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On Sir Thomas Browne, Francis Bacon, & Michel de Montaigne

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The claims of Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592) and Francis Bacon (1561-1626) to seats among the moderns can hardly be denied– Montaigne is the heir of Sextus Empiricus, Bacon the father of Descartes and the modern experiment. Together, skepticism and the experimental method align as the twin pole stars of modern science. Sir Thomas Browne (1602-1682), a writer and thinker of unique power and extreme sensibility, occupies a more dubious position in relation to modernity. This is in spite of the fact that he outlived Bacon by sixty-four years, that he knew, at least partially, the writings of both Bacon and Montaigne, and was himself a contributor to several divisions of science and scholarly learning. He was also ever conversant with the latest advances in the sciences, as well as possessed of an intimate knowledge of the classics.

For Sir Thomas, Heaven was the abode of the mystic as well as the natural philosopher; but on earth, neither science nor the physician could change the destiny of any man, nor do anything to alter or destroy the truths of his mystic, apocalyptic faith. It is in this light that we must approach with caution the writings of Browne; particularly in those moments when he derides the Scholastics, seems to echo Montaigne, or speaks the language of Bacon and the Cartesians. The rejection of authority– be it the Divine Right of princes, the Ptolemaic system of the cosmos, or Aristotle’s concept of soul– was the common road traveled by those who made the so-called scientific revolution in the 17th century. Francis Bacon famously claimed that the Ancient natural philosophers had actually contributed little to the inquiry into the secrets of nature through their method, which Bacon styled “anticipations of nature.” If nature is not purpose-driven, if “soul” is not specific to anything, then nature is a machine made of parts that are separable and re-organizable. Like Galen’s medicine, or Pliny’s history, Aristotle’s theories of teleology and psychology, exhaustively elaborated through the period of the Middle Ages, faced its final opposition in the 17th century. Yet it was not on account of a rejection of religious faith and devotion that the change from Ancient to modern science came about, but through the division of the two spheres, faith and natural philosophy, into two vast categories of things relevance to the human condition.

In Montaigne, Bacon, and Browne, the arguments for the rejection of authority of the Ancients, and authority in general, come down to the notion that the hitherto unrealized worth of experience and experiment relieves contemporary intellectual life of its burden of gratitude and dogmatic adherence to the writings and opinions of the Ancients. Yet Browne’s rejection of Ancient authority, and authority in general, does not extend beyond what any sober-minded scholar might object to in the writings of an historian with a penchant for interjecting folklore into his narrative. On the other hand, derision of the authority of the Ancients is arguably a necessary component of the idiosyncratic style in Montaigne’s Essays — indeed, the belittling of authority, be it ancient or modern, religious or political, is the primary way to elevate the “self,” the “I,” to a new level of confessional authority, which is synonymous with autonomy. Bacon’s rejection of authority lends itself to his aphoristic style, which, in its “interpretive” lack of systematization, makes a mockery of Aristotle and the Scholastics for prematurely “anticipating nature” in their vast, artificially constructed systems. Thus, Montaigne, Bacon and Browne invoke the theme of the rejection of the authority of the Ancients to differing ends. In the final analysis, the rejection of authority is not so much a thematic parallel between the three writers, but rather a tendency in intellectual life distinguishing the 16th and 17th centuries from the Medieval era, when the writings of the Ancients were still being assimilated and commented upon.

The similarity of Browne’s writings to those of Montaigne and Bacon coincides in terms of a muscular skepticism.  The main differences lie in Browne’s deference to the authority of religion. The authority of religion is arguably the meta-element in the thought of Browne; it is according to the precepts of religion that the world of ideas and opinions are entirely subordinated in his writings. This fideistic dimension is not a main characteristic found in Montaigne or Bacon’s writings, even though both frankly and regularly confess their lifelong devotion to the Christian religion. Allegiance, however, does not dictate the subject of their respective inquiries, whether it is the self or nature. Thus, by applying the fideistic distinction, some characteristic differences can be isolated between the thought of Browne and the early-modern thought of Bacon. In so doing, a more general concluding distinction can be drawn, and that is to identify an intellectual characteristic that differentiates the intellectual attitude of fully fledged modernity, such as we find it in the writings of Montaigne, from an attitude that points back to an earlier time in pre-modern intellectual life, such as we find it in the writings of Browne.

I. Science and Faith: Browne and Bacon

Browne recognizes in the precepts and dogmas of Christianity an absolute and final authority on all matters pertaining to man’s existence. It is perhaps on this characteristic head that Browne’s position is the most easily distinguished from the respective positions of Montaigne and Bacon. Browne never wavers in his application of his religious position to whatever the subject of his writings may be. On the other hand, Montaigne and Bacon vary from one work to the next in regard to the presence or absence of religion in the treatment of their respective subjects; they are resolute only on the point of obedience to the will of the Christian church. On the other hand, fideism begins and ends Browne’s argument — the ever-present memento mori and the consuming totality of an eternal God serve as a backdrop and a foil to the mutable aspirations and vanities of mankind.

The impotence of philosophy to lend support to faith or serve as the handmaid to theology is a notion that follows thoroughly in the wake of the activities and writings of Luther and Calvin. Following a notion found in the thought of both Luther and Calvin, Browne proposes that the Christian faith should be subjected to all the tribunals of history, as well as the scrutiny of science and philosophy, so that there might not be a single doctrine left intact or standing before the hubris of man, who pretends to the measurement of all things:

“As for those wingy mysteries in divinity, and airy subtleties in religion, which have unhinged the brains of better heads, they never stretched the pia mater of mine. Methinks there be not impossibilities enough in religion for an active faith: the deepest mysteries ours contains have not only been illustrated, but maintained, by syllogism and the rule of reason. I love to lose myself in a mystery; to pursue my reason to an O altitudo! ‘Tis my solitary recreation to pose my apprehension with those involved enigmas and riddles of the Trinity — incarnation and resurrection. I can answer all the objections of Satan and my rebellious reason with that odd resolution I learned of Tertullian, Certum est quia impossibile est.”

Certain contemporary critics of Religio Medici mistook Browne’s purpose of examining his religious opinions for a work of theology, yet in this fragment, Browne expressly abjures theologizing in his exclamation of “O altitudo!” The conditions of rationality set down by logic and syllogistic reasoning are not conducive to an active faith, which naturally repulses any rational explanation of faith’s irrational mysteries — rational thought is destructive and antithetical to the truths of faith. When, for example, the existence of God and the immortality of the soul can be proven through reason alone, faith ceases to act as knowledge without proof, and instead becomes certain knowledge. Religion, according to both the Reformers and to Browne, squanders its raison d’être, which is to say its veracity, when the truths of faith are changed to rationally acquired truths — the realm of faith is by definition irrational when opposed to the kingdom of reason, which is governed by empirical and logical norms. The authority of religion, based on the sovereignty of faith as opposed to the sovereignty of reason, must at least keep philosophy accountable, or enmity between the truths of faith and the truths of reason could give rise to the paradoxical possibility of the “double truth.”

In his Advancement of Learning, Bacon circumscribes the truths of faith without questioning the Scriptural authority from whence those truths issue. He does so in order to demonstrate that theology has nothing to add to natural philosophy, and certainly nothing to add to the investigation of empirical nature though methodic experiment. All observable phenomena stand outside the compass of divine knowledge for two reasons: there is no ascent from particular things and principles to universal things, or the first principles of science; second, knowledge of such things as the soul and its immortality cannot be acquired through knowledge of empirical particulars — the former species of knowledge is given through apocalypse, the latter through experience. Moreover, according to Bacon, the “light of nature” declares the existence of God to be self-evident because a creator is necessary to explain the existence of the material world; but the natural light is predictably silent on such things as the immortality of the soul and miracles. Through the light of nature, the knowledge of the existence of God is impressed on the understanding; hence, if nature can be explained by science without recourse to the miraculous or the divine, one has merely to accept the explanations of science, which do not require a miracle.

In the Religio Medici, Browne maintains a similar opinion on the self-evident nature of the existence of God; but rather than exclude God from participation in “the ordinary course of nature” (viz., laws of nature), “the effects of nature” are in every sense the “works of God, whose hand and instrument she only is; and therefore, to ascribe his actions unto her is to devolve the honor of the principle agent upon the instrument.” The difference between Bacon and Browne then, in respect to the authority of religion is, to take the case of Browne first, the function of religion as a totality beyond which nothing has meaning or reference. Science, history, and philosophy are all subsumed under the purposive ends of divinity, and employed as instrumental or artful servants. Divinity breaks in on Browne as he reviews his opinions touching hermeneutics, literally interrupting the flow of his discourse with, “thus I teach my haggard and unreclaimed reason to stoop unto the lure of faith,” and, “this, I think, is no vulgar part of faith, to believe a thing not only above, but contrary to, reason, and against the arguments of our proper senses.” Bacon, on the other hand, seeks to neither supplant religion with science nor make science accountable to religious principles — rather, he seeks to free scientific inquiry from any consideration of religion. Bacon’s programme of dividing disciplines in order that each may proceed in the most efficacious way requires that arts that were formerly joined, such as the “three knowledges; divine philosophy, natural philosophy, and human philosophy, or humanity,” pursue their respective ends individually, and draw their conclusions uninhibitedly.

The Baconian experimental method narrows the scope of what can be legitimately investigated by science, viz., the method begins and ends with the evidence of empirical phenomena.
While Browne’s approach to science in Pseudodoxia Epidemica includes experiment, induction is held to serve as nothing more than a corrective to man’s ignorance of phenomena — Browne is a castigator of false opinion sans the concern for generating a method or principles whereby science, or the inquiry into phenomena, will ultimately be freed from the bonds of superstition. In Religio Medici, Browne cavils about the same difficult doctrines that innumerable commentators have caviled on, but then invites the “gentle reader” to laugh with him at the folly of those who take such quibbles too seriously by holding the indubitability of the Scriptures too lightly. We find that Browne affects a similar pose in the empiricism of his scientific writings. The care for knowledge gained through the senses should be worn on the shoulders like a light mantle, to be cast off when the infallible truths of Scripture contradicts the fallible judgments men make of their experience. In his panoramic view of the charnel house of human history, Browne the Christian, and Browne the secular physician and scientist keep uncertain, even antagonistic company. Nature, as Browne writes in Religio Medici, is the work of God, and man cannot comprehend how the Creator works, save analogically, nor can he appropriate the tools of the Creator to achieve his own ends. Medicine is an artifice, and as such acts as a kind of mimesis of the infinite artificer; yet the application of medicine’s purgative and restorative powers, according to Browne, while beneficial to the cure of bodily infirmity, is adversative to the cure of souls. Medicine, according to this view, is antithetical to the plans of the Creator, as it necessarily works towards a greater human good, rather than as a means of serving a purpose in a transcendent teleological design that excludes individual human interests and desires. Browne has a different prescription for addressing the seeming irreconcilable differences of faith and reason, which is for each to keep to its respective place so as not to unnecessarily undermine the tenets of the one, while illegitimately raising the claims of the other.

II. Browne and Modernity

Browne is a paradoxical figure, but not in the same sense as Montaigne, who both refuses and accepts whichever category he is put into. The paradoxical nature of Browne is part and parcel of the age in which he lived, which is best understood in terms of irregularity rather than contradiction. The 17th century did not abide the kinds of impassible — which is to say, fashionable — cultural distinctions enjoyed in our current age between religion and science, the sacred and the secular, the state and the individual, &c. Certainly there were other sets of cultural distinctions particular to Browne’s time, but these are no longer operatives in our time.
Browne is ultimately an ambiguous figure, and is, to a certain (though not measurable) degree, representative of the paradoxical age in which he lived. Science lived in tolerable domesticity with religion; empiricism held rationalism at bay with its principle of bon sens; one could entertain Cartesian reductionist notions of thought and extension and still be a loyal Aristotelian. Browne may present himself in the guise of the scourge of vulgar and popular error, but he is never willing to sacrifice his religious faith, or even suggest such a desperate outrage to promote man’s self-important ends, or mix the tenants of faith with the necessarily imperfect principles of the natural sciences. Rather, Browne’s singular principle of the inevitability of the grave, and the eternal life to come, stands above rational judgment altogether, and does not waver or equivocate at any turn — hence, this may be justly set down as Browne’s “Archimedean point,” the negative principle with which all positive knowledge must be reckoned. But death does not admit of any “sic et non,” or any logical conveniences like the universal or particular affirmation or negation. The study of life and death, Brown writes in the Epistle Dedicatory to Thomas Le Gros in his Hydriotaphia or Urn Burial, makes up the daily operation of men such as themselves. The locus of their enquiry is the whole of the earth, for as such, it is but a vast tomb. The ax, spade and brush are but tools for exhuming the curious relics of man, the rational animal, whose dual essence gives him over to the ceremonialization of his own transience, yet whose fondest wish is but to continue in existence, and perpetually evade the extinction that mortal destiny carries with it. Funeral customs are geographically and chronologically particular things, but “the end of all, the poppied sleep” that gives occasion for so much variation in man’s funerary practices, is an ultimate and universal phenomenon. Browne’s Platonism is borne out by his persistent opposition of the fleeting to the eternal. The sensuous curtain of the phenomenal world, according to Browne, is a deception and a cheat when considered superficially, or as its own end. The immutable truths of the existence of a Creator that is both transcendent and participatory in the created order, and an immortal human soul, are necessary foundations for any kind of inquiry into the truth of things. In Browne’s writings, it is this particular combination of objective fact and religious devotion — les extrêmes qui se touchent — that renders the scope of his writings at once wider and narrower than the scope of Montaigne in the Essays, and Bacon in his scientific treatises. For instance, Browne’s objective inquiry on funerary urns rapidly gives way to a lengthy meditation on the gloomy spectacle of other men’s relics, ashes, or tombs, as the case may be. His most well known writings, the Urn Burial and Religio Medici, consist mainly of sustained digressions on his preferred themes of God, the mysteries of the faith, and mortality and immortality; but perhaps this is so only because his subjects inevitably relieve themselves of their particularities in the ubiquitous lap of the Creator.

Desiderius Erasmus & Martin Luther: The Debate Over The Ancients

22A valuable contrast between Erasmus and Luther’s conception of Christianity can be found in their respective views on the question of whether the writings of the Ancients have any use or value for Christians. The two distinct conceptions of Christianity that emerge from Luther and Erasmus’ critique of the freedom of the will is both symptomatic and a consequence of how they handle, respectively, the debate over the value of Ancient writings within Christianity.

Why should the treatment of Ancient writings be thought of as pivotal in understanding the respective writings of Luther and Erasmus? The writings of the Ancients acquire new importance when one considers that what occurs in Christianity in the 16th century is a shifting and re-ordering, a re-assimilating of ideas and information handed down from the Scholastics who, in their own time, enacted a similar organizing process on the writings handed down from the early Church Fathers and the Ancients.1 The social and economic forces that give rise to such revolutions and re-configurations of thought go far beyond the scope of this essay, but let it be taken as fact that such large-scale events in the history of ideas occur and are treated in modern scholarship. Neither Luther nor Erasmus’ concepts of the freedom of the will are unique to the Sixteenth Century, nor do their differing conclusions have origins in their respective writings. Their respective ideas on the freedom of the will come from either the re-instituting of St. Augustine’s late writings on grace, as is the case with Luther, or in the case of Erasmus, it is a buttressing and shaping of ideas stemming from Scholastic Theology and the early Church Fathers. In either instance, the question of the value of Ancient writings for Christians is implicitly assumed; for what occurs in the writings of Luther and Erasmus is either the conditional inclusion or explicit rejection of Ancient writings, thus indicating the writings of the Ancients is not simply a benign subject in Sixteenth Century Christianity — in any case, the writings of the Ancients are anything but ignored by Luther and Erasmus. Thus, by including or excluding the writings of the Ancients in Christian thought, Luther and Erasmus re-institute and reshape ideas that neither originated, and they reshape or reject such things as the writings of the Ancients depending on where the answer to a certain question is punctuated (like the freedom of the will).

Luther insists on a sharp distinction between faith in the benevolence of God and faith in the strength of one’s good works to rouse God to an act of benevolence or mercy. Luther insists on man’s incapacity to influence the possibility, or impossibility, of his salvation, and he states categorically that man cannot raise the soul out of the mortal, sinful body through acts performed by the body:

It does not help the soul if the body is adorned with the sacred robes of priests or dwells in sacred places or is occupied with sacred duties…or does any work that can be done by the body and in the body.2

Luther has only provided a negative definition of man’s situation thus far, and the question remains, what can man do for himself? The answer Luther gives is that one can do nothing but hope for God’s grace:

God has put my salvation out of the control of my own will and put it under the control of His, and has promised to save me, not according to my effort or running, but…according to His own grace and mercy…3

Thus, Luther conceives of man’s will as bound and unable to do anything good outwardly. Yet, are man’s actions toward reconciling himself to God the product of man’s incapacity to do well (which would render such actions innocent but nonetheless meaningless), or are man’s actions necessarily evil and nothing more, the consequence of original sin? Luther is resolute on the question of how man’s actions are received by God:

[I]f it be proved that our salvation is not of our own strength or council, but depends on the working of God alone…does it not evidently follow that when God is not present to work in us, everything we do is evil, and that we of necessity act in a way not availing unto our salvation? For if it is not we ourselves, but God only, who works salvation in us, it follows that nothing we do before His workings in us avails unto salvation.4

It is clear that actions give no answer to the question of whether one will or will not receive God’s grace, for actions have no effect upon God who is not moved by actions any more than His ways and reasons can be apprehended by human reason. The result of this view is Luther’s rejection of all forms of pious activity, except perhaps the activity of hating the fallen world and the fallen men who inhabit it. The following citations give a more complete picture of the degree to which man errs in his estimation of himself in relation to God: “Man is by nature unable to want God to be God. Indeed, he himself wants to be God,” and further, “[t]o love God above all things by nature is by nature a fictitious term, a chimera, as it were.”5 Such errors, resulting from the corrupt nature of anything willed by man, are the objects of Luther’s hatred and scorn. Yet there exists a paradox of sorts in the temporary remedy Luther offers for the problem of man’s corrupt will that cannot love God wholly and desires to replace God: “To love God is at the same time to hate oneself and to know nothing but God.”6 The paradox of the command to hate the world and the self is that neither of these acts implies God will accept man on account of his actions, no matter how extreme or honestly intentioned, for salvation is beyond man’s control. Like Luther’s conception of the human will bound to the very source of evil itself (pride), Luther’s conception of how man is to approach God, if such possibility even exists, is through mortification and complete effacement of the self. The absolute divine freedom of God’s power to bestow or refuse grace to man is all that is left for man, and nothing in between; except self-hatred as a spiritual exercise. Luther, in raising the concept of grace to the level of apotheosis, almost precludes for man the necessity of living, or even ever having been born.

In the exchange of ideas between Luther and Erasmus on the question of grace alone versus free will, Erasmus is in earnest to point out to Luther the paradoxical nature of what Christian life becomes in light of man’s evident inability to do anything good or beneficial for himself. Upon this head, Erasmus writes,

Let us assume the truth of what Wycliffe has taught and Luther has asserted, namely, that everything we do happens not on account of our free will, but out of sheer necessity. What could be more useless than to publish this paradox to the world?… How many weak ones would continue in their perpetual and laborious battle against their own flesh? What wicked fellow would henceforth try to better his conduct?7

Indeed, this strikes at the heart of the matter. Erasmus does not concede to Luther’s implicit assumption that Luther has found out the mind of God, i.e., the necessity of grace, through some undisclosed means, and that Luther’s assumptions are necessarily infallible. Man thinks himself free, but such is not the case, says Luther. Man, by Luther’s definition of him, has become the very mechanism of sin, and God has all but abandoned man in his corrupt condition, leaving behind only the faint hope in man of receiving an unpredicated salvation.

Erasmus observes that Luther marginalizes a large portion of Revealed theology in his radical claim that man’s will is implacably bound by evil and only God’s grace can save souls otherwise justly bound for hell. Erasmus’ response to the entirety of Luther’s anti-theology of grace is thus summarized:

It is incompatible with the infinite love of God for man that a man’s striving with all his might for grace should be frustrated”, and, “it results that no sinner should be overconfident, none should despair. No one perishes except through his own fault.8

Clearly Erasmus understands salvation is what is at stake in discerning what underlies the debate over the will as free versus the will as bound; it is precisely what salvation means to Christians, and where and how to seek salvation that is the issue upon which all other issues in the lives of Christians rests. Erasmus concludes, contra Luther, that actions qua actions in Christian life are neither detrimental nor vain, as Luther has it, but indeed such things as religious ritual and acts of piety, Erasmus maintains, are all necessary for Christians to live a life of obedience to God. Erasmus sums up his position on the issue of how the freedom of the will leaves ample room for virtuous actions to operate as a conduit for Divine grace:

Sin has corrupted [free will], but not extinguished it…Even the most obstinate sinner will retain this grace which is common to all mankind. Thus, everyone is free to speak or to keep silent, to sit or to stand up, to help the poor, to read holy books, to listen to sermons. Some now hold that such acts in themselves can in no way lead to eternal life…[but] such works, because of God’s immense goodness can prepare for the reception of grace, and move God to be merciful.9

It could be suggested that ‘immense goodness’ is precisely what Luther’s God is lacking. That Erasmus does not deny the function of grace for salvation is evident, yet Erasmus maintains that man, while divided from a perfect union with God, must take certain steps toward the repairing of the schism between God and man that had its origin in man’s first disobedience. Men’s good works are, to Erasmus, symbolic gestures that declare an intention contrary to the will to sin and do evil — that is, contrary to the example of Adam and Eve. Though man can never cure himself of sin, Erasmus has Luther and Wycliffe in mind when he maintains that living should not be discarded as a vain and worthless endeavor in lieu of “the private opinions of one or two men” that stress what is wicked and damnable in man. Let this stand as a sufficient account of Erasmus’ position on the freedom of the will, and press ahead to the issue of whether the writings of the Ancients have any use or value for Christians. By doing so, more light will be shed on the consequences that follow from Luther and Erasmus’ contrary positions on free will versus grace alone.

To what extent the writings of the Ancients should be tolerated or proscribed in the practice of Christianity is the hub around which many of Luther and Erasmus’ contentions on the matter of the freedom of the will revolve, and is central to what both Luther and Erasmus conceive Christian life as ultimately representing. Scholastic philosophy and theology provide a touchstone of where Luther and Erasmus are apparently in agreement, for both soundly reject what Scholasticism can be generally taken to stand for: the conjunction of the Christian faith with Aristotle. Luther’s position on the question of Scholasticism is wholly negative, and can be briefly summarized by citing a few of Luther’s sweeping pronouncements against both Aristotle and his inheritors:

It is an error to say that no man can become a theologian without Aristotle…Indeed, no one can become a theologian unless he becomes one without Aristotle…Briefly, the whole of Aristotle is to theology as darkness is to light. This in opposition to the Scholastics.10

These pronouncements encapsulate Luther’s abhorrence of Aristotelian philosophy and its influence on Christian thought; additionally, and on a more personal note, Luther declared Aristotle to be a “damnable, arrogant, pagan rascal,” and a “beast” to boot. To round out Luther’s condemnation on the possibility of fides and ratio in union, a few passages touching directly on Luther’s reaction to the Scholastic influence in Christianity are necessary:

For over 1,200 years the church remained orthodox. On no occasion, and in no place, do the Fathers mention the word transubstantiation—monstrous whether as a locution or as an idea—until the specious philosophy of Aristotle took root in the church, and attained a rank growth in the last three hundred years. During this time, many other perverse conclusions were arrived at. Examples are: “That the divine Being is not begotten, nor does it beget”; “That the soul is the form to which the human body corresponds as the substance”; and the like.11

The period of 300 years mentioned by Luther corresponds to the age in which Scholastic philosophy flourished in Europe. This business of philosophy, viz., pagan philosophy (no other kind exists for Luther), Luther understands as a fraudulent activity that signifies nothing about, nor avails the condition of the inner man, which is one of sin and failure. Thus, in Luther’s view, the writings of the Ancients, be it in the shape of pagan philosophy or any other, can do nothing to gratify man’s need for salvation; philosophic endeavor only places in man a false sense of confidence and a false sense of attainment. In short, there is, for Luther, neither justification for philosophy, nor any endeavor that places itself between the individual and God. To theologians,

…the blind pagan teacher, Aristotle, is of more consequence than Christ. Aristotle’s writings…should be set aside along with all others that boast they treat of natural objects, for in fact they have nothing to teach about things natural or spiritual…God has made him [Aristotle] a plague on us on account of our sins.12

Throughout the work entitled The Pagan Servitude of the Church, Luther battles the doctrines taught by Scholastic Philosophy by using the same Aristotelian jargon employed by the Scholastic philosophers themselves in his effort to demonstrate the absurdity and uselessness of Aristotelian and Scholastic teaching. After a lengthy stint of criticism, Luther tires of the issue he has been battering away at and mordantly remarks,

Out of this theory has arisen that Babel of a philosophy of a constant quantity distinct from substance, till the stage is reached when they themselves do not know which are the accidents and which the substance…[b]ut let us not carry on our dialectics too long.13

The doctrines elaborated in the Scholastic tradition are to Luther nothing more than brazen complications of the simple precepts contained in Scripture, precepts that beg of no further elaboration. Luther draws the conclusion that, “[t]hough philosophy cannot grasp it [the precepts of Scripture], yet faith can. The authority of the word of God goes beyond the capacity of our mind.”14 Faith, then, is what’s necessary concerning salvation, not philosophy. All reliance on the power of reason, and similarly, the power of the will, Luther tells us, are acts of “concupiscence against God,” and reliance on reason or the will is “evil and a fornication of the spirit.”15 Luther views Scholasticism and piety as expressions of man’s desire to be God, to topple God from the seat of Judgment. The unapologetic rejection of any function of reason has its parallel in Luther’s rejection of all outward displays of piety — and both intellectual pursuit and piety are finally condemned under Luther’s doctrine of grace. Such is Luther’s grand thesis by which he refashions the Christian faith from the top down.

The absolute rejection of Church tradition and traditional forms of wisdom as practices or statements without authority or necessity is the bedrock of Luther’s radical conception of Christianity. Responding to Luther’s writings on grace, Erasmus points out this position: “Luther recognizes no authority of any author, however approved, except that of the canonical books…”16 Erasmus, too, accepts the canonical books as the final authority, but he also recognizes the decisions of the Church as authoritative, and the acceptance of such decisions indicate toleration of sources of wisdom peripheral to the canonical books. Erasmus addresses the use of the writings of the Ancients in a way that is superficially similar to the methodology employed by Luther, yet Erasmus comes to conclusions very different from those drawn by Luther. Some of the similarities should first be noticed. Erasmus denounces the Scholastic’s penchant for interpreting Christian doctrine through the lens of pagan philosophy. Writing in an incredulous vein, he ponders the possibility if ever “the apostles, who baptized far and wide…taught what are the formal, material, efficient, and final causes of baptism.”17 The following is a prime example of Erasmus’ derision of the Scholastic philosophers, and will be sufficient to understand his view and see that he accords with Luther on this point:

Then…putting on a whole new face, they propose some question of theology ‘never heard of before on earth or in heaven,’ and this they take for an occasion to show off the higher reaches of their art. This is where they attain the peak of theological pomposity, battering our ears with majestic titles and citing Distinguished Doctors, Subtle Doctors, Supersubtle Doctors, Seraphic Doctors…They scatter over the unlearned audience their syllogistic majors and minors, their conclusions, corollaries, ridiculous hypotheses, and hair-splitting distinctions….And this is how they assemble their chimera, a monster such as Horace never imagined…18

Clearly Erasmus wants to refute the use of Aristotelian logic by theologians as a tool that, for no other reason, guarantees the theologian possessing the greatest subtlety triumph in religious controversy. The mysteries of the Christian faith contain for both Erasmus and Luther mysteries that, like the peace of God, surpass all understanding. Erasmus does not assume such mysteries exist merely for the sake of man’s finding an efficient and tidy solution for them. He states his position on the question of religious mysteries, though he is vague in defining boundaries on which to judge, saying,

Some deserve study, perhaps a solution: I don’t deny it. But there are a great many others that are better ignored than explored (it’s an important part of knowledge not to know certain things), and still others were better off withholding judgment than making a decision. Finally, if a question does have to be decided, I’d like to have the decision reached reverently, not peremptorily, and on the basis of Holy Scripture, not some petty rationalizations worked out by men.19

Further, Erasmus poses a question that is also implicit in those writings of Luther that treat of Aristotle and the Scholastics, “What…does Christ have in common with Aristotle?”20 Luther’s reply: Aristotle has nothing to do with Christ, for “the Holy Spirit is greater than Aristotle”(viz., greater authority than Aristotle). 21

One final passage from Erasmus may be cited to connect what has already been mentioned on this point, and advance yet a step further. The following passage has a two-fold significance in this account of Erasmus’ thought, for not only does it express what has already been made clear regarding Erasmus’ criticism of Aristotle and Scholasticism, but it indicates that Erasmus has in mind concerns of a more scholarly nature, and in this respect he goes far beyond the single-mindedness of Luther’s thinking:

[T]he present mode [of theology]—not to mention the base barbarity of its crude and artificial dialect, its deliberate ignorance of all good literature, its indifference to languages—is so contaminated with the teachings of Aristotle, the inventions of petty human beings, and the laws of pagans, that I can hardly taste in it a faint flavor of the pure undiluted Christ. (Emphasis added).22

What is most important to notice here is what Erasmus affixes to the criticisms of Aristotle we have already seen so many examples of, and that is his criticism of the modern ‘mode’ of theology for its barbaric ignorance of languages and literature. The next question must necessarily be, which languages and which literatures, does Erasmus have in mind? Erasmus is probably not referring to Latin since it was the ‘universal’ language of the Church, of men of letters, and of scholars in the Sixteenth Century. Considering that the “five-languaged Saint Jerome” stands as an exemplar of Biblical scholarship in many ways to Erasmus, the languages referred to must be the original languages of the Scriptures, Hebrew and Greek. Erasmus’ letter to Martin Dorp defending his ‘mock encomium’ bears this out, for Erasmus several times admonishes Dorp to add to his studies “at least the study of Greek literature.” But Erasmus fine-tunes his persuading of Dorp to take up Greek by baiting his request with something more compelling than the study of Greek literature — the study of Scripture:

[I]f you imagine that, as things stand, you can gain real knowledge of the art of theology without command of the languages, especially that in which most of the holy scriptures are written, then you are badly mistaken….without knowledge of Greek, scholarship is lame and blind.23

For Erasmus, knowledge of Hebrew and Greek may indeed be primary to understanding the Scriptures, but Erasmus is also completely familiar with the writings of the Ancients, both Greek and Latin. His book of Adages contains a wealth of quotations drawn from Greek and Latin sources, and the Praise of Folly is littered with references to Classical literature, to say nothing of the numerous other works of Erasmus which contain similar matter.

Erasmus may deny the possibility of the conjunction of faith and reason, but that does not prevent him from conjoining the character of Christ with an allusion to Silenus, the drunken and obese companion of Bacchus, “I myself in my collection of Adages…have called the Apostles Sileni, and indeed referred to Christ himself as a sort of Silenus.” The interest here lies in the implicit reference made to Plato’s dialogue Phaedrus, wherein Socrates’ speech-loving interlocutor, Phaedrus, compares Socrates to Silenus in the same context as Erasmus regarding the Apostles and Christ. This kind of allusion would be unthinkable if Erasmus holds the same view as Luther, where the activities of mankind are rendered incomprehensible and useless in light of the corruption of original sin and God’s pending judgment. The scholarly interests of Erasmus have no abiding place in Luther’s view of the world, where the learning of Greek in order to read Classical literature must be considered a malfunction of good sense, or worse. Luther recognizes this malfunctioning of good sense in Erasmus, for Luther takes him to task many times for committing what he views as nothing short of idolatry of Ancient writers:

What shall I say here, Erasmus? You ooze Lucian from every pore; you swill Epicurus by the gallon. If you do not think this topic [free will] a necessary concern for Christians, kindly withdraw from the lists…Plato and Socrates may be good friends, but truth must be honored above all.24

Luther, though characteristically extreme, rightly understands Erasmus in this latter assertion, for Erasmus himself confesses as much of his own accord, “so great is my dislike of assertions that I prefer the views of skeptics whenever the inviolable authority of Scripture and the decision of the Church permit.”25 With this confirmation by Erasmus we are immediately back in the company of Plato, Aristotle, and Epicurus, all of whom defended in various ways the freedom of the will, but more to the point, Erasmus’ distaste for assertions recalls the Ephectic School of skepticism, who taught the suspension of judgment in all things.

Now, having taken notice of some of Erasmus and Luther’s arguments, we have a solution to the question posed from the beginning, i.e., whether the writings of the Ancients have any use or value at all for Christians. The answer to this particular question, though, is only meaningful in light of such particular views on the freedom of the will contrasted to the necessity of grace alone. Without two such opposing suppositions, how the writings of the Ancients are used (or not used), and by whom, is an unsupportable topic to give attention to, for it is difficult to locate, presently, two individuals with precisely this sort of concern weighing upon their minds. But with Luther and Erasmus we have two definite positions to consider on the question of whether the writings of the Ancients have any use or value for Christians. So the next consideration is to give an account of how Luther on one hand, and Erasmus on the other, envision the lives of Christians to be — with and without the writings of the Ancients, with and without the freedom of the will.

Erasmus’ phrase, the ‘pure undiluted Christ,’ can be understood as a line that demarcates how Luther understands the lives of Christians to be, opposed to how Erasmus conceives of Christian life. But what does the phrase the ‘pure undiluted Christ’ mean? In the case of Luther and Erasmus, it means two very different things, and points to two different conceptions of Christianity, as I will try to illustrate. The figure of Christ purified of everything worldly, philosophical, sinful, Aristotelian and Scholastic, is Luther’s model of rebellion, Luther’s revolutionary archetype. Although Luther conceives of man’s will as unfree and bound by the shackles of sin, Luther nevertheless has the project for humanity to work on. His tyrannical concept of God leaves nothing for men in the sphere of action, not good works or any other act that can be thought of; Luther’s morality is a morality of intentions and nothing more.26 Faith, then, not philosophy, reason, or the will, is what must rule men’s hearts and minds. But faith cannot abolish sin, only grace can. So the project for Luther becomes, in his righteous indignation, the overturning of every bastion of worldliness, from the Church to the universities, all of which he views as “but wide open gates to hell.”27 Faith in the figure of the pure undiluted Christ is the antidote to the poison of reason and the will; He represents the infallible, eternal judgment of God, as well as Luther’s paradigm for religious revolution. A Christian may no longer find the trappings of his faith in the world, for Christianity can not be practiced, works are of no use to man. Faith and hope in God alone is what is left for Christians, and the necessity of rebellion from any authority that is not God pure and undiluted:

Furthermore, to put aside all kinds of works, even contemplation, meditation, and all that the soul can do, does not help. One thing, and only one thing, is necessary for Christian life, righteousness and freedom. That one thing is the most holy Word of God, the gospel of Christ.28

Erasmus’ knowledge of Greek and Hebrew, the original languages of Scripture, is employed in his research and efforts to sort out the errors contained in the Vulgate, errors which have complicated Scriptural hermeneutics and led theologians into voluminous disagreements. All such problems Erasmus undertakes to disentangle through his translating of the New Testament into Latin from the oldest known Greek and Hebrew sources, an effort akin to the thirteenth labor of Hercules. Uncompromising scholarship is, for Erasmus, a way to seek out the ‘pure and undiluted Christ’ of whom he speaks. This does not imply the advantage of study for its own sake, or as an end in itself, nor study as the highest good (theoria), as Aristotle has it, but study and learning for the sake of understanding what God desires for man, how God wants man to live. In Erasmus’ letter to Martin Dorp, Dorp is castigated for asserting that no one should “put any trust in the books of those who have deserted the Roman church.” This is an absurdity to Erasmus, and he counters with,

What are you saying? That we shouldn’t read the books of those who have deserted the Christian faith? Why then is so much authority granted to Aristotle, a pagan who never so much as heard of the Christian faith? The entire Jewish race departed from Christ; are we to pay no attention to the psalmists and prophets who wrote in their native language?29

The correction of the young Dorp’s opinions does not stop there, for the use and value of the writing of the Ancients still remains to be demonstrated, in light of what the Ancients can teach about Scripture:

Saint Augustine in his last years, when he had long since been created a bishop, expressed grief in his Confessions that as a young man he had avoided works of literature which would have been of the greatest use to him in interpreting Scripture.30

Here, then, in Erasmus’ arguments for how the writings of the Ancients benefit the Christian understanding, is his answer to Luther’s vision of man as a creature of untold misfortune, paralyzed in thought, word, and deed. Erasmus’ Christian man has living blood in him because he does not, and cannot, possess all the answers to the mysteries of religion, but his will is nevertheless free, even in a state of semi-ignorance. Because man’s nature contains many facets and complexities, so too, thought Erasmus, must his life in the practice of Christianity; to reduce the profundity of the Gospel message to a deterministic formula that precludes more in the practice of Christianity that it admits would imply the abrogation of the practice of the Christian faith itself. What would be left of man qua man? Acts of piety, like the activity of scholarship, is beneficial in turning individual men toward God; man, for Erasmus, cannot understand the deepest things of God, that is clear; but he can, in his thoughts and deeds, undertake to fulfill the sort of life exemplified by the ‘pure undiluted Christ.’

1 Ref. Josef Pieper, Scholasticism, translated by Richard and Clara Winston (St. Augustine’s Press, South Bend Indiana, 2001), pp 22-5:

Probably the boundary line marking the end of the Middle Ages can be more distinctly discerned if we keep our eyes fixed on the second factor we have been discussing. I mean the astonishing fact that the young peoples who penetrated into the Roman Empire from the north should have considered it their task to master and assimilate the accumulated body of tradition they found, including the enormous harvest of patristic theology as well as the wisdom of the ancient world. For only in the light of this fact can we understand one decisive trait of medieval thinking: its ‘scholarly’ aspect—to which, after all, the name ‘scholasticism’ refers. Truly to understand Scholasticism, we must bear in mind that it was above all an unprecedented process of learning, a scholarly enterprise of enormous proportions that went on for several centuries. If both the pagan and the Christian heritage of the ancient world were to be truly incorporated, ordering of the existing material undoubtedly came first and foremost. Moreover, that material had to be ordered in terms of being made accessible to teaching and learning. Inevitably then, the whole prosaic work of organizing, sorting, and classifying acquired a hitherto unknown importance.

This passage relates in many ways to the task Erasmus undertook in collating a great number of Greek and Hebrew manuscripts for his translation of the New Testament into Latin. This passage also seems to spell out the existence of an underlying mindset or attitude that may have been more pervasive in the Middle Ages, but existed nonetheless into the Sixteenth Century and beyond. The example of the Seventeenth Century Encyclopedists stands out especially when one considers the hypothesized origin of the ‘encyclopedic’ attitude for the collecting and ordering of information is imputed in the above passage to the Scholastics. Such an idea takes on profound relevance because the perpetuation of the ‘encyclopedic’ attitude itself becomes so central to the proliferation the history of the arts and sciences in the West.

2 Martin Luther, Martin Luther: Selection from his Writings, ed. John Dillenberger (Anchor Books, New York, 1962), p 54.

3 Erasmus/Luther: Discourse on Free Will, translated and edited by Ernst F. Winter (Continuum Publishing Company, 2002), p 136.

4 Ibid. p 111.

5 Martin Luther, Disputation against Scholastic Theology, # 17-18.

6 Ibid. #95

7 Erasmus/Luther: Discourse on Free Will, trans. and ed. by Ernst F. Winter, p 11

8 Ibid. p 29-30.

9 Ibid. pp 28-29

10 Martin Luther, Disputation against Scholastic Theology, # 43,44,50.

11 Martin Luther, Martin Luther: Selection from his Writings, ed. John Dillenberger, p 267.

12 Ibid. p 470.

13 Ibid. pp 268-9. See also S. T. Coleridge’s comment on Luther: “Luther—a hero, fettered, indeed, with prejudices—but with those very fetters he would knock out the brains of a modern Fort Esprit.” From S.T. Coleridge, Anima Poetae, ed. Ernest Hartley Coleridge (The Folcroft Press, 1969), p 11.

14 Martin Luther, Martin Luther: Selection from his Writings, ed. John Dillenberger, p 270.

15 Martin Luther, Disputation against Scholastic Theology, # 22.

16 Erasmus/Luther: Discourse on Free Will, trans. and ed. by Ernst F. Winter, p 13.

17 Desiderius Erasmus, The Praise of Folly, ed. Robert M. Adams (Norton Critical Editions, New York, 1989), p 59.

18 Ibid. p 65.

19 Desiderius Erasmus, Letter to Martin Dorp, in The Praise of Folly, ed. Robert M. Adams, p 239.

20 Ibid. p 239.

2118Martin Luther, The Pagan Servitude of the Church, in Martin Luther: Selection from his Writings, ed. John Dillenberger, p 270.

22 Desiderius Erasmus, Letter to Martin Dorp, in The Praise of Folly, ed. Robert M. Adams, p 239.

23 Ibid. p 244.

24 Martin Luther, Martin Luther: Selection from his Writings, ed. John Dillenberger, p 175.

25 Erasmus/Luther: Discourse on Free Will, trans. and ed. by Ernst F. Winter, p 6.

26 This idea of a morality of intentions in Luther was drawn from the lectures of Dr. Janowski.

27 Martin Luther, Martin Luther: Selection from his Writings, ed. John Dillenberger, p 476.

28 Ibid. p 54.

29 Desiderius Erasmus, Letter to Martin Dorp, in The Praise of Folly, ed. Robert M. Adams, p 247.

30 Ibid. p246.

The Demise of the Modern Intellectual

Picture 429In his work, The Elementary Forms of Religious Life, Durkheim asserts that “educational institutions are capable of communicating the truly rational foundation for morality in the wake of the decline of religion.” Whether in the famed schools of Plato and Aristotle, or the indispensable monastic universities of the Middle Ages, the West’s vast reservoir of intellectual traditions and discoveries have been safeguarded and transmitted down through time by one form or another of the Ancient academy.

While the respective cultures of the Ancient Greeks and the Medieval Europeans are obviously distinguishable through different critical lenses, the Western intellectual shibboleth, carried for centuries, ushered in a rigorous and catholic approach to learning that our modern academies   have either failed to uphold or to match. What can account for the increasingly inhibited attitude towards knowledge and education in modern American universities?  When we examine the recent introduction into classrooms of Marxist and socialist rhetoric, the cult of tolerance, and cultural and gender studies, it is plain to see that our modern standards of knowledge and information exist in supremely awkward relation to the conception of liberal studies realized in the first European universities in the Middle Ages.

To better understand the intellectually segregated environment of the modern American university, we can apply Durkheim’s general analysis of why breakdowns in social institutions occur in what he refers to as “common culture.”.  American readers of Durkheim cannot fail to get a sense that a deep understanding of social structures emerges from his conception of a collective social consciousness, even if we seem to be dispossessed of the means of achieving such a rounded view of the world for ourselves. Durkheim’s conception of what it means for a group of people to possess a “common culture” presupposes the long-standing distinctions between human and animal societies, between high and low culture, and recognizes the necessity of communal social mores, conventions, and institutions. The cultural treasures of the West have been denounced and purposely undermined by academic propagandists as being the products of ideological class coercion, racial and gender exclusion, and “Eurocentricity.” However, it is plain that “multicultural” curriculums do not wish to simply purify the inherited cultural traditions of the West, but wish instead to eradicate particular social and political attitudes that do not conform to their prejudices. The body of texts that communicate the values, ideals, and history of a culture are not disposable resources; and yet it is precisely the opposite notion that now masquerades as education at every level. At the risk of oversimplifying the point, what American literature professor can supply a coherent argument for their continuing to assign readings from Shakespeare, George Eliot, or Plato to students, rather than newspapers, magazines, or blogs on the internet? How many students can supply a coherent argument for why they should read at all?

A common culture, as Durkheim understands it, cannot be imparted as a free choice among alternatives, because common culture cannot be divorced or isolated from the political life of a society.  A recent article on internet communities as a third species of Durkheimian society misses the point of what human culture signifies for Durkheim, namely “universal” “human values and an historical community of sentiment.  The ineffable dynamics of a commonly held system of values does not translate into binary code– what passes for “internet communities” is mechanical anonymity paradoxically functioning as a simulacrum of organic public forums. That all human societies are historically embedded organisms is what makes simulacrums of communities temporarily arresting as “signs,” but ultimately vacuous in the absence of a tangible “signified.”

Durkheim tells us that the members of a common culture define themselves in relation to what is venerated and preserved in a given culture, such as a culture’s religious and legal institutions. Once these institutions are razed by external or internal exigencies, organizational deficiencies and failures are inevitable: “…commonly held beliefs and practices are only active when partaken by many. A man cannot retain them any length of time by a purely personal effort.” In other words, a common culture is not maintained by a “hands-off” approach. The preservation of culture requires ingrained assumptions that are arguably arbitrary, fictitious, and unreal. Common culture operates like great dramatic theater, in the respect that an audience’s suspension of disbelief toward the action on the stage never veers off entirely into insular fantasy, but traces a path from representation back to reality (e.g., Aristotle’s theory of katharsis) through the medium of a shared spectacle. The pluralistic conception of society as a department store, where one shops for the most appealing and desirable identity, dates back to Plato’s Republic, and homogenized pluralism has largely replaced habituation into the social order in America, as well as replaced the rites of passage that mark the stages of individual social responsibility. The Ancients— our cultural and intellectual forbearers— were able to be prodigious in their assimilative energies, and vast in their interpretive powers because they possessed what Americans have forfeited, namely a common culture. In the latter 1960’s, many American academics began to surrender their allegiance to the notion of common culture in the wake of the first wave of French New Left Theorists, and have, at the beginning of the 21st century, all but severed the last tie to the idea of American culture functioning as a melting pot. In place of the melting pot, some groups of liberal academics have substituted a sort of pseudo-cultural “newspeak” that either fosters indifference to social outcomes, or wages a war of subversion for its own sake.

Ideologically minded American academies have, for the most part, no abiding interest in asserting or defending the Durkheimian, or any culturally conservative vision of social life, and their students reflect the laissez-faire attitude of their professors. Theory is elevated above praxis; “tolerance” above a robust ethical sense; and unconditional (as well as unconditioned) personal freedom above duty to a common good. The public intellectual in America has been entirely replaced by the growing influence of iconoclastic academic theorists and ideologues that speak a language that mocks ordinary human meaning, and imparts to students a sense of homelessness and isolation, rather than belonging. Durkheim’s conception of “anomic suicide” asserts that when “society’s influence is lacking in the basically individual passions,” desires and drives lack an identifiable object, “thus leaving them [the individual passions] without a check-rein.” The converse of the conditions for anomic suicide might be stated in the following terms: individual persons desire membership; but membership exists only among those who do not desire it; and those who have no positive conception of membership— in other words, those who belong— presuppose that having membership in a common culture is a way of existence that is simply inscribed into the fabric of nature. It is common culture— the cult of the tribe— that allows for unmediated access to the ethical vision of man, and helps to avoid conditions that lead to outbreaks of anomic and cultural suicide.

There is a large consensus in American academia that prohibitions and punishes “academic dishonesty”— dishonesty meaning such things as plagiarism and “cheating” in any detectable form. This ironic prohibition is leveled at students by administrators and professors who nevertheless advance students who can neither read nor write, nor think critically or respond effectively to arguments.  But the same students can preach to any passerby a full set of sermons that somehow mirror the liberal political consensus dollar for dollar.  The student market capital for memorization is enormous, yet impoverished and shivering when it comes to the most elementary analysis of, for instance, why we must loathe and denounce Columbus Day every year.

How such an approach to education can be squared with any semblance of a vision of common culture defies the terms upon which a common culture is built on, or sustained in the world. The absent-minded professor has been transmogrified into honest Iago, the instigator of anxiety and paranoia in those who are most ill-equipped (i.e., the young) to judge between the empty verbiage of leftist propagandists, and works of profound human interest.

While mental laziness may have its reward in a high grade point average, there is no argument that can support the fruits born of ignorance and prejudice. I would maintain there is nothing more dishonest to the office of administrator or professor than to draw a comfortable salary, churn out commentaries on commentaries, and attend conferences, while consistently lowering or violating educational standards to “meet the needs of students.” Educational institutions are an arguably vital component to the well-being of a society; when resources dry up or go to waste, famine sets in. While the responsibility for the corruption and exclusion of the Western intellectual tradition in American universities falls squarely on the shoulders of postmodern theorists, queer theorists, and multiculturalists, the ultimate fate of the magnanimous Western intellectual tradition awaits the judgment of those future generations not yet indoctrinated into the cult of the modern American academy.

The Evolution of the Concept of God: From Hesiod to Plotinus

Picture 437Hesiod’s Theogony is a pre-philosophical recounting of the birth of the gods, describing how the gods, goddesses and titans created the intelligibly ordered kosmos. The principle of order framing all that exists makes possible man’s understanding of the world in which he lives, and allows Hesiod to render an intelligible account of the kosmos. The account of the birth of the gods and the generation of the kosmos in the writings of Hesiod is not the product of original speculation or invention, but rather a re-handling of myths already familiar to the Greeks.

The pantheon of deities that appear in the Theogony neither operate according to, nor abide by any principle that is of the nature of necessity, but act, instead, according to the dictates of anthropomorphized passions and desires. Unlike the later pre-Socratic philosophers, Hesiod does not attempt to account for the discernable principle of order in the kosmos in terms of a metaphysical first principle; however, it is the operative principle of order in the kosmos that allows Hesiod to describe and communicate the myths of the god’s activities, as well as the myths of the god’s dealings with humankind.

As a pre-philosophical account of the kosmos, the forces that brought the totality of existence into being remained unexplained by Hesiod; only nature, which is not a self-explaining fact, does he attempt to account for. The principle of order in the kosmos is not a result of the activity of the gods, but stands outside as a “causal condition” for how the gods act, or the end to which their activities incline. Even though Hesiod observes order in the kosmos, the question that was to later become imperative in philosophy, viz., “why something rather than nothing exists,” Hesiod gives no answer to. The phenomenal world is accounted for inductively through pre-existing myths only because it is an a posteriori fact that invites investigation.

Rather than the incidental deeds of so many gods, the divine exploits that comprise Hesiod’s account of the kosmos underwent a kind of gradual abstraction in the hands of the pre-Socratic philosophers, who posited in their turn one of the four elements, or a combination of those elements as being the arche of all things. Prior to Parmenides’ investigation of Being qua Being, the logical gap between a kosmos full of plurality and change, about which nothing can be meaningfully asserted or denied, and the necessarily immutable foundations of Being itself, went unnoticed by early Greek philosophers.

Parmenides begins his considerations of Being by rejecting myth, opinion, and man’s trust in the elemental world of appearances as erroneous views of reality. In place of a kosmos full of plurality and change, Parmenides holds that what exists, exists of necessity, and cannot be otherwise — anything that does not exist of necessity does not exist at all. Hence, Being qua Being must be a single principle that does not alter, is impassible and ungenerated; in other words, there must be sufficient reason for why something is thus and not otherwise, or else nothing positive can ever be established about any thing’s existence or essence.

Parmenides’ monistic principle of necessary Being is incompatible with the world of appearances, which is subject to generation and corruption. Because no single principle can give rise to plurality or change without ceasing to be what it is, Parmenides’ dualistic cosmology accounts both for what exists of necessity (Being), and what only appears to exist (the phenomenal world), but has no ontological status whatever.  The historical transition from Hesiod’s world full of gods to Parmenides’ conception of Being, which is the supreme reality, but not, properly speaking, any kind of god, underwent a full transitional step with Plato’s conception of the Good and the Ideas.

The demiurge in Plato’s Timeaus, who creates the world from pre-existing matter, is ontologically inferior to the Ideas, which supply the form or condition for what it is to be or exist as an object in the phenomenal world at all. Plato’s demiurge is neither the supreme reality, nor the ultimate principle of intelligibility, whereas the Ideas are the necessary condition for reality and intelligibility as such. Plato extends Parmenides’ ontological conception of Being to include the Idea of the Good, which is beyond, or higher than Being. The Good, according to Plato, must be postulated as the Idea of the Ideas, or the guarantor of the qualities of what it is to be an Idea. Neither the Good, nor Plato’s Ideas are gods as such, since the god who fashions the world in Timeaus does so because he himself is but one manifestation of the Good, and desires all things to be like him, which is to say, like the Good.

As respective contributions to a philosophical account of the foundations of reality or existence, the first principle of Being in Parmenides, and the Ideas in Plato’s account are nevertheless independent of the philosophic notion of god as exemplifying or providing the necessary conditions for ultimate reality. Aristotle’s conception of the prime mover, or unmoved mover, is arguably the first instance where the first principle is united to the concept of god, and god becomes the supreme uncaused-cause of reality.

This transition raised god, as a philosophic entity, to an explanatory object of the highest degree of intellectual refinement; and god, as an object of thought, became the culminating point for speculative philosophy rather than a step several times removed from the postulated first principle. A purely rational theology was made possible by Aristotle’s fusion of the first philosophic principle — Thought, in this case — with his conception of god as “thought which thinks itself,” establishing a single unified nature that is mirrored or manifested in the intellective soul of man.

By driving a wedge between that which is unchanging and imperishable, and that which is subject to the forces of generation and corruption, the metaphysical problems of Parmenides and Plato remained problematic to the degree to which the postulated first principle always preceded the method of investigation.

Aristotle abolishes this procedural distinction by collapsing the first principle into the concept of god, which renders god the terminal point of metaphysical speculations that begin with the material world as it is apprehended through the corporeal senses. His rational theology answers the question of why something rather than nothing exists by asserting the eternity of the kosmos; no act of creation or framing of the world from pre-existent matter was necessary, only the prime mover as the source of continual movement was required as the apex in a hierarchy of objects of intelligibility.  As a pure act of intellection, Aristotle’s god has no capacity to impart existence; hence the ideality of Though-thinking-Itself as an object of speculative philosophy.

Plotinus’ contribution to the concept of god involved subsuming in his hierarchy of principles Plato’s conception of the Good, Aristotle’s conception of Thought-thinking-Itself, and Parmenides’ conception of Being. Plotinus’ hierarchy of abstractions is crowned by the One, which is beyond Intellect and Being, and is thus not a philosophically intelligible object in any sense. As was the case with Plato’s conception of the Good that exists above the Ideas, Plotinus’ One is both the foundation and the apex of ultimate reality, while remaining beyond intelligible reality altogether.

As a modification of Plato’s conception of the Good, Plotinus’ One functions as the unity from which all unity derives its essence: “Whatever is not one, but multiple, needs something else. Its being needs unification.” Beneath the One is Being, “the self-sufficing and unflagging begetter of every being,” from which the One is wholly independent as the uncaused immanent cause of Being. Beneath Being is Intellect, which again is not constitutive of the One because “The One is not an intellective existence.”

As a crowning contribution to the Greek conception of god, the significance of Plotinus’ thought lies in the fact that his conception of the One was an attempt to overcome all philosophical dualisms. The One, according to Plotinus, stands as a single unified principle above all dualities, particularly Parmenides’ dualism of Being and non-being, and Aristotle’s intellectual god that takes himself as his own object of thought; the One is above Being and Thought, and above the duality of Being and Thought. Plotinus asks the question of “what is it to be?” His answer is, “that which exists, or is,” or that which gives structure to all reality while remaining motionless and beyond any reality whatever.

The God Of The Medieval Mystics

ImageThe main stream of the philosophical tradition, whose headwaters were the Greek pre-Socratics, largely occupied itself with accounting for the order observable in the natural world. The purpose in doing so was to uncover a causal connection between the order of nature and the underlying principle or principles constituting the kosmos. The supposition is that the order observable in nature, which is intelligible to rational beings, reflects the ordering principle itself. Thus, rational beings can apprehend, to a limited degree, the purposive nature of the ordering principle, and thereby render an account complementary to, and supporting the philosophical account of the natural world.

One stream of thought running counter to the speculative physics and metaphysics of the Greeks was that of the Medieval speculative mystics. The nature of the mystical experience, which is in effect a miracle in both the order of creation and the order of cognition, abrogated the need to philosophically investigate the causes in nature in order to arrive at a mode of certitude concerning the nature of the divine.

According to the mystics, discursive reasoning is not the only means by which the nature of God is known.1 The mystical experience involves a direct internal experience of the divine that passes over the philosophical process of searching out univocal connections, or fixing dualities between the creator and the creation; the rules of deductive reasoning become irrelevant because the mystical union with God tends decidedly toward the irrational and intuitive. Hence, the experiences of the mystics led to the creation of a branch of negative theology running counter to the natural theology of Aristotle and his Medieval followers.

As the Ockhamists had demonstrated by the close of the Middle Ages, the rational mind of man is unable to adequately or accurately fathom the divine nature. Thus, the innovation introduced by the mystics into Medieval Theology was to uncover a direct experience of the divine that circumvented man’s limited natural knowledge of God. The writings of the mystics lay emphasis on the certitude of the knowledge of God through mystical interior experiences and visions, and count their knowledge superior to the work of reason unaided by the divine light. According to the speculative mystics, there is nothing to preclude the experience of God from being an interior experience; thus it became necessary to extend the possibility of what could be included under the category of experience as such.

The mystical encounter with God bypassed the sterility of Scholastic speculation, which was largely a failure at intensifying religious life, and served to show that a philosophical consciousness of one’s internal acts, such as will and reason, is not the sole means of arriving at certitude regarding how God is known or understood.

Under the influence of the neo-Platonists, the speculative mystic’s conception of God necessitated the expansion and spiritualization of the category of experience, which had hitherto been rendered inoperative beyond the philosophical threshold of sensory experience. Because the God of the mystics is rationally unintelligible, the well-trodden avenue of reason is of no avail in circumscribing the spiritual nature of the mystical experience. The God of the mystics is no more philosophically intelligible than the neo-Platonist Plotinus’ hierarchy of abstractions crowned by the One, which is beyond Intellect and Being, and is not a philosophically intelligible object in any sense. However, the difference between the two respective conceptions lies in the realm of possible experience. Any experience of Plotinus’ One is unattainable; on the other hand, experience of the God of the mystics is possible through a spiritual process variously referred to as “degrees of communion with God,” the “divine birth in the soul,” and “degrees of prayer,” among other designations.

As illustrated in the writings of the mystics themselves, the encounter with God is set out in terms reminiscent of Plotinus’ self-refuting endeavor to give an adequate description of the nature of the One, which is indescribable, or Pseudo-Dionysus’ attempt to communicate his incommunicable vision through fantastic images drawn from the world of mutable things. The self is all but extinguished in the mystical union with God, and a soul thus enraptured is unable to convey any positive impression of what occurs, or how. The stream of negative theology that began with the neo-Platonists, and which the speculative mystics were to inherit, culminated in a unique conception of God mirrored in the soul’s ecstatic experience of the divine. Because the mystical experience was an experience of the ineffable, the abstract philosophical attributes of God formulated by the Medieval Aristotelian philosophers fell uselessly away, leaving a quasi-theological, or mystical-theological certitude that functioned independently of the philosophical subtleties of Ancient Greek origin.

1 Neither theosophy nor revelation is mentioned here on account of the fact that the entire crux of Medieval mysticism lies in its apocalyptic and theosophical character.