.”

Shakespeare writes Hamlet. That act of creation enriches the world with a new category of Being, namely: Hamlet. But simultaneously it enriches the world with a new category of Not-Being, namely: Not-Hamlet. Everything other than Hamlet, to the farthest bounds of the universe, acquires in addition to its former characteristics, the characteristic of being Not-Hamlet; the whole of the past immediately and automatically becomes Not-Hamlet.

Now, in a sense, it is true to say that the past was Not-Hamlet before Hamlet was created or thought-of; it is true, but it is meaningless, since apart from Hamlet there is no meaning that we can possibly attach to the term Not-Hamlet. Doubtless there is an event, X, in the future, by reference to which we may say that we are at present in a category of Not-X, but until X occurs, the category of Not-X is without reality. Only X can give reality to Not-X; that is to say, Not-Being depends for its reality upon Being. In this way we may faintly see how the creation of Time may be said automatically to create a time when Time was not, and how the Being of God can be said to create a Not-Being that is not God. (The Mind of the Maker 101)

Stoicism’s Linguistic Turn

Yesterday I posted on the psycho-physical monism of the Stoics and the resulting, less substantive, more relational ontology it entailed.  It is this view of things as having their existence wholly determined by their divinely fated place within the causal nexus of the psycho-physical universe that is mirrored in the Stoics’ philosophy of language.[1] On the Stoics modified semantic triangle, what provides the meaning behind our words or statements are, again, not eternal “ideas” (as per Plato), nor even intellectual “thoughts” (as per Aristotle), but what the Stoics called lekta, a term whose meaning is difficult to ascertain, but which has been various described as the semantic content, the intellectual intention, or a mental linguistic utterance of the things that we verbally say or write. As such, the Stoics seems to have viewed the lekta as an intermediate or hybrid reality between words and pure thought and which as such do not properly “exist” so much as they “subsist” as intramental states of mind and what, because of their materialistic monism amounts to the same thing, “an operational modification by the human material body.”[2] On this “de-psychologized semantics,” as Umberto Eco has described it, the Stoic lekton represents not an ontologically distinct thought or idea, but an indefinite “position within a [semantic] system, the result of an abstract segmentation of the noetic field, a cultural unit…”[3] We rely upon other words, in other words, to largely determine the meaning of our words, a Stoic insight that Eco hails as an unprecedented discovery of “the provisional and unstable nature of the sign-function” and which Milbank commends as “a theory which tends to identify thought with language.”[4] Thus, just as the being and identity of things for the Stoics is a function of their ordained position and role within the divine pyscho-physical causal web that is the existing universe, so the meanings of words is a consequence of their position within the semantic web that is a given system of language.[5] This leads to a further consequence of the substitution of the Stoic lekton in the place of the Platonic and Aristotelian idea, namely a shift from viewing linguistic meaning in terms of a hierarchical and linear model of dictionary-like denotation and semantic “equivalence,” to a more indeterminate model of connotative association and semantic “inference.” As Milbank puts it, the Stoic lekton, “as an ‘incorporeal’ sign of something else, always connotes other elements in a moving continuum, rather than denotes extra-linguistic onta… the Stoic conception of meaning [is not one of] equivalence (of sense and object) but rather as a fated connotative or inferential ‘tension.’”[6] To bring this discussion at last to bear on the issues of primary concern in this book, the doctrine of the lekton helped the Stoics avoid the error Derrida, for example, attributes to the Platonic tradition, namely (in Milbank’s words) the “delusion that there are ideas or things present to us before and outside the signifying system.”[7] Or in more modal terms, in contrast to the semantic possibilism (as we might term it) of the Platonic and Aristotelian semantic triangle, according to which it is a prior realm of fixed, abstract thought or eternal ideas that supplies the possibility of the meaningfulness of words and things, the Stoic lekton implies a semantic actualism according to which the meaning of a word depends on all the other words there are and hence which are available to be connoted within a given linguistic or semantic system.


[1] Colish, Mirror of Language, 11, and Milbank, Word Made Strange, 89.

[2] Ibid., 89.

[3] Eco, Semiotics and the Philosophy of Language, 31.

[4] Ibid., 30, and Milbank, Word Made Strange, 90.

[5] Ibid., 26.

[6] Milbank, Word Made Strange, 89. Milbanks remarks here follow those of Andreas Graeser, who writes how “the Stoics conceived the total sum of existence in terms of a moving continuum and thus were not likely to conceive of the denotations of meaningful expressions as natural classes of extra-linguistic entities.” Graeser, “The Stoic Theory of Meaning,” 80.

[7] Ibid., 60.