Summary Against Modern Thought: The Different Goals Of Philosophy and Theology

This may be proved in three ways. The first...

This may be proved in three ways. The first…

See the first post in this series for an explanation and guide of our tour of Summa Contra Gentiles. All posts are under the category SAMT.

Previous post.

The rest of Book Two is mapped out.

Chapter 4 That the philosopher and the theologian treat of creatures in different ways (alternate translation)

[1] Now it is evident from what has been said that the teaching of the Christian faith treats of creatures in so far as they reflect a certain likeness of God, and forasmuch as error concerning them leads to error about God. And so they are viewed from a different point by the aforesaid teaching, and by that of human philosophy. For human philosophy considers them as such; wherefore we find that the different parts of philosophy correspond to the different genera of things

[2] On the other hand the Christian faith does not consider them as such, for instance it considers fire not as such, but as representing the sublimity of God, and as being directed to Him in any way whatsoever. For as it is stated (Ecclus. xlii. 16, 17), Full of the glory of the Lord is His work. Hath not the Lord made the saints to declare all His wonderful works? Hence also the philosopher and the believer consider different matters about creatures. For the philosopher considers such things as belong to them by their own nature: for instance that fire tends upwards. Whereas the believer considers about creatures only such things as belong to them in respect of their relation to God: for instance that they are created by God, are subject to God, and so forth.

Notes There is a proper difference between theology and philosophy, which nobody disputes.

[3] Wherefore it argues not imperfection in the teaching of faith, if it overlooks many properties of things: such as the shape of the heavens, and the quality of its movement: since neither does the physicist consider the same characters of a line as the geometrician, but only such as are accidental thereto, as the term of a natural body.

Notes The lines—get it? get it?—between physicists and geometricians are blurred these days as any string theorist will tell you, but you get the idea.

[4] Any matters, however, that the philosopher and the believer in common consider about creatures, are delivered through different principles on the one hand and on the other. For the philosopher takes his argument from the proper causes of things, whereas the believer has recourse to the First Cause, for instance because it has been thus delivered by God, or because it conduces to God’s glory, or because God’s power is infinite. Hence (the teaching of faith) should be called the greatest wisdom, since it considers the highest cause, according to the saying of Deut. iv. 6: For this is your wisdom and understanding in the sight of nations.

Wherefore human philosophy is a handmaid to her as mistress. For this reason sometimes divine wisdom argues from the principles of human philosophy: since also among philosophers the First Philosophy makes use of the teachings of all sciences in order to establish its purpose. Hence again both teachings do not follow the same order. For in the teaching of philosophy which considers creatures in themselves and leads us from them to the knowledge of God, the first consideration is about creatures, and the last of God: whereas in the teaching of faith which considers creatures only in their relation to God, the consideration about God takes the first place, and that about creatures the last. And thus it is more perfect: as being more like God’s knowledge, for He beholds other things by knowing Himself.

Notes In comments to last weeks’ post YOS rightly emphasized that there is a big (I’d say infinite) difference between the first activation of a potential and the secondary activations of potentials, i.e. between the singular primary causes and the myriad secondary causes. Physicists deals only with the latter. Metaphysicists deal with the former. Theologians deal with the consequences of both.

[5] Wherefore, according to this order, after what has been said in the First Book about God in Himself, it remains for us to treat of the things which proceed from Him.

Chapter 5 Order of the things to be said (alternate translation)

[1] WE shall treat of these things in the following order. First we shall discourse of the bringing forth of things into being: secondly, of their distinction: thirdly, of the nature of these same things brought forth and distinct from one another, so far as it concerns the truth of faith.

Notes Sounds like it’s going to be a lot of fun!

Categories: Philosophy, SAMT

13 replies »

  1. Hans Erren writes “Is this a plea for the Non Overlapping Magisteria avant la lettre?”

    So it seems; but more than that, it establishes primacy of religion (believer in First Cause) over physics while acknowledging that religion is not even trying to explain how things work, thus there is no defect in faith because of that lack of ability. It works so long as you keep these realms distinct.

  2. Hans: You made me “google it”! Now I am going to have to further research the viewpoint contained therein! 🙂

  3. In the interests of a more complete overview of St. Thomas’s brief, particularly in light of the distinctions he makes here between theology and philosophy, I include here a passage written by an actual theologian, an actual metaphysician, Rev. Donald J. Keefe, SJ, in Vol. II of his Covenantal Theology, regarding the theological, metaphysical, and hence, the philosophical inadequacies of classic Thomism. Aquinas is not defunct; but he is wrong. The distinction is important.

    In passing, it should be obvious that part of Fr. Keefe’s project, as seen here in the following passage from his magnum opus, is to correct — to convert (yes, literally) — not dismiss, St. Thomas’s philosophy and his metaphysics by means of a sounder theology of the Catholic faith. That such a theological critique of both metaphysics and philosophy must and should be performed systematically, as a matter of sounder method, is by itself a lesson that Thomas-philes might profit from.

    Two pull-quotes from the blockquoted passage below:

    “This systematic impasse eliminates the rational possibility within the classic Thomist metaphysics of any material substantiality, whether of the species as a concrete universal, or of the isolated material individual, and does so without remainder.

    “The conclusion is then forced: the notion of a material substance, insofar as concerns the classic Thomist format, is unintelligible, incapable of a coherent act-potency account.”


    “The only analysis which can serve a theological metaphysics is that which remembers that the formal cause of the freedom of the Covenant is he whom Irenaeus and the tradition after him insisted upon naming, in his humanity as in his divinity, One and the Same, the second Adam.”

    From Donald J. Keefe, SJ, Covenantal Theology, Vol. II.

    (b) The analytic meaning of essence

    The covenantal meaning of “essence” is of course the New Covenant, the created term of the Father’s sending of the Son to give the Spirit, but clearly this can be so only when “essence” is not given some autonomous meaning of its own, which it would have in logical dissociation from “Esse.” It is only by its correlation to Esse that essence as covenantal has actuality and so has actual intelligibility. Because the correlation by which essence is actual is free, so also is its immanent intelligibility; in this, its freedom, the covenantal meaning of essence is to be contrasted with that which it is assigned in the classic Thomist metaphysics.

    Perhaps the clearest manner of putting the distinction between the rationalism of the classic Thomism and the historicity of its covenantal conversion is by insisting that “essence” in its covenantal meaning is not a “possible”; not only is it not a possible in the sense of a possible object of creation, but essence is not a possible also in the sense of having an autonomous or “potential” intelligibility as disjunct from its actual existential subsistence. This is the strict implication of the ex nihilo character of the Good Creation, and of the New Covenant: “essence” has no antecedently intelligible possibility whatsoever. The freedom of creation active spectata requires a cognate freedom in creation passive spectata. The nominalist notion of creation as involving a divine choice by the potentia absoluta between an infinite number of divine ideas, each seen sub specie aeternitatis to be a “possible object of creation,” is simply an absurd limitation imposed by a nonhistorical and cosmological pseudo-rationality upon the free covenantal immanence of the Creator in his creation.

    Within the dehistoricized and cosmological format of classical Thomism, as also within that of Aristotelianism, essence is not understood to be an intrinsically free transcendental relation; its supposed intrinsic analysis, borrowed from Aristotelianism in toto and presupposing an essentially necessary substance, looks only to the necessary conditions of essential possibility, of essential intelligibility, and finds them in the form-matter correlation, which therefore applies not to the existentially contingent substance of the Thomist analysis of creation, but to the intrinsic causes of essence considered as in se, in abstraction from the historical, existential and covenantal contingency of creation.

    The qualitative intelligibility of a material essence such as concrete humanity is then accounted for by reference to its univocal participation in a common or specific form, while its quantitative or spatial and temporal intelligibility (its location in space and time) is underwritten by an act-potency analysis of the concrete individual which supposes the possibility of such location to be caused or accounted for by an immanent or intrinsic principle of individuation, viz., materiality. In correlation with quantified matter (materia quantitate signata), the specific or universal form is understood to be submitted to quantification by this determinate quantum, this particular location within the indefinite or random range of possible spatio-temporal extension (materia in commune). The actual concrete particularity of such location is assumed to be caused by matter and therefore to be intrinsically unintelligible (i.e., in terms of act and potency) and consequently to be metaphysically uninteresting: that such a material entity be thus capable of particular location concludes the metaphysical quaerens of classic Thomism, which at the level of material essence is intent only upon a response to the Platonic denial of the possibility of the inherence of form in matter. The concrete actuality of the inherence of form in matter, the haecceitas of the material entity, is simply without metaphysical interest to the Thomist analysis, for its materiality can add nothing to its formal intelligibility.

    The same cosmology finds it intrinsically or metaphysically significant on the level of the qualitative metaphysical question (i.e., why is a given material entity of this formality rather than another?) that one be a human being instead of, e.g., a tree, but that one be this particular human being rather than another within the possible range of formal variation specific to humanity is alike without explanation and without significance; particularly this is the case as to the masculinity or femininity of one’s humanity. A member’s participation in the formal perfection of a species such as humanity is always univocal, and qualitative variations within the possible range of specific similarity are dealt with finally as qualitatively insignificant, hence as quantitative, as due to the randomness inherent in the materiality of the species which more or less inhibits (by the so-called recalcitrance of prime matter) the concrete realization of the full formality of the specific perfection. The affinity with Platonism of such an explanation of intraspecific variation is striking, in that it is then impossible to account for such variation within the species other than in terms of greater or lesser participation in the specific form. Inevitably either the masculine or the feminine will then be qualitatively superior to the alternative qualification, as less distanced from human perfection by materiality: it is not difficult to hazard how this will turn out.

    Within the classic Thomist analysis, such freedom as a material essence possesses it has by reason of its extrinsic relation to Esse. Considered normally as in se, it has the intelligibility of a “possible,” whether a possibility of thought or of creation: these twin possibilities were taken to be the same, since both refer to the intrinsic rationality of a material species; as Gilson once saw with a Cartesian clarity, this makes the contingency of creation quite abstract, a merely logical relation to a creator which contributes nothing to the quite abstract and merely possible intelligibility of the material essence. The coherence of this view with the usual Thomist disinterest in the material singular is evident.

    The classic Thomism can explain the intraspecific communication of the materially individuated members of the species only in terms either of formal necessity or of quantitative randomness. The members of a material species are either (1) locked within the immanent formal intelligibility of the species (viz., of the abstract specific form), or (2) are submitted to the extrinsic and thus purely ideal material intelligibility which a statistical analysis may assign them in order to reduce the randomness of spatio-temporal individuation and extension to a mathematical description of the mechanics of the physical universe.

    The classic Thomist metaphysics is thus unable to account for the intelligibility which the act-potency method supposes, as a systematic and a priori necessity, to be intrinsic to the material individual: even when the individual is considered as a creature, this attribution is also finally extrinsic to the intelligibility of the creature and thus is nominally understood as at best a merely logical reference to the entirely transcendent freedom of the Creator.

    The Thomist ethics habitually masks the unacceptable moral implication of the concrete inconsequence of the individual member of the human species by the invocation of a “natural” morality, and thus of a moral human nature, but without providing any metaphysical basis for it other than the immanent rationality of an ungraced intelligence: abstract nonhistorical rationality is taken to be rationality itself. This is only to restate the original problem: how can that rationality, and the ethic which it would ground, be moral rather than merely immanently necessary? Namely, how can it be so individuated as to be at once free and certain in its unique and personal application? To this quandary the “natural law” elaborated by St. Thomas provides no sufficient reply. One may summarize the flaws in the classic Thomist analysis of material being by remarking that all act-potency analysis must be seen to bear upon substance, not upon some supposed component of substance such as an essence denuded of existence. The contingent intelligibility and thus the substantial reality of a created substance cannot but be free: if form and matter correlate as act and potency to compose it, that correlation must be free, for the prime analogate of such a composite substance is the free union that is the New Covenant. Any other view of the Thomist matter-form analysis is no more than the reinvocation of the Aristotelian material substance, which knows alike nothing of the Esse-essence correlation and of the historicity or the free contingency in being which it is intended to underwrite. It is yet the more evident that such a metaphysical analysis can do no justice to the humanity of our Lord, whose freedom is personal and therefore intrinsic. Neither can it do justice to those for whom he died, whose freedom is also intrinsic, because it is grounded, created, in his.

    Reference has already been made to the problem of assigning substantiality, whether to the individual, as is usual, or to the species, as seems to be more in accord with the act-potency analysis and even with the definition of substantiality, a reality whose unity in being is in se et non in alio. Whichever course be taken, the classic notion of material substantiality must remain incoherent, as has been shown: there is in fact no provision in the classic analysis for a concrete specific form in which the individual member of the species might participate and thus find a base even for its immanent (necessary) intelligibility and its (necessary) intraspecific or immanent activity, while to attribute substantial being to the material individual is to leave the reality of intraspecific communication unaccountable. This systematic impasse eliminates the rational possibility within the classic Thomist metaphysics of any material substantiality, whether of the species as a concrete universal, or of the isolated material individual, and does so without remainder.

    The conclusion is then forced: the notion of a material substance, insofar as concerns the classic Thomist format, is unintelligible, incapable of a coherent act-potency account. If we are to speak of a created material essence, whose act of existence or esse is contingent, we must drop the notion of species, derived from Aristotle, and replace it with that of the Covenant, the only material order or unity which permits at once freedom and intelligibility, which has in fact an immanent free formal cause of that intelligibility, the Logos, and which supports the moral freedom of its members. This it does, of course, only insofar as it is informed by that formal cause which is the Esse Christi, and thus insofar as it is the object of creation in Christ. We are methodologically forbidden to disintegrate the free intelligibility of the historical prime analogate, the substantial New Covenant, into dissociated elements–correlations which by such dissociation become absolute “pure natures”–whether of Esse without reference to essence, or of essence as intelligible in se, apart from the reference to Esse whereby it is actual in the actuality of a created substance. The supposition that such abstract or pure actualities or pure possibilities have an intrinsic intelligibility is methodologically contradicted by the basis of the Thomist metaphysical project, the Esse-essence relation which is given in the Christ. There is then neither an Esse nor a created essence which might be studied in isolation from the correlation by which Esse-essence is actual in the world, in order that a nonhistorical core of “pure” intelligibility might be isolated in essence or in Esse alone. The only analysis which can serve a theological metaphysics is that which remembers that the formal cause of the freedom of the Covenant is he whom Irenaeus and the tradition after him insisted upon naming, in his humanity as in his divinity, One and the Same, the second Adam.

  4. St. Thomas’s thoughts on philosopy and theology are well and good. Nevertheless, I believe that he led more people to God by his hymns, Tantum Ergo, Adore Te Devote, … than by all his works of theology and philosophy.
    And if this is heresy, well… This bear of little brain is led to God more by music than by theology.
    And, I’m not sure who said it, “If Bach exists, so must God.”

  5. @Bob Kurland:

    “St. Thomas’s thoughts on philosopy and theology are well and good. Nevertheless, I believe that he led more people to God by his hymns, Tantum Ergo, Adore Te Devote, … than by all his works of theology and philosophy.”

    Am I constantly baffled by comments such as this. If they are meant as a personal comment, they are interesting tidbits about the utterer, but this is clearly not the intention here given the specific claims about the efficacy of St. Thomas’ anthems in contradistinction to his summas (on what grounds, I know not — but maybe they were uttered only half seriously?). What is at work here? Some secret distrust in the power of reason? Maybe a secret fear (to call it that) that what St. Thomas establishes by the power of argument an anti-St. Thomas could unravel by the same power? There is something to this, since we do not think Beckett’s Malone, lurching towards absolute nothingness, annihilates Shakespeare’s larger than life characters. If I were to say that I am not moved by St. Thomas anthems (as indeed I am not) but deeply moved by his summas (as indeed I am), I am pretty sure I would sound a philistine if I were to remark “His anthems are all well and good but”. All it would be — and to recurse back to my beginnings — is a commentary on my proclivities and insensibilities. And while there may be one or two people out there interested in my proclivities and putative lack of sensibility, I am not one of them; and this itself is nothing but a personal comment on my disinterestedness and a sure sign that I should just shut up.

  6. JohnK quotes “This systematic impasse eliminates the rational possibility within the classic Thomist metaphysics of any material substantiality, whether of the species as a concrete universal, or of the isolated material individual, and does so without remainder.”

    Reads like something from “scigen”
    SCIgen is a computer program that uses context-free grammar to randomly generate nonsense in the form of computer science research papers. All elements of the papers are formed, including graphs, diagrams, and citations. Created by scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, its stated aim is “to maximize amusement, rather than coherence.”

    Compare to scripture:

    “Jesus wept”

  7. G. Rodrigues, I apologize if I’ve offended you. My point was the following. Logic and rationality are well and good, but they are not in themselves convincing to the unbeliever. I doubt that anyone was converted to the faith by reading “Summa contra Gentiles”. Indeed, you can read all the criticisms by philosophers of Thomistic arguments.
    On the other hand there are non-arguments, statements of beauty and majesty, in St. Thomas’s hymns that do convert the unbeliever. Somewhere there’s an anecdote about atheists who have found faith after listening to God. I can’t find that anecdote but here’s a relevant link.
    So, to repeat: my point is not to denigrate the great Scholar’s philosophical works, but to suggest that as a mechanism for conversion, they are deficient. And did not he himself say near the end of his life, “All is straw”?

  8. @Bob Kurland
    I have in fact heard of people being converted by the SCG especially the argument from motion. However, I think it is right to say that Beauty is often a more powerful source of conversion than Truth, not in itself but with respect to us. As Venerable Cardinal Sheen noted, many (if not most) people are prevented from conversion not for intellectual reasons but for moral reasons. It seems that Beauty inclines the appetite to the Good in ways that are less easily avoided than Truth.

  9. @Bob Kurland:

    “I apologize if I’ve offended you.”

    I said they were “baffling” and I explained why. But if you are apologizing, then I must have given you the impression that I was “offended”, but I can assure you that neither is there a need for apologies, nor was I offended in any way (what is there in your comment to take offense at?).

    “Logic and rationality are well and good, but they are not in themselves convincing to the unbeliever.”

    This can be understood in a couple of different ways. If the unbeliever is irrational, then sure, no amount of rational argument can convince him. What makes an argument good is *not* its capacity for persuasion. If it were so, then any conversation would be automatically held hostage by the untutored idiot in the room. Persuasion belongs to rhetoric not dialectics. But I suspect this is not what you have in mind.

    “On the other hand there are non-arguments, statements of beauty and majesty, in St. Thomas’s hymns that do convert the unbeliever.”

    I will repeat myself, but other than as a commentary on personal experience, I do not know on what grounds you make such a claim. More to the point though, you *seem* to think that it is an either or; St. Thomas obviously did not thought so, having composed both the hymns and the Summas. Why not both? The second problem is what do you mean by “convert”? I do not doubt that there are experiences of the Grace of God of such a quality as being compelling. But they are also personal and incommunicable. What will you say to anyone that listens to Bach and comes unconvinced? That he is irrational? And what will you say to someone that listens to Bach, does experience the Grace of God, but rationalizes it away (as many are wont to)? Shrug your shoulders? Accuse him of being tone deaf?

    Christans are entreated to make a defense of their faith to everyone that requires it, which, even if it includes other things like playing Bach records (more generally, and less facetiously, living out in Culture the Christian faith), *surely* includes laying out rational arguments. And to repeat myself, as I have been doing all along, where exactly does this distrust of the power of reason comes from? The catechism states, and I quote:

    31 Created in God’s image and called to know and love him, the person who seeks God discovers certain ways of coming to know him. These are also called proofs for the existence of God, not in the sense of proofs in the natural sciences, but rather in the sense of “converging and convincing arguments”, which allow us to attain certainty about the truth. These “ways” of approaching God from creation have a twofold point of departure: the physical world, and the human person.

    And a little later:

    36 “Our holy mother, the Church, holds and teaches that God, the first principle and last end of all things, can be known with certainty from the created world by the natural light of human reason.”11 Without this capacity, man would not be able to welcome God’s revelation. Man has this capacity because he is created “in the image of God”.12

    The first argument mentioned in 32 (unquoted) is the argument from motion, which St. Thomas codified in the First Way, and is characterized in the catechism as true and certain knowledge. In the quoted 36, it goes even further — “Without this capacity, man would not be able to welcome God’s revelation”. Once again, where exactly does this distrust of the power of reason comes from? The mere fact that that there are persons that disagree? For any given proposition, almost surely you will find intelligent and capable persons disagreeing on its truth status, including in particular, what does disagreement on the truth of a proposition entails or on the efficacy of Bach’s music in the conversion of atheists and heathen alike. Do you thereby refuse to believe in anything at all?

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