Gregory of Nyssa on Universals

According to F. Copleston the Greek Fathers were generally influenced by Platonism and neo-Platonic philosophy.  He says of St. Gregory:

St. Gregory’s “Platonism” in regard to universals comes out clearly in his De hominis opificio, where he distinguishes the heavenly man, the ideal man, the universal, from the earthly man, the object of experience. The former, the ideal man or rather ideal human being, exists only in the divine idea and is without sexual determination, being neither male nor female:  the latter, the human being of experience, is an expression of the ideal and is sexually determined, the ideal being, as it were, ‘splintered’ or partially expressed in many single individuals.  Thus, according to Gregory, individual creatures proceed by creation, not by emanation, from the ideal in the divine Logos.  This theory clearly goes back to neo-Platonism and to Philonism, and it was adopted by the first outstanding philosopher of the Middle Ages, John Scotus Eriugena, who was much influenced by the writings of St. Gregory of Nyssa. (History of Philosophy, Vol. 2: Augustine to Scotus, p. 33)

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)