Paul, Plato, and Aristotle on the Lex Naturalis: The Interpretation of David Pareus

David Pareus

David Pareus (d. 1622) is one of those church reformers that most people have never heard of. In fact, his name was world renowned in his day. He was known via his association with former tutors such as Zacharius Ursinus and Jerome Zanchi, and for his biblical scholarship, defense of the Reformed churches against Catholic apologists, and for his humanism. The divines who gathered in Dordrecht for the famous Synod held there, requested his attendance as a distinguished scholar. Though he was unable to attend, the delegates requested his assistance through letters and his writings were held in high regard by all of those in attendance at the Synod. On the issue of the extent of Christ’s death, both moderates and extremists acquiesced to his opinion on the matter. 

The following is taken from Pareus’s In divinam ad Romanos S. Pauli Apostoli Epistolam Commentarius (p. 153), and demonstrates a Reformed Catholic humanism, not only in Pareus’s knowledge of the Classic languages and literature, but also in his willingness to use pagan philosophy as a true explanatory reference for principles found in both Holy Scripture and nature. I have cited the Latin/Greek original with a translation underneath. Any correction to perceived errors in the translation would be greatly appreciated:

Dubium:  Ex ver. 15. Ostendunt opus legis scriptum in cordibus suis: quomodo dicat Apostolus, legem esse scriptam in cordibus: cum physici doceant, intellectum esse instar tabulae rasae, in qua nihil sit scriptum: omnia tamen nohta¿ scribi possint? Plato in Philebo: dokei√ moi to/te hJmw◊n hJ yuch\ bibli÷w tini« proseoike÷nai quam sententiam sequitur Aristoteles I.3. capit 4. de anima: wJsper ejn grammatei/w wvJ mhde\n uJparxei ejnteleceia gegrammenon oJper sumbainei ejpi\ touv nouv. 

Responsio. Non pugnant: Nihil enim est in intelectu scriptum actu, quod Aristotel. dicit ejnteleceia: Omnia vero sunt scripta potentia: quoniam intellectus ad omnia intelligibilia habet se in potentia. Et quodamodo tamen actu inscripta dicuntur ea, ad quae ratio & mens sana se convertit per se sine demonstratione: ut sunt notitiae de Deo colendo, de parentibus honorandis, de discrimine honesti & turpis, etc. quae notitiae dicuntur lex naturae & naturales, quia harum femina nobiscum nascuntur. Praeter has sunt aliae, quas vocant koi\naß ejnnoiaß, quibus assentitur ratio ex solo sensu totum esse maius sua parte, ignem urere, aequalia aequalibus addita facere tota aequalia, etc. ex qualibus doctrinae mathematicae exstructae sunt. Platonis sententia est, omnia naturaliter inscriptura esse: sed nascentibus propinari poculum Lethes, unde oblivio omnium notitiarum, quas discere, sit reminisci. Intellexit praestantiam mentis & naturae humanae non esse a Deo conditam cum tanta ignorantia: sed quia veritatem non novit, fabulam finxit, quam etiam tabula Cebetis proposuit. 


Problem. From verse 15, “They show the work of the law written in their hearts”: Why does the Apostle say that the law is written in the hearts: when the physicians teach that the intellect is like a blank tablet upon which nothing is written, yet every intellect can be written upon? Plato in his Philebus says: “It seems to me that our soul in such a situation is like a book,” which is followed by a sentence of Aristotle (I.3. Chap. 4. de Anima): “just as characters may be on a tablet on which nothing has been written, so it happens with the mind.”

Response. They do not disagree: For nothing is written upon the intellect actually, which Aristotle calls entelechea: Indeed, all things are written potentially: because the intellect is itself in potency to all intelligible things. And in a certain way, nevertheless, those things are said to be actually inscribed, to which reason and the whole mind itself is converted by its very nature without demonstration: as is the knowledge about worshipping God, honoring the parents, the distinction of honest and filthy things, etc. which knowledge is said to be the law of nature and natural because it is begotten with us from woman. After these there are other [types of knowledge] which they call koinas enoias [common sense], to which reason ascends by sense alone: the whole is greater than its parts, fire burns, equals are added to equals to make whole equals etc. by which sort of doctrine mathematics were built. The sentence of Plato is, all things are inscribed naturally [upon the intellect] but after being born it drinks the cup of Lethe, whereupon all knowledge is lost, which to discern is to remember. He knew that the excellence of the mind and human nature was not preserved by God after so great an ignorance: but because he did not know the truth, he imagined a tale, which even the tablet of Cebes proposed. 

For Pareus, as for Vermigli, Zanchi, et alia, this law of nature that is inscribed upon the hearts of man – the law that tells us to worship God, honor our parents, and distinguishes between good and evil – was known by Paul, Plato, and Aristotle. Pareus does not see a disagreement between Plato and Aristotle, an innate knowledge and a knowledge by acquisition. The two may be reconciled by the distinction between the passive and active intellects. The former is in potency to all things, and the latter only gains knowledge through abstraction.

Even the active intellect contains certain types of innate knowledge, in the sense that these things are self-evident and are assumed within rather than proven by demonstration. The natural law pertains to that ability given from birth to distinguish between good and evil. Common sense, on the other hand, pertains only to sense perception and those principles that are discovered through those means. Finally, Plato’s tale of the river Lethe came close to the true cause of man’s ignorance, but without divine revelation he could not know that ignorance did not come from drinking the wrong water but from a volitional choice to abandon nature and God. Pareus’s ideas in this passage do not differ from those of Vermigli, Zanchi, and even Calvin. But, his exposition is more scholastic than the latter, as can be seen in his use of the method of proposition-aporia-response. He is a paragon for a Reformed humanism that seems all but forgotten today, and we could all benefit greatly from the translation of his whole corpus.


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)

The Word of God Is the Very Concept of God

Commenting on Hebrews 11:3 St. Thomas notes:

… it must be known that the Word of God is the very concept of God, by which He understands Himself and other things.  We see this when an artisan, producing something outside himself, makes it unto the likeness of his concept …. Since the whole creation is perfectly disposed, as produced by an artisan, in Whom error cannot occur, nor any other defect, then it most fully corresponds to the divine concept according to its own mode … Therefore, he says, “By faith we understand that the world”, that is, the whole entirety of creation, “was framed”, that is, conveniently corresponding, “to the Word”, that is, to the concept of God, as the thing made is to its art.

Aquinas then briefly discusses the opinion of the ancients, Anaxagorus, Plato, etc: that visible things are copies of the Ideas, and others said the visible is from the Intelligence.  

But we say according to the aforesaid mode that from the invisible rational ideas in the Word of God, through Whom all things were made, the visible things were produced.  These ideas, even if they are the same really, yet from the perspective of the creature differ according to reason by diverse signified respects.  Hence, by one notion man was made, and by another the horse, as Augustine says in the book 83 Questions.  So then, “the world was framed to the Word of God”, such “that from the invisible” rational ideas in the Word of God “the visible things”, that is, every creature, “might be made.”  

It is interesting to see Thomas’s biblical justification for his conception of universal principles.  The ideas for all created things come from the Word who is God’s very conception of himself.  Therefore when God extends his work ad extra in creating he is placing the image of his Word upon those things just as an artist places his art upon whatever he makes.  Even horses and trees have their exemplar cause in the Word of God.  Also, these ideas of “horse” and “man” etc. are all one idea in the Word but are differentiated within creation from man’s perspective.  Therefore, all esse commune (created being) has its universal principle or idea in God’s eternally begotten Son.  According to Catherine Pickstock this level of being plays a significant role in Thomas’s Eucharistic theology.  These invisible things, of which St. Paul writes, are not discerned by natural theology but by faith because “divine authority makes this choice through which the intellect is determined, so that it adheres firmly to those things which are of faith and assents to them most certainly.” (Ibid)

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)

Aquinas: The Son Is the One Idea

Commenting on Colossians 1:16 Thomas says:

He [Paul] says that the Son is the first-born of every creature because he is generated or begotten as the principle of every creature. And so he says, for in him all things were created.  

With respect to this, we should note that the Platonists affirmed the existence of Ideas, and said that each thing came to be by participating in an Idea, like the Idea of man, or an Idea of some other kind. Instead of all these we have one, that is, the Son, the Word of God. For an artisan makes an artifact by making it participate in the form he has conceived within himself, enveloping it, so to say, with external matter; for we say that the artisan makes a house through the form of the thing which he has conceived within himself. This is the way God is said to make all things in his wisdom, because the wisdom of God is related to his created works just as the art of the builder is to the house he has made. Now this form and wisdom is the Word; and thus in him all things were created, as in an exemplar: “He spoke and they were made” (Gen 1), because he created all things to come into existence in his eternal Word. 

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.