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Why does Malebranche think we “see all things in God”?

Malebranche’s Vision in God

Fr. Nicolas Malebranche held the view that we “see all things in God,” a view which is typically held, like his occasionalism, to simply be a bizarre ad hoc theory to patch up Cartesian problems that is far too theologically motivated to be an interesting philosophical position in the 21st century. Sadly, few take Malebranche seriously enough to see why this stereotype is false.  Here I will offer, in a very condensed manner, a summary of Malebranche’s motivations and reasons for defending such a seemingly strange philosophical position. Malebranche, I think, has one of the most sophisticated accounts of perception and intentionality in the history of philosophy, and his view is a sharp contrast to the various positions of his numerous Cartesian contemporaries.

In the Search After Truth Malebranche writes: “It is certain that nothingness or the false is not perceptible or intelligible. To see nothing is not to see; to think of nothing is not to think.” (SAT IV.11; LO 320) Malebranche strictly holds that any perception must have an object. He writes at the end of this paragraph: “But there is a contradiction in saying that we can immediately see what does not exist, for this is to say that at the same time we see and do not see, since to see nothing is not to see.” (SAT IV.11; LO 320) Since ideas must be the objects of direct or immediate perception, there is no distinction between appearance and reality in the case of ideas. However, there is a distinction between ideas as the immediate objects of perception and bodies as the mediate objects of sense perception generally.


Malebranche holds that bodies can’t possibly be objects of immediate experience for metaphysical reasons.

I think everyone agrees that we do not perceive objects external to us by themselves. We see the sun, the stars, and an infinity of objects external to us; and it is not likely that the soul should leave the body to stroll about the heavens, as it were, in order to behold all these objects. Thus, it does not see them by themselves, and our mind’s immediate object when it sees the sun, for example, is not the sun, but something that is intimately joined to our soul, and this is what I call an idea. Thus, by the word idea, I mean here nothing other than the immediate object, or the object closest to the mind, when it perceives something, i.e., that which affects and modifies the mind with the perception it has of an object. (SAT III.2.i; LO 217)

This passage is somewhat easy to misunderstand, especially since Malebranche admits to Arnauld that his characterization here was a kind of joke to describe the absurdity of the position he is refuting. It’s not spatial distance that’s important here, but rather ontological and causal considerations. Malebranche holds that causation requires an intelligible relation between cause and effect. Like Descartes, Malebranche holds a ‘causal likeness principle’. Malebranche argues that the direct and immediate perception of the sun by the soul would violate the causal likeness principle because there would be causation without any intelligible connection. Bodies can’t cause perceptions in the soul because bodies, qua extended, are necessarily causally inefficacious. All extended things are essentially passive, and thus not capable of causing any modifications in any thing whatsoever, material or immaterial. It follows from the clear and distinct idea of extension that while the nature of body has the passive faculty of “receiving carious figures and movements,” (Dialogues VII.1-2; JS 106) an active causal power is not compatible with the nature of body. Further, Malebranche gives a very Augustinian argument from an ontological hierarchy. Augustine held that while the soul, which is more perfect, can act on the body, the body can’t act on the mind. It is an axiom for Malebranche that “nothing can act immediately upon the mind unless it is superior to it.” (SAT; LO 232) But since the soul is a simple substance, it is more perfect than bodies, which are compounds. Even if extended bodies were active, they still couldn’t in principle be immediately present to an immaterial soul. When I see the sun, then, my immediate object is an idea, and so whatever ideas are, they must be such that they can act on an immaterial soul. Though there is some disagreement among scholars, Malebranche is generally held to be an indirect realist about perception of bodies. That is, he holds that the mind perceives mind-independent ideas directly, immediately, and in God, and perceives material objects indirectly by representations via ideas. Consider the following ‘annihilation passage’ from the Dialogues, where Theodore says to Ariste:

Let us further suppose that God impresses on our brains all the same traces, or rather that He presents to our minds all the same ideas we have now. On this supposition, Aristes, in which world would we spend the day? Would it not be in an intelligible world? Now, take note, it is in that world that we exist and live, although the bodies we animate live and walk in another. It is that world which we contemplate, admire, and sense. But the world which we look at or consider in turning our head in all directions, is simply matter, which is invisible in itself and has none of those beauties we admire and sense in looking at it. (Dialogues I.5; JS 10-11)

Malebranche’s thesis notably runs counter to what the majority of his Cartesian contemporaries held about the ontological status of ideas (i.e., Arnauld, La Forge, Régis, etc.), namely that ideas are modes of the soul, which by their nature represent possible external objects. Malebranche breaks from this position in holding that ideas can’t possibly be modes of the soul. The Vision in God doctrine is brought in to remedy what Malebranche saw as inexplicable errors among his contemporary Cartesians concerning causality and intentionality. Malebranche offers a specific method of establishing the Vision in God doctrine, namely his ‘eliminative argument’.[1] Here Malebranche lists all of the various positions that could explain how the mind knows external objects, and eliminates them all except the Vision in God doctrine. The following are the possible positions to explain how the mind knows external objects:

  1. External objects cause ideas in our minds by impressing their image or likeness on the mind. (Aristotelian theory)
  2. The mind creates its own ideas when the sense organ receives an impression.
  3. The mind innately has all the ideas it needs, created in the mind by God.
  4. Ideas are produced in the mind by God on the occasion of impressions on the sense organ.
  5. The mind has all the perfections of external things, and can innately know their properties through introspection in virtue of its own nature.
  6. We see all things in God.

Malebranche is often charged with being uncharitable to the Aristotelian position in his characterization of (1). Nevertheless, from what has already been said it can easily be seen why he would find (1) to be completely implausible. That external objects merely impress ideas in the passive mind betrays the intelligibility of causes and ontology. The difference between (1) and (2) is that the Aristotelian position is one in which the mind is completely passive, and external material bodies are active in the process of forming ideas in the mind, and (2) is a position where the mind is active in forming its ideas when a sense organ receives an impression. Note that (2) isn’t at face value inconsistent with traditional Cartesianism. However, Malebranche thinks this view must be wrong because it gives the human mind powers far too great. Drawing again on the ontological hierarchy, Malebranche says that ideas are vastly more perfect than bodies, and thus this view amounts to saying that the human mind has the power to create something better than God’s creation itself. Also, it isn’t clear how the mind could create an idea from material impressions, since this is causally unintelligible. It is important to note that (2) is a view that doesn’t introduce innate ideas, so if the mind were to create ideas, it would, in this case, create them from nothing without any knowledge of the object which it will represent, which is absurd. It isn’t clear who actually defended (3), but Malebranche argues that (3) is absurd because it amounts to saying that the mind has ideas of an actual infinity of ideas, created in the mind by God who always acts in the simplest way. Malebranche argues that (4) is not compatible with our ability to think at will. He argues that this position (which Nadler attributes to Cordemoy) must be false because “we must at all times actually have in us the ideas of all things, since we can at all times will to think about anything—which we could not do unless an infinite number of ideas were present to the mind; for after all, one cannot will to think about objects of which one has no idea.” (SAT III.2.iv; LO 227) In order to think at will, the mind must have an infinite stock of ideas available to it (though not actually present in the mind itself, as the previous position held). When we think about the idea of limitless space, a circle in general, or indeterminate being, the immediate object of our mind necessarily is nothing created, since no created reality can be infinite or general. Malebranche rejects (5), which he attributes to Arnauld and Régis, because though the mind sees sensations in themselves and directly (because they are perceived without ideas in virtue of being modes of the soul), the mind, as Augustine says, is not a light unto itself. Malebranche writes that prior to the creation of the world, nothing existed except God, and so God necessarily produced the world by ideas, and thus the ideas he had were not different from himself, so it follows that God sees all beings within himself by considering his own perfections, which represent them to him. But while God sees all other things by his own perfections, this can’t be the case with created minds. Malebranche writes:

But such is not the case with created minds, which can see in themselves neither the essence nor the existence of things. They cannot see the essence of things within themselves since, given their own limitations, created minds cannot contain all beings as does God, who might be termed universal being, or simply, He Who is, as He calls Himself. Therefore, since the human mind can know all beings, including infinite beings, and since it does not contain them, we have a sure proof that it does not see their essence in itself. For the mind not only sees things one after another in temporal succession, but it also perceives the infinite, though it does not comprehend it, as we have said in the preceding chapter. Consequently, being neither actually infinite nor capable of infinite modifications simultaneously, it is absolutely impossible for the mind to see in itself what is not there. It does not see the essence of things, therefore, by considering its own perfections or by modifying itself in different ways. (SAT III.2.v; LO 229)

Since (1)-(5) have been ruled out, Malebranche holds that the Vision in God is the only viable position to account for the intelligibility of perception of external objects. Malebranche refers to his theory as an account of perception that amounts to ‘revelation’ by God, which at face value seems peculiarly mystical, but given his reasons for defending this position, such a claim makes sense. We see what in God represents created beings, and “the mind can see God’s works in Him, provided that God wills to reveal to it what in Him represents them.” (SAT; LO 230) A further point should be emphasized to reinforce this point. Malebranche writes:

But the strongest argument of all is the mind’s way of perceiving anything. It is certain, and everyone knows this from experience, that when we want to think about some particular thing, we first glance over all beings and then apply ourselves to the consideration of the object we wish to think about. Now, it is indubitable that we could desire to see a particular object only if we had already seen it, though in a general and confused fashion. As a result of this, given that we can desire to see all beings, now one, now another, it is certain that all beings are present to our mind; and it seems that all beings can be present to our mind only because God, i.e., He who includes all things in the simplicity of His being is present to it. (SAT; LO 232)

Malebranche’s positive case for the Vision in God centers around the necessity of all objects being present to the mind in thinking an external object, which can only happen by a union of our mind with God’s omniscient mind. We might call this a necessity of the ‘omnipresence’ of ideas. The point here is that we have an infinite capacity to think of things, and this capacity is only metaphysically possible in virtue of Vision in God.

Malebranche gives a further argument for the Vision in God from properties. His Cartesian contemporaries generally held that ideas are identical with perceptions as modes of the soul which are by their nature representative. For these Cartesians, it is simply a brute fact that intentionality is the mark of the mental. There is no further explanation that illuminates why mental properties are intentional. Malebranche adamantly disagrees that intentionality is simply a brute fact because he doesn’t think that ideas can be identical with modes of the soul. Malebranche argues that a real distinction can be demonstrated between ideas and perceptions from their properties. To establish a real distinction, all he must do is show that one has a property that the other doesn’t have and is incompatible with the other. Essentially, Malebranche argues that perceptions are modes of the soul which are contingent, changeable, and finite. On the other hand, ideas are eternal, immutable, and necessary, and infinite. In fact, Malebranche takes Augustine’s  notion of ideas, which was strictly applied only to eternal and necessary truths, but applies this to all ideas (archetypes in the mind of God), which are distinct from perceptions (modes of the soul). For example, Malebranche thinks it is evident that sensations, which are certainly modes of the soul, are quite distinct from ideas. When we are aware of the ideas, however, we have what Malebranche calls ‘pure perceptions’, which are also modes of the soul. Sensations by their very nature represent nothing beyond themselves, and ideas by their nature represent objects. Pain serves as a clear example here, for pain is a mental event which isn’t about anything. Malebranche thinks this is lack of representational content is true of all secondary qualities, and all sensations. Intentionality, therefore, can’t be the mark of the mental because not all mental states are intentional. When the mind has a sensation, all that is represented is that the mind is capable of being modified in a certain manner. Contrary to Descartes, Malebranche argues that no modes of the soul, as such, are representational, but are only representational in virtue of being related to ideas, which can only be in the mind of God.


[1] It has been argued that Malebranche is influenced by Suárez’s De Angelis in his ‘eliminative argument’.


John Norris on the Idea of God

I first read John Norris’s Reason and Religion last year, and, though much of what Norris says in this work is elaborated on in his magnum opus, namely An Essay Towards the Theory of the Ideal or Intelligible World, Reason and Religion has an appealing intimate and priestly nature to it (Norris was an Anglican rector), and I can’t name any other work I’ve come across that is analogous to it in style and content. Upon first reading Norris’s Reason and Religion, the starting point was a bit surprising. The first “Contemplation” of this book concerns the general idea of God. Still today we are well acquainted with the language that underlies St. Anselm’s famous ontological argument for God’s existence (an argument Norris himself endorses, somewhat in passing) where God is defined as ‘a being than which nothing greater can be thought.’[1] This definition of God is echoed by countless philosophers in a variety of forms (an obvious example is Descartes), but they all seem to express the same point, namely that what is most essential to the definition of God is that God is a being absolutely perfect.

Norris, perhaps surprisingly, disagrees. While it is certainly true of God that he is a being absolutely perfect, this is falsely said to be the general idea of God. Norris writes:

Now as to the general Idea or first Conception of God, this has been Universally understood to be, that he is a Being absolutely perfect. This I say has been made the general Notion of God in all the Metaphysics and Divinity that I have yet seen. (RR 14)

Norris particularly points to Henry More and Descartes. Norris continues: “This Opinion, because embraced by many and some of them great Patrons I once took for a Theorem of unquestionable Truth.” (RR 14) There is, in fact, a demonstration against it, which becomes evident when we consider what it means for something to express or represent the essence or nature of a thing. Norris defines essence as follows:

Then again, by the Essence of a thing, is meant that which ought to be first conceiv’d in a thing, and to which all other things are understood as superadded. I say, which ought to be first conceiv’d, because in fixing the Essence of a thing, not the arbitrary or accidental, but the natural order of Conception is to be attended to. Whence it follows, that the Idea of a thing is that which expresses that which is first of a thing in order of conception. (RR 15)

Here Norris states that for something to truly be the essence of a thing, and thus sufficient to fix the general idea of a thing, it must express that which is primary in the order of conception. Therefore, if something is taken to be the general idea of a thing, yet it presupposes something prior to it in conception, then it can’t truly constitute the essence or general idea of the thing. This becomes evident when we consider examples where this happens. Say that someone takes the idea of a triangle to consist in having two sides that, taken together, are greater than the third remaining side. While this is a “necessary affection” of a triangle, it can’t be taken to constitute the essence or general idea of a triangle, because it isn’t what is first in the order of conception when we conceive of a triangle. The first thing that is conceived in the idea of a triangle is that which is comprehended by three right lines. There is a causal dependence, for it is in virtue of this that we conceive that triangles have two sides that, taken together, are greater than the third remaining side.

With this in mind, we can see why a true and sufficient general idea of God can’t possibly be expressed by a being absolutely perfect because it supposes something before it in the divine nature (he argues this point to a greater extent in Contemplation II). It is clear that God as a being absolutely perfect is involved in the notion of God only virtually and potentially, and not formally and explicitly. That is, it is an essential property of God to be absolutely perfect, but the idea of God does not consist in this. Instead, the idea of God must be constituted by that which we first conceive in God, and it must in some measure express or represent his essence. This brings Norris back to God’s response to Moses when he asks what name he should tell his people to refer to God as.[2] Norris offers a host of theological and philosophical reasons why we should take God at his word here to be expressing the very notion of the divine essence. Norris claims that it is “highly reasonable to suppose in general, That whenever God gives a name to any thing, ‘tis such as expresses its nature” (RR 20) in the sense that God always names things according to their natures, for it is unfitting that an omniscient being should make a mis-call or be inaccurate in his references. (Cf. Psalm 147) In the context of this passage in Exodus, the Israelites have long been conversant with the polytheistic Egyptians, which provides a particular reason to think that God is expressing his own essence in this name. When Moses asks God what name he should give to the Israelites when they ask, this implies that it was necessary that God should name himself in such a way that distinguishes him from the polytheistic gods of the Egyptians. In doing so, God gives a name that is proper and essential: I am that am. Norris concludes that this name can signify nothing else but “Being it self, or, Universal Being, or Being in General, Being in the Abstract, without any restriction or limitation. As if God had said, You enquire who I am, and by what Name I would be distinguish’d. Know then, that, I am he that am, I am Being it self.” (RR 22-23)[3]

But there are further philosophical reasons that support the conclusion that the true idea and essence of God is to be Being itself. First, it is clear even if we appeal to experience that to be Being itself is the first conceivable in God. This is the first thing that is conceived in contemplation of the name of God. But we don’t need to rely merely on experience to prove this.

  1. The first thing which is conceivable in God must be the first thing that can absolutely be conceived.
  2. But being itself is the first thing that can absolutely be conceived.
  3. Therefore, being itself is the first thing which is conceivable in God.

This argument may not immediately seem to be sound. Why must we accept the claim in (1) that the first thing conceivable in God be the first thing that can absolutely be conceived? Norris seems to imply that this must be accepted if we hold God exists at all. For it is a contradiction even to speak of God if he is not first in that there is nothing before God, and it follows from this, Norris claims, that if we deny that the first thing conceivable in God must be the first thing that can absolutely be conceived, we must deny that God is first and accept that there is something before God. The very intelligibility of God as first depends on Being itself as the first thing conceivable in God, and thus that which is essential to his essence. Norris takes (2) to be obviously true, and thus it follows that (3) being itself is the first thing which is conceivable in God.


But Norris’s own definition of God also itself emphasizes the necessity of God’s existence, namely that if any other thing is to exist, then God necessarily exists. For both philosophical and theological reasons, Norris holds the most general idea of God to be “Being it self.” Since it is clear, says Norris, that the idea of God is lodged in his name, the true sense and signification of this name of God, I am that am, or I am, is: “Being it self, or Universal Being, or Being in General, Being in the Abstract, without any restriction or limitation.” (RR 22)

This conclusion itself may come off as esoteric, but Norris’s Platonism helps to make sense of what’s going on here. Norris holds as certain that a universal essence of Being itself must exist, both common to all particular individual beings and distinct from them. If being exists at all (that is, anything which has being), then it must truly be identified God himself, since God is the first thing conceivable, and Being itself is the first concept conceivable. The former is the foundation of all existent things and the latter is the foundation of all existent thoughts. Norris’s move is to equate the two with God himself. He writes:

That as all other Universals or Abstract Essences are really distinct from, and exist out of those Singulars whose Essences they are; so in like manner there is Being it self, or the Essence of Being, really distinct, and separately existing from all particular Beings. (RR 24)

An initial worry is that Norris naively falls prey to Aristotle’s anti-Platonic claim that being isn’t a genus (see Aristotle, Metaphysics IV, 998b). The challenge is that there is no univocal way in which things have being. Though Norris doesn’t bring up this objection (he was certainly aware of it, given that he carefully and extensively read through Aquinas, who repeats this argument) and respond to it directly, Norris does not hold that Being itself is an empty abstraction, but that it is the very explanation grounding all particular beings, imparting being to them and possessing all of their perfections.

Norris’s Platonism is again very explicit in his emphasis on God’s goodness. Goodness isn’t merely a property of God, but God is the idea or form of Goodness itself (1 John 4:16). The consequence of this is that happiness and beauty, which just are what comes with the possession of the good, lead us away from the finite world to beauty and goodness abstracted and in themselves, which is God. Norris even takes this to be an argument for God’s existence. The very notion of value presupposes God’s existence. Drawing on Norris’s notion of God as Being itself, this argument isn’t without justification. God is an independent and self-sufficient being, and if we were to ignore this and what it entails, we would fall into the error of holding that goodness is an external entity to which God’s will must conform (the same error one falls into in holding that eternal truths exist independent of the mind of God, which Norris extensively argues against). God isn’t merely the author of Being, but Being itself, and analogously (according to Norris) God is not merely the source of goodness, but Goodness itself. God is not just the means for discovering truth, but Truth itself (John 14:6).



[1] St. Anselm, Proslogion ch. 2.

[2] The very beginning of Norris’s first Contemplation reads: “God never at any time discover’d so much of himself in so few words, as when he said to Moses, enquiring by what Name he should stile him, to make him known to the Children of Israel, Thus shalt thou say unto the children of Israel, I AM hath sent me unto you, a אֶהְיֶה אֲשֶׁר אֶהְיֶה i.e. not as we render it in English, I am that I am, but, I am that am, or, I am he that am.” (RR 12)

[3] Cf. St. Augustine: “Eternal truth and true love and beloved eternity: you are my God…When I first came to know you, you raised me up to make me see that what I saw is Being, and that I who saw am not yet Being. And you gave a shock to the weakness of my sight by the strong radiance of your rays, and I trembled with love and awe.” (Confessions 7.10.16)

Malebranche & Arnauld on the Nature of Ideas

I. Arnauld’s Argument in VFI

Arnauld boldly states his aim in writing the Des vraies et des fausses idées (hereafter VFI) on the first page, namely that what Malebranche says concerning the nature of ideas is based on nothing but false prejudices, and that his claim that we see all things in God is a claim in which “nothing is more groundless.” (VFI.1)

His strategic aim is to discredit Malebranche’s view of ideas as “representative entities”, and Arnauld offers many demonstrations against this doctrine in chapters 4-11 of the VFI. If Malebranche is right about the nature of ideas, namely that they have properties of their own and exist independently of our perceptions, then the stage for philosophy concerning the nature of ideas shifts to the ontological status of ideas, with Malebranche’s “Vision in God” being one of the possible hypotheses. This is precisely how Malebranche presents his argument for the “Vision in God”, in an eliminative argument where he concludes that his theory best satisfies the ontological status of ideas. Conversely, if Arnauld is right, and our ideas are our perceptions as modifications of the soul, then the ontological status of ideas is already answered, and we can take the “Vision in God” as unnecessary, and Malebranche’s eliminative argument is not even able to be intelligibly appealed to.

In this sense, it is easy to see why Cartesian philosophy is crucial to this debate. What is perhaps Arnauld’s most important argument against Malebranche is that his assumptions about the mind and the content of ideas, taken from Descartes, are an incorrect and ill-conceived interpretation of Descartes. Immediately after Arnauld presents an argument that it is our ideas which we see immediately, and against the need for representative entities, he claims that in order that the reader not think that he invented this to get out of the difficulty, “the author of The Search will find the same thing in Descartes’ Meditations.” As we shall see, Arnauld argues that Malebranche’s theory is based on a vicious interpretation of Descartes’ theory of ideas which is at the heart of both of their theories of ideas.

Arnauld’s Razor: When Malebranche argues for his “Vision in God”, he makes appeals to what we commonly classify as “Ockham’s razor”. For example, in the his eliminative argument in the Search, Malebranche argues against a “storehouse” theory of ideas (in which at the moment of creation God has given all the ideas to the soul that it will require) by claiming that God always acts by the simplest means, and thus wouldn’t stock our minds with an infinite number of ideas, which he believes this theory presupposes. (SAT III.2.iv) Since Malebranche feels justified in arguing in this way, Arnauld sought to use the same kind of argument for his own contrary conclusion, thus discrediting Malebranche.

In the fourth demonstration of the VFI, Arnauld begins with the nature of perceptions (which he equates with ideas, which have only a relational difference) in his argument against Malebranche. If we consider what the function of a perception is, we see that what is essential to a perception to represent, namely by enabling us to know the properties and existence of things. Arnauld particularly speaks of bodies, and makes the following argument:

God did not will to create our soul and to put it into a body surrounded by countless other bodies, without also willing that it be capable of knowing bodies, and consequently without also willing that bodies be conceived by our soul. But all of God’s volitions are efficacious. Therefore it is certain that God gave our minds the faculty of seeing bodies and also gave bodies the passive faculty, so to speak, of being seen by our mind. All of that is clearer than day. But consider what follows. God does not accomplish in complex ways what he can accomplish in simpler ways. That is our friend’s great principle, which he uses in this very topic of the nature of ideas. (VFI.x.44)

  1. It is essential to perceptions to enable us to know the existence and properties of surrounding bodies.
  2. If this can be achieved by simple means, there is no need of complex means.
  3. The simplest means of achieving this is for God to give to souls the power of forming ideas on the occasion of physical events in the brain.
  4. These ideas are our perceptions of external objects.
  5. God does not accomplish by complex means what can be brought about by simple means.
  6. God’s volitions are efficacious.
  7. Therefore, he has created souls with this capacity.
  8. Therefore, there is no need to introduce an intermediate realm of ideas.

Intentionality as the Mark of the Mental: Arnauld also shares the Cartesian assumption that we have certain knowledge through introspection of the soul of its states and operations. He stresses that this is the most certain knowledge we have: “Nothing is more certain than our knowledge of what takes place in our soul when we pause there. It is very certain, for example, that I conceive of bodies when I think I conceive of bodies, even though it may not be certain that the bodies that I conceive either truly exist, or are such as I conceive them to be.” (VFI.v.22)

Antoine Arnauld

Antoine Arnauld

Although perceptions (mental acts) are modifications of the soul, they are nevertheless essentially representative of objects. Arnauld takes it to be indisputable that the soul is by its nature a thinking substance. Appealing to the authority of St. Augustine and Descartes, Arnauld justifies his claim:

St. Augustine recognized, long before Descartes, that in order to discover the truth, we could begin with nothing more certain than this proposition: I think, therefore I am. He takes I think to refer to all the different ways in which we think, whether by knowing that something is so with certainty, which he calls understanding, or by doubting, or by remembering. He is certain, he says, that we can do none of those things without at the same time having certain proofs of our existence. He thence concludes that in order for the soul to know itself, it need only separate itself from the things which it can separate from its thought, and what remains will be what it is. That is to say, the soul can be nothing other than a substance which thinks or which is capable of thinking. It follows that we can know well what we are only by serious attention to what takes place within ourselves. However, that requires that when we find it difficult to (express that knowledge in words, we take particular care not to mix with it anything of which we are not made certain by consulting ourselves: words are ordinarily invented by men who are attentive only to what happens in their bodies and in the bodies around them, and who are thus hardly in a position to attach the operations of the mind to particular sounds as occasions for our thinking of them. (VFI.ii.5)

The soul, as a thing which is by its nature a thinking substance, thinks because it is its essence to think. Arnauld holds that this is all that can be said on the matter. However, Arnauld makes the further argument that thought is always the thought of something: “Therefore, since it is clear that I think, it is also clear that I think of something, because thought is essentially thus. So, since there can be no thought or knowledge without an object known, I can no more ask what is the reason why I think of something, than why I think, since it is impossible to think without thinking of something. But I can very well ask why I think of one thing rather than another.” (VFI.ii.6) The conclusion Arnauld arrives at is that intentionality (the quality of mental states being directed toward an object or state of affairs) is the mark of the mental. It just is the case that intentionality is essential to mental states, and modifications are essentially perceptions of objects. While this might not seem like the most philosophically robust account of intentionality, Arnauld would respond that his theory, unlike others, has greater simplicity and harmoniously corresponds to introspection. When we appeal to introspection, as Arnauld explains, we see that our perceptions are perceptions of things and not of representative entities, which are distinct and independent from our mind. Thus, Arnauld says of Malebranche:

…if he had paused at this thought, I know a cube, I see the sun, in order to meditate upon it and to consider what is clearly included in it, as he should have done according to his own rules, I am sure that he could not have seen there anything other than the perception of the cube, or the cube objectively present to the mind, than the perception of the sun, or the sun objectively present to the mind, and that he would never have found the least trace of that being representative of a cube or of the sun and distinct from the perception, which was supposed to make up for the absence of the one object and the other. (VFI.vii.33)

II. Malebranche’s Réponse

Arnauld’s Scholastic Error: Malebranche points to what he believes is at the heart of the dispute. Malebranche holds that modes of the soul are merely sensations, representing nothing to the soul that is distinct from itself, and Arnauld holds that the modes of the soul are representative by their very nature. (OCM VI.50) Malebranche believes that ideas as representative entities are not required to know the modes of our own souls, since these are knowable in themselves via introspection. Knowledge of external things, says Malebranche, can’t be immediate in the same way that our knowledge of sensations as modes of the soul.

Nicolas Malebranche

Nicolas Malebranche

As we have seen, Arnauld thinks it is absurd to ask how our souls have the ability to perceive bodies. It is simply the nature of the soul to have this power or faculty, and nothing more can be said. This is precisely where Malebranche attacks Arnauld. For all of Arnauld’s anti-Scholastic tendencies, Malebranche remarks that the word ‘nature’ has no more meaning coming from a Cartesian than it did for a Peripatetic philosopher. (OCM VI.142) Malebranche argues that this can’t be taken seriously as an explanation. At best it is a substitute for a real explanation, but if it is meant to be a real explanation, we must reject this as absurd, since it explains nothing.

The Distinction Between Ideas and Sensations: Arnauld’s error, according to Malebranche, is that he did not properly distinguish ideas and sensations. (OCM VI.54) Arnauld missed the deep and important distinction between knowledge of objects via their ideas and immediate awareness of one’s sensations. Malebranche holds that the only knowledge possible in oneself is sensations, which are modes that have no representational content. Arnauld’s downfall, Malebranche thinks, is that he has no explanation how a mode of the could can be a representation of something distinct from it which it has no resemblance to. (OCM VI.91) All Malebranche requires is that the idea itself be capable of making known the properties of the object. In Malebranche’s eliminative argument for the “Vision in God”, the last argument rejected before he concludes that his doctrine is the only one that can stand is an innatist theory where the soul contains within itself all perfections of other creatures, and thus can know them in itself. Malebranche believes that Arnauld has fallen prey to a major error that resembles this theory, and which prevents his exposition on the nature of ideas from escaping a fatal trap. The error is that souls are stuck within the world of their own perceptions, perceiving only its own mental modifications. Arnauld, he believes, violates the rule of St. Augustine, namely to not think you are a light unto yourself. Not only is Arnauld being impious, but also unintelligible, since particular modes of a finite mind cannot represent general truths or infinity.

Modes of the Soul Are Not Representations: Malebranche frequently claims that modes of the human soul cannot be representations. His support for this can be summarized by the following argument:

  1. Every mode of the human soul is a particular.
  2. No mere particular can represent something universal.
  3. The idea of extension (intelligible extension) is infinite.
  4. Therefore, the idea of extension cannot be a mode of the finite human soul.

The obvious premise in need of clarification and support is (3). One might ask how the idea of extension is infinite? Malebranche will reply that there are actually two ways in which it is infinite. The first is that the idea of extension represents extension as infinite, and the second is that it represents an infinity of types of figures.

Ralph Cudworth’s Argument for Moral Rationalism

Modern Moral Philosophy: Cudworth begins his Treatise Concerning Eternal and Immutable Morality with a genealogical account of a modern strand of moralists. These moralists, however, might more properly be called anti-moralists, as they hold that aside from convention or pacts and covenants, there is no difference between good and evil, just and unjust. This is so because their view (Hobbes, among others[1], is Cudworth’s main target here) is the revival of ancient atomism, which can be traced back to Democritus, and which notably resurfaced with Epicurus. While atomism is largely to blame for this, the same strand of anti-moralists can be found in the Pyrrhonists, who rejected objective and eternal truths. What Cudworth thinks all of these views share is the rejection of an eternal and immutable morality. The dilemma of modern moral philosophy during Cudworth’s time is that this atomism has been revived, and it is thus not surprising that the view that there is no natural difference between good and evil has appeared alongside this revival. There are theological consequences to this also, and this is not a problem exclusive to Cudworth’s time. For if nothing is evil in its own nature, and God’s power and arbitrary will are essential to what is just (Scotus and Ockham), then there are serious moral consequences, for it would seem that it is by nature an indifferent thing to love God, and that God can obligate men to do what is impossible, and even that God can justly torment the innocent eternally. To counter all of these issues, Cudworth must show that “[i]f there be anything at all good or evil, just or unjust, there must of necessity be something naturally and immutably good and just”[2] and then show what this eternal and immutable good is.

The Arbitrarious Essences Argument: In the next chapter Cudworth moves on to demonstrate that there can’t be arbitrary things made by will without nature, because it is universally true that things are what they are not by will but by nature. When he introduces essences, he makes some useful distinctions about what even divine omnipotence has no hold over (it is the mark of omnipotence to only be able to do what is logically or metaphysically possible, and thus what omnipotence can’t do is necessary). The following aspects of essences are necessary, according to Cudworth:

  • Qualities or dispositions: God’s will can’t make a thing white or black without whiteness or blackness.
  • Properties: God’s will can’t make a body triangular without having the nature and properties of a triangle (3 angles equal to 2 right ones).
  • Relations: God’s will can’t make things equal to one another without natures that are equal and like one another.

Why? Because of the principle of contradiction! The opposite of any of the above aspects of essences implies a contradiction, and that is the ground of a necessary and eternal truth. Cudworth gives the following argument to arrive at the conclusion that a thing’s essence can’t be arbitrary:

  1. Things are what they are in virtue of their essences (their “formal causes”).
  2. If a thing’s essence were arbitrary, i.e., made by will, the essence could be removed from the thing. (e.g., if God’s choice determines that a triangle is triangular, he can choose to make a non-triangular triangle.)
  3. (From 1 and 2) if a thing’s essence were removed from it, it would be both what it is (e.g., a triangle) and what it is not (e.g., non-triangular).
  4. A thing cannot be both what it is and what it is not. (via principle of contradiction)
  5. ∴ A thing’s essence cannot be removed (i.e., it has its essence “by nature,” or “necessarily”).
  6. ∴ A thing’s essence is not arbitrary.

Efficient and Formal Causality: The argument nicely points at a clear distinction between efficient and formal causality. While it is certainly the case that God is the efficient cause of all created things, including all existents as well as the relations they undergo and any possible goodness that exists, he is not the formal cause of the essences or the goodness an essence has. This idea can be traced back to St. Augustine (measure) and is found in contemporaries such as Leibniz (metaphysical good). In the Theodicy, Leibniz talks about the origin of evil in relation to God, as all things derive their being from God. In order to avoid the conclusion that God created evil or is the author of sin, Leibniz makes use of this distinction between efficient and formal causality. While we derive all being from God, the source of evil is to be found in the ideal nature of the creature, namely its essence contained within the “eternal verities” which are in the understanding of God independent of his will. This “metaphysical evil” has its source in the limitation of a creature’s essence, since all essences apart from God contain some degree of imperfection. He says: “This region is the ideal cause of evil (as it were) as well as of good: but, properly speaking, the formal character of evil has no efficient cause, for it consists in privation, as we shall see, namely, in that which the efficient cause does not bring about. That is why the Schoolmen are wont to call the cause of evil deficient.”[3]

The significance of this for Cudworth is that not even God can will (nor can any powerful tyrant, law, contract, or covenant make) a thing to be good or just if it is not immutably and necessarily good in its formal cause. Just as God can’t make a black thing white without any whiteness nor two things equal without natures that equal each other, neither can he make something good which lacks a nature that has inherent goodness. Since things can’t be made to be anything without a nature or essence, everything must be necessarily and immutably [formally] determined by its own nature, and relations determined by essences standing in relations to each other. For Cudworth, it follows from the principle of contradiction that an arbitrarious essence is impossible, since it is a being without a nature, and a thing that is without a nature can’t be made to be anything, it is a nonentity. He thinks it is a consequence of this that the natures of justice and injustice can’t be arbitrarious things, since they must be necessary and immutable things. Having established that the essences of things are not arbitrarious, Cudworth makes the following argument:

  1. The natures of justice and injustice are either arbitrarious things or they are not.
  2. If an essence is not arbitrarious, then it is necessary and immutable.
  3. They are not arbitrarious.
  4. ∴ They are necessary and immutable.

Euthyphro Dilemma: Cudworth now thinks he has the tools to solve the Euthyphro dilemma, namely, whether God commands things because they are good and just, or good and just because God commands them. Since the eternal and immutable essences ground the necessity of the nature of goodness and justice, it is impossible for God’s will alone to obligate us to obey some positive law, but our own intellectual nature obliges us to obey a positive law when it is founded in “natural justice.” Cudworth needs an argument to demonstrate that the eternal and immutable essences ground the necessity of the nature of goodness and justice. The first part of the argument is that, e.g., if goodness is a property of actions, just as triangularity is a property of triangles, then good actions are good in virtue of bearing this property, not in virtue of being willed. However, this argument is unconvincing, as Cudworth recognizes, because the voluntarist can easily reply that goodness is not a property of actions in the same manner that triangularity is a property of triangles. Triangles cannot be non-triangular, but an action may be non-obligatory before being commanded and obligatory after being commanded. Therefore, the rightness of an action can depend on the will of a commander. Cudworth’s response to the objection (Ch. 2 para. 3) is the heart of the argument against the voluntarist. The argument assumes the following principle:

Theological Voluntarism: For all x, if you ought to do x, it is because God has commanded you to do x.

  1. It follows from theological voluntarism that what obligates you to do what God commands is the fact that God commands it.
  2. You were either obligated to obey God before the command to do so, or you were not. (i.e., God either had authority to give binding commands before he gave the command, or he did not)
  3. If you were not obligated to obey God before the command to do so, you would not be obligated by the command. (God’s giving a command does not explain why God has the authority to give binding commands)
  4. If you were already obligated prior to the command, then the fact that God commands you to obey him does not explain why you are obligated to do so. (God had authority prior to giving the command. Therefore, his authority must be explained by something other than the command).
  5. ∴ For some x, if you ought to do x, it is not because God has commanded you to do x, but for independent reasons.

Natural vs. Positive Good: Cudworth then deals with the objection that some actions seem to be made right/obligatory because of a command, e.g., drive on the right side of the road. Cudworth answers the objection by making a distinction between what is naturally good or evil and positively good or evil:

(I) Natural good and evil: Things which reason obligates us to do per se, directly, immediately, and perpetually.

(II) Positive good and evil: Things which reason obligates us to do through the intervention of some act bringing them under a rule of natural justice and good. These are things which are indifferent in themselves, yet we are ‘accidentally’ (hypothetically) obligates to on the supposition of a qualified voluntary act, thus bringing them from indifference to a new relation to us.

Some things are obligated absolutely and others only contingently on the condition of some voluntary action. Thus, something indifferent may, by our voluntary act, acquire a new relation to our intellectual nature. Natural or essential justice may absolutely obligate us to keep faith, and when we promise in relation to a thing indifferent, keeping this covenant becomes an absolute obligation, stemming from natural justice. This obligates us to obey God and just civil powers, not creating a new moral entity, but modifying or determining the general obligation of natural justice to obey lawful authority and keep oaths or covenants. Cudworth distinguishes the materiality of the action of obedience and the formality of obedience, saying that the virtue of obedience is in the latter. Merely giving obedience to the positive command of a superior surely isn’t sufficient for virtue, but the formal aspect of giving obedience to the commands of a lawful authority (founded on natural justice) seems to be sufficient, according to Cudowrth, for virtue.

Ralph Cudworth

Ralph Cudworth

Theological Worries About God’s Omnipotence and Will: In the third chapter of Book I in EIM Cudworth turns back to some theological problems that voluntarist theories worry about. He specifically has Descartes in mind, and the main worry seems to be that if the essences of things do not depend on the will of God, then it follows that there is something independent of God. To sidestep this problem, Descartes had claimed that, before God willed to create, there was no such thing as good or evil as ideas in God’s mind. God’s will determined itself to effect that such a thing should be, and thus there was no inclination of God to actualize a set of beings (rather than a different set) because of the goodness inherent in their natures. As to the question of how God can do this, Descartes seems to indicate that it is above reason or unintelligible to us, but that this must be the case for God, since there can be nothing (in an absolute and radical sense) that can be which does not depend on God.

Cudworth will have none of this, since it implies a contradiction that the nature of a square could not be necessarily what it is and could be arbitrarily convertible into the nature of a circle. The “compossibility of contradictions” destroys all knowledge and the essences or natures of things. Since it is the mark of that which implies a contradiction that it is impossible and a nonentity, it isn’t even possible for an omnipotent God to make essences in their own nature mutable. Contradictory things can’t be the object of divine power, and this doesn’t take away from God’s power. And just as God can’t make the nature of a square to be a circle, he can’t make the essence of justice to be other than what it necessarily is by its nature. If God had no ideas of the essences of things prior to creation, his omniscience would be destroyed, and further, if God had this absurd notion of omnipotence, God might have willed that there be no such thing as knowledge, which is contradictory. It is just as contradictory as to say that God could have willed that neither his own power or knowledge be infinite. This would not only reduce truth and falsity to mere names, but also to subject God to the same limitations. Thus, in trying to give God absolute power and freedom, they end up destroying the divine attributes instead. The eternal and immutable essences and truths in the mind of God are independent of his will only in that they are in the omniscient mind of God and are participated by created beings independent of the divine will.

Cudworth gives an important clarification about wisdom and will. While wisdom is most determinate and inflexible, will is most indeterminate and indefinite (regulable). It is the perfection of the will to be guided and determined by wisdom and truth. To make wisdom, knowledge, and truth arbitrarily determined by will is to destroy the nature of it.

[1] A paradigm passage in Hobbes concerning the lack of natural right is the following: “God in his natural kingdom hath a right to rule, and to punish those who break his laws, from a sole irresistible power.” De Cive xv, 5.

[2] EIM p. 16.

[3] Theodicy §20.

Aristotle, Seneca, and the Question of Marlowe’s “Doctor Faustus” and Webster’s “The Duchess of Malfi” as Tragedy

The purpose of this post is to consider the nature of tragedy in plays by Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus and John Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi.

First, what is tragedy? Prima facie there seems to be a paradox, or problem, inherent in tragedy itself, namely how can we rationally take pleasure in witnessing horrifying scenes and in feeling the painful emotions (fear and pity) that are involved in the experience of tragedy?

Tragedy is a form of art that goes against our expectations, and is cognitively as well as ethically significant. The portrayal of great misfortune is the overarching essence of tragedy. There are three significant ways that this is brought about:

  1. The exceptional wickedness of a character, or characters
  2. Blind fate (cf. Romeo and Juliet)
  3. Typical relationships between morally ordinary characters (cf. Goethe’s Faust and Shakespeare’s Hamlet)

The end (causa finalis) of tragedy is emotion, namely to awaken sympathy. The form of a tragedy is thus the means of attaining this end: the imitation of actions that are fit to move, having all that favors sympathy itself.

Answering the question as to why human beings seem to be trapped in this paradox of taking pleasure in feeling and witnessing painful suffering in the form of tragedy is no easy matter, and I can only offer a couple of remarks that have bearing on the nature of tragedy itself. First, it has been remarked by a number of theorists in the 18th century that this is a result of a strange, paradoxical feature of human behavior, namely our irresistible curiosity in watching human suffering, even though the sight of it is quite dreadful. The paradox is that while we would do everything in our power to prevent a disaster, once it has happened we would do everything in out power (within reason) to see it (in fact, I heard a comedian making this same point this week while making jokes about US drivers and drivers in India). At least on this view, a good tragedy will draw us in in the very same way as this.

Another solution to this paradox lies in the idea that the source of tragic pleasure is found in the awareness of freedom itself. Taking pleasure in tragedy would hence be the result of its confirming our status as free beings. In tragedy we observe a struggle between reason and sensibility, i.e., between a moral principle and personal “happiness”, and especially the demands that each bring. Thus, the dilemma of the tragic hero is the situation where his principles can only be fulfilled by suffering—via sacrificing his happiness or life. Hence, the tragic hero presents a demonstration of human power of action, which gains its strength from the tragic hero’s choice to act on principle as opposed to natural inclinations. This is the source of the mixed feelings evident in our experience of tragedy. We can even explain why we feel pain in tragedy from what I have said thus far: our pain is the result of our experiencing in the hero’s suffering our sensibility being subdued by the forces of nature. However, we also feel pleasure, and in this sense our pleasure is the result of our seeing in the action on principle of the tragic hero our own power of action that is independent of the causes of the world of sense. This overcomes the ambiguity in trying to explain the pleasure we experience in tragedy merely in terms of the activity of our faculty of desire, and the approval or disapproval that comes with it. That really doesn’t tell us much at all, nor why tragedy is so significant to us, and a grand form of art. Perhaps, then, our approval and pleasure of the tragic hero is due to the fact that his (or her) actions affirm our status. In our seeing the appearance of freedom in the actions of the tragic hero, we see an integral part of beauty.

Doctor Faustus

Doctor Faustus

Is Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus truly a tragedy?

I now turn to a not so simple question, namely whether Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus is truly a tragedy. I think answering this may be even more difficult than answering whether Webster’s plays stand as tragedies. I am not going to give a definite answer to whether Doctor Faustus by Marlowe is a tragedy. However, I will discuss how it might fall short, or might succeed.

I had mentioned that the end of tragedy is emotion, and specifically sympathy. Yet John Faustus is a peculiar character, and quite contradictory. At times it is tempting to say that he is a tragic anti-hero in this regard. I found it hard to have any sympathy for Marlowe’s Faustus because he was waned ahead of time about what would happen, and he knew, and he despaired the moment he sold his soul. One might argue that Doctor Faustus fails as a tragedy in this regard, and thus doesn’t succeed emotionally. This was my experience. The first time I read Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus, I had already read Goethe’s Faust. I came into reading Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus wearing blue glasses, so to speak. With Marlowe things seem rushed, and he interestingly decides to do away with the older Faust ending, where Faustus is saved.

Be that as it may, one might argue that at times in the play Faustus can act contradictory, but that does not make the play itself in its entirety not a tragedy. But how is it a tragedy? Looking back to Aristotle, who Faustus himself tossed away, we might still consider John Faustus a tragic hero of sorts. He is a “protagonist” who is depicted as being better than average men. He is a scholar, thirsty for knowledge. For Aristotle, the good tragedian does not give us a tragic hero that is so far above average men that the audience can’t relate to him or her. This is where our feeling comes in, as we are meant to feel with the tragic hero. Now, what might be strange when considering Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus as a tragedy is the elements that Aristotle held to be the mark of the true climax of tragedy: when reversal and recognition coincide. Now, I can see how reversal works in Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus,  perhaps in Faustus’ last moments, going from hearing all of the devilish powers to losing his soul to the devil, but I have a hard time finding how recognition plays out in a significant way for Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus to succeed as a tragedy in this regard. He knew what would happen even before he signed the contract, or even before the contract was mentioned. As I see it, Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus might fail in this tragic regard.

It may be the case that Goethe was aware of this failure. For, as I see it, in his Faust, there is this coinciding of reversal and recognition. Faust did not know or expect to find any worldly thing that Mephistopheles could present to him would bring him to say: “Stay moment stay, thou art so fair.” It is worth mentioning that my Renaissance English professor told me this is “bull” when I mentioned it to him. But I still disagree with him about this.

A while back I had mentioned that part of the nature of tragedy is great misfortune capable of being brought about in three different ways. One of the those ways was exceptional wickedness. As I see it, this is the most significant defense of Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus as a tragedy. The element of exceptional wickedness is at the very heart of of Doctor Faustus, for the act of selling one’s soul is itself an act of unimaginable horror. Faust, through his pride, a vice possible in all human beings (and a way in which an audience can relate to him) will not repent and ask God for forgiveness (though fear seems to be at work here also). If he is a character who we can significantly relate to, one might argue that the pure wickedness and horror of him selling his soul for nothing: what is readily available to all, namely immediate satisfaction that is purely of the body.

Thus, one might argue that Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus works as a tragedy because his tragic flaw of pride prevents him from being saved in the same way that Mephistopheles is prevented, and which was available to him: it is their excessive pride. Thus, he has committed the most horrifying act in return for nothing, for mere bodily pleasures are nothing compared to selling your soul to the devil. He sold his being for negation. I am skeptical as to whether Doctor Faustus succeeds as a tragedy in the way we would want it to, strictly speaking.

The Duchess of Malfi

The Duchess of Malfi

Is Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi a good tragedy?

I believe that The Duchess of Malfi succeeds as a good tragedy. It is easier to explain it in terms of the second account of tragedy and freedom that I outlined above. But it is not without difficulty.I tend to think of John Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi along similar lines of Friedrich Schiller’s Mary Stuart. They are quite different, but still very similar, though going into detail about this is more than enough to require a dissertation (and one I’d love to write).

I truly believe that The Duchess of Malfi succeeds as a tragedy much more prevalently. However, there are more precise difficulties in placing together exactly how this perfectly (or, at least, nearly so) delivers a wonderful tragedy. So, who do I think Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi is such a great tragedy? I believe the answer is, at least for the most part, to be found in relation to Seneca. Webster most certainly read Seneca’s tragedies, and Seneca’s tragedies are a consequence of his philosophical views. Seneca had an entire work devoted to the examination of anger in human beings. Anger is the worst of emotions, according to Seneca, The role of anger is at the heart of Webster’s tragedy, and this is a way in which The Duchess of Malfi works as a good tragedy. Seneca described anger as a kind of “temporary madness”. It is the most hideous and the most frenzied of emotions. It is devoid of self-control, forgetful of decency, unmindful of ties, persistent in carrying out what it begins, excited by chaos itself, unable to distinguish right from wrong, true from false, has no peace, and is cut off entirely from reason. It is, as Seneca explains, unmistakable. In a passage I have read and gone back to countless times, Seneca gives a description of the condition of the angry person:

A bold and threatening mein, a gloomy brow, a fierce expression, a hurried step, restless hands, an altered color, a quick and more violent breathing—so likewise are the marks marks of the angry man; his eyes blaze and sparkle, his whole face is crimson with the blood that surges from the lowest depths of his heart, his lips quiver, his teeth are clenched, his hair bristles and stands on end, his breathing is forced and harsh, his joints crack from writhing, he groans and bellows, bursts out into speech with scarcely intelligible words, strikes his hands together continually, and stamps the ground with his feet, his whole body is excited and performs great angry threats: it is an ugly and horrible picture of distorted and swollen frenzy—you cannot tell whether this vice is more execrable or more hideous.[1]

I include this because this is precisely the feeling I was left with after reading Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi, and this is what I meant when I referenced Seneca’s philosophy. I believe that the spirit of Seneca’s writings on the emotions can’t be separated from his tragic dramas. This was what I saw and felt when I read The Duchess of Malfi.

Before getting into Ferdinand, who all of this discussion on anger applies to, I’d like to say something about the Duchess herself. In both Marlowe’s Edward II and The Duchess of Malfi there are characters that fit the role as tragic hero in a similar way. I connected more with The Duchess of Malfi for this reason. In both plays, there is a martyr-like death scene. But especially in The Duchess of Malfi, the Duchess is a prime example of Stoic courage in the face of death, which Webster beautifully (or sublimely) puts at complete odds with her brother.

Now, I think this play succeeds as a tragedy in what is sets out to do, specifically via the exceptional wickedness of a character, which I outlined at the outset. Ferdinand is ever present in this play, and he is reduced to madness in his anger. I believe that this tragedy may also be actualized as a tragedy by reversal and recognition, in Aristotelian terms. At the moment the Duchess told Bosola that she married Antonio she knew her fate was sealed.

Aside from this, it is evident from very early on that Ferdinand is in love with his twin sister. He is adamant about her never marrying again. Note that what makes this play controversial as a tragedy is that the Duchess dies in Act IV. This is tricky, and I think we might still adequately call her the tragic hero, but the essential duality between her and Ferdinand allows Webster to not end the play there. The tragedy is between the Duchess and Ferdinand, not Antonio. Ferdinand, the angry man who falls into darkness plays a part in the center of tragedy, and this is something we can all relate to, because, as Seneca has explained, is a most seductive and horrifying emotion that every human being must deal with. We face the tragedy in The Duchess of Malfi in her own brother claiming her as his own in the only way he can: her death! She shall not marry indeed. Note still that the play is named after the Duchess, not Ferdinand. She is still the tragic hero.

[1] Seneca, De Ira I.i.3-5

Samuel Clarke on Divine Immutability

According to Samuel Clarke, both in reason and in Scripture God is considered unchangeable upon different accounts and in very different respects. In a sermon, Clarke gives five principal arguments for divine immutability, which are as follows:

(1) God’s being is necessary

It must be the case that God is absolutely unchangeable in respect to his essence, because his essence is self-existent. Whatever has necessary existence, as it can’t but be, it can’t but continue to be what it is without change. Clarke then makes the following assertion: “That which depends upon nothing can be affected by nothing, can be acted upon by nothing, can be changed by nothing.”[1] There are two things that could render God changeable: (1) external causes, and (2) internal causes (notice the similarity to Spinoza’s argument in the last post). According to Clarke, then, God’s independence from all things in terms of his necessary existence entails God’s independence from all external things in terms of being acted upon. And if external things can’t act on God, they can’t change God. But what about internal causes? Clarke has the tools to counter this option. The special fact about a necessary being is that its essence, as necessary, can’t but be what it is. And that which has an essence that can’t but be what it is must be without change. God, as a necessary being, whose essence is sufficient for his existence, can’t be acted upon or varied by any accident, and thus can’t be induced to change, absolutely speaking. Clarke had already argued that God is eternal, so God decreeing things that happen in time doesn’t impair his immutability or changelessness, since such decrees are from eternity and are absolutely immutable.

Samuel Clarke

Samuel Clarke

(2) God is perfect

God’s perfections flow necessarily from his essence and do not depend on his will, which is self-evident because whatever flows from any cause or principle must of necessity be as invariable as the cause or principle from which it necessarily proceeds. These perfections (like God’s being) have no dependence on God’s will, and thus it is obvious that they can much less be subject to any alteration from any other cause or power whatsoever. While there is a dependence upon God’s will for the exercise of moral perfections like goodness and justice (for it is obvious that we would have reason to call God a being nor perfectly just, since perfect justice requires acting justly), the absolute immutability of these is slightly less self-evident, since it depends not only on the unchangeableness of his essence, but also of his will. But the unchangeableness of these is equally obvious, since a being who always knows what is right, and his general will always doing what is best or most fitting (though not by absolute necessity), will in reality (in event and upon the whole) be as certainly and truly unchangeable as his very essence itself.

(3) God’s particular decrees and purposes of his will are unchangeable

Clarke argues that since God is unchangeable in his essence and in the general perfections of his nature, it follows that since God is omnipotent and omniscient, he can never resolve on something that is either not possible (excluding contradictions, which are not a positive object of God’s perfections) or not reasonable to be accomplished. While finite beings are often forced to change their designs because they find it not possible to finish what they begin or unreasonable, such change has no place in God. Having all things in his power and comprehending all things in his intellect (foreknowledge), he can be overruled by no force, prevented or surprised by no unexpected accident, and changed by no unforeseen alteration in the reasons of things.

(4) God’s laws are unchangeable because of the nature of things

Clarke also argues that God’s laws or commandments are absolutely unchangeable because they are founded on the same immutable reasons, the eternal differences of good and evil, the original nature of things, and universal equity. His laws always tend to the same regular end, namely the order and the happiness of the whole creation.

(5)The grounds of God’s covenants are unchangeable

In God’s covenants or promises, argues Clarke, God is also perfectly unchangeable. The reason for this is because covenants or promises are founded upon such grounds as can’t be altered.

[1] Sermon VII.

Spinoza (and perhaps Descartes) on Divine Immutability

Spinoza’s most explicit statements on divine immutability surface in his Principles of Cartesian Philosophy, a work on Descartes’ philosophy set in the geometrical method. Spinoza attached a long and detailed appendix to this known as the Cogitata Metaphysica, which includes an entire chapter on divine immutability. I will discuss each of these in turn.

First, in Proposition 18 of the first part of the Principles of Cartesian Philosophy, Spinoza states that God is immutable, and gives the following demonstration:

If God were mutable, he could not be changed only in part, but would have to be changed in respect to his whole essence (by P17). However, the essence of God exists necessarily (by P5, 6, and 7). Therefore, God is immutable, q.e.d.[1]

René Descartes

René Descartes

Why does Spinoza (or Descartes as Spinoza interprets him) think that if God is not immutable, it follows that change would presuppose his entire essence changing (and his essence had already been demonstrated to exist necessarily earlier in the work)? Spinoza thinks this is so because of God’s simplicity. Since God is absolutely simple, and not composite, any change in God would have to be in terms of his entire essence, since he has no parts that could change. Spinoza had argued that if God were composed of parts, the parts would have to be at least prior in nature to God. But this is an absurdity since God necessarily exists, and whatever else exists is preserved by the power of God alone in the sense that God is prior in causality to the essence and to the existence of things.

Spinoza elaborates much further on divine immutability in the Cogitata Metaphysica. Unlike the geometric exposition of Descartes, the appendix discusses God’s simplicity after the chapter on divine immutability. He begins by defining change as “whatever variation there can be in a subject while the very essence of the subject remains intact.”[2] He then distinguishes the causes of change into two classes:

  1. external causes
  2. internal causes

That a man becomes darker, becomes ill, grows, etc. all proceed from external causes, but that he wills to walk, to display anger, etc. result from internal causes. Spinoza argues that God does not change in either sense.

Baruch Spinoza

Baruch Spinoza

God does not change from external causes because God is the sole cause of all things and is not acted on by anything. No created thing has in itself any power of existing, and much less does it have any power of producing any effect outside of itself or on its cause. Spinoza also notes that while it may often seem in Scripture that God feels such emotions as sadness or anger on account of man’s sins, we err when we take the effect for the cause in interpreting such passages. For example, we say that the Sun in summer is stronger and higher than in winter, although its position has not changed and in itself it has not increased in strength. Spinoza specifically points to the Book of Isaiah, where it says, when he is reproaching the people, “Your iniquities separate you from your God.”[3]

Spinoza also denies that there is any change in God from internal causes. Every change which depends on the will happens so that the subject may change into a better state. But this can’t occur in God, who is a most perfect being. There is no change in this sense except for the sake of avoiding some disadvantage or acquiring some good which is lacking. But this can’t occur in God. Therefore, we must conclude that God is immutable.

Spinoza, however, differs from all of the other philosophers I have looked at in his radical emphasis that we must not treat God’s intellect and will as distinct, which has strong ties to his necessitarianism. While this is a matter that can’t adequately be covered in a post on divine immutability, it is worth mentioning because Spinoza tells us at the end of the chapter that divine immutability is better understood when we consider this. This would be so because God’s intellect is immutable, and if his will is not distinct from his intellect, his decrees are likewise immutable, and this is just his essence, which would thus be immutable.

Although similarities between Spinoza and medieval Jewish philosophers (he certainly thoroughly read, and was influenced by, many important medieval Jewish philosophers) are likely to be more apparent when considering other divine attributes, Judah Halevi had pointed to the idea of God’s eternity being identified with immovability and immutability. God was immovable, is immovable, and will be immutable. Joseph Albo said that these terms simply mean that God has absolute independence of any temporal relations, and eternity as applies to God excludes duration (and time). Spinoza was familiar with all of these views, and it is noticeable that he placed specific attention on Alboʼs conclusion that God alone has necessary existence by his own nature, as compared with all other things, which have only possible existence. The conclusion reached by Albo is important because this simply means that in God his essence and his existence are identical, which is Spinozaʼs basis for Godʼs existence.[4] From this basis, Albo then says that eternity is to be defined as identity, uniformity, and immutability. Spinoza says in Proposition 19 of the Ethics: “God is eternal, or all of Godʼs attributes are eternal.”[5] Since Godʼs essence and existence are one and the same, Godʼs attributes are immutable.

[1] PPC1p18; CW I.260.

[2] CM II.iv.1; CW I.231.

[3] Isaiah 59:2

[4] E1p9; CW I.417.

[5] E1p19; CW I.428.

Anselm on Divine Immutability

The good thing about Saint Anselm’s discussion of divine attributes is the rich and subtle account he gives of seemingly contradictory aspects of God. This comes out best in his Proslogion. Rather than speaking in terms of immutability in this work, Anselm typically speaks of God’s impassibility. This comes from the Latin pati (“to undergo or suffer”), contrasted with agere (“to do or act”). When Anselm says that God is impassible, he means that he can’t suffer or undergo anything. We can see that God not being able to undergo anything is closely connected with God not being able to change. God as pure act can’t be acted upon by anything else, and thus can’t change. In the Proslogion, God’s impassibility is a direct result of the ontological argument (Anselm’s a priori proof of God from the consideration of his essence alone), since it is better (a quality that is a perfection) to be impassible than not to be impassible.

Like Aquinas, Anselm closely connects God’s immutability with his eternity. Unlike Aquinas, however, Anselm does not use God’s immutability as a means of justifying his eternity. In the Monologion, Anselm has a lengthy discussion of God’s relation to time and his eternity before establishing that God is immutable. According to Anselm, only something that is in time can change. To change means that something is first one way and then it is another way. But there is no first and then in God, but only an eternal, unchanging present (loosely speaking). Anselm discusses divine immutability in chapter 25 of the Monologion. Earlier in that work, he had said of the various attributes that for God it is the same to be as to be immutable or to be wise, etc. When he specifically turns to divine immutability, Anselm immediately presents us with an intuitive dilemma. He had already shown that God is absolutely simple (he is the same as himself substantially) and not composite. But is he not, Anselm asks, sometimes different from himself accidentally (understood as changeable through accidents)? In considering accidents, Anselm makes a distinction between those that can’t be present or absent without some variation in the thing that participates in them (e.g., all colors) and those that bring about no change in the thing of which they are said by beginning or ceasing to be present in it (e.g., some relations). Anselm gives the following example:

For example, it is evident that I am not taller than, shorter than, equal to, or similar to a human being who will be born after this year. But once he has been born, I will be able — without any change on my part—to have and to lose all these relations with respect to him as he grows or is changed by various qualities. And so it becomes clear that among the things that are called accidents, some do imply a degree of mutability, whereas others in no way destroy immutability.[1]

Anselm concludes that just as divine simplicity rules out accidents that bring about change, his being described in terms of accidents that do not oppose immutability is not ruled out. It just must be emphasized that God’s essence is not subject to any accident by which it can be understood to be changeable. Thus, he is not susceptible of any accident, since those accidents that cause a change in something by beginning or ceasing to be present in it are truly accidents of the thing they change. Those that lack this effect are improperly called accidents. Thus, Anselm concludes:

Therefore, just as he is always in every respect the same as himself substantially, so he is never in any respect different from himself, even accidentally. But however things stand with the proper use of the word ‘accident’, it is undoubtedly true that nothing can be said of the supremely unchangeable nature from which he could be understood to be changeable.[2]

Saint Anselm

Saint Anselm

I had mentioned that Anselm has a rich approach to reconciling seemingly contradictory divine attributes. Early in the Proslogion, Anselm discusses how God can be both merciful (which seems to imply that God feels compassion) and impassibility (which seems to imply that God feels nothing). I think this is important, because we could just as easily say that God’s mercy seems to be incompatible with God’s immutability. I will quote the passage in full:

But how are you both merciful and impassible? For if you are impassible, you do not feel compassion, and if you do not feel compassion, your heart is not sorrowful out of compassion for sorrow; and that is what being merciful is. But if you are not merciful, how is it that you are such a comfort to the sorrowful? So how, Lord, are you both merciful and not merciful? Is it not because you are merciful in relation to us but not in relation to yourself? You are indeed merciful according to what we feel, but not according to what you feel. For when you look with favor upon us in our sorrow, we feel the effect [effectum] of mercy, but you do not feel the emotion [affectum] of mercy. So you are merciful, because you save the sorrowful and spare those who sin against you; but you are also not merciful, because you are not afflicted with any feeling of compassion for sorrow.[3]

Here Anselm distinguishes between the effect of mercy and the emotion of mercy. While it certainly is impossible for God to feel any emotion when he acts mercifully, we feel the effect of his merciful action. So while God is merciful according to what we feel, he is not merciful according to what he feels since he does not experience emotion at all. The worry for some is that impassibility, a God who does not change or feel emotions, seems to be a God who is impersonal and without love for creatures or creation. But such a strong reaction, Anselm would surely say, merely is the result of a confusion on our part. The reason some might react this way when considering emotionless divine impassibility is that they are anthropomorphizing God, making God in their image and describing him in human terms. Here’s where Anselm’s emphasis on eternity before discussing immutability comes in. We err in being disturbed by God as impassible because we are so accustomed to thinking of worldly things that are temporal and undergo change. In thinking about a human being who experienced no emotions, felt no compassion for those who suffer or joy for those he cares about, we are certainly right in thinking such a person to be pathological. But there is a difference in taking this approach to God and holding this about humans, for God and humans are not the same kind of entity. God is an eternal being and humans are temporal beings. God is immaterial and humans are embodied. God is immutable and humans constantly undergo change and are affected by external things, including emotions. We are built to be affected by external things and react to them, and thus a human who feels no emotions is like a knife that won’t cut. But God is not a temporal being, and since he lacks a body, he can’t have the physiological basis for emotions. Both Anselm and Aquinas have emphasized that we should be on our toes not to anthropomorphize God, and thus trap ourselves in the conclusion that God is impersonal from the fact that God is immutable. Anselm offers perhaps the richest account of this kind of dilemma that I have ever come across.

[1] Monologion, ch. 25.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Proslogion, ch. 8.

Aquinas on Divine Immutability

In the Summa Theologiae Aquinas gives a demonstration of God’s immutability (that God is not in any way changeable), which he feels must be established before demonstrating that God is eternal. In the Summa Theologiae (from which the arguments presented in this post will be based upon), Aquinas devotes an entire section to divine immutability. In his other excellent work, Summa Contra Gentiles, the method is a bit different. In the latter, Aquinas only discusses divine immutability in a very brief final paragraph to the chapter on how we have knowledge of God through via remotionis (the way of negation, i.e., that we can only know God by knowing what God is not, sometimes called negative theology). I will quote the passage in full:

As a principle of procedure in knowing God by way of remotion, therefore, let us adopt the proposition which, from what we have said, is now manifest, namely, that God is absolutely unmoved. The authority of Sacred Scripture also confirms this. For it is written: “I am the Lord and I change not” (Mal. 3:6); …“with whom there is no change” (James 2:17). Again: “God is not man… that He should be changed (Num. 23:19).[1]

This is important to note because while I prefer reading the Summa Contra Gentiles to the Summa Theologiae, I think Aquinas is far more thorough concerning divine immutability in the latter than he is in the former. In both works, Aquinas takes God’s eternity to presuppose his immutability. He explains this in a most abrupt fashion in the Summa Contra Gentiles in the chapter on God’s eternity:

Everything that begins to be or ceases to be does so through motion or change. Since, however, we have shown that God is absolutely immutable, He is eternal, lacking all beginning or end.[2]

In order to explain all of this, we must turn to the Summa Theologiae. where Aquinas gives a full treatment to divine immutability.

Saint Thomas Aquinas

Saint Thomas Aquinas

Initially, Aquinas points out that there are sometimes Biblical passages (see those mentioned in the passage from SCG above) that talk of God as changing in some way, notably: “I am the Lord, and I change not.” (Malachi 3:6) But such passages must be said of God metaphorically, for it is demonstrable that God is immutable for three essential reasons.

(I) God is pure actuality

Everything which is in any way changed is in in some way in potency (for change is moving from potentiality to actuality). It follows that it is impossible for God to undergo any change. This clearly follows from Aquinas’ proofs for God’s existence.

  1. Everything which is in any way changed is in in some way in potency.
  2. God is pure actuality.
  3. ∴ God can’t undergo change.

(II) God is not composite

Every thing which undergoes some change does so in respect to certain properties [while still retaining other properties]. Thus any thing which undergoes change is composite. But God is altogether simple (Aquinas had demonstrated that there is no composition in God earlier in the Summa Theologiae). Therefore, God does not undergo any change.

  1. Any thing that changes does so by undergoing change in its properties.
  2. A thing which changes is a composite thing.
  3. God is simple.
  4. ∴ God does not undergo any change.

(III) God is infinite

Anything changed acquires something new which it lacked prior to changing. But God is infinite (as Aquinas demonstrated earlier in the Summa Theologiae), having the plentitude and fullness of perfection and being, and thus can’t acquire anything new, nor change belong to God in any way.

  1. A thing changed acquires something new that it didn’t have prior to the change.
  2. God in infinite (in perfection and being).
  3. ∴ God does not change.

Aquinas next shows that only God is unchangeable. We might be tempted to think of things similar to God (angels or souls) as immutable, but Aquinas says this can’t be so. For everything in creation is changeable in that their existence continually depends on God sustaining them in existence. Were God to withdraw this conservation (or concurrence), these things would instantly go out of existence. Perhaps likewise, even uncreated possible essences (though Aquinas doesn’t make this further point explicitly in this section) are mutable since they are changeable in that were God to will them into existence, they would change in the sense of coming into existence (from the realm of possibility to actuality)]. Thus, all created things can change in the sense of coming into and going out of existence.

While some get trapped in thinking that if God is immutable, it follows that God is impersonal (I will discuss this further in a future post, especially when I discuss Anselm on impassibility), unable to change in any way concerning the emotional aspect of religion. For instance, some might think God to be incapable of love if he is immutable, since he can’t change and thus can’t be affected from our praters and praise for him. But such complaints are unfounded, and merely are anthropomorphizing God. From God’s perfection it follows that every possibility is within God and though God is immutable and changeless, he gives being to the entire created world, knowing and sustaining all its changes.

Though this conclusion is extremely important for what Aquinas will go on to argue concerning God’s nature (esp. God’s eternity), his justification of God’s immutability is rather short in comparison to his discussion of other divine attributes and aspects of God. I feel there is a need to explain briefly how God’s eternity relates to his immutability, and how the former follows from the latter (I’ve only just noticed in the last couple of weeks how all systematic theists who expound upon the divine attributes always justify God’s eternity immediately after having demonstrated God’s immutability, which presupposes other things proved, as has been said and will continually be justified in future posts).

So, how does God’s eternity relate to God’s immutability? Time presupposes change, since it is defined by reference to change. Eternity, on the other hand, follows from things in which there is never any change or possibility of change. What is important to point out is that Aquinas gives a very persuasive argument that only God is immutable,

Time and eternity are essentially different things. Time is not the subject of eternity, since they are not measures of the same type of thing. The fundamental difference between time and eternity is that time measures change and eternity measures permanent unchangeable existence. Boethius says that eternity exists as an instantaneous whole. There is no flow of time or now in eternity. Time, conversely, flows, and this flow consists in the changing now that refers to the changing of changeable things that time measures.

[1] SCG I.14.

[2] SCG I.15.

Aquinas and Scotus: “Do all men by nature desire to know?”

Following my previous post, which centered on Aristotle’s account of human nature’s relation to art, I will now take a closer look at Aristotle’s notable claim at the beginning of the Metaphysics that “all men by nature desire to know”,[1] which is one of the most famous and widely quoted sentences in all of philosophy. I had summed up this point as follows (following Aquinas’ discussion of the matter): “By nature, everything desires its own perfection. And since man is what he is because of his intellect, men naturally desire knowledge. Further, each thing has an inclination to perform its proper operation. Man differs from all other things by the fact that his proper operation is to understand, and therefore man has a natural inclination to understand. Note that the fact that many men do not devote their time and effort to the science of knowledge does not disprove the fact that they desire to know. For they are prevented from the pursuit of their desire due to its difficulty or by their being held back by other occupations, needs, or even by the seduction of pleasures. Laziness pervades the human species.” This claim by Aristotle was widely discussed and interpreted during the Middle Ages, and I will examine various ways of interpreting it, mainly drawing from Aquinas and Scotus.

Aristotle starts Book I of the Metaphysics by saying:

All men naturally desire to know. A sign of this is the delight we take in the senses; for apart from their usefulness they are loved for themselves, and most of all the sense which operates through the eyes. For not only that we may act, but even when we intend to do nothing, we prefer sight, as we may say, to all the other senses. The reason is that of all the senses this most enables us to know and reveals many differences between things.

John Duns Scotus, in his discussion of the passage in his Questions on the Metaphysics of Aristotle, says that there are two ways to make this proposition clear: (1) a posteriori, and (2) a priori.

John Duns Scotus

John Duns Scotus

I. A posteriori justification that all men naturally desire to know

First, Aristotle justifies this proposition by appealing to the delight we take in our senses, loving them in themselves apart from their usefulness. Or, as Scotus puts it: “the senses are loved naturally not only insofar as they are useful for sustaining life, but as cognitive.”[2] Aristotle gives an a posteriori proof that the senses are loved not for any practical use or reason, but only as cognitive, by accounting for our love of the sense of sight above all other senses. We naturally love the sense that gives us the most knowledge, namely sight. Sight is the most cognitive sense because of the certitude of the knowledge it gives and the variety of what we know by means of it. Scotus very briefly also gives another reason for why the sense of sight is superior, namely that its immateriality is the source of it being more certain than other senses, for the more immaterial a cognitive power is, the more certain is its knowledge. And the variety of things known through this sense is due to the fact that all bodies have their share of light and color, which isn’t the case with other sensible qualities.[3] According to Scotus, what Aristotle’s proof comes down to is that if we love the more cognitive senses naturally, because of the knowledge they give and not because they are useful for life, then it follows that what we naturally desire more is to know.

II. A priori justification that all men naturally desire to know

Scotus next turns to Aquinas, who gave three a priori reasons for Aristotle’s proposition. The three can be summarized as follows:

First proof

  1. Everything imperfect naturally seeks its perfection.[4] (Aristotle’s Physics I, ch.9, 192a16-19)
  2. But the soul of man is of itself imperfect as to its intellectual power, since this is like a blank slate on which nothing is depicted, according to Aristotle.[5] (De Anima III, ch.4, 429b31-430a2)
  3. Therefore, man naturally desires knowledge, which is a perfection of this power.

Second Proof

  1. Everything naturally wants to function in its own proper fashion (e.g., the heavy body wants to descend).
  2. But the function or operation proper to man is to know or understand, because this is what distinguishes him from everything else.
  3. Therefore, man naturally desires to know.

Third Proof

  1. Everything seeks to be one, or be joined, with its source.
  2. Man, however, becomes one with the separate substances [pure spirits], as Aristotle proves in the Nicomachean Ethics (NE X ch.8, 1177b26-31; 1129a22-32): “For in the contemplation of the truth we most resemble these separate substances, and this is what our happiness consists in.”
  3. Therefore, man naturally desires to know.

Scotus’ response to Aquinas’ a priori proofs

Scotus offers a subtle critique of Aquinas’ a priori proofs. First and foremost, he finds that these three proofs do not differ from each other in a significant way. Scotus responds to Aquinas primarily by appealing to Aristotle’s twofold distinction of the term act in the De Anima [6] As Aquinas says of this passage: “In one sense knowledge is an act, in the other thinking is an act; and the difference can be understood by relating these acts to their potencies.” Scotus calls this a first act and a second act, and he says that from this distinction it follows that there is a twofold perfection: one that is first, another that is second, the former being the form or habit [the science] and the latter its operation. Aquinas gives the example of a grammarian:

Before one acquires the grammatical habit and becomes a grammarian, whether self-taught or led by another, one is only potentially so; and this potency is acquired by the habit. But once the habit is acquired one is still in potency to the use of it, so long as one is not actually thinking about grammar; and this thinking is a further actualization. In this sense, then, knowledge is one act and thinking another.[7]

Scotus says that everything naturally desires both perfections, since the operation is the purpose of the habit. And because the perfection of the act of thinking is the purpose of the act of knowledge, according to Scotus, Aquinas’ proposition that “everything naturally seeks its perfection” in the first two a priori proofs implies the thesis to be proved as regards the science (the object of the first proof) and the act of knowing (the object of the second proof). This point is very important because Scotus seems to be pointing out that if the operation is the purpose of the habit, then what is really naturally desired is not the habit for its own sake, but the operation of the habit for which the habit is the means. Scotus further objects that there doesn’t seem to be any need for Aquinas’ second proof (that everything wants to function or operate in its own proper function), since the only reason the operation is sought is because it is a perfection.

Scotus’ second main objection (again following Aristotle from De Anima II, ch. 5, 417a 26-28) is that Aquinas’ first two proofs rest upon an equivocation of the term power. He claims that Aquinas uses power equivocally of what is essential (the form) and what is accidental (the operation). Due to this equivocation, Scotus says that desire also seems to be used equivocally of the form and of the operation that is a consequence of the form. In the first sense (desire of the form) the one desiring can’t have what is desired without the action of some external agent (going from potentiality to actuality). In the second sense (desire of the operation) one can have what is desired without the action of some extrinsic agent if there is no impediment. And Scotus holds that if both the first and second proof, as two distinct proofs, imply that this proposition is true, then it follows that in this one proposition desire is used equivocally. Concerning Aquinas’ third proof, Scotus says that it does not seem to differ from the second because man does not become one with his source except through this operation. Neither does the reason for desiring the operation seem to be different from the reason for desiring to be joined with one’s source. Scotus concludes that we can combine these three proofs into a single one:

Everything naturally desires its perfection, both that which is first (the form) and that which is second (its proper operation), through which it is also joined to its principle.

Scotus’ response to an objection raised against Aristotle’s a posteriori justification

Later on in the book, Scotus gives a very interesting response to an objection raised against Aristotle. The objection is as follows:

Against the proof of the Philosopher that we do not love most of all the sense of sight, there is this proof. That sense is most loved the opposite of which we hate most of all, according to the Posterior Analytics, in chapter [beginning with the words] “When the extremes are converted”, where the last rule states: “That is sought the more whose opposite we shun the more.” But we hate the opposite of touch more than the opposite of vision, because the opposite of touch destroys the animal, but not the opposite of vision; therefore, etc.[8]

Scotus offers a clever response to this. He appeals to Aristotle himself in order to reply. The crux of his response is that the rule does not apply in this instance. He gives the example that “it is better to live well than simply to live.”[9] Yet we hate more the opposite of living than the opposite of living well because the opposite of living negates both living and living well. So Aristotle in the Topics holds that this rule does not hold when what is wanted more includes what is wanted less, i.e., in this case to live well includes to live. So, while living well is loved more, the opposite of living well is not hated more than the opposite of living. Thus, Scotus holds that Aristotle thinks it is the same case with the sense of sight and the sense of touch, since the sense of sight includes the [10]sense of touch and the opposite of the sense of touch destroys both touch and vision. Thus, while the sense of sight is most loved among the senses, the opposite of sight is not hated most since what is wanted more includes what is wanted less.

[1] Aristotle, Metaphysics I, ch. 1, 980a21.

[2] Scotus, Questions on the Metaphysics of Aristotle, 3, supra n. 3.

[3] This is slightly cryptic and needs a more thorough explanation. Aquinas makes this point in his Commentary on the Metaphysics of Aristotle. Here he describes the sense of sight as “the most spiritual of all the senses.” To defend this, he invites us to consider the modification produced in it by its object, and says: “For all other sensible objects change both the organ and medium of a sense by a material modification, for example, the object of touch by heating and cooling, the object of taste by affecting the organ of taste with some flavor through the medium of saliva, the object of hearing by means of motion in the body, and the object of smell by means of the evaporation of volatile elements. But the object of sight changes the organ and medium of sight only by a spiritual modification; because neither the pupil of the eye nor the air becomes colored, but these only receive the form of color in a spiritual mode of being. Therefore, because actual sensation consists in the actual modification of a sense by its object, it is evident that that sense which is changed in a more immaterial and spiritual way is more spiritual in its operation. Hence sight judges about sensible objects in a more certain and perfect way than the other senses do.” Of course, this depends on the Scholastic theory of perception, the explanatory value of which has been subject to immense criticism since the early modern period, especially concerning inter-substance causality. Suárez had defined cause as “what flows being into something else.” (Disputationes metaphysicae XII.ii.4.) Under this theory, we perceive objects because they emit sensible species or perceptible forms which travel through the air and enter into us via the sense organs. The various kinds of species (visible, audible, tangible, etc.) need to be picked up by the proper organ of sense for perception to occur. If the visible species come into contact with the visible sense organ (the eye), then the visible species enter through it and then enter the mind, producing visual perception. The mind of one substance thus absorbs the surface of another through the mediation of various sense organs. What is problematic about this account, however, is that it invokes accident passing. That is, as Leibniz said in a letter to De Bosses, it amounts to “the existence of an accident that can, at the same time, be in two subjects and has one foot in one, so to speak, and one foot in the other.” (29 May 1716; AG, 203) But the early modern view, championed by the likes of Descartes, Malebranche, and Leibniz, was that accidents can’t become attached from a substance or wander around outside of them. If they could, they would be self-subsistent beings and capable of existing by themselves, and this simply isn’t explicable by the very definition of what an accident is. The Scholastics, they held, collapsed the very distinction between substance and accident.

[4] Cf. Aquinas’ Commentary on Aristotle’s Physics, p. 70-71 in the Dumb Ox Books edition.

[5] Cf. Averroes’ Long Commentary on the De Anima of Aristotle, p. 341-346.

[6] De Anima II, ch. 1, 412a10-11. Cf. Averroes’ Long Commentary on the De Anima of Aristotle, p. 106-107.

[7] Aquinas, Commentary on the De Anima of Aristotle, II, ch. 1.

[8] Scotus, Questions on the Metaphysics of Aristotle, 62, supra n.12.

[9] Aristotle, Topics III, ch. 2, 118a7.

[10] Scotus, Questions on the Metaphysics of Aristotle, 71, supra n. 45.