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The Question Of The Immortality Of The Soul In Descartes’ Epistle To The Sorbonne

Pterodactyls

I. The Question of Immortality

In his Dedicatory Letter to the Sorbonne, Descartes presents his Meditations to the Dean and Doctors as a work of Christian apologetics, while suppressing his incendiary goal of demolishing the entire Aristotelian metaphysics, physics, and psychology with the critical principle of rationem dubitandi. Descartes’ methodological doubt functions as a general principle for critiquing what Aristotle and his Scholastic followers took for granted — the reliability of the rational soul’s knowledge of the material world gained through the senses.1 The Aristotelian-Scholastic’s proofs for the soul typically began with some form of evidence derived from the order of corporeal being, such as the fact that living things possess the power of self movement and growth, then causally deduced the formal principle from the material principle — for example, living things that move and grow and reproduce are animated by soul. However, concerning the survival of the incorporeal soul after the dissolution of the body, Aristotle does not give a consistent opinion, except on the point that the rational soul is “capable of existence [i.e., functioning] in isolation from all other psychic powers.”2

The demonstrable fact that the rational soul engages in operations such as calculation, speculation and contemplation, in which the body has no share, is not tantamount to the Thomistic claim that the soul has an existence — not merely an operation — entirely independent of the body that it is the form or actuality of. In his Summa Contra Gentiles, Thomas maintains, contra the view of Aristotle, that if the human intellectual soul, which is the actuality of the human body, possesses operations that are in no way dependent on the body’s operations, 3 then it follows that the intellectual soul is capable of continuing its operation of intellectual apprehension (intelligere corrumpitur) after the death of the body.

Descartes maintained that such proofs were not conclusive because man’s knowledge of the ontological order was made to depend on the perception of the fallible senses as the first principle of knowledge. For Descartes, the necessity for providing indisputable proofs for the existence of God and the separability of the soul from the body was of particular importance,4 considering that the dubitability of the evidence obtained through the senses, and the hypothesis of the malin génie, called into question the validity of any proof that presupposed the reliability of the senses, such as Thomas’ proofs for the existence of God and the immortality of the soul. By calling his addressee’s attention to the point that his project for proving the existence of God, and that the soul does not perish with the body, corresponded to the traditional Scholastic enterprise, Descartes sought to align his proofs with the long-accepted attempts of his Scholastic predecessors.

Citing the Lateran Council held under Pope Leo X in session eight, Descartes attempted to further legitimize his philosophical investigation into the nature and immortality of the soul by supporting his quest for epistemological certainty with Leo X’s mandate for Christian philosophers to refute the arguments of irreligious philosophers who hold “that the soul dies along with the body.”5 Be that as it may, Descartes’ mission as a philosophical apologist for the truth of Christian doctrine involved more than simply upholding the tenets of the Faith with rational arguments, as there was nothing innovative or new in doing so.

The sense that Aristotelian philosophy was a stagnant body of knowledge was part of the impetus behind Descartes’ desire to look afresh at the foundations of philosophy. That the Church had, in making Aquinas its representative theologian, implicitly “Christianized” the thought of Thomas’ master, Aristotle, was an alliance that made the doctrines of Christianity dependent in crucial ways on the philosophic principles and reasoning of a pagan philosopher.6 Hence, Descartes hoped to free Christian philosophy from the influence of, and dependence on Aristotelian philosophy, while setting the traditional questions of natural theology on a philosophically indubitable and Christian foundation.

When he broaches the question of the nature of the soul, Descartes could have had nothing other than the opening of Aristotle’s De anima in mind, writing, “As regards the soul, many people have considered that it is not easy to discover [non facile investigari] its nature…”7 Aristotle’s procedure for inquiring about the soul in De anima begins with what is perceptible or intelligible, and moves to the underlying principle or mechanism: “…in the order of investigation the question of what an agent does [movement] precedes the question, what enables it [i.e., the soul] to do what it does.”8 Aristotle does not begin his inquiry into the nature of the soul with thinking, since thought itself is neither perceptible, nor is it an intelligible species that takes itself as its own object; that is, Aristotle’s account of the rational soul does not begin with a demonstration of rationality.9 Descartes reverses Aristotle’s procedure for inquiring into the nature of the soul, and begins his Meditations by inquiring into a type of purely rational mental activity that is comparable to Aristotle’s conception of theoria, or contemplation, and then moves, in the Sixth Meditation, to where Aristotle’s investigation begins, which is an account of the perceptible activity of the agent that the soul/mind informs.

II. From Immortality to Separability

In his letter to the Dean and Doctors of the Sorbonne, Descartes claims that the existence of God and the immortality of the soul “are prime examples of subjects where demonstrative proofs ought to be given with the aid of philosophy rather than theology;” and further, “that the only reason why many irreligious people are unwilling to believe that God exists and that the human mind is distinct from the body [mentemque humanam a corpore distingui] is the alleged fact that no one has hitherto been able to demonstrate these points.” That no prior proof for the existence of God and the immortality of the soul is immune to contradiction or refutation is precisely what Descartes is claiming to be the case, bluntly stating that, “I would add that these proofs are of such a kind that I reckon they leave no room for the possibility that the human mind will ever discover better ones.”10

However, a rational proof for the existence of God and the immortality of the soul would invalidate the necessity for God’s participation in revealing Himself to man, and the soul’s salvation would not require God’s intervention any more than its survival after the death of the body. Aquinas was particularly aware of the religious or fideistic dimension to the question of the soul’s immortality. If the self-subsistence of the soul could be conclusively demonstrated, then God’s act of preserving the soul after the body dies would become superfluous, since the soul would be inevitably immortal, and without any need of divine support.11

Prior to addressing the matter of the nature and immortality of the soul in his letter, Descartes draws on Biblical passages that declare man’s knowledge of the existence of God to be “manifest” in order to build a case for the proof for the existence of God given in the Meditations. As Descartes’ proof for the separability of the soul from the body in the Second Meditation hinges dialectically on his proof for the existence of God as an innate idea of the mind, the soul is conceived of as tantamount to mind.12 The conflation of soul with mind leads Descartes to allude in his Sorbonne letter to his doctrine of innate ideas, writing that “everything that may be known of God” through the Scriptures, including man’s knowledge of God’s existence, “…can be demonstrated by reasoning which has no other source than our own mind.”13

Descartes’ phrase, “no other source than our own mind,” introduces a subtle shift in the argument, and is intended to transfer man’s knowledge of the existence of God from the sensible effects wherein God’s existence is evident throughout His creation, to a knowledge of God’s existence that is neither discursive, nor requires any recourse to the theological Biblical tradition. Knowledge of the existence of God derived from His sensible effects is, according to Descartes, a fallacy in the order of knowledge; the corporeal organs of sense only sense what is sensible, and God, who is incorporeal, cannot be apprehended in His existence through the corporeal senses. The dubitability of sensible objects and their effects undermines the validity of knowledge derived from the material world; hence, if man’s knowledge of the existence of God is drawn from sensible effects, then the existence of God can be called into doubt through the same channels by which His existence was asserted.

On the other hand, in the Third Meditation, the necessity of the mind’s a priori knowledge of the existence of God is deduced from the infinite nature of God, as there is no other means by which a finite mind could be in possession of the idea of an infinite being.14 Further, Descartes maintains that,

the mere fact that God created me is a very strong basis for believing that I am somehow made in his image and likeness, and that I perceive that likeness, which includes the idea of God, by the same faculty which enables me to perceive myself.15

The thesis that the mind is made in God’s image and likeness rests upon the assumption that the mind possesses judgment, rationality, and will — in other words, those communicable attributes that God possesses infinitely and perfectly, and the human mind, to a limited and finite degree. Because the meditator perceives both God and the ego through the same faculty, i.e., the understanding, what is predicated of God — infinity and perfection,16 is also predicated of the mind, but to a diminished degree of perfection.17 The quasi-univocity between the innate contents of the mind and the mind’s simultaneous apprehension of the knowledge of the existence of God and the ego confirms that the mind has natural knowledge of God in the same way that the mind perceives itself — the force of the intuition that to think (i.e., to act), one must exist, impresses itself on the understanding with the same indubitable force as the fact that if a finite mind has an idea of an infinite, perfect being, it follows that an infinite perfect being must perforce exist.

The Sorbonne faculty, as Descartes was well aware, were Aristotelian-Thomists, and held that the first principle of man’s knowledge was the grasping of concrete existence in its singularity, which apprehension depended upon the sensible object received by the active intellect via the phantasm. Without the sensible object, neither the active nor the possible intellect could be activated, and the intellect’s abstraction from the particular thing to grasp the intelligible species could never take place. Man’s knowledge of the existence of God, deriving from the order of created things, points to the necessity of His existence as the first cause of the material world, and the requirement that there exist in the universe intellectual creatures that bear “a likeness to its source, according to its being and its nature, wherein it enjoys a certain perfection.”18

Man’s rational soul, or intellectual nature, cognizes the existence of God by the rational faculty that has its basis in the priority of the sensible object given to the active intellect through the phantasm. Descartes’ emphasis on the ease with which the existence of God is thinkable subordinates the chain of causes in the sensible order to the chain of causes in the order of ideas. That the existence of God, according to Descartes, is more self-evident than the existence of the sensible world, alters the Aristotelian/Thomist conception of the intellectual soul, which apprehends its object via the simple class of objects that Aquinas refers to as “sensible by accident,” or objects which are intelligible in themselves.19 However, Descartes wished to gain the commendation of the Sorbonne for his Meditations, and to do so required a subtle method of aligning his ostensibly anti-Aristotelian conception of God and the human soul with the views upheld by the staunchly traditional Sorbonne faculty:20

I have noticed both that you and all other theologians assert that the existence of God is capable of proof by natural reason, and also that the inference from Holy Scripture is that the knowledge [cognitionem] of God is easier to acquire than the knowledge we have of many created things…”21

In this rhetorical gesture, Descartes first presents his conception of man’s knowledge of God’s existence as an innate idea of the mind, which is a pivotal move in his attempt to persuade the theologians that his metaphysics does not diverge from the main topics of prior systems, but serves to reckon together and codify all “arguments that have been put forward on these issues by the great men,” whose arguments Descartes praises as having “the force of demonstrations.”22

In his letter, Descartes strategically combines established doctrines of the Church with the traditional Scholastic endeavor to generate proofs for the existence of God and the immortality of the soul, and then, in the Meditations, ingeniously modifies the purpose of speculative philosophy and natural theology to support the practical ends of physical science. It is noteworthy that the Sorbonne letter only contains one passing mention of science, when the wider purpose of the Meditations was the establishment of a firm foundation upon which to raise the sciences.23 Because Descartes scientific thought derives entirely from his metaphysics,24 he is able to sidestep the need to deal directly in his letter with the fact that his speculative physics overturns the speculative physics of Aristotle — the main points that Descartes address in his letter, viz., proving the existence of God and the immortality of the soul, are framed in terms of definitive proofs that can be used to combat atheism, materialism, and religious skepticism.25

Descartes’ project of providing a firm metaphysical foundation for the sciences is carried out according to the established template of the Scholastic philosophers, consisting of a synthesis of speculative metaphysics and Christian theology. But by taking a reductionist approach to the history of philosophy, and indeed to the act of philosophizing itself, at one stroke Descartes is able to critique and sweep aside the writings of his Scholastic predecessors with his claims of logical soundness and indubitability for the proofs in the Meditations.26 Descartes’ conception of one universal science, whose “roots are metaphysics, the trunk is physics, and the branches emerging from the trunk are all the other sciences…,”27 required that the method used for augmenting the sciences be single, in order that truth could be demonstrated in a systematic order. The indisputability of Aristotle’s indemonstrable principles for reasoning was transformed, under the auspices of the Cartesian method, into the test of indubitability for arriving at epistemological certainty in derived propositions.

Descartes synthesis of speculative metaphysics and Christian theology differs, then, from the Scholastic’s metaphysics and theology in that the aim of discovering a method from which to derive indubitable metaphysical principles with which to augment physics and all the other branches of science was never present for Scholastic philosophers such as Aquinas. For Descartes, the theological imperative to demonstrate the existence of God and the immortality of the soul developed out of a rationale opposed to the Aristotelian/Scholastic concept of theoria (the contemplation of truth) as the utmost goal of philosophizing.28

Descartes rejected not only the contemplation of truth as the goal of philosophic activity by replacing it with an end in practical activity, but took skepticism as his chief philosophic enemy from the beginning, rather than the thought of Aristotle and the Scholastics.29 Moreover, Descartes’ held that the rational proofs found in the writings of the Schoolmen for the existence of God and the immortality of the soul failed to attain their objective, and amounted in the end to mere demonstrations that the truths of faith and the truths of reason do not lie in opposition to each other; or, that there can not exist something which is both true and not true at the same time.

Such demonstrations, Descartes held, were insufficient to combat the tendency in the 17th century toward atheism, materialism, and religious skepticism. Only the perception of truth impressed with such force and vivacity that the mind cannot help but assent to it could be a sufficient criterion for the test of the indubitability of knowledge — what is true is what the mind perceives “clearly and distinctly.”

1 It should be noted that, in regard to his Principles of Philosophy (1644), Descartes’ desire to have his textbook adopted and instituted into the Jesuit educational programme led him to soften his tone concerning the anti-Aristotelian and anti-Scholastic positions found in such works as his Discourse on the Method (1637) and Meditations (1641). Writing to his former teacher, Charlet, in October 1644, Descartes states in regard to the contents of his Principles that, “I know that people have thought my views were new; yet they will see here that I do not use any principles which were not accepted by Aristotle and by all those who have ever concerned themselves with philosophy. People have also imagined that my aim was to refute the received views of the Schools, and to try to render them absurd; but they will see that I do not discuss them any more than I would if I had never learnt them” (AT IV, 141; CSMK 3, p. 238); and four months later, again writing to Charlet, Descartes expresses his wish that his textbook would “serve effectively to explain the truths of the faith without, moreover, contradicting the writings of Aristotle” (AT IV, 157; CSMK 3, p. 240).

2 DA, p. 558 (413b 25). Cf. DA, p. 548 (408b 24): “The incapacity of old age is due to an affection not of the soul but of its vehicle… Thus it is that in old age the activity of mind or intellectual apprehension declines only through the decay of some other inward part; mind itself is impassable.”

Regarding Aristotle’s opinion of the immortality of the soul in De anima, and how those opinions formed a basis for debate among Christian philosophers C.F. Fowler notes that, “His [Aristotle’s] enigmatic comments throughout the De anima on the possibility of the survival of the human soul only added to the difficulties for his Christian followers and gave rise to the various schools of interpretation.” Descartes On the Human Soul: Philosophy and the Demands of Christian Doctrine (International Archive of the History of Ideas, 160; Kluwer Academic Publishers, Dordrecht, Boston, London, 1999), p. 80. Brackets mine.

3 Cf., SCG 2, 68: 12: “Above all these forms [nutritive and sensitive souls], however, is a form like to higher substances even in respect of the kind of knowledge proper to it, namely, understanding. This form, then, is capable of an operation which is accomplished without any bodily organ at all. And this form is the intellective soul; for understanding is not effected though any bodily organ. That is why this principle, the intellective soul by which man understands and which transcends the condition of corporeal matter, must not be wholly encompassed or imbedded in matter… This is proved by its intellectual operation, wherein corporeal matter has no part. But since the human soul’s act of understanding needs powers — namely, imagination and sense — which function through bodily organs, this itself shows that the soul is naturally united to the body in order to complete the human species.”

4 Cf. AT VII, 3; CSM 2, p. 4: In his Dedicatory Letter, Descartes is in earnest with his assertion that, “I think there is no more useful service to be rendered in philosophy than to conduct a careful search, once and for all, for the best of these arguments [for the existence of God and the immortality of the soul], and to set them out so precisely and clearly as to produce for the future a general agreement that they amount to demonstrative proofs.” Brackets mine.

5 AT VII, 3; CSM 2, p. 4.

6 In 1613, Aquaviva, the General of the Jesuit order, renewed the Jesuit’s commitment to Thomas’ theology.

7 AT VII, 3; CSM 2, p. 4, brackets mine. Cf. DA, “To attain any assured knowledge of the soul is one of the most difficult things in the world,” p. 535, 402a 10. Cf. Discourse on the Method, “But many are convinced that there is some difficulty in knowing God and even knowing what their soul is,” AT VI, 37; CSM 1, p. 129.

8 DA, p. 561, 415a 15. Brackets mine.

9 Cf. Aristotle’s Metaphysics: “There are… some who raise a difficulty by asking, who is to be the judge of the healthy man, and in general who is likely to judge rightly on each class of questions. But such inquiries are like puzzling over the question whether we are now asleep or awake. And all such questions have the same meaning. These people demand that a reason shall be given for everything; for they seek a starting-point, and they seek to get this by demonstration, while it is obvious from their actions that they have no conviction. But their mistake is what we have stated it to be; they seek a reason for things for which no reason can be given; for the starting-point of demonstration is not demonstration,” p. 747-748 (1011a 1- 15).

10 AT VII, 4; CSM 2, p. 4.

11 In order for the philosophical proof for the immortality of the soul to be consistent with the Church’s doctrine, Aquinas postulated that God would have to act in order to preserve the soul after the death of the body: “Separated souls know some singulars but not all (even those that are temporally present). For evidence on this we should consider that there are two modes of understanding. One is by abstraction from sense images, and in this manner singulars cannot be known by the intellect directly… The other manner of understanding is by the infusion of species [per influentiam specierum] by God, and according to this manner the intellect can know singulars… immaterial substances can know singulars by way of species which are participated likenesses of the divine essence,” ST, 1a, 89, 4, reply; pp. 149-151. Brackets mine.

12 Cf. footnote 3 in CSM 2, p. 10, where the additional phrase from the French translation of the Meditations, “…or the soul of man, for I make no distinction between them,” is noted in relation to the passage from the original text that reads, “And it follows from this that while the body can very easily perish, the mind is immortal by its very nature.”

C.F. Fowler note of Descartes’ predominant use of the term mens over anima, animus, ingenium, and spiritus in the Meditations to describe the human soul (Fowler 1999, pp. 161-175). Fowler concludes with the observation that, “The novelty of the Cartesian notion of the human soul was highlighted by a refusal of the traditional vocabulary and the deliberate choice of the word mens,” ibid., p. 186.

13 AT VII, 2; CSM 2, p. 3. Brackets and italics mine. The Latin original is as follows: “…videmur admoneri ea omnia quae de Deo sciri possunt, rationibus non aliunde petitis quam ab ipsamet nostra mente posse ostendi.”

14 Third Meditation, AT VII, 51; CSM 2, p. 35: “…when I turn my mind’s eye on upon myself, I understand that I am a thing which is incomplete and dependent on another and which aspires without limit to even greater and better things; but I also understand at the same time that he on whom I depend has within him all those greater things, not just indefinitely and potentially but actually an infinitely, and hence that he is God.”

15 Third Meditation, AT VII, 51; CSM 2, p. 35.

16 The fact that man is created in the “likeness” or “image” of an infinite and perfect God has its parallel in: 1) infinite — the human will that extends indefinitely; 2) perfection — the mind’s reflexive apprehension of clear and distinct ideas.

17 Cf. Third Meditation, AT VII, 42; CSM 2, p. 29: “An although one idea may perhaps originate from another, there cannot be an infinite regress here; eventually one must reach a primary idea, the cause of which will be like an archetype which contains formally [and in fact] all the reality [or perfection] which is present only objectively [or representatively] in the idea. So it is clear to me, by the natural light, that the ideas in me are like [pictures, or] images which can easily fall short of the perfection of the things from which they are taken, but which cannot contain anything greater or more perfect.” Brackets in original.

18 Thomas Aquinas, Summa Contra Gentiles, 2, 46: 2.

19 Cf. SCG 2, 77: 2: “…the intellectual soul itself remains potential with respect to the determinate likeness of things that can be known by us, namely, the natures of sensible things. It is the phantasms which present these determinate sensible natures to us. But these phantasms have not yet acquired intelligible actuality, since they are likenesses of sensible things even as to material conditions, which are the individual properties, and, moreover, the phantasms exist in material organs. Consequently, they are not actually intelligible.”

20 In a letter to Mersenne of January 28, 1641, Descartes writes in regard to his physics, “…I may tell you, between ourselves, that these six Meditations contain all the foundations of my physics. But please do not tell people, for that might make it harder for supporters of Aristotle to approve them. I hope that readers will gradually get used to my principles, and recognize their truth, before they notice that they destroy the principles of Aristotle,” AT III, 297-298; CSMK 3, p. 173. Like Aristotle’s, Descartes physics are founded on his metaphysics; hence, to destroy the principles of Aristotle’s physics is to cast doubt on the validity of his metaphysics as well — which Descartes does not fail, in his Meditations, to do.

21 Letter to the Sorbonne, AT VII, 2; CSM 2, p. 3.

22 Letter to the Sorbonne, AT VII, 3; CSM 2, p. 4.

23 “And finally, I was strongly pressed to undertake this task [producing demonstrative proofs for the existence of God, and that the human mind is distinct from the body] by several people who knew that I had developed a method for resolving certain difficulties in the sciences…” AT VII, 3; CSM 2, p. 4. Brackets mine.

24 In a letter to Mersenne of November 11, 1640, Descartes discusses some possible difficulties in the Sorbonne’s reception of his Meditations, which he refers to as his “metaphysics, due to controversies that might arise concerning certain other projected publications: “It might also hold up the approbation of the Sorbonne, which I want, and which I think may be very useful for my purposes, for I must tell you that the little book on metaphysics which I sent you contains all the principles of my physics.” (AT III, 233; CSMK 3, p. 157).

25 “What I have done is to take merely the principle and most important arguments and develop them in such a way that I would now venture to put them forward as very certain and evident demonstrations. I will add that these proofs are of such a kind that I reckon they leave no room for the possibility that the human mind will ever discover better ones.” (AT VII, 4; CSM 2, p. 4).

Contra the materialistic view of the soul propounded by early natural philosophers, Descartes briefly alludes to such claims in the Second Meditation: “But as to the nature of this soul, either I did not think about this or else I imagined it to be something tenuous, like a wind or fire or ether, which permeated my more solid parts.” (AT VII, 26; CSM 2, p. 17). Cf. SCG: “This, then, does away with the error of the early natural philosophers. Who supposed that no substance exists except the corporeal, and who therefore said that the soul is a body, either fire or water or air, or something of the kind…” (2, 49: 11). Cf. DA, p. 540-542 (405a 5-505b 30) for Aristotle’s review of his predecessor’s opinions of the soul as “either an element, or constructed out of the elements.” The respective summaries of the opinions of early natural philosophers found in the writings of Descartes and Aquinas’ are an obvious echo of remarks made in Aristotle’s treatise on the soul.

26 “I do not think that the diversity of the opinions of the scholastics makes their philosophy difficult to refute. It is easy to overturn the foundations on which they all agree, and once that has been done, all their disagreements over detail will seem foolish.” (AT III, 232; CSMK 3, p. 156).

27 Fifth Set of Objections, AT VII D; CSM 1, 186.

28 Cf. Nicomachean Ethics, “…the activity of God, which surpasses all others in blessedness, must be contemplative; and of human activities, therefore, that which is most akin to this [contemplation] must be most of the nature of happiness,” p. 1104 (1178b 20). Brackets mine. Cf. SCG 1, 1: 2: “The ultimate end of the universe must… be the good of an intellect. This good is truth. Truth must consequently be the ultimate end of the whole universe, and the consideration of the wise man aims principally at truth.”

29 Cf. Frederick Copleston, S. J., A History of Philosophy: Modern Philosophy: Descartes to Leibniz, volume 4 (Image Books, Garden City, New York, 1960), p. 80.

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The Soul of Shakespeare’s 94th Sonnet

il_fullxfull.340648227Man possesses many attributes and abilities in common with other living things, but the attribute distinguishing man from all other things, and which he shares in common with god, is a rational principle. We will endeavor to state in detail the connection between Aristotle’s postulate of a rational principle in man and why the life lived in accord with the highest virtue, theoria, is the most elevated expression of this faculty of rationality.

Aristotelian man has within him the capacity to strive for and achieve virtue in his own life. Man’s nature is not entirely fixed or determined by outside forces, and so he necessarily has the capacity to alter his nature; man is not born ‘stuffed with all honorable virtues,’ to use Shakespeare’s phrase, but must be habituated to the life of virtue. Man can either be habituated into activities that go against his nature, or excise from himself habits that are beneath his nature. It is possible for man to form fresh habits in accord with what is most dominant in man, that being logos, for man possesses, in varying degrees of efficacy, the faculty of reason (cf. NE 1296),1 which makes this alteration possible. To speak of alterations in man’s behavior is to speak of the progress of virtue, and Aristotle treats this progression at length in the Nicomachean Ethics. Yet Aristotle disarmingly concludes the Nicomachean Ethics with a discussion of virtue in its totality by crowning the project of the life of practical virtue with the conception of the contemplative life, which, at first pass, is a palpably strange way to conclude, since the life of contemplation stands outside the realm of everyday action (i.e., practical virtue), and is, in a sense, virtue sans action.

What is commonly required for the implementation of the cardinal virtues, things such as ready money, power, opportunity, &c., are viewed not as a means to the man who would contemplate truth, but rather as hindrances. Why is this so? Aristotle tells us, ‘the man who is contemplating the truth’ (NE 1106) may only do so once he has put aside virtuous deeds and the many things needed to carry out such deeds. He may choose to do virtuous deeds, or he may not, and the choice is occasioned by the presence or absence of other men in the life of a philosopher. When the man who desires to contemplate truth excises himself from the diversions of his affairs, or the houses of his friends, or, hypothetically, when the possibility for action and production are taken away from him, all that remains for him is thought—logical being (for the only logical entity is thought).

The life of contemplation is not a life of dainty indolence and languor, but is necessarily very difficult and solitary, and Aristotle sums up his conception authoritatively:

[W]e…must, so far as we can, make ourselves immortal, and strain every nerve to live in accordance with the best thing in us; for even if it be small in bulk, much more does it in power and worth surpass everything…[i]t would be strange, then, if he [man in a broad sense] were to choose not the life of his self but that of something else (NE 1105).

The rigors of the contemplative life resolve themselves into the rigors of logic. Aristotle demands indisputability from his first principles and seeks indemonstrable premises on which to found his rational investigation of the world. Therefore, the method of rational contemplation must be an enumeration of logical inferences if the results are to be meaningful. Intuition, or some other species of mental instinct, will not do for Aristotle, since intuition is derived from particular and individual thought processes, and is most likely contingent on the individual thinker. For Aristotle, the form of the syllogism is the form taken by the activity of contemplation. The syllogism presupposes a rational ordering of the kosmos, and one contemplates this rational order with the instrument of logic as the nimble instrument of the human mind wields it. There is no mistake in Aristotle’s decision to name his logical treatises the Organon. The logical treatises, it can be said, epitomize his conception of what is produced by, and gained through, the life of contemplation:

[F]or if the gods have any care for human affairs…it would be reasonable both that they should delight in that which was best and most akin to them (i.e., reason) and that they should reward those who love and honor this most (NE 1108).

The character of the unmoved mover in Aristotle’s writings both initiates and completes the human life of contemplation. For, taking god as the archetype of thought, the contemplator of truth endeavors to imitate the divine by exercising in himself what is divine. The Greek concept of mimesis, I believe, is entirely applicable to how Aristotle conceives the method and the means of the contemplative life. To call the contemplator a mimic of god is to call a spade a spade, since god is the ultimate exemplar of such an existence. In examining the attributes god possesses, Aristotle is seeking a template for the life of contemplation that other like-minded people can understand and apply. Some of the attributes of god mimicked in the human activity of contemplation are as follows: god as the ergon (function) of theoria—the intelligible striving to appreciate the intelligible, or god taking god as the object of thought; further, god neither suffers nor undergoes affection, but is unmoved, impervious, insusceptible, &c. All of these qualities of god are commensurate with the activity of god, which, as Aristotle points out, is contemplative (NE 1107). Therefore, just as god, and the activity of god, is entirely self-sufficient and self-contained, so too is the activity of contemplation, in which there is no need for ready money, power, or opportunity. The human activity of contemplation is akin to this divine apathae, and, as Aristotle explains, this imperviousness to affection is appropriate to the degree to which humans participate in nous, viz., the understanding and grasping of eternal truths.

In Aristotle’s provisional discussion of the rational principle of man in book one of the Nicomachean Ethics, the germ of his later discussions of happiness and the contemplative life can be seen in the brief allusion he makes to the human good. This human good he calls ‘an activity of soul in accordance with virtue, and if there are more than one virtue, in accordance with the best and most complete’ (NE. 943, emphasis added). The aim of Aristotle’s provisional discussion of the rational principle is the way in which it is implicitly linked to the highest good, viz., the activity of god, which, as we have seen, is thought. The link between the activities of man and god is forged by the principle of self-sufficiency, which Aristotle defines as ‘that which when isolated makes life desirable and lacking in nothing; and such we think happiness to be…’ (NE 942). Aristotle goes on to point out that,

[W]e think it [self-sufficiency] the most desirable of all things, without being counted as one good thing among others—if it were so counted it would clearly be made more desirable by the addition of even the least of goods…[h]appiness, then, is something final and self-sufficient, and is the end of action (Ibid).

An important addition to Aristotle’s conception of the contemplative life, and with which he concludes the passage just cited, is the claim that happiness entails an end of action. This only makes sense if the life of practical virtue is crowned by the contemplative life. In the life of practical virtue, the improvement of man’s actions and behaviors is the goal; but the final aim of the project is one of inactivity and solitude. The end of action expressed and carried out in the contemplative life is singular to the rest of Aristotle’s virtues, all of which all presuppose some means, some action, to the fulfillment of its end, be it power, ready money, or opportunity. All of the virtues are discursive, save for the activity of contemplation, which is self-contained, and for this reason is the highest good, as Aristotle calls it. Yet we should take notice that the contemplative life is, nevertheless, co-constitutive with the life of practical virtue, and is not possible outside of a specific type of social environment, viz., an environment in which excellence of soul amongst citizens is not the exception but, more likely, the rule. The contemplative life is a product of the highest forms of human society, but no society is built, conversely, from such a foundation as the type of individual who is a scholar or philosopher.

The source for this criterion of self-sufficiency as the highest good is found in Aristotle’s conception of the divine, which only the life of contemplation among the virtues approximates. Only objects of thought and desire are unmoved movers—they are the motivating force behind the multiplicity of activities in the world. God is the primary and ultimate object of thought and desire. God moves (but is himself unmoved) because he is loved: man ceases to move and becomes like god when he reasons. This, then, is why the activity that most nearly approximates the activity of the divine is itself called the highest good and naturally puts an end to action. Recall what Aristotle writes regarding the activity of god, the semblance of which is reflected in man:

Now if you take away from a living being action, and still more production, what is left but contemplation? Therefore the activity of god, which surpasses all others in blessedness, must be contemplative; and of human activities, therefore, that which is most akin to this must be most of the nature of happiness (NE 1107).

The man who contemplates the truth is nevertheless not self-sufficient to the same degree as god, but needs, in addition, what Aristotle refers to as ‘external prosperity.’ The extent to which a man must be prosperous to live the life of contemplation necessarily involves possessing the necessary resources to maintain health, &c. Aristotle points out that virtuous activity, especially the act of contemplation, is possible with a minimum of the accoutrements needed to continue in existence:

[W]e must not think the man who is to be happy will need many things or great things, merely because he cannot be supremely happy without external goods; for self-sufficiency and action do not involve excess (Ibid).

It is reasonable to conclude from this that self-sufficiency belongs more properly to the life of contemplation then to the virtues (the life of action)—but in either case excess has no part in the modifying and building up of what is best or most dominant in man’s nature, i.e., reason. Now recall what was mentioned earlier regarding the trait Aristotle assigns to god’s nature, namely, neither suffering nor undergoing any affection. What place can such a quality occupy in the life lived according to practical virtue, which is necessarily one of action? Indeed, Aristotle celebrates the wide variety of qualities present in man, and qualities of which man is capable of achieving through practical virtue, but nevertheless, what is most prominent in man’s nature is the rational principle, and the exercise of this attribute tends toward one thing, and that is the unmoved, self-sufficient divine.

Thus far we have but articulated a skeleton of what the contemplative life involves, in that it approximates the nature of god—perhaps this rudimentary anatomy can be fleshed out further if we deck it in the raiment of poetry. Examining Shakespeare’s 94th sonnet, we get a sense of what the life of contemplation participating in the divine means. Certain philosophic commentators have claimed this 94th sonnet to be a sort of reflecting-pool for quasi-Nietzschian ideas of self-sufficiency and the experience of life as an end in itself.2 Be that as it may, it can be argued that the poem is more fittingly read as a compliment to Aristotle’s conception of the contemplative life, especially since the poem is demonstrably Aristotelian in its vocabulary and thoroughly Elizabethan, rather than Nietzschian, in its poetic conceits. Here, then, is the piece itself:

They that have the power to hurt and will do none,

That do not do the thing they most do show,

Who, moving others, are themselves as stone,

Unmoved, cold, and to temptation slow:

They rightly do inherit heaven’s graces

And husband nature’s riches from expense,

They are the lords and owners of their faces,

Others, but stewards of their excellence.

The summer’s flower is to the summer sweet,

Though to itself it only live and die,

But if that flower with base infection meet,

The basest weed outbraves his dignity:

For sweetest things turn sourest by their deeds;

Lilies that fester smell far worse than weeds.3

Shakespeare’s sonnet is best understood when set beside Aristotle’s conception of the life of contemplation. In not doing the thing he most does show, or is most capable of doing, the philosopher deliberately puts an end to the life he has led in the realm of practical virtue—a life he is entirely able to continue pursuing, were he to choose to do so. Yet he does not choose that life, but rather, another, the life of contemplation. In doing so, and doing so excellently, he rightly inherits heaven’s graces and moves others while remaining himself as stone. The man who would contemplate the truth, the philosopher, is the man ‘dearest to the gods;’ and insofar as he approaches god through the exercise of the faculty of reason (which in its utmost purity and enduringness neither suffers nor undergoes affection), does he give ‘delight’ to god for honoring ‘what is most akin’ to god’s nature. Further, the philosopher husbands the riches of nature from expense, viz., he rightly manages, through the practice of the highest virtue, the rewards of contemplative activity garnered from nature; viz., nature in the sense of the first principles underlying the accidents, not the accidents themselves (recall that Aristotle requires indemonstrable premises as a basis for scientific knowledge). Occupying this unique position, which Aristotle affirms is not available to every man, earns the philosopher the title of lord and owner of his face, or the rightful possessor of the enduring intellectual and virtuous qualities akin to the nature of god, and subsequently ‘most of the nature of happiness.’

That this kind of life is not inhuman or even superhuman, but as Aristotle writes, simply not available to every man, is our premise, and we must search the works of the past for examples of those who voluntarily adopted this life, having first been habituated into the excellences of virtue in a manner similar to what is described by Aristotle, then take flight from the world of deeds and affairs and actions like so many thieves, carrying off with them the rich spoils of their excellent characters, into the cloistered cell or lavish home, wherewith the retiring life of a solitary and studious existence is taken up. Indeed, such individuals are uncommon, but every age has a few in it that, through the pains and discomforts of study and seclusion, truly advance not only their own knowledge, but move and advance, so to speak, the entire age in a way similar to the movement of vast armies conquering lands and territories; save for the fact that the philosopher’s achievement is not subject to the vicissitudes of states or rulers, and so endures, resting on its own laurels, and always regarded as an amazement and wonder to the inhabitants of posterity, who see in the greatest of the philosopher’s thought both newness and evidence of what the best men are capable of, should the times be so generous and forgiving as to let such men come into being.

1 All citations in parentheses are from Richard Mckeon, ed., The Basic Works of Aristotle (Random House, 1941).

2 Walter Kaufmann, From Shakespeare to Existentialism (Princeton University Press, 1959), cf. pp 5-8.

3 Alfred Harbage, ed., The Complete Pelican Shakespeare (Viking Penguin, 1969), p. 1468.

By Our Own Quickening Power: The Devil, Descartes & Milton On The Question of Theodicy

In the long tradition of Western philosophy, the question of by what means, if at all, do humans comprehend the ways and designs of God, dates back to the earliest efforts of the pre-Socratic philosophers. The later tradition of Christian philosophical inquiry, which commenced with the writings of Origen in the 2nd century A.D., carried with it from its inception the burden of the question of theodicy, and expanded the nature of the investigation to account for the agonistic struggle for the souls of men between an infinite, providential God and His adversary, the fallen angel called Satan.

One subcategory within the general issues investigated by the question of theodicy examines one of the oldest questions facing man’s experience of the world: whence evil? As the antithesis of good, evil is necessarily the privation, negation, or deception of the good. To rephrase the question, because I am afflicted in some way, or deceived, God cannot be good; were God good, I would not be afflicted or deceived; hence, my being subject to affliction and deception contradicts God’s goodness, and implies that if it was an omnipotent and benevolent God who created me, I would not be afflicted or deceived in any way. A multitude of responses have been advanced to elucidate the question and to absolve or convict God of responsibility for the evils that dominate human life, and in reading Milton’s Paradise Lost, we come upon a late contribution to the argument, and in a poeticized rather than a systematic or analytic form.1 The particular concern in Milton’s poem is with accounting for the origins of things, be it the creation, evil, rationality, man— in short, he is concerned with accounting for not only the origin of all things, but with their respective destinies as well. As a Christian poet, Milton holds that only the proper understanding of the eternally existing foundation of things facilitates true human knowledge, and only with this proper understanding can life be rightly lived; all else is a sinful perversion and corruption of the designs and intentions of God. Hence, the light of God’s revelation gives assistance to the fallen human understanding only to a certain and limited extent; knowledge of divine truth must be actively sought, insofar as it remains unrevealed in particular practical matters and cases in human experience. With the limited battery of tools that revealed knowledge provides as a guide for conduct, the cognitive faculties of the will and reason can either act as aides for the understanding and for proper conduct, which ultimately leads souls to God, or as misguided vehicles for justifying sinful and irrational behavior, which lands unrepentant souls in the immortal fry of perdition. The faculty of reason, or what Milton calls “right reason” (ratio recta) is the vehicle for coming to a proper and general— which is not to say a full— understanding of why God created the kosmos, why God allowed the fall of man to occur, and the means by which God will redeem humankind from the consequences of original sin. While man only through the light of revelation knows all of the latter truths, according to Milton, the right exercise of the faculty of reason exclusively coincides with a sincere belief in the truths of faith. According to Milton, the truths of reason and the truths of faith are not mutually exclusive epistemic categories; they are, in fact, two sides of the same epistemological coin.

While Milton’s conception of theodicy in Paradise Lost has no doubt been explored from many angles by many commentators, one side note of interest lies in the similarity between how the question of the origin of conscious beings is explored in Milton’s characterization of Satan in Paradise Lost, and also in Descartes hypothetical “evil genius” (deus deceptor) from the Second and Third Meditations. Satan’s argument for self-creation in book five of Paradise Lost bears a strong, though likely inadvertent correspondence to the fallacious logic of the argument for self-creation employed by Descartes in his Meditations. Descartes was the “father” of modern philosophy in the sense that mind, or the content of mind takes precedence over the fallible operations of the senses. Cartesian philosophical idealism does not have a direct parallel to Milton’s conception of rationality and the freedom of the will, yet Milton is arguably a philosophical idealist in the same sense as Descartes, in terms of the priority of reason over the data or content of sensory experience.

Milton’s idealism, as well as Descartes’, is evident in the comparison of the two respective arguments for self-creation. The philosophical thrust of these arguments is contained in the philosophical question of theodicy, which is that God, whatever His purposes or designs might represent to human consciousness, is ultimately incomprehensible in His purpose for allowing evil (Milton) and error (Descartes) to actively impair man’s ability to reason, and thus come to knowledge of the truth. Under these conditions, theodicy is either impossible, or there is no such thing as a consistent theodicy. The faculty of reason, or what Milton calls “right reason” (ratio recta) is the vehicle for coming to a proper and general— which is not to say a full— understanding of why God created the kosmos, why God allowed the fall of man to occur, and the means by which God will redeem humankind from the consequences of original sin.

In the First Meditation, Descartes introduces the hypothesis of the deus deceptor in order to push the limits of skepticism further than have Sextus Empiricus and all previous philosophical skeptics, including Montaigne and Pierre Bayle:

And yet firmly rooted in my mind is the longstanding opinion that there is an omnipotent God who made me the kind of creature that I am. How do I know that He has not brought it about that there is no earth, no sky, no extended thing, no shape, no size, no place, while at the same time ensuring that all these things appear to me to exist just as they do now? What is more, because I sometimes believe that others go astray where they think they have the most perfect knowledge, may I similarly go wrong every time I add two and three or count the sides of a square… But perhaps God would not have allowed me to be deceived in this way because He is said to be supremely good. But if it were inconsistent with His goodness to have created me such that I am deceived all the time, it would seem equally foreign to His goodness to allow me to be deceived even occasionally; yet this last assertion cannot be made.2

Note that the structure of the second part of the hypothesis of the deus deceptor resembles the famous Epicurean argument: because there is evil, then God is either evil or impotent or both. Descartes’ argument is analogous: because I have a nature which sometimes deceives me, God is either evil or impotent or both. In other words, the fact that I have a nature subject to deception is proof that God did not create me.3 One notable fact is that in Paradise Lost, neither Adam nor Eve question how they originated,4 whereas Satan, in book five, argues that since none of the fallen angels, including himself, recalls being created, if follows that, “We know no time when we were not as now;/Know none before us, self-begot, self-raised/By our own quickening power…”5 The argument for self-creation questions the existence of God, and from this it follows that Satan’s adversary is not an omnipotent and benevolent God at all, but a demiurge imposter who has set himself up as a tyrant. Accordingly, Satan and the fallen angels have just as much right to heaven as the imposter posing as God. In similar fashion, in the Third Meditation, Descartes inquires as to whether or not the idea of a being more perfect than himself must necessarily proceed from some being which is in reality more perfect, and examines the possibility of whether he himself, who has such an idea of a more perfect being, could exist if no such being existed:

For whom, in that case, would I derive my existence? From myself, presumably, or from my parents, or from some beings less perfect than God… Yet if I derived my existence from myself, then I should neither doubt nor want, nor lack anything at all; for I should have given myself all the perfections of which I have any idea, and thus I should myself be God… And if I had derived my existence from myself, which is a greater achievement [than to emerge out of nothing], I should certainly not have denied myself the knowledge in question [i.e., the knowledge of the many things of which he is ignorant, such as his origin]…

The logic of the argument for self-creation mirrors not only the terrifying logic of the deus deceptor, in which all knowledge is made absurd and impossible, but also the perverted logic of Milton’s Satan, where all manifestations of God’s goodness are inverted so as to seem absurd and unjust. If we consider Milton’s invocation to Book III in light of the question of the source of things— be it creation, revelation, Christian epic poetry, then the fear that the poem may well be nothing more than a self-created fantasy becomes apparent:

Thee I revisit now with bolder wing,

Escap’t the Stygian Pool, though long detain’d

In that obscure sojourn, while in my flight

Through utter and through middle darkness borne

With other notes than the Orphean Lyre

I sung of Chaos and Eternal Night,

Taught by the heav’nly Muse to venture down

The dark descent, and up to reascend,

Though hard and rare…6

Milton distinguishes his source from that other than Satan, who had proclaimed himself in Book II as “Alone, and without guide,”7 though by the ninth book, Milton seems less certain that an appeal to the muse will procure the inspiration that he relies on: “If answerable style I can obtain/ Of my Celestial Patroness,” he will succeed, but not “if all be mine,/ Not Hers who brings it nightly to my ear.”8 This echoes, albeit in a different mood, Satan’s fatuous speculation that he and the other angels were “self-begot, self-raised/By our own quickening power.”

In book seven of Paradise Lost, God speaks illuminatingly of his own character:

Though I uncircumscribed myself retire,

And put not forth my goodness, which is free

To act or not, necessity and chance

Approach not me, and what I will is fate.9

The philosophical distinction between necessity, fate, and foreknowledge is complex, and need not detain us. Milton’s project of justifying the ways of God to men becomes less relevant and less meaningful when the answer to the question of why is such-and-such state of affairs so receives the answer “because men and angels have chosen,” which is tantamount to something to the effect that “it is so because it is so.” In Milton’s cosmology, evil and good are ultimately of a piece because God, from which these two principles are derived, is Himself a unity; in the end, evil is good because the source of all things is good, and what seems like needless suffering (good as evil) is, in the end, necessary for immutable goodness to remain self-identical and infinitely free.

In his book Christian Doctrine, Milton writes that, “From the concept of freedom… all idea of necessity must be removed… The matter or object of the divine plan was that angels and men alike should be endowed with free will, so that they could either fall or not fall.”10 In terms of Milton’s conception of theodicy, such an a posteriori case for the freedom of the will is weak when the breakdown of the rational faculty seems to be part and parcel of the human condition. All men inevitably go wrong in thought, word and deed, and no matter how efficaciously the intellect is exercised, men and angel’s willful choice to fall or not fall cannot be considered a genuine choice extended by a benevolent and omnipotent God. Yet, according to Milton, “divine foreknowledge can no more affect the action of free agents than can human foreknowledge… because in both cases the foreknowledge is within the mind of the foreknower and has no external effect.”11 How can Milton reconcile the “free agent” who exists under the crippling curse imposed under Adam and Eve’s first disobedience, with the passive foreknowledge of God that redeems men according to merit rather than predestination?

As the presence of a rational faculty, which is tied directly to the freedom of the will in men, questions the justness of paralyzed divine foreknowledge, so too does the respective Miltonic and Cartesian arguments for self-creation question the existence of God, as well as the justness of God’s actions. Yet what both arguments fail to account for, as both Milton and Descartes were aware, is the palpable limitation in the exercise of cognitive faculties that finite entities such as Satan, the res cogitans of the Meditations, and normal human beings necessarily experience: thinking is not tantamount to creating, nor is the flawed assumption that to be unable to recall a time before one existed mean that either one is the creator of oneself, or that one has always existed. The claim of self-creation made by the deus deceptor and Satan, respectively, and the difficulty with which man apprehends goodness and truth in a world that has come under the dominion of sin and death,points to the origin of error or evil, insofar as it is a byproduct of a perversion of Milton’s principle of right reason, and the Cartesian principle of the light of nature. Under these conditions, the faculty of reason, like the freedom of the will, mirrors the self-identical nature of the divine mind in some respects, rather than the indeterminacy of the way in which the material world is ordered.

In his Meditations, Descartes argues that the data apprehended by the senses are an obstacle to knowing the truth, and that only the rational mind, which inspects the a priori contents of mind, can apprehend the indubitable truth of the existence of God the creator and the immortality of the soul. While there is an apocalyptic element to Descartes’ thinking, Milton’s ontologically ambiguous portrayal of Eden in Paradise Lost presents the reader, on the one hand, with a picture of the most perfect habitation for man; and on the other, Eden as a wilderness that ever exists in a perilous balance between self-generating over-ripeness and rapid decomposition. In the brief period after man was created by God, and before his fall, the question of the reliability of the rational faculty (intellect plus will) as an effective means for coming to an understanding of truth comes under an ironic scrutiny in Milton’s portrayal of Adam and Eve as inexpert stewards and tenders of paradise:

forth came the human pair…

Then commune how that day they best may ply

Their growing work; for much their work outgrew

The hands dispatch of two gardening so wide…12

Because Eden in “One night or two with wanton growth derides,/ Tending to wild,”13 Eve argues that “till more hands/ Aid us, the work under our labor grows,”14 and thus she enjoins Adam to divide their labors in order that their efforts may be better rewarded. As any good capitalist would argue, the division of labor makes perfect rational sense; yet in the antediluvian world of Eden, rational argument must either contend with or align itself to the content of revelation, as in the case of the angel’s warning to Adam that he and Eve must not separate, unless she unduly expose herself to the wiles and seductions of the serpent. Eve’s argument that she and Adam divide their labors is in accord with reason, but out of sync with the content of revelation; the question then arises, precisely where does free and rational human choice intersect with the infinite will and foregone decrees of God?

While the rationally underprovided author of this paper can offer no settlement, it is clear that in terms of human action, for a decision to be made, one has to be attracted or repulsed by the good or evil that presents itself. Objects attract the will, but not when objects are identical, as in the case of “Burdian’s ass.”15 In his dialogue Crito, Plato argues that men are incapable of doing evil because they cannot do good, thus everything men do is by chance rather than method or intentionally; hence the necessity for the iron hand of the Philosopher King to rule men who cannot rule themselves. Yet men do ostensibly know what is right and wrong, whether it is according to societal norms or natural law, and Christians are refreshingly commonsensical in their explanation of the moral distinction of good and evil as the result of original sin— knowing good and evil comes through the everyday experience of being either wronged or benefited, and then acting in accordance with the circumstance. The Greeks gave a very rational answer to why men pursue what they pursue, but it is morally vacuous, commands a totalitarian solution, and runs counter to everyday experience. So why, according to philosophical idealists Milton and Descartes, do we pursue evil when we know the good? The answer, in both cases, is that the contents of our perceptions deceive us, and only reason is a sure and able guide between one choice and another, between sin and redemption. So, to reiterate the question posed above, i.e., how fit are the recipients of reason to employ the faculty of reason, it should be pointed out that the question presupposes the human faculty16 of reason as a perfection in the human genus; but it is clear that the rational faculty, in a fallen world, is far from perfect or reliable for performing the critical judgments necessary to be constantly in accord with right reason, or otherwise avoid error. If we add sense perception into the will/intellect equation, the faculty of reason must either stand on its own (per se), operating without any influence from the senses, and neither the will or intellect goes wrong; or, reason, operating with the senses, is constantly assailed with misleading and erroneous sense data, thus impeding the will and intellect with an admixture of falsehood, which may even be mistaken betimes for truth. Reason does not supply foresight, and thus Eve’s decision to divide the share of labor with Adam was indeed rational; and yet without the apocalyptic knowledge possessed only of Adam to avoid the consequences of dividing their labor, it was impossible for Eve, though she be rational, to be cogitatively in accord with Milton’s conception of right reason.

Where is the question of theodicy in all of this? With the popularization of Newtonian, and later, Cartesian mechanistic physics, the gloriously romantic universe of Milton, that set no bounds to the imagination of man as it played over space and time, was swept away. In its stead reigned a conception of space that was identified with the realm of geometry, and time with the continuity of number. Instead of the miraculous creative and conserving powers of God, the ultimate elements of the kosmos, in a geometric sense, were reduced to portions of space. As Descartes famously announces in his Fourth Meditation, the Aristotelian search for final causes in the natural sciences and physics is useless to any understanding of immediate, or efficient cause. Asking the question of why, in the ultimate sense, is such-and-such state of affairs the way it is, is devoid of content in the face of the practical question of how is such-and-such a state of affairs the way it is. While Milton and Descartes were in relative intellectual agreement regarding the necessity for asserting the freedom of the will over any theological or philosophical formulation that asserted the bondage of the will, they were out of agreement in terms of whether or not the kosmos operated according to mechanistic laws. Milton was a theo-philosophical contemplative in terms of his investment in the question of theodicy and right reason, yet he was also a hard-line consequentialist ethically. Safeguarded, then, somewhere between action and contemplation lies Milton’s conception of man and God, and his conception of man’s relation to God. In both Milton and Descartes’ respective writings, preserved is a version of man’s moral nature that is structured by a formal conception of God that, at least superficially, is built on the evidences of Scripture. Such a conception of God retains (much according to the philosophical tradition) the monotheistic attributes of omnipotence, omni-benevolence, and infinity, among others. As opposed tothe philosophes naturelles of the latter 17th and 18th centuries, neither Milton nor Descartes ever abandoned the question of theodicy for the life-raft of materialism and fictionalized historicism, maintaining until the end, in their several ways, that morality cannot be cashed out in mechanical terms any more than beauty or truth.

1 Cf. Paradise Lost, V: 99: Best image of myself and dearer half,

The trouble of thy thoughts this night in sleep

Affects me equally; nor can I like

This uncouth dream, of evil sprung I fear;

Yet evil whence? In thee can harbor none,

Created pure. But know that in the soul

Are many lesser faculties that serve

Reason as chief…

All references to Milton hereafter are cited as PL, and otherwise as the respective work quoted in the text body.

2 Descartes, Meditations,AT VII, 21; CSM II, p. 14.

3 To expand the argument, if God were evil, he could not create, since evil is a privation of good; and because the act of creation is a perfection, if God were evil, he would necessarily be impotent to create the kosmos; thus, neither the kosmos nor mankind could be the work of God.

4 Cf. PL, VIII: 250 ff: For man to tell how human life began

Is hard; for who himself beginning knew?…

But who I was, or where, or from what cause,

Knew not…

To which God replies : “Whom thou sought’st I am…”

“Author of all this thou seest

Above, or round about thee or beneath…

5 Ibid., V: 859-61.

6 Ibid., III: 13-21.

7 Ibid., II: 975.

8 Ibid., IX: 20-21.

9 Ibid., VII: 170-74.

10 Milton, Christian Doctrine, 1:iii.

11 Ibid.

12 PL, IX: 197, 201-203.

13 PL, IX: 211-12.

14 PL, IX: 207-8.

15 An ass find himself in a pasture with two identical bails of hay on either side of him; because there is no difference in quality or quantity between the two bails, the will of the ass is paralyzed, and he starves to death because he cannot choose betwixt them.

16 Human reason as opposed to God and angels, which are ontologically distinct, immutable, and, by degrees of perfection, more rational beings.

Milton’s Early Poem, “The Hymn”

Image

I.
It was the winter wild,
While the Heav’n-born child,
All meanly wrapt in the rude manger lies;
Nature in awe to him
Had doffed her gaudy trim,
With her great Master so to sympathize:
It was no season then for her
To wanton with the Sun, her lusty paramour.
II
Only with speeches fair
She woos the gentle air
To hide her guilty front with innocent snow,
And on her naked shame,
Pollute with sinful blame,
The saintly veil of maiden white to throw,
Confounded, that her Maker’s eyes
Should look so near upon her foul deformities.
III
But he, her fears to cease,
Sent down the meek-eyed Peace:
She, crowned with olive green, came softly sliding
Down through the turning sphere,
His ready harbinger,
With turtle wing the amorous clouds dividing;
And waving wide her myrtle wand,
She strikes a universal peace through sea and land.
IV
No war or battle’s sound
Was heard the world around;
The idle spear and shield were high uphung;
The hooked chariot stood
Unstained with hostile blood;
The trumpet spake not to the armed throng;
And kings sate still with awful eye,
As if they surely knew their sovran Lord was by.
V
But peaceful was the night
Wherein the Prince of Light
His reign of peace upon the earth began:
The winds with wonder whist,
Smoothly the waters kist,
Whispering new joys to the mild Ocean,
Who now hath quite forgot to rave,
While birds of calm sit brooding on the charmed wave.
VI
The Stars with deep amaze
Stand fixed in steadfast gaze,
Bending one way their precious influence;
And will not take their flight,
For all the morning light,
Or Lucifer that often warned them thence,
But in their glimmering orbs did glow,
Until their Lord himself bespake, and bid them go.
VI
And though the shady gloom
Had given day her room,
The Sun himself withheld his wonted speed,
And hid his head for shame,
As his inferior flame
The new-enlightened world no more should need:
He saw a greater Sun appear
Than his bright throne or burning axle-tree could bear.
VIII
The shepherds on the lawn,
Or ere the point of dawn,
Sate simply chatting in a rustic row;
Full little thought they than
That the mighty Pan
Was kindly come to live with them below:
Perhaps their loves, or else their sheep,
Was all that did their silly thoughts so busy keep;
IX
When such music sweet
Their hearts and ears did greet,
As never was by mortal finger strook,
Divinely warbled voice
Answering the stringed noise,
As all their souls in blissful rapture took:
The air such pleasure loth to lose,
With thousand echoes still prolongs each heav’nly close.
X
Nature, that heard such sound
Beneath the hollow round
Of Cynthia’s seat, the Airy region thrilling,
Now was almost won
To think her part was done,
And that her reign had here its last fulfilling:
She knew such harmony alone
Could hold all heav’n and earth in happier union.
XI
At last surrounds their sight
A globe of circular light,
That with long beams the shame-faced Night arrayed;
The helmed Cherubim
And sworded Seraphim
Are seen in glittering ranks with wings displayed,
Harping in loud and solemn quire,
With unexpressive notes to Heav’n’s new-born Heir.
XII
Such music (as ’tis said)
Before was never made,
But when of old the sons of morning sung,
While the Creator great
His constellations set,
And the well-balanced world on hinges hung,
And cast the dark foundations deep,
And bid the welt’ring waves their oozy channel keep.
XIII
Ring out ye crystal spheres!
Once bless our human ears
(If ye have power to touch our senses so)
And let your silver chime
Move in melodious time,
And let the bass of Heav’n’s deep organ blow;
And with your ninefold harmony
Make up full consort to th’angelic symphony.
XIV
For if such holy song
Enwrap our fancy long,
Time will run back and fetch the age of gold,
And speckled Vanity
Will sicken soon and die,
And leprous Sin will melt from earthly mould;
And Hell itself will pass away,
And leave her dolorous mansions to the peering Day.
XV
Yea, Truth and Justice then
Will down return to men,
Orbed in a rainbow; and, like glories wearing,
Mercy will sit between,
Throned in celestial sheen,
With radiant feet the tissued clouds down steering;
And Heav’n, as at some festival,
Will open wide the gates of her high palace hall.
XVI
But wisest Fate says no:
This must not yet be so;
The Babe lies yet in smiling infancy,
That on the bitter cross
Must redeem our loss,
So both himself and us to glorify:
Yet first to those ychained in sleep,
The wakeful trump of doom must thundcr through the deep,
XVII
With such a horrid clang
As on Mount Sinai rang
While the red fire and smould’ring clouds outbrake:
The aged Earth, aghast
With terror of that blast,
Shall from the surface to the centre shake,
When at the world’s last session,
The dreadful Judge in middle air shall spread his throne.
XVIII
And then at last our bliss
Full and perfect is,
But now begins; for from this happy day
Th’old Dragon under ground,
In straiter limits bound,
Not half so far casts his usurped sway,
And, wrath to see his kingdom fail,
Swinges the scaly horror of his folded tail.
XIX
The Oracles are dumb;
No voice or hideous hum
Runs through the arched roof in words deceiving.
Apollo from his shrine
Can no more divine,
With hollow shriek the steep of Delphos leaving.
No nightly trance or breathed spell
Inspires the pale-eyed priest from the prophetic cell.
XX
The lonely mountains o’er,
And the resounding shore,
A voice of weeping heard and loud lament;
From haunted spring, and dale
Edged with poplar pale,
The parting Genius is with sighing sent;
With flow’r-inwoven tresses torn
The Nymphs in twilight shade of tangled thickets mourn.
XXI
In consecrated earth,
And on the holy hearth,
The Lars and Lemures moan with midnight plaint;
In urns and altars round,
A drear and dying sound
Affrights the flamens at their service quaint;
And the chill marble seems to sweat,
While each peculiar power forgoes his wonted seat.
XXII
Peor and Baalim
Forsake their temples dim,
With that twice-battered god of Palestine;
And mooned Ashtaroth,
Heav’n’s queen and mother both,
Now sits not girt with tapers’ holy shine;
The Libyc Hammon shrinks his horn;
In vain the Tyrian maids their wounded Thammuz mourn.
XXIII
And sullen Moloch, fled,
Hath left in shadows dread
His burning idol all of blackest hue:
In vain with cymbals’ ring
They call the grisly king,
In dismal dance about the furnace blue.
The brutish gods of Nile as fast,
Isis and Orus, and the dog Anubis, haste.
XXIV
Nor is Osiris seen
In Memphian grove or green,
Trampling the unshower’d grass with lowings loud;
Nor can he be at rest
Within his sacred chest,
Naught but profoundest Hell can be his shroud:
In vain with timbreled anthems dark
The sable-stoled sorcerers bear his worshipped ark.
XXV
He feels from Juda’s land
The dreaded Infant’s hand,
The rays of Bethlehem blind his dusky eyn;
Nor all the gods beside
Longer dare abide,
Not Typhon huge ending in snaky twine:
Our Babe, to show his Godhead true,
Can in his swaddling bands control the damned crew.
XXVI
So when the Sun in bed,
Curtained with cloudy red,
Pillows his chin upon an orient wave,
The flocking shadows pale
Troop to th’infernal jail,
Each fettered ghost slips to his several grave,
And the yellow-skirted fays
Fly after the night-steeds, leaving their moon-loved maze.
XXVII
But see, the Virgin blest
Hath laid her Babe to rest:
Time is our tedious song should here have ending.
Heav’n’s youngest-teemed star,
Hath fixed her polished car,
Her sleeping Lord with handmaid lamp attending;
And all about the courtly stable,
Bright-harnessed Angels sit in order serviceable.

XXVIII

But see, the Virgin blest
Hath laid her Babe to rest:
Time is our tedious song should here have ending.
Heav’n’s youngest-teemed star,
Hath fixed her polished car,
Her sleeping Lord with handmaid lamp attending;
And all about the courtly stable,
Bright-harnessed Angels sit in order serviceable.

The Gods In Exile: Milton, Swinburne, & Alienated Culture

Dionysius the Areopagite, named in the book of “Acts” as one of those Athenians who believed when they heard Paul preach on Mars Hill, comes down to the modern age as one of the examples of early Christianity’s triumph over pagan religion.  The history of the dissolution and eventual abrogation of pagan religion is readily traced in the writings of Arnobius of Sicca,1 St. Augustine, and later, the writings of the Ecclesiastics throughout the Middle Ages.  If the accounts in the “Gospels” are taken to be records of historical fact, the true advent of Christianity is marked by the nativity of Christ, and the later polemics stand as mere publicity rather than documents forging the birth of the new religion as such.  At the scene of the nativity, then, the gods, rites, and indeed the entire edifice of pagan religion cease to have cosmological validity, even if its gods and rites continued for some time afterward to be observed.

The pagan cult of nature, which included deified elements, and heavenly bodies, are shown in Milton’s “Hymn” to be mere servants that attend the infant Christ’s nativity “Untill their Lord himself bespake, and bid them go” (76).2   It is worth noting that the news of what “now begins,” viz., the accession of Christ to the seat of His earthly kingdom, is, in Milton’s poem, not first heard in the Near East, but in Greece.  The priests and oracles at Delphi are now mute prophets, and both Apollo and the crowd of woodland nymphs alike shriek, weep, lament, and sigh as their shrines, groves, and temples are profaned and made worthless at a stroke (cf. stanzas XVIII-XXI).  Next, the deities of the Near East, Peor, Baalim, Ashtaroth, and the rest, “Forsake their Temples dim” (198) and flee away.  Likewise, the “brutish gods of Nile,” Isis, Orus, Anubis and Osirus, are put to flight at the advent of the Incarnation.  “The dredded Infants hand” (222) passes the final sentence over them all, and the “flocking shadows pale” retire “to th’infernall jail” or “several grave” (33-35).  The reverse-apotheosis is complete; the worship of the pantheon, even if prolonged in history, is hollow; the prayers, offerings, and rituals nullified; and the immortal nature of the gods extinguished by “The rayes of Bethlehem” (223).

Milton’s “Hymn” depicts a downward ontological movement: Christ assumes the form of man and comes into the world of time and space from the timeless, ethereal region of heaven; and the pagan divinities of the air and the earth go down into “th’infernall jail,” or a kind of earthly hell.  The dismantling of divinity in Milton’s poem, and his vision of the gods of antiquity processing from the seat of immortality to assume a shadowy, tenuous existence, indicates that the high gods are now little better than mortal men, suspended between the poles of being and non-being.  The “infernall jail,” like unto a living grave, is precisely the terms by which mortality is shaped, whether it is the body-imprisoned soul of man, or the changeless, deathless gods imprisoned in a mutable world of ceaseless change.  An ontological shift occurs in the god’s nature as such; and man’s understanding of himself and his relation to the divine consequently undergoes a profound transformation to match.  The “infernall jail” to which the gods are condemned by the infant Christ can be interpreted in a Christian context to be the world itself, which is fallen from a sinless, perfect state to one “Pollute with sinful blame” (41), and full of “foul deformities” (44); or in other words, the dwelling of fallen humanity.

In his prose work entitled The Gods in Exile, Heinrich Heine collects specimens from Medieval lore that tell of what became of the Greek and Roman gods after “Christianity achieved supreme control of the world.”3  Prior to beginning the fable of Apollo, Heine notes that

The superstition of the people ascribed to those gods a real but cursed existence, coinciding entirely in this respect with the teaching of the Church. The latter by no means declared those ancient gods to be myths, inventions of falsehood and error, as did the philosophers, but held them to be evil spirits, who, through the victory of Christ, had been hurled from the summit of their power, and now dragged along their miserable existences in the obscurity of dismantled temples or in enchanted groves… [and] when the true Lord of the universe planted the banner of the cross on the heavenly heights, and those iconoclastic zealots, the black band of monks, hunted down the gods with fire and malediction and razed their temples, then these unfortunate heathen divinities were… compelled to take flight, seeking safety under the most varied disguises and in the most retired hiding places. Under these circumstances several, whose shrines had been confiscated, became wood-choppers and day-laborers in Germany, and were compelled to drink beer instead of nectar.4

The exile of the gods, as a recurrent theme in literature, is a kind of fabula mundi, and necessarily of interest as a profound metaphor, or rather, a meta-theme, that does the work of interpreting the vast undercurrent of the history of the overthrow of pagan religion by Christianity.  Milton’s “Hymn” strikes the modern reader as something of a late footnote to the history of the overthrow of one religious myth for another, and in Milton’s poem, as in Heine’s fantasy, the backward glance comes at two respective points in history when the threat of foreign gods to the rule of Christian culture was at best benign, if not comical as Rabelais’ topsy-turvy vision of hell was provincial.  It might also be observed that such backward glances occur, or become necessary in times of extraordinary cultural or personal individual change.  When previous paradigms shift or are transformed of necessity by cultural or natural forces, there are those whose perceptions of the world remain firmly rooted in the previous order, while others, presumably at odds with the reigning order of ideas and concepts, affect or embrace the arrival of foreign ideas or concepts.  The whole prosaic task of organizing, sorting, and classifying into a system the mass of material that comprised previous cultural identities becomes very important, as previous cultures rarely ever vanish without leaving their imprint on the cognitive modes and daily practical habits of their successors.  Both the “Hymn” of Milton, and the Gods in Exile of Heine are late illustrations of the recurring task of assimilating the pagan religious order in Europe.  No cultural paradigm shift is ever self-sustaining or immutable, but requires immense labour and constant patching-up in order for it to remain culturally relevant or viable.  As late as the 19th century, thinkers and artists at odds with Christianity, like Heine, were still craning their necks backwards in order to catch a glimpse of the “golden age” of pagan antiquity, and futilely attempting to imbibe something from the days before men came noticeably under the watch of the good shepherd and his magisterium.

A.C. Swinburne, who was a contemporary of Heine in the world of letters, is another example of this species of jealous glorification of the first-born pagan religion over the terrible child Christianity.  Swinburne’s poem, “Hymn to Proserpine,” 5 published in 1866, elucidates the remoteness of Christianity’s triumph over the gods of antiquity in the same way as Milton’s “Hymn,” and Heine’s The Gods in Exile, but from the opposite perspective.  In Swinburne’s poem, the speaker, who is an unnamed follower of the Roman goddess Proserpine, observes the passing of his religion, and the accession of the new gods marked “by the proclamation in Rome of the Christian faith.” As the setting in Swinburne’s poem makes clear, the speaker witnessing his “Gods dethroned and deceased, cast forth, wiped out in a day,” (13) is the last representative, the sole remaining adherent to the religion of the pagan divinities.  Rather than address his plea to a warlike god, the speaker in the poem calls upon the goddess of sleep, and of the underworld, and begs for the tranquility of death, for safe passage out of a world no longer recognizable— a world presided over by the eccentric promises of the Galilean:

Wilt thou yet take all, Galilean?…

More than these wilt thou give, things fairer than all these things?

Nay, for a little we live, and life hath mutable wings.

A little while and we die; shall life not thrive as it may?

For no man under the sky lives twice, outliving his day.

And grief is a grievous thing, and a man hath enough of his tears:

Why should he labour, and bring fresh grief to blacken his years?

Thou hast conquered, O pale Galilean; the world has grown grey from thy breath;

We have drunken of things Lethean, and fed on the fulness of death.

Laurel is green for a season, and love is sweet for a day;

But love grows bitter with treason, and laurel outlives not May.

Sleep, shall we sleep after all? for the world is not sweet in the end;

For the old faiths loosen and fall, the new years ruin and rend. (23-40)

Milton’s “Hymn,” on the other hand, although confusing in the order of events and the time in which events occur, is apparently narrated by one present at the nativity of Christ.  The narrator is seemingly omniscient, and views events of the past, present, and future indifferently.  In any case, the narrator of the poem observes first-hand the infant Christ “wrapt in the rude manger” (3), recognizes and believes in the Incarnation, and foresees the plan for man’s redemption, even while the Redeemer is perceived to be yet a babe.  This witness, then, can accordingly be hypothesized as the first Christian, the first believer in Christ. The dichotomy set up by juxtaposing the respective speakers in Milton’s “Hymn” and Swinburne’s “Hymn to Proserpine” is of interest on account of the personal reaction to cultural forces that are either at odds or in agreement with their beliefs and desires; but in any case, beyond their control.  Both Milton and Swinburne’s poems address the exigencies of religion as a cultural phenomenon, and one that all men at once have a part in the creation and preservation of, and yet are subservient to its demands.  Heine’s The Gods in Exile is a record not only of the myths that sprang up in the wake of the demise of paganism, but also of the long-forgotten fortunes of the many adherents once devoted to the “heathen gods.”  Mythology, whether Christian or pagan, serves to illustrate how remote a thing is man’s own history from himself.  Gods once worshiped as severe and mighty are burlesqued in Milton’s “Hymn” and Heine’s essay, and Swinburne teaches a valuable lesson in cultural alienation by putting into the mouth of his speaker a bitter lament for the riches of bygone days, and disdain for the sterility of all things new and untried of time.

1 Cf., The Case Against the Pagans.

2 John Milton, The Poetical Works f John Milton, edited by the Rev. H. C. Beeching, M.A. (Oxford University Press, New York, 1935). All line and stanza numbers in reference to Milton’s “Hymn” are given in parenthetical citation in the body of the text.

3 Heinrich Heine, The prose Writings of Heinrich Heine, edited by Havelock Ellis (Walter Scott Ltd., London, 1892), p. 268.

4 Heine, pp. 268-69. Brackets mine.

5 A.C. Swinburne, The Poetical Works of Algernon Charles Swinburne (John Williams, New York, 1910), p. 25. All line and stanza numbers in reference to Swinburne’s “Hymn to Proserpine” are given in parenthetical citation in the body of the text.