The Natural Desire for the Vision of God and the Convergence of the Sciences

Le PenseurAfter reading de Lubac and some of his critics I still think the best interpretation of Thomas’s “natural desire” for the beatific vision comes from Frederick Copleston.  The issue is a confusing one, primarily because we just don’t think in Aristotelian terms anymore.  “Nature” doesn’t mean the same thing for a modern scientist as it did for Thomas, and it doesn’t mean the same thing for a modern Christian as it did for a Medieval Doctor.  Copleston says that Thomas speaks as both a philosopher and a theologian.  De Lubac argued that modern Thomists only saw Thomas as a philosopher and not an Augustinian.  One reason why I respect Copleston so much is that he was a philosopher, yet he argued extensively for the Augustinian heritage of Thomas’s theology.  

Catholics have debated the issue of the “natural desire” for the vision of God, which Thomas says is innate in all men.  The problem with this is that the Aristotelian definition of nature does not allow a desire of anything that is not connatural.  In other words, if man had a natural desire for the supernatural, then either (a) man’s desire is greater than its cause, or (b) the supernatural is not above nature, or (c) both (a) and (b) are the case.  Therefore, as long as we are defining “nature” in Aristotelian terms – he gives four definitions for “nature” with the primary one being quod quid est or the “essence” of a thing – it will be contradictory to speak of a “natural desire” for anything above what is connatural with the thing’s essence.  

De Lubac points out that Christian philosophers have erred in trying to reconcile this apparent contradiction in Thomas.  We should not be surprised that Thomas does not confine himself to the philosophy of Aristotle.  Marie-Dominique Chenu has demonstrated that Thomas is not a strict Aristotelian, an almost obvious observation since Aristotle considered the cosmos to be eternal, he didn’t clarify the transcendence of the Prime Mover, he didn’t ground the forms of things in an eternal Mind, he didn’t speak of an “other worldly” happiness, he didn’t clarify the particularity of the agent intellect, and so on.  Thomas had to go beyond Aristotle in many ways.  Wayne Hankey, Rudi te Velde, and Fran O’Rourke (among others) have demonstrated that Thomas, per his Augustinianism, was heavily influenced by Neo-Platonic thinkers, particularly the Psuedo-Dionysius.  There’s even a book out called Aquinas the Augustinian by CUA press.

One example of modern Philosophers assuming that Thomas’s thought must fit into a pristine Aristotelian mold is P.J. FitzPatrick’s argument that Thomas’s doctrine of transubstantiation commits the Aristotelian fallacy of reification.  How can accidents exist without a substance when the very definition of accident is that it inheres within a substance?  Aristotle must be rolling over in his grave to hear one of his most faithful students commit philosophical blasphemy with such a doctrine.  However, as David Power has demonstrated, Thomas interprets Aristotle through the lens of the Psuedo-Dionysius.  I would clarify this a bit more and say that his Eucharistic theology is more Augustinian than Aristotelian.  Thomas utilized the truth, whether it came from divine revelation or pagan philosophy.  He may have used Aristotelian terminology in his doctrine of the Eucharist but in the end he knew that theology proceeds from more sublime and more certain principles.  Philosophy must be silent in certain realms of theological speculation or, stated more precisely, true philosophy should not contradict divine revelation.

Frederick CoplestonSimilarly, Copleston affirms that Thomas speaks as a theologian when he says that every intellect has a natural desire for the vision of God.  Therefore, the word “nature” may look a bit different to the theologian than to the philosopher.  Thomas did not see himself as a philosopher, that was the term used to describe the pagans.  He was a theologian.  If Holy Scripture gives us a definition of nature that is based on the authority of God, and Aristotle gives us a definition of nature that is reasonable and does not contradict divine authority, then we may utilize the truth as it can be seen in both definitions.  “Nature” for the theologian is the creation of the Triune God, whereas for the philosopher it is the essence or principle of motion in things moved principally by the First Mover.  The former speaks to concrete reality whereas the latter, an abstract one.  These definitions do not contradict each other but demonstrate different perspectives of truth.

Similarly, Thomas says that Adam was created in a supernatural state, using that term in an Aristotelian sense of what is not produced by man’s nature.  But, he also speaks of Adam from the perspective of theology when he refers to man’s first estate as the state of “perfect nature.”  (ST I-II, Q. 109, a.2) He knew from divine revelation that man’s perfection lies in the performance of acts that must come from God.  But, because these divine gifts are given to a creature capable of receiving them we may speak of Adam’s original state as a state of nature. God gave man all of the gifts whereby he may perfect himself.  To speak of a natural perfection, in the Aristotelian sense, is to speak of an imperfect and incomplete perfection – a rather contradictory saying.    

Thomas speaks about nature in a theological sense in other places as well.  Copleston explains his interpretation of Thomas on man’s natural desire for a supernatural blessedness:

In the De Veritate St. Thomas says that man, according to his nature, has a natural appetite for aliqua contemplatio divinorum, such as it is possible for a man to obtain by the power of nature, and that the inclination of his desire towards the supernatural and gratuitous end (the vision of God) is the work of grace.  In this place, then, St. Thomas does not admit a ‘natural desire in the strict sense for the vision of God , and it seems only reasonable to suppose that when in the Summa Theologica and Summa contra Gentiles he speaks of a natural desire for the vision of God, he is not speaking strictly as a philosopher, but as a theologian and philosopher combined, that is , presupposing the supernatural order and interpreting the data of experience in the light of that presupposition. (History of Philosophy, Vol: II, p. 405.)

Copleston interprets Thomas on man’s natural desire for the vision of God as both a theologian and a philosopher.  De Lubac may be accused of only seeing Thomas merely as a theologian, and Cajetan may be critiqued for seeing Thomas primarily as a philosopher. However, Copleston gives a balanced interpretation of this very difficult subject, a subject that touches the very boundary between the queen of the sciences and her handmaiden.  Thomas uses Aristotle as far as he will go but completes the project with truths derived from sacred doctrine.  He speaks of nature as both a philosopher and theologian combined.  The intelligent beings that exist in the concrete world created by God have a natural desire for the Triune God, while those intelligent beings considered within the abstract Aristotelian world have a natural desire for the First Cause. These are not two separate desires, and man does not have two ends.  Rather, this is an example of theology completing and perfecting philosophy.


Gregory of Nyssa on Universals

According to F. Copleston the Greek Fathers were generally influenced by Platonism and neo-Platonic philosophy.  He says of St. Gregory:

St. Gregory’s “Platonism” in regard to universals comes out clearly in his De hominis opificio, where he distinguishes the heavenly man, the ideal man, the universal, from the earthly man, the object of experience. The former, the ideal man or rather ideal human being, exists only in the divine idea and is without sexual determination, being neither male nor female:  the latter, the human being of experience, is an expression of the ideal and is sexually determined, the ideal being, as it were, ‘splintered’ or partially expressed in many single individuals.  Thus, according to Gregory, individual creatures proceed by creation, not by emanation, from the ideal in the divine Logos.  This theory clearly goes back to neo-Platonism and to Philonism, and it was adopted by the first outstanding philosopher of the Middle Ages, John Scotus Eriugena, who was much influenced by the writings of St. Gregory of Nyssa. (History of Philosophy, Vol. 2: Augustine to Scotus, p. 33)

For Plato the Absolute Is “Separate”

Contrary to what many, including myself, have been taught Frederick Copleston argues that Plato did not consider the Forms to exist apart from particulars in terms of space.  He explains:

Beauty in itself or Absolute Beauty is “separate” in the sense that it is real, subsistent, but not in the sense that it is in a world of its own, spatially separate from things.  For ex hypothesi Absolute Beauty is spiritual; and the categories of time and space, of local separation, simply do not apply in the case of that which is essentially spiritual.  In the case of that which transcends space and time, we cannot even legitimately raise the question, where it is. (History of Philosophy, Vol. 1: Greece and Rome, p. 174)

But is it not true that Plato held to a real separation between the particular thing and the Universal? Copleston answers:

The Chorismos or separation would thus seem to imply, in the case of the Platonic essence, a reality beyond the subjective reality of the abstract concept – a subsistent reality, but not a local separation.  It is therefore, just as true to say that the essence is immanent, as that it is transcendent:  the great point is that it is real and independent of particulars, unchanged and abiding.  (Ibid., p. 174, 175)

For Plato the transcendence of the Forms did not imply an “over-there-ness” but it was his method of explaining the unchanging nature of things.  That was the main point.  There must be an abiding principle in all things unless one deigns to consign reality to the world of flux – a conclusion Plato sought to avoid.  If that reality is spatially separate from sensible objects then there is only becoming and change, no real being.  The reality of the Forms does not necessitate spacial separation. Copleston concludes:

It is foolish to remark that if the Platonic essence is real, it must be somewhere.  Absolute Beauty, for instance, does not exist outside us in the sense in which a flower exists outside us – for it might just as well be said to exist inside us, inasmuch as spatial categories simply do not apply to it.  On the other hand, it cannot be said to be inside us in the sense that it is purely subjective, is confined to us, comes into being with us, and perishes through our agency or with us.  It is both transcendent and immanent, inaccessible to the senses, apprehensible only by the intellect. (Ibid., p. 175)

Something New Every Day: Did Aristotle Misrepresent Plato?

… the essence of Plato’s doctrine of Forms or Ideas is simply this:  that the universal concept is not an abstract form devoid of objective content or references, but that to each true universal concept there corresponds an objective reality.  How far Aristotle’s criticism of Plato (that the latter hypostatised the objective reality of the concepts, imagining a transcendent world of ‘separate’ universals) is justified, is a matter for discussion by itself:  whether justified or unjustified, it remains true that the essence of the Platonic theory of Ideas is not to be sought in the notion of the ‘separate’ existence of universal realities, but in the belief that universal concepts have objective reference, and that the corresponding reality is of a higher order than sense-perception as such. (F. Copleston, History of Philosophy, Vol: 1 Greece and Rome, p. 151)

An Integration of Plato and Aristotle in Aquinas

According to the late Frederick Copleston one should not dispense of the philosophy of Plato in favor of that of Aristotle, or vice versa.  He notes fundamental problems in both systems. Aristotle does not provide a transcendental ground for the constancy of essences. Plato considers universals to exist apart from essences, thus leaving man without direct knowledge of them.  Copleston affirms that the Platonic abstraction of the Forms as detached substances needs to be accompanied with the Aristotelian abstraction of the Forms from the immanent subject.  This has been done before.  He says,

This the Neo-Platonists attempted to do.  For example, Plato posited the Forms as Exemplary Causes:  the later Platonists placed them in God.  With due qualifications, this is the correct view, for the Divine Essence is the ultimate Exemplar of all creatures. (History of Philosophy, Vol 1:  Greece and Rome, 297). 

This combination of Plato and Aristotle by the Neo-Platonists placed the abstract Form (Plato) into an individual substance (Aristotle).  Copleston notes that this combination of these two giants of philosophy was picked up by Thomas Aquinas.  

St. Thomas Aquinas, who quotes St. Augustine as to the Divine Ideas, teaches that there is a plurality of ideas in the Divine Mind (S.T., I, 15, 2), rejecting the opinion of Plato that they are “outside” the Divine Mind.  He explains that he does not mean that there is a plurality of accidental species in God, but that God, knowing perfectly His Essence, knows imitable by a plurality of creatures. (Ibid.) 

In other words, there are not a plurality of Forms in the mind of God, rather there are a plurality of subjects known by him. Aquinas, following after a Neo-Platonic combination of Plato and Aristotle, should not be qualified as a reader of either Aristotle or Plato but both.  He does not reject Plato’s understanding of the ideas in toto but modifies it, via Aristotle,  for Christian use.