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.

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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.