Siger of Brabant on the Eternity of the World & Epistemology


I happen to be reading through various Medieval texts on the question of the eternity of the world, so I’ll deposit a few thoughts here as I go along. I will be revisiting Bonaventure and Aquinas on this issue in the coming weeks but for now my focus is on selections from King’s translation of Siger’s De aeternitate mundi.

Siger of Brabant’s reading of Aristotle presents a helpful contrast to Bonaventure’s view (which I will present sometime soon) because they both represent the various poles – one sided furiously loyal to Aristotle and the other to Plato.

Siger accepts Aristotle’s arguments from Physics 8 and De Generatione et Corruptione, namely, that the Universe is eternal, yet not “eternal” in the same way as the First Mover. The existence of the First Mover curbs the logical paradox of an infinite regress, thus placing a limit on finitude by means of the division between potency and act. However, the Universe is eternal in the same way that circular motion is eternal. Any “beginning” in circular motion must be preceded by another “beginning” and another and so on. Thus, individual species are also eternal. Any concept of a “first” man presupposes temporality and there could not have been a time before time when “man” would have not existed since time is the measure of motion and motion is circular.

From [§ 22] it follows that the human species, according to philosophers, always exists, and that it did not begin to exist at a time when it had not previously existed at all. For to say that [the species] will have begun to exist at a time when it had not previously existed at all is to say that some individual belonging to the [species] will have begun to exist, before which there existed no other individual belonging to that species. And since the human species is not caused in any other way, according to philosophers, save as having been generated through the generation of [one] individual before [another] individual, the [species] began to exist. Even though in every case everything generated begins to exist, still, [the species] begins to exist, since it did exist and previously had existed. (De aeternitate mundi, I.24.)

This is all quite perplexing partly because “eternity” strains the capacities of reason.

Now, what if we add a further complication to this in order to understand what the implications of this doctrine of the eternity of the world would have on the doctrine of God or the Prime Mover? It seems that for Siger – and as it appears for Aristotle also – the Prime Mover, defined as “thought thinking on thinking” (nous noêsis noeseôs) does not comprehend the totality of existing things within itself without those things simultaneously (if that word works) existing as individuals sempiternally. In other words the Prime Mover does not create based on “forms” that preexist as perfections of the things existing in reality but rather knows itself in the manner of a species within the existing individual species. The division between Prime Mover and “species” is purely logical just as the division between thought, thinking, and thing thought is purely logical. I’d be happy to entertain correction to my reading of Siger but, as it stands, it seems to me that his interpretation of Aristotle represents a more nominalist epistemology than realist of any variety.


John Calvin’s Aristotelean Cosmology

Aristotelean CosmologyMany of John Calvin’s references to Aristotelean cosmology occur during his later years, representing his mature theology. Christopher Kaiser has shown that Calvin viewed the universe through the lens of Aristotelean natural philosophy. (Kaiser, “Calvin and Natural Philosophy,” in Calviniana, vol. X) He accepted such ideas as the concept of natural place (the earth is the center of the spheres due to its weight), the system of homocentric spheres (the ten spheres interconnected and moved by the primum mobile), and the subordination of terrestrial cycles to the revolutions of the heavenly spheres.

Kaiser notes that Calvin, as Aquinas and Bonaventure before him, sought to remedy the problem of the distant primum mobile with the providential guidance of the Christian God. Calvin did this by extending the sovereign guidance of the divine hand beyond the sphere of the Moon, where Aristotle placed a limit. Rather than solving the problem of how the earth remains stable while the enormous celestial spheres drag and press upon it by using a solution from Aristotle himself, Calvin substituted the providence of God who holds the earth upon the outer waters and keeps it stable as the celestial spheres move. According to Kaiser, “For Calvin, of course, there was a clear correlation between the concept of stability and order in the natural sphere and the sense of God’s protection in the personal and social spheres.” (ibid., p. 89) Therefore, the idea of God holding the earth in place brings much hope to believers that while the social sphere may be torn apart by tyrants God remains holding everything in place.

Kaiser asks where Calvin got his ideas and how he was influenced to read and write in such Aristotelean terms. The answer is that he was partly following the concepts of the times, since Aristotle’s cosmology had been accepted as an authentic representation of the universe for hundreds of years. However, Calvin was also influenced by those near him, sparking his interest in natural phenomena and causing him to delve more deeply into the texts of Aristotle. Kaiser lists all of Calvin’s influences in this matter. Particularly interesting is the fact that many of Calvin’s writings on Arisotelian natural philosophy came during and after the arrival of the Italians, Peter Martyr Vermigli and Jerome Zanchi, both scholastically trained Aristoteleans. Kaiser’s list follows:

Based on the evidence cited here, a plausible account of the origins of Calvin’s understanding of Aristotelian natural philosophy would be as follows. Calvin probably became interested in and informed about the subject during his college days in Paris; his approach to Aristotle’s natural philosoph appears to be that of a humanist like Jacques Lefere d’Eteples or Francois Vatable, who may have been his Hebrew instructor at the College royal in 1531-32. Calvin’s interest and understanding were heightened by his study of Seneca (early 1530s), his reading of Basil’s Hexaemeron (early 1540s), and by the publication of Luther’s Lectures on Genesis (1544). This led to his first treatment of the distribution of the terrestrial elements and the mechanics of the celestial spheres … Finally, in the mid-1550s, Calvin thought more deeply about the problem of the stability of the earth in the midst of a whirling cosmos. This further development may reflect the influence of Vermigli and Zanchius. (ibid., pp. 91, 92)

It is interesting to think that Calvin’s theology may have become more Aristotelean during the final years of his life due to the influence of his Italian acquaintances, who were known both for their humanism and scholasticism.

David Pareus de Creatione ex Nihilo

Pareus de creationeDavid Pareus, German theologian of the 17th century, defined creation as did the scholastics before him. He says:

Definitur autem Creatio a theologis scholasticis, quod sit productio seu emanatio totius Entis a causa universali, quae est Deus. (Pareus, Theses de creatione rerum, XVIII)

But creation is defined by the scholastic theologians as, that which is a product or emanation from the universal cause of all Being, which is God.

The scholastics inherited the concept of emanation from the Neo-Platonic commentators on Aristole and from Philo, the latter of whom Pareus does not follow. Yet, Pareus, either wittingly or unwittingly, follows the same interpretation, bringing a Christianized Platonic reading into Reformed doctrine. He continues, quoting Aquinas in refutation of the slogan “nothing is made from nothing”, a slogan used against the Christian doctrine of creation ex nihilo.

Illud igitur Physicorum principium: Ex nihilo nihil sit: creationem non evertit: quia, ut Thomas loquitur, tantum est verum de emanatione effectuum particularum a causis particularibus, quas necesse est praesupponere aliquid in sua actione: quia agunt per motum: hoc est, tantum verumest de effectis causarum secundarum, naturae vel artis, quae non possunt fieri absque materia praeeistente, propter causarum imbecillitatem. Non autem est verum de effectis causae primae immediatis aut etraordinariis, ut sunt prima ipsius naturae ex nihilo productio, aut iam productae miraculosa immutatio, virtute Dei facta. (Theses de creatione rerum, XXXV.)

Thus from the principle of the Physici: Nothing is made from nothing: creation is not abandoned: because, as Thomas says, it is only true concerning the emanation of particular effects from particular causes, which necessarily presuppose something in their own action: because they act by motion: that is, it is only true concerning the effects of secondary causes, of nature or art, which are not able to be made apart from preexistent matter, because of the weakness of causes. But it is not true concerning the effects of the First Cause, either immediate or extraordinary, so the first things of nature itself are produced from nothing, or produced by miraculous immutation, made by the power of God.

Here, Pareus follows a scholastic and thoroughly Aristotelean concept of exemplar causes. Augustine spoke of the Platonic ideas as exemplar causes, Vermigli followed him, and Pareus follows the scholastic interpretation of Aristotle with a certain tinge of Neo-Platonism.

Edwards on the Necessary Dependence of God’s Will upon His Wisdom

Edwards ManuscriptJonathan Edwards makes a good point concerning the necessity of God’s Wisdom against voluntarism, or those who consider God’s freedom usurped by a doctrine that “anchors” his character to necessity. Edwards replies that if God’s will is not guided by his wisdom then his very being is subject to evil:

If God’s will is steadily and surely determined in everything by supreme wisdom, then it is in everything necessarily determined to that which is most wise. And certainly it would be a disadvantage and indignity, to be otherwise. For if the divine will was not necessarily determined to that which in every case is wisest and best, it must be subject to some degree of undesigning contingence; and so in the same degree liable to evil. To suppose the divine will liable to be carried hither and thither at random, by the uncertain wind of blind contingence, which is guided by no wisdom, no motive, no intelligent dictate whatsoever (if any such thing were possible), would certainly argue a great degree of imperfection and meanness, infinitely unworthy of the deity. If it be a disadvantage, for the divine will to be attended with this moral necessity, then the more free from it, and the more left at random, the greater dignity and advantage. And consequently to be perfectly free from the direction of understanding, and universally and entirely left to senseless unmeaning contingence, to act absolutely at random, would be the supreme glory. (Freedom of the Will, 266)

Edwards continues, noting that the necessary dependence of God’s will upon his wisdom is the same as the necessary dependence of God’s being upon his existence:

It no more argues any dependence of God’s will, that his supremely wise volition is necessary, than it argues a dependence of his being, that his existence is necessary. If it be something too low, for the supreme Being to have his will determined by moral necessity, so as necessarily, in every case, to will in the highest degree holily and happily; then why is it not also something too low, for him to have his existence, and the infinite perfection of his nature, and his infinite happiness determined by necessity? It is no more to God’s dishonor, to be necessarily wise, than to be necessarily holy. And if neither of them be to his dishonor, then it is not to his dishonor necessarily to act holily and wisely. And if it be not dishonorable, to be necessarily holy and wise, in the highest possible degree, no more is it mean or dishonorable, necessarily to act holily and wisely in the highest possible degree; or (which is the same thing) to do that, in every case, which above all other things is wisest and best. (ibid., 267)

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.

Plotinus and C.S. Lewis on “Looking Along”

C.S. Lewis explained the anthropomorphism of the ancients in terms of psychology. How did they think about reality? He concludes that they did not think in terms of “literal” versus “metaphorical” but they thought of things in pictures. “Deep” meant “death,” “spirit” and “life” were synonymous, so “sex” and “love”, etc. Modern man categorizes all things in a bifurcated manner. We seek to either “look at” the object or “look along.” For example, Lewis recounts his experience of seeing a sunbeam through a hole in the roof of a toolshed. If he stood beside the sunbeam and examined it he thought of it in terms of its hugh, brightness, and so on. But if he stepped within the sunbeam he actually began to experience the effects which cannot be perfectly quantified. The problem with many modern scientists, says Lewis, is that they believe that “looking at” the sunbeam is sufficient for gaining a complete knowledge of that subject without actually experiencing or “looking along.”


As I was reading through Pierre Hadot’s book on Plotinus I found very interesting similarities between Lewis’s thought on beauty, myth, and metaphor and Plotinus’s beliefs concerning the Forms, Nature, and Life.  For Plotinus the Forms of things are like Hieroglyphs, which are little pictures of incarnate knowledge. He explains:

In the case of those things which they, in their wisdom, wanted to designate, the Egyptian sages did not use written characters, literally representing arguments and premises and imitating meaningful sounds and utterances of axioms. Rather, they wrote in pictures, and engraved on their temples one picture corresponding to each reality …. Thus, each picture is a knowledge, wisdom … perceived all at once, and not discursive thought nor deliberation.” (Ennead, V 8, 6, 1-9, as cited in Hadot, p. 40.)

For Plotinus, like many others, these Forms are the life principle behind things which come to be when the Intellect contemplates itself. Man cannot know these forms as a scientist or metaphysician seeks to know the cause of a particular anomaly or thing. Rather, man must put aside the natural desire to know the cause, because there is no separate cause to be found. Contemplation must take the place of reflection.

hieroglyphsThe Hieroglyphs are visible mirrors of the invisible, to use Jean-Luc Marion’s language, the recognition of which brings immediate awareness and experience of meaning rather than strict syllogistic definition. For Lewis, “thinking along” cannot be reduced to concepts. For Plotinus, Nature cannot be reduced to analysis. As Marion says, when faced with the visible mirror of the invisible one must look beyond the physical and experience the infinite gaze. Although the sunbeam is a physical reality I think it is a great example of “looking along” because it stirs us up to contemplate Beauty itself. Indeed God is Beauty for Lewis and for Plotinus (though not the Christian God for the latter).

The Intellect is beautiful; indeed it is the most beautiful of all things. Situated in pure light and pure radiance, it includes within itself the nature of all beings. This beautiful world of ours is but a shadow and an image of its beauty …. It lives a blessed life, and whoever were to see it, and – as is fitting – submerge himself within it, and become One with it, would be seized by awe. (Enneads, III 8, 11, 26-33, in Hadot, p. 43.)

It is no wonder that Augustine liked Plotinus, who became for him a praeparatio evangelicae. All of this has a bit to do with the relationship between nature and the supernatural. Even nature points beyond herself, being infused with a copy of God’s own beauty that calls us to look beyond to that Beauty that is desired for its own sake. Nature is inherently mythical. When we attempt to “look at” apart from experiences our gaze into the mirror will produce a mere reflection of ourselves.

Edwards’s Definitions of Nature and Supernatural

Jonathan EdwardsIn the following quote Jonathan Edwards clarifies, in a footnote, what he means when referring to certain natural and supernatural principles given to Adam:

To prevent all cavils, the reader is desired particularly to observe, in what sense I here use the words natural and supernatural: – Not as epithets of distinction between that which is concreated or connate, and that which is extraordinarily introduced afterwards, besides the first state of things, or the order established originally, beginning when man’s nature began; but as distinguishing between what belongs to, or flows from, that nature which man has, merely as man, and those things which are above this, by which one is denominated, not only a man, but a truly virtuous, holy, and spiritual man; which, though they began in Adam as soon as humanity began, and are necessary to the perfection and well-being of the human nature,  yet are not essential to the constitution of it, or necessary to its being: inasmuch as one may have every thing needful to his being man, exclusively of them. If in thus using the words, natural and supernatural, I use them in an uncommon sense, it is not from any affectation of singularity, but for want of other terms more aptly to express my meaning. (On Original Sin, IV., ch. 2.)

To begin, Edwards makes it very clear that by these terms he is not referring to some hypothetical universe in which God created Adam in a state of mere nature and then added supernatural gifts to that nature. Rather, he is referring to a specific man, Adam, who had supernatural qualities “as soon as nature began.” This is essentially in agreement with Thomas’s view, which many have mistaken as that very view from which Edwards seeks to distance himself.

Furthermore, Edwards clarifies that when he makes a distinction between nature and the supernatural he is distinguishing between that which belongs to or flows from mere man, and that which is above mere man. Virtue, holiness, and spiritualness may be terms that describe the imago Dei but in terms of humanity they “are not essential to the constitution of it, or necessary to its being.” The truth of this statement is self-evident, since God has allowed many individuals to exist even though they have lost these supernatural characteristics. Sin does not take away man’s “man-ness,” but sin does distort it. Therefore, if it is not already clear, the concept of a donum superadditum  added to Adam’s nature is perfectly Reformed, as long as the “superaddition” is not thought to have come upon Adam in real time, i.e., after he was created.