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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.

Aristotle on the Relation of Art to Human Nature

In the Poetics, Aristotle discusses the nature of poetry and its relation to human nature. Today this is what we would call aesthetics. Unlike Plato, Aristotle believes that art is not completely cut off from knowledge. He believes that imitation,[1] and thus art, has a fundamental active relationship to human nature. In the Metaphysics, Aristotle says that all men by nature desire to know.[2] By nature, everything desires its own perfection. And since man is what he is because of his intellect, men naturally desire knowledge.[3] 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,[4] 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.

The fact that all men desire to know is why they enjoy poetry. Plato had said that poetry is an art of imitation, and its product is three removed from the real one.[5] Because of this, Plato believes that art cannot contain truth, nor can it lead us to any kind of truth. However, Aristotle holds that this can’t be the case, for the delight we have from imitation coincides with our delight in learning itself. Taking Avicenna’s analogy, we might justify Aristotle’s claim by saying that art aims at a single or defined end according to nature, as nature also aims at a single and defined end.[6]

Before going into intense details, the following question should be addressed: what are the causes that make humans create poetry in the first place? There are two causes that are the source of the human creation of poetry. First, there is man’s pleasure of imitation, for imitation is an essential aspect of human development from youth. This is an essential aspect that differentiates humans from lower animals, for they are not capable of learning from imitation to the extent that man is.[7] Because man has such an intimate relation to imitation, he also has an intimate relation to teaching in general, for imitation is an essential part of teaching. As Avicenna says:

When gesture and expression are combined, the meaning conveyed makes a vivid impression on the soul…an evidence that imitation is delightful is that men are pleased by contemplating the portrayed forms of hateful and disgusting animals which they would avoid if seen in actuality. What is delightful is not the form itself not what is portrayed but its being a precise imitation of something else. For this reason, learning is pleasant not to philosophers alone but to common people due to the imitation that is in it, and because learning consists of a certain representation of a thing in the “seat” of the soul.[8] Men, therefore, find great delight in portrayed forms if they can well relate these to their originals. If they have not perceived them before, their pleasure would not be complete, but approximate; in this case, they delight in the form itself—its manner, composition, and so forth.[9]

The second cause is the natural love man has for harmony in melodies and all combinations. Poetry making is therefore directly related to man’s natural inclinations, which are also essentially connected with man’s predisposition for learning. Thus, that which brings about poetry and art in man is no more of an illusion that his thirst and acquisition of knowledge. In fact, the making of poetry originates in man’s natural instinct and talent.

But what exactly is imitation? For Aristotle, it is the combination of the imagination along with speech and tone. As the origin of poetry itself, this force is the basis for “moving the soul towards the meaning”[10] and understanding of the theme of art. Further, there is an activity inherent in the imitation of melody, for it imitates significant actions. For there to be imitation at all, there must be a mode of character and thought that the agent possesses that relates to that which he is imitating. This is what allows for there to be a set of rules, or a science of art, since art is essential to human nature.

What exactly is the nature of poetry? Poetry is, in itself, imaginative speech. This speech consists of two underlying aspects: first, mimesis or the image making nature of poetry,[11] and second, the emotive effects.[12] Avicenna gives a clear explanation of this:

It is the proper concern of the logician to examine poetry with regard to its being imaginative. The imaginative is the speech to which the soul yields, accepting and rejecting matters without pondering, reasoning or choice. In brief, it responds physiologically rather than ratiocinatively, whether the utterance is demonstrative or not. The demonstrative is different from the imaginative, for an utterance may serve to prove the truth (of something) without exciting emotion. Yet if said again, in a different way, it may often effect emotion without conviction occurring as well, and [in this case] the soul responds in keeping with imaginative assent rather than with conviction. It may happen that an imaginative lie is all that a convinced person has.[13]

Avicenna’s focus is on the fact that poetry differs from syllogistic reasoning specifically in its effect. For while the latter gives scientific conviction, the former gives a pleasure and wonder that is lacking in the latter. Because of this, human beings have a special relation to poetry. Within poetry, it is specifically imitation that produces wonder.[14] This wonder that imitation brings combines both pleasure and amazement. A poetic utterance is an emotion, and thus one that is pleasurable. There is thus strong support for Avicenna’s interpretation that poetry is a psychological appreciation of an image both as form and representation of an idea or an object, and this emotion is so powerful that it arrests reason, actually forcing the soul to pursue or avoid a potential course of action or an object of desire.[15]

This leads us to the question of what exactly it is that makes poetry pleasing or beautiful, and able to bring catharsis to an audience, purging them of their emotions? For Aristotle, tragedy as a superior form of art can do this by generating pity and fear through its form. A pitiable story is one which we can imagine happening to ourselves. Thus, a good tragedy is directly related to our human nature. A good tragedian thus does not depict a bad man striking good fortune, or bad fortune befalling a man of such great excellence that the audience cannot relate to him. Nor does the good tragedian depict a bad man getting deserved bad fortune, for this will not bring forth sympathy from the audience.

Werther and Lotte from Goethe's

Werther and Lotte from Goethe’s “The Sorrows of Young Werther”.

While comedy deals with bad people, tragedy is superior in the sense that it depicts people who are better than average. According to Aristotle, ideal tragedy depicts the protagonist as one who is better than average men, yet who still relates to the audience. The protagonist has a turn of fortune for the worse by a reversal[16] or recognition,[17] and the true climax of tragedy occurs when they coincide. This, in turn, is what unleashes in the audience a flow of pity which purges them of emotions and produces pleasure. Taking Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther as an example, the novel itself is a perfect tragedy in the Aristotelian analysis. It brings forth fear and pity in the reader of the text, for Werther is also a perfect example of the Aristotelian tragic hero. He is a very likeable character, for he has many positive qualities. However, it is the fact that he still relates to readers, as does the entire story, that the text can be regarded as a great work of tragedy. Goethe’s work is centered on Werther, in a series of events that the reader can easily imagine happening in their own lives. The tragedy gains its effect specifically from the flaw in Werther’s character that leads to his downfall. His particular flaw is the inability to break away from an impossible attachment with Lotte. This flaw is something that the reader has an essential connection to, and thus produces sympathy in the reader. All of the events that led to Werther’s sorrows are situations that the reader can easily picture happening in his own life, and this imitation thus not only has its source in our own human nature, but it purges forth our emotions. We are shocked by the fate of Werther not because it is extraordinary, but rather because it is something that could happen to us. Note that this tragedy consists in Werther’s voice alone, and his voice as the perfect tragic hero becomes an essential part of ourselves, for we feel as Werther feels. As Avicenna says, using the example from Homer: “Imitation must also be of moral character, like Homer’s portrayal of the goodness of Achilles.”[18]

Aristotle holds that there is a special connection between the formal cause and the final cause. Formal causes fit or provide final causes. For example, the form or structure of biological beings serves their biological purposes. In the same way, the form of tragedy serves the end of bringing about pity and fear. From the example of Goethe’s novel, it is quite evident that it is specifically the plot that is important for the reversal and recognition that will set the stage, so to speak, for the final cause. There is a unity of parts within a tragedy just as there is a unity within biological entities. This unity of parts provides the final cause in tragedy. In his Physics, Aristotle classified four kinds of causes which we are able to give to why questions, i.e., explanations we can give in demonstration. These four causes are the material, formal, efficient, and final.[19] The material cause is what something is made of, the formal cause is what gives something its definition or determination, the efficient cause is what brings something about, and the final cause is something’s end or purpose. It is obvious that the formal and final causes are important for poetry, for what a poem is made out of and who brought it about are less important for its effect than what its form or structure is, or what its end or purpose is. Thus, the essential properties play a vital role in what a poem can and can’t do, for the formal cause determines a tragedy by giving it the properties it needs in order to bring catharsis.

From all that has been said it should be blatantly obvious, Aristotle thinks, that poetry and art are much different than Plato would have it. They are not so divided away from truth, but rather play an intricate role in the development of human knowledge. Plato held that philosophers seek knowledge of what is, while the lovers of sights and sounds seek what both is and is not. On Aristotle’s view, what the philosopher seeks and what the artist seeks are both part of the same desire to know, and thus art is not removed from reality in the way Plato held it was. Aristotle believes that his account of art explains how tragedy and other forms of art can be a source of moral and practical instruction, for this can’t be the case if art isn’t related to human nature in an important and philosophical way.

[1] Mimesis.

[2] Metaphysics, I, i, 980a.

[3] Medieval commentators on Aristotle state that man naturally desires knowledge just as matter desires form. Cf. Aquinas’s Commentary on Aristotle’s Metaphysics.

[4] Cf. Nicomachean Ethics.

[5] Republic 597e, 598b-c, 598e-599a, 602b-c, 605b-c.

[6] Avicenna’s Commentary on the Poetics of Aristotle, 99.

[7] Ibid., 78. Avicenna notes that some animals are entirely incapable of imitation, while others have the capability of what he calls insignificant imitation: by voice (parrots), by gestures (monkeys). He notes that there is a superior aspect in man’s imitation by gesture, for ideas are imitated by use of them.

[8] Representation, as in giving the form and therefore informing the soul about the nature of a thing. The seat of the soul is literally akin to writing on a piece of paper.

[9] Avicenna’s Commentary on the Poetics of Aristotle, 78.

[10] Ibid., 90.

[11] The emphasis on the image making aspect is meant to make evident its contrast to (especially) logic and such discourse.

[12] Again, in contrast to reasoning effects.

[13] Avicenna’s Commentary on the Poetics of Aristotle, 61-62.

[14] Cf. Metaphysics I, i, 982b, 11-28. Aristotle notes that philosophizing begins in wonder, and it is this urge to escape ignorance that allowed the advancement of knowledge. Here, still, wonder plays an essential role in the development of human beings. He says that even the lover of myth is a lover of wisdom, for the myth itself is composed of wonders.

[15] Avicenna’s Commentary on the Poetics of Aristotle, 62 n.

[16] The transition of one state of affairs to its opposite.

[17] The transition of a state of ignorance to a state of knowledge.

[18] Ibid., 108.

[19] These are now widely used from the Latin translations of Aristotle: (1) causa formalis, or forma; (2) causa materialis, or materia; (3) causa efficiens, or efficiō; (4) causa finalis, or finis.

The Eye Fell in Love (Part 1): Sehnsucht and Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night


I’ve been trying to think of a single word I would use to sum up Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, and the best I could come up with is one of my favorite German words: Sehnsucht (longing, yearning, desire). It may seem odd that I pick a German word to describe a Shakespeare play, but I think it adequately expresses the duality of the active yearning and the passive longing and the melancholy that all of the major characters in this play feel (I do not want to ascribe this to Malvolio, however, since his relation to love is only that of taking, while a major theme that the title itself evokes is giving; thus, I will generally ignore Malvolio, locking him in the dark room, so to speak). Further, this German word is often used in English texts (cf. William James’ The Varieties of Religious Experience, C. S. Lewis’ Surprised by Joy, etc.). Thus, I feel justified in holding Sehnsucht as the best available term for Shakespeare’s Die Komödie Was ihr wollt. My goal is to dig out passages that stress this duality in general, but especially to examine the numerous references to the eye in relation to love. I hope that doing this will offer some insight into what this comedy has to tell us about the nature of love. All of this is intertwined with nothing more wonderful than music!

First, why is a comedy fit for addressing love at all? My answer to this question is that love, that word so hackneyed through overuse and abuse, is perhaps the most paradoxical aspect of everyday human life. It is an experience utterly profound, but at the same time it brings us to act ridiculous and like fools (thus, it can be fitting in the play when the fool speaks about love). More than perhaps anything else, love has produced artifice and arbitrary social conventions that make people act ridiculous. The comedy is certainly the stage for love, and especially when it’s Shakespeare in the theatre. Shakespeare sets this comedy in Illyria, an ancient Bosnian region which was also the setting of an Ancient Roman play by Plautus called Menaechmi, which also deals with twins and identity confusion.

Concerning the Eye

Avoiding the discussion of gender in the play (it is completely evident that Olivia is attracted to Cesario’s feminine qualities, and likewise that Orsino is attracted to Cesario in the belief that she is a eunuch boy), for it doesn’t concern me here, I will begin with Viola’s (Cesario) soliloquy in Act 2 Scene 2 when she realizes that Olivia is in love with her in disguise. I will quote in full:

I left no ring with her: what means this lady?
Fortune forbid my outside have not charmed her!
She made good view of me, indeed so much
That, methought, her eyes had lost her tongue,
For she did speak in starts distractedly.
She loves me sure; the cunning of her passion
Invites me in this churlish messenger.
None of my lord’s ring? Why, he sent her none;
I am the man; if it be so, as ’tis,
Poor lady, she were better love a dream.
Disguise, I see thou art a wickedness,
Wherein the pregnant enemy does much.
How easy is it for the proper-false
In women’s waxen hearts to set their forms
Alas, our frailty is the cause, not we,
For such as we are made of, such we be.
How will this fadge? My master loves her dearly,
And I (poor monster) fond as much on him
As she (mistaken) seems to dote on me.
What will become of this? As I am man,
My state is desperate for my mater’s love;
As I am woman—now alas the day!—
What thriftless sighs shall poor Olivia breathe?
O time, thou must untangle this, not I;
It is too hard a knot for me t’untie. (2.2.14-38)

I have titled my thoughts on this play “the eye fell in love” because of line 17 in Act 2 Scene 2 above, where Viola says of her encounter with the love-stricken Olivia two scenes earlier that “her eyes had lost her tongue.” Note that right before this soliloquy, Malvolio had brought a ring to Viola on Olivia’s orders,  and after throwing it down he says to her: “If it be worth stooping for, there it lies, / in your eye; if not, be it his that finds it.” It can be easy to overlook the significance of these lines, as I did the first few times I read Twelfth Night. I think that Malvolio’s reference becomes even more important to reflect upon when, later in the play, Olivia mistakes Viola for her twin, Sebastian. Indeed, he does find the affection he desires, which is what the ring symbolizes. There is a similar passage in Act 4 Scene 1 of Much Ado About Nothing where Friar Francis says: “Into the eye and prospect of his soul” and also in Act 4 Scene 4 of Hamlet where Fortinbras says: “We shall express our duty in his eye.” Though the wording is similar, I don’t want to complicate this by bringing in Hamlet, as references to the eye in that tragedy (cf. esp. Act 3 Scene 4: “Have you eyes?”) play a different role than in the comedies I specifically have in mind. However, all of these references directed in the eye, the meaning can be taken as being in someone’s presence, but especially in the passages from Much Ado About Nothing and Twelfth Night, they also seem to have an important relation to desire and the imagination.

Be that as it may, I want to stress the importance of Viola’s soliloquy, as it is central to my thesis of the eye falling in love. Viola says of Olivia “her eyes had lost her tongue.” Now, one way of interpreting this is stressing Shakespeare’s use of the word “lost” and saying that to lose the company of something is to go opposite ways. In this sense, Olivia’s tongue and eyes lost each other, for while her tongue tongue spoke of the Duke Orsino, her eyes were passionately fixed on his messenger, Viola disguised as Cesario. If the word “lost” isn’t strictly emphasized, then we can generally say that Viola means that Olivia’s speech was deprived, speaking disjointedly, as a result of her fixed staring at the object of her desire: Viola disguised as a eunuch. “She loves me sure; the cunning of her passion / Invites me in this churlish messenger.” Passion is indeed cunning in its deception, as Olivia’s love of Viola disguised as Cesario is masked in trickery to see Cesario once again, and in the least likely of all characters to evoke any atmosphere of love: Malvolio. Shakespeare has elsewhere described passion as an art or craft (cf. A Lover’s Complaint 295). What Viola says here is quite important because Viola as a character is just that: deception and disguise which masks her goal of gaining Orsino’s love. Just two scenes later Viola makes the most important statements in relation to this.

Twelfth Night contains numerous references to fate, time, fortune and chance, especially in relation to identity, which always in this play concerns love. We see this again in Viola’s soliloquy, “Fortune forbid my outside have not charmed her!” But Fortuna has deemed that Olivia fall in love with what Viola calls “a dream.” Viola’s next lines are again very important for the discussion she has with Orsino about love two scenes later, which I am leading up to. Viola next says: “Disguise, I see thou art a wickedness, / Wherein the pregnant enemy does much. / How easy it is for the proper-false / In women’s hearts to set their forms!” Perhaps what is most striking about these lines is Viola’s saying that disguise is wickedness, and to the extent that it is the work of the “pregnant enemy,” meaning the devil’s work. The riddle about identity that follows this helps to understand the meaning of the wickedness of disguise. She refers to herself as “poor monster,” and this monster is the creation of disguise and relates to her love: as a man, she believes her love for Orsino is hopeless, and as a woman, Olivia’s love of her is hopeless. Is this situation, unprofitable for all involved, not wicked? The twists and turns of this duality remind me of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which plays on this notion of the eye falling in love extensively, or radically. But I think this theme is perfect for Twelfth Night, for even so quickly may one catch the plague. As Olivia says in the last lines of Act 1:

I do I know not what, and fear to find
Mine eye too great a flatterer for my mind.
Fate, show thy force; ourselves we do not owe.
What is decreed must be; and be this so. (1.5.263-266)

Perhaps more than any other lines in the play, these remarks from Act 1’s end support applying the phrase to Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night that the eye fell in love. Indeed, any way of interpreting this will bring fruitful results. One way to interpret this is to say that Olivia fears that her eyes have formed an impression of Cesario (Viola) that is so moving that she is unable to resist its force on her. This interpretation gains strength by looking just a few lines back, where Olivia says: “Methinks I feel this youth’s perfections / With an invisible and subtle stealth / To creep in at mine eyes. Well, let it be.” However we decide to place the relation between reason and passion in this context, the power of the impression over reason is at work here. It is open to say that Olivia is implying that reason would not approve either of the seduction of this passion, which the eyes represent here, and perhaps even that reason would not approve of her worth as an object of desire and affection, even if we take this in a loose sense. Whatever path we choose, the eye fell in love.

Viola’s last lines in her soliloquy make a similar appeal to Time: “What thriftless sighs shall poor Olivia breathe? / O time, thou must untangle this, not I; / It is too hard a knot for me t’untie.” (cf. Winter’s Tale 4.1) Pleasure will be paid, one time or another. What goes around, comes around, in this whirligig of time. And here in Twelfth Night, golden time calls (5.1.359).

"Time Vanquished by Love, Venus and Hope" by Simon Vouet, 1645-1646.

“Time Vanquished by Love, Venus and Hope” by Simon Vouet, 1645-1646.

Music and Love

The first line of the play has Orsino describe music as the “food of love.” In Act 2 Scene 4, the importance of this opening statement is presented in Feste’s song, requested by Orsino.

Come away, come away, death,
And in sad cypress let me be laid.
Fie away, fie away, breath,
I am slain by a fair cruel maid;
My shroud of white, stuck all with yew,
O prepare it.
My part of death no one so true
Did share it.

Not a flower, not a flower sweet,
On my black coffin let there be strewn;
Not a friend, not a friend greet
My poor corpse, where my bones shall be thrown:
A thousand thousand sighs to save,
Lay me, O where
Sad true lover never find my grave,
To weep there. (2.4.49-64)

This is perhaps my favorite moment in the play, for I feel that this scene really ties the whole play together and makes it a powerful work of art. This is sung to Orsino and Viola, who are both in love but their love is not returned. Desire unsatisfied will devour the desirer is an adequate statement of the meaning of this song within the play. I want to look at this song very closely, along with some of the most important lines in this scene. Note that the original music to this song is not known, but it was a folk song, possibly of 12th century Old French origin, described by Orsino as “that old and antique song”.

Orsino’s comments are perplexing. It would be absurd to try and interpret this song without looking at what Orsino says about it right before Feste sings:

O fellow, come, the song we had last night.
Mark it, Cesario, it is old and plain;
The spinsters and the knitters in the sun,
And the free maids that weave their thread with bones,
Do use to chant it; it is silly sooth,
And dallies with the innocence of love
Like the old age. (2.4.40-45)

The term “free maids” indicates gentle and noble women. This is similar to Perceval, the Story of the Grail, the medieval romance I just read a few weeks ago. In this medieval romance, Perceval is described as “Perceval the free,” along with “light,” “good,” etc. But it seems that “free maids” can fit this same description. The “bones” referred to can be taken to mean linen. The song, Orsino describes, is “silly sooth” in that it is plain and simple. Orsino expects a song that sports with love as a harmless pleasure as if it were a memory from old and better times, recollected in tranquility. At the beginning of this scene, Orsino, recalling hearing the song the night before, says: “Methought it did relieve my passion much, / More than light airs and recollected terms / Of these most brisk and giddy-pacèd times.” (2.4.4-6)


“Elegy” by William-Adolphe Bouguereau, 1899.

What Feste gives Orsino in the song is quite crafty, and quite the opposite of “harmless.” However, Orsino presents a whole new element of love to the play, for he does derive some sort of pleasure out of this constant unrequited love. Orsino’s presence in the play unfolds a darker side of love, and the theme of unrequited love continues in Feste’s next song in Act 4 Scene 2, this time sung to Malvolio who is in the dark room. I believe there is a connection here, and, the question arises in Feste’s song to both Orsino and Malvolio: Does the fool himself expose him to truly be the fool? Feste here uses the song to purposely feed Orsino’s twisted conception of love. It is perfectly evident that Orsino’s remarks about the song do not match what Feste sings, and that Feste is craftily adding or changing the “antique song” Orsino had heard the night before. It is acceptable and the privilege of the singer to be able to do so. Perhaps this is a different song altogether than what Orsino referred to.

Looking to the song itself now, it is immediately noticeable that there is a strong connection between it and Orsino’s opening lines, which I will look at shortly. The song tells of a youth who dies of unrequited love. Death is requested to come forth and lay the lover, who is also the speaker, and who is slain by love not reciprocated by his “fair cruel maid” (notice how the slain lover uses the word fair to describe the maid who is responsible for slaying him, which is perhaps as strong a term as murder. I find this to perfectly fit into the theme of longing as Sehnsucht that I mentioned at the beginning. Keep this in mind in relation to Orsino’s opening lines in Act 1 Scene 1, where there is some difficulty in interpreting his love and Sehnsucht for Olivia, as this scene is directly connected in the play with the first scene). There is no doubt in my mind that Feste is purposely choosing these words, knowing Orsino’s personality just like a good observant fool should. He tells death to lay him by “sad cypress”. There appears to be a lot of imagery with wood and trees (another theme I am fascinated with, but particularly linden trees in MHG poetry), but this can get complicated. It is unclear whether cypress in the second line of the song actually refers to the tree, especially since he says to lay him in cypress and not by cypress. The OED and other passages in Shakespeare indicate that it need not be taken to refer to the tree. For example, in another song from The Winter’s Tale 4.4.213-214 Autolycus sings: “Lawn as white as driven snow, / Cypress black as e’er was crow”. Here, the cypress is the light, black, transparent fabric worn as mourning attire. The footnote in my New Cambridge Shakespeare edition of Twelfth Night says that Shakespeare is referring to the tree, which was an emblem of mourning. But a cypress can also mean the fabric of mourning in The Winter’s Tale. In a sense there is more plausibility to this, as also in Twelfth Night Olivia uses the term cypress in this manner: “a cypress, not a bosom / Hides my heart” (3.1.106-107). In relation to this, Olivia had unveiled her cypress to Cesario (Viola) which is a further metaphor relating to her revealing her affections to Cesario. All of this is fine so far, but it is far from conclusive as just three lines down Feste refers to the shroud as white. The problem is that a sad cypress contradicts it being white; for while there were white cypresses, they were not for sad occasions. Fortunately, whether it is the tree or the fabric that Shakespeare meant, they both inevitably signify a metaphor of mourning. and for his breath to fie [fly] away. Like the possible cypress reference to a tree that symbolizes mourning, the slain lover’s “shroud of white” is “stuck all with yew”. As far as I can tell, this reference to the yew is a reference to the tree itself which is also a symbol of mourning. For example, in John Webster’s The White Devil, Act I Scene 2, where Vittoria is under the yew, sadly leaning on a grave. There are a number of references to the yew in this scene. I think that while it is perfectly reasonable to think Shakespeare’s reference to the cypress has a double-meaning, the reference to the yew likewise does, in Shakespeare and in Webster, taking ‘yew’ as a pun for ‘you’. Indeed, the slain lover can be said to be ‘stuck all with yew‘ as a traditional symbol of mourning, and can also be said to be ‘stuck all with you‘, the one who prepared his death.

Grave under a yew tree.

Grave under a yew tree. The yew is the emblem of death.

The next lines ring perfectly true with Orsino: “My part of death no one so true / Did share it.” Death is something all human beings have a communion with, and we all act our share in the part we play, but the slain lover feels that no other acts so truly as he. The slain lover believes that no other human died for love who was as constant as he. The next part of the song is widely ignored, and there usually aren’t any footnotes on it. This is quite unfortunate, because there is something quite important in the second half of this song, and after reading this play ten times, and this scene exponentially more times, I still don’t feel I understand it adequately, or even to my own satisfaction. This song is meant especially to apply to Orsino, but the clever and observant fool Feste is no fool when it comes to Viola’s disguise, and I hold this song to offer a very integral message not only to Viola and Orsino, but to the reader. Remember Feste’s words of the changeable taffeta.

The opening of the play marks the importance of this moment, and offers some insight into how to look at Orsino’s relation to love:

If music be the food of love, play on;
Give me excess of it, that surfeiting,
The appetite may sicken and so die.
That strain again, it had a dying fall;
O it came o’er my ear like the sweet sound
That breathes upon a bank of violets,
Stealing and giving odor. Enough; no more.
‘Tis not so sweet now as it was before.
O spirit of love, how quick and fresh art thou,
That, notwithstanding thy capacity,
Receiveth as the sea. Nought enters there,
Of what validity and pitch soe’er,
But falls into abatement and low price
Even in a minute. So full of shapes is fancy,
That it alone is high fantastical. (1.1.1-15)

There is a strange paradox in Orsino’s opening words. He speaks of the appetite itself dying from an excess, but this is obviously false. Only the subject of the appetite can do so. I won’t take this too seriously, and I’ve heard it suggested that a word may be missing, i.e., that love may sicken and so die. We could possibly take Shakespeare as using the word appetite to mean love. But this seems too problematic also, as it doesn’t fit well with Orsino’s character. A better way of looking at this is to emphasize the role of music in the opening of Twelfth Night. One must be very clear here as this is easily confused. If we see music as that which feeds love and not that on which love feeds, we can take Orsino not as saying he wishes that his love for Olivia would die by music decreasing his love. The opening of Twelfth Night is perhaps the most difficult piece of interpretation in the whole play for me. It is even possible to take Orsino to be using the word appetite to refer to the appetite for music. Indeed, he speaks of music as the food of love, so this is even quite plausible. In this sense, music as that which feeds love is what Orsino desires in excess so it can feed to a surfeit of itself. Once love is full of this food, it loses its appetite for music. I think this interpretation not only works well with Orsino’s personality throughout the play, but makes much more sense than any other way of interpreting these opening lines. This can be quite daunting when considering references of surfeiting to the grave in other Shakespearean plays. Just consider the phrase “surfeited to death” (Othello 2.1.50).

What is very relevant for this entire discussion is the lines above where Orsino refers to the sound of music as giving “odour.” There is a blending of the senses that is very important for this play. One of my favorite instances of this is in the ending couplet of Sonnet 23:

O, learn to read what silent love hath writ;
To hear with eyes belongs to love’s fine wit.

The imagination is certainly at work here. In the first scene of Act I in The Merchant of Venice, Bassanio also says: “Sometimes from her eyes / I did receive fair speechless messages.”

Returning to the remainder of the passage quoted of Orsino’s opening lines, the wind is said to steal the “odour” of the violet, whereas in Sonnet 99 the violet is the thief: “The forward violet thus did I chide: / ‘Sweet thief, whence didst thou steal thy sweet that smells, / If not from my love’s breath? The purple pride / Which on thy soft cheek for complexion dwells”. Importantly, love is again compared to the sea. The last lines of the opening lines quoted above are a bit odd as well, but if we take fancy to mean excessive affection then it works perfectly well. Excessive affection, above all things, is high fantastical. This all may seem a bit off-theme in relation to the eye, but I think these opening lines are important in relation to what has been discussed above, and with Sehnsucht, and with the music that has a strong presence in this play, in is interwoven with these important themes. All of this, I think, justifies my short examination of the opening lines.

I will offer one final note about interpreting these opening lines. The play opens with Orsino requesting music. While listening to the music a specific strain makes such a strong impression upon his soul that years and longs for Olivia’s love that he, again, longs for it to be repeated. After it is repeated, he is immediately satisfied and though the music was perfect in what it gave, it lost its sweetness. Orsino doesn’t want to hear any more, and says that love in its perfection is full of life and new energy in growth that it receives the whole world just as the sea receives the waters of the heavens and earth. There is nothing that isn’t subordinate to it, not even music. All is soaked into it, and lacks substance compared to love.

I have much more to add on ‘Twelfth Night’, and the next section I have written a draft for is titled “Danger of Love”.

Schiller’s Lotte

Werther was the main character of Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther, one of the most moving and tragic works ever written. If you don’t believe me go back in time and ask the many young men who dressed like Werther and committed suicide with a copy of the text in their pocket after its publication in 1774.

Lotte at Werther’s Tomb

The book was banned for a significant time as a result of this sudden surge of suicides related to Goethe’s Werther. In the text, Werther committed suicide because he fell in love with Lotte, an unattainable girl engaged to Albert, a man of bourgeois conventions who she marries after Werther takes great care to cultivate a close relationship with both of them. At the end of the text, he requests Albert’s pistols, which he will kill himself with, and which Lotte herself hands to him. Goethe, Schiller’s great friend and literary rival, brought a Charlotte into the world whose name still rings in the mind of any serious reader of literature today.

Werther and Lotte

While this Lotte has dominated the literary world, and is perfectly in line with the popular motto that great philosophers fail at love, I’d like to share a glimpse into the Lotte of Friedrich Schiller.  I somewhat feel as if I should leave such texts untouched, but in light of the statement that philosophers fail at love that I hear so often, I have indulged myself in love letters written by notable intellectuals. Fortunately, I came across some letters of Friedrich Schiller and Charlotte von Lengefeld (soon to be Charlotte Luise Antoinette von Schiller) in 1789. She was a woman of great intellect and a lifelong writer. When they married in 1790 Schiller was 29, and Charlotte was 23. When they met, Schiller was a virtually unknown poet living in poverty. She was never published during her lifetime, but her letters have now been published, and multiple literary works found among Schiller’s papers after his death have been identified as hers. Most notable is a novel called Die heimliche Heirat (The Secret Marriage). They had four children, two sons and two daughters. Schiller’s conflict was not with his wife, aside from her encouraging him to be cruel to Goethe’s wife, who she referred to as an “object” after her death and one not worth weeping over. His real conflict was with his own health, and he died of tuberculosis at age 45 in 1805. Here is a glimpse of the correspondence between a playwright on par with Shakespeare and his Lotte the year before their marriage:

[August 3rd, 1789.]
It is true, dearest Lotte? Am I to hope that Caroline [Charlotte’s sister] read in your soul, and answered from your heart what I did not dare to confess? Oh, how hard it has been for me to keep this secret, which I was obliged to do from the beginning of our acquaintance ! Often, while we were living together, I summoned up all my courage, and went to you with the intention of disclosing the truth—but that courage always deserted me. I thought I discovered selfishness in my wishes; I feared that I was taking none but my own happiness into account, and this it was that deterred me. If I could not be as much to you as you were to me, my grief would have saddened you, and I should have spoiled the beautiful harmony of our friendship by my avowal, should have lost what I had already gained—your pure sisterly affection. Yet there were moments when my hopes rose, when the happiness we might give each other seemed superior to all earthly considerations, when I even believed it would be a noble act to sacrifice everything else to that felicity. You might be happy without me—but you should never be unhappy because of me. This I felt most irresistibly—and upon this I built my hopes. You might give yourself to another, but no one would love you more reverently and tenderly than I. To no one would your happiness mean more than it did and always will to me.

Schiller’s Lotte

My whole existence, everything that lives within me, everything, my dearest, do I devote to you; and if I am trying to become a better man, I am doing so to become more and more worthy of you, and to gladden your days more and more. Excellence of soul is a beautiful and indestructible bond of friendship and of love. Our friendship and our love will never be destroyed, and will last for all time—like the feelings upon which they are founded. Forget everything now that might put a restraint upon your heart, and allow your emotions free speech. Confirm what Caroline let me understand I could hope for. Tell me you will be mine, and that to kiss me will cost you not a single sacrifice. Oh, assure me of this with one little word! Our hearts have long been near together; anything that may be between us, let it drop now, so that nought may disturb the free communication of our souls. Farewell, dearest Lotte. I long for a quiet moment in which to describe to you all the feelings that in all this time have made me so joyful and miserable in turn. Oh, how much I have to tell you! Do not tarry to banish my anxiety for ever. I place my whole life’s felicity in your hands. Good-bye, my dearest.

[August 5th, 1789.]
Twice already have I begun a letter to you, but each time found that I felt more than I could express. Caroline read my soul, and she answered from my heart. The thought of being able to contribute to your happiness stands shining and splendid before me. If true, intense love and friendship be sought, then my heart’s warm wish to see you happy is fulfilled. No more today. Friday we shall see each other, and then you may read in my soul, and know how much you are to me! This is the letter that I last decided to write. Adieu. For ever
Your faithful

Tuesday evening, August 25th.
How early I was awakened today! And what I first beheld was a letter from you and one from Caroline. I had fallen asleep while thinking of their arrival. By these periodical moments of joy I will henceforth measure all my time, until the necessity for doing so shall cease. But how grasping are human desires! A month ago how much would I not have given for the mere hope of what is now realised—for a single look into your soul! And now, that I read everything there which my heart thirsted for so long, my wishes anticipate the future, and I shrink from contemplating the long space during which we must still remain separated. How brief is the spring of life, the blossom time of the spirit! And of this brief spring I am perhaps to lose years before I can come into my own. Inexhaustible is love—and few are the days of spring!

My spirit lives in a new and lovelier world since I have known that you are mine, since you brought your soul to me, my dearest, sweetest Lotte. Long did you let me struggle with doubts; and I can hardly describe the singular coldness which I thought to observe in you, and which forced burning avowals back into my heart. A beneficent angel was Caroline when she came to meet my timid secret so wonderfully. I was doing you injustice, dear Lotte. I did not recognise the quiet depth of your feelings, attributing to you an attitude of dignity which was to keep me at a distance. Oh, you must tell it me again, the story of our growing love! But I must hear it from your own mouth.


It was a quick and yet a very gentle transition. What we confessed to one another we had long actually been to one another; but only now am I enjoying all our past hours together. I am living them through again, and everything appears to me in a much more entrancing light. In what good stead does the fortunate mania now stand me which so often took me away out of the present. The present is void and sad about me—in unborn distances dwell my joys. I cannot find the resignation and the patience which are the strength of female minds. My own restlessly pursues the accomplishment of what still remains unaccomplished. You look calmly into the future. That I am unable to do….

How much we shall have to explain to each other this autumn. I will do all I can to hasten its coming. I return Wolzogen’s letter herewith. What he said gave me great pleasure. His attachment is so genuine, and he is so open with us. He is a good, kind man, and I wish he could live close to us.
Goodbye, dear, sweet Lotte. Remember, there will be no joy for me until more letters come from you two.
Adieu to both of you, my dears.

Friedrich Schiller

The ayth of August, ’89. 11 o’clock.
Here I am again!
So you thought I was cold and my demeanour dignified? You did not guess that this coldness was but assumed to conceal emotions which I would not acknowledge to myself and still less to anyone else, for the reason that I was not always sure of your attachment to me. Often I felt as if there were nothing left to divide us, as if you really were to me all that you seemed; but then, again, I felt as though I were nothing to you, nothing whatever, vaguely divining this to be your state of mind, but ignorant that my own behaviour was the cause. Anyhow, I find that I can rarely manifest exactly what I feel. I have paid too little heed to my emotions, or lived in them too little, which perhaps may be the reason that I am so faulty at showing them as they are. But in one respect I now feel at peace, my dear: namely, that I now know you love me, that our souls have made confession to one another, that they are inseparably united. You would not have been mistaken about me had you been able to guess the conflicts passing within me. I could conceive of no happiness without you, could imagine no other woman to contribute to your felicity, and make you happy through sincere and faithful love. Perhaps I might have bestowed my hand upon another,—might have been obliged to, not from compulsion but from regard for my mother’s wishes,—only not my heart, which was full of true, warm love for you. It grieved me bitterly to wonder whether in such a case our relations would continue, whether you had formed plans for the future in which I had no part; then all would have been ruined, and I should have become unhappy, and you would perhaps have withdrawn your friendship from me because you had not recognised my feelings. This gave me many a sad hour. And when I think of it all, now that I know you love me, with your knowing I love you, with our souls closely woven into each other forever—then I feel at peace, and look serenely into the future….
And now, farewell. Write soon again. I should like to be able to look forward to a letter from you every day. You shall have the tea by the carrier, if any more is to be got here.
For ever

Schiller’s writings on aesthetics have profoundly influenced me, and he is grotesquely ignored in the English speaking world. The point of this post is simply to offer a small glimpse into the feelings of one of the greatest philosophical minds in aesthetics, and at the moment his love is requited by the woman he will soon marry. At least in my experience, it’s rare to come across something like this in the historical figures I study. I will conclude with lines from Louisa in Act I Scene II of Schiller’s Intrigue and Love, which he wrote at age 24:

The painter is best praised when we forget him in the contemplation of his picture.—When in the contemplation of his masterpiece, my true delight makes me forget the Creator; is not that, father, the true praise of God?

Note: I’ve been working on a significant piece on Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night that I am very enthusiastic about and happy with. It will be one of two or three pieces specifically on Shakespeare’s references to the eye in relation to love, desire, and longing. I have the bulk of it put together, which is already 10 pages. Expect that soon.

Spinoza on the causality of God

The Causality of God

In the Short Treatise, Spinoza devotes a chapter to the subject: How God is a Cause of All Things. His classification of God as cause in the Ethics from Propositions XVI-XVIII (and XXVIII, Schol.) correlates to his eight-fold classification in the Short Treatise, which is presented as follows:

Ethics, I                                                   Short Treatise, I, iii

Prop. XVI . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .  7. Universal[1] cause, general cause

Prop. XVI, Corol. I . . . . . . . . . . . . . .1. Emanative, productive, active, efficient


Prop. XVI, Corol. II . . . . . . . . . . . . . 4. Cause through himself (essential)

Prop. XVI, Corol. III . . . . . . . . . . . .  6. First, initial cause

Prop. XVII, Corol. I . . . . . . . . . . . . . 5. Principal cause

Prop. XVII, Corol. II . . . . . . . . . . . .  3. Free cause

Prop. XVIII . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 2. Immanent cause

Prop. XXVIII, Schol. . . . . . . . . . . . . 8. Proximate[2] cause[3]

Wolfson has interpreted the first fifteen propositions of Book I of the Ethics as a criticism of the immateriality of God, which culminates in Proposition XV’s statement that whatever is, is in God, and nothing can be or be conceived without God, meaning that everything, including matter, is in God. He interprets the remaining propositions of Book I as a criticism of the conceptions of the causality of God.[4] There is a bridge between these two issues by which the assertion that God is immaterial by his nature, which was universally accepted in medieval philosophy, led the medievals to deny that God was a material cause. For example, in Maimonides’ discussion that God is the Primal Cause,[5] he states:

It has been shown in the science of physics that everything, except the First Cause, owes its origin to the following four causes:—the material, the formal, the efficient, and the final. These are sometimes proximate, sometimes remote, but each by itself is called a cause. They also believe—and I do not differ from their belief—that God, blessed be He, is the efficient, the formal, and final cause.[6]

Thus, since Maimonides rejects that the essence of God can be material, he rejects that God can be a material cause, and asserts that God is the efficient, formal, and final cause. On the other hand, since Spinoza asserts that the attribute of extension is in God’s essence, he holds that God is the material cause. Unlike Maimonides, Spinoza will end up removing the classification of God as the final cause.[7] For Spinoza, then, God is the efficient, formal, and material cause. If we accept Wolfson’s interpretation of Spinoza’s criticism, then the second point of critique in Spinoza’s first book of the Ethics is a direct result of the first. That is, Spinoza holds that the medievals err in rejecting that extension can belong to God’s nature, which culminates in Proposition XV and its Scholium, and it is this false conception of God’s nature that gives rise to a false conception of the causality of God in medieval philosophy.

In the Cogitata Metaphysica, Spinoza tells us that creation is “an activity in which no causes concur except the efficient” and that a created thing is “that which presupposes nothing except God in order to exist.”[8] Maimonides had previously identified the three causes in his statement: “Aristotle has already explained that in Nature the efficient cause of a thing, its form, and its final cause are identical.”[9] Spinoza is making the same identification, but with the efficient, formal, and material cause, and not the final cause. Spinoza therefore holds that the most applicable term for God is the efficient cause. Wolfson says this is so because “even as a material and formal cause, it is only through the active properties of extension and thought that God is conceived as cause” and God is “efficient in the most general sense of active and as the sum of all conditions that make for causality.”[10]

In the beginning of his chapter on God’s causality in the Short Treatise Spinoza says that since one substance cannot produce another, and God is a being of which all attributes are predicated, it follows “that all other things cannot in any way exist or be understood without or outside him. So we have every reason to say that God is a cause of all things.”[11]

I. Universal Cause

Spinoza first treats God as a universal or general cause. In Burgersdijck, the efficient cause is divided into universal and particular. The “Universal is that which concurrs with other Causes, with the Same Efficiency, to the producing of many Effects,” and “a Particular only which by its Efficiency produces but one Effect.”[12] Similarly, Spinoza says of the universal cause in the Short Treatise: “God is also a general [universal] cause, but only in the respect that he produces different things. Otherwise, such a thing can never be said of him. For he does not need anyone to produce effects.”[13] I believe that Spinoza moved the order of causes to place the universal cause first in order to show a further inconsistency from the medieval denial of extension as an attribute of God that results in a false conception of God’s causality. If God is pure simple form, and “a simple element can only produce one simple thing,”[14] then that which emanates from God can only be one simple Intelligence and it must be the case that matter emerges somewhere else later on in the emanative process. If this is the case, then while God can be considered the indirect cause of ‘many effects,’ he is the direct cause of only one simple thing. Thus, according to the classification above of universal and particular cause, this conception of God is that of a particular cause and not a universal cause. Thus, those who agree with, for example, Aquinas, are mistaken when they say: “nothing can be among beings, unless it is from God, Who is the universal cause of all being. Hence it is necessary to say that God brings things into being from nothing.”[15] Spinoza’s God, on the other hand, is a universal cause, for he is the direct cause of extended and thinking modes. Further, while medieval philosophers agreed that God was infinite, they held that God did not, or ever will, create the infinite things which he has in his mind. For Spinoza, this is clearly not the case. God produces everything in the scope of his infinite intellect, and the world is thus as infinite as God, consisting of an infinite number of modes. God is a universal cause because the world is the full expression of his being.[16] If the world were finite, then Spinoza’s God would be a particular cause. Thus, Spinoza tells us in Proposition XVI: “From the necessity of the divine nature there must follow infinitely many things in infinitely many modes, (i.e., everything which can fall under an infinite intellect.)”[17]

II. Efficient Cause

Efficient causation is the agency producing the result, or, as Burgersdijck says: “An Efficient is an External Cause from which a thing proceeds by a true Causality.” [18]In the Short Treatise, when Spinoza classifies God as an efficient cause, he says that “God is an emanative or productive cause of his actions, and in respect to the action’s occurring, an active or efficient cause. We treat this as one thing, because they involve each other.”[19] Whereas in Maimonides, the modes follow from God by an efficient causation that specifically involves emanation from the action of an immaterial being upon material objects,[20] in Spinoza this distinction of incorporeal and corporeal agency does not exist. Thus, Spinoza concludes in the First Corollary of Proposition XVI that “God is the efficient cause of all things which can fall under an infinite intellect.”[21] As is said in the Book of Psalms: “For with thee is the fountain of life: in thy light shall we see light.”[22]

III. Cause through himself

God as an efficient cause is divided into cause per se[23] and cause per accidens.[24] In the Short Treatise, Spinoza merely tells us that this will become more evident in a later discussion. Turning to Burgersdijck, he defines a cause by itself as “that which as it is such, produces an Effect of its own Council, and agreeable to its Natural Disposition,” and a cause by accident as that “which not as such, or else besides its own Council or Natural Propension.”[25] What this means is that an essential cause, or cause by itself, is that which produces something of its own kind. An accidental cause, on the other hand, is that which produces something that is not of its own kind. Therefore, from the medieval conception of God as immaterial and the world as material, that is, not of his own kind, it follows that God is an accidental cause. However, since for Spinoza the world is not of a different kind than God, he says in the Second Corollary of Proposition XVI: “It follows…that God is a cause through himself and not an accidental cause.”[26]

IV. First Cause

In the Third, and last, Corollary to Proposition XVI in the Ethics, Spinoza says that “it follows” that God is the absolute causam primam, that is, “absolutely the first cause.”[27] In the Short Treatise, the first cause is also called the “initiating cause.”[28] Spinoza again shows his minimalism by saying nothing else on the topic. Jonathan Bennett is right when he says of Spinoza that “his minimalism often leads him to underexpress his thought.”[29] However, by looking into Burgersdijck’s logic, we can clarify exactly what Spinoza means. Burgersdijck tells us that an efficient cause is divided into First and Second. “The First is that which depends upon none” and “the Second, which depends upon the First.” [30] Further, there are two ways in which a cause is First: 1) absolutely, or 2) in its own Genus.[31] That which is absolutely the first cause is that “on which all things depend; both when they are Made, Exist, and Operate…The Cause absolutely First is only One, to wit, God. For all things depend on God, both as to their Making, Being and Operating.”[32] What Saint Paul says about our relation to God can be said for all beings: “for in him we live, and move, and have our being.”[33] Yet, the proponents of the view that matter is not within God’s essence cannot rightly say that God is the first cause. For if it is said that the material world was created by God, but that God could not produce matter but only through his subsequent emanations, it follows that God is dependent upon his emanations.[34] And since this is the case, then the God that is not the material cause cannot be a first cause, for the first is that which depends upon none, as Burgersdijck has said. Therefore, it is Spinoza’s God, and not the medievals’ God, who is an absolutely first cause, for he produces everything, including matter, by the necessity of his divine nature, depending on nothing else.

V. Principal Cause

In the Ethics, the next set of classifications of God as cause follows from his demonstration of Proposition XVII: “God acts from the laws of his nature alone, and is compelled by no one.”[35] Since it is the case that from the necessity of the divine nature alone, absolutely infinite things follow (Proposition XVI), and nothing can be or be conceived without God (Proposition XV), there can be nothing outside of God that determines him to action. It follows from this that God acts from the laws of his nature alone, compelled by no one.[36] The First Corollary of Proposition XVII tells us that it follows from this demonstration that “there is no cause, either extrinsically, or intrinsically, which prompts God to action, except the perfection of his nature.”[37] This parallels Spinoza’s statement in the Short Treatise that “God is a principal cause of the effects he has created immediately, such as motion in matter, etc., where there can be no place for the subsidiary cause, which is confined to particular things (as when God makes the sea dry by a strong wind,[38] and similarly in all particular things in Nature).[39] Burgersdijck divided the efficient cause into the Principal and the less Principal. He describes a Principal as “that which produces the Effect by its own Virtue” and a Less Principal as that “which inserves the Principal towards its producing the Effect.” [40] A Principal Cause is said to be either equal to or nobler than the effect, but never more, whereas the less principal, insofar as it causes, is always inferior to the effect. Thus, Burgersdijck says: “When we compare the Effect with the Cause we are to consider the Cause as it is such; that is, according to that Virtue by which it causes, when the Virtue of the Cause is such as that it contains in it, whatever is in the Effect, it is said to be a principal Cause.”[41] Since God’s action flows from his own nature, and is compelled by no cause, extrinsically, or intrinsically, it can be said that God is a principal cause.

VI. Free Cause

Spinoza’s next classification of God as cause returns to his definitions of free and necessary, from which he now classifies God as a free cause. Definition VII states: “That thing is called free which exists from the necessity of its nature alone, and is determined to act by itself alone. But a thing is called necessary, or rather compelled, which is determined by another to exist and to produce an effect in a certain and determinate manner.”[42] Wolfson has pointed out that the problem of freedom in medieval philosophy is sometimes alternatively called the problem of possibility.[43] For example, the discussion of freedom in Crescas is stated as: “An exposition of the view of him who believes that the nature of possibility exists,” and, “An exposition of the view of him who believes that the nature of possibility does not exist.”[44] Wolfson links this same way of addressing the problem in the Short Treatise, where Spinoza asks the question: “Whether there are any contingent things in Nature, viz. whether there are any things that can happen and also can not happen.”[45] In the Cogitata Metaphysica, Spinoza distinguishes between possibility and contingency. He says that “a thing is called possible, then, when we understand its efficient cause, but do not know whether the cause is determined. So we can regard it as possible, but neither as necessary or as impossible.”[46] On the other hand, “if…we attend to the essence of the thing alone, and not to its cause,we shall call it contingent.”[47] He clarifies this by saying: “We shall consider it as midway between God and a chimaera, so to speak, because we find in it, on the part of its essence, neither any necessity of existing (as we do in the divine essence) nor any impossibility or inconsistency (as we do in a chimaera).”[48] A thing is possible, then, when it is made necessary by a cause, and a thing is contingent when it is possible in consideration of its own essence, that is, its essence does not necessitate its existence nor does it involve a contradiction.[49] However, Spinoza does not think much about the distinction between these two terms, and says of those who would equate the two, that he “shall not contend with him…For I am not accustomed to dispute about words. It will suffice if he grants us that these two are nothing but a defect in our perception, and not anything real.”[50] Thus, Wolfson is right when he says that Spinoza wishes to eliminate the idea that anything in nature is possible per se, for “everything which is possible per se is necessary in consideration of its cause.” [51] The term possible per se is merely a logical distinction, which represents no actual thing in nature. Hence, Spinoza says: “If he attends to nature and how it depends on God, he will find that there is nothing contingent in things, that is, nothing which, on the part of the thing, can either exist or not exist, or as is commonly said, be a real contingent.”[52] Since this is the case, there are only two divisions of existing things: 1) that which is necessary by its cause, and 2) that which is necessary by its own nature. Spinoza’s definition of freedom, then, involves this distinction. Put simply, that which is necessary by its own nature is free and that which is necessary by its cause is compelled, or merely called necessary. This is why Spinoza says in the Short Treatise: “True freedom is nothing but [being] the first cause, which is not in any way constrained or necessitated by anything else, and only through its perfection is the cause of all perfection.”[53]

According to Wolfson, there is a deeper criticism behind Spinoza’s God as a free cause than what I have already said.[54] This lies in the medieval conception of God’s causality as an act of will, power, or intelligence, typically used in connection with creation, which is found in Saadia, Maimonides, and Judah ha-Levi. Maimonides holds that all three are identical in God.[55] Maimonides admits that God cannot do the logically impossible, i.e., “produce a square with a diagonal equal to one of its sides, or a solid angle that includes four right angles.”[56] Further, he says, “it is impossible that God should produce a being like Himself, or annihilate, corporify, or change Himself,” and “the power of God is not assumed to extend to any of these impossibilities.”[57] Yet, when the question is raised that “to say of God that He can produce a thing from nothing or reduce a thing to nothing is…the same as if we were to say that He could…produce a square the diagonal of which be equal to its side, or similar impossibilities,”[58] Maimonides answers the question of Creation by saying: “He willed it so; or His wisdom decided so.”[59] Maimonides holds that “He…produced from nothing all existing things such as they are by His will and desire.”[60]

In the previous Corollary to Proposition XVII, Spinoza had said “there is no cause, either extrinsically or intrinsically, which prompts God to action, except the perfection of his nature.” Spinoza is attempting to remove the notion of will and design from God’s causality, placing creation ex nihilo next to the other logical impossibilities. Maimonides holds that God is “perfect, incorporeal…above all kinds of deficiency.”[61] Thus, God can’t be said to have any kind of imperfection in his nature, including deficiencies in his will or intellect. Hence, Spinoza responds: “I know there are many who think they can demonstrate that a supreme intellect and free will belong to God’s nature. For they say they know nothing they can ascribe to God more perfect than what is the highest perfection in us.”[62]

There is, however, a deeper criticism in Spinoza’s scholium to Proposition XVII. Wolfson links Spinoza’s criticism to the view held by Abraham Herrera, who had said that God as the first cause acts not from the necessity of His nature but by the counsel of His intellect and the choice of His free will. In the Kabbalah, the question had been raised whether God could create the infinite number of things in his intellect or whether his power of creation was limited to that which he has created?[63] In response to this, Herrera makes the following two remarks: “If God had acted from His own nature and by necessity, He would have inevitably produced everything that is in His power, which would be infinite,” and “since God has created by will and design, He has purposely created only a part of that which is in His intellect, in order to be able to create other and more perfect things.”[64] Herrera tells us that an infinite number of things have not been brought into existence because God does not act by the necessity of his infinite nature. Instead, it is because “He acts only by the freedom of His will and purpose…that He has brought into existence and created finite things” and “for every one of the created things, however excellent it may be, He is able to produce something more excellent.”[65] Spinoza certainly appears to be directly attacking this view when he says:

Moreover, even if they conceive God to actually understand in the highest degree, they still do not believe that he can bring it about that all the things he actually understands exist. For they think that in that way they would destroy God’s power. If he had created all the things in his intellect (they say), then he would have been able to create nothing more, which they believe to be incompatible with God’s omnipotence. So they preferred to maintain that God is indifferent to all things, not creating anything except what he has decreed to create by some absolute will…Therefore to maintain that God is perfect, they are driven to maintain at the same time that he cannot bring about everything to which his power extends. I do not see what could be feigned which would be more absurd than this or more contrary to God’s omnipotence.[66]

There is an explicit criticism of his opponents ascribing will and intellect to God as homonymous terms. Again, we find in Maimonides that there is only a resemblance between God’s knowledge and our knowledge in name, for his “essence is in no way like our essence” and people are misled by this homonymity because “only the words are the same, but the things designated by them are different; and therefore they came to the absurd conclusion that that which is required for our knowledge is also required for God’s knowledge.”[67] Of God’s will, Maimonides also says: “The term ‘will’ is homonymously used of man’s will and of the will of God, there being no comparison whatever between God’s will and that of man.”[68] Spinoza characterizes what follows from this common view:

If intellect and will do pertain to the eternal essence of God,[69] we must of course understand by each of these attributes something different from what men commonly understand. For the intellect and will which would constitute God’s essence would have to differ entirely from out intellect and will, and could not agree with them in anything except in name. They would not agree with one another any more than do the dog that is a heavenly constellation and the dog that is a barking animal.[70]

As Wolfson notes, Spinoza likely means to convey “that since intellect and will are applied to God only homonymously, they are meaningless terms, and consequently God’s activity might as well be described as following form the necessity of His nature.”[71] This is justified by Spinoza’s statement on the same topic in his letter to Hugo Boxel:

Since…it is commonly and unanimously admitted that God’s will is eternal and has never been indifferent, and therefore they must also necessarily grant (note this well) that the world is the necessary effect of the divine nature. Let them call it will, intellect, or any name they please, they will still in the end come to realise that they are expressing one and the same thing by different names. For if you ask them whether the divine will does not differ from the human will, they will reply that the former has nothing in common with the latter but the name; and furthermore they will mostly admit that God’s will, intellect, and essence or nature are one and the same thing.[72]

In the Moreh Nebukim, Maimonides places both chance and necessity in opposition to creation as an act of God’s will. Those who follow Epicurus, says Maimonides, “believe that the existing state of things is the result of accidental combination and separation of the elements and that the Universe has no Ruler or Governor.”[73] Hence, chance denies the existence of any cause in creation, for “there is none that rules or determines the order of the existing things.”[74] Maimonides places necessity in opposition to creation as an act of God’s will because he believes that God could have refrained from creating the world, or he could have designed it differently. It is still a common religious belief today that our existence is a gift of God’s will in a benevolent act of creation. However, Spinoza attempts to differentiate between chance and necessity, and in doing so, demonstrate that “if God is assumed to act by a will whose laws are unknown to us, His activity really amounts to chance.”[75] In the same epistle to Hugo Boxel, Spinoza gives an account of his view on the question as to whether the world was made by chance:

My answer is that, as it is certain that chance and necessity are two contrary terms, so it is also clear that he who affirms that the world is the necessary effect of the divine nature is also denying that the world was made by chance, whereas he who affirms that God could have refrained from creating the world is declaring in an indirect way that it was made by chance, since it proceeded from an act of will which might not have been.[76]

It might be objected, though, that Spinoza is making an equivocation and introducing some other definition of chance. However, the view that Spinoza is attacking can be located. Wolfson outlines three views from the Middle Ages that existed in regard to the relation of God to the world and God’s knowledge of the world.[77] The first view is strikingly similar to the position Spinoza is attacking in the above passage, namely that God is the arbitrary creator of the world who, having created it, is the arbitrary ruler of it. Both the creation and governance of the world are considered as the exercise of two faculties in God, that is, his free will and power. These faculties are conceived after the manner of free will and power in man, though they are infinitely superior to those of man and absolutely arbitrary, as God is independent of any external conditions or circumstances. This view is described by Wolfson as “primarily the uncritical opinion of the common masses of believers.”[78] He notes that this was presented as a philosophical system by a branch of the Moses Kalam, which is restated in Maimonides.[79]

According to this view, God’s will and power are conceived as absolute, unlimited, and unchecked by any rule. Creation, as a free exercise of will and power, is furthermore a continuous act, and every event is a direct creation of God. Existence is a succession of specially created events. It is analogous to the theory of divine concurrence alluded to elsewhere by Spinoza,[80] though, I must say, the two views are not necessarily identical, for the Kalam denies not only natural causality but also uniformity of action in nature, inasmuch as it assumes God’s will to be absolutely arbitrary, whereas divine concurrence does not necessarily assume God’s will to be absolutely arbitrary; it is rather an intelligent will; and hence, barring the possibility of miracles, divine concurrence does not deny uniformity of action in nature. Spinoza characterizes ass such views as views which make everything dependent upon chance, and deny natural causality altogether.[81]

It is only fitting that Wolfson refers to Spinoza’s epistle to Hugo Boxel at the end of this passage. In the second part of the Ethics, Spinoza also says: “By God’s power ordinary people understand God’s free will and his right over all things which are, things which on that account are commonly considered to be contingent.”[82]

Spinoza holds that the attribution of will to the essence of God is no different than explaining things by chance, which likewise implies a denial of causality. Hence, his statement: “Tell me, pray, whether you have seen or read any philosophers who have maintained that the world was made by chance, taking chance in the sense you give it, that God had a set aim in creating the world and yet departed from his resolve.”[83]

VII. Immanent Cause

In the Short Treatise, Spinoza’s acceptance of the principle of sufficient reason leads him to ask: “Whether there is any thing in Nature of which one cannot ask why it exists?”[84] Spinoza mentions that in asking this we are also indicating through what cause a thing exists. Spinoza defines a cause as that which if it “did not exist, it would be impossible for this something to exist.”[85] Note that Spinoza isn’t imposing any arbitrary definition of a cause as his own. Consider Crescas’ definition of cause:

For by a cause is meant that the existence of which implies the existence of an effect and should the cause be conceived not to exist the effect could not be conceived to exist.[86]

Spinoza’s third and fourth axioms certainly echo this.[87] That being said, Spinoza proceeds to discuss the nature of the cause:

We must seek this cause, then, either in the thing or outside it. But if someone asks what rule we should follow in this investigation, we say it does not seem that any at all is necessary. For if existence belongs to the nature of the thing, then certainly we must not seek the cause outside it. But if existence does not belong to the nature of the thing, then we must always seek the cause outside it. And since the former is only true of God, this shows (as we have already proven before) that God alone is the first cause of everything.[88]

Spinoza states in Proposition XVIII: “God is the immanent,[89] not the transitive,[90] cause of all things.”[91] Burgersdijck divides the efficient cause into immanent and transient cause. He describes the immanent as “that which produces the Effect in its self,” [92] and the transient, “out of it self.” [93] In the Short Treatise, Spinoza says that God “is an immanent and not a transitive cause, since he does everything in himself, and not outside himself (because outside him there is nothing).”[94] This is precisely how Spinoza demonstrates that God is the immanent cause of all things in the Ethics. For since it is the case that everything that is, is in God, and must be conceived through God (by Proposition XV), God must be the cause of all things which are in him (by Proposition XVI, Corol. I). That is, God is the efficient cause of all things which can fall under an infinite intellect. Further, there can be no substance, or thing in itself, which is outside God (by Proposition XIV). It follows, says Spinoza, that God “is the immanent, not the transitive cause of all things.”[95]

Since this is the only time Spinoza uses the term immanent in the Ethics, it is necessary to look into Spinoza’s other writings to give a thorough explanation of what it means to be an immanent cause. In a late epistle to Henry Oldenburg, Spinoza describes his conception of God as “far different from that which modern Christians are wont to uphold. For I maintain that God is the immanent cause, as the phrase is, of all things, and not the transitive cause.”[96] He describes this view as the affirmation that all things “are in God and move in God.”[97] More important is his reference in the Short Treatise to “an immanent or internal cause (which is all one, according to me)”[98] Note that transcendent is not the same as transient, for Spinoza uses the term transcendens to mean logically greater or more general. [99] Thus, it is not a contradiction to say that God is a transcendent immanent cause. It is evident from all that has been said up to now that when Spinoza denies that God is a transitive cause of all things, he is denying that God is an external cause that is spatially separate from the world or that he is an immaterial cause separate from the world. When Spinoza says that God is an immanent cause, he is denying that God is an external and separable, hence immaterial, cause from the world. As Spinoza says in the Short Treatise, “the effect of an internal cause remains united with its cause in such a way that it makes a whole with it.”[100]

The meaning of God’s immanence, and his unity with all things, does not mean that God is in things as the soul is traditionally conceived to be in the body, but instead, as Wolfson interprets Spinoza, “all things are in God as the less universal is in the more universal or, to use Spinoza’s own expression, as the parts are in the whole.”[101] Although the universal does not exist separately from the particulars, it is not identical with them either. Hence, Wolfson says of God: “Being thus the immanent cause of all things in the sense that He is inseparable from them but still logically distinct from them, God may also be said to transcend them according to the old meaning of the term ‘transcendence,’ namely, that of being logically distinct and more general.”[102]

VIII. Proximate Cause

In the Short Treatise, Spinoza says: “God is the proximate cause of those things that are infinite and immutable, and which we say that he has created immediately; but he is, in a sense, the remote cause of all particular things.”[103] This corresponds to a passage in the Ethics, which is found in the Scholium of Proposition XXVIII: “God is absolutely the proximate cause of the things produced immediately by him, and not [a proximate cause] in his own kind, as they say. For God’s effects can neither be nor be conceived without their cause.”[104] Spinoza says that this follows from Proposition XV. Burgersdijck had divided the efficient cause into the proxima (next) and the remote. The next, says Burgersdijck, “is that which produces the Effect immediately.” [105] The remote, on the other hand, is that “which produces the Effect by means of some more neighbouring Cause.”[106] This is very obscure, and it is necessary to point out yet another passage in Spinoza to understand what he means by a proximate cause. In the Tractatus de Intellectus Emendatione, Spinoza discusses the causal relations between singular, changeable things, and the fixed and eternal things. He points out that the essences of singular, changeable things are not derived from their series, that is, their order of existing, because this order is composed only of extrinsic denominations. This order is only circumstance, which tells us nothing of the “inmost essence of things.” This essence is to be found only in the fixed and eternal things, and the laws inscribed in them, which Spinoza calls their “true codes,” from which singular things derive their order and coming to be. He continues:

Indeed these singular, changeable things depend so intimately, and (so to speak) essentially, on the fixed things that they can neither be nor be conceived without them. So although these fixed and eternal things are singular, nevertheless, because of their presence everywhere, and most extensive power, they will be to us like universals, or genera of the definitions of singular, changeable things, and the proximate causes of all things.[107]

Through a close reading of this passage, we can uncover what Spinoza means by classifying God as a proximate cause. It is obvious that when Spinoza says that the “singular, changeable things depend…essentially, on the fixed and eternal things” he means that the modes cannot be nor be conceived without God as the efficient cause, whose essence and existence are one and the same. When he says that the fixed and eternal things are the “genera of the definitions of singular, changeable things, and the proximate cause of all things” because of their “presence everywhere” and “extensive power,” he means that substance under one of its infinite attributes provides the first cause and universal genus for all finite things. The definition of a finite thing, then, gives us the proximate cause, which is the first cause as modified in a certain way in one of the attributes of substance. In the demonstration of Proposition XVI, Spinoza refers to an attribute of substance as a kind of genus: “Since the divine nature has absolutely infinite attributes, each of which also expresses an essence infinite in its own kind [genus], from its necessity there must follow infinitely many things in infinite modes.”[108] Wolfson makes a controversial claim that substance has the character of a summum genus, and concludes that “Spinoza’s substance is inconceivable, and its essence indefinable and hence unknowable.”[109] This view is clearly false, for Spinoza states in Proposition XLVII of the second part of the Ethics that we can have knowledge of God’s essence: “The human mind has an adequate knowledge of God’s eternal and infinite essence.”[110] John Carriero criticizes Wolfson, and states that “what has the character of summa genera in Spinoza’s metaphysics are the attributes of substance, and while it follows that attributes are undefinable (because they are not conceived through anything else), he does not regard them as unknowable.”[111] This view is much more plausible, and fits in with Spinoza’s reference to the attributes as infinite in their own genus.

God is absolutely the proximate cause of things which are produced immediately by him, that is, the infinite modes that are the totality of modes within a certain attribute. These are infinite and immutable, unlike finite modes. It is only as a first cause that God is a proximate cause, for God depends on none, and embraces all possible genera, that is, his attributes. The unchanging laws cannot be conceived without their cause, which is God, and the finite modes which depend on these laws cannot be conceived without them. God is the proximate cause by immediately being the cause of these laws, or infinite and eternal modes. In a very loose sense, God is also a remote cause. For the effects of the infinite and eternal modes are finite modes, and hence God causes the finite modes through the “neighbouring cause” of the infinite modes. However, since everything is in God, he is not separate from his effects. What Spinoza means by infinite and finite modes will be explained in the section below on modes.

[1] Shirley translates universal cause, Curley translates general cause. The original Dutch is “Algemeene oorzaak.”

[2] Cf. TdIE § 96

[3] It has been shown (C I.80 n., Wolfson, I, 303, Wolf’s commentary on the Short Treatise, pg. 190-195) that Spinoza’s terminology of causes is borrowed from the Dutch logician Franco Burgersdijck’s Institutiones Logicae. The table presented here demonstrates the order in which Spinoza discusses the eight ways in which God is a cause in the Ethics compared to the Short Treatise. A similar table is found in Wolfson, I, 304, without my addition of the eighth cause as given in Ethics XXVIII, Schol. Wolfson notes: “However, while Spinoza has borrowed the scheme and terminology from Burgersdijck, he has made free use of it for his own purpose. The causes enumerated in this list are what the medievals themselves would have ascribed to God, but when used by Spinoza there is an implication that these causes are more truly applicable to his own conception than to theirs.”

[4] Wolfson, I, 302.

[5] First Cause.

[6] Moreh Nebukim, I, 69. Quoted from Wolfson, I, 302, based off of Friedländer’s translation, Vol. I, pg. 261.

[7] Ethics, I, Appendix.

[8] CM, II, x. C I.334.

[9] Moreh Nebukim, III, 13.

[10] Wolfson, I, 303. Wolfson refers to the Short Treatise, II, xxv, where Spinoza says: “Substance, because it is the principle of all its modes, can with much greater right be called an agent, rather than one acted on.” C I.72.

[11] KV, I, iii. C I.80.

[12] Institutiones Logicae, XVII, pg. 66.

[13] KV, I, iii. C I.81. Brackets are my addition.

[14] Moreh Nebukim, II, 22.

[15] Summa Theologiae, I, 45.2.

[16] Wolfson, I, 306.

[17] C I.424.

[18] Institutiones Logicae, XVII, pg. 58.

[19] KV,I, iii. C I.80.

[20] Moreh Nebukim, II, 12: “God being incorporeal, and everything being the work of Him as the efficient cause, we say that the Universe has been created by the Divine influence, and that all changes in the Universe emanate from Him. In the same sense we say that He caused wisdom to emanate from Him and to come upon the prophets. In all such cases we merely wish to express that an incorporeal Being, whose action we call ‘influence,’ has produced a certain effect.”

[21] C I.425.

[22] Psalms 36:9.

[23] Cause through himself, or, cause by itself.

[24] Accidental cause.

[25] Institutiones Logicae, XVII, pg. 61.

[26] C I.425.

[27] Ibid.

[28] KV, I, iii, 6. C I.81.

[29] Bennett, A Study of Spinoza’s Ethics, 98.

[30] Institutiones Logicae, XVII, pg. 65.

[31] In its own kind.

[32] Institutiones Logicae, XVII, pg. 66.

[33] Acts 17:28.

[34] Wolfson I, 308.

[35] C I.425.

[36] Ethics I, Proposition XVII, Dem. C I.425.

[37] Ethics I, Proposition XVII, Corol. I. C I.425.

[38] Exodus 14:21: “And Moses stretched out his hand over the sea; and the Lord caused the sea to go back by a strong east wind all that night, and made the sea dry land, and the waters were divided.”

[39] KV, I, iii, 5. C I.80-81.

[40] Institutiones Logicae, XVII, pg. 62.

[41] Ibid., pg. 62-63.

[42] Ethics I, Def. VII. C I.409.

[43] Wolfson I, 309.

[44] Or Adonai II, v, 1-2.

[45] KV, I, vi, 2. C I.85.

[46] CM, I, iii, 9. Cf. Ethics, IV, Definition IV. C I.308, 546.

[47] Ibid.

[48] Ibid.

[49] It is interesting to compare this with Leibniz’s essay On Freedom (1689?). Leibniz states: “When I considered that nothing happens by chance or by accident (unless we are considering certain substances taken by themselves), that fortune distinguished from fate is an empty name, and that no thing exists unless its own particular conditions [requisitis] are present (conditions from whose joint presence it follows, in turn, that the thing exists), I was very close to the view of those who think that everything is absolutely necessary [and judged that being possible is the same as actually existing at some time], who judge that it is enough for freedom that we are uncoerced, even though we might be subject to necessity, and close to those who do not distinguish what is infallible or certainly known to be true, from what is necessary. But the consideration of possibles, which are not, were not, and will not be, brought me back from this precipice. For if there are certain possibles that never exist, then the things that exist, at any rate, are not always necessary, for everything that never exists would be impossible.” The English in brackets was first included, then deleted by Leibniz. AG 94.

[50] CM, I, iii, 9. C I.308.

[51] Wolfson I, 310.

[52] CM, I, iii, 10. C I.308.

[53] KV, I, iv, 5. C I.82.

[54] Wolfson, I, 312.

[55] Moreh Nebukim, I, 53.

[56] Moreh Nebukim, III, 15. Cf. II, 13, Second Theory. These two examples are contrary to Euclid i., 47 and xi., Prop. 21.

[57] Ibid.

[58] Moreh Nebukim, II, 13.

[59] Moreh Nebukim, II, 25.

[60] Moreh Nebukim, II, 13.

[61] Moreh Nebukim, I, 35.

[62] Ethics, I, Proposition XVII, Schol. C I.426.

[63] Wolfson, I, 314.

[64] Ibid., 314-315.

[65] Ibid., 315.

[66] Ethics I, Proposition XVII, Schol. C I.426.

[67] Moreh Nebukim, III, 20.

[68] Moreh Nebukim, II, 18.

[69] Spinoza denies that intellect or will should be ascribed to the essence of God in Proposition XXXI.

[70] Ethics, I, Proposition XVII, Schol. C I.426-427.

[71] Wolfson I, 317.

[72] Epistle LIV. CW, 898.

[73] Moreh Nebukim, II, 13.

[74] Ibid., n.

[75] Wolfson, I, 318.

[76] Epistle LIV. CW, 898. The footnote mentions that the position described and criticized here is the same one that Leibniz will later hold in his Théodicée.

[77] Wolfson, II, 12.

[78] Ibid.

[79] Moreh Nebukim, I, 73-76; III, 17, Third Theory.

[80] Ethics, I, Appendix.

[81] Wolfson, II, 12-13.

[82] Ethics, II, Proposition III, Schol. C I.449.

[83] Epistle LVI. CW, 903.

[84] KV, I, vi, 4. C I.86.

[85] Ibid.

[86] Or Adonai, I, i, 3.

[87] Axiom III: “From a given determinate cause the effect follows necessarily; and conversely, if there is no determinate cause, it is impossible for an effect to follow.” Axiom IV: “The knowledge of an effect depends on, and involves, the knowledge of its cause.” C I.410.

[88] KV, I, vi, 4. C I.86.

[89] Immanens.

[90] Transiens.

[91] C I.428.

[92] Institutiones Logicae, XVII, pg. 58.

[93] Ibid., pg. 59.

[94] KV, I, iii, 2. C I.80.

[95] Ethics, I, Proposition XVIII, Dem. C I.428.

[96] Epistle LXXIII. CW, 942.

[97] Ibid.

[98] KV, II, xxvi, 7. C I.148.

[99] Ethics, II, Proposition XL, Schol. I. C I.476. CM, I, vi. C I.312-313. Wolfson, I, 322.

[100] KV, I, ii, Second Dialogue, 3. C I.77.

[101] Wolfson, I, 323-324. See also Spinoza, Epistle XXII.

[102] Wolfson, I, 325.

[103] KV, I, iii, 2. C I.81.

[104] Ethics, I, Proposition XXVIII, Schol. C I.433.

[105] Institutiones Logicae, XVII, pg. 67.

[106] Ibid.

[107] TdIE § 101. C I.41.

[108] Ethics, I, Proposition XVI, Dem. C I.425. The bracketed word is my addition. Curley and Shirley both translate genere as kind. The original Latin is: “Cum autem natura divina infinita absolute attributa habeat (per definitionem 6) quorum etiam unumquodque infinitam essentiam in suo genere exprimit, ex ejusdem ergo necessitate infinita infinitis modis.”

[109] Wolfson I, 76. There are numerous critics of this view. See: H. F. Hallett’s review of Wolfson’s The Philosophy of Spinoza, Curley’s Spinoza’s Metaphysics, pg. 36, and John Carriero’s Monism in Spinoza. Joseph Ratner specifically criticizes Wolfson’s statement in his paper, In Defense of Spinoza. I will reproduce an excerpt from his criticism here: “Professor Wolfson’s general conclusion concerning the nature of Substance is what is most striking and interesting. He concludes that ‘Spinoza’s substance is inconceivable, its essence undefinable, and hence unknowable.’ Truly a remarkable pronouncement, when we consider that Spinoza defined substance, and that this chapter is supposed to be about that definition. Even if Wolfson would want to maintain that Spinoza defined one of the properties, or an accident of substance, not its essence (something he could hardly maintain), his statement would be no less distressing, since he maintains also that substance is unknowable. And if substance is unknowable so are modes (I, Def. V) and since nothing besides these two is granted beyond the intellect (I, 4) it follows we can never know anything—not even that Substance is a whole transcending the sum of modes which is the universe—(not necessarily excluding its being immanent, too). And yet, contrariwise, Spinoza maintained, differing from both Descartes and Maimonides, that ‘the human mind possesses an adequate knowledge of the eternal and infinite essence of God’ (II, 47). Besides, it would be somewhat difficult, were Wolfson correct, to explain why ‘the highest good of the mind is the knowledge of God and the highest virtue of the mind is to know God’ (IV, 28). The inspiration of the amor Dei intellectualis would, on the same principle, be pure charlatanism.”

[110] Ethics II, Proposition XLVII. C I.482.

[111] Carriero, Monism in Spinoza, in Spinoza: Metaphysical Themes.


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