Saturday, September 27, 2014

Thomas Aquinas, Henry Adams, Steve Martin


In his conceptual travelogue Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres -- first distributed privately in 1904, then published in 1913 -- historian Henry Adams devoted a chapter to Thomas Aquinas.  There are oversimplifications and mistakes in it of the sort one would expect from a non-philosopher interested in putting together a compelling narrative, but some interesting things too.  Adams rightly emphasizes how deep and consequential is the difference between Aquinas’s view that knowledge of God starts with sensory experience of the natural order, and the tendency of mystics and Cartesians to look instead within the human mind itself to begin the ascent to God.  And he rightly notes how important, and also contrary to other prominent theological tendencies, is Aquinas’s affirmation of the material world.  (This is a major theme in Denys Turner’s recent book on Aquinas, about which I’ve been meaning to blog.)  On the other hand, what Adams says about Aquinas and secondary causality is not only wrong but bizarre.

Most important for present purposes, though, is Adams’ motif of drawing parallels between theological tendencies and medieval structures.  The view of those who see the relation between God and man in terms of force is compared by Adams to Mont-Saint-Michel.  The view that the relation is best seen in terms of faith, he compares to Chartres Cathedral.  And he compares Aquinas’s appeal to reason to the cathedrals at Beauvais and Amiens.  Writes Adams:

The architects of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries took the Church and the universe for truths, and tried to express them in a structure which should be final.  Knowing by an enormous experience precisely where the strains were to come, they enlarged their scale to the utmost point of material endurance, lightening the load and distributing the burden until the gutters and gargoyles that seem mere ornament, and the grotesques that seem rude absurdities, all do work either for the arch or for the eye; and every inch of material, up and down, from crypt to vault, from man to God, from the universe to the atom, had its task, giving support where support was needed, or weight where concentration was felt, but always with the condition of showing conspicuously to the eye the great lines which led to unity and the curves which controlled divergence; so that, from the cross on the flèche and the keystone of the vault, down through the ribbed nervures, the columns, the windows, to the foundation of the flying buttresses far beyond the walls, one idea controlled every line; and this is true of St. Thomas’ Church as it is of Amiens Cathedral.  The method was the same for both, and the result was an art marked by singular unity, which endured and served its purpose until man changed his attitude toward the universe.

In his book of surrealist humor Cruel Shoes -- first distributed privately in 1977, then published in a longer edition in 1979 -- comedian and onetime philosophy major Steve Martin devotes one of the best pieces in the volume to a fanciful recounting of the “Demolition of the Cathedral at Chartres.”  Here it is in its entirety:

Mr. Rivers was raised in the city of New York, had become involved in construction and slowly advanced himself to the level of crane operator for a demolition company.  The firm had grown enormously, and he was shipped off to France for a special job.  He started work early on a Friday and, due to a poorly drawn map, at six-thirty one morning in February began the demolition of the Cathedral at Chartres.

The first swing of the ball knifed an arc so deadly that it tore down nearly a third of a wall and the glass shattered almost in tones, and it seemed to scream over the noise of the engine as the fuel was pumped in the long neck of the crane that threw the ball through a window of the Cathedral at Chartres.

The aftermath was complex and chaotic, and Rivers was allowed to go home to New York, and he opened up books on the Cathedral and read about it and thought to himself how lucky he was to have seen it before it was destroyed.  (pp. 19-20)

Suppose we depart from Adams a little by identifying Aquinas’s system with Chartres Cathedral instead, and then read Adams’ analogy in light of Martin’s absurd scenario.  What do we get?

What we get, perhaps, is a parable for the nouvelle theologie revolution as described by Rusty Reno in a First Things article a few years ago, which I quoted at length in a recent talk at Thomas Aquinas College.  In the wake of the nouvelle theologie critique of Neo-Scholastic Thomism, Reno writes, “the old theological culture of the Church has largely been destroyed,” while the nouvelle theologie thinkers themselves “did not, perhaps could not, formulate a workable, teachable alternative to take its place…”  Indeed, their own work is not intelligible except within the context of the system they found inadequate, a context they swept away.  Hence, judges Reno, “the collapse of neoscholasticism has not led to the new and fuller vision [they] sought… It has created a vacuum filled with simple-minded shibboleths.”  Some of the nouvelle theologie thinkers -- such as Balthasar and de Lubac -- deplored this simple-mindedness, and the heterodoxy that has come with it.  But it was an unintended consequence of their own theological revolution.  They’re a little like Steve Martin’s Mr. Rivers, wistfully contemplating the loss of a glorious structure they had themselves demolished

So thoroughly has the nouvelle theologie caricature of Neo-Scholasticism and traditional Thomism permeated the intellectual life of the Church that you will hear it parroted in the most unexpected contexts.  For instance, during lunch at a conference some time ago, a couple of well-meaning conservative Catholic academics matter-of-factly remarked how awful the Neo-Scholastic manuals were, how you couldn’t learn Aquinas from Thomists, etc. -- even as they praised my own work and the high-octane Thomism I was defending during the conference!  I thought: “Where the hell do you think I got it from?”

Whenever I encounter this kind of cluelessness, I reach for my copy of Cruel Shoes.

52 comments:

Thursday said...

I think this is somewhat simplistic and it will be a while before the issues of what caused what are sorted out.

That the collapse of Catholic theology comes after the theology of de Lubac and Balthasar, does not necessarily mean that it was caused by the actual content of the theology of de Lubac and Balthasar.

There is also the possibility that de Lubac et al. could have been responsible for the collapse, even if they were right on substance. Liberal theologians could have taken a look at de Lubac et al. and said to themselves something like, "Yup, the new theology boys have disproved the old Thomism. That means we can do whatever we want." In that case, what de Lubac et al. actually said doesn't matter. It was just an excuse.

This illustrates the problem with breaking with tradition even when tradition may be wrong. The break itself will cause all sorts of problems. Needless to say, a critique of neo-scholasticism, needed or not, may have been an ill advised adventure in particular circumstances of the mid-20th century. Unscrupulous liberals were looking for an opportunity to wreck the place, and may have just used whatever weapons were at hand.

Thursday said...

And one can certainly fault the rhetorical overkill that the New Theologians indulged in against neo-scholasticism. That was, in retrospect, extremely ill advised.

Daniel said...

A few points:

First of all I should note that I cut my metaphysical teeth on the works of Neo-Scholastics like Coffey and Joyce and still think very highly of them. So what follows are criticisms for the sake of improvement.

I think one of the prime reasons for the death of Neo-Scholasticism was that for good or for ill it was largely indifferent to the contemporary philosophical scene. Now one could argue this was good simply because few major intellectual movements at the time had much to say for themselves which Thomism did not already possess in some fashion. Regardless of whether this is true or not, it does rather give the impression of Thomism as a philosophy to end philosophy, a philosophy after which the only two philosophical endeavours were to criticise or defend. The old two-tier distinction between the Natural and Supernatural aspects of man’s relation to God seemed to many to represent a fundamental spiritual aridness. When the nouvelle theologie appeared on the scene, emphasising literary rhapsody combined with an overtly mystical Pateristic take on Heideggerian questions of Dasein and the Struggle of Life in a technical age, the younger generation flocked to them as an antidote to what they saw as dry repetition indifferent to man’s fundamental concerns. To make a terrible pun it was a case of substance verses style.

Also, whilst they presented powerful criticisms of the Naturalistic ideologies they cared to discuss, the manual writers of the post-first world war period seemed curiously oblivious to the new and anti-metaphysical movements marching their way through Anglo-phone academia. When Logical Positivism was at its high noon and Sellers and Quinn were just emerging on the philosophical horizon writers like Phillips and co. were still devoting more time to Huxley and Mill. When they finally began to take note of what twentieth century philosophy might look like it was too late.

Lastly for all the immense good it did in reviving Classical Metaphysics and Philosophy of Nature the Neo-Scholastic movement was inherently self-limiting in the field of Natural Theology. Because of the exclusive focus on Thomas certain of that individual's casual asides on issues he devoted little time to were elevated to the status of philosophical and even theological dogmas. From thence on all major scholarship on the Ontological Argument and what came to be called the Kalam Cosmological Argument would occur outside Catholic circles and even Classical Metaphysics its self: even arguments the Thomists found congenial, such as the Proof from Eternal Truths, were given short shrift in favour of what very soon came to be yet another retread of the Five Ways.

Daniel said...

Ahh double post – sorry about that.

The great irony in all of this is it was precisely the elements in Thomism the nouvelle theologie despised e.g. its focus on essences and the relationship between logical necessity and causation, which made it palatable to Post- Kripkean Analytical philosophy. It was 'Essence' and not 'Existence' which would win the day.

Brandon said...

The manuals are by their nature textbooks; the manuals weren't the context for most of the philosophy and theology that was done, and were never intended to be. (The serious work that manuals were intended to support was mostly oral, in discussions, debates, and pastoral settings. One of the most serious ways in which modern theology has deteriorated is the increasing tendency toward thinking that the primary locus of theology is in books and articles. The manualists never made this mistake.) They were just the way of getting people on the same page in terms of vocabulary and the like. I can't remember who said it, but I recall someone somewhere saying that the manualist tradition collapsed because solely and entirely because it was too optimistic: it was based on the idea that you could get good thought from people if only you were just systematic enough about the basics. There's a great deal to that, I think. It's the Myth of Theuth problem: no matter how good the textbook, there's no guarantee that people will use it sensibly, creatively, or well.

Glenn said...

I get it. On we go (with appropriate adjustments).

Anonymous said...

Really fascinating article! It's interesting how Aquinas is consistently misrepresented in popular imagination.

And wondering if anyone could help sort out some misconceptions I have about him:

#1. I read in a book somewhere that supposedly, the failing of the 5 ways is that it ignores the possibility of things moving from potentiality to actuality in and of themselves without divine assistance, as simply a mechanistic reaction; is this true?

#2. Someone told me that Bernhard Lauth's thesis on Aquinas undermines the logical validity of his arguments, is this true?

#3. How does his ethical system differ from Divine Command theory?

Jim

Daniel said...

Hello Jim,

Apologies for only being able to give brief answers to your questions. For more information on the Five Ways and the metaphysical background details they presuppose you might want to look at some of the videos on Ed's site proper. There's literally loads of discussions of the First Way, the proof from motion on this blog and in both The Last Superstition and Aquinas.

Quick Answers:

1. No, because any actualization of potency implies a terminus point in an entity which is pure actuality (because if not there would be no movement at all throughout the series)

3. Aquinas is a Natural Law Theorist, that is he derives his concept of right action from the Classical understanding of Goodness as how well something instantiates its essence. I'll quote something I wrote a while back on this:

'The Classical answer to the Euthyphro dilemma is that Goodness is rooted in a being's nature and thus rooted in God since God is the author and ground of all natures; however that does not mean that even God can revise what is good for that nature'

Daniel said...

Hmm I think if there's one valuable lesson to be learned from the nouvelle theologie it’s that the Natural Supernatural Distinction should be reevaluated. The human drive and orientation towards Transcendence is an empirical fact - any philosophy which denies this simply falsified reality. With this in mind the appetite for the vision of God is not a gratuitous addition but something fundamental to the very core of our being.

Scott said...

@Jim:

Just supplementing Daniel's reply on a couple of points.

"#1. I read in a book somewhere that supposedly, the failing of the 5 ways is that it ignores the possibility of things moving from potentiality to actuality in and of themselves without divine assistance, as simply a mechanistic reaction; is this true?"

No, it isn't.

First, and least importantly, only the first of the Five Ways is based on motion and act/potency, so even if that charge were true, it wouldn't mean the complete failure of the Five Ways.

Second, and somewhat more importantly, the First Way doesn't assume that potencies require "divine assistance" for actualization.

Third, and most importantly, the First Way doesn't ignore the "possibility" of a self-actualizing potency but quite expressly holds, on logical grounds, that it's an impossibility.

The fundamental principle at work in the First Way is that a potency can be actualized only by something already actual, and this is surely self-evident. If a potency could actualize itself, it would never be a "potency" in the first place.

And even in mechanistic reactions, potencies aren't actualizing themselves; some things/parts are actualizing the potencies of other things/parts.

"#3. How does his ethical system differ from Divine Command theory?"

In a certain very special sense, it is a version of divine command theory.

God can make a being with any (noncontradictory) nature He chooses. The good of such a being is determined by its nature, but nothing constrains God in His choice of what to create, so in principle He can create a being whose good is whatever He pleases (again, so long as it's not contradictory).

However, having chosen to create a being with a certain nature, God can't then turn around and command that its good be other than what it is. His willing to create, for example, a human being just is His commanding that its good be human good. God can no more demand arbitrarily that humans seek their good in (say) murder and rape than He could create a circle and then demand that it be square.

That's the key difference with most versions of divine command theory, which tend to hold that having created human beings, God could still issue arbitrary commands to us that would then determine our true good to be something other than what it is now.

Glenn said...

Jim,

To supplement what Daniel and Scott have already said re #1:

Things which move themselves are known as self-movers.

When a self-mover moves itself, it is not a case of one potentiality of the self-mover moving some other potentiality of it, but a case of something already actual about the self-mover moving something else of the self-mover which is not yet actual.

IOW, when a self-mover moves itself, two different parts are involved: an actual part that moves, and a potential part which is moved.

Glenn said...

Hm.

The content of the OP -- as opposed to its message (or one of its messages) -- reminds me of a short story I read a long, long time ago. If memory fails me not, I read the story in the Fireside Book of Chess.

As best I remember it, the story was about a guy who plays a game of chess with his girlfriend's father.

The father is none too happy about his daughter's choice of boyfriends, but there they are, father and daughter's boyfriend, playing a game of chess. The game goes on until the father -- finding himself boxed in, confined and unable to see a decent move -- grudgingly resigns.

The daughter's boyfriend, apparently recognizing an opportunity to ingratiate himself with his girlfriend's father, turns the board around and says, "Let's keep playing."

Presented with what he thinks is a winning position, the one he just lost to, the father's flagged spirit is resuscitated. While it may not be challenging, winning a 'won' game can be fun.

The two continue to play the game. And, shortly thereafter, the daughter's boyfriend wins again.

(I don't rightly recall, but perhaps the twice-loser of that game was named Theodore Niequist.)

Matteo said...

Very interesting post.
I just wonder: what was the difference between Thomism/Scholasticism and the neo-Scholasticism of the 19th century? In fact, was there any substantial difference at all?
I ask this partly because I find that many people with whom I talk react less negatively to the concept of Thomism/Scholasticism, and Prof. Feser evidently had the same experience.

Tony said...

Matteo,

I suspect that your question gets to at least the apparent differences in public perception (in academia) between "Scholastic" philosophy and "Neo-scholasticism". And if I were to attempt one particular description of that apparent difference as publicly perceived, it would be somewhere along the line of this: in Thomas, the natural/supernatural distinction is present but not heavily stressed nor "worked out" into unambiguously divided lines as regard the end of a rational creature. But in the Neo-scholastics the natural/supernatural distinction is heavily stressed, and the certain potentially ambiguous treatments in Thomas were disabmiguated in the neo's along a line that does damage to the unity or integrity of the human person (and nature herself) as related to union with God Himself as his end.

I am not enough of a historian of philosophy to know to what extent this public perception is fair or not to neo-scholastics, but it hardly matters: once the public has decided to categorize a realm of teaching as X, it seems impossible to ever change that categorical naming as a general pre-conception in academia as a whole. All you can do (at best) is to convince individual men that the categorical treatment is not entirely fair with respect to THIS neo-scholastic.

Tony said...

Glenn,

Seems to me that the boyfriend would have been better off finding a way to lose the game in a different way than the one that the father obviously saw, rather than rubbing it in doubly hard that "I'm a lot smarter than you, and I am willing to grind your face in it." Why intentionally antagonize your girl's father?

Tony said...

This illustrates the problem with breaking with tradition even when tradition may be wrong. The break itself will cause all sorts of problems. Needless to say, a critique of neo-scholasticism, needed or not, may have been an ill advised adventure in particular circumstances of the mid-20th century.

Thursday, as far as I can tell, the adventure in New Theology came not only with an insistence on critiquing Thomism, but on ignoring Aeterni Patris altogether and introducing a hermenuetic of discontinuity with Scholastic teaching and with the teaching Church insofar as she borrowed from scholasticism and its concepts in order to express doctrinal truths. This hermenuetic of discontinuity all too often led to situations where the new theologian experimented with ideas that were, to the extent novel and interesting, just plain wrong on all counts, and to the extent not wrong, just re-warmed scholasticism in different phrasings. Love of novelty for its own sake was certainly present, and with it in some cases a deep lack of humility in simply being willing to receive the wisdom of the ages as needing to be understood and accepted rather than "fixed". The theologian, i.e. the practitioner in the science based on received truth, must always be humble to that reception from traditional sources, and always chary of novelty as a danger to tradition.

Glenn said...

I don't recall the reason behind the turning around of the board for the double win.

Maybe the father was a so-so tournament player, the daughter's boyfriend an excellent tournament player, and the boyfriend indeed was trying to get in good with his girlfriend's father--by saying, in effect, "Look, I really do know who to play this game, and I really can help you become a better tournament player." If someone beat me playing from a position I had just resigned from, i.e., if someone could show me how to win with a position I'm convinced is a losing position, I'd be open to the possibility that that person might be able to help me become a better player.

Pure speculation, of course; like I said, I don't recall the reason behind what happened.

Anonymous said...

I'm not sure how qualified Mr. Adams was with regard to classical philosophy, considering that in this following quote he equates matter with pure actuality.

"Roosevelt, more than any other man showed the singular primitive quality that belongs to ultimate matter — the quality that medieval theology assigned to God — he was pure act."

Notice his confidence in making this assertion. Victorian materialism I suppose? The Democritean atomist would certainly believe matter to possess the metaphysical description of God and I suppose a person who has been convinced of the absolute Truth of Newtonian mechanics would be willing to accept or assert a metaphysical commitment to atomistic materialism.

Matteo said...

Tony,
Thanks for your response. Although you are not a historian of philosophy, you surely know more than me about this topic. So, I will ask you another question.
Could you please tell me what is wrong with the natural/supernatural distinction, either according to you or according to the average anti-scholastic academic?
Is it seen negatively because it leads to fideism?

Tony said...

Matteo, I am sure that there are others with a better understanding of this, but I will give a glimmer of the issue:

According to certain ways of characterizing St. Thomas's teaching on man, man has a nature for which it is possible to speak of his end considered strictly naturally, and he has an end insofar as he is considered under nature and grace. In the latter, man's end is the beatific vision, because by (supernatural, santifying) grace man is lifted up into a state of friendship with God, where God himself inhabits the soul, and (after this life) the man can by the light of glory experience the direct, un-mediated sight of (and union with) God's in his own nature. But this state is strictly beyond the powers of nature, and so man considered without grace not only cannot attain this end, but cannot even be directed to it as his last end.

That trying to be just a little cautious and careful on describing it. To be less cautious, the (so-accused) neo-scholastic will simply say that man has one end considered according to his nature, and another higher end considered under the order of grace, and the second one is a DIFFERENT end. The end according to nature is to live "the good life", which is the life of virtue in a good city, with good friends, ordered especially to the highest things such as contemplation of God.

As claimed by the careless (perhaps caricatured) nouvelle theologian there is no such thing as a differentiation between nature and grace, all that happens is simply due to God's providence, and there is no real distinction between what he brings about "through nature" as opposed to what he brings about "outside of nature". Man has no end other than the beatific vision, and any talk of an end "in the natural order" effectively divides man into to separate parts, destroying his internal unity and integrity. The whole business of talk of man's "nature", if it is supposed to enable us to speak of an ordering without sanctifying grace, is sheer bunk.

Nouvelle theologians, under this picture, will claim that Thomas's teaching of man is capable of the latter reading, and either his language is underdetermined (ambiguous) and the neo-scholastics just picked the wrong interpretation, or they will say that this is what St. Thomas really meant and the nature / supernature talk simply misses what St. Thomas said completely.

Daniel said...

If the nouvelle theologie had stopped at that it would not have been too problematic, the perceived effect is that they actively turned people away from rational Natural Theology (even to the point of labeling all Natural theology 'seeking to master God' and 'Idolatry')

Matteo said...

Tony,
so, if I understand correctly, the "real" St. Thomas actually argued something "in between" the neo-scholastics and the nouvelle theologians. In his writings, man has indeed two ends (under nature and under grace), but they are not so sharply distinct.
That seems to make sense, because although man has two ends, his essence does not change: it is simply elevated by grace, and therefore able to attain the same end (contemplating the Truth, which is God), in a more perfect way.

Tony said...

I would say that St. Thomas is subtle on this point. Definitively, man has one nature only, and that nature is an integrated one that makes sense from top to bottom. Man's end as regards the intellect is to know the ultimate truth, the universal truth, and as regards the will is to adhere to the universal good.

Since God can be known and can be loved in this life, man can indeed attain his end in some sense in this life. Yet because God cannot be known or loved in the perfect unity of the beatific vision in this life, man cannot attain THAT end in this life. Nor can man be perfectly happy in this life, because happiness in order to be perfect must needs be without end, and the attainment of good in this life must end. So man cannot attain perfect happiness in this life. Yet without sanctifying grace and without revelation, man cannot even HOPE for the achievement of the union and perfection of the Beatific Vision, so man without grace is not actively seeking the attainment of that higher good that exceeds his natural capacities. In that limited sense of the good, man has a natural end that is not the Beatific Vision, since not all men have revelation, and yet they have a due order that they can indeed know and are bound to regard.

And, again, man has a nature such that the proper and due ordering of THIS life is also the ordering that leads to life in the hereafter, so that the proper and due order understood with regard to man's attainment of supernatural good is specified by his nature, i.e. by his natural ordering. So there can be no intelligibility of his supernatural ordination without regard to his natural order. To speak of man's good without recognizing his definite nature is to make man's good unintelligible.

Matteo said...

Thanks Tony, what you says confirms my understanding of Thomas.
I was confused because the critics of Neo-Scholasticism with whom I often talk are adherents Liberation Theology. So, they portray Neo-Scholasticism as a doctrine detached from reality, a sort of spiritualist fideism. Worse than that, they use Neo-Scholasticism as a straw-man every time that I attempt to argue that Liberation Theology is dangerous as at times heterodox.
When I try to show that Liberation Theology does not respect the role of doctrine and downplays the importance of the Sacraments (transforming the priest into a political activist), they say that the only alternative to that is "cold Neo-Scholasticism".
But, as you just (quite masterfully) explained true Thomism does NOT deny man's natural ends (nor the importance of human action).

Glenn said...

An update on that chess story:

1. I managed to find a copy of The Fireside Book of Chess, and, yes, the story did appear in it. (The title of the story is "Check . . . and Mate", was written by a Jay Wilson, originally appeared elsewhere, and was copyrighted in 1946.)

2. I had thought I was being facetious when I wrote, "apparently recognizing an opportunity to ingratiate himself with his girlfriend's father" (meaning, "Yeah, right, that'll get him in good."), but it turns out that the boyfriend's behavior was more scandalous -- indeed, was more outrageous -- than I had made it out to be:

a) The boyfriend didn't just turn the board around and say, "Let's keep playing." No. When the father resigned, the boyfriend said, "Why? I could win with your pieces from that position."

b) And, previously, the father had spent an hour or so looking for the solution to a chess puzzle, but when the boyfriend showed up, he took one glance at it, moved some pieces around, then said, "There's your solution. Child's play. Any pinhead could see through that problem."

3. Quite obviously, what I had offered as "pure speculation" is in fact pure balderdash.

4. I too -- and likely due to a fading memory -- had thought of the father as an unruffling, benign sort of fellow. I was wrong. And saying, "The father [was] none too happy about his daughter's choice of boyfriends", was putting it mildly. The father was contemptuous, condescending, disparaging and disrespectful--not to mention dismissive (as if such were not inferable from the latter). Indeed, at least according to the narrator of this fictional story, the father's considered opinion of the boyfriend was that he wasn't anything more than a "blithe sort of idiot".

5. The innocence of the girlfriend in this story is open to question, for there is good reason to believe she wasn't exactly saintly in either attitude or behavior:

a) "You've got to do something about Father, you know. Assert yourself. Show him you've got something." "I don't know just what he expects in a man." "Perhaps," Jo said coolly, "he just expects a man." "And I suppose," Freddy growled, "that I'm not a man?" "Would you care to have me quote Father?" Jo asked, still cold.

b) "Sometimes he gets in my hair," Freddy muttered, ignoring all danger signals. "Sometimes I feel like telling him he's rude, uncivilized and..." "He's home right now," Jo interrupted. "Why don't you tell him?"

c) And, later, she calls him a "pinhead" in front of her father--which name-calling occurred prior to his solving of the chess puzzle and constituted the first use in the story of the belittling term.

6. The boyfriend gets it from both sides--how much is he willing to take? Indeed, since one's willingness may exceed one's ability, a better question might be: how much can he take?

a) Girlfriend and boyfriend, Jo and Freddy, enter the library where the father -- a general -- is deeply absorbed in pondering a chess puzzle:

Jo said, "Hello" The General started. He looked up at her. "Oh, it's you. Home early, aren't you? Did that young jackanapes..." The General saw Freddy standing there shifting unhappily from one foot to the other and the northern lights flickered in his glacial eyes. "Har!" he said so explosively that Freddy felt his vertebrae jolt violently up and down his spine like the cars of a suddenly braked freight train.

b) This and that, then:

[The General] looked at Freddy. "What do you want anyway?" "I want to marry your daughter, sir," he said in a remarkably firm but respectful manner.

(cont)

Glenn said...

7. Before the straw that broke the camel's back, the boyfriend was respectful. After the straw that broke the camel's back, his attitude and behavior were scandalous and outrageous. We need now to see if we can find that elusive straw which broke the camel's back:

The General made a sort of choking noise. Jo stared at Freddy.

"Good Lord!" the General finally said. "The man is crazy! Jo, why didn't you warn me?"

"Darling," Jo said to her father, "that was the last thing I ever expected him to say to you . . . tonight." She looked at Freddy. "Pinhead!"

Freddy's irritation increased. He looked at Jo. "Would you mind explaining that?"

"There isn't a [darn] thing to explain, young man," the General cut in. "My daughter said you were a pinhead. It's perfectly clear. P-I-N-H-E-A-D, pinhead."

8. It is at this point in time that the boyfriend discovers that his willingness to conduct himself with respect -- before the man he hopes is his future father-in-law -- exceeds his ability to conduct himself with said respect in the face of continuous and unrelenting provocation. And it is now that the boyfriend:

a) becomes antagonistic;

b) goes on to solve the chess puzzle (and make the inadvertently self-deprecating remark that, "Any pinhead could see through that problem."; and,

c) goes on to beat the father in a single game of chess--not once, but twice.

9. And when all is said and done (some slight overlap here):

In a sort of trance the General played the pieces that had been Freddy's, to lose the second time in ten more moves.

Freddy stood up. "Thank you," he said.

In that moment the General showed the stuff he was made of. He looked Freddy in the eye and said, "My boy, that has never been done to me before. I would appreciate an opportunity to play with you again. I hope that you will consider as unsaid anything which I may have carelessly let drop about your intelligence and... uh... regarding that request about Jo... Well, I should say that was a matter entirely up to her. Good night." With a straight back and a head held high the General walked out of the room.

(cont)

Glenn said...

A delightful story, is it not?

Sure it is.

But it is also a tangential distraction with respect to its details.

The whole point of the original abbreviated (albeit not entirely accurate) synopsis of that story was that there may be a "position" which one side sees as a "losing position", but another side recognizes as a "winning position."

The point itself, of course, had been made in the OP:

For instance, during lunch at a conference some time ago, a couple of well-meaning conservative Catholic academics matter-of-factly remarked how awful the Neo-Scholastic manuals were, how you couldn’t learn Aquinas from Thomists, etc. -- even as they praised my own work and the high-octane Thomism I was defending during the conference! I thought: “Where the hell do you think I got it from?”

And the point was later made yet again, more or less, when Matteo later wrote the following:

Thanks Tony, what you says confirms my understanding of Thomas.

I was confused because the critics of Neo-Scholasticism with whom I often talk are adherents Liberation Theology. So, they portray Neo-Scholasticism as a doctrine detached from reality, a sort of spiritualist fideism. Worse than that, they use Neo-Scholasticism as a straw-man every time that I attempt to argue that Liberation Theology is dangerous as at times heterodox.

When I try to show that Liberation Theology does not respect the role of doctrine and downplays the importance of the Sacraments (transforming the priest into a political activist), they say that the only alternative to that is "cold Neo-Scholasticism".

But, as you just (quite masterfully) explained true Thomism does NOT deny man's natural ends (nor the importance of human action).

Anonymous said...

"Third, and most importantly, the First Way doesn't ignore the "possibility" of a self-actualizing potency but quite expressly holds, on logical grounds, that it's an impossibility.

The fundamental principle at work in the First Way is that a potency can be actualized only by something already actual, and this is surely self-evident. If a potency could actualize itself, it would never be a "potency" in the first place."



"Actuality." "Potentiality." Pure piffle. Lots of white philosophical noise designed in deliberate fashion to obscure the fact that religion has nothing going for it. At the end of the day, you defend the view that a sky god killed himself and visits the true believer by way of a cracker.


Not long before becoming an atheist, I came to the realization that if I prayed to God for a given number of things, and I prayed to a rock for that same number of things, the chances are very good that the rock and God would answer roughly the same number of times. Muslims pray to their God, Hindus to theirs, Catholics and Protestants to theirs, Wiccans to theirs… and after all is said and done, every God seems to answer in roughly the same proportion… unless of course for the 100% rate of failure for such requests as healing an amputee or “moving a mountain.”

I used to say to the doubters “You can’t disprove God!” That’s true, but it’s true for one very important reason: you can’t disprove something you don’t have proof of. I can’t disprove leprechauns, or Bloody Mary, or ghosts, or Smurfs, or anything that I don’t first have proof of. You can only disprove something by showing how the proof of it is not valid.

Now, science, it has been pointed out, is not perfect and doesn’t have all the answers. However, it does have a method for obtaining answers, whereas religion simply claims answers without having ever done any of the work to get there. Science starts with the idea that we do not know something and then tries to figure it out. Religion starts with the arrogant assumption that we know God exists and therefore must base all our knowledge on that idea.


Come on.

Ty said...



" "Actuality." "Potentiality." Pure piffle. Lots of white philosophical noise designed in deliberate fashion to obscure the fact that religion has nothing going for it. At the end of the day, you defend the view that a sky god killed himself and visits the true believer by way of a cracker. "


I have never heard such a devastating refutation of Aristotelianisn, or such a devastating refutation of Catholicism. Your ability to combine the two into a single paragrph absolutely blows my mind.

Kudos, anonymous. Kudos.

Anonymous said...

@ Anonymous:

Firstly, I'm the Anonymous who asked the three tangental questions earlier, not the one who attempts to refute Aristotelian Catholicism. In response to his point, Just a couple of things:

#1. I'm not sure the concept of "Potentiality" and "Actuality" are necessarily pure piffle or white noise. The point of potentiality and actuality is that they are alternative metaphysical ideas, one I might add that many early Quantum Physicists felt more accurately described their findings (I'm not talking about 'What the Bleep do we know' type Quantum Physics, I'm talking about the folks in the 1920s who discovered this); the idea is that all material things at a fundamental level have the potential to be a number of things (e.g. the cells in my body could be bone cells or they should be blood cells)

#2. Nor is it fair to characterize the view that a "Sky God killed himself" since Christianity (at least all serious forms of it, to avoid making a No-True-Scotsman error I'll admit there might be a handful of examples however no Main Stream branch of Christianity) does not argue that Jesus was a "Sky God," the doctrine of incarnation is far more complex.

#3. About the "visits us in a cracker" comment, Michael Dummett has an excellent article discussing this idea, I can't find a URL but look up "Michael Dummett+Eucharist defense," it's worth reading to get a different perspective.

#4. Contrasting Science and Religion is a bit like contrasting Sociology and Art. They focus on different areas of knowledge; specifically, Art focuses on Aesthetic reality, while Sociology focuses on Industrial societal observations. Occasionally, there is overlap, but one cannot explain away the other. Similarly, I think Religion and Science do the same thing: Science does a good job describing the material realities of the world, Religion deals with metaphysical questions.

#5. While I'll grant you that praying for certain things aren't answered, but the conception of Prayer is changing. Contemporary ideas hold that Praying isn't about asking for what you want so much as communing with Divinity.

PS Thanks Scott and Glen earlier to giving me such excellent answers!

Anonymous said...

Woops, meant to finish up #1.

...But instead of just being a nebulous other substance something actualizes (makes actual, that is causes to be) one of the potentialities for those cells and makes it a bone cell. I'm not as much of an expert on it as Dr. Feser but I don't think it's fair to simply dismiss a major school of thought.

Daniel said...

I am willing to bet that the random troll post is still going to attract more responses than all of the various sensible questions about Thomism and the Ontological Argument...

The worst is that the Scarecrow's criticisms of Natural Theology weren't that much worse than the standard troll (hell, the Cycling-Mathematician one is way above the head of the standard troll).

Greg said...

@ Anonymous

I used to say to the doubters “You can’t disprove God!” That’s true, but it’s true for one very important reason: you can’t disprove something you don’t have proof of. I can’t disprove leprechauns, or Bloody Mary, or ghosts, or Smurfs, or anything that I don’t first have proof of. You can only disprove something by showing how the proof of it is not valid.

It's kind of funny how little of this is correct.

You can disprove something you don't have proof of. I don't have any proof that there is a greatest prime number, but I can disprove it.

Showing that the proof of something is not valid is not a disproof. If someone argues fallaciously that there is no greatest prime number, then pointing out the flaw in his argument doesn't show disprove his claim that there is no greatest prime number.

One can disprove a claim by showing that it is inconsistent. For example, if the logical problem of evil were a sound argument, it would disprove God's existence, whether there is any evidence for God's existence or not.

Billy said...

Anon said,

"Actuality." "Potentiality." Pure piffle. Lots of white philosophical noise designed in deliberate fashion to obscure the fact that religion has nothing going for it.

Except actuality/potentiality isn't to do with religion directly really. It has to do with explaining change in the world. I'm assume you find nothing unreasonable in accepting that change occurs? How do you explain it? Unless you take the anti-intellectual stance that there is no explanation and its pointless to try.

"However, it does have a method for obtaining answers, whereas religion simply claims answers without having ever done any of the work to get there."

Theologians are putting in work, don't worry about that. They simply start with religious presuppositions. Science starts with presuppositions also in which you use as a starting point for their work.

"Science starts with the idea that we do not know something and then tries to figure it out."

Except that isn't true. Science first requires accepting a whole bunch of things without argument before science can saying anything with substance. If you took science on its own, all you are saying is that scientists use the scientific method to come to scientific conclusions within a scientific framework. Whether any theory or law that is proposed has anything to do with the real world, has anything to do with the truth, requires conclusions that science itself simply cannot provide. Are you saying you accept what science concludes are genuine truths about the world without justification? The actuality/potentiality dichotomy is argue for as a way of justifying the scientific method.

"Religion starts with the arrogant assumption that we know God exists and therefore must base all our knowledge on that idea."

Not all knowledge, only knowledge of the transcendent, absolute and divine, which you cannot come to via reason. You can reasonably demonstrate God's existence, but without revelation to guide reason, you cannot really get much more. What is arrogant about it?

Tom said...

A worthwhile counter to some of the nostalgia for the days of Scholasticism and neo-Scholasticism from Pascal-Emannuel Gobry (it's more general, but we don't have many Protestants or Nouvelle Theologie types around here): http://www.patheos.com/blogs/inebriateme/2014/09/the-idolatry-of-the-year-zero/

Nolan said...

"For instance, during lunch at a conference some time ago, a couple of well-meaning conservative Catholic academics matter-of-factly remarked how awful the Neo-Scholastic manuals were, how you couldn’t learn Aquinas from Thomists..."

This is almost exactly what I heard Peter Kreeft say in a podcast I had of his.
Saying something like, "you can never understand Aquinas by reading Thomists.... they all get him wrong."

Daniel said...

‘Unanswered prayers’ has to take the crown for the Stupidest General Argument for Atheism besting even its contender ‘the Universe is too big’. I can’t remember the argument of Hawkins’ Quentin Smith previously awarded this accolade to but I doubt can hold a candle to this.

To repeat something which I’ve already multiple times: to consider God as synonymous with ‘religion’ akin to inferring the existence of unicorns from that of living organisms. The existence of God is a Necessary Condition for a large number of religions but not a Sufficient one. The fact that so many pop-atheists make such a mistake not to mention persist in expecting certain moral reactions just shows that in the end they’re really just negative Christians. To butcher a Wittgenstein quote: a picture is holding them captive and its one of two lines intersecting.

A couple of comments about Billy’s post:

"Science starts with the idea that we do not know something and then tries to figure it out."

Not to deny the correctness of his more in-depth reply to this but it seems one might just claim that the above is perfectly true only shifts in the meaning of certain words has meant that the term ‘science’ or ‘sciences’ has grown to have a more narrow connotation and thus we should instead employ the term ‘philosophy’ instead. I think I can remember some philosopher beginning one of their main works with a very similar remark.

‘Not all knowledge, only knowledge of the transcendent, absolute and divine, which you cannot come to via reason. You can reasonably demonstrate God's existence, but without revelation to guide reason, you cannot really get much more. What is arrogant about it?’

With all due respect isn’t this a presumption drawn from Revelation? Or should it be understood to mean that the direct intuition of the Divine Essence is superior to dialectical knowledge of it, in which case few would differ. Otherwise it gives the impression of placing arbitrary dogmatic limitations on Reason’s capacity to know God.

Nolan said,

‘This is almost exactly what I heard Peter Kreeft say in a podcast I had of his.
Saying something like, "you can never understand Aquinas by reading Thomists.... they all get him wrong." ‘

Which is ironic considering Kreeft’s own activities.

Billy said...

Hi Daniel,

I do hold the position that there are limitations of reason to know God. Reason on its own is simply infirm. It is weak. It does seem incorrect to call it a limitation however. Reason simply cannot give you any guide to divine truth. That doesn't mean you can't get to it purely by reason, however, its only that reason cannot genuinely confirm this for you.

I did write in error with revelation. Wrong word completely. I was meaning that the only guidance that can be trusted must be divine. one can reason the belief in this guidance, but one cannot reason the truth of it. Reason is simply not equipped to show you a way out of Plato's cave so to speak.

Nolan said...

I think Kreeft's quote was, "Aquinas is easy enough to understand, it's Thomists who make him difficult."

Daniel said...

‘I do hold the position that there are limitations of reason to know God. Reason on its own is simply infirm. It is weak. It does seem incorrect to call it a limitation however. Reason simply cannot give you any guide to divine truth. That doesn't mean you can't get to it purely by reason, however, its only that reason cannot genuinely confirm this for you.’

That's a philosophical stance though so if someone were to challenge it you would give arguments in favour of your position? If you argue, say, that by the human reason alone we can never experience alone that we can never experience God then that’s a valid argument though if you want to being in issues of Revelation then the validity of such has to be established independently beforehand.

‘I think Kreeft's quote was, "Aquinas is easy enough to understand, it's Thomists who make him difficult."

Let’s ask a standard reader of Thomas’ what the exact nature and function of the ‘verbum mentis’ is and how it differs from the ‘intelligible species’.

Scott said...

I don't want to be too hard on Kreeft, but in philosophical exposition he and Ed Feser are respectively milk and meat.

Scott said...

…and likewise Kreeft and the manualists.

Scott said...

@Daniel:

"I am willing to bet that the random troll post is still going to attract more responses than all of the various sensible questions about Thomism and the Ontological Argument..."

Unfortunately that's probably true, but it's just because the troll post is low-hanging fruit. I didn't reply to your question about the Ontological Argument because I didn't know the answer myself and a couple of Google searches didn't help.

Daniel said...

@Scott,

Re trolls I agree though it does somewhat induce a horrible feeling of futility when the same old watered-down Positivist clap-trap* resurfaces yet again and is meet with a great volley of detailed responses. It also reinforces the very soon already immediately obvious fact that very few of the trolls/attackers actually know or care what professional atheist philosophers of Religion have had to say about these arguments.

Ironically it was one of Kreeft's essays which provoked my irritability on that point (plus Oderberg's rushing to assure everyone that the Real Distinction did not imply the truth of that argument - I almost emailed him asking whether he ought to spend more time reassuring his readers that the theory of Act and Potency wouldn't entail a Prime Mover). I see there is an essay on this John F Wippel's The Metaphysical Thought of Thomas Aquinas so I'll check that out once I come up for air from the phenomenology stuff.

The other question could be reformulated I suppose as to what extent the Thomistic theses were considered binding. I was mainly raising the question in the context of what Ed said particularly in the paragraph that began ‘To be sure, the Church has not officially endorsed any specific formulation of any particular argument for God’s existence. ‘

Glenn said...

Daniel,

Let’s ask a standard reader of Thomas’ what the exact nature and function of the ‘verbum mentis’ is and how it differs from the ‘intelligible species’.

I'll leave it to others to address the exact nature and function of the 'verbum mentis'; and if the request for exactness is withdrawn, then I'll instead leave it to others to address its nature and function. Nonetheless, and simultaneous with finding a comfortable position for my neck on the chopping block, I will offer a little something to highlight the fact that there is a difference between the 'verbum mentis' and the 'intelligible species':


The intellible species informs the intellect, and the verbum mentis is, to some extent, because of, by way of, a result of or at least subsequent to that information.

That is:

a) "[T]he reason why we actually feel or know a thing is because our intellect or sense is actually informed by the sensible or intelligible species." ST I Q 14 A 2

b) "[T]hat which the intellect conceives from the thing understood, is called the word. ST I Q 28 A 4 ad. 1

c) "In our way of understanding we use the word "conception" in order to signify that in the word of our intellect is found the likeness of the thing understood[.]" ST I Q 27 A 2 ad 2

rank sophist said...

Daniel,

Not one of the Thomistic Theses is considered binding in the strong sense. They were given a general, historically relative endorsement like the various liturgical calendars that have been declared in the past. The 24 Thomistic Theses were an attempted (and failed) pastoral solution to modernity that only hastened Catholicism's flight from tradition. Given the heavy debt that recent popes--particularly Benedict XVI--owe to nouvelle theologie, it could be argued that nouvelle theologie has more binding force now than the Theses.

Daniel said...

@Glenn,

That was really meant as a rhetorical question (though it was a point which initially interested me in Thomas' epistemology) but thanks anyway. On my understanding as informed by Brennan and D.J.B. Hawkins books along with the relevant section in Stump's Aquinas volume is that that 'intelligible species' in fact covers both:

A. The 'intelligible species impressa' which is the species informing the intellect, 'stamped' on the slate of the Possible Intellect by the Active, as you describe.

B. The 'intelligible species empressa' which is our intentional direction towards an object as a result of the above. This is what is more frequently called the 'verbum mentis'.

If anyone does know any more recent volumes where this aspect of Thomas thought is taken up in more detail please do share. It's an area I hope to revisit in more depth at some point in the future in view of a comparison with Edmund Husserl's distinction between (Idea) Content and Object of the noetic act.


@Rank,

Thank you. I was really asking about what status they had in the era in which they were issued.

Daniel said...

On the subject of the Verbum Mentis and other such issues I was thinking of ordering Robert Pasnau’s Theories of Cognition in the Later Middle Ages but the claim in the Amazon review that he was unconsciously reading Representationalism into the Scholastic thinkers put me off:

http://www.amazon.com/Theories-Cognition-Later-Middle-Ages/product-reviews/0521583683/ref=pd_ybh_5_cm_cr_acr_txt?ie=UTF8&showViewpoints=1

(I’ve always wondered what the ‘Sense and Sensation’ book he recommends is – maybe Austin’s Sense and Sensibilia?)


On the subject of Thomism and the Ontological Argument the standard ‘question-begging’ objection is put forward by Joyce, Donceel, Philiphs and Garrigou-Lagrange amongst others (if I remember correctly Garrigou-Lagrange spends more pages on this in his The One God than all the criticisms of Gaunilo, Kant and Thomas combined). There are also ideas hanging around that chose to read Thomas objection as 'any proof of God's existence which proceeds from one of the Divine Attributes presupposes the existence of the deity'*, a remark, to put it bluntly, I find utter nonsense, or some more subtle point about Nominal and Real Definitions.

*Philiphs’ mentions this but adds that Scotus’ and Leibniz’ Modal formulation of the argument is unaffected by this objection.

Brandon said...

I don't remember any details of that particular work at the moment, but Pasnau is very hit-and-miss. What the commenter means by "Sense and Sensation", I'm fairly sure, is Aquinas's Commentary on De Sensu et Sensato (In librum de sensu et sensato expositio).

Brandon said...

Here's a link to Aquinas's commentary, for those interested:

http://dhspriory.org/thomas/english/SensuSensato.htm

Glenn said...

@Glenn,

That was really meant as a rhetorical question...but thanks anyway.


The anticipated chop is a gentle one; thank you. Here's another rhetorical question: how often does the term 'verbum mentis' come up on this blog? It's been said--and if it hasn't already been said then it ought to have been said by someone, somewhere, at sometime--that the rhetorical question is asked and having been asked is forgotten about; but perhaps 'verbum mentis' will now linger a bit in a few minds.

Daniel said...

For the Verbum Mentis since it’s often linked in with Material and Formal Signs might the works of Semioticaly inclined Thomists John Deely be applicable? Anyone familiar with his writings on the subject if any?

@Brandon,

Well my face is certainly red! The translation of that volume I have goes under the title Sense and What Is Sensed and has been in plain sight on the bookcase for years. For some reason I took it as given that the reviewer must be talking about a contemporary volume on Thomas or at the very least on the mechanics of Perceptual Realism.

It maybe arbitrary prejudice on my part but for various reasons I do not trust Pasnau…