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

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

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

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

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

I. Science and Faith: Browne and Bacon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

II. Browne and Modernity

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

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Desiderius Erasmus & Martin Luther: The Debate Over The Ancients

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4 Ibid. p 111.

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

6 Ibid. #95

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

8 Ibid. p 29-30.

9 Ibid. pp 28-29

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

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

12 Ibid. p 470.

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

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

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

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

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

18 Ibid. p 65.

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

20 Ibid. p 239.

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

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

23 Ibid. p 244.

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

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

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

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

28 Ibid. p 54.

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

30 Ibid. p246.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now Descartes:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

10 John Duns Scotus, TGFP, p. 130.

11Ibid., TGFP, p. 130.

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

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

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

and,

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

and now Scotus:

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

and,

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

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

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

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

17 John Duns Scotus, PW, p.43.

18 John Duns Scotus, PW, p. 41.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

33 Ockham, Philosophical Writings, p. 115.

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

The God Of The Medieval Mystics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thee I revisit now with bolder wing,

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

In that obscure sojourn, while in my flight

Through utter and through middle darkness borne

With other notes than the Orphean Lyre

I sung of Chaos and Eternal Night,

Taught by the heav’nly Muse to venture down

The dark descent, and up to reascend,

Though hard and rare…6

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

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

Though I uncircumscribed myself retire,

And put not forth my goodness, which is free

To act or not, necessity and chance

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

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

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

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

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

forth came the human pair…

Then commune how that day they best may ply

Their growing work; for much their work outgrew

The hands dispatch of two gardening so wide…12

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

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

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

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

The trouble of thy thoughts this night in sleep

Affects me equally; nor can I like

This uncouth dream, of evil sprung I fear;

Yet evil whence? In thee can harbor none,

Created pure. But know that in the soul

Are many lesser faculties that serve

Reason as chief…

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

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

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

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

Is hard; for who himself beginning knew?…

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

Knew not…

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

“Author of all this thou seest

Above, or round about thee or beneath…

5 Ibid., V: 859-61.

6 Ibid., III: 13-21.

7 Ibid., II: 975.

8 Ibid., IX: 20-21.

9 Ibid., VII: 170-74.

10 Milton, Christian Doctrine, 1:iii.

11 Ibid.

12 PL, IX: 197, 201-203.

13 PL, IX: 211-12.

14 PL, IX: 207-8.

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

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

Milton’s Early Poem, “The Hymn”

Image

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

XXVIII

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