Tag Archives: early modern

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

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

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

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

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

I. Science and Faith: Browne and Bacon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

II. Browne and Modernity

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

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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.

Objective Reality: Descartes’ Debt to John Duns Scotus in the Third Meditation

Picture 433The Scholastic source of Descartes’ conception of “objective reality” has been a puzzling subject for Cartesian commentators. Calvin Normore summarily observes, “…almost all of the research on [the] Scholastic background of this aspect of Cartesianism has focused on Descartes’ debt to Thomas [Aquinas] or Francesco Suarez.”1 Arguing against a seeming discontinuity between Descartes and Suarez’s utilization of the doctrine of “objective reality, Timothy J. Cronin maintains, “one must grant that the objection is true if one is speaking of the origin and employment of this doctrine. In regard, however, to the essential nature of objective being, there is between Descartes and Suarez an identity of doctrine.”2 On the other hand, Norman J. Wells states that Descartes “co-opts the terminology” of “objective reality” from Caterus and Suarez, but maintains that Descartes’ doctrine of “objective reality” represents both an “original and unorthodox stand” in relation to his Scholastic predecessor’s treatment of “objective reality,” and “an original modification of the Suarezian perspective.”3

According to commentators, a connection to Scotus concept of “objective reality” in Descartes’ Third Meditation is no more or less definitive then the possibility that Descartes used the concept as he found it in Suarez or Caterus. On which Scholastic text Descartes modeled his own version of “objective reality” has remained inconclusive due to the number of possible candidates. However, a clue to Descartes’ source is implicit in his particular handling of the attendant concepts and images associated with the Scholastic concept of “objective reality,” or “degrees of perfection.” “Objective reality” is the concept that provides Descartes with a solution to the problem of how the “thinking thing” discerns the origin of its idea of the existence of an infinite God.

John Dun Scotus’ proof for the existence of God in his Treatise on God as First Principle and the Opus oxoniense is the likely source for Descartes’ apparatus of terms, concepts, and images in his proof for the existence of God in the Third Mediation. In his proof, Descartes appropriates Scotus’ images of the sun, the stone, and the father/son, as well as the terms “formal,” “eminent,” and “objective reality.” 4 The possibility that Descartes derived the concept of “degrees of perfection” from William of Ockham rather than from Scotus will also be considered.

In the Opus oxoniense, Scotus employs the image of the sun in his discussion concerning the reliability of knowledge gained through the senses:

But if the judgment of the different senses differs in regard to what is seen outside; for instance, if sight says that the staff which is partly in the water and partly in the air is broken, or if sight says, as it invariably does, that the sun is smaller in size than it really is, or in general, that everything seen from a distance is smaller than it is in reality, in all such instances we are still certain of what is true and know which sense is in error.5

Comparison of this passage with the relevant passage from Descartes’ Third Meditation shows a clear correspondence in both context and conception to Scotus’ discussion of the incongruity of the sense’s mistaken judgment of an object, and the real nature of the object. In Descartes’ discussion of the sense’s mistaken judgments, he divides ideas into composite, adventitious, and innate, and asks whether those ideas “resemble” external objects or not:

And finally, even if these ideas did come from things other than myself, it would not follow that they must resemble those things. Indeed, I think I have often discovered a great disparity [between an object and its idea] in many cases. For example, there are two different ideas of the sun which I find within me. One of them, which is acquired as it were from the senses and which is a prime example of an idea which I reckon to come from an external source, makes the sun appear very small. The other idea is based on astronomical reasoning, that is, it is derived from certain notions which are innate in me (or else it is constructed by me in some other way), and this idea shows the sun to be several times larger than the earth. Obviously these ideas cannot resemble the sun which exists outside me; and reason persuades me that the idea which seems to have emanated most directly from the sun itself has in fact no resemblance to it at all(AT VII, 39; CSM II, p. 27).6

In the first passage from Scotus, the rational soul arbitrates between the senses when the senses do not agree. In the case of a disparity between the evidence of one sense and another, the judgment of reason corrects the conflicting judgments of sense. Scotus’ example draws on perceptible objects (the staff, water, the sun) to account for particular sensory phenomena. Scotus maintains that the judgment of reason arbitrates between the conflicting senses “only as an occasion and not as a cause,”7 and concludes that the evidence of the senses is generally reliable.

Descartes, on the other hand, casts doubt on whether his ideas of objects, which he has always assumed to come from without him, do not actually come from within. For Descartes, the mind’s conflicting ideas of the size of the sun are not mediated by the rational mind’s judgment. In the above fragment from the ThirdMeditation, the two ideas of the sun (external and innateidea) are treated as modes of thinking that come from within. Descartes points out that between the mind’s two ideas of the sun no discernable inequality exists. As modes of thought, one idea of the sun is neither more true nor false than the other, even though they appear to contradict one another. The example of the sun is one parallel that indicates Descartes employed Scotus’ approach to the problem of the disparity between the evidence of the senses and the evidence of reason.

Turning to the second image of the stone in Scotus’ Treatise on God as First Principle, Scotus uses the image of a stone as an illustration in his discussion of the infinite and perfect causal power of God:

…since the divine essence alone is the reason for seeing the stone perfectly, it follows that the stone adds nothing of perfection to that essence. But this does not follow if it is the reason for producing the stone immediately, even as total cause, for the first cause is the complete cause of the highest nature. But since the latter is finite, you cannot infer that its first cause is infinite; neither is it proved that the first is the total cause of other things.8

Scotus argues that “the full causal power that each thing may have in itself the first being possesses even more perfectly than if it were formally present. Therefore its power is infinite in intensity.”9 Scotus uses the terms “formal” (formaliter) and “eminent” (eminenter) in treating the infinite power of the first cause. According to Scotus, “formal properties” apply to the first cause in the sense that God actually contains every possible effect, according to its definition, and conveys properties “formally” through causae per se. God generates the “degrees of perfection” inhering in essences through a chain of causal necessity. “Eminent properties” apply to the first cause in that “potential properties” inhering in effects are transmitted through causae per accidens. “Eminent properties” do not participate in “degrees of perfection” because the nature of “eminent properties” is non-essential, or not intended to produce a given effect. For example, a tool may be causing essentially when it is being used for the purpose for which it was made; however, if a tool made to drive nails was being used to turn screws, the effect of the tool is accidental to the nature of the cause for which it is used to achieve.

Scotus’ example of the stone is used in regard to the question whether the infinite first cause produces an infinity of things simultaneously, or only in succession. Scotus maintains that even if an infinity of “eminent properties” do not exist simultaneously, the first cause possesses all the power “formally” “to produce an infinite number at once.”10 For Scotus, the first cause is perfection in the highest degree, and possess all “formal properties” in actuality, though not individually, or potentially. The less individuation that exists between the first “essential cause” and the effect signifies the greater perfection inhering in an “essential order of causes.” Scotus adds that, “the more one can produce simultaneously, the greater the power in intensity,”11 and concludes his discussion with the point that God’s power must be infinite in intensity in order to create ex nihilo. Scotus’ example of the stone shows that anything, whether understood to be existing simultaneously with an infinity of things, or as a member of an infinite succession, adds nothing to the divine essence, since that thing (e.g., a stone) only exists by virtue of an infinite cause of infinite intensity. A stone itself cannot be a total cause, as only the first cause is a complete cause. A stone exists, like all things, on a scalar magnitude of essential perfections, and exists only in virtue of a prior cause that contains “formal” and “eminent” causal power greater than that inhering in the stone.

The context wherein the parallel example of the stone occurs in Descartes’ Third Meditationshows that Descartes owed much to his reading of Scotus:

Now it is manifest by the natural light that there must be at least as much [reality] in the efficient and total cause as in the effect of that cause. For where, I ask, could the effect get its reality from, if not from the cause? And how could the cause give it to the effect unless it possessed it? It follows from this both that something cannot arise from nothing, and also that what is more perfect — that is, contains in itself more reality — cannot arise from what is less perfect. And this is transparently true not only in the case of effects which possess [what the philosophers call] actual or formal reality, but also in the case of ideas, where one is considering only [what they call] objective reality. A stone, for example, which previously did not exist, cannot begin to exist unless it is produced by something which contains, either formally or eminently everything to be found in the stone… But it is also true that the idea of heat, or of a stone, cannot exist in me unless it is put there by some cause which contains at least as much reality as I conceive to be in the heat or in the stone. For although this cause does not transfer any of its actual or formal reality to my idea, it should not on that account be supposed that it must be less real. The nature of an idea is such that of itself it requires no formal reality except what it derives from my thought, of which it is a mode. But in order for a given idea to contain such and such objective reality, it must surely derive from some cause which contains at least as much formal reality as there is objective reality in the idea. For if we suppose than an idea contains something which was not in its cause, it must have got this from nothing; yet the mode of being by which a thing exists objectively [or representatively] in the intellect by way of an idea, imperfect though it may be, is certainly not nothing, and so it cannot come from nothing…12

In the latter fragment, Descartes assembles an impressive array of Scotus’ terminology: “infinite cause,” “degrees of perfection,” and “formal” and “eminent properties.” One exception is Scotus’ “accidentally ordered causes.”13 Descartes’ argument seems to incorporate different elements from two of Scotus’ texts, the Treatise on God as First Principle, and the Opus oxoniense. The example of the stone and “formal” and “eminent properties” appear together in Scotus’ Treatise. The concept of “objective reality” appears in both the Treatise and the Opus oxoniense. In the fragment from the Third Meditation where we find the image of the stone, Descartes invokes Scotus’ concept of an essentially ordered series of causes to argue that the mind’s “formal” idea of an infinite God cannot have originated in the mind. Descartes must suppose that an infinite God exists in order for the innate idea of an infinite God to possess a greater reality or perfection than the mind’s composite or adventitious ideas of things:“in order for a given idea to contain such and such objective reality, it must surely derive it from some cause which contains at least as much formal reality as there is objective reality in the idea.”14 To demonstrate how the mind came to possess an idea of God’s existence, Descartes argues that “formal properties,” or the mind’s innate ideas, pertain to a chain, however short, of “essentially ordered causes” that informs the mind with an idea of the existence of an infinite God. The idea of an infinite God allows Descartes to arrange ideas, and consequently things, on a scalar magnitude of “degrees of perfection.” Descartes’ example of the stone occurs in a conceptual context that mirrors Scotus’ discussion of an infinite first cause.

Correspondingly, in the Third Meditation, the third image, the “parent” (in Scotus, father/son) occurs in the context of Descartes’ discussion of “objective reality,” or “degrees of perfection.” Descartes’ example of the parent treats the relationship obtaining between the parent/meditator and God/meditator in an analogous way to Scotus’ proof for the existence of God in his Opus oxoniense. First, Scotus:

Per se or essentially ordered causes differ from accidentally ordered causes in three respects. The first difference is that in essentially ordered causes, the second depends upon the first precisely in its act of causation. In accidentally ordered causes that is not the case, although the second may depend on the first for its existence or in some other way. Thus a son depends upon his father for existence but is not dependent upon him in exercising his own causality, since he can act just as well whether his father be living or dead.15

Now Descartes:

…[I]t is not so easy for me to remember why the idea of a being more perfect than myself must necessarily proceed from some being which in reality is more perfect. I should therefore like to go further and inquire whether I myself, who have this idea, could exist if no such being existed. From whom, in that case, would I derive my existence? From myself presumably, or from my parents, or from some other beings less perfect than God; for nothing more perfect than God, or even as perfect, can be thought of or imagined… Lastly, as regards my parents, even if everything I ever believed about them is true, it is certainly not they who preserve me; and insofar as I am a thinking thing, they did not even make me; they merely placed certain dispositions in the matter which I have always regarded as containing me, or rather my mind, for that is all I now take myself to be. So there can be no difficulty regarding my parents in this context. Altogether then, it must be concluded that the mere fact that I exist and have within me an idea of a most perfect being, that is, God, provides a very clear proof that God indeed exists.16

In his proof for the existence of God, Scotus delineates how essences figure into any series of essentially ordered causes, or causae per se. Scotus reasons that accidentally ordered causes, or causae per accidens, depend on an “essential” order of causation, “since accidents do not have any order save in virtue of what is fixed and permanent.”17 The fixity of “essentially ordered causes” refers to immaterial reality; “accidentally ordered causes” refer to material things. Given the dual nature of Scotus’ treatment of causation, it is evident that he, unlike Descartes, never considers the existence of bodies as doubtful. Following Aristotle, Scotus maintains that all ideas owe their origin to the rational soul’s perceptions of physical objects. The existence of the material world, for Scotus, is an Aristotelian indemonstrable principle.

In the example of the father and son, Scotus examines two kinds of causation through the analogy of a son’s genetic and generic relationship to his father. Scotus argues that “accidentally ordered causes” are not by nature intended to produce a given effect. The “degree of perfection” inhering in the essence of the father is never dependent on, or the cause of, the “degree of perfection” inhering in the essence of the son. In the “essential” order of causation, the essential attributes of one individual are not inherited by another. If the father is taken to be the “essential cause” of the son, the son must, of necessity, be less perfect than the father. Because the son is not his own cause, his relation to the father is necessarily one of “formal” dependence, or the son depending on the father “in the exercising of his own causality.”18 The son takes his essential nature from the father in virtue of a relationship of “formal” dependence, but he is not a direct copy of the father. The necessity that obtains in the relationship of the father and son becomes clear when Scotus replaces the father with God, and the created essential natures of angels or the rational soul stand in for the son.

The similarity of context in Descartes and Scotus’ respective texts is striking. In the “parent” passage from the Third Meditation, Descartes employs Scotus’ example of the father/son in his discussion of “essential” and “accidentally ordered causes.” Descartes’ brief consideration of “accidentally ordered causes” as the origin of the mind’s idea of God’s existence never amounts to more than a hypothetical possibility. In the case of both Scotus and Descartes’ texts, the “accidental order” of causation applies only to the parent as the material cause of the son. Material existence, for Scotus, does not explain from where the son or the father derives their being or essence. The question of the origin of essences is answered when directed to the essential order of causation. “Essentially ordered causes” form a relation of dependence that goes back to God as the first cause.

In the Third Meditation, Descartes is searching for the cause of his idea of God, or what he understands as “a substance infinite, independent, most highly intelligent, most highly powerful, and by which [formal attributes]… is extant.”19 He summons Scotus’ concept of an “essential order of causes” to explore the possibility of God as the originator of the thinking thing (res cogitans). Descartes describes essences manifesting sub specia eternatatus in descending “degrees of perfection.” Descartes then uses Scotus’ example of parentage to demonstrate how the “accidental order of causes” that obtains between the parents and the meditator extends no further than parents as the cause of “certain dispositions in the matter [body] which I have always regarded as containing me, or rather my mind, for that is all I now take myself to be.”20 Being unable to posit a logical causal link to genetic parentage, Descartes surmises that the source of the contents of the mind cannot owe their existence to causae per accidens; the existence of the mind’s idea of God can only exist, and can only be explained through causae per se.

Descartes holds that the mind’s idea of the existence of God is innate, and that God deliberately created the mind with an idea of His existence. Accordingly, God endows beings, whether they are thinking things, extended, or both, with essential being. All beings created by God are secondary members of an “essential order of causes.” In the case of the meditator’s innate idea of God’s existence, the second member of an “essential order of causes” depends upon the first member, God, for its cause. Under Scotus’ consideration of “essentially ordered causes,” God is not involved in the direct causation of ideas. For Scotus, ideas originate in the rational soul’s perception of objects in the material world. Scotus’ separation of causes into accidental and per se emphasizes the radically free creative power of God:

…in the realm of beings something indeed exists which is simply first according to efficiency, and also that something exists which is simply first in the order of ends, and that something exists which is simply first by reason of pre-eminence.21

In 1300, Scotus originated the concept of “degrees of perfection” emanating out of “essentially ordered causes.” As a close reader of Scotus’ writings in the 17th century, Descartes remained largely faithful to Scotus’ handling of images and terminology in building his conceptual proof for the existence of God as an innate idea of the mind. Following Scotus, Descartes defines God as an infinite being that is the perfection of perfections. To prove the mind’s idea of God is an idea of a perfect and infinite being, Descartes applies Scotus’ method of proving God’s existence through the “essential order of causes.”

Despite similarities of image, context, and terminology, two important differences of method obtain between Scotus and Descartes’ use of “essential order of causes” in their respective proofs for the existence of God. First, Scotus never casts doubt on the existence of the material world in order to establish the existence of God through the “essential order of causes.” As an Aristotelian, Scotus is not concerned with the verifiability of the sciences as such, whereas Descartes’ primary concern after having rejected the Aristotelian cosmology is the very foundation upon which the sciences are built. Subordinating the world of “accidentally ordered causes” to the logically prior “essentially ordered causes” is necessary for Descartes to deduce the foundations of the new science from a single indubitable starting point. Secondary causes in the material world claim no essential connection to the essential nature of God. Descartes’ distinction between an accidental order of causation, such as the parent/son, and “essentially ordered causes” corresponds to his division between extended things (res extensa) and thinking things (res cogitans).

The second difference in method between Scotus and Descartes’ proofs for the existence of God involves the philosophic status of reason as such. In the Third Meditation, Descartes does not prove the existence of God from reason alone, as Scotus attempt to do. After discovering the mind’s origin in the mind’s a priori idea of God, Descartes notes that the mind’s perception of its ideas does not involve reasoning, but only a passive observation and delineation of its three types of ideas in relation to the causal principle of “objective reality.”22 According to Scotus, God, considered as infinite is only known through an “essential order of causes.” The finite “accidental order of causes” tells one nothing about the infinite. In the disembodied world of the Third Meditation, Descartes can dispense with contingent material bodies originating from the secondary qualities of substance and essence. For Descartes, the material world is not caused through the “essential order of causation.” The “essential order of causation” is linked to the material world by way of essence, or in other words, the rational mind’s innate idea of God’s existence.

In the respect of a difference of method, Descartes’ use of Scotus represents both an “original and unorthodox stand” in relation to his Scholastic predecessor’s treatment of “objective reality,” and “an original modification.”23Descartes utilizes the Scotus’ theoretical apparatus of “degrees of perfection,” and its attendant terminology and images, insofar as it is purposeful for him. There never occurs a wholesale transfer of Scotus’ concepts into the Cartesian framework. Yet significant correspondences between Scotus and Descartes’ respective theoretical apparatus indicate that Descartes found enough in Scotus’ philosophic thought to construct one of the hallmarks of his philosophy. Descartes’ proof for the existence of God in the Third Meditation is orthodox, however, in the respect that he continues the Scholastic tradition of generating a proof for the existence of God using conventional Scholastic terminology. It is doubtful such terminology came into Descartes’ hands from Renaissance sources; rather, Descartes likely read the Scholastic proofs for God’s existence first-hand, or in commentaries or textbooks. 24 Descartes never refers to Scotus in the Third Meditation,25 but Scotus’ fingerprints are on the blueprint of the Cartesian mind’s innate idea of God. The possibility that Descartes read Scotus’ writings firsthand is not a far-fetched. In Descartes and the Last Scholastics, Roger Ariew notes that, “Descartes could have become aware of Scotist doctrines from a number of disparate sources.” Ariew lists several possible sources without proposing that Descartes could have directly read works written by Scotus. Nevertheless, Ariew observes that, “Descartes leans toward Scotism for every one of the Scotist theses, as long as they are all relevant to his philosophy.” 26

In the Third Meditation, Descartes’ borrowing from the philosophical writings of the Scholastic philosophers is akin to the Scholastic philosopher’s practice of borrowing both terminology and images from writings of the Ancients. The textual sources of the images and terms used by Scholastic philosophers are sometimes named, sometimes not, and the decision seems almost arbitrary. 27 Descartes, in his philosophical writings, only mentions a handful of his contemporaries and predecessors in passing, leaving a more-or-less cold trail behind him as far as the sources of his own philosophic thought are concerned.28 Yet the use of well-established images, for the Scholastics, serves the purpose of either invoking the authority of a particular Ancient writer with whom the Scholastic philosopher shares an intellectual kinship, or simply because the pre-established image serves the purpose better than one they might invent. Descartes’ use of Scotus’ terminology and images in the Third Meditationwere probably apparent to his contemporary readers,29 being that Descartes’ use of terms and images is in line with the Schoolmen’s long tradition of borrowing terms and images from the Ancients. 30

We now examine the possibility that Descartes derived the terminology and images of “degrees of perfection” from the writings of William of Ockham, rather than the writings of Scotus. It is just as likely that Descartes derived the example of the “parent” from Ockham, as it is that he derived it from Scotus. The image, in the context of “degrees of perfection,” is found in both the writings of Ockham and Scotus. In his critique of Scotus’ concept of “degrees of perfection” in Qusetiones in lib. I Physicorum, Ockham cites Scotus’ example of the father/son. To illustrate Scotus’ point about “accidentally ordered causes,” Ockham reprises Scotus’ example of the father/son in a division whose heading reads, “Scotus answers this question in the affirmative,”31 thus indicating that what follows concerning “degrees of perfection” can be taken to be the views of Scotus, and not those of Ockham.32

Ockham, investigating the question, “Whether in essentially ordered causes the second cause depends on the first,” writes:

To this question I answer: There is a difference between essentially ordered causes and accidentally ordered causes, and partial causes concurring in the production of numerically the same effect. For in essentially ordered causes the second cause depends on the first for its first existence; not, however, for its conservation. For instance, Socrates depends on Plato, since he cannot be naturally caused without Plato, his father; but he is not conserved by Plato, because Socrates lives on when Plato is dead.33

Ockham’s example of Plato/Socrates is simply a reformulation of the concept of dependency between causes that he later clarifies with the example of the father/son when reviewing Scotus’ concept of “degrees of perfection.” Descartes does not employ Ockham’s example of Plato/Socrates in the Third Meditation. If Descartes derives the example of the parent and the concept of ‘Degrees of “perfection” from Ockham, we must ask why Descartes employs the example of the father/son, and not the example of Plato/Socrates. Or, why does he not use both? Ockham’s Qusetiones in lib. I Physicorum, when considered as the source of Descartes’ example of the parent, raises more questions than it answers.

In the Third Meditation, the intricacy of Descartes’ handling of the concept of “degrees of perfection” reflects Scotus’ equally intricate handling of the concept. Without directly referring to Scotus’ writings, it is unlikely that Descartes could gather elsewhere the full range of images and terminology found in Scotus’ argument for the “degrees of perfection,” or Scotus’ several types of causation. Nor could Descartes extract what he needed from simply reading Ockham’s summary of Scotus’ concept for two reasons. First, there is the brevity of Ockham’s overview of Scotus’ ideas. Second, there is the fact that Ockham maintains, on nearly every point in his summary, a position in opposition to Scotus’ conclusions about an infinity of “degrees of perfection.”34 It is unlikely that Descartes would have found in Ockham’s writings what he needed to construct his proof for the existence of God from Ockham’s truncation of Scotus’ argument for “degrees of perfection.” Moreover, what incentive would Descartes have had to resurrect what only appears in Ockham’s account to be a slight and slighting notice of Scotus’ ideas? In the writings of Scotus, Descartes found the ready-made technical vocabulary and illustrative imagery to accomplish what he envisioned for his proof for God’s existence in the Third Meditation. Based on how fully Descartes treats Scotus’ concept of “degrees of perfection,” the diluted form of the theory that Ockham puts together would not have served Descartes’ purposes well. As a close reader of Scholastic philosophers, Descartes found more efficient uses for Ockham’s philosophic thought than for what he aimed to prove in the Third Meditation.

1 Calvin Normore, “Meaning and Objective Being: Descartes and his Sources,” in Essays on Descartes Meditations, Amelie Oksenberg Rorty, ed. (University of California Press, 1986), p. 231, brackets mine. Some further relevant articles addressing the subject of the relation between Scholasticism and Descartes’ Meditations and the rôle of “objective reality” in Cartesian philosophy are: Roland Dalbiez, “Les sources scolastiques de la théorie cartésienne de l’être objectif. A Propos du ‘Descartes’ de M. Gilson,” in Revue d’Histoire de la philosophie 3, 1929, pp. 464-72: “Le milieu intellectuel scolastique que nous avons essayé de reconstituer en partie: attribution scotiste d’une quasi-réalité a l’esse objectivum, définition vasquezienne de la vérité par l’accord du conceptus objectivus et de la chose, affirmation suarezienne de la possibilité absolue de la sensation d’un objet inexistant, ce milieu intellectuel permet de comprendre historiquement la genèse de la théorie cartésienne de l’être objectif ;” Jean-Luc Marion, 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, 1986); Roger Ariew, Descartes and the Last Scholastics (Cornell University Press, Ithaca and London, 1999); Marco Forlivesi, “La distinction entre concept formèl et concept objectif: Suarez, Pasqualigo, Mastri,” in Les Études Philosophiques, Nr. 1, 2002; Jean-Francois Courtine, “La doctrine cartésienne de l’idée et ses sources scolastiques,” Les catégories de l’être: Etudes de philosophie ancienne et médiévale (PUF: Paris, 2003).

2 T.J. Cronin, S. J., “Objective Being in Descartes and Suarez,” Wisdom In Depth: Essays in Honor of Henri Renard, S. J., eds. V.F. Daues, S.J., M.R. Holloway, S.J., L. Sweeney, S.J. (Milwaukee: Bruce, 1966); p. 79.

3 Norman J. Wells, “Objective Reality of Ideas in Descartes, Caterus, and Suarez,” in The Journal of the History of Philosophy (University of California Press, Berkeley; Los Angeles, 28:1, pp. 33-61, January, 1990), p. 61.

4 The main references in Descartes’ Third Meditation to the sun are as follows: AT VII, 38: CSM II, p. 26; AT VII, 39: CSM II, 27. The main references to the stone are as follows: AT VII, 40: CSM II, 28-9, 30. The main references to the parent are as follows: AT VII, 48, 50: CSM II, 31-33, 35. Hereafter all citations of Descartes’ works are as follows: references to Charles Adam and Paul Tannery (eds.), Oeuvres de Descartes, 11 vols. (Librairie Philosophique J. Vrin, Paris, 1996), are abbreviated as AT. References to the English edition of Descartes’ philosophical works, The Philosophical Writings of Descartes, 3 vols., John Cottingham, Robert Stoothoff, Dugald Mardoch, and Anthony Kenny (eds.), (Cambridge University Press, 1984), are abbreviated as CSM.

5 John Duns Scotus, Philosophical Writings, translated by Allan Wolter, O.F.M. (Hackett Publishing Company, 1987), p. 114; Iohannis Duns Scoti, Opera Omnia, vol. 3, pp. 123-172 (Vaticana, 1950). The passage in Latin runs as follows: “Si autem diversi sensus habeant diversa judicia de aliquo viso extra, puta visus dicit baculum esse fractum cujus pars est in aqua et pars est in aere, visus semper dicit solem esse minoris quantitatis quam est, et omne visum a remotis esse minus quam sit, in talibus est certitudo quid verum sit et quis sensus erret per propositionem…” References to the two editions of Scotus’ writings edited by Allan Wolter, O.F.M., are as follows: John Duns Scotus, Philosophical Writings is abbreviated as PW; John Duns Scotus, A Treatise on God as First Principle, translated by Allan Wolter, O.F.M. (Franciscan Press, 1983), is abbreviated as TGFP. The critical edition of Scotus’ works cited is abbreviated as DSOO. References to the Duns Scotus:Opera Omnia list, in the following order, volume, page, and paragraph number.

6 Third Mediation, AT VII, 39: “Ac denique, quamvis a rebus a me diversis procederent, non inde sequitur illas rebus istis similes esse debere. Quinimo in multis saepe magnum discrimen videor deprehendisse: ut, exempli causa, duas diversas solis ideas apud me invenio, unam tanquam a sensibus haustam, & quae maxime inter illas quas adventitias existimo est recensenda, per quam mihi valde parvus apparet, aliam vero ex rationibus Astronomiae desumptam, hoc est ex notionibus quibusdam mihi innatis elicitam, vel quocumque alio modo a me factam, per quam aliquoties major quam terra exhibetur; utraque profecto similis eidem soli extra me existenti esse non potest, & ratio persuadet illam ei maxime esse dissimilem, quae quam proxime ab ipso videtur emanasse.” Cf. Third Meditation, AT VII, 38: CSM II, p. 26, for an earlier reference to the sun: “Among my ideas, some appear to be innate, some to be adventitious, and others to have been invented by me. My understanding of what a thing is, what truth is, and what thought is, seems to derive simply from my own nature. But my hearing a noise, as I do now, or seeing the sun, or feeling the fire, comes from things which are located outside me, or so I have hitherto judged.” Cf. Richard Mckeon, ed., The Basic Works of Aristotle (Random House, New York, 1941), p. 588; 428 b, 1, ff., for a likely source for the sun image in both Scotus and Descartes: “But what we imagine is sometimes false though our contemporaneous judgment about it is true; e.g. we imagine the sun to be a foot in diameter though we are convinced that it is larger than the inhabited part of the earth…”

7 John Duns Scotus, PW, p. 115: “And so when reason judges that the senses err, it does so in

virtue of two kinds of knowledge. The first is a knowledge for which the intellect requires a

sense only as an occasion and not as a cause — a knowledge in which it would not be

deceived even if all the senses were deceived. The other is a knowledge acquired by the oft

repeated testimony of one or more senses which are known to be true by reason of the

proposition so frequently quoted, viz., ‘Whatever occurs in most instances, etc.”’

8John Duns Scotus, TGFP, p. 132. The Latin text (p. 133) runs as follows: “Ad secundum obiectum supra dico quod quia essentia divina, sola est ratio videndi lapidem perfecte, sequitur quod lapis nihil perfectionis addat illi essentiae. Non sequitur hoc, si est ratio causandi lapidem immediate, etiam ut tota causa: nam respectu supremae naturae prima causa est totalis causa.” Cf. John Duns Scotus, PW, p. 25, where Scotus also uses the example of a stone: “We would have no more reason to conclude that God is formally wise from the notion of wisdom derived from creatures then we would have reason to conclude that God is formally a stone. For it is possible to form another notion of a stone to which the notion of a created stone bears some relation, for instance, stone as an idea of God. And so we could say formally, ‘God is a stone,’ according to this analogous concept, just as we say, ‘He is wise,’ according to another analogous concept.’” The context of this passage, treating of the supposed attributes of God, differs from the passage referring to the example of the stone cited above, and further, this passage differs from Descartes considerations where he uses the example of the stone.

9John Duns Scotus, TGFP, p. 130: “…I prove infinity as follows: if the first being at one and the same time formally possessed all causal power, even tough the things which it could cause could not be given simultaneous existence, it would be infinite because — as far as it is concerned — it has power enough to produce an infinite number all at once, and the more one can produce simultaneously, the greater the power in intensity. But if the first being possessed such power in an even more perfect way than if it had formally, its intensive infinity follows a fortiori. But the full causal power that each thing may have in itself the first being possesses even more perfectly than if it were formally present. Therefore its power is infinite in intensity.”

10 John Duns Scotus, TGFP, p. 130.

11Ibid., TGFP, p. 130.

12 Third Meditation, AT VII, 40, CSM 2, pp. 28-29; brackets and italics in original. The original Latin text runs as follows: “Jam vero lumine naturali manifestum est tantumdem ad minimum esse debere in causa efficiente & totali, quantum in ejusdem causae effectu. Nam, quaeso, undenam posset assumere realitatem suam effectus, nisi a causa? Et quomodo illam ei causa dare posset, nisi etiam haberet? Hinc autem sequitur, nec posse aliquid a nihilo fieri, nec etiam id quod magis perfectum est, hoc est quod plus realitatis in se continet, ab eo quod minus. Atque hoc non modo perspicue verum est de iis effectibus, quorum realitas est actualis sive formalis, sed etiam de ideis, in quibus consideratur tantum realitas objectiva. Hoc est, non modo non potest, exempli causa, aliquis lapis, qui prius non fuit, nunc incipere esse, nisi producatur ab aliqua re in qua totum illud sit vel formaliter vel eminenter, quod ponitur in lapide; nec potest calor in subjectum quod prius non calebat induci, nisi a re quae sit ordinis saltem aeque perfecti atque est calor, & sic de caeteris; sed praterea etiam non potest in me esse idea caloris, vel lapidis, nisi in me posita sit ab aliqua causa, in qua tantumdem ad minimum sit realitatis quantum esse in calore vel lapide concipio. Nam quamvis ista causa nihil de sua realitate actuali sive formali in meam ideam transfundat, non ideo putandum est illam minus realem esse debere, sed talem esse naturam ipsius ideae, ut nullam aliam ex se realitatem formalem exigat, praeter illam quam mutuatur a cogitatione mea, cujus est modus. Quod autem haec idea realitatem objectivam hanc vel illam contineat potius quam aliam, hoc profecto habere debet ab aliqua causa in qua tantumdem sit ad minimum realitatis formalis quantum ipsa continet objectivae. Si enim ponamus aliquid in idea reperiri, quod non fuerit in ejus causa, hoc igitur habet a nihilo; atqui quantumvis imperfectus sit iste essendi modus, quo res est objective in intellectu per ideam, non tamen profecto plane nihil est, nec proinde a nihilo esse potest…”

13 Another distinguishing mark of Descartes’ debt to the writings of Scotus is in Descartes particular use in the Third Meditation of the long-established phrase, “ex nihilo nihil fit.” In both Descartes and Scotus’ texts, the superiority of the first cause to its effects is the topic wherein the phrase is invoked. The phrase, “nothing comes from nothing” is found in Scotus’ proof for the existence of God in the Ordinatio. The first two extracts are from Descartes’ Third Meditation:

“It follows from this both that something cannot arise from nothing, and also that what is more perfect — that is, contains in itself more reality — cannot arise from what is less perfect” (AT VII, 40: CSM II, p. 28);

and,

“For if we suppose than an idea contains something which was not in its cause, it must have got this from nothing; yet the mode of being by which a thing exists objectively [or representatively] in the intellect by way of an idea, imperfect though it may be, is certainly not nothing, and so it cannot come from nothing…” (AT VII, 41: CSM II, p. 29);

and now Scotus:

“Proof: Some being can be produced. Therefore it is either produced by itself or by nothing or by something other than itself. Now it cannot be produced by nothing, for what is nothing causes nothing. Neither can it be produced by itself…” (PW, p. 39; DSOO, 2, 151, 43);

and,

“Proof: From the first reason adduced here, viz., that nothing can come from nothing, it follows that some nature is capable of causing effectively…” (PW, p 44; DSOO, 2, 161, 55).

14 Third Meditation, AT VII, 41; CSM 2, pp. 28-29.

15 John Duns Scotus, PW, pp. 40-41; John Duns Scotus, DSOO, 2, 154, 48-49. The Latin text runs as follows: “Et differunt causae per se sive essentialiter ordinatae a causis per accidens sive accidentaliter ordinatis in tribus. Prima differentia est, quod in per se ordinatis secunda in quantum causa dependet a prima; in per accidens non, licet in esse vel aliquo modo alio dependeat. Filius enim licet secundum esse dependeat a patre, non tamen in causando, quia patre mortuo potest agere sicut ipso vivo.”

16 Third Meditation, AT VII, 48, 50; CSM 2, 31-33, 35. The Latin original runs as follows: “Nempe a quo essem? A me scilicet, vel a parentibus, vel ab aliis quibuslibet Deo minus perfectis; nihil enim ipso perfectius, nec etiam aeque perfectum, cogitari aut fingi potest… Quantum denique ad parentes attinet, ut omnia vera sint quae de illis unquam putavi, non tamen profecto illi me conservant, nec etiam ullo modo me, quatenus sum res cogitans, effecerunt; sed tantum dispositions quasdam in ea materia poseurunt, cui me, hoc est mentum, quam solam nunc pro me accipio, inesse judicavi. Ac proinde hic nulla de iis difficultas esse potest; sed omnino est concludendum, ex hoc solo quod existam, quaedamque idea entis perfectissimi, hoc est Dei, in me sit, evidentissime demonstrari Deum etiam existere.”

17 John Duns Scotus, PW, p.43.

18 John Duns Scotus, PW, p. 41.

19 Third Meditation, AT VII, 45: CSM 2, p. 31. Brackets mine.

20 Third Meditation, AT VII, 50-51; CSM, 2, p. 35. Brackets mine.

21 John Duns Scotus, PW, p. 38; DSOO, 2, 149-50, 41.

22 “Third Meditation, AT VII, 42; CSM 2, p. 29: “So it is clear to me, by the natural light, that the ideas in me are like [pictures, or] images which can easily fall short of the perfections of the things from which they are taken, but which cannot contain anything greater or more perfect.”

23 Norman J. Wells, “Objective Reality of Ideas in Descartes, Caterus, and Suarez,” in The Journal of the History of Philosophy, p. 61.

24 Cf. Calvin Normore, “Meaning and Objective Being: Descartes and his Sources”: “In the Third Meditation Descartes is conjuring with the stock-in-trade of late Medieval metaphysicians… This suggests a Descartes firmly rooted in a Scholastic tradition which is deeply in debt to Duns Scotus and closely allied with fourteenth-century developments in epistemology and in the theory of meaning. This makes the problem of Descartes immediate sources and the question of his originality even more puzzling” p. 240.

25 To my knowledge, the sole mention of Duns Scotus to issue from Descartes’ pen occurs in the Objections and Replies accompanying the Meditations (AT VII, 120). Descartesrefers to Scotus by name in his reply to the objections of Caterus against his distinction between the mind and body. However, Descartes’ reference to Scotus is itself made in reference to Caterus’ citation of Scotus’ “formal” and “objective” distinction.

26 Roger Ariew, Descartes and the Last Scholastics, pp. 56, 55.

27 In the section of the Discourse on the Method that corresponds with the Third Meditation, Descartes makes an explicit admission that the terminology employed in his proof for the existence of God derives from the Scholastics: “To this I added that since I knew of some perfections that I did not possess, I was not the only being which existed (here, by your leave, I shall freely use some Scholastic terminology)…,” AT VI, 34: CSM I, p. 128. Richard Kennington cites this latter passage in connection to Descartes’ Scholastic vocabulary in his erudite article, “The ‘Teaching of Nature’ in Descartes’ Soul Doctrine,” in Review of Metaphysics, 1972, vol. XXVI, p. 92. Descartes’ free usage of Scholastic terminology constitutes what Kennington calls “small indications of the borrowed character of his terminology,” and notes several instances where Descartes qualifies and editorializes the terms he introduces, as if he himself were slightly incredulous as to the validity or efficacy of the language he adopts or revises for his own purposes: “We find that in the Meditations he uses little or no traditional terminology until in Meditation III he addresses himself to the first part of his apologetic intention, the proof that God exists. Abruptly a group of Scholastic terms is introduced, scarcely defined and devoid of supporting explanation — “objective reality,” “formal or actual reality,” “eminent reality”… He prefaces his introduction of “objective reality” with a “so to speak” (ut ita loquar, in the French version, “pour ainsi parler”). He speaks of “that reality that the philosophers call actual or formal” and “the reality that they name objective…,” italics in original(cf. AT IX, 31-32 for Kennington’s quotations). Two additional examples might be added to this list. First, a passage from Descartes’ treatise, The World: “To express myself in scholastic terms, they will be able to have a priori demonstrations of everything that can be produced in this new world” (AT XI, 47; CSM 1, p. 97); second, a passage from Principles of Philosophy: “Hence the term ‘substance’ does not apply univocally, as they say in the Schools, to God and to other things…” (AT VIII A, 24; CSM 1, p. 210).

28 For an insightful comment on Descartes’ possible attitude toward exploiting the work of his predecessors, see Etienne Gilson, God and Philosophy (Yale University Press, New Haven & London, 1969),p. 83: “Of the many things which had been said by his predecessors [concerning the origin of the idea of God], a large number appeared as being at least materially true, and Descartes never hesitated to repeat them when it suited him to do so… Where the truth value of an idea is so wholly inseparable from its place in the order of deduction, why should one worry about its origin? There is but one place where a true idea is fully true; it is the very place it finds in Descartes’ own philosophy.”

29 Cf. Descartes and the Last Scholastics (Cornell University Press, Ithaca and London, 1999), for Ariew’s examination of 17th century Scotism.

30 The following is an example of the Scholastic practice of anonymous borrowing. The example begins with Aquinas’ borrowing an image from Aristotle and ends with Descartes borrowing the same image from either Aristotle or Aquinas. In Aristotle’s De Anima (413a 8) we find this image: “Further, we have no light on the problem whether the soul may not be the actuality of its body in the sense in which the sailor is the actuality of the ship.” Richard Mckeon, ed., The Basic Works of Aristotle, p. 556.In SummaContra Gentiles II, 57:2, Aquinas invokes the image of a sailor and a ship to illustrate a point in his discussion of the soul. Aquinas, rebutting Plato’s claim of the divisibility of body and soul, writes: “Accordingly, Plato and his followers asserted that the intellectual soul is not united to the body as form to matter, but only as mover to movable, for Plato said that the soul is in the body “as a sailor in a ship” (Saint Thomas Aquinas, Summa Contra Gentiles: Book 2: Creation, trans. by Vernon Bourke andJames F. Anderson (University of Notre Dame Press, 1992), p. 169). Descartes, too, harkens back to both Aristotle and Aquinas when he reprises this example of the sailor and the ship: “Nature also teaches me, by these sensations of pain, hunger, thirst, and so on, that I am not merely present in my body as a sailor is present in a ship, but that I am very closely joined and, as it were, intermingled with it, so that I and the body form a unit” (Sixth Meditation, AT VII, 8: CSM II, p. 56).

31 William of Ockham, Philosophical Writings: A Selection, translated and edited by Philotheus Boehner, O.F.M. (Hackett Publishing Company, Indianapolis/Cambridge, 1990), pp. 118-19: “[Question 4:] Whether a first efficient cause can be sufficiently proved from production as opposed to conservation?… Scotus answers this question in the affirmative in the first question of the second distinction…” Ockham proceeds to give eight summary answers to the question, according to the views of Scotus, then gives eight of his own replies to both the question, and to Scotus before replying in the end to the main argument, and passing on to the next question.

32 Cf. Ockham’s Philosophical Writings, p. 119-20: “In the seventh place: Otherwise, an infinity of accidentally ordered causes would be impossible; for such an infinity cannot exist simultaneously, but only successively, one thing after another, so that the second cause is caused by the first cause, without, however, depending on the first cause in causing; for a son generates in the same way whether his father be still living or dead.”

33 Ockham, Philosophical Writings, p. 115.

34Cf. Ockham, Philosophical Writings, pp. 119-22.

The Soul of Shakespeare’s 94th Sonnet

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That do not do the thing they most do show,

Who, moving others, are themselves as stone,

Unmoved, cold, and to temptation slow:

They rightly do inherit heaven’s graces

And husband nature’s riches from expense,

They are the lords and owners of their faces,

Others, but stewards of their excellence.

The summer’s flower is to the summer sweet,

Though to itself it only live and die,

But if that flower with base infection meet,

The basest weed outbraves his dignity:

For sweetest things turn sourest by their deeds;

Lilies that fester smell far worse than weeds.3

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

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

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

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

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

Milton’s Early Poem, “The Hymn”

Image

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

XXVIII

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wilt thou yet take all, Galilean?…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1 Cf., The Case Against the Pagans.

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

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

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

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