Platonic Reasoning as Cure for Materialism: W.G.T. Shedd’s Ontological Argument

It is often quite difficult to trace the influences upon a particular author’s opinion. To use the labels ”Platonic” or “Aristotelian” as the means for discovering the school of thought to which the author belongs can be a dubious method. Many ideas seem Platonic when they are actually essential aspects of religions that would claim no relation to Platonism or Neo-Platonism. And, just because one accepts Platonic ideas does not mean he/she is not Aristotelian in other matters or that he/she belongs to a particular “school” of thought. The case is more clear in authors such as Augustine and Anselm who both tell us that they have read Plato (or Plotinus) and consider the Platonic philosophy to be the most accurate and beneficial philosophy for the explanation of Christian theology.

In the case of W.G.T. Shedd, the conservative 19th century American Presbyterian theologian author of the famous three-volume Systematic Theology, his philosophical influences are quite clear. In the 1884 edition of the Presbyterian Review Shedd offers a defense of Anselm’s classic ontological argument for God’s existence. Not only is Anselm’s a priori method Platonic, depending upon the notion of God as Being which is knowable apart from the senses – not to mention the fact that Plato was the only philosopher available to thinkers in Anselm’s day –  but Shedd’s interpretation and defense of this argument is also Platonic, drawing upon the thoughts of Platonists who post-date Anselm.

Shedd begins his discussion noting that the Reformers and divines of the 16th and 17th centuries favored the ontological argument. Among these learned churchmen are the Cambridge Platonists – Ralph Cudworth, Henry More, and John Smith – who used Anselm’s argument in their battle against the materialism of Thomas Hobbes. Shedd defends the a priori method taking his queues from these men. He notes that the present judgment against this defense of God’s existence is erroneous:

May it not be that the present absorption in the study of visible and material objects has unfitted the mind for the study of ideas, by blunting the keenness of metaphysical conception, so that the needle’s point of the a priori argument is missed, and it is pronounced to be inconclusive? Be this as it may, it will certainly do no harm to the cause of truth, to consider the form and force of this old argument for the being of God. (p. 213)

One of Shedd’s major points in this article cuts against materialism and Kantian subjectivism, the point that if the subjective existence of God is more real than the objective existence – which Shedd notes is the current argument against Anselm’s reasoning – then the presupposed “matter” of materialism will itself be more real subjectively than objectively and thus “the certainty of the material world is gone.” (ibid.) In other words, if one’s idea of “matter” need not correspond to any matter in reality, then one’s knowledge of the material world will not be certain. The same is the case with the idea of God. This assumption rests on the saying of Augustine that, “God is more truly thought than he is described, and exists more truly than he is thought.” In fact, Shedd says of the material world that it is but a shadow when compared with the essence of God, an argument similar to that C.S. Lewis uses against the Pantheistic idea that “spirit” is less than “matter” in Miracles. One element of Anselm’s argument that Shedd praises is his realization that necessity of existence is an attribute of being. It can be affirmed of one being and denied of another. Necessity is a higher attribute of being than contingency, a distinction which differentiates creature from Creator and implies the dependency of the former upon the latter. Quoting the Puritan and Platonist John Howe, Shedd furthers his point that a priori reasoning leads to certain knowledge of God. “It is truly said,” remarks Howe,

of all created things, that their non esse is more than their esse; that is, they have more no-being than being. It is only some limited portion [degree] of being that they have; but there is an infinitude [infinite degree] of being which they have not. And so coming infinitely nearer to nothingness than to fulness of being, they may well enough wear the name of ‘nothing.’ ‘All nations before him are as nothing, and they are counted to him less than nothing’ (Isa. xl. 17). Wherefore the First and Fountain-Being justly appropriates to himself the name I Am, yea tells us, He is, and there is none besides Him; therebye leaving no other name than that of ‘nothing’ unto creatures. (ibid., 216, quoting Howe.)

For Shedd, not only has the materialistic philosophy of his age spoiled the collective Reason so that men look askance at a priori reasoning, but the rejection of this type of argument, Anselm’s specifically, hides a more fundamental rejection of the hyperousia characteristic of God’s nature. If God is hyper-real, if he is Being itself, then he is that-than-which-nothing-greater-can-be-thought and so existence is presupposed in the first premise. Shedd even finds evidence in the Scriptures to defend Anselm, reading Exodus 3:13 in a Platonic light:

The truth that absolutely perfect being is necessary being is taught in the revealed name of God. The ontological argument has the endorsement of inspiration. The Hebrew Jehova, in Ex. iii. 13, denotes necessity of existence . . . To give a name, in both Hebrew and the Greek intuition, is to describe the inmost and real nature of the thing. Plato, in the Cratylus (390), represents Socrates as saying that “the right imposition of names is no easy matter, and belongs not to any and everybody, but to him only who has an insight into the nature of things.” The nomenclature given by the unfallen man to the objects of nature (Gen. ii. 19, 20) implies a deep knowledge of nature. And when the deity chooses before all others the name I Am, or Jehovah, for himself, the reference is to his absoluteness and perfection of being. The ethnic names in distinction from the revealed name of the deity, imply attributes, not essence . . . [T]he Hebrew, divinely taught upon this point, chose a term which does not refer to a particular attribute, but to the very being and essence of God, and teaches that the deity must be, and cannot be conceived of as a nonentity. (ibid., 223)

Therefore, even the scriptures approve and require that the idea of God as Being implies a necessary being. In the Shleiermacherian manner, Shedd refers to this idea of God as man’s natural God-consciousness, which must have an objective referent; otherwise it would make as much sense as having the ability of smell with no existing object that can be perceived through the sense of smell. “The subjective requires the antithetic objective . . . in order to escape the absurd supposition that something comes from nothing, or that there is an effect in consciousness without any cause of it.” (ibid., 225)  Surely we may be able to imagine beings that do not exist. But, the absolutely perfect Being is not an object of the imagination but that of reason.

Any one who will examine it [the idea of the absolutely perfect Being], as he finds it in his consciousness, will immediately perceive that it is not a construction of his fancy, like the idea of a winged lion; or of his imagination, like the abstract conception of a house. These latter are attended with the conviction of their unreality, not of the reality. We know that there is nothing objectively correspondent to them. No man is influenced in the least by such ideas. A winged lion, like the heathen idol, “is nothing in the world.” Such purely subjective notions inspire no fear. But not so with the idea of God. “I thought of God, and was troubled,” is true of every man. There has never been a human being old enough to fear, but what has feared the Supreme Being in some way or other. The idea of the deity causes terror sometimes in the atheist himself. But if it were not the representation of a tremendous reality, it would produce no such effects the world over. (ibid., 225.)

Another proof that the idea of God must have an objective referent is the fact that the idea of “self” or “person” demands the existence of one’s own “self” or “person” in actu which in turn demand the existence of God’s “person.” “No man can believe that he is an ego, without believing that God is another ego – the I Am. The attributes of finite personality, namely, freedom and accountability, imply and necessitate the attributes of infinite personality, namely, sovereignty, justice, and omnipotence.” (ibid., p. 225)

Furthermore, Shedd replies to an objection that this idea of God which all men may know does not and should not take away from the mystery of God. If God is the really-Real Being that establishes the basis of all other being then his essence will inevitably be infinitely beyond man’s capacity to trace. This fact is proven with a quotation from the Cambridge Platonist Ralph Cudworth, who says:

It is indeed true, that the deity is more incomprehensible to us than anything else whatever: which proceeds from the fulness of his being and perfection, and from the transcendency of his brightness. But for this very same reason may it be said also, in some sense, that he is more knowable and conceivable than anything else; as the sun, though by reason of its excessive splendor it dazzle our weak sight, yet is notwithstanding far more visible, also, than any of the nebulosae stellae, the small, misty stars. (ibid, p. 226., quotting Cudworth)

So, we must maintain the mysterious nature of God but because he is as knowable as the sun’s light is intense we cannot rule out philosophical proofs of his existence, like Anselm’s ontological argument. Yet, we must admit that our own finitude renders our intellects week when exposed to the brightness of the divine Intellect. Thus, Shedd concludes his discussion of a priori reasoning calling on his readership to think like Anselm.

The a priori argument is of uncommon importance in an age inclined to materialism. For it turns the human mind in upon itself and thereby contributes to convince it of the reality of mind, as a different substance from matter. The neglect of a priori methods, and overvaluation of a posteriori, is one of the reasons why matter has so much more reality for many men than mind has. If an object is not considered, it gradually ceases to be regarded as an object at all. When theorists cease to reflect upon purely mental and moral phenomena, they cease to believe that there are any. The gaze of the materialist is intent upon the physical solely . . . What is needed is, the cultivation of philosophy in connection with physics; of a priori methods along with the a posteriori . . . Those a priori methods, consequently, which dispense with physical sensation and outward sensuous observations, are best adapted to convince of the reality of an invisible and immaterial entity like the human spirit, and its infinite antithesis and corresponding object the Eternal Spirit. (ibid., 227)

Shedd’s defense of Anselm came in the era of August Comte and Charles Darwin, an era that saw an increased emphasis on matter in the light of new methods in natural science. His training under the Christian transcendentalist James Marsh, who was himself a disciple of Samuel Taylor Colleridge, most likely shaped his thought toward an a priori method. These presuppositions most likely facilitated his reading of Plato, Anselm, and the Cambridge Platonists.  The battle of the latter against Thomas Hobbes and the materialists of their day probably hit home with Shedd, who found himself doing theological and philosophical battle with materialists of a new and more radical breed.

In some camps rational arguments for God’s existence are seen in a negative light. Some think these arguments only function to lead unbelievers to a purely abstract idea of God, one that has no objective referent. Yet, as Shedd has demonstrated this disagreement assumes that the idea of “that-than-which-nothing-greater-exists” is not a necessary being, whereas Anselm and Augustine originally thought of God as the most Real and concrete Being. Poetry has never written a poem, only poets; but God created poets. Surely Shedd would agree with Lewis that God is trans-concrete and trans-corporeal because existence is his nature.

It almost goes without saying that the Reformed world needs more scholars such as W.G.T. Shedd. We also need to remember men such as he and consider the sources that influenced them and cease to be afraid that “pagan” thinking will lead us astray. In my experience, it is the lack of such sound philosophy that has led theologians to erroneous conclusions. Perhaps a more “Platonic” education will help in the current battle against atheism in both the ecclesiastic and public spheres.

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Voluntarism, Skepticism, and the Unveiling of Nature

Medieval ClockPierre Hadot distinguishes between what he calls a Promethean and Orphic concept of nature in the history of philosophy. Both groups see the inner workings of nature as secretive and hidden from mankind. However, these secrets may be discovered by man by the use of certain methods. The Promethean method seeks to do violence to nature in order to force her to confess her secrets. The Orphic philosopher sees nature as somewhat divine and seeks to woo her through poetry and art, believing that the secrets of nature must be given voluntarily by Nature herself. According to Hadot, the Christian theology of voluntarism contributed to a more Promethean concept of nature and her secrets (Hadot also erroneously charges all Christians with a Promethean theology). Where Augustine held that God’s will and goodness are one and simple, voluntarists believed that God was more free and could do that which was contrary to his revealed will and even things contradictory. This view of God’s will led to an agnosticism about the secrets of nature, and Nature herself became more like a clock than a personality. Hadot explains, quoting Descartes:

According to theological voluntarism … if two plus two are four, it is because God so willed it. There is no intelligible necessity to impose itself on God’s absolute power: “The mathematical truths that you call eternal have been established by God and depend entirely on him, as do all other creatures. Indeed, to say that these truths are independent of God is to speak of him as a Jupiter or a Saturn, and to subject him to the Styx and the Fates.” [Oeuvres philosophiques, 1:259-260] (Hadot, The Veil of Isis, p. 133)

Hadot is not accusing Descartes of using God’s absolute will as a first principle of knowledge or speculative investigation. Rather, Descartes’ philosophy dealt violence to speculative science by attributing to God a virtually unknowable will and to nature, an unpredictable set of laws, and assumed an opposition between God’s will and the nature of things. Hadot continues:

God has established these truths “as a king establishes laws in his kingdom,” as Descartes wrote on April 15, 1630, to Father Mersenne. This doctrine of complete divine freedom had two consequences. First of all, it is possible that phenomena, or that which appears to us, may be produced by processes different from those we can construct mathematically and according to the laws of mechanics. We must renounce the idea of an absolutely certain science that knows genuine causes. The result is that we can observe and measure natural phenomena, but we cannot truly understand their causes. Seventeenth-century scientists found a sufficient motive for renouncing worries about the finalities and essence of phenomena in theological reasons; it was enough for them to determine how these phenomena occur according to the laws of mechanics. (ibid. p. 133)

Thus, the voluntarist concept of certain possible worlds that God may will to create, worlds that function completely different from ours, led to the birth of a minimalist science of phenomena that reduced the organic and dynamic Nature of things to a mechanical nature that is identical with man’s own art. In this system, the secrets of nature that were once only thought to be discoverable by imitation can now be known by reduplication via the art of mechanics. If the universals of Nature can be other than man is able to know, then Nature will be reduced in value to predictable physical phenomena, thus losing her personality, volition, and mystery. Thus, by reducing Nature’s value the Promethean project was furthered.

Christian Ethics

Assuming God is Pure Act and evil is privation, human becoming is for the sake of being.  In other words if all of life is worship and worship is a return to God through act and if a return assumes a separation (per a corrupted being) then becoming more like God is for the sake of returning to God, being like God, participating in God’s being.  This goes beyond the forensic.

Potential Being Actualized In Christ

Parmenides argued that a particular being cannot become another particular being. For example air cannot become fire but must first cease to be air as such.  The change of air to fire would be in this case a mere replacement of one being for another.  Aristotle answered this problem with his distinction between three factors in change:  Form, matter, and privation.  A ball of clay is not a vase, but it has the potential for being a vase.  In this example clay is the matter, vase is the form, and the privation is the clay’s lack of being a vase.  According to Aristotle air can be changed into fire because air is never just air.  Air is potential fire.  Therefore when it is changed into fire it is not annihilated but part of its potential being (fire) is turned into actual being.  An acorn is a potential tree.  When an acorn is changed into a tree it does not lose part of its being but has its capacity for treeness fulfilled. This does not mean that change is illusory but that change is real.    

This distinction is helpful for understanding Thomas Aquinas on the Eucharist. Although he notes that natural changes are changes of accidental form and not substantial form in the Eucharist the bread and the wine do not lose their composition of essence and existence but are changed from a potential glorified being to actual glorified substances.  They in turn actualize other potentialities within the believer – faith resulting in union with Christ through the Holy Spirit.  As others have pointed out this change is meta-substantial. It transcends substance to the nature of created being itself. Believers do not lose their substance but receive that substance back fully renewed in Christ. They receive Christ and all of his benefits: his mind, will, nature, etc.  Of course, this assumes an ontological, not merely legal, sinful nature in man. Since the Fall man lacks full being but also actualized being of a certain type.  Adam was created in God’s image but was intended for glorification in union with God.  Just as the acorn was intended to be a tree man’s final cause is a shared being, a mutual indwelling with our incarnate glorified Lord. “And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.” [2 Cor. 3:18] Christ’s body on earth is being transformed from a potential body to a pure, glorified, actualized body.

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)