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.