Tag Archives: reason

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.

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

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

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

Pieper propounds and elaborates the following thesis throughout the book:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2 Ibid., p 18-19.

3 Ibid., p 148.

4 Ibid., p 144.

5 C.f., p 78-79.

6 Ibid., p 159.

7 Ibid., p 158.

Nihilism, Evil, & God: Dostoevsky Versus Nietzsche

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3 Ibid., p. 220.

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

O fleeting joys

Of Paradise, dear bought with lasting woes!

Did I request thee, Maker, from my clay

To mould me man, did I solicit thee

From darkness to promote me, or here place

In this delicious garden? As my will

Concurred not to my being, it were but right

And equal to reduce me to my dust,

Desirous to resign, and render back

All I received, unable to perform

Thy terms too hard, by which I was to hold

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

Sufficient penalty, why hast thou added

The sense of endless woes? Inexplicable

Thy justice seems; yet to say truth, too late

I thus contest; then should have been refused

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

5 BK, pp. 240-241.

6 BK, p. 234.

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

8 Matthew 5:17.

9 BK, p. 237.

10 BK, p. 241.

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

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

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

14 WTP, p. 18.

15 WTP, p. 19.

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

17 GS, p. 73, aphorism # 1

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

19 WTP, p. 373, aphorism 702.

20 GS, p. 73, aphorism 1.

21 BK, p 223.

22 A, p 651, aphorism # 59.

23 WTP, p. 298.

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

25 BK, p. 609.

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

The Demise of the Modern Intellectual

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pterodactyls

I. The Question of Immortality

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

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

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

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

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

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

II. From Immortality to Separability

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thee I revisit now with bolder wing,

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

In that obscure sojourn, while in my flight

Through utter and through middle darkness borne

With other notes than the Orphean Lyre

I sung of Chaos and Eternal Night,

Taught by the heav’nly Muse to venture down

The dark descent, and up to reascend,

Though hard and rare…6

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

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

Though I uncircumscribed myself retire,

And put not forth my goodness, which is free

To act or not, necessity and chance

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

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

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

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

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

forth came the human pair…

Then commune how that day they best may ply

Their growing work; for much their work outgrew

The hands dispatch of two gardening so wide…12

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

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

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

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

The trouble of thy thoughts this night in sleep

Affects me equally; nor can I like

This uncouth dream, of evil sprung I fear;

Yet evil whence? In thee can harbor none,

Created pure. But know that in the soul

Are many lesser faculties that serve

Reason as chief…

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

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

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

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

Is hard; for who himself beginning knew?…

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

Knew not…

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

“Author of all this thou seest

Above, or round about thee or beneath…

5 Ibid., V: 859-61.

6 Ibid., III: 13-21.

7 Ibid., II: 975.

8 Ibid., IX: 20-21.

9 Ibid., VII: 170-74.

10 Milton, Christian Doctrine, 1:iii.

11 Ibid.

12 PL, IX: 197, 201-203.

13 PL, IX: 211-12.

14 PL, IX: 207-8.

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

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