Why Law Presupposes Nature According to Ralph Cudworth (†1688)

In his A Treatise Concerning Eternal and Immutable Morality (new version edited by Sarah Hutton, Cambridge: 1996), Ralph Cudworth defends, in a thoroughly Modern way, what one may rightly deem a classical ontology. I will offer here a review of the first two chapters of book one and will devote future posts to the remainder of the treatise. Cudworth begins Ralph Cudworthby noting that a common view throughout the ages has held that there is no natural law but only positive law, no natural difference between good and evil but only mandates established by the authority of a sovereign. Aristotle affirms that politically “honest” and “just” things seem to vary so greatly that they cannot possess any common nature. Hence, by way of clarification, Aristotle divided:

  • Politically Just things (to dikaion politikon) between
    1. Natural (physikon) – things that are the same everywhere, and
    2. Legal (nomikon) “which before there be a law made, is indifferent, but when once the law is made, is determined to be just or unjust” (Cudworth’s trans. of Ethics 1134b18-21).

Among those who deny the first among this division are Democritus, Epicurus, and more contemporaneous, Thomas Hobbes. Cudworth quotes the latter as saying, “In the state of nature nothing can be unjust; the notions of right and wrong, justice and injustice have no place; where there is no common power, there is no law; where no law, no transgression … No law can be unjust” (Elementorum philosophiae… vol. II, p. 145).

In connection with this denial of #1 are those who claim that only by the command of God in his absolute power do things become good. Cudworth singles out Ockham as one who held to this view of “an omnipotent Being devoid of all essential and natural justice” (p. 14). Some, such as Joannes Szydlovius (early 17th cent.) claim that “to love God is by nature an indifferent thing, and is morally good only, because it is commanded by God…” (Vindiciae questionum...).

Cudworth sets out in chapter 2 to prove by logical argument that commands depend upon and presuppose natures. No omnipotence, he argues,  is able to make a thing white or black without there being whiteness or blackness, and this is true whether one thinks of these as qualities (Aristotle) or dispositions of parts that beget the sensations of white or black within us (Descartes). Also, omnipotence cannot make things like or equal to one another without the nature of likeness and equality.

The reason thereof is plain, because all these things imply a manifest contradiction: that things should be what they are not. And this is a truth fundamentally necessary to all knowledge, that contradictories cannot be true; for otherwise nothing would be certainly true or false (p. 16).

By way of the Scholastics, Cudworth affirms the principle “that God himself cannot supply the place of a formal cause (Deum ipsum non posse supplere locum causae formalis).” In other words, “God” is not the nature of “justice” or “honesty” which is what would be the case if those terms were not self-referential but refer only to God’s will. Perhaps Cudworth’s clearest working principle, which one must affirm in order to avoid both logical contradiction and uphold natural rights, is that, “There is no such thing as an arbitrarious essence, mode, or relation, that may be made indifferently any thing at pleasure” (p. 17). In other words, things have their own existence and because of this they are not indifferent and thus cannot be changed at will. “For an arbitrarious essence is a being without a nature, a contradiction, and therefore a nonentity” (ibid.).

However, Cudworth notes, it is true that when God or a civil authority issues a command, the thing commanded becomes good when before it was indifferent, thus appearing to support the voluntarist claim that good and evil are human constructs. Even if things are bound by their natures, some claim, morality is created by the command of an authority. Cudworth responds that commands are not obligatory accept insofar as they apply to specific natures. For example, no known ruler has ever founded his authority of making commandments and others’ duty to obey them in a law of his own making.  Thus the authority of the commander must arrive from natural justice and an antecedent obligation to obey within the subjects. “Which things are not made by laws, but presupposed before all laws to make them valid ” (p. 18). For Cudworth, if there were no antecedent obligation to obey within subjects not even God himself could place any obligation on them to obey his commands “because the natures of things do not depend upon will, being not things that are arbitrarily made (gignomena) but things that are (onta)” (p. 19).

Having explained the logic of the above division between natural and legal good/evil Cudworth procedes to clarify what is known as “the Euthyphro dilemma” from Plato’s Euthyphro – Are things good because they are commanded or commanded because they are good? The answer to this dilemma, for Cudworth, depends upon a right division between intellect and will. The nature of man that does not depend upon arbitrary will is an intellectual nature. Thus, good and evil for an intellectual nature are things to which the intellect is obliged to pursue per se and others that the intellect obliges itself to pursue per accidens. This break-down may be of some help here:

  • Intellect – pursues the good by nature
    • Natural good – such things as the intellectual nature obliges to immediately, absolutely, and perpetually, and upon no condition of any voluntary action that may be done or omitted intervening.
  • Will by means of Intellect- pursues accidental or “indifferent” good and evil by a voluntary action either
      • self imposed or
      • imposed by another person
    • Positively (accidentally) good – such things as the intellectual nature obliges to accidentally upon condition of some voluntary act of another person invested with lawful authority in commanding.

Through a command of the will indifferent things acquire a new relation to the intellectual nature by falling underneath something that is absolutely good or evil. In other words, though they are commanded by the will, these indifferent things depend upon the intellectual nature of the subject supplying the general categories of good and evil under which they fall. For example, to keep faith is an obligation of natural justice. To keep faith with a particular person/entity at a specific time is a thing indifferent. However, when one makes a promise by voluntary action, that particular thing falls under the absolute category of “keeping faith” thus forming a new relation to the rational nature. Thus, natural justice for man is the intellectual nature which obliges one to obey both God and civil authority.

Subjects are not required to obey a specific civil authority merely because of a “positive” law but because the intellect naturally pursues obedience to the general office of the civil authority. Yet, even the civil authority is bound by the intellect and loses the power to command if he or she exceeds these naturally imposed bounds.

Cudworth clarifies that commands do not change indifferent things into things good per se but the obedience to a particular positive law concerning an indifferent thing can be divided between form and matter. The act of obedience to the indifferent thing which has become obligatory is material obedience while  formal obedience corresponds to the universal of yielding obedience to lawful authority.

Wherefore in positive commands, the will of the commander doth not create any new moral entity, but only diversely modifies and determines that general duty or obligation of natural justice to obey lawful authority and keep oaths and covenants, as our own will in promising doth but produce several modifications of keeping faith. And therefore there are no new things just or due made by either of them, besides what was always by nature such, to keep our own promises, and obey the lawful commands of others (p. 21).

Cudworth concludes from the above premises that if there were no intellectual nature or natural justice then nothing would be obligatory, especially not that which is supposedly begotten by a mere command of the will. One can see in this the foundation for a Western theory of innate and inalienable rights as things founded upon certain and intellectual principles. It is no wonder that a man as influential as John Locke was first schooled in the philosophy of Ralph Cudworth and nurtured through close convivial acquaintance with the latter’s daughter Lady Masham.


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.

Calvin and Vermigli on Adam’s Original Righteousness, pt. II

“Solummodo hoc inveni quod fecerit Deus hominem rectum et ipse se infinitis miscuerit quaestionibus quis talis ut sapiens est et quis cognovit solutionem verbi.” (Eccl. 7:30)

This verse from the Vulgata was read by the Western church for hundreds of years and interpreted to mean that Adam was created with supernatural gifts that directed him toward his ultimate end in the Heavenly Jerusalem.  Thomas Aquinas, John Calvin, and Peter Martyr Vermigli are among the many who implemented the clause, “God made man just,” in their theological writings as proof of Adam’s original righteousness.   

Thomas appealed to this verse in defense of his belief that Adam was not created in a state of mere nature but was created in grace.  He affirms that some believe that Adam was not created in grace but that grace only came after sin.  He responds that if Adam’s original righteousness was produced from nature the effect (supernatural qualities) would be greater than the cause (nature). (ST I, Q. 95, a. 1.)  According to Thomas, the belief that Adam was created in a state of mere nature is contrary to scripture, reason, and St. Augustine, who says:

For, as soon as our first parents had transgressed the commandment, divine grace forsook them, and they were confounded at their own wickedness … for though their members remained the same, they had shame now where hey had none before.  They experienced a new motion of their flesh, which had become disobedient to them, in strict retribution of their own disobedience to God. (De Civitate Dei, XIII.13) 

This paragraph from Augustine’s City of God provided the foundation for Thomas’s definition of original righteousness (although his definition was not novel). According to Thomas, Adam was created in obedience to God, a status that requires more than just natural gifts.  He explains:

For this rectitude [explained in Eccl. 7:30] consisted in his [Adam’s] reason being subject to God, the lower powers to reason, and the body to the soul:  and the first subjection was the cause of both the second and the third; since while reason was subject to God, the lower powers remained subject to reason, as Augustine says. Now it is clear that such a subjection of the body to the soul and of the lower powers to reason, was not from nature; otherwise it would have remained after sin; since even in the demons the natural gifts remained after sin, as Dionysius declared.  (Ibid.)

This rectitude of the inward parts of man to reason and man to God is a supernatural rectitude that was given to Adam in his created state.  This right ordering is necessary because if man had been created in a state of pure nature he would not have been able to discover divine truths own his own nor acquire divine beatitude merely by natural effort.  His natural inclination toward the common good needed an addition of supernatural charity that directs the entire man toward the Heavenly City.  Thomas explains the different supernatural qualities necessary for man’s beatitude:

[T]o enable us to carry out activities that are ordered toward the end of eternal life, the following are divinely infused in us: first (i’) grace, through which the soul acquires a certain spiritual way of being; then (ii’) faith, hope and charity. Thus by faith, the intelligence may be enlightened concerning the knowledge of supernatural matters, which function at that level just as naturally known principles do at the level of our natural activities. By hope and charity, the will acquires a certain inclination towards that supernatural good; the human will just by its own natural inclination is not sufficiently ordered toward this. (Disputed Questions on the Virtues in General, A. 10, resp.)

This grace and these theological virtues are qualities that were divinely infused within Adam for the purpose of ordering him toward divine things and, should he pass the test, the vision of God. We should remember that when Thomas uses the verb “added” in reference to the grace infused in Adam he is speaking hypothetically, as if Adam existed apart from grace, a concept that Thomas never thought a reality.  Rather, Adam was created in a state of grace, meaning God created him ex nihilo with these virtues naturally engrafted. When it comes to the nature of original sin and Adam’s loss of original righteousness (which is the right order of man to himself and to God) Thomas follows both Anselm and Augustine.  In his Summa theologiae I-II, Q. 82 he asks if original sin is a habit. The first objection replies that original sin is not a habit because Anselm said that it is a privation, which is opposed to habit.  Thomas responds on the authority of Augustine that original sin is not only a privation of original righteousness but is a habit of concupiscence. He affirms:

As bodily sickness is partly a privation, in so far as it denotes the destruction of the equilibrium of health, and partly something positive, viz. the very humors that are inordinately disposed, so too original sin denotes the privation of original justice, and besides this, the inordinate disposition of the parts of the soul.  Consequently it is not a pure privation, but a corrupt habit. (ST I-II, Q. 82., a. 1.)

Thus original sin removes the supernatural qualities that ordered the soul toward God and his supernatural end while at the same time causing a habit of concupiscence within the soul.  Further in the Summa Thomas speaks of the “wounding of nature” in which all of the powers of the soul are disordered due to sin. (ST I-II, Q. 85, a. 3.)  The four parts of the soul each receive a wound which inclines man toward evil.  The intellect receives the wound of ignorance, the will receives malice, the irascible receives weakness, and the concupiscible receives concupiscence. The wound of original sin effects the entire person, not only one part of the soul.  Thomas confirms the material and formal elements of original sin:

[T]he privation of original justice, whereby the will was made subject to God, is the formal element in original sin; while every other disorder of the soul’s powers, is a kind of material element in respect of original sin. Now the inordinateness of the other powers of the soul consists chiefly in their turning inordinately to mutable good; which inordinateness may be called by the general name of concupiscence.  Hence original sin is concupiscence, materially, but privation of original justice, formally. (ST I-II, Q. 82, a. 3.)

Therefore, Thomas believed Adam to have been created in grace with supernatural virtues infused for the sake of attaining the ultimate end. When Adam sinned these gifts of grace were removed and his nature was wounded with a habit of concupiscence.  

Peter Martyr Vermigli, in his commentary on St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, also uses Ecclesiastes 7:30 as evidence that Adam was created in grace. He refers to that passage while defending Anselm’s position against Pighius.  Vermigli counters Pighius’s argument that the corruption of original sin is not hereditary but was natural to Adam, saying that the defects came when Adam sinned and his original righteousness was removed “for actions or doinges are not taken away from men, but the power to use them well is taken away.” (Commentarie upon the Epistle to the Romanes, p. 124.) Vermigli argues that sin does not naturally corrupt the whole person but the efficient cause of this corruption of original sin is the justice of God:

whereby the grace of the Spirite and heavenly gifts, wherewith man was endewed before hys fall, were removed from hym when he had sinned. And thys wythdrawing of grace, came of the iustice of God, althoughe the blame bee to bee ascribed to the transgression of the fyrst man: least a man shoulde straight way say that God is the cause of sinne. For when he had once withdrawen his giftes, wherewith he had adorned man straight way vices and corruptions followed of their owne accord, which were before farre from the condicion of man. (Ibid., p. 122.)

In this passage Vermigli affirms that Adam was created in a state of grace. He affirms the same notion in his Commentary on Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, where he disagrees with Aristotle’s statement that the virtues are produced and destroyed by and through the same things.  This was one of Aristotle’s arguments against Plato’s concept of innate virtue.  Concerning these things, Vermigli notes:

And whether virtues are present in us by nature is also a question.  If we speak of man as created by God (for all things made by him were supremely good), there can be no doubt that in his created state he was also equipped with virtues.  Just as the heavens did not remain without ornament and the land was immediately covered with plants, so man at his creation did not lack the appropriate virtues. With respect to vitiated and corrupt nature, however, these statements are true in the normal course of things and according to ordinary reason.  Aristotle, however was unable to see this corruption of our nature, since he was left without faith and the light of holy scripture … When it comes to the true virtues, such as faith, hope, charity, and the like, we must say that nothing prevents our nature, in spite of corruption, from being adorned with these charisms, provided that God himself deigns to inspire them. It is against human nature, however, to acquire these virtues by ourselves and through our own efforts. Moreover, it is not always true that we must have actions before we acquire virtues. We say this because of the first man and also because of those whom God immediately infuses with virtues from the moment of their conversion. (emphasis added) (Commentary on Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, pp. 296, 297.)

Adam was created with the theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity, virtues that cannot be produced by nature but must come from God’s supernatural infusion of these qualities. Vermigli also believed that Adam was given the gifts of the Holy Spirit: fortitude, fear, and the inspirations of God – these are also mentioned by Thomas in ST I-II, Q. 68.  These things “surpass nature.” (Ibid., p. 336) Therefore, Adam did not have them by nature but “even then God himself, of his own benevolence and grace, gave Adam true virtues and adorned him with his beautiful gifts.” (Ibid.) 

Aside from disagreement over the definition of grace and the primacy of charity among the theological virtues Vermigli agrees with Thomas’s doctrine of original righteousness and original sin.  By grace, the lower parts of Adam’s soul were submissive to will and reason and the reason was submissive to God. He affirms, “And these men by Originall iustice understand nothing elles, then the right constitucion of man, when the body obeyeth the soule, and the inferiour partes of the soule obey the superiour partes, and the mind is subiect  unto God and to his law.” (Commentarie upon the Epistle to the Romanes, p. 124.)

Like Thomas, Vermigli combines the opinion of Anselm and Augustine in his definition of original sin: “…we have alleaged Augustines definition, that originall sinne is the concupiscence of the flesh, and Anselmus definition, that it is the want of originall iustice…” (Ibid., p. 129.) Furthermore, Vermigli adds his own definition to these in order to refute Pighius, who misinterpreted Augustine and Anselm, using them to defend his doctrine of pure nature. Therefore, Vermigli adds to, or more precisely, reiterates the classic doctrine of original sin in the following definition:  “Original sinne therefore is the corruption of the whole nature of man, traduced by generation from the fall of our first parent into his posterity, which corruption, were it not for the befefite of Christ, adiudgeth al men borne therein in a maner to infinite evills, and to externall damnation.” (Ibid., p. 125.)

According to John Patrick Donnelly, Vermigli’s definition “gives a new centrality and emphasis to total depravity which is distinctly Reformed.” (Calvinism and Scholasticism, p. 107.) However, Vermigli considered his definition to be a clarification and reiteration of Augustine and Anselm rather than a “distinctively reformed” definition. He affirms this later in his commentary:

With this our definition of originall sinne, wel agreeth the want of originall iustice.  Also with it agreeth the description of Augustine, wherein he saith , that it is the concupiscence of the flesh: so that either of them be rightly understanded. The chiefe of the Scholemen acknowledged this doctrine, as Thomas, Scotus, and in especiall Bonaventure. These appoint for the materiall part in this sinne, the corruption of nature, or concupiscence: and for the formal part, the want of original righteousnes: and so of these two opinions, which we have now rehersed, they make but one. (Ibid., p. 126.)

Here Vermigli confirms that his definition of original sin, and by concomitance original righteousness, is not distinctly Reformed, but in order to refute the Pelagianism of Pighius he emphasizes the essence of the church’s opinion  from Augustine to Scotus: sin does not only affect one part of the soul but the whole person. Neither did Vermigli consider his position terribly different from the Roman Church of his day.

But in this thing he [Pighius] semeth to contmemne the iudgement of his owne Romishe Church, which otherwise he every where maketh equall even, with God himselfe. For, that Church doth in such maner acknowledge originall sinne, that it suffereth not infantes dying without baptisme to be buried… (Ibid., p. 128.)

In conclusion, there is a surprising similarity between the Medieval theologian Thomas Aquinas and the Church Reformer Peter Martyr Vermigli on the nature of Adam’s original state and the corruption of human nature that followed his fall from grace. In this same commentary Vermigli does openly disagree with St. Thomas. However, his charge is not against a wrongheaded nature/grace distinction, rather an unbiblical definition of grace, a mistaking of the effects of grace for the cause (as Calvin also says). As I demonstrated in this post Vermigli believed that God created Adam in a state of grace with infused theological virtues that caused the submission of his passions to his will, his will to reason, and his reason to God. For Vermigli, as for Thomas, this original internal and external order of Adam is original righteousness. When Adam fell the supernatural gifts were removed and concupiscence corrupted or “wounded” his entire nature, thus leaving him utterly dependant on God’s healing grace. I hope to devote another short post to this same topic so that I may revisit Calvin in light of the current post and talk about the elements in both Vermigli’s and Calvin’s thought that are distinctively Reformed. 

John Calvin on the Studying of Greek Philosophers de Anima

I, indeed, agree that the things they [the philosophers] teach [about the soul] are true, not only enjoyable, but also profitable to learn, and skillfully assembled by them.  And I do not forbid those who are desirous of learning to study them. Therefore I admit in the first place that there are five senses, which Plato preferred to call organs, by which all objects are presented to common sense, as a sort of receptacle.  There follows fantasy, which distinguishes those things which have been apprehended by common sense; then reason, which embraces universal judgment; finally understanding, which in intent and quiet study contemplates what reason discursively ponders. Similarly, to understanding, reason, and fantasy (the three cognitive faculties of the soul) correspond three appetitive faculties: will, whose functions consist in striving after what understanding and reason present; the capacity for anger, which seizes upon what is offered to it by reason and fantasy; the capacity to desire inordinately, which apprehends what is set before it by fantasy and sense. (Institutes, I.XV.6.)

A Freudian Critique of Freud

[*I wrote this a few months back somewhere else]

Freud’s problem is that he did not understand the distinction between idol and icon which is detrimental to the validity of the Christian creed of belief in God.  According to Jean-Luc Marion the idol is an invisible mirror reflecting the visible whereas an icon is a visible mirror reflecting the invisible. On this distinction Marion clarifies, “Whereas the idol results from the gaze that aims at it, the icon summons sight in letting the visible…be saturated little by little with the invisible.” Further, “the gaze can never rest or settle if it looks at an icon; it always must rebound upon the visible, in order to go back in it up the infinite stream of the invisible.” [1] 

Christianity to Freud is the organized practice of wish fulfillment. He admits, “What is characteristic of illusions [belief in God] is that they are derived from human wishes.” [2] He elaborates, “When the growing individual finds that he is destined to remain a child for ever, that he can never do without protection against strange superior powers, he lends those powers the features belonging to the figure of his father.” [3] Freud has here described Christian belief as idolatry. Marion states:

The idol always marks a true and genuine experience of the divine, but for this very reason announces its limit: as an experience of the divine, starting in this way with the one who aims at it, in view of the reflex in which, through the idolatrous figure, this aim masks and marks its defection with regard to the invisible. The idol always must be read on the basis of the one whose experience of the divine takes shape there.[4] 

Contrary to this is the Christian belief that God is only knowable through creation and through Christ. Calvin explains, “His essence, indeed is incomprehensible, utterly transcending all human thought; but on each of his works his glory is engraven in characters so bright, so distinct, and so illustrious, that none, however dull and illiterate, can plead ignorance as their excuse.” [5] Christians also know that knowledge of God comes through the incarnate Son since it is he in whom “all the fullness of the deity lives in bodily form.” (Colossians 2:9)

One word that Freud did not understand is “transcendence”, and the word that was the aim of his idol is “reason.” The icon demands an infinite gaze, since transcendence is not a quality of man. The idol is the projection of an aim.  Freud himself speaks, “There is no appeal to a court above that of reason.” [6]  Marion explains this phenomenon among atheists:

When a philosophical thought expresses a concept of what it then names “God”, this concept functions exactly as an idol. It gives itself to be seen, but thus all the better conceals itself as the mirror where thought, invisibly, has its forward point fixed, so that the invisible finds itself, with an aim suspended by the fixed concept, disqualified and abandoned; thought freezes, and the idolatrous concept of “God” appears, where, more than God, thought judges itself.[7] 

In other words the “God” and the “idol” become one and the same, hence Freud’s misunderstanding. Also, by Freud’s sovereignty of reason his true aim is seen, that of a carved effigy in his own image given the title “reason”.

Based on this, we must be cautious of any principle taking its queue from Freudian thought, which, at the level of presuppositions, undermines the universality of principle itself and erects an idol named “reason” by which the infinite is presumably known. Finally, (alas…the point) if one were to be sly he/she would use a Freudian critique to accuse Freud of projecting his own feelings and view of reality (idolatry) upon Christianity. In viewing the world based on his own rational idolatry (he was a materialist) Freud assumed the same for Christianity, an assumption easily disproven.


[1] Jean-Luc Marion, God Without Being, p. 18.  [2] Sigmund Freud, The Future Of An Illusion, p. 39.  [3] Freud, p. 30. [4] Marion, pp. 27, 28.  [5] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, I.v.1.  [6] Freud, p. 35.  [7] Marion, p. 16.

Music and Disease: Casting Out “Demons”

Oliver Sack’s book Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain looks fascinating.  From the summary he tells of patients with Parkinson’s Disease and Alzheimer’s who seem to be completely healed when listening to music.  Check it out:

This gives a new perspective on David’s healing harp.

[PS:  Ed, I haven’t forgotten … will reply in a day or so]