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Review of “Religion: If There Is No God” by Leszek Kolakowski

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In his book, Religion: If There Is No God, Leszek Kolakowski addresses large theological problems such as Evil, the nature of God, mystical experience and the language of the sacred are addressed by juxtaposing philosophical and ideological (as opposed to anthropological) ideas in a type of point/counterpoint comparison and discussion.

Treating of these philosophies in such a way provides a condensed historical representation of the great effort and curiosity that has always gathered round such problematic issues. These dialogues are important because they attempt to answer questions that perpetually plague the minds and souls of men. These questions include “Why am I here, what is my purpose, are humans alone, or unique, in the universe and how did this all come to be?” Kolakowski demonstrates the incompatibility of the answers given to these questions by the skeptically minded, as opposed to the religiously minded, and he also remarks upon the traditional resistance on both sides of the argument to bend to the will or logic of the other. Kolakowski concludes that from these philosophical and religious conflicts have arisen many illuminating responses that go toward providing logical, as well as moving responses to the large questions and problems that flood religious and scientific discourse.

Chapter one discusses the concept of theodicy and the different philosophies that spring from the problem of evil, pain and suffering as experienced by humans, as well as other members of the animal kingdom. The philosophers mentioned in conjunction with the concept of theodicy include most notably the Epicureans, Leibniz, Aquinas, C.S. Lewis, and others. God’s essence and attributes range (depending on the philosophy) from necessary and benevolent to indifferent, distant, arbitrary and evil. In opposition to humans who find themselves subject to the ready-made laws of God, that God should be bound by his own laws does not necessarily put limitations on Him, as he, by definition, embodies those laws; that is, He not only creates them, but is them as well. Kolakowski suggests that the only way to reconcile the idea that God’s way is the right way with the evil that is ever-present in the world, is to trust that God’s way is the right way. To believe that out of all the possible worlds God could have created, this was the most perfect, or would result in bringing about the most good, requires more than empirical or logical proof. Proof that God has performed the calculation necessary for bringing about the greatest good is not available to the human understanding — to reach this conclusion one must have faith (more so moral than intellectual) that this is indeed the best of all possible worlds.

The subject of faith is investigated further in chapters two and three. The God of reasoners is reached in a decidedly different fashion than the God of believers or devotees. Through logical proofs found in such sources as Aquinas, Anselm, Descartes, Kant, and others, Kolakowski plots the courses taken by philosophers who have tried to devise a path that leads from this world to God, using as their primary stepping stone reason, as opposed to believers who use “humility, repentance, recognition of one’s own sinfulness and impotence.” Proofs for the existence of God, whether cosmological or ontological, eventually break down under the scrutiny of skepticism due to man’s lack of experience which such stuff as infinity, perfection, or first causes. Paradoxically, the lack of knowledge in such areas often times is the crux of the argument.

How does one trace a line from the corrupt effect (humans and their imperfectness), back to a cause that is completely different and divine in nature? First one must make the assumption that indeed human life is finite and insignificant, which leads one to understand the possibility of the infinite. Or if the converse direction is taken, humans understanding God as a necessary being are made able to see their lives as contingent. The difficulties in making truth statements or proposing an Absolute truth when trying to sway the disbeliever are insurmountable. In the face of empirical or scientific analysis of the possibilities of God, the scientific mind creates a different God than the one of the Bible, and this positioning of one God against another fails to produce converts to either side. It is for these reasons that reason alone does not create belief, and to provide a portion of the missing equation Kolakowskiy turns to the mystics.

Contrary to the logician’s method of speculating on the nature of God by reasoning from their subjective experience, the mystic’s understanding both begins and ends with God, as the mystic in no way initiates their understanding or their experience of the divine. In moments of ecstasy the mystic losses all sense of self, including their power over the will; the mystic’s will is replaced by God’s, and so the union with, or abduction by God is a participation of the mystic with the infinite. These moments, Kolakowski suggests, are what give a foundation to religion and make up what is universal in religion.

The ramifications of the mystical experience for the world of the ordinary believer are unsettling, even more significant is the threat they represent to the Church. The Church and its hierarchy must stand apart from the mystics and their experience. Even though the mystic(s) may act in accordance with a different moral line, one that is divergent from the prescribed one of the church, the Church must govern over them. Those that have undergone a mystical experience desire to experience only this state of grace, forsaking the traditional ways of trying to obtain a closeness with God, such as taking sacrament or making confession. Lastly, the mystics that belong to the body of the Church no longer need an intermediary and become dangerous to the meticulously fashioned hierarchy when the adherence to traditional values and deferment to religious superiors becomes a trite substitute for God.
Unlike the skeptic mind, discussed in the previous chapter, the mystic does not find himself deserving of the knowledge gained by his experience. The mystic does not need to go about creating a syllogism to prove the existence of God; for the mystic, this would be a ridiculous past time — meaningless compared to the real knowledge they have first hand. Indeed, anything that takes them away from the absorption or decimation of their own will by God becomes repulsive. The body is one such obstacle and is often an object of repulsion that is greatly chastised and maligned.

The mystic can only affirm his existence when placing it in relation to God and to stand apart, is not really to stand at all; without God there is no meaning, and no reality. And this harkens back to proofs carefully created to put our existence and experience of the world into some larger context. Descartes’ reasoning touches on this in his Meditations: he could not have proven his own existence if God had not supplied him with the clear and distinct idea that a being more noble and perfect then he exists. The mystic may forgo the reasoning to gain the same conclusions.

Kolakowski deals with the problems with mystical and sacred language in chapters three and five. The problem is simply that the words used to describe religious experience or religious understanding must often break down to metaphors, or at the very least they often lack a succinctness, that is not able to correctly or fully express religious feeling or ideas. It is only through participating in the sacred that one may understand what is meant by such language, and the secular empiricist has no way to interpret this type of language when standing outside of its religious context. The semantics used in religious language are in line with a specific psychological perception. Kolakowski writes,

“Religion is not a set of proposions, it is the realm of worship wherein understanding, knowledge, the feeling of participation in the ultimate reality…and moral commitment appear as a single act, whose subsequent segregation into separate classes of metaphysical, moral and other assertions might be useful but is bound to distort the sense of the original act of worship.”

This serves the subject of sacred language as well. To break this religious or sacred language down and turn it inside out does not produce a greater understanding, but segments both the content and the intent of the language. The perception of this language as it is initially presented, that is, intact, is part of the moral act. To dissect it would completely miss the point. Kolakowski does not hold up sacred language as being superior to cut and dry logical proofs but demonstrates the unbridgeable difference in between the two when subjects like God or the sacred are being described or written of.

Kolakowski concludes the book with an analyses of the division between the skeptic and believer, and surmises that the two types of philosophy are irreconcilable because they each have different criteria for determining the value and validity of experience and reason. Both make significant contributions to theology and the world of thought in general, but however significant their arguments may be, they are each unable to sway the opinions of the other. These separate groups of philosophy may then be able to regulate each other’s ideology by trying to refute the other, solidify the contrary groups position, and in turn make them consistent. Kolakowski suggests that new forms of truth in debate may be reached: the believer will eventually know that they are dealing with a skeptic and say that they have no irrefutable proof of what it is they are trying to convince the other of, and the skeptic may in turn say they have no real understanding of the position of the believer, and both can, to a degree, come to terms in this way. Kolakowski in placing the two types of arguments against each other, that is one answering the other and vice-versa strains out the value of each statement. The method and resources for these two groups cannot be any more opposed than they are, however, the conclusions that are reached are often similar in that, the existence of a creative/necessary being, the presence of evil in the world, and the drive for understanding of these phenomena cannot reasonably or religiously be denied. While certainly there is a cleft between the two groups there is a meeting in the human curiosity and capacity for seeking out answers to questions that perplex the human mind.

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On the Evolution of the Soul: Descartes Versus Aristotle & St. Thomas Aquinas

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CHAPTER 1

ARISTOTLE, THOMAS, AND DESCARTES’ MEDITATIONS

In his Discourse on the Method of 1637, Descartes ridicules the Aristotelian/Thomist maxim, “there is nothing in the intellect that is not previously in the senses.” Descartes intended to expose the logical absurdities that follow from giving sense perception priority in the rational soul’s operation of understanding:

The reason for this is that they never raise their minds above things which can be perceived by the senses: they are so used to thinking of things only by imagining them (a way of thinking specially suited to material things) that whatever is unimaginable seems to them unintelligible. This is sufficiently obvious from the fact that even the scholastic philosophers take it as a maxim there is nothing in the intellect which has not previously been in the senses [Ce qui est assez manifeste de ce que mesme les Philosophes tienent pour maxime, dans les Escholes, qu’il n’y a rien dans l’entendement qui n’ait premierement este dan le sens]; yet it is certain that the ideas of God and the soul have never been in the senses.

According to Descartes, the soul knows neither itself, nor God through sense images because it is not the substantial form of the human body— certainly not in the Aristotelian/Scholastic sense of the soul as the form of the body. Descartes’ methodological doubt furnishes him with the requisite conditions for dispensing with the Aristotelian theory of knowledge that asserts the primacy of sense images in matters of rational intelligibility. If the soul knows nothing through sense-images, the only available avenue for indubitable knowledge of the existence of God and the soul is via “separation of the mind from the senses” [abducere mentem a sensibus] to discover the innate knowledge of the existence of God and the separabilty of the mind from the body.

Like his Regulae, Descartes’ Meditations become intelligible when read as a conversation with Aristotle and his Scholastic descendents, such as Scotus, Ockham, and above all, Aquinas. When Descartes broaches the question of the nature of the soul in his prefatory letter to the Sorbonne in the Meditations, he has 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…” Aristotle’s procedure for inquiring into the soul in De anima begins with what is perceptible and moves to the underlying principle or mechanism that makes objects intelligible to the mind: “…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.”

The completely separable and independent essence of the mind, Descartes argues, involves two modifications of the Aristotelian/Thomistic account of man as a rational animal. First, Descartes rejects the Aristotelian/Thomistic conception of the rational soul, whose mode of understanding is “through an intelligible species,” or “turning toward phantasms” [se ad phantasmata)]. Second, Descartes rejects the Aristotelian/Thomistic conception of the substantial union of rational soul and body by denying not only the verity of the knowledge of species gained through the senses, but also entertaining the possible non-existence of all bodies. The two latter steps are necessary for Descartes to affirm the superior epistemological status of “the thinking thing” [res cogitans] over extended things [res extensia]. Only the “thinking thing” distinguishes the true from the false and uncovers the ontology of the soul in an intuitive, self-reflexive act (Descartes’ cogito). Only when the mind is free of sensory interference can it apprehend the innately contained ideas of the existence of God and the separability of the mind from the body.

On the contrary, Aristotle and Thomas assert that the soul is the mover of the body. The soul/mind, according to Descartes, is not responsible for the movement of the body; rather, the mind’s only operation is thinking. That is the reason why, after rejecting the Aristotelian/Thomistic account of the soul as the mover of the body, Descartes’ chief problem in the Meditations is demonstrating how the soul or mind is connected to the body. The circulatory system, Descartes argues, is responsible for the movements of the body; the mind is only aware of the body in respect to the sensation of pain, or other corporeal necessities, such as the body’s sensation of hunger or thirst. Aside from the rational mind’s embodiment in the human animal, the mind, so to speak, owes nothing to the body, and vice-versa. Hence, the mind, Descartes, argues, has no need of the bodily senses to grasp the essential nature of objects. The senses do not think, only the mind does. Thus, the mind’s innate ideas of concepts such as the existence of God, the ego, or the essence of wax need no corresponding tie to objects in the material world (which, for Descartes, may not even exist). Accordingly, the ego’s act of existence cannot be said to depend on the beginning or end of the body to which it is somehow attached. The very nature of the Cartesian mind is found through foundational ideas that have no exact correlative in the material world, such as the existence of God and the separability of the mind from the body.

Like Descartes, Thomas Aquinas’ obligation to abide by the Catholic Church’s dogma of the soul’s immortality required demonstrating that the soul, as the form of the human body, is separable from the body. Reckoning Christian doctrine with Aristotelian philosophy necessitated Thomas’ modification to Aristotle’s account of the soul in De anima. Because the question of the immortality of the intellective soul is left open in the Aristotelian account, Thomas argues for the substantiality of the rational soul per se. On the other hand, Descartes’ theory of cognition presupposes the body and senses as being obstacles to the mind’s knowledge of the truth. The mind can continue all of its cognitive operations independent of any contribution from the body’s sense organs because the objects of cognition do not come without, but from within the mind (“only the mind inspects” [inspectum mentus; or alternately, sed solius mentis inspectio]). Descartes seeks to demonstrate that the mind alone understands, and that only knowledge contained innately in the mind is indubitable. Confirmation of this fact is stated explicitly by Descartes: “…it is certain that I am really distinct from my body, and can exist without it.” The “soul as the form of the body” [anima corporis forma] of Aristotle and his Scholastics descendents is eradicated by the first act of Cartesian doubt— calling the reliability of the senses into question. The only operation of the Cartesian mind, thinking, does not require a substantial union with a particular kind of body, or a body at all. In spite of his claim that the soul forms a substantial union with the body, Descartes broke the substantial union.

CHAPTER TWO

DESCARTES’ ANTI-ARISTOTLEIANISM IN THE DEDICATORY LETTER TO THE SORBONNE

To gain the commendation of the Sorbonne for his Meditations, Descartes required a subtle method of aligning his ostensibly anti-Aristotelian conception of God and the human soul with the views upheld by the conservative Aristotelians of the Sorbonne faculty:

…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 [cognitional] of God is easier to acquire than the knowledge we have of many created things…”

Descartes presents his conception of man’s knowledge of God’s existence and the immortality of the soul in an 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.” Descartes praises his predecessor’s arguments as having “the force of demonstrations.” But Descartes’ claim of upholding orthodoxy in his dedicatory letter should be considered further alongside the claim he makes in his Letter to Voetius. In his letter, Descartes argues that Thomas’ proofs for the existence of God have all been found to contain invalid conclusions, and are therefore inconclusive, if not faulty proofs. If anyone is guilty of Atheism, Descartes declares, Thomas is the more culpable, pointing out that Thomas’ proofs for the existence of God have been disproven, whereas his never can be.

In his prefatory letter to the Sorbonne, 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. However, in his Meditations, he ingeniously modifies the purpose of speculative philosophy and natural theology to support the practical ends of science. It is noteworthy that the Sorbonne letter only contains one passing mention of science, when in fact, the purpose of the Meditations is an attempt to establish a firm foundation upon which to raise the sciences.
Because Descartes’ physics derives entirely from his metaphysics, he is able to sidestep the fact that his speculative metaphysics overturns the speculative physics of Aristotle. The two main points Descartes addresses in his dedicatory epistle to the Meditations are proving the existence of God and demonstrating the immortality of the soul. He frames the latter problems in terms of the historical search for definitive philosophic proofs. If the existence of God and the immortality of the soul are provable, then atheism and religious skepticism can be combated with the assurance of victory. Descartes’ project of providing a firm metaphysical foundation for the sciences is carried out according to the established template of the Scholastic philosophers, and consists 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, Descartes is able to critique and sweep aside the writings of his Scholastic predecessors with his claims of logical soundness and indubitability for his proofs in the Meditations.
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…,” requires that the method used for augmenting the sciences be single, in order for truth to be demonstrated in a systematic order. The indemonstrability of Aristotle’s first principles for reasoning is 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 from the Scholastic’s metaphysics and theology in the respect that the aim of discovering a method to derive indubitable metaphysical principles to augment the sciences was never present for Scholastic philosophers. 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.

The philosophers of Antiquity commonly divided human activity into two spheres derived from two modes of understanding: the active life, derived from “opinion,” or subjective experience, and the contemplative life, derived from the mind’s rational faculty to apprehend objective concepts and objects. For Aristotle, life begins in the sphere of practical activity and ends in the act of philosophic contemplation of the unmoved Divine. For Aristotle as well as Thomas, metaphysics is the most logical and objective of the sciences, and crowns the investigation of being as being. The other sciences, which take practical activity as their end, are naturally inferior to metaphysics, and form a basis for the rational investigation of the Diving.

Descartes accepts the premise that metaphysics is superior to all the other sciences. Yet metaphysics is, as he calls it, the roots of his system, and not the speculative crown that metaphysics represents to Aristotle and Thomas. Philosophy, for Descartes, need no longer be speculative; first principles need no longer be sought for their own sake. The tradition of speculative philosophy is no longer viable in the scope of a theoretical philosophy with practical ends. For Descartes, the end of philosophy is not the science of the search for first principle— or, the speculative exploration of Divine attributes. Rather, the practical end of philosophy is the project of applying indubitable principles to formulate and discover practical aids to remedy the ills of human existence. In his Discourse on the Method, Descartes states that raising the sciences on a rational and indubitable foundation will recapture for man the position he once owned in the Garden of Eden— “master and proprietor of nature.”

By replacing speculative philosophy with practical philosophy, Descartes rejects not only the contemplation of truth as the goal of philosophic activity, but takes religious and philosophical skepticism as his chief enemy from the beginning, rather than the thought of Aristotle and the Scholastics. Descartes held that the 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 a mere demonstrations that the truths of faith and the truths of reason do not lie in opposition to each other. Such demonstrations, Descartes held, were insufficient to combat the tendency in the 17th century toward atheism and religious skepticism. The only sufficient criterion for the test of indubitable knowledge is the mind’s perception of a truth that impresses itself with such force and vivacity that the mind cannot help but assent to the validity of the proposition (e.g., that God exists). According to Descartes, such truths are what the mind perceives “clearly and distinctly.” All other families of propositions fall within the realm of Aristotle’s indemonstrable first principles and Thomas’ secondary causes.

In his Dedicatory Letter to the Sorbonne, Descartes presents his Meditations to the Dean and Doctors as a work of Christian apologetics. However, he is not forthcoming about his incendiary goal of demolishing the whole of the Aristotelian metaphysics, physics, and psychology. Descartes’ principle of “methodological doubt” [rationem dubitandi] functions as a tool for overturning what Aristotle and his Medieval Scholastic followers took for granted — the reliability of the rational soul’s knowledge of the material world acquired through the senses. In the 17th century, Aristotelianism and Thomism predominated among the faculty members of the Sorbonne. According to the prevailing Aristotelian doctrine in the Schools, the first principle of man’s knowledge is the sensible apprehension of objects in the material world. The sensible apprehension of objects depends upon the sensible object received by the agent intellect via the phantasm, or image. Without the sensible object, neither the agent nor the possible intellect could be, in a sense, activated. Without the particulars of sense knowledge, the intellect’s abstraction from particular objects to grasp the intelligible species could never take place. Cognition as such would be impossible for Aristotle’s man. Except as a peripheral question, neither Aristotle nor any Scholastic philosopher prior to Descartes ever took seriously the question of the reliability of sense perception as a conduit of genuine knowledge.

Descartes begins his Meditations by inquiring into whether the rational mind is capable of a type of purely rational mental activity comparable to Aristotle’s conception of contemplation [theoria]. To do so, however, Descartes reverses Aristotle’s procedure for inquiring into the nature of the soul. To see how this is done, it is necessary to point out that Aristotle does not begin his inquiry into the nature of the soul with cognition, since thought itself is neither perceptible, nor is it an intelligible species that takes itself as its own object. In other words, Aristotle’s account of the rational soul does not begin with a demonstration of rationality. Philosophy begins, according to Aristotle, by setting out principles that, for the rational mind requiring material particulars to abstract universals from, are indemonstrable principles. The famous principle of non-contradiction is one example of Aristotle’s indemonstrable “first principles.”

In the Sixth Meditation, Cartesian philosophy’s crowing project of the “mastery of nature” ends up where Aristotle’s philosophic project (in De anima) begins. Descartes’ last chapter in the Meditations gives an account of the movement and activity of the animal possessing a rational mind. The purpose of his account is twofold: first, to developing cures for the infirmities of the body to which the mind is attached as “a pilot in his ship”; second, Descartes hoped to raise man through the development of the sciences to the status of the “master and proprietor of nature.” Descartes’ theory of the separability of the mind and body stands in opposition to his theory of the substantial union of the mind and body, which, he writes, is not merely the relation of mover to the thing moved, but a relation where the mind and body are “very closely joined” so as to “form a unit.” Translated into the Aristotelian vocabulary, the Cartesian theory of cognition states that the universal or essential nature of an object is known prior to, and more easily, than the particular material object in the world grasped through the corporeal senses. The first principle of knowledge, according to Descartes, is not objects in the material world or concepts that abide the principle of non-contradiction. Rather, the first principles of knowledge are contained in the innate ideas that the mind has of all objects, including God and the self, independent of all sensory perceptions. These principles, Descartes holds, are indubitable, and therefore more logically consistent than Aristotle’s indemonstrable first principles that seem to assert the priority of the objects of knowledge over the knower.
In the Dedicatory Letter of the Meditations, Descartes’ argument from the Bible regarding the mind’s intuitive or innate knowledge of the existence of God implicitly corroborates the argument given in the Meditations for why the soul’s nature is easily discovered. The mind’s innate idea of God is demonstrable from the essence of the mind itself, which, as an incorporeal thinking substance, is entirely distinct and separable in its operations from the body and its senses. Descartes’ celebrated phrase, sed solius mentis inspectio, or “the mind alone inspects,” reverses the Aristotelian order of operation by which the rational soul understands external objects. To meditate, according to Descartes, is to detach the mind from the senses, because the sensory-dependent body is an obstacle to knowing the truth.

Descartes sought to align his proofs for the existence of God and the immortality of the soul with the long-accepted proofs of his Scholastic predecessors. In his dedication, Descartes calls his addressee’s attention to the fact that his project of proving the existence of God and the immortality of the soul corresponds to the traditional Scholastic enterprise. Further, Descartes cites the eighth session of the Lateran Council held under Pope Leo X (Apostolici Regiminis, 1513) to legitimize his philosophical investigation into the existence of God and the human rational soul. By adopting Leo X’s mandate for Christian philosophers to refute the arguments of irreligious philosophers who hold “that the soul dies along with the body,” Descartes hoped to gain the commendation of the Sorbonne’s Aristotelian/Thomist faculty members.

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 in doing so. The sense that Aristotelian philosophy was a stagnant body of knowledge prompted Descartes to look afresh at the foundations of philosophy. In making Thomas Aquinas its representative theologian, the Church had implicitly “Christianized” the thought of Thomas’ master, Aristotle. Descartes considered the alliance of Christian and pagan philosophy to be hazardous to the central doctrines of Christianity. Making Christian philosophy dependent in crucial ways on the philosophic principles and reasoning of a pagan philosopher left the Faith vulnerable to the attacks of atheist and religious skeptics. In his Meditations, Descartes hoped to free Christian philosophy from the bonds of Aristotelian philosophy by abrogating its epistemic foundations. By framing the traditional questions of philosophy in a Christian context, Descartes hoped to secure an indubitable foundation for the two main tenets of Christian philosophy: that God exists and that the soul is immortal. Descartes demand for an undiluted foundation for religion set the stage for a new philosophy that depended on neither sense perception, nor the dogmas of Aristotelian Scholasticism.

CHAPTER 3

DESCARTES’ CONCEPTION OF MIND VERSUS THE ARISTOTELIAN
CONCEPTION OF THE SOUL

The publication of Gilbert Ryle’s The Concept of Mind (1949) originated the analytic approach to Cartesian thought. Unfortunately, analytic commentators of Descartes’ writings take little account of the historical background of the 17th century in formulating their interpretations; nor do they give little more than a sign of acquaintance or interest in the writings of Thomas or the Scholastic philosophers. Such interpretations have little to offer the historian of philosophy. Commentary that ignores the anti-Aristotelian/Thomist position of the Meditations arrives at conclusions that are conceptually dazzling, but ultimately refer only back to themselves, rather than the historical sources of Descartes’ writings. The validity of Descartes’ arguments have been borne out or disproven according to the whims of History’s mistress, lady Fortune. The internal logical consistency or inconsistency of Descartes’ Meditations does not illuminate the main themes or reason for his writing the book. No does the analytic approach consider for whom Descartes wrote the book. An historian of philosophy might fruitfully beg Aristotle’s question, “were the Meditations persuasive to Descartes contemporaries?” Descartes aimed to construct a metaphysics that did not depend on the Aristotelian account of material reality or the speculative metaphysics and dogmas of the Schools. To do so, he had to contend with the prevailing thought of the Schools, which happened to be principally Aristotelian/Thomist. Reducing the status of Cartesian metaphysics to a sterile series of mental acts of consciousness misses Descartes’ dual point that a metaphysical foundation must first be in place in order to generate indubitable scientific principles. Only after a system of metaphysics is in place can the programme originating in the writings of Francis Bacon, viz., making man “the master and proprietor of nature,” be realized.

In the Sixth Meditation, Descartes’ demonstration of the separabilty of the mind/soul from the body consists precisely in the clarity and distinctness of the perception of what belongs to the essence of thinking things [res cogitans]. Regarding extended things [res extensia], the same clarity of perception does not apply. Extended things are perceived only distinctly, which is to say, not essentially. The meditator’s essence consists in “absolutely nothing else” than that he is “a thinking thing…” Descartes cancels Aristotle’s formulation of the soul as the form of the body, which assumes the givenness of the objects of perception, in his demonstration of the incorporeal existence of mind/soul as being more clearly and distinctly known than the existence of objects extended in space and perceived by the corporeal senses. In Aristotelian teleological thought, the difficulty in giving an account of the soul lies with the process and methods of investigation: beginning with sensible perception of particulars, the faculty or ordering principle (soul) is abstracted from observing the respective activities of sentient beings. Conversely, in order to determine the existence and nature of the soul, the Cartesian method bypasses the information gathered through the senses and inquires instead into the origin of the mind’s ideas, which are divided into three types: adventitious, composite, and innate.

Turning to the Aristotelian conception of the soul, in De anima II, Aristotle formulates his doctrine of cognition through abstraction as, “the soul never thinks without an image.” In other words, the intellect, whether human or animal, is activated by sense images, and neither cognizes nor wills prior to the mind’s reception of sense data. Like the sensitive soul of animals, Aristotle’s third type of soul, the rational soul, is dependent on the image, or phantasm, gathered by means of the senses. The rational soul’s faculty for abstract cognition is activated by sense images and impressions. Considering the operations of the rational soul (movement, sense perception, abstraction), the cognizing activity of the potential intellect called abstraction cannot take place without the object of thought having first passed through the agent intellect, whose activity is the passive reception of sense data. However, for its abstract cognitive operations, the rational soul is exempt from further dependence on sense impressions. Insofar as the rational soul neither grows nor senses as such, its operation of abstraction from sense images does not dependent on further contribution from the body’s sense organs.

Aristotle’s proof for the soul begins with evidence derived from motion in the order of corporeal being, such as the fact that animals possess the power of self-movement and growth. The empirical fact of motion is requisite to all of Aristotle’s claims about the soul. If nothing were in motion, as in the static world of Parmenides, the senses would have no purpose for existing, as there would be nothing to sense. Thus Aristotle states that the sense’s primary reason for existing is to convey images of objects in motion to the passive intellect. Abstraction of images from the passive intellect are understood by the active intellect, the faculty of the mind responsible for rational thought. On the basis of movement, Aristotle causally deduces the formal principle from the material principle. For example, creatures that grow and reproduce must themselves be animated by some kind of mover, which Aristotle tells us is the soul. Moving creatures are animated by two of Aristotle’s three types of soul: the nutritive and sensitive. The existence of the soul proven from the evidence of motion in the sensible world is a naturalized account of the soul. Because objects are intelligible, sense perception has, for Aristotle, the nature and value of a principle of knowledge. Consequently, to gain any certain knowledge of what the essential nature and properties of the soul are, the operations of the senses must be considered.

In response to Aristotle and his Scholastic followers, Descartes’ treatment of the soul in the Meditations begins with the question of what, if anything, can be known with any epistemological certainty, and proceeds by applying the methodological doubt to everything dubitable by the light of valid reasoning (propter validas & meditates rationes). The possibility of material objects serving as the source of the first principle of metaphysical knowledge is rejected, and the project of discovering a source of indubitable knowledge on which to found the sciences is directed toward the discovery of the innate cognitive perceptions of God and the ego. The methodological doubt and the hypothesis of the malin génie, detailed in the first two Meditations, furnishes Descartes with the necessary conditions for abrogating any theory of knowledge that asserts the primacy of sense images in matters of rational intelligibility. Descartes’ argument against the soul as the form of the body reverses the Aristotelian/Scholastic axiomatic sense of the soul as the form of the body [anima corporis forma]. According to Descartes, information or data derived from sense-images is subject to the methodological doubt precisely because the soul is understood to be something other than the substantial form of the body. Hence, any dependence on the senses to confirm the truth or falsity of ideas must be forsworn at the outset if the criterion for telling the true from the erroneous has premises more robust than a posteriori. If the soul cannot know anything through sense-images, the only available avenue for indubitable knowledge, particularly indubitable knowledge of the existence of God and the immortality of the soul, is through “separating the mind from the senses.”

In the Second Meditation, Descartes’ phrase, “the mind alone inspects” represents a kind of pastiche of Aristotle’s definition of the soul in De anima II, where the soul defined as “the form of a natural body having life potentially within it” (or capable of living). Aristotle’s formulation precludes the question of “whether the soul and body are one”— which question, he concludes, is as meaningless as inquiring “whether the wax and the shape given to it by the stamp are one.” The view of the wax as inseparable from the stamp given to it assumes, by analogy, that that which organizes (soul), and that which is organized (body) cannot be distinguished. In two ways the Aristotelian rational soul is inseparable from the body: first, because the soul is the form of the body; and second, because the soul depends on the corporeal sense faculties in order to satisfy the goal, or telos toward which its operations of growth, nutrition and reasoning tend.

When Descartes exposes a quantity of beeswax to fire, the intention is to distinguish two separate modes of perception, sensuous and cognitive, and thus argue for why the demonstration of the distinction between the soul/mind and the body is necessary. The perceptible “stamp” of the beeswax remains even once its recognizable qualities have been altered by exposure to the fire; viz., its taste, fragrance, odor, figure, sound, &c., are not done away with because the essence of the beeswax is not contained in any of its innumerable accidental properties. Descartes states, “the perception I have of it [wax, or any material object] is a case not of vision or touch or imagination — nor has it ever been, despite previous appearances — but of purely mental scrutiny [sed solius mentis inspectio]…” Objects, such as the beeswax, can be “sensed”; but the corporeal senses do not “think.” Hence, the ideas of objects perceived by the mind cannot bear any relation to the properties of objects perceived by the corporeal senses: “perception derives not from their [objects] being touched or seen but from their being understood.”

Moving from the idea that the mind alone inspects the essence of objects, Descartes is in a position to inquire into the essence of the rational soul. If the mind alone knows objects through their essences, the mind can presumably inspect itself, or perceive its own essential nature. “I know plainly that I can achieve an easier and more evident perception of my own mind than of anything else,” Descartes concludes. He then overturns the common sense opinion that “the bodies which we touch and see” are perceived aright by the senses. The mind or soul grasps the essential nature of material objects without the aid of the corporeal senses. Thus, a question considered by Aristotle to have a self-evident answer, namely, whether the soul and body are joined in an interdependent relation, is considered in Descartes’ inquiry into perception to have been given a less than satisfactory answer.

In the case of man, according to Aristotle, rationality is not a superficial addition to animality, but rather comprises a substantial union proper to man alone. Aquinas’ account of the soul follows Aristotle’s on this point, maintaining that, “it is with respect to the intellective soul that we are said to be men; to the sensitive soul, animals; to the nutritive soul, living beings.” Descartes’ attack on Aristotle in the Meditations first addresses, and then overturns specific Aristotelian doctrines with the intention of starving out the roots of Aristotelian first philosophy by destroying its branches — namely, the somatic and psychic doctrines associated with Aristotle’s conception of man. Aristotle’s doctrine that states, “the soul never thinks without an image” is connected in every respect with the doctrine of the soul as the form of the body, and with his conception of man as a rational animal.
Descartes does not recognize the validity or the self-evident empirical nature of Aristotle’s first principles. On the contrary, his refutation in the Second Meditation of the Aristotelian doctrine that the soul never thinks without an image sets up a reductio ad absurdum chain of reasoning that destroys Aristotle’s conception of man by calling into question the reliability of the senses to convey any true knowledge to the understanding. If Descartes rephrased Aristotle’s doctrine of cognition, it might have read something like, “the soul knows nothing through the medium of an image.” Indeed, the meditator discovers that the mind’s essential understanding of objects only resembles the world of material objects. Accordingly, Descartes infers that “what is called ‘having sensory perceptions is strictly just… thinking.”

In the First Meditation, Descartes’ hypothesis of the ‘evil genius” [malin genie in the French edition] raises Pyrrhonian skepticism to a new pitch of intensity. If it were the case that all knowledge, and the faculties for acquiring and judging knowledge, were under the influence of some malicious deceiver “of the utmost power” [summe potens], the mind’s criterion for examining its ideas, and the source of its ideas is open to question on every conceivable level, and at every point. The force of Descartes’ argument lies in the fact that it would be impossible for the mind to know or tell if it were under the control of a most powerful deceiver. The Aristotelian theory of cognition, which emphasizes the primacy of the individual senses and their particular objects in the process of “coming to know,” has no defense against Cartesian skepticism. Descartes’ cogito necessarily has neither a basis in, nor any reference to the world of material particulars. In the Second Meditation, Aristotle and his 17th century adherents are parodied by Descartes in such questions as, “What then did I formerly think I was? A man. But what is a man?”, “what is an animal?”, and “what is rationality?” Descartes concludes that he “does not now have the time to waste on subtleties of this kind.” Under Descartes’ hypothetical circumstance, grounds for discovering any epistemological certainty are theoretically impossible.

CHAPTER 4

THE PROBLEM OF DESCARTES’ TERMINOLOGY AND THE ATTACK ON THOMAS AND SCHOLASTICISM IN THE MEDITATIONS

In the Meditations, the doctrine of the cogito, flanked by the doctrine of “the mind alone inspects,” represents a thoroughgoing epistemic critique of the Aristotelian empiricist doctrine of “the soul never thinks without an image.” That Descartes overturned centuries of philosophical reliance on Aristotelian physics and metaphysics is well documented in the literature of the history of ideas. What is less obvious is whether Descartes’ attack on the philosophy of Aristotle in the Meditations was meant as a covert attack on the philosophy of St. Thomas. We can ask whether Descartes’ self-professed intention of offering the Meditations to the Dean and Doctors of the Sorbonne as work in the grand Scholastic tradition of giving demonstrative proofs for the existence of God and the immortality of the soul can be taken at face value.

In both the Meditations and the Discourse on the Method, Descartes’ attack on Aristotelian realism is waged, in part, through the terminology he adopts to undermine the claims of Aristotelian philosophy. For example, certain recognizable Aristotelian phrases and terms occur in the Meditations, such as “rational animal,” “power of self movement,” “common sense,” “nutrition,” and “imagination.” Descartes’ technical use of these terms and phrases were no doubt adopted for either one or both of the following reasons. First, the term “imagination” and the phrase “rational animal” are characteristic of the language of the Scholastic opponents Descartes is attempting to refute. By employing the Aristotelian language, Descartes caricatures his opponent’s views. The second reason that Descartes adopts the Aristotelian terminology, particularly in the Second and Sixth Meditation, is likely because of the fact that no other terminological apparatus was available in the 17th century. Moreover, the philosophical tradition frowned upon the invention or introduction of novel terms for the sake of novelty. As previous commentators have noted, Descartes’ terminology in the Meditations contains next to nothing in the way of novelty. Only his unique redefining of the battery of pre-existing Ancient and Scholastic terms can be said to be original. Descartes’ acceptance of what the primary goals of philosophy are, as well as the standard array of terminology, as handed down from both the Ancients and their Scholastic descendants, is explicitly present in the Meditations.

Even Descartes’ earliest commentators and critics recognized his subversive use of Aristotelian/Scholastic terminology in the Meditations. When Descartes topples Aristotelian realism in the Second Meditation by demonstrating that the nature of the soul/mind can be asserted as an object of knowledge prior to the knowledge of bodies, he is attacking the classic Aristotelian doctrine of “the soul never thinks without an image.” As a close reader of the writings of Aristotle, Descartes was likely acquainted with the phrase, “the soul never thinks without an image.” However, when the Meditations and the Discourse on the Method are searched for the classic Aristotelian phrase, one finds that Descartes never uses the phrase as it occurs in Aristotle’s writings. In the fourth partition of the Discourse on the Method, Descartes has instead rendered into French a Scholastic variant of Aristotle’s phrase:

“…there is nothing in the intellect which has not previously been in the senses [qu’il n’y a rien dans l’entendement qui n’ait premierement este dan le sens].” Again, in the Sixth Meditation we find it worded thus: “In this way I easily convinced myself that I had nothing at all in the intellect which I had not previously had in sensation [facile mihi persuadebam nullam plane me habere in intellectu, quam non prius habuissem in sensu].”

In the latter two examples, Descartes employs what previous commentators have noted to be a Scholastic variation on Aristotle’s phrase. As these commentators indicate, a likely source for the variation used by Descartes is the writings of St. Thomas.

In Thomas’s writings we find a variation on Aristotle’s phrase that silently introduces the terminological and verbal modifications that Descartes was to later adapt into his writings: “There is nothing in the intellect that is not previously in the senses” [nihil est in intellectu quod non sit prius in sensu]. Although Thomas nuances the phrasing of the established idiom, he does so without corrupting Aristotle’s empirical doctrine. The question arises: if, in his Discourse on the Method and the Meditations, Descartes’ use of the phrase as it occurs in Aquinas’ writings is deliberate, is it meant as a shrewd critique of the Doctor angelicus? Does Descartes inadvertently strike a blow at the foundation of Catholic orthodoxy by refuting Aristotle via the doctrines of Thomas?

To the extent to which Thomas’ conception of the soul agrees with or derives from Aristotle’s account of the soul, this is the conception of the soul Descartes attacks in the Second Meditation. However, Descartes’ proof for the separabilty of the mind from the body, or of the mind’s self-subsisting nature, agrees with Thomas’ account of the separable soul, on the point that both are an affirmative answer to the Christian theological imperative to uphold the doctrine of the immortality of the soul. We may point out, however, that the theological imperative to argue for the soul’s immortality was not present for Aristotle as it was for Thomas. While there are passages in De anima that seem to promote the idea of the rational soul possessing an immortal nature, other passages clearly associate the mortality of the body with the mortality of the soul. Yet in De anima Aristotle states that, “that while the faculty of sensation is dependent on the body, mind is separable from it.” It was a matter of dispute among the Scholastics whether Aristotle meant that the intellect only engages in operations in which the body has no part, as when he writes that, “…some [parts of the soul] may be separable because they are not the actualities of any body at all.” Also open to dispute among the Scholastic philosophers was Aristotle’s opinion on whether the rational soul could be classed as a substantial form: “When mind is set free from its present conditions it appears as just what it is and nothing more: this alone is immortal and eternal… mind in this sense is impassable… and without it nothing thinks.”
In any case, the question whether the soul survives the body’s death, and whether the rational or intellectual soul is mortal or immortal necessitated Thomas’ chief modification to the Aristotelian conception of the soul. Indeed, Thomas’ modification involved altering the ontological status of the rational soul, thus disengaging it from the questions of mortality and substantiality. The soul, according to Aristotle, is a faculty of thought that makes up a substantial form only when united to the matter of the human body. In Thomas’ account of the rational soul, he argues that the soul itself is a substantial form in its own right. That is, the intellective soul is non-destructible, self-subsisting and immortal by definition. Yet the conversion of a rational faculty of thought into an intellectual substance does not resolve the inherent difficulties in how the separable soul operates after the death of the body, since Thomas retains the Aristotelian doctrine that “there is nothing in the mind that was not previously in the senses.” In sum, the active and possible intellect, and the bodily sense organs on which the soul depends for the delivery of its proper object are inseparably connected.

CHAPTER 5

DESCARTES’ CONCEPTION OF MIND VERSUS THE SCHOLASTIC CONCEPTION OF THE SOUL

The question of the soul’s immortality in Descartes’ Meditations is a reiteration of a long-standing theme of the Scholastics. The means by which Descartes goes about proving the immortality of the soul constitutes a departure from the accepted convention of either lending ultimate support and authority to a rational proof of the soul’s immortality. In his Sorbonne letter, Descartes cites relevant passages from Scripture and rejects the teaching that no rational proof of the soul’s immortality is available to the natural light of reason alone, as did Duns Scotus and William of Ockham. In any case, no Scholastic discussion of the soul’s immortality ever sought to supplant the doctrine of immortality that the Church maintained is revealed through the Scriptures, and held as a verity of religion by faith alone. Scholastic proofs adduced for the existence of God or the immortality of the soul were “demonstrated” a posteriori to the belief that God exists and that the soul is indeed immortal — that is, these proofs assume the validity of what they have yet to prove.

Descartes’ demonstration of the existence of God in the Third Meditation is an a priori proof that precludes the presupposition of any “long-standing opinion that there is an omnipotent God,” and proceeds from the starting point that “everything said about God is a fiction,” including his existence. Similarly, Descartes’ proof for the separability of the mind from the body in the Second Meditation begins with the meditator’s categorically doubting the existence of all extended bodies in order to uncover, in the order of being, the nature of the soul per se.
The investigation of the soul, under the respective considerations of Aristotle and his Scholastic followers, had traditionally begun with sensible particulars, applying an inductive method of examination to such phenomena as the perceptible self-movement of living things, and proceeding to inquiring as to the cause of movement. The somatic psychology of Aristotle and the Scholastic philosophers offers a naturalized account of the soul. As the form of the body, the soul of man is a rational faculty that depends on the sense’s apprehension of material particulars in order to operate. Knowledge, in this sense, is essentially embodied, and in De anima, Aristotle writes that the soul has been justly referred to as “the place of forms,” on account of the fact that the rational intellect has no organ, and hence no operation apart from the medium of the phantasms intuited by the sense organs.

According to Aristotle’s account of the soul, the nature of the substantial union of the soul and body is a union of such a kind that the corruption of the instantiated soul cannot occur without corruption coming to the body as well, and vice-versa. Plato’s celebrated metaphorical image of the relation between the soul and body as a sailor in a ship is a negative example in Aristotle’s usage, for the union between soul and body is not such that the soul directs the movements of the automaton body in which it is emprisoned. What connects the soul and body in Aristotle’s account, and in Thomas’ account as well, is the fact that the intellectual soul requires the faculties of imagination and sensation in order to operate, and imagination and sensation are carried out through corporeal organs; hence, as Thomas puts it, the formal principle, the soul, and the material principle, the body, are “joined together in the unity of one act of being.”

CHAPTER 6

THOMAS’ CONCEPTION OF THE IMMORTALITY OF THE SOUL

For Descartes, the emphasis in the Sixth Meditation is on the problem of how the soul is joined to the body, and stands in contrast to the operations of the pure understanding (Meditation Two), where the mind is shown to function independent of any attachment to a body, and is thus by definition separable. For Thomas, the soul is joined in a substantial union with the body, and the existence of bodies is self-evident, and therefore indubitable. Regarding the question of the soul’s immortality, Thomas emphasizes the issue of the soul’s separability from the body. The intellectual soul first needs to be demonstrated as substantial per se. Substantiality, according to Aristotle, is tantamount to self-subsistence and impassibility, and the status of substantiality that Thomas grants to the intellectual soul provides the gateway for his proof of the soul’s immortality.

Generally, then, the difference between Descartes’ revival in the Meditations of the question of immortality addressed by Thomas and other the other Scholastic philosophers is the question of how the soul’s immortality can be demonstrated. Descartes agrees with the Scholastic philosophers about the immortality of the soul. The point at which Descartes diverges from Thomas and the Scholastics is in method rather than principle. The meditative exercise of withdrawing the mind from the senses is an epistemological method that neither Aquinas nor any other Scholastic philosopher ever employed to arrive at the conclusion that the intellectual soul is separable from the body, and that God exists.

The efforts of Thomas Aquinas to solve Aristotle’s open question of the immortality of the soul involved modifying two notable doctrines of Aristotle. The first point, that the soul is the form of the body, argues that the soul and the body form a substantial composite that cannot be split apart or corrupted without destruction coming to the whole. Hence, neither the body nor the soul is self-subsisting, due to the function of each being wholly dependent on the other part for its respective operation. Briefly then, the rational soul that animates the human body, and the sense organs of the human body that supply the rational soul with phantasms, from which operation all intellectual knowledge derives, are co-constitutive. Man, in the last analysis, is human on the condition that he comprises a particular substantial combination of rationality and animality.

It follows from this that decay in the function of the sense organs, or the total demise of the body, erects an insuperable barrier between the operation of the rational soul, and the sense object upon which its operation depends. There is indeed nothing for the rational soul to think without the senses first receiving the phantasm of a sensible object. On two counts, then, it would seem that the soul could not legitimately be a substance by definition; first, by virtue of the material nature of the sense organs, and second, by virtue of the phantasm’s origination in corporeal objects.

Thomas begins to resolve the question of the soul’s apparent mortality by establishing the soul’s subsistence thus:
I answer that, it must necessarily be allowed that the principle of intellectual operation, which we call the soul of man, is a principle both incorporeal and subsistent. For it is clear that by means of the intellect man can know all corporeal things. Now, whatever knows certain things cannot have any of them in its own nature, because that which is in it naturally would impede the knowledge of anything else… Now every body has its own determinate nature. Therefore it is impossible for the intellectual principle to be a body. It is also impossible for it to understand by means of a bodily organ, since the determinate nature of that organ would likewise impede knowledge of all bodies…

A number of important points are asserted here. First, Thomas writes that the substantial composite of the body and soul (the soul being the form of the body) is separable. Second, he asserts that this separation does not impede the action of the intellective operation of the soul. Last, it follows from this that the operation of the bodily senses that the gathering of phantasms is not essentially prior to the operation of the intellectual soul. Following Aristotle, Thomas proceeds to elaborate the separability of the intellectual soul from the body by making a crucial distinction between the operations of the soul that are dependent on the senses, and those operations of the soul in which the corporeal sense organs have no part, such as understanding and willing:

Therefore the intellectual principle, which we call the mind or the intellect [mens vel intellectus], has essentially an operation in which the body does not share. Now only that which subsists in itself can have an operation in itself. For nothing can operate but what is actual, and so a thing operates according as it is… We must conclude, therefore, that the human soul, which is called intellect or mind, is something incorporeal and subsistent.

Sense images are the first principle of the intellectual soul’s knowledge, but the action of the intellectual soul is rendered neither substantial nor mortal according to the mode by which it wills and understands; rather, this is precisely the point by which the intellectual soul is known to be separable and self-subsisting after the death of the body. Thomas likens the per se mode of understanding in the separated soul to a similar mode of understanding found in separate substances. The separated soul, like the separate substance, receives a “more abundant influx” of those objects known only by the pure understanding, and furthermore, Thomas asserts that,

…the more the soul is freed from preoccupation with its body, the more fit does it become for understanding higher things… Consequently, when the soul shall be completely separated from the body, it will be perfectly likened to separate substances in its mode of understanding, and will receive their influx abundantly.

This fragment provides an outline of the intellectual soul in a state of separation from the body; but a disembodied state is not the existence proper to the intellectual soul, defined as such, and Thomas points out that the existence of the intellectual soul neither predates its being united to a body, nor will it subsist apart from the body without end, but it will instead be clothed once more with an imperishable body; and in this is the separated soul wholly distinctive in its mode of being from separate substances.

CHAPTER 7

THE MIND’S SEPARABILITY VERSUS THE SOUL’S IMMORTALITY

Concerning the survival of the incorporeal soul after the dissolution of the body, Aristotle does not give a consistent opinion in De anima, except on the point that the rational soul is “capable of existence [i.e., functioning] in isolation from all other psychic powers [i.e., those faculties of the soul involving such things as nutrition and sensation].” 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. If the human intellectual soul, as the actuality of the human body, possesses operations that are in no way dependent on the body’s operations, then it follows that the intellectual soul is capable of continuing its operation of intellectual apprehension (intelligere corrumpitur) after the dissolution of the body.

In his Summa Contra Gentiles, Thomas arrives at conclusions about the human intellectual soul that are contrary to the views of Aristotle. Thomas iterates Aristotle’s conception of the soul that has no operation apart from the body:

Further, if the soul were something subsistent, it would have some operation apart from the body. But it has no operation apart from the body, not even that of understanding; for the act of understanding does not take place without a phantasm, which cannot exist apart from the body.

Thomas offers two solutions to the problem of how the soul in a state of separation from the body operates. Thomas’ first answer situates the problem in a specifically Christian context: the resurrection of the body and the reuniting of body and soul is a tenet of the orthodox Christian faith, and Thomas was bound to uphold its truth. The second answer, also supporting the resurrection of the body, is found in Thomas’ demonstration:
…the soul is naturally united to the body, for in its essence it is the form of the body. It is then contrary to the nature of the soul to be without the body. But nothing which is contrary to nature can be perpetual. Perpetually, then, the soul will not be without the body. Since, then, it persists perpetually, it must once again be united to the body; and this is to rise again. Therefore, the immortality of souls seems to demand a resurrection of bodies.

Considering that the dubitability of the evidence obtained through the senses calls into question the validity of any proof presupposing the reliability of the senses (such as Thomas’ proofs for the existence of God and the immortality of the soul), Descartes considered finding indisputable proofs for the existence of God and the separability of the soul from the body of particular importance. Descartes maintains that such a posteriori proofs are inconclusive because man’s knowledge of ontological objects is made to depend on the perception of the fallible senses as the first principle of knowledge.
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, 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.”

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. Nor would the soul’s survival or salvation require God’s grace or intervention after the death of the body. Aquinas was particularly aware of the 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 be rendered unnecessary, since the soul would invariably be immortal, and would not need divine support to secure its subsistence.

In the dedicatory epistle to the Sorbonne, Descartes maintains that man’s rational knowledge of the true distinction of the mind and body is an antecedent evident enough to validly deduce the soul’s immortality as a consequent, without any further recourse to the Scriptures or the teaching of the Church. In a letter to Mersenne on December 24, 1640, roughly four months before the Meditations received its finishing touches, Descartes responded to Mersenne’s disappointment at not finding the immortality of the soul demonstrated as promised in the proofs of his Meditations:

You say that I have not said a word about the immortality of the soul. You should not be surprised. I could not prove that God could not annihilate the soul, but only that it is by nature entirely distinct from the body, and consequently it is not bound by nature to die with it. This is all that is required as a foundation for religion, and is all that I had any intention of proving.

As a theological matter, the immortality of the soul is guaranteed by an act of faith in what the divinely revealed Scriptures declare to be true, rather than reason’s discovery that the soul persists after the death of the body. Descartes’ statement that a philosophical demonstration that the operations of the mind are distinct from the mechanical operations of the body does not violate or infringe upon the domain of the soul’s immortality as a religious doctrine held by faith. As the doctrines of the Church command the faithful to believe without rational or visible proof, Descartes’ reproach of Mersenne for his improbable expectation that the Meditations would contain a certain proof “that God could not annihilate the soul” is in accord with the doctrinal mystery of the soul’s immortality.

Philosophically, Descartes justifies the consequent that the soul “is not bound by nature to die” with the body with his demonstration in the Second Meditation of the mind’s separability from the body. Descartes is not ignorant that since the soul’s immortality is a religious question of fundamental doctrinal importance. However, the issue of whether God can or cannot annihilate the soul is ultimately a theological concern that goes beyond what is “required as a foundation for religion.” According to Descartes, a foundation for religion is simply no more than adherence to the tenets and doctrines as established by the Church. In his letter to Mersenne in December 1640, Descartes addresses a charge regarding “to what extent the immortality of the soul can be demonstrated in light of man’s necessarily incomplete knowledge of the infinite will and mind of God”:
…you [Mersenne] go on to say that it does not follow from the fact that the soul is distinct from the body that it is immortal, since it could still be claimed that God gave it such a nature that its duration comes to an end simultaneously with the end of the body’s life. Here I admit that I cannot refute what you say. For I do not take it upon myself to try to use the power of human reason to settle any of those matters which depend on the free will of God.

The consideration given so far to those features of the Cartesian doctrine of the mind’s separability from the body, and the fact that the doctrine was a reaction to Scholasticism, open up the question of whose conception of the separated soul Descartes’ account better corroborates. Aristotle claims in De anima that mind is separable from the body, but what status it holds after the death of the body is ambiguous. Thomas deduces the immortality of the soul from the fact that it is separable from the body. The answer to this question does not lie in the novelty of the idea of the soul’s separability from the body, for this idea is common to Aristotle, Aquinas and Descartes. The answer lies in Descartes’ hesitancy to attach to his doctrine of the mind’s separability from the body the immortality of the soul as a necessary or a logical consequent.

Even though Descartes’ account of the soul in the Meditations agrees with Aquinas’ account of the soul on the point that the Church’s dogma of the immortality of the soul established a necessary starting point for both philosophers, the vision of the human soul in the Meditations is a secularized one, stripped of its sacred origins and theological definition. Under Descartes’ considerations, the beatitude of the soul is not a necessary consequence of its separability from the body any more than that the soul be the individuating or animating principle of any specific kind of body. The rational mind could just as easily be housed in the body of an ass, as in Apuleius’ Metamorphoses.
Descartes’ proof for the separability of the mind from the body contains a nominalistic tendency wholly lacking in Thomas’ account of the separated soul. In the Synopsis of the Meditations, Descartes maintains that “the premises that lead to the conclusion that the soul is immortal depend on an account of the whole of physics,” which, in Aristotle’s and Thomas’ minds, includes final causes. In the Fourth Meditation, Descartes states,

For since I know that my own nature is very weak and limited, whereas the nature of God is immense, incomprehensible and infinite, I also know without more ado that he is capable of countless things whose causes are beyond my knowledge. And for this reason alone I consider the customary search for final causes to be totally useless in physics; there is considerable rashness in thinking myself capable of investigating the [impenetrable] purposes of God.

If we read the fragment from the Synopsis into the passage from the Fourth Meditation, it becomes apparent why a demonstration of the immortality of the soul is impossible. The nature of such a demonstration would mean answering the question of why the soul is not by nature bound to die with the body, which would be the same as grasping the final cause, or end, of the soul separated from the body.

In the Second Meditation, the soul’s separability from the body is accounted for from within the order of essential causality in a way strikingly similar to the means by which the meditator in the Third Meditation proves the existence of God from the essential order of causation. This in turn accounts for the reason why the meditator is able to “perceive that likeness, which includes the idea of God, by the same faculty which enables me to perceive myself.” Descartes pays no mind to the reasons for why the soul is separable from the body, only the means of how it is, or can be known to be separable, which he demonstrates in the Second Meditation with the example of the wax. In his thought experiment, the essential nature of the wax is perceived by detaching the mind from the senses (abducere mentem ad sensibus), and the experiment concludes with the doctrine that the mind alone inspects (sed solius mentis inspectio) the essential nature of objects as ideas.

However, there is no account in the Meditations of the final cause of the mind separated from the body. Descartes gives his reason: “I have tried not to put down anything which I could not precisely demonstrate.” The ideas innate in the mind are secondary to God, who is the first cause in the order of causes. Descartes characterizes all ideas as secondary causes throughout the Meditations. The case with Descartes’ proposition that the investigation of final causes in physics is useless covers the same ground as the inscrutable futures of Thomas’ separated soul. To give an account of final causes in physics would be probing into the infinite and incomprehensible nature of God. If man is incapable of accomplishing that, then his knowledge of how the soul will subsist in a future state can be illuminated no further.

Descartes regarded the defense of the dogma of the immortal soul of man as a theological responsibility more than a philosophical one. That the soul of man is imperishable is a teaching and dogma of the Church known by the light of Scriptural revelation, and held to be true by the light of faith alone. Descartes’ demonstrative proof in the Second Meditation that the soul “is not bound by nature to die” with the body can never amount to an indubitable guarantee that the soul is not bound by nature to die with the body. The rational soul is not necessarily immortal, but it is, as Descartes demonstrates, separable. Considered independent of its Scriptural and theological underpinnings, the doctrine of the separabilty of the mind from the body is a doctrine no more specifically Christian than the proof for the existence of God as an innate idea in the mind in the Third Meditation is the same God as that of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

When confronted with the theological implications of his philosophic doctrines, Descartes expressed little more than diffidence towards spinning out the theological implications of the philosophic doctrines established in his Meditations. He was aware that he would have show how the principles of his philosophy could either establish that the truths of faith and the truths of reason are not mutually contradictory, or that his philosophy lends explanatory support to the type of theological issues “where it is notoriously difficult to reconcile philosophy to theology,” such as the doctrine of transubstantiation in the Eucharist. As a theological matter, the immortality of the soul is not guaranteed by the powers of reason’s discovery that the soul persists after the death of the body. The doctrine of the immortality of the soul is, properly speaking, an act of faith in what the divinely revealed Scriptures declare to be true. Descartes’ statement that a philosophical demonstration of the fact that the operations of the mind are distinct from the mechanical operations of the body does not violate or infringe upon the domain of the soul’s immortality as a religious doctrine held by faith. As the doctrines of the Church command the faithful to believe without rational or visible proof, Descartes reproach of Mersenne for his improbable expectation that the Meditations would contain a certain proof “that God could not annihilate the soul” is in accord with the doctrinal mystery of the soul’s immortality.

Philosophically, Descartes justifies the consequent that the soul “is not bound by nature to die” with the body with his demonstration in the Second Meditation of the mind’s separability from the body, reminding Mersenne that since the soul’s immortality is a religious question of foundational importance doctrinally. For Descartes, however, the issue of whether God can or can not annihilate the soul was ultimately a theological concern that goes beyond what is “required as a foundation for religion,” which is simply no more than adherence to the tenets and doctrines as established by the Church.
The Church’s doctrine of the soul’s immortality, as derived from the teaching of Thomas, underwent a radical transformation in the Cartesian synthesis of the Scholastic doctrine of the immortality of the soul with the epistemic critique of knowledge. In the Synopsis of the Meditations, Descartes asks his readers not to mistake his proof for the mind’s separability from the body as a demonstration of premises that he does not endeavor to prove. These premises are those “which lead to the conclusion that the soul is immortal,” and which depend for their validity on “an account of the whole of physics,” or, in other words, the clear knowledge “that absolutely all substances, or things which must be created by God in order to exist, are by their nature incorruptible and cannot ever cease to exist unless they are reduced to nothingness by God’s denying his concurrence to them.”

Descartes aimed to give an account of the whole of physics, and thereby establish the immutability of the laws governing the universe. However, in order to accomplish this, Descartes needed to prove, as he endeavors to do in the Meditations, that God, while not bound to abide by the laws that He has instantiated in creation, is not a deceiver, and therefore will not alter or change laws He has established. The clarity and distinctness of the mind’s perceptions of its own ideas is the benchmark for determining that not only does God exist, but also that the mind is separable from the body. Recalling Descartes’ letter to Mersenne in December 24, 1640, we can conclude that what is at stake in an irrefutable proof of the soul’s immortality is whether the soul is by nature immortal, and without any need for God to lend His concurrence for it to survive, or whether the soul does require God’s intervention to survive. Descartes concedes that the survival of the soul after the death of the body presents too large a task for philosophy to accomplish:

I could not prove that God could not annihilate the soul, but only that it is by nature entirely distinct from the body, and consequently it is not bound by nature to die with it.

CHAPTER 8

DESCARTES’ MIND AND THOMAS’ SEPARATE SUBSTANCES

Descartes’ doctrine of the mind’s innate knowledge of essences states that the mind or understanding knows or inspects those ideas that are innate within it. Accordingly, once the soul is separated from the body, its mode of understanding is not mediated or impeded by anything external to it. On the contrary, according to Thomas, the intellectual soul depends on intelligibles taken from sensible things in order to activate the understanding, or possible intellect. However, when in a state of separation from the body, the soul

will understand through itself, in the manner of substances which in their being are totally separate from bodies… And from those substances… the separated soul will be able to receive a more abundant influx, productive of a more perfect understanding on its own part.

Since Aristotle did not consider the rational soul to be a substance in its own right, it was a necessary precondition of Thomas’ ontology to demonstrate that the soul is a substance. Thomas accepted Aristotle’s doctrine of the soul as the form of the body, as well as his doctrine that the body and soul are united in a substantial union; the question that remained for Thomas was, how is it possible to divide an indivisible substantial union without corruption coming to the whole? Thomas’ answer was this: while the body is itself divisible, being a composite of matter and form with many accidental parts and qualities, the intellectual substance, which is not composed of matter and form, is indivisible since “all corruption occurs through the separation of form from matter.” When the intellectual soul is separated from the body, its substantial character, its per se unity, persists in the same respect that “roundness is in a circle through itself, but is by accident in a coin; so that the existence of a non-round coin is possible; whereas it is impossible for a circle not to be round.”

In Thomas’ Summa Contra Gentiles, the discussion of separate substances (angels) comes right after his considerations concerning the union of the human body to the intellective, or rational soul. Thomas’ discussion of separate substances treats the question of whether a form can exist apart from matter; and if so, what sort of nature that form would have:

That which is by itself [per se] must be prior, in the order of being, to that which is by accident [per accidens]; incorporeal intellectual substances [or separate substances] exist per se, while material being exists per accidens; there must exist intellectual substances, prior in nature to souls, which, by virtue of the nature of their being, enjoy a higher substantial form without participation in a lower material nature.

A comparison of Descartes’ rational soul to Thomas’ separate substances can be made under the following points. First, Descartes’ rational soul differs in the order of existence from Thomas’ separate substance in the respective degrees of perfection accorded them by their Creator. The rational mind of man is the highest grade of intelligence accorded to the sphere of corporeal nature. The intellect of separate substances is more perfect than man’s intellect, yet they are less perfect than the intellect of God in the sphere of intellectual nature. In the case of man, angels, and God, the difference in intellect is one of quantity as measured by infinity. Man’s rational mind is to an angel’s as a finite nature is to an infinite nature; and the intellect of angels is distinct from the intellect of God, again, magnified by an infinity. Hence, intellect in the order of existence can be measured on a scalar magnitude of perfection, from highest to lowest.

The second point of comparison of Descartes’ rational soul to Thomas’ separate substances comes from Descartes’ hypothetical consideration of an angel joined to a human body. Writing to Regius, Descartes states that, “if an angel were in a human body, he would not have sensations as we do…” The reason that an angel in a human body would no have sensation is because of the distinction between the rational soul and Thomas’ separate substance, namely, the respective mode of understanding that each enjoys, but does not share with the other. The nature of the act of understanding in rational soul and separate substance can be distinguished in terms of their respective objects. Separate substances apprehend intellectual things because they are intellectual natures; they do not uncover the intelligible buried in the sensible by means of abstraction, which is the mode of the rational soul inhering in a material nature. The respective mode of understanding of the rational soul and the separate substance is marked by the difference between discursive reasoning and a priori reasoning. An intellectual nature does not acquire a sensitive soul merely by means of accident, and vice versa. Sensation in the human body is a necessary component for the rational soul’s mode of understanding, because sensation is the means of the rational soul’s acquiring its object, viz., intelligibles, by means of phantasms. Accidental properties inhering in matter individuate things, and the task of the rational soul is to abstract from material particulars in order to make them intelligible to itself. The perception of a plenary of distinct objects does not amount to categorical knowledge; that is to say, knowledge of universals. Thus, sense perception is the first principle of human understanding, and via a series of channels, we come to knowledge of things per se, or free of matter. The mode of understanding for angels, on the other hand, is not discursive or subject to the vicissitudes of corporeal organs, but rather a perception of intelligibles per se. Thomas states that angels know material things, and further, that they know particular material things. But this scale of intellective competence is not vertical; rather it is descending. The higher species (i.e., a specific kind of intellectual nature) must contain in some way, and to a greater degree of perfection, what is contained in the lower (e.g., a form in material nature). Whatever exists in material substance in a material way is present to intellectual substance in an intelligible way. Accordingly, angels, and God for that matter, do not require corporeal sense organs in order to know particular material things. Because there is no principle in nature that unites an intellective nature whose mode of understanding is pure to an intellective nature whose mode of understanding depends on bodily senses, it is unnecessary, as it is impossible for an angel to dwell in a body.
Thomas’ rational soul in a state of separation from the human body does not make a good parallel to the embodied/disembodied Cartesian mind for the following two reasons. First, God must preserve the separated soul after the death of the body. Without Divine support to conserve it, the separate soul has no more way of existing than members of either the vegetative or the nutritive category of soul. Second, Thomas’ separated souls require “an influx of divine species” to understand. In other words, to know anything at all, separated souls require images that come from something besides material objects of perception. God must both conserve and feed images to the human mind after the death of the body. Consider Thomas’ own comparisons of separated souls to separate substances:
To exist apart from bodies is an accidental competence on the part of souls, since they are naturally the form of bodies — this indicates that intellectual substance is neither equivalent to the rational soul of man, since it does not inhere in any material form, nor, on the contrary, do souls, after the body dies, qualify as substance occupying a corresponding division of existence to that of intellectual substances.

The characteristic act of intellectual substances is the act of understanding; we can specify the nature of this act from its object: things can be grasped by the intellect insofar as they are free from matter. Separate substances apprehend intellectual things because they are intellectual natures; they do not uncover the intelligible buried in the sensible by means of abstraction.

Concerning the origin of the Cartesian mind, Thomas’ separated souls bear a certain likeness to Descartes’ concept of mind, but fail to explain many characteristic features of the Cartesian mind, such as the fact that the rational mind does not require external objects of perception to know anything. The noetic contents of the Cartesian mind are not activated by external objects of perception. The Cartesian mind understands all concepts per se, without mediation, and it does not cease to understand when in either a temporary or a permanent state of separation from the body.

We have shown that Descartes’ rational mind is comparable to something like Aristotle’s rational soul turned inside out. To find a likely source for the origin of the Cartesian mind, another source closely allied to Aristotle’s rational mind must be considered— Thomas’ separate substances (otherwise known as angels ). The superior correspondence of Thomas’ separate substances to Descartes concept of mind can be seen in Thomas’ contrast between the separated soul and the separate substance’s respective mode of understanding:

The operation of understanding exercised through a corporeal organ is an imperfect means by which to understand. The substance of a thing must be commensurate to its operation, and understanding is the only proper operation of an intellectual substance… intellectual substances have no need of a body to apprehend their object [i.e., insofar as intelligibles are taken from material things, the faculty of understanding is imperfect, as is the case with the rational soul]. The proper objects of intellectual substance are things that in their very nature are intelligible, or things that are intelligible in themselves. In contrast, objects grasped by rational souls are things known by the intellect through the intermediary means of phantasms [i.e., images of objects of sense perception] received through sense organs. So, things in this way are not known through themselves, but through abstraction [i.e., conceptually].

Accordingly, Thomas himself argues that his separate substances are not equivalent to Aristotle’s rational soul. Separate substances are not formed of a compound of soul and body, while the rational soul, as Aristotle defines it, is always the form of the human body. Thomas’ separate substances bear a far greater likeness to the Cartesian mind in the respect that separate substances understand all essences directly (thus, they know material things and singulars as well ), and they understand without Divine mediation. From here we can draw the further parallel of the Cartesian mind to the Divine mind.

CHAPTER NINE

THE CORRESPONDENCE OF THE MIND OF GOD AND THE RATIONAL MIND IN THE MEDITATIONS

In order to build a case in his letter to the Sorbonne for the proof for the existence of God he gives in the Third Meditation, Descartes draws on Biblical citations that assert man’s knowledge of the existence of God to be “manifest.” Indeed, Descartes’ proof for the separabilty 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 in the Third Meditation. Descartes’ substitution of the Scholastic term “soul” with the term “mind” is present in the Sorbonne letter, and so too is his doctrine of innate ideas: “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.”

Descartes’ curious phrase, “no other source than our own mind,” introduces a subtle shift in his argument to the Sorbonne Dean and Doctors. Man’s empirical knowledge of the existence of God, according to Thomas and his 17th century adherents at the Sorbonne, is derived from God’s sensible effects throughout His creation. Under the idealist auspices of the Cartesian method, Thomas’ empiricism is abrogated to the realm of a fiction of the mind. According to Descartes, the mind’s knowledge of God’s existence is not discursive. According to Descartes, the Aristotelian/Thomistic claim that the mind’s knowledge of the existence of God can be derived from His sensible effects is 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 the objects of sense perception undermines the validity of knowledge derived from the material world. 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. Famously, Descartes does precisely this in his Mediations. Yet what was taken as evidence of Descartes’ atheist-skepticism by his critics was in reality Descartes’ rejection of Aristotle and Thomas’ rational soul that understands itself though the senses in favor of the understanding of the undiluted rational mind. The question of how good a Catholic was Descartes becomes clear when it is realized that the answer has nothing to do with religion, and everything to do with competition between schools of thought. Competition between the Aristotelian and Platonist/neo-Platonist schools of thought was extremely wide-ranging in the 17th century. The Church’s shadow over intellectual life has been equally over-exaggerated by both commentators and historians of philosophy. In 1641, Descartes celebrated the birth of his mechanical man animated by William Harvey’s discovery of the heart that pumps blood. Such a conception of man represented a triumph over Aristotle’s rational soul animated by the fantasy of phantasia, not a victory over the claims of man’s revealed religion.

Of the three types of intellect treated in Descartes’ writings (Divine, angelic, and human), it is the Divine mind that most closely parallels the ego of the Meditations. Like the Divine mind, the Cartesian mind requires no medium, sensory or otherwise, to be activated. The ego, like the Divine mind, knows its essence directly. As opposed to the Aristotelian soul, the ego has no need of sensory or bodily organs to transmit images to the agent or passive intellect. Nor does the Cartesian ego require universal forms, as do Thomas’ angelic minds. Because no image is necessary to activate the Cartesian ego, it “does not ‘traverse,’ as do Thomas’ separate substances, the ontological distance from potentiality to actuality.” Nor is the Cartesian mind divided into the agent intellect and potential intellect. The Cartesian mind is always actual in the same way the Divine mind is, but in a finite, as opposed to an infinite sense. The ego is always, first and foremost, an act or intuition of existence, and is in act prior to any conscious mental act. The Cartesian mind, unlike the Aristotelian God that is thought thinking itself, is actualized before it thinks itself. One might ask what thought thinking itself was before it thought of itself. Finally, the Cartesian mind does not require a body (and therefore the external world) to be.

The nature of the ideas innate in the Cartesian mind (God, the ego, wax) are all encompassing, in the sense that the mind has an idea of all essences. In other words, the mind does not require the particulars of sense perception to grasp universal concepts. Logic, for instance, is not based on the particulars of sense, but on concepts reducible to mathematical or physical principles and properties. Cartesian man’s act of being— thinking— is not a bodily act. The self, or the mind, is not individuated by matter, whereas material objects are. The Cartesian mind knows the same universals as the Divine mind, but the difference is that the Cartesian mind is embodied, and thus subject to error:

..so long as I think only of God, and turn my whole attention to him, I can find no cause of error or falsity. But when I turn back to myself, I know by experience that I am prone to countless errors.

In terms of further limitation, the mind is created by God, as Descartes states in the Third Mediation; Cartesian man’s act of being is not an act of self-creation, but an intuition of the self and an understanding of the essential nature of all things (e.g., Descartes’ experiment with the wax in the Second Mediation). In this respect, Descartes’ proof for the existence of God from the principle of causality in the Third Meditation is the only way of measuring the powers of rationality and the contents of the mind that has a rational understanding of all things.
The approximate identity of the Cartesian mind with the Divine mind is further underscored by Descartes’ emphasis on the ease with which the existence of God is “thinkable.” To discover the existence of God, Descartes substitutes the chain of causes in the sensible order for 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 contradicts 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. Thomas argues that 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.”

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. Descartes argues that the rational mind possesses the idea of an infinite being; the rational mind is finite, hence the finite mind’s idea of an infinite being must have a source outside of itself. Because a finite mind cannot generate the idea of an infinite being, it stands to reason that God put the idea of Himself in the rational mind. There is no other means, Descartes argues, by which a finite mind could be in possession of the idea of an infinite being. 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.

The proposition 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 (the understanding), what is predicated of God (infinity and perfection) is also predicated of the mind, but to a diminished degree of perfection. The intuitive assertion of the “cogito” is ego cogito, ego sum; je pense donc je suis; I think, therefore I am. The parallel of Descartes’ philosophical doctrine to God’s answer to Moses on Mount Sinai was probably not lost on him. After all, the title of his Le Monde de M. Descartes ou le traité de la lumière, too, was intended as a reference to the command of God Himself, on the first day of the world, “Let there be light!”

In the final analysis, the Cartesian mind is not identical to the Divine mind, but bears a similarity to it in the same respect that the mind’s idea of extension only bears a similarity to extended things. An analogous parallel can be found in the cognitive lacuna that divides Thomas’ Divine mind from his separate substances, the angels. We can formulate a tripartite ontological lacuna in Descartes’ distinction of the thinking thing as such, and extended things as such; second, his distinction between the mind’s ideas of extended things, and extended things as such; and third, his account of the mind’s idea of God, and God as such.

The rational mind is, as Descartes phrases it after Augustine, caught between “being and nothingness.” The lacuna between the mind’s ideas of essences and material objects existing in time and space is the same ontological lacuna that obtains between being and non-being. What commentators term the “similarity thesis” refers to the objects of sense experience bearing a similarity to the mind’s ideas of objects of perception; the two are not identical, and therefore not dependent on one another for their respective operations. The body is a mechanism that functions on the circulation of blood, performing all of the same movements even if there is no mind in it. Hence, the lacuna between the rational mind and the body-machine is identical to the lack of correspondence between being and non-being as such.

Like Thomas’ separate substances, the Cartesian mind is caused by the Divine mind, and reflects the Divine mind in an imperfect, finite way. The difference between the modes of being enjoyed by God, who possesses both an infinite will and mind, and the limited faculties and powers enjoyed by man is such that “no essence can belong univocally to both God and his creatures.” What can be predicated essentially of man depends, according to Descartes, on the rational clarity by which the truth is perceived by the mind. “No actions,” Descartes claims, “can be reckoned human unless they depend on reason.”

The distinction again applies in the case of the ontological lacuna between the rational mind and the Divine mind. What is predicated of the rational mind, such as the mind’s knowledge of the truth or falsity of ideas, cannot likewise be predicated of the Divine nature. The mind and will of God is free in the absolute sense, and beyond truth and falsity. Thus, the limitless will and power of God enjoys an indifference to the created and uncreated as such. God, considered as an infinite, perfect substance, determines the order of things to be such for no other reason than that He wills it to be so. In the Sixth Set of Replies Descartes states, “the way in which it [viz., the freedom of the will] exists in God is quite different from the way in which it exists in us.” Descartes’ admission that he could not demonstrate that God could not annihilate the soul stems from his conception of the absolute freedom of an infinite God.

God’s freedom derives from His absolute indifference, or in Descartes’ words, “it is impossible to imagine that anything is thought of in the divine intellect as good or true… prior to the decision of the divine will to make it so…there is no “priority of order, or nature, or… rationally determined reason [that] impelled him to choose one thing rather than another.” Lastly, the rational mind is distinguished from the Divine mind in the respect that the rational mind perceives concepts that are immutably true, while the Divine mind, the infinite, perfect, incomprehensible originator of all is omni potens, and above rationality. Rationality is by definition a property of finite creatures that observe rules and operate according to mechanistic laws. God’s essence, according to Descartes, is not identical to the universal laws of mechanics; God’s essence consists of a will of “inexhaustible power,” hence the “cause or reason why he requires no cause.”

WORKS CITED

Aquinas, Thomas, St. 1956. Translated from Latin and edited by James F. Anderson.

On the Truth of the Catholic Faith: Summa Contra Gentiles, 4 vols. (Image
Books, Garden City, New York).

Aristotle, 1956. Richard McKeon (ed). The Basic Works of Aristotle (Random
House, New York).

Boehner, Philotheus, O.F.M. 1990. William Ockham: Philosophical Writings: A
Selection, translated and edited by P. Boehner, O.F.M. (Hackett Publishing
Company, Indianapolis/Cambridge).

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

Descartes, Rene, 1964-71, Œuvres. Ed. by Charles Adam and Paul Tannery. New
edition 12 vols. (Librairie Philosophique J. Vrin, Paris, 1996).

—. 1984. The Philosophical Writings of Descartes. Translated by John Cottingham,
Robert Stoothoff, Dugald Mardoch, and Anthony Kenny. 3 vols. (Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press).

Fowler, C.F., 1999. 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).

Marion, Jean-Luc, 1986. “The Essential Incoherence of Descartes’ Definition of
Divinity, trans. by Frederick P. Van de Pitte, in Essays on Descartes Meditations,
ed. by Amelie Oksenberg Rorty (University of California Press, Berkley).

Popkin, Richard, 2003 (revised and expanded edition). The History of Skepticism:
From Savonarola to Bayle (Oxford University Press, New York, New York).

 

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

Picture 580

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.

Book Review of The Waning of the Middle Ages by J. Huizinga, The Civilization of the Renaissance In Italy by Jacob Burckhardt & The Individual and the Cosmos in Renaissance Philosophy by Ernst Cassirer

7-Farren_Duria Antiquior

In The Waning of the Middle Ages, Huizinga several times contrasts the democratic ideal of work– which he views as the ideal of modernity– to the aristocratic “true culture” of the Middle Ages. The reason for this contrast lies in the modern era’s conforming “of life to an ideal standard,” and not vice versa, which condition Huizinga views as a privation of culture. Man in the Middle Ages, by contrast, constructed his culture in accord with his conduct, customs, manners, costume, &c., and did not force himself to conform to an ideal, like the Modern ideal of the worker, but adapted and tailored the ideal to his singular and many-sided nature, or fancy. The comparison Huizinga makes between modern and Medieval times, usually to the disparagement of the former, underscores his thesis that it is the “overripeness” of Medieval culture that reveals it as an “epoch of fading and decay” — the adjective “overripe” indicating, in Huizinga’s analysis, the Medieval world’s highly mannered and overwrought use of symbol which, as he establishes through a wealth of examples, is effectively deployed throughout all religious and poetical forms of expression of the time. Thus, the features Huizinga assigns to the Middle Ages of self-containment and a perfection of attitude and expression in regard to all things, marks Medieval culture at the beginning of the 15th century as a culture at its limits, and one to be inevitably overtaken by Burckhardt’s “universal men” of the Renaissance, who are to melancholy Medieval man “as is the aspray to the fish, who takes it by sovereignty of nature.”1

The contrast made between the modern era and the Middle Ages is important to how Huizinga interprets aristocratic and feudal culture in Medieval France:

From the Thirteenth Century onward inveterate party quarrels arise in nearly all countries: first in Italy, then in France… Though economic interest may sometimes have been at the bottom of these quarrels, the attempts which have been made to disengage them often smack somewhat of arbitrary construction. The desire to discover economic causes is to some degree a craze with us, and sometimes leads us to forget a much simpler psychological explanation of the facts.2

With this claim, Huizinga disengages himself from the Marxist reorientation of history along economic and materialist lines. Ever since Marx reduced the driving force of social and political alterations to material and economic causes, and resolved the contemplative aim of traditional philosophy into the service of history, the tendency to interpret history on Marx’s terms is ever-present, since the materialist project is not comprised of mere fact-finding, but the criticism of history itself, which, as Marx, echoing Feuerbach, writes, “disillusions man so that he will think, act, and fashion his reality as a man who has lost his illusions… so that he will revolve about himself as his own true sun.”3

Huizinga situates the complex symbolism, aesthetic, and formalized chivalric conventions saturating the age at the center of the Medieval experience and does not seek out economic explanations regarding how Medieval culture came to be consumed by its own heavy opulence. If the development of such complex forms is not reducible to active economic causes, interpretive psychological explanations have more to offer in the face of the overwhelmingly foreign landscape of the Middle Ages, and this is the territory where Huizinga makes his case.

In spite of any economic conditions that may have prevailed at the time, the Medieval conception of chivalry is understood by Huizinga to be the manner by which Medieval nobles related to the servant class. This relationship was comprised of “the innate and immediate sentiments of fidelity and fellowship,” which is “a feudal sentiment at bottom.”4 Such a form of attachment is unthinkable six centuries later. Beyond any outward bond of sentiment between men from otherwise discrete social orders, the unequal relationship of men was put on momentarily equal footing, as Huizinga notes, by the omnipresent memento mori, which served as a potent reminder of human mutability, everywhere visible in a culture that freely amalgamated pessimism, subliminity, and despair. Many years later, in 1538, Hans Holbein the Younger, in woodcuts done for a German edition of the Dance of Death, was still making use of thoroughly Medieval motifs to demonstrate the same point about the transient nature of human life, regardless of social standing. In the Middle Ages, not only posthumous odds and ends, but poets as well, admonished the constituents of the nobility to attain to that curiously Medieval conception of equality, whose formulation is expressed in the Medieval conception of chivalry:

[T]he reason of these poetical admonitions on the subject of true nobility and human equality generally lies in the stimulus they impart to the nobles to adapt themselves to the true ideal of knighthood, and thereby to support and purify the world.5

Clearly the impetus for action is not found in the counting house, but, as Huizinga phrases it, in the “value of chivalrous ideas.” He notes that the nobility, the men who made the history of the Middle Ages, “were no romantic dreamers, but dealt in solid facts.” Chivalrous ideas represented far more than a mere “ornament of society,” having little practical efficacy or permanent value; chivalry in fact represented the highest and most complete formulation of social values to be found in the age.

Men in the Middle Ages also looked to Antiquity for models of virtuous conduct and political theory. Huizinga rejects Burckhardt’s claim (in The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy) that the Renaissance alone was the period when the rediscovery of Antiquity occurred. Huizinga situates his conception of history against Burckhardt’s by pointing out that Burckhardt insists on too sharp of a distinction between the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, and furthermore, that

The Middle Ages had always lived in the shadow of Antiquity, always handled its treasures, or what they had of them, interpreting it according to truly Medieval principles: Scholastic Theology, chivalry, asceticism, and courtesy. Now, by an inward ripening, the mind, after having been so long conversant with the forms of Antiquity, began to grasp its spirit… Europe, after having lived in the shadow of Antiquity, lived in its sunshine once more.6

The psychological interpretation of how the shift from what we call the Middle Ages to what we call the Renaissance occurred is worth noting, since this is the sort of explanation Huizinga favors. Rather than a sudden revival of cultural and literary forms long forgotten, which is part and parcel of the account one finds in Burckhardt, Huizinga points out that the differences between the Middle Ages and the Renaissance are not driven by the “classic expression and imagery” of Antiquity, as though it existed in one age and not the other, but that “the soul of Western Christendom itself was outgrowing Medieval forms and modes of thought that had become shackles.”

Burckhardt distills his understanding of the many figures and events that shaped the Renaissance from a distinction between theoretical activity and practical activity, i.e., a material understanding of the Renaissance as opposed to a psychological or philosophical one. Huizinga interprets the Middle Ages with an eye towards the soul, or spirit of the times, but he does not give a place to a discussion of speculative philosophy or theoretical activity in his account; yet one has the impression that the philosophical activity of the age underlies the psychological current of Huizinga’s account. Burckhardt is more explicit in the omission of philosophy from his account of the Renaissance, and places the narrative accent squarely on the practical, ethical, and religious life of men in the Renaissance as the mitigating factors of social construction and principles of individuation. This focus allows him to regard the speculative philosophy of the Renaissance as counting for very little — a move that Cassirer, in The Individual and the Cosmos in Renaissance Philosophy, takes him directly to task on. The many developments in the twin spheres of political and religious life in the Renaissance Burckhardt calls “the chief reason for the early development of the Italian,” which species of human for Burckhardt is synonymous with “the individual.” Through the transitions and evolution of the Italian State, the modern individual, as we now have him, was being shaped. Prior to the Renaissance, and especially in the feudal Middle Ages, man’s orientation towards himself was, as Burckhardt informs us, almost non-existent: “Man was conscious of himself only as a member of a race, people, party, family, or corporation — only through some general category.”7 How the individual was born and nurtured in Italy is Burckhardt’s main concern throughout The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy. He traces this process, first, through the early forms of the Italian State in the latter 15th century, which in its despotic form, foisted upon both the tyrant and his protectors “the highest degree of individuality” — some men became true individuals out of necessity. Only later, under the ideal conditions of the Italian Republic, was this new sense of the self channeled into the “rediscovery” of Antiquity, and ultimately, it was the monuments and intellectual luminosity of the Ancients that led to the redefinition in the period of the Renaissance of what it means to be human.

The advent of the Italian Republic is what Burckhardt credits with the rediscovery of Antiquity in the form of the arts, the Classics, the Greek and Latin languages, Classical philology, &c. The Church, ostensibly sovereign over all of men’s activities in the Middle Ages, is suddenly subordinated to the new influence of the Ancients on men’s activities and minds, thereby allowing the Italian Humanists to become influential “because they knew what the Ancients knew, because they tried to write as the Ancients wrote, because they began to think, and soon to feel, as the Ancients thought and felt.”8 Such an image gives the impression that the Italians of the 16th century were only distinguished from the Ancients by their mode of dress, and perhaps a few other contingencies of culture. Such an account is doubtful, as it was a palpable habit of historians and critics of the 19th century to associate and align their sentiments perhaps too vehemently with the objects and figures of the past, and effectively reinvent what chance and fortune had handed down as the remains of eclipsed civilizations. It is paradoxical that the men of the Middle Ages, who are closer in time to the Ancients then the men of the Renaissance, are often supposed to have possessed less of their forbearer’s spirit and learning than those men who took up the task of understanding and assimilating the wisdom of the Ancients at an even later point in time. It may be that the spin put on the interpretation of Antiquity, first by the Humanists in the Renaissance, and then by historical revisionists of the 19th century, is simply more compelling for us because of temporal proximity, and nothing more — men of the Renaissance are more like us than the men of the Middle Ages; and surely the Ancients must be to us the most shadowy and foreign of all. In any event, Huizinga’s suggestion that psychological explanations might provide us with a simpler account of the facts than materialist doctrines or historical sentiment might prove to be true. The Italians Burckhardt assigns the most elevated passions to, i.e., a more genuine experience of Antiquity than was accessible or necessary for the men of the Middle Ages, is due to the Italian’s “measureless devotion to Antiquity” — which statement can be re-read as the continued reinterpretation and assimilation of the treasures of Antiquity into the 16th century Italian’s own collective life and culture.

Refreshingly opposed to the one-sided worship of Classical Antiquity is the figure of Pico Della Mirandola, to whom Burckhardt only devotes no more than a few paragraphs. He deftly sketches a portrait of “the only man who loudly and vigorously defended the truth and science of all ages’9against the measureless devotion to Antiquity common at the time. This is one of the few instances where Burckhardt appears to give an assessment of Renaissance philosophy. He maintains that the grand possibilities of Pico’s reconciliatory attitude to philosophic, scientific, and religious differences was thwarted by the advent of the Counter-Reformation: “Looking at Pico, we can only guess at the lofty flight Italian philosophy would have taken had not the Counter-Reformation annihilated the higher spiritual life of the people.”10 Cassirer could not disagree more with the claim that philosophy foundered in the 16th century, and focuses his investigation squarely on the theoretic and philosophical works of the Renaissance to prove the opposite point. Cassirer’s move is a radical departure from the thesis of Burckhardt, which punctuates the practical activity of man in the Renaissance, or the material forces that shaped events and encompassed “the spirit of the age,” as opposed to theoretical activity, which Burckhardt does not view as having played a significant role, and thus considers an outdated continuation of Scholasticism.11

Cassirer understands the general shift in worldview that took place in the Renaissance in a fashion similar to Burckhardt. For both writers, the Renaissance was a time in which the gradual process of individuation became the project of all the forces of production, and this problematization of the individual is traceable within the applied practices of the artists, humanist thinkers, and the early despotic regimes, culminating in the Italian republics of Florence and Venice. Yet Cassirer goes much further than Burckhardt in the scope of his analysis of Renaissance thought — intellectual activity being the first distinctive feature of individuation amongst men — and appropriately reconfigures the break established by Burckhardt between theory and practice by reviving Hegel’s teleological demand that the diverse philosophic activity of an age must of necessity be gathered within a single “simple focal point.”12 The leading representitive of this philosophical convergence, for Cassirer, is the Italian Nicholas Cusanus, whose philosophy contains “the full consciousness and spiritual essence”13 of his age, according to Cassirer. Cusanus fulfills, as well, another theoretical premise of Cassirer’s, viz., the

history of philosophy… can only make responsible generalizations by immersing itself in the most concrete particulars and in the most subtle nuances of historical detail. What is needed is the universality of a systematic point of view and… orientation.14

Cassirer expends a great deal of energy in setting out in detail the neglected philosophic system of Cusanus, whose thought, at more than one point, seems to anticipate the Copernican Revolution of Kant. A probable parallel between the two thinkers is not lost on Cassirer, although he himself only alludes to no more than a contiguous, possibly accidental connection between the thought of the two men. Cassirer’s precondition that the scholar’s universal, systematic point of view “in no way coincides with the universality of merely empirical concepts”15 has something of a Kantian transcendental ring to it, and it is probably no accident that Cassirer discusses at length the subject/object problem in the Renaissance and how both ultimate and scientific/artistic objectivity is explored in the Neo-Platonic mysticism of Ficino, and Leonardo Da Vinci’s “necessity of nature,” where, “[r]eflection on human freedom, on man’s original, creative force, requires as it compliment and its confirmation the concept of the immanent ‘necessity’ of the natural object.”16

The explication Cassirer undertakes of the thought of Leonardo is one of the most rewarding portions of the book; whereas much obscure drivel has been published and pandered on the life and work of Leonardo, Cassirer succeeds in setting at a diaphanous distance the most significant aspects of Leonardo’s contribution to Renaissance philosophy:

Leonardo’s vision of nature proved to be a methodologically necessary transition point, for it was artistic ‘vision’ which first championed the right of scientific abstraction and paved the way for it. The ‘exact fantasy’ of Leonardo the artist has nothing to do with that chaotic surging and billowing of subjective feeling which threatens to coalesce all forms into an undifferentiated whole.17

In examining “the complete parallel” between the theory of art and the theory of science in the Renaissance, Cassirer manages to put into words the thought that must have crossed the mind of anyone who has explored the comprehensive attitude of the men of that time, to the effect that the parallel between the theory of art and the theory of science

reveals to us one of the most profound motifs in the entire intellectual movement of the Renaissance. One might say that nearly all the great achievements of the Renaissance are gathered here as in a focal point. One might say, furthermore, that these achievements are nearly all rooted in a new attitude towards the problem ofform, and in a new sensitivity to form.18

Interestingly, Cassirer links this “problem of form” to another way in which it is possible to distinguish (but not divide) the Middle Ages from the Renaissance. Like Huizinga, Cassirer acknowledges that the men of the Middle Ages both handled and were conversant with the intellectual and material treasures of Antiquity. But there exists a dichotomy of spontaneity in the way in which objects and ideas of Antiquity were understood between the two ages. Quoting Karl Borinski, Cassirer writes,

Certainly the Middle Ages… had enough ties to Antiquity. A complete rupture with Antiquity had never come about, thanks to the Church, the cultural power that replaced it…. On the whole, the influence of Antiquity on the Middle Ages was, as has been… pointed out, an influence of content… A change in the attitude of the personality towards Antiquity expressed itself in form —starting with the form of the individual with his feeling, thinking, and living, and going on to the renewal of Ancient and Classical forms in poetry and art, state and society.19

The matter of “artistic sensibility” is understood by Cassirer to have given “concrete determination to the concept of nature formulated by Renaissance science.” This notion is nowhere more apparent than in the antediluvian geology found in several paintings, and scores of drawings, by Leonardo’s hand. He does not set his Madonna’s and tacitly pagan figures of Saints in cloisters, nor does he depict them in settings dominated by forgettable landscape architecture. Rather, his Saints and Virgins inhabit a primordial wasteland where one is more likely to stumble over the corpses of giant saurians than encounter a flourishing grove. This conception of nature could only have come about through an intensification of Leonardo’s own theoretical perspective — “for [Leonardo]… the creative power of the artist is as certain as that of theoretical or scientific thought. Science is a second creation made with the understanding; painting is a second creation made with the imagination.”20 One could not ask for a better formulation of Leonardo’s scientific and artistic programme than that.

1 Shakespeare, Coriolanus, IV. Vii. 34-5.

2 J. Huizinga, The Waning of the Middle Ages (Edward Arnold Publishers, Ltd., London, 1963), p 13.

3 Karl Marx, in The Marx-Engles Reader, ed. Robert C. Tucker (W.W. Norton & Company Inc., 1978), p 54.

4 Huizinga, p 23.

5 Ibid., p 102.

6 Ibid., pp 307-8.

7 Jacob Burckhardt, The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy (Barnes and Noble Books, 1999), p 81.

8 Ibid., p 120.

9 Ibid.

10 Ibid.

11 In the synthesizing philosophic activities of Pico Della Mirandolla (namely, the marrying together Platonic and Aristotelian philosophy), there is the distinct aroma of Scholastic philosophy — particularly in the effort he devotes to defending and elaborating the Scholastic trinity — God, freedom, and the immortality of the soul.

12 Ernst Cassirer, The Individual and the Cosmos in Renaissance Philosophy, translated by Mario Domandi (University of Pennsylvania Press, 1972) p 7.

13 Ibid., p 1.

14 Ibid., p 5.

15 Ibid.

16 Ibid., p 153.

17 Ibid., p 158.

18 Ibid., p 159. Italics in original.

19 Ibid., pp 159-60.

20 Ibid., 161.

Review of “Scholasticism: Personalities and Problems of Medieval Philosophy” by Josef Pieper

ImageIn formulating his theory of the development of the modern man during the Italian Renaissance, Jacob Burckhardt presents the distinction between the men in the Middle Ages, who conceived of themselves “only as a member of a race, people, party,” and the “many-sided men,” the Humanists, who arose in the 14th century to take their place. Josef Pieper’s discussion of Scholasticism does not endeavor to disprove Burckhardt’s theory, but in presenting the great figures of Scholastic philosophy, Pieper takes care at the outset to establish that Anselm, Abelard, Aquinas, and their contemporaries, are better than specimens of a dogmatic and intellectually exhausted age.

The view of the Scholastics presented in the book is that “they are… partly ‘contemporary’ and partly ‘outmoded,’”1 yet unimpeachably relevant to the modern understanding of the writings of Antiquity, which the Scholastics labored so long to assimilate and codify in their theology and philosophy. Pieper’s reference points of “personalities and problems” bear out that no single figure or event can be said to properly represent the (many-sided) Scholastic or Medieval Christian spirit, and this is evidenced in times containing such radically dissimilar men as Peter Abelard and Bernard of Clairvaux — one man was seduced, first by Heloise, then by Greek logic; and the other, continually taxed by a kind of arduous mysticism. Thus, to reduce the main tenant of Scholasticism to the conjoining of faith and reason will not do, being in the end more a dualism of parlance than a definition.

Pieper propounds and elaborates the following thesis throughout the book:

We must realize how impossible it is to understand any Medieval author if we do not consider one of the fundamentals of his thinking about the universe and man: his utter conviction that the event of the Incarnation made accessible a truth which possesses a power to reveal reality transcending any human insight…2 

Indeed, this formulation can be applied to the entire range of issues, historical, biographical, and scholarly, that Pieper handles. Examining the condemnation of 1277 at Paris and Oxford, it is the resolute standard of truth set by divine Revelation that consequently made the Truths of Faith and the Truths of Reason ever more uneasy bedfellows. Thomas Aquinas, one of the most significant workers in the codification of Scholastic theology and philosophy, had but recently died when the controversy in 1277 arose, and Pieper notes that the opposition between fides and ratio was to grow only larger after that turning point — “the golden age of Scholasticism,” as Aquinas had known it, “the honeymoon of theology and philosophy,” as Pieper dubs it, was at an end.

Pieper’s discussion of the condemnation of 1277 acts as a fulcrum between the first phase of Scholasticism and the second, which was to bear witness to the radical thought of Duns Scotus and William of Ockham. Prior to these two thinkers, the philosophical “necessitarianism” implicit in the creative activity of God, articulated by Siger of Brabant and others, lurked just beneath the window of Scholastic Theology. What Pieper refers to as a form of extreme Aristotelianism was challenged first by Scotus, then by Ockham, each of who joined in rejecting the “Greek necessitarianism” condemned in 1277, to propounded a theory of God’s “unlimited freedom in the exercise of power.” Ockham, as Pieper suggests, was equally extreme, but in the opposite direction, as the necessitarianism that he disparages. Quoting Ockham, Pieper observes a hint of brutality in the way

Ockham envisages the various alternatives to the story of man’s redemption. He [Ockham] argues that God’s becoming man… was so little meaningful and necessary ‘in itself’ that God, if he had wished, might just as well have assumed the nature of a stone, a tree, or an ass.3

The story is somewhat different with Scotus, though, and the younger Ockham was already critical of his predecessor for “trying to prove too much” in areas of speculation where too little could be proved. Scotus’ standard of proof, nevertheless, was inscrutably high. Both Aquinas and Scotus “agreed on the point that human reason may never touch upon the secret of divine freedom,”4 yet for Scotus, and unlike Aquinas, this become a negative element in the possibility of conjoining faith and reason — absolute certainty was diminishing in strength before an existential resignation, due to the non-necessity of creation, man, and his destiny. Thus, faith and reason, rather than being conjoined, are split, and the troubling possibility of “double truths” — on one hand, God’s truth, on the other, a separate truth for the creation — arises.

One of the more startling points made in Pieper’s review of the Scholastics is the extreme youthfulness, not in the sphere of ideas only, but in the literal sense of the age of those philosophers and theologians that dominated the Middle Ages. Boethius, we are told, was a mere 20 years when he began to distinguish himself in scholarship; Anselm, only 30 when he became Prior of Le Bec; Scotus wrote his most renowned work, the opus Oxoniense, at 35; and William of Ockham, a seeming Rimbaud of Scholasticism, retired from the world of letters at 25.5  Observing this, Pieper points out that the vast project, over several centuries, of assimilating the objects of Antiquity, was largely undertaken by men possessing both youth and enormous energy.

From the outset of the book to the end, Pieper reinforces the notion that the men of modern times are the (often ungrateful) sons of the Medievals. To this end, he remarks that “the greatest Summa of the Middle Ages,” Aquinas’ Summa Theologica, did not remain just by chance uncompleted, “but because its author wished it so.”6  This is mentioned in light of the impossibility that now faces modern man — that of “attaining… a closed and rounded view of the world in any legitimate way.”7  The Scholastic conception of “natural reason” permitted, even encouraged, Christian theological and philosophical debate to range outside of itself, taking and considering things as they were presented, and not merely vanquishing the alleged opposition from the outset. This, as Pieper notes, was the objective method of that most comprehensive of the Scholastics, Aquinas; and Pieper finally recommends that such rational honesty and liberality be adapted and directed against the modern quarrel between faith and reason, i.e., faith and science.

1 Josef Pieper, Scholasticism: Personalities and Problems of Medieval Philosophy (St. Augustine’s Press: South Bend Indiana, 2001), p 158.

2 Ibid., p 18-19.

3 Ibid., p 148.

4 Ibid., p 144.

5 C.f., p 78-79.

6 Ibid., p 159.

7 Ibid., p 158.

Nihilism, Evil, & God: Dostoevsky Versus Nietzsche

img052Friedrich Nietzsche is generally regarded as having given the par excellence account of the origin and consequences of nihilism, deriving from his conception of the death of God. Yet Fyodor Dostoevsky offers an alternative account of the cause of nihilism in his novel, The Brothers Karamazov (1879), that locates the cause of nihilism not in the death of God, but in man’s understanding of God in relation to the problem of evil. Far from Nietzsche’s representation of God as an exploded fiction, God Himself is implicated as the primary source of the conflict between the evil and suffering that mankind experiences, and the deficit in reasons for why, if God is just and benevolent, man was ever allowed to suffer at all.

Nietzsche’s theory of the “will to power” stands as a challenge to Dostoevsky’s cautionary axiom, “if there is no God, everything is permissible.” The “will to power” is simultaneously Nietzsche’s all-inclusive answer to the mysteries of human psychology, and his answer to the question of how one should live. By inverting the consequence of Dostoevsky’s claim that the absence of God entails the absence of any restriction on human behavior, Nietzsche spins his predictions and hopes for the future of mankind out of the unlimited “permission” granted by nihilism. The absence of God does not precipitate the absolute social and moral ruin of man; on the contrary, within the shapeless matter of nihilism lies the means for crafting man’s redemption without God, his liberation from all empty dichotomies (good and evil, true and false, subject and object, cause and effect), and the possibility for his re-acquaintance with the total potential of the will that has lain dormant since the end of Imperial Rome.

Nietzsche holds that “the character of existence” is inherently brutal, and men possess no special quality to distinguish them from brute beasts, except a talent for self-deception — men dream of themselves as created just a little lower than the angels on the scale of created things, when in reality they are brutes that possess the same unlimited desire for power common to any beast — even the most cursory examination of the habits of man confirms the fact.1 Dostoevsky enters a similar description of human nature in The Brothers Karamazov, but with the additional implicit premise that man’s barbaric actions are a result of the great distance that lies between man and God— God being perfect and lacking nothing, and man being imperfect and sorely deficient in his capacities and his “Euclidean” faculties:2

By the way [says Ivan], a Bulgarian I met lately in Moscow… told me about the crimes committed by Turks and Circassians in all parts of Bulgaria through fear of a general rising of the Slavs. They burn villages, murder, outrage women and children, they nail their prisoners by their ears to fences, leave them so till morning, and in the morning they hang them — all sorts of things you can’t imagine. People talk sometimes of bestial cruelty, but that’s a great injustice and insult to the beasts; a beast can never be so cruel as a man, so artistically cruel… I think if the devil doesn’t exist, but man has created him, he has created him in his own image and likeness. 3

Because weakness and corruption is common to the nature of mankind, it is only a matter of time before men become cannibals and butchers of other men without the authority and Providence of God to restrain them from giving free reign to the worst side of their nature. This is the reason why no flowering of culture and art is foreseen in the conclusion to Dostoevsky’s tales of the madmen that nihilism produces. In his novel, The Brothers Karamazov, the fictional society built on the totalitarian principles of the Grand Inquisitor is awash with men’s blood, with torture as its chief art.

Within this work, Dostoevsky provides two conclusions concerning why nihilism, which renders mankind’s experience of evil and suffering meaningless and absurd, can never supply a starting or stopping point in mankind’s search for the meaning of why he experiences evil. The first is that man is foremost a moral being — he possesses a conscience that acts as a guide for moral behavior. Yet the conscience, if God does not exist, has no other function than as a hindrance that can be gotten rid of by habituation since the categories of good and evil, true and false do not have any objective existence; as the “active” nihilist might maintain, whenever the bite of conscience is silenced, the resulting sensation of increased power “presupposes a resistance overcome.” If the conscience that prevents man from doing anything and everything that comes into his head is silenced, and his actions, no matter how extreme, contain no further consequences than those imposed by positive law, then he has nothing greater to fear (should he be caught) than punishment by a civil authority. If God is not watching, mankind, in this case, has no moral incentive that prevents him from lapsing into brutality and cannibalism.

Alyosha Karamazov, one of the three fraternal protagonists in The Brothers Karamazov, provides the second reason why nihilism as an answer does not suffice (and this must be taken in light of the first reason): he maintains that only if God Himself suffers along with mankind can God be exonerated for having ever allowed even one man to suffer. God, Alyosha maintains, has come in the Person of Christ and has given “His innocent blood for all and everything.” This formulation, which comes, in The Brothers Karamazov, at the end of the chapter titled “Rebellion,” is illuminated by contrast with the statement, “if there is not God, everything is permissible.” The latter is a core statement in The Brothers Karamazov, and serves to crystallize the meaning and purpose of Ivan’s stories of human barbarism, and his “Legend of the Grand Inquisitor.”

Nietzsche’s conception of nihilism constitutes a broad base from which are derived the dichotomies of master/slave moralities, “active” and “passive” nihilism, and his conception of the “overman.” The fact that Nietzsche appears not to place an overwhelming emphasis on nihilism as the center of his thinking in his published works does not disprove the implicit fact that if nihilism as a foundation is taken away, the project of the revaluation of values, as Nietzsche conceives of it, makes no sense. One must postulate nihilism as the antecedent of all events (namely the death of God), and all modes of acting, in order to attempt to move beyond nihilism. The so-called death of God is another way of proclaiming the end of the possibility of metaphysics as an objective construct. Metaphysics, by definition, is the search for transcendent principles that exist independently of the material world, and dictate the rules concerning how all things material things (subject to generation and corruption) are essentially ordered. It can be said, then, that the existence of metaphysical principles is tantamount to an ordered kosmos. As a result of the death of God, the possibility of attaining objective knowledge about the world (particularly, for our purposes, in the area of ethics) is rendered an impossibility, as all truth claims are without any ultimate significance or meaning beyond what the individual attaches to them. The universe, human life, and morality have the value of nil after God ceases to stand as the absolute guarantor of meaning in the universe, as the purposeful creator of human life, &c. Without the death of God, there is no validity to the genealogical critique of values, nor is there any such thing as the self-deception of “passive” nihilism for the individual to extricate with his “will to power.” Where else in Nietzsche’s vision of the world but with the death of God could nihilism originate, or the genealogical critique of values for that matter? The conclusion is that nihilism, precipitated by the death of God, is the necessary basis on which all of Nietzsche’s thought rests.

If, for Nietzsche, the death, or non-existence, of God is the catalyst for nihilism, in Dostoevsky’s novel, The Brother’s Karamazov, the catalyst for nihilism is, ironically, God Himself; or rather, the inscrutable nature and will of God. In the chapter entitled “The Legend of the Grand Inquisitor,” Christ returns to earth “in the most terrible time of the Inquisition” (i.e., the 16th century). He performs miracles, and has a magnetic and transforming effect on the mass of people that gather in awe around Him; but the Grand Inquisitor does not receive Christ’s unexpected visit in quite the same way, and promptly has Christ arrested and thrown in prison. Upbraiding and haranguing Christ for undoing the Church’s work of rescuing humanity from its misery, the Grand Inquisitor maintains that humanity is wretched due to the fact that the moral example Christ set for man is impossible for man to live up to, or even to approximate. The Grand Inquisitor avows that Christ gave men their freedom from the Mosaic Law when all they wanted was bread; that is, Christ’s gift of freedom was bestowed on a recipient ill suited to accept such a gift, being “weak, vicious, worthless and rebellious.” 4 Man was previously guided in his every action according to the dictates of the Mosaic Law — which commandments are characterized by necessity and orderliness — but Christ’s work abolished the Law and replaced it with man’s freedom to choose between good and evil, having only His superhuman ideal as a model for his actions.

According to the Grand Inquisitor, the desire of all men’s hearts is not the exercising of their freedom to choose between good and evil out of the resources of their respective conscience, but to be ruled and ordered under a lawgiver, who’s sole purpose is to take such decision making out of their hands. The Grand Inquisitor strikes upon a very simple remedy for the absurd meaninglessness of human suffering, but only after he himself spent nearly a lifetime subduing his flesh and subsisting on roots in the desert in order to make himself “free and perfect” before God:

[A]ll his life he loved humanity, and suddenly his eyes were opened, and he saw that it was no great moral blessedness to attain perfection and freedom, if at the same time one gains the conviction that millions of God’s creatures have been created as a mockery, that thy will never be capable of using their freedom… In his old age he reached the clear conviction that nothing but the advice of the great dread spirit [the devil] could build up any tolerable sort of life for the feeble, unruly “incomplete, empirical creatures created in jest.” And so, convinced of this, he sees that he must follow the council of the wise spirit, the dread spirit of death and destruction, and therefore accept lying and deception, and lead men consciously to death and destruction, and yet deceive them all the way so that they may not notice where they are being led, that the poor blind creatures may at least on the way think themselves happy. And note, the deception is [carried out] in the name of Him in Whose ideal the old man had so fervently believed all his life long.5

Christ came to give men their freedom from the Mosaic Law. After Christ’s work, the written law is no longer binding over the hearts of men; the conscience is now the seat of judgment between good and evil, and “man must hereafter with free heart decide for himself what is good and what is evil, having only Thy image before him as a guide”6 Men though, according to the Inquisitor’s estimation, are incontinent — they have an inability to do what is good and moral, while having perfect knowledge of what goodness and morality demand. Freedom is the most terrible burden God could have placed on humanity, since so few are capable of being consistent with so perfect an exemplar as Christ. The presence of God’s moral standard in the world is an burden that men can neither throw off nor endure, and so men alienate the freedom given them by Christ as a gift — an ill conceived gift indeed, according to the Inquisitor, and he gladly takes the freedom from men and exchanges it for happiness.

Under the dictatorship of the conscience, a corollary to the gift of freedom, man is unhappy and ever mindful of his continual failings when compared to the life lived by the theanthropus, Christ. Conversely, under the dictatorship of divine law, or even the rule of a civil authority, man’s life is content because his conscience is clear — the decision to do this-or-that, or not, is never his to make, and thus ultimate responsibility for the consequence of his actions is taken from him as well. In the Grand Inquisitor’s indictment of Christ, it is Christ’s eradication of the Mosaic Law that has placed God beyond the reach of man’s ken, and beyond the goal of man’s “merely mortal” activities:

And behold, instead of giving a firm foundation for setting the conscience of man at rest forever, Thou didst choose all that is exceptional, vague and emblematic; Thou didst choose what was utterly beyond the strength of men, acting as though Thou didst not love them at all… for they could not have been left in greater confusion and suffering than Thou hast caused, laying upon them so many cares and unanswerable problems.7

When God bestowed the gift of free moral agency in the matter of salvation to a weak and rebellious animal such as man, the nature of God’s decision demonstrated that God’s will is radically free to alter, modify, or abolish what He has previously decreed, and furthermore, the divine decision does not have to accord with man’s abilities or faculties. Christ is, as He declares Himself to be, not the destroyer, but the fulfillment of the Law,8 thus the end of the Law is freedom through Christ. Man, whether under the old Law or the new, is entirely reliant on his own abilities and faculties, and can neither destroy the Law himself, nor can he fulfill it — thus, even what God decrees specifically for man is in every sense “exceptional, vague and emblematic.” The same God who led the Ancient Hebrews out of slavery and through the wilderness has deliberately become an obsolescent God with the advent of the Incarnation, and His sinless example. How is man to be saved under such a situation, and what guarantee does man have that God will not again alter the rules, leaving man’s mind, actions, and hopes clouded even further? Indeed, such a possibility always exists if God is bound by nothing, and acts according to His omnipotent will.

The eternal standards of truth, good and evil, and the way to salvation, are all overturned by the advent of Christ’s example, which example is set by God’s free choice. Being unable to grasp the full capacity of this change, man is forced to turn to other resources, and rely on other faculties that were not necessary in order to adhere to the Mosaic Law, such as reason, in order to discern between good and evil, and to determine by what means he might be saved — by God, or by human industry. Nihilism, according to Dostoevsky, is a result of man’s bewilderment before and omnipotent and willful God (and not because God simply does not exist); man’s subsequent reliance on himself and his own powers is due to the fact that he is forced to compensate in light of the fact that what God has determined as good cannot be relied upon to be good for man.

The Grand Inquisitor embodies Dostoevsky’s particular conception of nihilism, viz., and nihilism’s revolutionary and bleakly individualistic spirit. When Christ returns unexpectedly, performing miracles and disrupting the proceedings of the Church’s authorities, the Grand Inquisitor demands to know why Christ has come, and assumes that His visit is for no reason other than to spite man’s obviously epistemically precarious position, and spur on his desire to move beyond such a position. Christ never says a word during the whole of the Inquisitor’s interrogation, and even to the Inquisitor’s most tremendous disclosures there is no discernible response from Christ:

Just eight centuries ago, we [the Catholic Church] took from him [the Devil] what Thou didst reject with scorn, that last gift he offered Thee, showing Thee all the kingdoms of the earth. We took from him Rome and the sword of Caesar, and proclaimed ourselves sole rulers of the earth, though hitherto we have not been able to complete our work… It has long to await completion and the earth has yet much to suffer, but we shall triumph and shall be Caesars, and then we shall plan the universal happiness of man.9

Man, taking up the sword of Caesar, does not overcome God, nor can he ever — the Grand Inquisitor has no illusions that his vision of a utopian Rome is for any other world than the one inhabited by man, and can never extend into the sphere of the divine. Only by seizing upon and cultivating the Promethean spirit can man do for himself what Christ rejected with scorn to do, that is, to found a universal state and attain universal happiness. Because only a few men, out of the whole host of mankind, have the potential to come close to living up to Christ’s moral example, the Inquisitor asks Christ what need mankind-at-large has for a God that has overestimated man’s capacity to manage the intellectual and bodily exertions that necessarily come with the exercise of freedom? In the nihilistic spirit of the Promethean, the Grand Inquisitor finally commands Christ, “Go, and come no more… Come not at all, never, never!”10 The Promethean efforts of a few men (i.e., the Grand Inquisitor and a few others like him) to rescue humanity from self-destruction and to bring about universal happiness provides the foundation for totalitarianism; the incomprehensible God is replaced by the institution of a state religion, which is actually no religion at all, only an absolute civil authority armed at all points in the tinsel and trappings of religion.

Nietzsche holds that to believe in the existence of objective values is to believe in an illusion that is devoid of any constructive meaning, and therefore nihilistic: “In religion the constraint is lacking to consider ourselves as value positing.”11 Nietzsche maintains that the capacity to actively create values necessarily takes into account the many nuances and shades of distinctions involved man’s experience of the world, and reflects man’s actual subjective experience in ways that all closed (and therefore passive) forms of value judgments fail to. The origin of nihilism, for Nietzsche, lies in two opposing directions: the first is moral passivity (which he conceives of as a negation of existence, and therefore lacking any actual meaning), and the second is the power to actively create values that have meaning insofar as they are powerful. Regarding the former, when the will of the self is subordinated to the will of God, or alienated to what Nietzsche often refers to as a “beyond,” the content of experience (that is, willing, hating, loving, &c.) is negated, and man’s “will to power,” which is an affirmation of life, is replaced by the “will to nothingness,” or the denial of life:

metaphysics, religion, morality, science — all of them only products of his [man’s] will to art, to lie, to flight from “truth”… This ability itself, thanks to which he violates reality by means of lies… He himself is after all a piece of reality, truth, nature: how should he not also be a piece of genius in lying… That the character of existence is to be misunderstood — profoundest and supreme secret motive behind all that is virtue, science, piety, artistry… Man has once again become master of “material” — master of truth! — And whenever man rejoices… he rejoices as an artist, he enjoys himself as power, he enjoys the lie as his form of power.12

When man’s moral character is shaped according to the dictates of a universal moral norm, the question of “what kind of man should I be” is simply a given — the answer lies not with the will of the individual, but with the will of God. Man’s nature is shaped not by his intellect, but by the dictates of his will; the justification behind all moral and intellectual hierarchies is the power that one interpretation of the world has over all other interpretations — power equals precedence. In his study of Nietzsche’s philosophy, Gilles Deleuze points out that, “We know what transmutation or transvaluation means for Nietzsche: not a change of values, but a change in the element from which the value of value derives.”13 This shift he describes represents not the reversal of evil transmuting into good, or vice-versa, but that all interpretations of what is good or evil, or beneficial or harmful, are materializations of the “element” that Nietzsche calls the “will to power.” As a source or criterion for all valuations, the “will to power” transcends all valuations of good and evil, and true and false, by transferring the source of all moral standards from the objective and eternal perspective, to the subjective individual perspective. Rather than delimiting thought or action by assigning to them certain levels of truth or falsity in relation to an abstract objective standard of true and false, thought and action are more effectively measured according to the quantity of power behind, or inhering in a given thought or action. This is why it is better to say that the individual will naturally seeks power — all individuals have discrete perspectives on the world, and power is the element of differentiation between individuals; and since there is nothing that inherently binds one perspective to another, power determines the precedence of thought and action between individuals. By this rationale, the question of “what kind of man should I be” is always open-ended, because there is no given direction, save that the will’s sole desire is for the increase of power.

Nietzsche divides nihilism, as was mentioned above, into two rather flexible, basic categories — “active” nihilism and “passive” nihilism. “Active” nihilism is nihilism divested of its religious trappings, and with a bent not necessarily toward self-destruction, but decidedly toward the destruction of what passes for true, right, or authoritative. This is not the nihilism of the herd (of which Christianity is representitive), but the nihilism of Nietzsche himself. The individualist, according to Nietzsche, is the man who has the will to believe in himself, in the truth of his own powers, and in the efficacy of his own volition. The “active” nihilist, as opposed to egalitarian man, is radically individual. Yet Nietzsche does not concede that the “active” nihilist is capable of discovering the means to direct his destructive despair toward creating a new world of “higher” values (values that exalt what is noble, exceptional, and powerful) in place of the world of popular pseudo-religious values that he takes the same pleasure in destroying that the condemned man takes in a last act of vengeance against his punisher:

Nihilism does not only contemplate the “in vain!” nor is it merely the belief that everything deserves to perish: one helps to destroy. — This is, if you will, illogical; but the nihilist does not believe that one needs to be logical. — It is the condition of strong spirits and wills, and these do not find it possible to stop with the No of “judgment”: their nature demands the No of the deed. The reduction to nothing by judgment is seconded by the reduction to nothing by hand.14

Aside from Nietzsche’s conception of the nihilist as those possessing a “strong spirit and will,” i.e., the “active” nihilist, he formulates the antithetical condition that he calls “passive” nihilism to accord with his conception of Christianity, which he believes epitomizes the steamroller effect that mediocrity has on everything it rolls over:

The lower species (“herd,” “mass,” “society”) unlearns modesty and blows up its needs into cosmic and metaphysical values. In this way the whole of existence is vulgarized: insofar as the mass is dominant, it bullies the exceptions, so that they lose their faith in themselves [i.e., the exceptional individuals lose faith] and become nihilists.15

Christianity seeks to replace the world as it is with the soul’s wish fulfillment of immortality in a “beyond.” The postulating of a “beyond,” to Nietzsche, is nothing but a subterfuge; the rejection of the world in the Christian worldview as corrupt and passing away devalues experience in the world in favor of a heaven that transcends all material existence. Nietzsche’s line of reasoning assumes that the ens realissiuum is the fiction of fictions, and the experience of life as an “end-in-itself,” or as a perpetual “becoming,” is wasted at the expense of the sacred wish of the soul’s immortality:

The Christian conception of God — God as God of the sick, God as a spider, God as spirit — is one of the most corrupt conceptions of the divine ever attained on earth. It may even represent the low-water mark in the descending development of divine types. God denigrated into the contradiction of life, instead of being its transfiguration and eternal Yes! God as the declaration of war against life, against nature, against the will to live! God — the formula for every slander against “this world,” for every lie about the “beyond”! God — the deification of nothingness, the will to nothingness pronounced holy!16

Nietzsche’s rationale for attacking the values of Christianity lies in his assertion that “slave morality” paralyzes and cheapens the value of what is truly noble and powerful by equating nobility and power with dominant egalitarian “virtues;” for example, the toleration and encouragement of mediocrity is understood in the framework of slave morality to be evidence of greatness of soul and the strength of virtue. Whether the conception of Christianity that Nietzsche demolishes with his genealogical method is an historically accurate conception is certainly debatable, yet Nietzsche’s point that any culture’s avid promotion of egalitarian pieties is a sign of an impending cultural eclipse is well taken.

Art, that is, creation as such, is for Nietzsche the most potent means of stimulating life, of making life something man can endure; but art has a greater function beyond providing a comfortable assurance to the bien pensant pieties of the self-deceiver. Art contains the means to reveal “the terrifying and questionable character of existence,” and thus it presents, by analogy, another side of the “will to power.” Because truth cannot be known objectively (since nothing exists “in itself” or “through itself”), truth is necessarily the domain of the artist, who fashions what passes as “the truth” according to this seemingly simple dichotomy: truth as the “will to power,” or truth as the “will to nothingness.” The exceptional man, the “strong spirit,” as Nietzsche calls him, desires to “live dangerously,” to say Yes to life, and this mode of affirming the will and the self contrasts to all forms of the “will to the denial of life.”Nietzsche’s conception of the artistic life relates dialectically to his conception of the self-overcomer, i.e., destroying to create, creating to destroy, with all dialectical oppositions being ultimately obliterated in the eternal return. The values created in the course of the will’s drive toward the expansion of its power are always provisional at best, because values are created out of, and according to, the individual’s will, which is to say, the individual’s perspective. Even though Nietzsche dispenses with any localized standard for the establishment of values by placing the creation of values in the hands of the self-overcoming, his explanation for the phenomena of pain and suffering in the world provides a clue about what sort of standard the values of the “strong spirit” comply with, and that standard is reducible to one word — power — which is the objective of the unceasing drive of the will. The quantifiable increase or reduction of power in the individual man is the only kind of economy Nietzsche recognizes. Whereas the “passive” nihilist, or the “good” man, seeks to mollify his desires and neutralize his pains and pleasures within the safety of the group, the will of the “strong spirit,” or the “evil” man, is driven both by a staunch individualism, and the creative benefits that come from unmitigated hardship, suffering, and destruction:

Even the most harmful man may really be the most useful when it comes to the preservation of the species; for he nurtures either in himself or in others, through his effects, instincts without which humanity would long have become feeble or rotten. Hatred, the mischievous delight in the misfortune of others, the lust to rob and dominate, and whatever else is called evil, belongs to the most amazing economy of the preservation of the species. To be sure, this economy is not afraid of high prices, of squandering, and it is on the whole extremely foolish. Still it is proven that it has preserved our species so far.17

Nietzsche’s conception of theodicy (if I may be permitted to stretch the meaning of the term) is bound up with the principle of the “will to power,” and ultimately derives, again, from his considerations concerning nihilism. Nietzsche, declaring God to be dead, aims at eradicating the entire edifice of value judgments altogether — no longer can good be discerned from evil, or truth from falsity — every means of judgment and determination has been abrogated when no such thing as truth exists, only interpretations of, only perspectives on, “truth.” As Nietzsche has it, God is not the arbiter of moral standards, nor, ultimately, is man; the principle of the will is the determining factor of all that is, and directs the unceasing and limitless accumulation of quantifiable power. By this standard, the source of human pain and suffering, of human hardship and brutality, is part and parcel of the essence of “the character of existence”:

Here we must beware of superficiality and get to the bottom of the matter, resisting all sentimental weakness: life itself is essentially appropriation, injury, overpowering of what is alien and weaker; suppression, hardness, imposition of one’s own forms, incorporation and at least, at its mildest, exploitation…18

The innumerable discrete wills that strive to assert and increase their respective quantity of power do so without any final goal, except a further increase of power. If the active principle of the will is interpreted as Nietzsche’s singular metaphysical principle, then the goal-less, unceasing march of wills willing power, and willing in opposition to every other will, is his theodicy— the operation of will in his eternally recurring cosmology vindicates, or justifies, the phenomena of pain and suffering. Being neither “good” nor “evil,” pain and suffering play a necessary role as a component facet of the driving principle of all things, the will:

Man does not seek pleasure and does not avoid displeasure… Pleasure and displeasure are mere consequences, mere epiphenomenona — what man wants, what every smallest part of a living organism wants, is an increase of power. Pleasure or displeasure follow from the striving after that; driven by that will it seeks resistance, it needs something that opposes it… man does not avoid it [displeasure], rather he is in continual need of it; every victory, every feeling of pleasure, every event, presupposes a resistance overcome.19

An “economy of high prices”20 is the preserver of the species in a world where the categories of good and evil do not apply: only the distinction between strong wills and weak wills is relevant to an understanding of the order of things. The story is of a similar nature with Nietzsche’s interpretation of all the other commonplace dualisms found in value judgments: pain and pleasure, happiness and sadness, joy and sorrow, &c. These sensations signify, respectively, either an increase or decrease of power, according to the strength of the action of the will.

For Dostoevsky, the question of why man, as God created him, suffers and experiences evil, strikes at the heart of the question concerning what the nature of God is, and how man comes to terms with, or rejects, a God that transcends his primitive “Euclidean mind.” The question of why is there evil in the world is, to Ivan’s “Euclidean earthly mind,” impossible to settle:

Can you understand why a little creature, who can’t even understand what’s done to her, should beat her little aching heart… and weep her meek unresentful tears to dear, kind God to protect her?… Do you understand why this infamy must be and is permitted? Without it, I am told, man could not have existed on earth, for he could not have known good and evil. Why should he know that diabolical good and evil when it costs so much? Why, the whole world of knowledge is not worth that child’s prayer to “dear, kind God”!21

The question of why God could just as easily have created a world where evil does not exist, as a world where it does, is the axis on which Ivan’s argument for atheism turns: why the world is overrun with evil is far from self-evident, and no sufficient reason can be uncovered for why the world is thus and not otherwise. Evil exists in a plenary of forms, and for this reason Ivan finds the world as it is, and consequently the God who permits evil, for any reason whatever, unacceptable. The world, in Ivan’s mind, is devalued to the point of absurdity and meaninglessness as a consequence of the problem of evil: man is forced to beg the question of why there is evil at all if God is good and benevolent, and all of His works are good. In short, Ivan says that he is an atheist by default because he cannot supply a satisfactory answer to why men (and especially children) must become causalities of God’s unknowable reason for allowing the world to be overwhelmed by evil before He finally redeems His creation through His goodness. Ivan’s rejection of God is not tantamount to his disbelieving in the existence of a creator, &c.; it is his rejection of allowing any recourse to God in order to explain the existence of evil. If mankind suffers, there must be a reason — but no viable reason can be given for the fact that mankind does suffer; thus, mankind suffers for nothing. For Ivan, God exists, but He may just as well not, since the existence of an infinite, incomprehensible God explains nothing to finite men of simple mind about the problem of evil, or anything else. Ivan’s argument against God is not an argument spun out of the subtleties of logic; rather, it is argument made on instinct. The fact of evil is an inescapable reality, and his reaction to the immediacy of the misery that inexplicable evil entails leads him first to question the goodness of God, then to reject God, and the evil nature of the world altogether. That “there is a strength to endure everything” is Ivan’s answer to the inexorable conclusion that existence is futile; but that strength to endure everything is a tenuous strength, as Ivan’s end in madness reveals.

Dostoevsky’s account of theodicy in The Brother’s Karamazov acts as a foil to the moral and social disorder that he envisages as an inevitable consequence of nihilism. Ivan’s rejection of God stems from his inability to cognize, or otherwise grasp with his “Euclidean mind,” the meta-narrative of God’s plan for redeeming the fallen world from evil and suffering — God is rejected on the grounds that the “higher harmony” of good and evil that He intends to bring about at an indeterminate future time is incommensurate with the severity of suffering endured by human beings — is it not possible for the same “higher harmony” to exist without being fashioned from human misery? The answer is yes, but if God does not exist, or if He is rejected on the grounds that He torments human beings by allowing them to suffer unnecessarily, then what is there to restrict or prevent man from rejecting compassion and charity and giving full reign to the lawless and brutal side of his nature? What motivation would there be for men to be civil, if not for the presence of a divine authority regulating and instructing man in his actions? Why would men endure evil and suffering and be compassionate if there were no ultimate purpose, or no higher good for doing so? Ivan’s rejection of God’s Providential authority for the bringing about of a divine harmony between the murderer and his victim allows for the possibility that man has no legitimate reason not to murder his fellow man — Providential authority or not, evil is part of the nature of men.

Since God, understood as either a concept or a reality, according to Nietzsche, possesses no more efficacy than the strength of the weakest kind of men (who are the representatives of the Christian God on earth), the will of the individual, by virtue of his superior strength, must naturally reign supreme. All that is required for this seemingly obvious fact to become a reality is that the resources of the will be exploited to their fullest potential. Even though terms such as “master morality,” “individualism,” and “subjective” play a large role in describing how reality is parsed up in the theory of the “will to power,” the world ordered according to the demands of the principle of the will is actually rigidly hierarchical, and distributed on a scalar magnitude. The efficacy of the will manifests in the degree of independence seized upon by the individual, and accordingly, when there is an individual possessing a powerful will, there is likely to be far greater numbers of subordinate wills beneath him; and beneath these subordinate wills… &c. The hierarchy that arranges itself according to degrees of power springs from the internal source of the will of the individual person, rather than from without, as is the case in a hierarchy that begins with God at the top, and continues in a descending order with all less perfect, or less divine beings, occupying their respective, untransgressable positions in relation to God.

For Nietzsche, nihilism is a negatively idealistic, decadent dead-end, and he has no illusions about the destiny of cultures and moralities that grow out of views of the world where the belief in a “beyond” persistently diminishes the value of the world, and where egalitarian envy of the strong crushes the exceptional man to elevate the mediocrity. According to Nietzsche, the mores, laws, and truths of man in the post-Classical era are nothing more than expressions of servile weakness stemming from an institution-based sublimation of the “will to power.” The state of civilization post the imperium Romanum represents a reversal of the power structure that built and preserved Antiquity for millennia due to the fact that the slave has enviously usurped, and thus corrupted, the virtues of the master; as a result, the weak now dominate the strong:

the imperium Romanum… [was] not buried overnight by a natural catastrophe, not trampled down by Teutons and other buffaloes, but ruined by cunning, stealthy, invisible, anemic vampires [i.e., the early Christians]. Not vanquished — merely drained.”22

The means by which Nietzsche seeks to overcome the nihilism inherent in the religious values is by reinventing (what he takes to be) the bedrock of the secular values of Antiquity — nobility, bravery, and power — for the modern world. The creation of values in accord with the demands of the “will to power” is Nietzsche’s answer to how nihilism is ultimately overcome, and this conception provides at least a provisional structure for the framework of secularized morality that he envisages. The advent of Nietzsche’s Romanesque “overman” signifies the time when the last shadow of an illusory God on the cave wall has been blighted out, and when what made the men of Antiquity great is successfully reinstated. This is achieved by redefining how the standard for the legitimacy of any given thing is defined — God is replaced by the “will to power, ” and the individual is the sole arbiter of what is harmful or beneficial to him; and what is harmful or beneficial is always decided in relation to his will’s limitless desire for the acquisition of power. The relation of the individual man to God, insofar as morality is concerned, is not a reciprocal relation; man can adhere, or not adhere to the dictates of the moral law because the moral law is not his own construct, and lies outside of his power to change; Nietzsche’s conception of the “will to power,” by comparison, is circular — the antecedent, will, always implies the consequent, power. As Nietzsche has it, God, as the foundation of the moral law, ought to be rejected because the demands of the moral law are always in opposition to the demands of the will; thus, the demands of the moral law can never actually be instantiated or fulfilled, whereas the demands of the will (for the self) is most easily known thing in the world. For Nietzsche, there is no precedent for holding the Christian values of charity, pity, and humility over and above the will’s insatiable desire for power, when charity, pity, and humility ostensibly contradict what precisely constitutes the “character of existence.” Any other basis, besides power, upon which values are created (or have been hitherto created), is simply a corruption of the will’s active principle. The “will to power” is not a rational process of thought that aims toward the discovery of truth; rather, the “will to power” is a pure act of creation, or affirmation — it is the willing of truth: “truth is… something that must be created, and that gives a name to a process, or rather a will to overcome… as a process ad infinitum, an active determining — not a becoming conscious of something that is in itself firm and determined…”23

To be in accord with the nature of the will, man must become the rule giver to himself, for the will cannot abide outside rules imposed on its archaic desire for power. The will of the self-legislating, self-overcoming individualist (i.e., Nietzsche’s “overman,” Ubermensch) is always a subjective center unto itself. The ideals generated out of this radical individualism are at all times, and all ways, a fluctuating, organic creation guided solely by the will’s desire for power. Aristotle refers the type of men who are their own masters as megalopsychia, or the man who possesses greatness of soul. Such ones as these are Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor, and Nietzsche’s “overman,” viz., they who give to themselves their own rules, their own morals, and their own ideals. This is not to say that megalopsychia lives in open defiance of all laws that exist outside of, or in spite of their nature, or simply cannot abide any law; rather, the rules such severe individualists give themselves are part and parcel of their own nature, and accord with the order of nature to the same degree as the rules guiding the slave, the incontinent man, or the self-deceiver are in violation of the order of nature:

Therefore if, as they say, men become gods by excess of virtue, of this kind must evidently be the state opposed to the brutish state; for a brute has no vice or virtue, so neither has a god; his state is higher than virtue, and that of a brute is a different kind of state from vice.24

Given the nature of the will as Nietzsche conceives of it, the expectation of the advent of a Promethean figure (his obscurely drawn “overman”) is consistent with the demands made by the theory of the “will to power,” but the flesh-and-blood manifestation of the Promethean “overman” follows neither of necessity, nor teleologically from Nietzsche’s conception of the “will to power.” In Dostoevsky’s novel, The Brother’s Karamazov, the dawn of the Promethean spirit in man is caricatured, ironically, by the Devil himself; and the pastiche is even carried using terminology that anticipates Nietzsche’s theory of the “will to power,” and his vision of the advent of the “overman”:

I maintain that nothing need be destroyed, that we only need to destroy the idea of God in man, that’s how we have to set to work… As soon as all men have denied God — and I believe that period, analogous with geological periods, will come to pass — the old conception of the universe will fall of itself without cannibalism, and what’s more, the old morality, and everything will begin anew. Men will unite to take from life all it can give, but only for joy and happiness in the present world. Man will be lifted up with a spirit of divine Titanic pride and the man-god will appear. From hour to hour extending his conquest of nature infinitely by his will and his science, man will feel such lofty joy from hour to hour in doing it that it will make up for all his old dreams of the joys of heaven. Everyone will know that he is mortal and will accept death proudly and serenely like a god. His pride will teach him that its useless for him to repine at life’s being a moment, and he will love his brother without need of reward… What’s more, even if this period never comes to pass, since there is anyway no God and no immorality, the new man may well become the man-god, even if he is the only one in the world, and promoted to his new position, he may lightheartedly overstep the barriers of the old morality of the slave-man, if necessary. There is no law for God. Where God stands, the place is holy. Where I stand will at once be the foremost place… “all things are lawful” and that’s the end of it!25

It must be borne in mind that neither the Promethean efforts of the Grand Inquisitor, nor Ivan’s rejection of God on the grounds that God explains nothing about why man must suffer and experience evil, represent Dostoevsky’s final answer to the question of whether God is necessary for man’s moral life and thought. In fact, his portrait of nihilism serves to implicitly show precisely why God is necessary — that man without God is but one step away from cannibalism and brutality. For Dostoevsky, the possibility of man successfully propping up traditional or conventional morality with “humanistic” atheism, purified of the anthropomorphisms of religion, is an absurdity. That man is “weak, vicious, worthless and rebellious” is a given to Dostoevsky. Man is no Prometheus; rather, he is in constant need of aid coming from outside of him. If divine law, or the ever-present eye of god, is done away with, man lives in rebellion from all that has hitherto preserved him. Dostoevsky admits that human nature is guided largely by its own inherent baseness, but the added observation that man is naturally rebellious provides the key to understanding Ivan’s atheism: the instinct towards baseness is the instinct to rebel (this instinct is best observed in the self-interestedness of children). Incontinence, or self-indulgence, is the foundation for Dostoevsky’s conception of nihilism, which is the license to do anything, so long as the consequences (i.e., under positive law, &c.) can be circumvented. The totalitarian authority of the Catholic Church, as it is portrayed in the “Legend of the Grand Inquisitor,” is not in place to prevent people from “sinning” — rather, the state’s only purpose is to subdue men by subduing their conscience, and this is accomplished by taking away their freedom and accountability (freedom and accountability mutually imply one another), which the people (because they are as nothing more than children) willingly alienate to an authority.

Ivan’s rejection of the eschatological conception that God will bring about an harmony between good and evil at some distant point in time does not necessitate that man must undertake the Herculean project of founding a universal state for the institutionalization of happiness. Rejecting God on the grounds that He is capricious in His decrees and inscrutable in His designs does not necessitate that man take steps in any particular direction, or adopt any particular ideology to compensate for his palpable dilemma. Indeed, once God is done away with, an unlimited number of radical possibilities emerge. One point is certain: once the divine order has been rejected (whatever the grounds for rejecting it may be), the notions of how good is discerned from evil, and how true is discerned from false, can be redefined according to an arbitrary standard, or thrown out altogether.

Dostoevsky’s portrayal of man’s attempt to create moral norms without God in The Brother’s Karamazov represents an ironic parable against man’s egotism, vanity, and brutality, while Nietzsche’s presentation of the “will to power” as an endless “becoming” represents man’s vanity, egotism, and brutality apotheosized to the status of the highest values. Nietzsche holds that a wholly secularized culture will be born out of the ashes of nihilistic, or traditional religious values, with his visionary “overman” as its image and embodiment. Dostoevsky, on the other hand, holds that it is not within man’s power to overcome nihilism — without God, man will inevitably destroy himself. The figure of the Grand Inquisitor represents the failure of man’s attempt to enforce moral standards without God. Under the rule of the Grand Inquisitor, the penal institution replaces man’s conscience as the only deterrent against immoral or criminal behavior. Nietzsche predicts that universal madness (lying just under the surface) will break out when the fact that God is dead is finally understood in its totality. The sooner the gravity of this fact is understood and dealt with, the sooner man can realize the truth of his potential as a “will to power.” The curious fact behind the Nietzschean view of things is that it can only provide the most superficial account of the “character of existence” — there is nothing novel in asserting that every civilization is built out of human tears and misery (e.g., Hegel famously refers to history as a slaughter bench) — but that does not account for the “why,” which nihilism cannot answer. Ivan asks to what end is mankind served by God’s plan for bringing about a harmony between god and evil in some distant future while meanwhile mankind suffers inexplicably? Ivan’s question is far more compelling in terms of the practical function of morality because it addresses the problem of evil and suffering in terms of how mankind experiences it, and does so without any valorization of evil and suffering that ends with such a phrase as, “whatever does not kill me makes me stronger.” Because the exploitation and “overpowering of what is alien and weaker”26 is a natural consequence of strength passes unquestioned as a self-evident rule, Nietzsche’s thought on the reality of suffering fails to account for why anyone or anything suffers at all, or why the problem of evil was ever a valid moral question in the first place. He gives us an account of the benefits of suffering which no man feels, and confounds common experience by promoting a conception of wanton power that appeals wholly to the instinct while it neglects the mind, and provides no new insight into the inexplicable adaptation of man to the world that man lives in and communally experiences.

1 Cf., Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science, translated by Walter Kaufmann (Random House, Vintage Books Edition, New York, 1974): “… in nature it is not conditions of distress that are dominant but overflow and squandering, even to the point of absurdity. The struggle for existence is only an exception, a temporary restriction of the will to life. The great and small struggle always revolves around superiority, around growth and expansion, around power — in accordance with the will to power which is the will to life” p. 293, aphorism 349. After the first reference, all references hereafter to the following works of Nietzsche are (deriving the abbreviation from the title of the English edition) abbreviated as: The Will to Power is WTP; The Gay Science is abbreviated as GS; The Antichrist is abbreviated as A; Beyond Good and Evil is abbreviated as BGE.

2 Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov, translated by Constance Garnett (Barnes & Noble, Inc., New York, 1995): “… I tell you [says Ivan] that I accept God simply. But you must note this: if God exists and He really did create the world… He created it according to the geometry of Euclid and the human mind with the conception of only three dimensions in space” p. 217. All references hereafter to Dostoevsky’s, The Brothers Karamazov, are abbreviated as BK.

3 Ibid., p. 220.

4 For a parallel illustration of man’s responsibility after the work of Christ for being his own moral guide, sans the guidance of the Mosaic Law, witness Adam’s (in Milton’s Paradise Lost) indictment of God just after the Fall:

O fleeting joys

Of Paradise, dear bought with lasting woes!

Did I request thee, Maker, from my clay

To mould me man, did I solicit thee

From darkness to promote me, or here place

In this delicious garden? As my will

Concurred not to my being, it were but right

And equal to reduce me to my dust,

Desirous to resign, and render back

All I received, unable to perform

Thy terms too hard, by which I was to hold

The good I sought not. To the loss of that,

Sufficient penalty, why hast thou added

The sense of endless woes? Inexplicable

Thy justice seems; yet to say truth, too late

I thus contest; then should have been refused

Those terms whatever, when they were proposed… (bk. X, ln. 741-757)

5 BK, pp. 240-241.

6 BK, p. 234.

7 BK, pp. 234-235. The following quotation, compared with the formulation made by the Grand Inquisitor above, makes clear the contrast between Dostoevsky and Nietzsche’s conceptions of Christian values: “I do not like at all about that Jesus of Nazareth or His apostle Paul that they put so many ideas into the heads of little people, as if their [Christ or Paul’s] modest virtues were of any consequence. We have had to pay too dearly for it: for they have brought the more noble qualities of virtue and man into ill repute; they have set the bad conscience of the noble soul against its self-sufficiency; they have led astray, to the point of self-destruction, the brave, magnanimous, daring, excessive inclinations of the strong soul —“ WTP, p. 122, aphorism 205.

8 Matthew 5:17.

9 BK, p. 237.

10 BK, p. 241.

11 Friedrich Nietzsche, The Will to Power, translated and edited by Walter Kaufmann and R.J. Hollingdale (Random House, Vintage Books Edition, New York, 1968), p. 16.

12 WTP, p. 151-52, aphorism 853, I.

13 Gilles Deleuze, Nietzsche and Philosophy, translated by Hugh Tomlinson (Colombia University Press, New York, 1983), p. 171.

14 WTP, p. 18.

15 WTP, p. 19.

16 Friedrich Nietzsche, The Antichrist,in The Portable Nietzsche, ed. and trans. by Walter Kaufmann (Penguin Books, New York, 1982), aphorism # 18, pp. 585-586. Italics in the original.

17 GS, p. 73, aphorism # 1

18 Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, translated by Walter Kaufmann (Vintage Books, New York, 1989), p. 203

19 WTP, p. 373, aphorism 702.

20 GS, p. 73, aphorism 1.

21 BK, p 223.

22 A, p 651, aphorism # 59.

23 WTP, p. 298.

24 Richard Mckeon, ed., The Basic Works of Aristotle (Random House, New York, 1941), 1145a23-27: p. 1037

25 BK, p. 609.

26 BGE: “’Exploitation” does not belong to a corrupt or imperfect and primitive society: it belongs to the essence of what lives, as a basic organic function; it is a consequent of the will to power, which is after all the will to life” p. 203. Italics in original.