Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Development versus decay

A reader asks an interesting question: 

You write often of the loss of Aristotelian metaphysics (specifically as adopted and developed by St. Thomas) and all the modern philosophical "problems" that have arisen as a result. Discussions of God's existence, the mind-body relation, ethics, etc. all become "problematic" when we remove formal and final causality.  I find this amazingly effective in answering modern arguments because it is often their metaphysical presuppositions that cause problems in the first place.

My question is: were the concepts of final and formal causality present in the Patristic era?  As I understand it, most of the Church Fathers were only marginally (if at all?) influenced by Aristotle, and were typically more dependent on Platonic or Neo-platonic metaphysics.  Does this mean that up until the time of Aquinas, when Aristotle is "rediscovered" in the West, that Christian philosophy was incoherent because it depended more on a Platonic metaphysics than an Aristotelian metaphysics? 

The answer is no, it was not incoherent, but rather incomplete.  When a baby or child is developing, it cannot do everything an adult can do.  Yet that is not because the organism is defective, but only because it hasn't yet matured.  Thus it is perfectly healthy despite its lack of full development.  But when an adult becomes sick or otherwise does not function the way an adult ought to, that is not because the organism is immature but rather because it is positively breaking down or because things are at least temporarily not working together correctly.  This is decay or at least damage rather than development.  Now ancient Christian theology is like the baby or child.  The Scholastic tradition, I would say, is like the healthy adult.  Modern theologies which reject Scholasticism and try to substitute for it some post-Scholastic modern metaphysics are like the sick adult.  They typically preserve some aspect of the Scholastic inheritance, but take on board novel elements that are incompatible with it and/or leave out aspects without which the preserved ones cannot function.  (In my work I have described how Cartesian and Lockean approaches to theological questions exhibit this sort of incoherence.  See chapter 5 of The Last Superstition and my book Locke.) 

It is important to stress that the more Platonic approach that dominated earlier Christian thought was by no means like the post-Cartesian approaches that defined themselves against Scholasticism.  The latter approaches, as I often emphasize, tend toward a mechanistic conception of the natural world.  It is not merely that they don’t have the Aristotelian notions of formal and final causality.  It is that they self-consciously reject these notions and replace them with the understanding of nature first developed by the ancient Greek atomists (altering the details, of course).  There is nothing like that in Platonism or Neo-Platonism.  (This is one reason it is very misleading to assimilate Plato’s and Descartes’ views of human nature, as is often done.)  Furthermore, there is really no such thing as a purely Platonist or purely Aristotelian tradition in the first place.  It is more a question of which tendency dominates.  The Neo-Platonist tradition tried to incorporate Aristotle’s insights by “Platonizing” them, and Aquinas takes the insights of the Neo-Platonic and Augustinian traditions and “Aristotelianizes” them.  (Consider e.g. the Fourth Way and Aquinas’s use of the notion of “participation.”)   

Now, the various problems that I have said afflict modern thought are associated with the mechanistic and positively anti-Aristotelian tendencies specifically.  Since there is nothing like that in the earlier tradition, the earlier tradition does not have the same problems.  To the extent it did have problems, they are more like the problems a baby has in learning to walk (compare the tentative and inchoate use of Greek philosophical concepts by the early Christian theologians) or an adolescent has when he is just coming out of his childhood but not quite ready for adult responsibilities (compare the excesses of a thinker like John Scotus Eriugena).   

Modern theologies which do not endorse novel post-Cartesian metaphysical systems but seek instead to revert to some pre-Scholastic Neo-Platonism might therefore best be described in terms of a third comparison -- not to a child and not to a sick or dying man, but rather to a man going through a midlife crisis.  Such a man finds his middle-aged responsibilities tedious and longs to recapture the excitement of youth.  Similarly, theologians hostile to Scholasticism and its Aristotelian philosophical basis often complain that it is too dry, systematic, and logic-oriented -- interestingly, they often do not claim that it is false -- and prefer the more mystical and inchoate approach of pre-Scholastic and Neo-Platonic theologians.  (Platonism, as I say in The Last Superstition, is “sexier” than Aristotelianism, but also less sober and rigorous.)   

Now, a man faced with a midlife crisis might take it as an opportunity to spice up his life a bit in a healthy way -- to rekindle romance with his wife, to supplement the necessary routines of middle age with a return to some of the hobbies he has neglected, or what have you.  But he might go instead in an unhealthy direction -- by leaving his wife, neglecting his responsibilities in favor of foolish adventures, etc.  In mid-twentieth-century Catholic theology, there was much talk among critics of Scholasticism of going “back to the sources” -- to the early Fathers of the Church and in general to thinkers of the ages before the Scholastic tradition had taken definite shape.  If what this means is recalling and reapplying, within the existing tradition, neglected insights from an earlier era, then that is all to the good.  But if what it means is chucking out the tradition that the great Scholastics painstakingly worked out in a rigorous and systematic way over the course of centuries, then this is not so good and (as R. R. Reno pointed out in a piece in First Things some time back) it has had some very bad consequences. 

21 comments:

Stacy Trasancos said...

"When I grow up I hope I can write like you do." -40'ish Mom of Seven

Wonderful post! :-P

I've wondered about that exact same question many times.

Edward Feser said...

You are very kind, Stacy! -- 40-ish Dad of Six.

Xerces said...

Dr. Feser, illuminating post. Addressing ancient theology in general from the standpoint of Thomistic metaphysics is far and away more interesting (from this reader's perspective, at least) than responding to some random New Atheist's shenanigans, which has frankly always been just an exercise in shooting fish in a barrel. BTW, I hope you'll also consider addressing specific theological issues from a Thomistic perspective, such as the Incarnation, penal substitution, Fall of Man, etc.

Regarding the Fall, that's one theological issue I cannot seem to square with Thomism at all, and the doctrine seems vastly more miscible with Platonic thought.


On that theological subject, many traditional, Orthodox theologians say that the Christian claim has always been that, in some sense, the entire reality we experience and the entire cosmic reality we inhabit is a fallen and damaged reality - that, somehow, the world as we know it is currently under the dominion of "powers." How we understand those powers alters from age to age, but the thing that runs through it is the idea that we cannot look at the context of cosmic reality and see, written in it, the designs and ends of God in a straightforward way. The Christian claim has always been that it is "creation as a whole that is groaning in anticipation of salvation" (Romans 8). Additionally, there is Paul's statement to the Corinthians, "For now we see through a glass, darkly," which, while having distinctly Platonic undertones, points to the fact that nothing within cosmic and human history clearly manifests God's goodness.

----

Now, if this is true - if the natural world we inhabit is a fallen, wounded world that for the time being has been placed under the dominion of "powers," how can we ever hope to coherently claim that the teleology we presently see as being intrinsic to this nature is a reliable reference point for what is "good" and what is "bad"?


The doctrine of the Fall, understood in this way, at minimum seems to raise an intractable epistemological difficulty for Thomism with regards to its "Natural Law" conception of goodness and morality. "Surely," the thought goes, "the cosmos at the very least is not wholly good, in lieu of the traditional understanding of the Fall. But if so, if nature is defective at the outset before we even begin our philosophizing, then how do we go about distinguishing the 'good' ends in nature from the 'bad' ends?" Or to use a trite metaphor: If I turn my back to a crowd of people and sling a massive bucket of red paint over my head, how would I know how many people I've coated?


Anyway, that's my rambling, amateurish concern. It is the primary reason why I still have a huge soft-spot for Platonism and why, although St. Thomas' proofs for God are quite compelling to me, I don't wholly embrace Thomism. (Or perhaps I do, but with a whole bunch of qualifications that I have yet to elucidate).

Joe said...

Dr. Feser

Would it be safe to say that Vatican II was Platonic while Trent and Vatican I were Aristotelian and thats why there has been so much confusion in the past 40 years?

Brian said...

Xerces, there is also the problem that if the Fall affected creation, what exactly do we mean by that? Especially given natural history - death, violence, etc. has been a part of nature before the Fall.

Michael G. Murad said...

Say is that baby in the picture Franklin Richards (surrounded by doting parents Reed and Sue?)

Xerces said...

>Xerces, there is also the problem that if the Fall affected creation, what exactly do we mean by that? Especially given natural history - death, violence, etc. has been a part of nature before the Fall.

Well, one bold, really provocative line of thought I've been toying around with lately is based on the idea that, if the entire cosmos is "fallen," then this includes not only space and all of its contents, but time, as well (space and time are inextricably linked, after all). Fallen, cosmological time as we now experience it is but a shadow of true, genuine time (again, more whispers of Platonism). Consequently, you will not be able to, from where we are seated now in 2011, rewind the tape of cosmic history all the way down the evolutionary epochs up until the Big Bang event and somewhere within this timeline stumble upon the "Garden of Eden," as it were. Hence, it makes no sense to speak of "death and violence before the Fall." The "Golden Age" of God-intended humanity simply belongs to another class of time, and so to another timeline altogether.

All very provocative. But to be honest, I'm not sure whether I have the sufficient philosophical training required to satisfactorily expound on that, so as to compel others to accept it.

I do think that we need to be more imaginative about these issues, though.

Xerces said...

*In my previous post I meant to say "belonged" when I was talking about the timeline in which the Fall took place, not "belongs"

Anonymous said...

Mother of seven . . . father of six . . . I'm remaining silent.

Anonymous said...

Talk about inheriting the earth!

W.LindsayWheeler said...

The Enlightenment, which was really a cultural revolution of Atheists and Protestants, rejected Aristotle and Plato outright. First, because many "Enlightenment" thinkers were Atheists, they rejected metaphysics and held onto materialism. Second, they rejected Aristotelianism and Plato to a huge extent because Aristotelianism and Plato were tied to Christianity. Christianity is somewhat a Greek religion (q.v. Jerry Dell Ehrlich's Plato's Gift to Christianity; Archimandrite Boniface Luykx teachings.)

Another reason is that the Stoics had a huge influence in the Atheist Enlightenment/Darkening;and their natural law doctrine was hugely flawed. It was based on Democritus's Atomism, which was "monism"; a quasi materialist doctrine as well. Democritus and Lucretius were the guiding classical antiquity lights of the Darkening.

Aristotelianism is not opposed to Plato. He was his student for some 20 years. Both engaged in metaphysics; Aristotle was more technically oriented. L. P. Gerson points out in his book Aristotle and Other Platonists that all of the neo-platonists thought Aristotle was himself a Platonist!

Anonymous said...

This is a bit off topic, but I'd like to ask if St. Thomas Aquinas ever thought about eliminative materialism and how does he respond to it? Thanks!!! (Oh by the way, excellent question and post!!!)

~ Mark

grodrigues said...

@Prof. Edward Feser:

"Modern theologies which do not endorse novel post-Cartesian metaphysical systems but seek instead to revert to some pre-Scholastic Neo-Platonism might therefore best be described in terms of a third comparison -- not to a child and not to a sick or dying man, but rather to a man going through a midlife crisis. Such a man finds his middle-aged responsibilities tedious and longs to recapture the excitement of youth. Similarly, theologians hostile to Scholasticism and its Aristotelian philosophical basis often complain that it is too dry, systematic, and logic-oriented -- interestingly, they often do not claim that it is false -- and prefer the more mystical and inchoate approach of pre-Scholastic and Neo-Platonic theologians."

On reading your marvelous post, particularly the paragraph quoted above, it came to my mind a little essay titled "The Medieval Bases of Western Though" by the German medievalist and literary critic, one of the greatest of the century just passed, E. Curtius, which was added as an appendix to his masterpiece "European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages". The essay is from the late 1940's and it starts by discussing the romanticized visions of the Middle Ages, that on the 19th century had concentrated on Dante but "of late", "seem to crystallize around St. Thomas Aquinas". He then adds (in the translation of W. Trask):

But we may venture to believe that the poet will outshine the philosopher. The poet carries a splendor and an imaginative power with which the thinker can hardly ever vie. Plato soars to the highest flights when he abandons conceptual thought for poetical myth. But you will not be able to transpose Aristotle's or St. Thomas' severe disquisitions into poetry; they belong to another order.

Whether Curtius' cultural prophecy will be fulfilled or not, is not in my power to judge, but I would venture that this tension between poetry and philosophy is also an explaining factor -- and you hinted as much in the comment about Platonism being "sexier".

My competence, and a very modest one at that, only extends to an infinitesimal patch of mathematics and I love it with a passion; but if I were to be exiled on a deserted island with only the company of a couple of books, I would ditch all of mathematics and take with me only my favorite poets and prose writers. To use Kierkegaard's language, mathematics being objective truth, stands in no relation with one's personal life -- no swords will ever be drawn over a point in set theory. Poetry on the other hand, is the instrument of consolation, populating the poverty of our imagination with a multitude of other voices and alleviating our terminal loneliness.

The rivalry, however amicable, between poetry and philosophy is even more ancient than the rivalry between Plato and Aristotle, with Plato shooting the opening salvo against Homer -- Curtius spends a few words on the issue up to and including Thomism. This other, transcendental order, in poetry, and by infection in the "highest flights" of Platonism, is a perennial human need, and more so as we grow older. Call it nostalgia; call it the need to "make things anew" and see them again, with new eyes, as if for the first time; call it "the fight to recover what has been lost / And found and lost again and again". Although not an excuse for bad philosophy, and even less the rejection of a perfectly good one, it may well be the fulfillment of a deep spiritual yearning.

-- Almost-forty, no kids, not married.

Will said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Will said...

This isn't a comment on this article per se, but it touches on teleology. As I recall, A-T has a view of the way a person (or a thing) should be, that is, the healthy version of (say) Socrates, the moral version, etc. If Socrates is ill, he's not there, but we know something about where "there" is. Sorry I'm not good on the terminology.

This seems important for the afterlife in Christianity: as the soul is immortal in a rational being, the body can be resurrected for that form, and it would be the ideal form: nobody diabetic or suffering a bad back, etc.

But what about someone with a genetic abnormality like Down syndrome? (Say I, the father of a Down syndrome boy.) That extra chromosome is part of his form... but it's also a disorder. How do we distinguish the disorder from the person's form, when the disorder is genetic? I thought of this when I saw some people with DS say, "Look past the DS to see who I am," and some say, "Down syndrome is a part of who I am."

I'm not asking for an answer here as it's off topic. I just thought to inspire you to make a post about it at some later date.

(Once 40-ish father of two who seem like four sometimes.)

Labnut said...

Is it possible for you have your book "The Last Superstition" published as a Kindle version?
This would be a huge advantage for those of us who live far from big bookshops.

Felix said...

as always, great post Prof Feser! This remined me of what I read once about Eastern Orthodoxy being rather lukewarm (at best, and outright rejection at worst) towards A-T point of view. If you can, would you be alble to give a few brief comments on why they feel this way and how this stands in contrast to Orthodoxy's idea of Hesychasm and whether or not this tell us some difference bewteen Western and Eastern approach to theology and philosophy of religion in general. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

Great stuff, Ed. I'd like to know what you think of Neoplatonism, esp. Iamblichus and Plotinus.

-- 20-ish fiance of one, father of zero (this will certainly change in the future)

Daniel Smith said...

"they self-consciously reject these notions and replace them with the understanding of nature first developed by the ancient Greek atomists (altering the details, of course). There is nothing like that in Platonism or Neo-Platonism."

Elsewhere (if I understand you correctly anyway - and that's a big "if"!) you seem to suggest that Paley's ideas are Platonic. I'm not sure how that is though (and I probably don't fully understand what you're saying.)

Can you tell us (maybe in an upcoming thread) what is and isn't Platonic in the various schools of thought within modern Christianity (including ID) and why?

Thanks!!!

Anonymous said...

@Felix,

There is at least one essay examining Eastern Platonism written from an A-T point of view, and which is extremely critical of that philosophy.

http://coalitionforthomism.blogspot.com/2010/09/and-never-twain-should-meet-orthodox.html

Interesting food for thought, but, of course, by no means conclusive. As far as I know, Eastern spirituality was in fact harmonized with Thomism in the 15th Century by a number of Byzantine Orthodox Theologians, though most modern Thomists and Palamites seem to be unaware of this.

See http://eirenikon.wordpress.com/2008/05/25/a-latins-lamentation-over-gennadios-scholarios/

papabear said...

Will:

"But what about someone with a genetic abnormality like Down syndrome? (Say I, the father of a Down syndrome boy.) That extra chromosome is part of his form... but it's also a disorder. How do we distinguish the disorder from the person's form, when the disorder is genetic? I thought of this when I saw some people with DS say, "Look past the DS to see who I am," and some say, "Down syndrome is a part of who I am.""

Will -- it's late so I'm not going to give a thorough response, but I wouldn't say the extra chromosome is part of the form; rather, it is part of the matter and has an effect on how the form comes to be and is present.