Nicholas of Cusa on Faith & Holy Communion

There are many statements in Nicholas of Cusa’s sermons that emphasize the importance of faith in those who receive the body and blood of Christ in Holy Communion. This is likely due to his early education among the Brethren of the Common Life, but it also relates to his peculiar brand of Platonism.

Therefore, this faith is best signified by means of the visible form of bodily food, which expels weakness and furnishes strength—as do, basically, the wheaten bread and the wine. Hence, take cognizance of the fact that in the power of the bread and the wine—[a power] that expels the weakness of the flesh’s ravenous hunger and that brings strength, or renews strength, (things which happen with respect to the outer man)—faith sees the power of the Word working similar things in the inner man. And that which nature ministers to the outer man by means of visible food, faith by means of invisible Food (which is the Word of God) obtains in the inner man (which is invisible),  (Sermon CLXXXIII).

“God is an Infinite Sphere”: A (Very) Brief History

I saw a tweet a few days back that was a quotation from the English Puritan, George Swinnock’s The Blessed and Boundless God, in which Swinnock notes, “God is a sphere whose center is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere.” This quotation, Swinnock admits, comes from an unknown “heathen” author. Though Swinnock does not name the source or the book, he is most likely quotting from the Liber XXIV Philosophorum, that is, The Book of the Twenty-Four Philosophers. The second principle head of this work states: DEVS EST SPHAERA INFINITA CVIVS CENTRVM EST VBIQUE, CIRCVMFERENTIA NVSQVAM, which translates, “God is an infinite sphere, whose center is everywhere, and whose circumference is nowhere.”

The metaphor of God as a sphere was bequeathed to English theologians of the 17th century both by the Liber XXIV Philosophorum itself and by Medieval authors who quoted from it. Nicholas of Cusa was one Late Medieval author who made use of this phrase. In his De Docta Ignorantia I.23, Cusa argues that the metaphor of an infinite sphere is appropriate to describe the existence of God (Sicut sphaera infinita est penitus in actu et simplicissima, ita maximum est penitus in actu simplicissime).  English theologians, like Cusa, found this metaphor to be quite useful. Joseph Hall, for example, states in a sermon, “O God, thou art an intelligible sphere, whose centre is everywhere, whose circumference is nowhere but in thyself.” Another Puritan, Peter Sterry, states, “God is that Sacred Circle of All-Being, of Infinitness, of Eternity, whose Center is everywhere, in the smallest Point of Things; whose Circumference is no where bounded” (The Appearance of God to man… London, 1710, p. 300).

There is no record or evidence of the Liber XXIV Philosophorum before the Medieval period. Swinnock, like his European predecessors would have thought that the book was composed by the famed Hermes Tristmegistus. Modern historians reject that claim, yet they are divided over the exact lineage of the book. Some argue that it was composed in Antiquity from various quotations taken from Aristotle, Plotinus, Proclus and others. Kurt Flasch, however, argues that there is little evidence for this composition in the text itself. No matter the date of composition, the author of the book was clearly influenced by Aristotle and later Neoplatonic authors. From the Liber XXIV Philosophorum, then, comes the idea of God as an infinite sphere, an idea that would fascinate Late Medieval authors as well as Puritans and also those early modern authors who would seek to wed theology to mathematics.

The Afterlife: A Potential Problem in Aquinas’s Psychology

Thomas Aquinas’s attempted solution to the problem of substance dualism (i.e., the mind/body connection) involved his use of Aristotelian language to define the intellectual soul as the “form” of the body. Yet, in order to account for the separated state of the soul after death Thomas was forced to stretch Aristotle’s concept of “formal substance” to explain the Christian teaching on the soul’s disembodied afterlife. He maintains that the soul is the intellectual form of the body but is also per se subsistens (existing on its own) and that the agent intellect does not make use of any bodily organ in the act of intellection. Krista Hyde, in a master’s thesis submitted to the University of Missouri at Saint Louis, makes note of Aquinas’s attempt to connect the mind and body in one substantial form but also points out the metaphysical problem that this causes:

In this way, Aquinas reframes the mind-body connection and escapes the interaction problem, but this opens him up to another, potentially fatal, flaw. The weakness of his argument is that it is not clear how such a soul could separate from the body and survive its death, despite his protestations that this act of the body is also substantial. Aquinas maintains that the human soul is an abstract form and a concrete particular thing. He has accounted for the soul as the form of the body. It is intuitive, however, that such forms would have to be Platonic (that is, an incorporeal, abstract idea, having the highest level of reality and to which humans have access only through the world of perception and sensation) if they can be said to depart from the body and remain in existence with some function until the time of the resurrection and judgment, as required by Christian doctrine. Aquinas, of course, would never accept his philosophy as Platonic, especially on this account, because he insists that matter is for the edification of the soul. Plato maintains that the soul simply “uses” matter, but that matter is unnecessary.

If the soul is a state, it must be one that can exist apart from that which bears it. Though the concept of the free radical is helpful as an illustration of the soul as form, it fails to exemplify this aspect; the free radical is not immaterial. The soul as organizing force of the body may be fatal to Aquinas’s psychology. If the soul is seen as a sort of genetic code or as software to the body’s hardware, however, it may be possible to imagine its survival in an immaterial state, to be employed (later, during the afterlife) in organizing prime matter once more.

A counter-objection might suggest that the soul survives between death and resurrection, but is “activated” again upon the resurrection. It does not seem likely that Aquinas would be willing to accept that the soul is totally incapacitated until Judgment, since he insists that the soul retains its proper operations: will, intellectual memory, and understanding.

~ Hyde, Thomas Aquinas: Soul-Body Connection and the Afterlife, pp. 29-30.)

An interesting note to add to this is that many of Aquinas’s followers did move in a more Platonic direction after his death. Fast-forward to the 15th century and one can see with Marsilio Ficino a student of Aquinas’s thought who turns to the original sources of the Platonic tradition to explain this very problem. He argues that the soul uses various vehicles (pace Proclus) and thus maintains its formal functionality even when separated from the body. Ficino’s solution is no less problematic, however, (it does not fully explain the necessity of the soul’s embodiment) and begs the question of whether the immortality of the soul can be proven philosophically without at the same time directly appealing to such doctrines as the hypostatic union of Christ’s natures as found in the Chalcedonean definition. Whether Hyde’s proposed solution with regard to the soul as “software” or “genetic code” of the body is helpful is, of course, up to the reader to decide.

Johannes Tauler (†1361), the Image of God, and the ‘Dominican’ Proclus

For those interested in the recovery of Neoplatonic texts in Late Medieval Europe and/or the Protestant Reformation, TaulerJohannes Tauler should be quite interesting. He was a Dominican student of Meister Eckhart and his works were quite influential for Martin Luther. Tauler’s concept of the imago Dei was one of the most unique of his time. In a sermon on John 3:11 Tauler explicitly distances himself from Thomas Aquinas’s concept of the imago. For Tauler the Seelengrund (ground of the soul) is the true image of the Trinity as opposed to the traditional Augustinian concept of the imago as reflected in memory, understanding, and will. One may only enter their Seelengrund, says Tauler, by shedding “all outward attachments” and “pious action” since, in one’s return to the hidden God “exterior precepts and techniques will be of no avail.” Tauler’s doctrine of the Seelengrund is unique because it is partly influenced by his readings of a quite recently translated passage from Proclus’s De Providentia. Tauler explains:

(English translation below)

Hievon sprach ein heidenscher meister Proculus: alle die wile und also lange da der mensche mit den bilden die under uns sint, umbget und mangeld do nút, so ist daz nut gelouplich daz der mensche in disen grunt iemer komen múge; das ist uns zümole ein ungloube daz das in uns si; wir múgent nút gelouben das es si und ouch in uns si, sunder – sprach er – wiltu daz bevinden das ez si, so la alle manigvaltekeit und sich dis an mit eime verstentlichen gesihte dis ein; wiltu nu noch hoher kummen, so la das vernúnftige gesihte und daz ansehen, wan die vernunft ist under dir unde wurt eins mit dem einen, und er nemmet dis eine alsus: eine stille swigende sloffende götteliche unsinnige dúnsternisse. Kinder, das ein heiden dis verstunt und darzü kam, das wir dem also verre und also ungelich sint, das ist uns laster und grosse schande. Dis bezúgete unser herre do er sprach: ‘das rich Gottes ist in úch’…

A pagan master, Proclus, has this to say on the subject [of the imago Dei]: “As long as man is occupied with images inferior to himself, and as long as he does not go beyond them, it is unlikely that he will ever reach this depth. It will appear an illusion to really believe that this groung exists within us; we doubt that it can actually exist in us. Therefore,” he continues, “if you wish to experience its existence, you must abandon all multiplicity and concentrate your attention on this one thing with the eyes of your intellect; and if you wish to rise higher, you must put aside all rational methods, for reason is now beneath you, and then you may become united with the One.” And he calls this state a divine darkness: still, silent, at rest , and above all sense perception. Beloved, it is a disgraceful thing that a pagan philosopher understood and attained this truth, while we are so far from both. Our Lord expressed the same truth when he said: “The kingdom of God is within us.” – Tauler, translated by Maria Shrady in Johannes Tauler: Sermons, The Classics of Western Spirituality, (Paulist Press, 1985), 105.

According to Loris Sturlese, Tauler does not merely quote Proclus as an authority but implies that he understands the context and some of the more intricate details of Proclus’s philosophy. Judging the content of Tauler’s few references to Proclus, Sturlese determines that he must have had full access to three whole chapters of Proclus’s De Providentia (from where the references originate) within the Tria Opuscula translated by William of Moerbeke ca. 1268. Sturlese explains the full extent of the influences on Tauler’s concept of the Seelengrund:

(English translation below)

Tauler lehnt die thomistische These ab, die Gottebenbildlichkeit der Seele bestehe in der aktuallen Entfaltung ihrer Seelenvermögen (Gedächtnis, Verstand und Wille), und betont, das Bild Gottes liege vielmehr »in dem allerverborgensten tieffesten grunde der selen«, wobei er sich ausdrücklich auf Proklos … und stillschweigend auf Dietrich und Berthold beruft […]. Die Lehre Dietrichs, die er für sich in Anspruch nimmt, ist seine bekannte Identifizierung des Bildes Gottes mit dem »abditus mentis« Augustins […]. Die Lehre des Proklos ist die des »unum animae«, in noch ausführlicherer Weise im Rahmen der Erklärung des Begriffes vom Gemüt … dargestellt wird […]. Tauler macht sich das Proklische »unum animae« zunutze, um der Interpretation des »abditum mentis« im Sinne des Intellekts, die Dietrich von Freiberg – einem Motiv Alberts des Großen folgend – vorgetragen hatte (Tauler kennt sie…), die Deutung des »abditum mentis« als transintellektuelles Prinzip gegenüberzustellen […]. Hierbei zeigt sich Tauler als vom philosophischen Denken Bertholds von Moosburg abhängig, denn er interpretiert die Proklischen Texte zum »unum« in einer Weise, die bei Berthold, und nur bei ihm, eine genaue Entsprechung findet… Unter dem Gesichtspunkt der damaligen deutschen philosophischen Debatte betrachtet, ist Taulers Übereinstimmung mit Berthold als eine Stellungnahme gegen den Thomismus anzusehen, welche die in der Dominikanerprovinz verbreitete Stimmung reflektierte, die ihre markanteste Erscheinung im Prokloskommentar des Moosburger Lektors fand… – Loris Sturlese, Homo Divinus: Philosophische Projekte in Deutschland zwischen Meister Eckhart und Heinrich Seuse, (Kohlhammer GmbH: Stuttgart, 2007), 194, 195).

Tauler rejected the thomistic position, that the image of God in the soul consists in the actual development of its faculties (memory, understanding, and will), and stresses , that the image of God lies, rather, “in the completely hidden, deepest ground of the soul,” whereby he makes explicit reference to Proclus … and by implication to Dietrich [von Freiberg] and Berthold [von Moosburg] […] Dietrich’s theory, which [Tauler] claimed for himself, is his well-known identification of the image of God with the “abditus mentis” [the hidden depth of the mind] of Augustine. Proclus’s theory is that of the “unum animae” [the one in the soul], depicted in a yet more detailed way in the context of the representation of ideas from the mind. Tauler made use of Proclus’s doctrine of the “unum animae” in order to counterpose the interpretation of the “abditum mentis” as properly intellectual – and Tauler knew that Dietrich von Freiberg followed the motive of Albert the Great in handing down this concept – with the reading of the “abditus mentis” as a trans-intellectual principle. By this Tauler shows that he is dependent upon the philosophical thought of Berthold von Moosburg, because he interpreted the text of Proclus regarding the “one” in such a way that one finds an exact equivalent [of it] in Berthold’s work and only in his work. When viewed from the perspective of the German philosophical debate of the time, Tauler’s agreement with Berthold is seen as a reaction against Thomism, which reflected a common attitude in the Dominican Order and which found its most marked appearance in the Proclus-commentary of the Moosburg lecturers.

Tauler was a fellow Dominican and resided in the same cloister as Berthold von Moosburg, the first in the European West to read and comment upon a major work of Proclus’s, i.e., the Elements of Theology – Aquinas commented on a portion of the Liber de Causis which contains selections from Proclus’s Elements translated from Arabic. So, Sturlese argues, it is most likely the case that Tauler received excerpts from Proclus’s De Providentia from his Dominican brother. Combining this new teaching of the “one in the soul” with the mysticism of Albertus Magnus mediated by Dietrich’s earlier teaching (which Eckhart also incorporated into his theology) on Augustine’s abditus mentis, Tauler was able to construct a theology of the imago Dei that challenged the hegemony of the Dominican magisterium. Tauler’s theology also functioned as an apologetic for what he saw as humanity’s absolute need of the divine mediation of Christ to enable one to lose oneself and return to the One within the Seelengrund, which, as he says, is the “Kingdom of God within us.”

The Originality of Aquinas’s Epistemology

In question 84 of the prima pars, Thomas Aquinas attempts to reconcile his adoption of Aristotle’s epistemology contra Plato’s theory of innate intelligible species with his allegiance to the traditional Augustinian doctrine of divine illumination. His answer to this question was quite novel in its time, and considering the influence of his philosophy on successive generations, quite revolutionary. Robert Pasnau relates a bit of the substance of and the historical reaction to Aquinas’s particular theory of illumination:

Many of Aquinas’s early adversaries noticed only the negative aspect of Aquinas’s claims about divine illumination. Roger Marston (c. 1235-1303) spoke of those who, “drunk on the nectar of philosophy … twisted toward their own sense all of Augustine’s authoritative texts on the unchanging light and eternal rules” (De anima 3 ad 30 (p. 273)). Viewed only in the light of [Summa Theologiae I] 84.5, it is not clear why there should have been such hostility. The view that Aquinas here rejects is one that was universally rejected at the time: no one held that human beings in this life have the divine ideas as an object of cognition. Moreover, everyone agreed that divine illumination is not sufficient on its own, without the senses. Still, Aquinas would be controversial because he understands divine illumination to have occurred at the time when the soul was created. Others, in contrast, would argue for special illumination, an ongoing influence from above, constantly required for the intellect’s operation. From one perspective this introduces an important difference between Aquinas and his opponents. According to Henry of Ghent, for example

“It should be said unconditionally, therefore, that there is nothing a human being can have pure truth about by acquiring knowledge of it through purely natural means. Such truth can be had only through the divine light’s illumination” (Summa I.2 [f.8rM]).

Aquinas in contrast, is able to hold that

“Just as other natural active capacities, when connected to their passive counterparts suffice for their natural operations, so also the soul, which has within itself an active and a passive capacity, suffices for the perception of the truth” (InDT I.Ic).

It is not that Aquinas denies God’s influence, merely that he thinks this influence does its part at the outset, furnishing human beings with a sufficient capacity for thought on their own, without the need for any “new illumination added onto their natural illumination” (Ia2ae 109.Ic). It is this step toward naturalism that Aquinas’s opponents would find so objectionable. Thus Marston decries his opponents for holding that “we see all things in the first truth because we see in a light derived from that truth – namely, in the natural light of our mind, which is part of the soul” (De anima 3 resp. (pp. 252-53). (Pasnau, Thomas Aquinas on Human Nature, 305).

Pasnau notes that Aquinas’s epistemology is motivated by his goal to provide a justification for sense knowledge as an essential aspect of the hylomorphic nature of humanity. For Aquinas, the Platonists (those whom he knew primarily through Macrobius) had not sufficiently done this. For them the body does not aid but provides an obstacle to the intellect that must be removed. Rather, the active intellect depends upon the senses for its reception of phantasms which it uses in its crafting of intelligible species within the passive intellect. Nonetheless, this crafting is done by an innate power which “comes to the soul from the separated substances and especially from God as from its first source” (De Veritate., 10.6).

Pseudo-Dionysian Biblical Exegesis

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“Dionysius the Areopagite Converting the Pagan Philosophers” by Antoine Caron (French, 1521 – 1599), Oil on panel

If you know anything about Pseudo-Dionysius you will know that his works, aside from the Bible, were the most studied works of the Medieval period. Though certain works of Augustine were just as influential, Augustine’s complete works did not become available until the 14th century. Even Aquinas, known for his devotion to Aristotle and Augustine refers to Pseudo-Dionysius more than any other author in his opera. Among Protestants, Dionysius never carried as much authority as with other Christian traditions, primarily because Valla’s proof of forgery was unanimously accepted by all of the Reformers. Also, Luther’s and Calvin’s criticisms of “that Dionysius whoever he was” mentioned the latter’s seemingly unbridled devotion to Platonic philosophy, placing him at odds with their renewal of biblical exegesis.

Modern research on the Corpus Dionysiacum, however, through the use of modern tools of textual criticism has displayed a more careful reading of the Pseudo-Areopagite. My point here is not to summarize the entirety of this research but to point out the curious mixture of biblical and Proclian exegesis within Dionysius’s works. István Perczel, for instance, makes an interesting point re: Dionysius’s eclectic synthesis:

It is quite obvious that the structure of the Dionysian Corpus imitates that of the New Testament. We have in Dionysius three « synoptic Gospels », so to speak: the Divine Names and the two Hierarchies; another « Gospel », the Mystical Theology which, like Saint John, treats the loftiest theological ideas, and, finally, letters clarifying the meaning of the « Gospels. » And just as the canonical Gospels tell the same story – that of Jesus the Son of God – from different aspects, so the four major treatises of Dionysius treat one common story – that of the manifestation of the divine in the world – from four different angles. In this context, it is all the more interesting to note that the structure of all four treatises is determined above all by the Platonic Theology of Proclus.   Perczel, “Pseudo-Dionysius and the Platonic Theology,” in Proclus et la Theologie Platonicienne: Actes du Colloque International de Louvain (13-16 mai 1998), A. Ph. Segonds and C. Steel, eds., (Leuven University Press, 2000), 491-531.

Based on this information, one may interpret the Dionysian enterprise as an attempt at Neoplatonic biblical exegesis similar in some ways to that of Augustine.

Subjectivity in Aquinas

 

"The Triumph of Thomas Aquinas" by Andrea da Firenze 1365-c.1367
“The Triumph of Thomas Aquinas” by Andrea da Firenze 1365-c.1367

According to Anthony Flood in a recent article in the American Catholic Philosophical Quarterly, the search for a concept of subjectivity or the “conscious awareness of oneself as a person” in Aquinas’ thought , aside from the risk of superimposing a modern problem over a medieval synthesis, is not a fruitless endeavor. Flood responds to yet is dependent upon John Crosby’s notion of subjectivity. Flood argues:

The “interiority” of one’s personal being is the totality of a person as subject, which is marked by one’s own unique lived experience of and interactions with the world. In more colloquial terms, interiority is the sum and source of one’s personality, though understood not as another person experiences me, for instance, but as I experience my own self. All ongoing personal experiences are “anchored”  or grounded in one’s own interiority, which constitutes the subjective term of  those experiences (Flood, “Aquinas on Subjectivity: a response to Crosby,” American Catholic Philosophical Quarterly, 84:1 [2010], p. 71).

Flood differs from Crosby in his optimism regarding the presence of such a concept of subjectivity in Aquinas’ thought.

Modern scholars of Thomas Aquinas have recognized the importance that love plays in his motivational theory and in his soteriology. According to Flood, Aquinas’ philosophy of love is the window to his latent view of the self. Aquinas’ idea of self-consciousness is founded on dilectio. For Aquinas amor is a natural appetite that moves things toward particular objects.  However, argues Flood dilectio and the “dilectio-based relation” of the individual to his or herself differs from an “amor-based relation” in that the former includes a rational choice of the will.

Flood notes that, “As a person relates to himself through acts of dilectio, the self-relation becomes self-conscious and properly human” (p. 77).  Therefore, the dilectio-based relation is the source of self-consciousness. Self-friendship, which is the center of Aquinas’ subjectivity, is an activity of the dilectio-based relation. In other words, the conscious choice that an individual makes to love him or herself is self-friendship, which is the source of self-knowledge. Though Flood’s goal in this article is to map out a purely natural concept of subjectivity in Aquinas, it is worth noting that for Aquinas this self-friendship through dilectio is imperfect apart from divinely infused charity. Through charity the subject is brought into a supernatural friendship with God. In fact, by means of charity each person is enabled to truly love him or herself, because those without charity focus on exterior objects and are not able to truly reflect upon the “inward man” (ST II-II, Q. 25, a. 7.).

Grace and charity are crucial to self-knowledge and self-love for Aquinas. He explains, with reference to Romans 7:5-6, that the perfection of one’s natural self-love in acquired or political virtues (such as prudence and temperance) does not suffice for human perfection without the infusion of grace and charity. Accordingly, human nature requires the infusion of grace and charity because without these perfections political virtue does not attain to God as its ultimate end. For, Aquinas notes, “infused virtue means that we refrain totally from obeying sinful desires” (On the Virtues, Cambridge: 2005, p. 70).   These desires turn the self toward mutable good and set up an obstacle to perfect subjectivity. Though the political virtues seek the mean between vices in the precepts of reason, the infused political virtues lead to complete interiority because they seek the mean outside and above reason, that is, the mean provided in Holy Scripture (Ibid., p. 68). If one agrees with the plausibility of Flood’s discovery of subjectivity in Aquinas’ thought, then the question of the transition of subjectivity through the infusion of grace, charity, and the infused political virtues, I would argue, is a crucial piece of the puzzle.