Human actions as instruments, II

At the heart of Catholicism there is a dilemma: “Who forgives sins, God or the Priest?” The pious usually say “God”, but we can quickly respond to this by saying that it makes Priests superfluous and an impediment to the relationship between God and man. This dilemma can dissolve the whole sacramental system and the institutional church.

Note that the whole dilemma consists in thinking that one has to choose between either this efficient cause or that efficient cause. But in any action, whether it is forgiving sins or moving a couch, the only reason we have to choose between either this efficient cause or that efficient cause is if the two causes are of equal causal dignity, or not subordinated to one another. If we know that one man plowed the field, than either this one did or that one did. But we never have to choose whether this man plowed the field or his tractor, or whether the architect is responsible for a building as opposed to the workers. In this case, both are total causes in different orders, not partial causes in the same order. One might be tempted to think that the Architect or farmer is in fact a partial cause in some sense, because the Architect could not have built the whole building himself nor could the farmer have plowed the whole field without his tractor. Even if this is true it is accidental to the causes as causes. Parents often command their children to do things they could do entirely by themselves, and even much better than their children. In such actions, the children are in an obvious sense superfluous and unnecessary, but there are simply more things to take into consideration than what is necessary to get the action done, or even in some sense to get it done as well as it could be done without the children.

The dilemma of “Who forgives sins, God or the Priest?” conceals a certain diabolical pride, for the dilemma can only work if we assume that the two supposed efficient causes, namely God and man, are in the same order of causal dignity. To be fair, the dilemma is usually not based on diabolical pride so much as human stupidity and our failure to see various orders of causality. The dilemma is first resolved by seeing these various orders in which various causes can be total in different ways, and the particular way of causality between God and men is best exemplified as the relation of a Father who asks for the cooperation of his children.

Natural theology versus imagination

For the moment, all our thinking has sense images stuck to it. This puts an insurmountable handicap on our attempts to do natural theology. Even the most basic truths we can know about the divine nature are very difficult to understand. When we recognize that God is bodiless, for example, the imagination immediately thinks about a vast black space, which means it is thinking about God as something that does not exist. We see our mind that God is not a body, and so we imagine a body and then make it disappear into blackness; but after we recognize that God is not the blackness either, the blackness still remains. I stress again that this example is one of the first and easiest truths of natural theology. Soon after this, when we are trying to see that God is the same as his own divinity, there are so many garbled sense images and negations stuck to things that many philosophers become convinced that any one created things is in fact two things.

The infirmity of the human intellect requires that it ascend to divine things by the assistance of metaphors, art, myth, sacrifice, and religious liturgical worship. As far as natural theology is concerned, man’s sense powers are anti-theistic in the sense that they picture divine things as non-existent. Without metaphor and beautiful liturgy, therefore, man is at war within his own self and cognitive powers about the truths he might learn about God. And when the mind fights against imagination, it usually looses.

Notes on form

-Nature made clay so plentiful so we we could all have easy access to a word like “form”. Notice that the key to understanding nature is what stands under us. By seeking under the ground we find the key to what grounds all things.

-To convey any intelligible reality is “to inform” and the intelligible reality is “information”. To educate is to give a formation.

-Again, to communicate is from-form, because the act of communication is to in-form.

-Form is the perfection of action: the perfect form of an ice skater or a tackle.

-Form is clearly a kind of cause, because it answers one question “why”. Or again, form makes something to be, or to be such-and-such, which is clearly a way of causing.

-Form makes to be such-and-such (as form) only because something makes to be such-and-such (as agent). It is an analogy in the word “make”. Which comes before, which after? In one sense, the agent is before, for it makes to be by its action. In another sense, it is form, for it makes action to be to this form and not that one. In other words, since action is to form, in one sense the form must be before, and in another sense after. My journey to Rome is only possible if in one sense Rome is there before the journey starts, and in another sense is not there until after the journey.

-Form, because it is given to many by education, can also be given to many as a document to be filled out. Hence “filling out forms”.

The doctrine of analogy in St. Thomas

There are many strange things said about St. Thomas’ teaching on analogous terms. Karl Barth claimed that the only reason not to be a Catholic was analogy, and the constant repetition of the phrase “the analogy of being” makes it seem as though being is analogous in the same way that it is true or good, or perhaps that to be is to be analogous.

Regardless of whether these claims are true, they are not the first thing that is true about analogy. Analogy is in fact so familiar and frequent that most of the time we don’t bother to notice it. An analogous term is a single sound with many related meanings. Since almost all of the terms we use have many related meanings, we don’t tend to give them a distinct name like “analogous”. It is simply taken for granted that a word is analogous.

Again, I stress that words as a rule are analogous, and in fact the more a word is used, the more analogous it becomes. Every common noun in English is usually a verb also: put “to” in from of a noun and most English speakers will know what you mean. Adjectives can usually become nouns if one just put a “the” in front of them. Prepositions are notoriously analogous: try to figure out how any language uses its “to” or “of” or “in” or “at”. As soon as one thinks of a verb in the infinitive, he can usually turn it into a noun. And so on forever. All of these changes, which are made effortlessly and often without thought, make drastic differences in the meaning of what we are saying. For example, we English speakers easily jump from nouns to verbs, but it is a very different thing to exist per se (the mode in which nouns signify) and to exist in another and as dependent (the mode in which verbs and adjectives signify).

Although any term can give an example of analogous naming, St. Thomas usually uses a single example borrowed from the practice of medicine: animals are healthy, medicine is healthy, etc. St. Thomas had two very good reasons to use this example: first, it would have been well known to his audience that it came from Book IV of the Metaphysics, and so St. Thomas could call to mind a whole book in a single example; and secondly, St. Thomas could tie what he was saying explicitly to the teaching of Aristotle, which was one of his primary goals in all of his thought and writing. It is not, however, an ideal example to make clear what analogy is as such, because Aristotle does not offer that example to illustrate analogy as such, but to illustrate how analogous terms can form a single science. The best example of the generation of analogous terms as such comes from the relation of cause and effect, which is exactly the very ground for why we can speak about God existing at all.

To explain: a man hammers, and a hammer hammers. A single action, therefore, is said of both the agent and the instrument. Yet the action is radically and even essentially different in both: for men, the action is a vital action, for a hammer it is not; for a man, it is an action being done by himself and not though another, for a hammer it is not; for a man it is an action coming forth from within and from his knowledge, and for a hammer it is not; for a man, “to hammer” means “to use a hammer” and for a hammer it does not. We can go on listing differences like this for quite some time and yet for all these differences it does not become one wit less rational to refer to the activity of the agent and instrument by the same word. This points to one of the central things that people fail to understand about analogy: a single term is often used not in order to express a single meaning, but a single operation, or some other kind of unity in the things themselves. It would not be any perfection of language, as some think, to have a single term or symbol for every distinct meaning. Such an imaginary language would be gravely imperfect and philosophically worthless, in spite of having some accidental perfections. Words are subordinated to our understanding of reality, and to have one term for every meaning would distort things and mislead us in understanding reality. Note also that not only would it be undesirable to use two words for an agent and the instrument, it might simply be impossible. Say we call a man hammering “firsthammering” and leave the action of the instrument the same. Still, “firsthammering” and “hammering” are a single action that both perform. Now, of course, we have to distinguish between two senses of perform, note the unity of them, distinguish that unity into “first___” and another, and so ad infinitum.

The idea that being or existence (or any positive term) is said analogously of God and creatures is a direct result of the very way we prove God exists at all. As St. Thomas explains, we prove God exists because we posit something that obviously exists (motion, or contingency), and then show how it is being caused by something “all call God”. What this means is that we are showing how something relates to God as an instrument to an agent, or if you like as a second caused cause relates to the primary cause. We say both God and creatures exist for the much the same reason we say men and hammers hammer. This radical distinction in existence will lead, a fortiori to a radical distinction of any other positive trait of existence: justice, mercy, love, strength, knowledge, etc.

Notes

-One option in Bible interpretation is to read everything that we think is disputed by science as being allegorical. Such exegesis has a fine history going back to Avicenna.

-From experience, we come to gather things together under a single name: Courage is virtue, and friendliness is virtue, and justice is virtue…etc. Taken in this way, the name will always be more universal than the things named by it. When we strike the definition, however, we find the source not only of the name itself but even of all that was under it. The definition becomes a term in between all the subjects and predicates fusing them together, and in this sense the first source of our rising above our first experience to a systematic and more intelligible understanding.

-Science, as a kind of knowledge, arises from the first knowledge, and this first knowledge grounds the signification of names.

 Signification can be divided in two ways: some things signify, and have parts that signify separately; other things signify do not have parts that signify separately. The first is a compound speech, the second is simple. By compound and simple we do not refer first to the word a word, nor to the thing spoken of as thing, but to the act of the mind, depending on whether it works with a single thing or not. To see the man run does not determine us to “runner” (or “fast runner”) more than “the man runs”. This is why we refer signification to mind, or to how things are in ratio or logos.  

-As in syllogisms, says Aristotle substance is the starting point of everything. It is from what a thing is that syllogisms start.

-Note that substance is in a certain way known through itself: “what is neither present in nor said of”. Well yes, because it is what all else is said of and present in. It is as if Aristotle started with the idea of substance, and then found two things which alone can be denied of it- and then constructed the rest of the world from various affirmations

-The terms of a definition must all be clearer and more known than the thing defined. He parts of the union are all more known than the union of the parts.

-Definition is in one sense an articulation of the causes of things, and in another sense an account of what a thing is. The union between these two is form: form as an end sought for is the source of all causality, form as an end achieved is the source of what a thing is.

-The definition of “B” alone can explain why every A is B. Any other reason will be less universal than B, and so there will always be some failure to overcome a merely predicated name.  

Sexism and the order of the sexes in St. Thomas

St. Thomas believes that certain goods should be denied to women in virtue of their being women (the ministerial priesthood, for example), and he asserts the inferiority of women at least in the natural order (he claims that they cannot be virtuous simply speaking in the natural order) and so it is reasonable to think that St. Thomas is sexist by any understanding of that word.

 

Regardless of how grave a fault we reckon sexism, it is a pretty minor problem for a reader of St. Thomas. In the worst case scenario, one could simply rip out or ignore about 10 pages out of 50,000 and the issue never needs to come up at all (the case is similar with St. Thomas’ error about the immaculate conception of the blessed mother. The doctrine is simply not integral to St. Thomas’ thought, and so one can simply erase a few sentences or write two or three footnotes and the problem is solved). If one denied the inferiority of potency, on the other hand, they would have to so mangle the texts of St. Thomas that they would be better off just ignoring the majority of what St. Thomas wrote- but the things that give rise to the charge of sexism are not integral to St. Thomas’ thought and so one can still be a faithful disciple and pay them no mind.

 

To pay St. Thomas no mind, however, always involves some loss of some profound truth, and so it might be best to follow his understanding about the relation of men and women from the beginning, and see what he can tell us.

 

For St. Thomas, male and female designate roles in reproduction. St. Thomas, for example, always speaks of “male and female in the animal”, which is a way of speaking he borrows from Aristotle (cf. Bk. VII of the Metaphysics). I am aware of no text that speaks of male and female in persons as opposed to the beasts, or in other words where St. Thomas speaks of male and female in humans as special modes of male and female, and so St. Thomas has nothing we would call nowadays “the philosophy of male and female persons”. Using other modern terms, we might say that St. Thomas doesn’t distinguish sex and gender, or at least that he understands gender primarily through sex.

 

Because St. Thomas sees the distinction between male and female as essentially a reproductive one, any discussion about male and female persons will see them according to their reproductive roles, which for St. Thomas means to see them in a marital relation. This is not because St. Thomas is oblivious to the fact that non-married persons can reproduce, but because he sees such reproduction as a certain failure to be human. Said another way, he sees such an action as being done only accidentally and not in virtue of ones human nature.

 

I one were to give some principes of St. Thomas’ theory on men an women, they would probably be: 1.) men and women are (or are first) male and female animals. 2.) Male and female first designate reproductive roles. 3.) Human reproduction is marital. The discussion of men and women, therefore, turns first to a discussion of husbands and wives and the children they make. In a word, it turns to families.

 

A family is a single entity composed of many persons, and it therefore exists through the unity of order.  Order, moreover, is a distinction according to before and after. St. Thomas, most likely following Ss. Peter and Paul, places husbands before and wives after simply speaking. The same order of before and after is also observed in the Church, where a single Father is set before as a principle of spiritual life. What St. Thomas thinks about the order that should be observed in an office or on a city council or a university we can only guess. It is certainly not evident that St. Thomas would have seen the need for the same sort of order as needed in families. To cite an obvious exception, the order in convents could not be the same as in families. Moreover, its hard to see how unmarried persons, as such, have any relation to one another at all in terms of their sex, and so it’s hard to see how it is meaningful to speak about any need for the submission of one to the other.

 

 

Notes on theology

-The ability to divide and critique Scripture does not make one a theologian, but rather the submission to it as a first principle of ones thought and understanding of God. Custom disposes us to see that these two things are compatible, but we need to be reminded that the first without the second is no theology.

-Catholics claim that Scripture is the product of a corporate, hierarchical, divine institution that still exists. For us, to read Scripture without reference to this institution is literally as stupid as having access to the author of some controversial or difficult text and yet never asking him to explain what he meant.

-Viewed from Catholic eyes, to speak of “Scripture and tradition” is actually a bit odd, like speaking of Moby Dick and Melville or of Hamlet and Shakespeare.  One gets the sense that he is simply repeating himself.  The whole person of a great artist is often consumed by their greatest works. When one talks about “Mozart” they are usually talking about a musical composition, not a man. And yet who wouldn’t want Mozart to play for himself?

human actions as instruments

All things stand to God as instruments. Since we can only act on things extrinsically and in some sense violently, we are prone to thinking that being an instrument involves being moved violently, which is not so. To be an instrument involves receiving from another, and there is no necessity that this thing received be contrary to the nature of the thing- in fact, there is not reason that the nature itself cannot be from another. This is why when speaking of creatures as instruments of God, we carry over the idea of being moved by another, but we leave aside the note of mechanical or violent causation.

But isn’t our free action directly contrary to being moved by another? Considered in itself and by definition, yes, but not when considered in relation to God. Viewed in relation to God, all things, even our own self and free action, are beings by participation. Our actions do not cease to be created beings simply because we do them. What does it mean of say that our own actions are not God himself, and are therefore in the created world? To ask the question is to answer it.

Some errors about St. Thomas’ doctrine of Predestination

There are three very common errors that people make concerning St. Thomas’ treatment of predestination.

1.) There is a general failure to determine about the divine nature. It is essential to come to the question of predestination already understanding why we would say by reason that God exists at all, and how he stands to creatures. Most debates about predestination can get nowhere simply because the disputants have an intrinsically disordered knowledge of things, because they want to have clarity about things that come later before they have any clarity of what comes before. The dispute between St. Thomas and Molina, for example, can be traced directly back to a dispute about what it means to be a prime mover. But few take the time to figure out exactly what motion is for St. Thomas, still less what a first immobile mover is. If we took the first things in natural theology more seriously, the later things would seem much clearer. Consider this rather facile, but sound argument: God is the cause of all that exists; but a saint’s choice to get to heaven exists, therefore etc.

2.) Related to this point, there is also the failure to understand the nature of St. Thomas’ teaching of causality. Many people get the basics of St. Thomas’ doctrine: there are four causes, the final cause is the cause of all and the efficient is what we first call a cause, etc. The doctrine of predestination, however, requires us to know something about the order of causes, and the various distinctions between lower and higher causes of one order, which are difficult things to understand. Consider what St. Thomas calls a general rule of all causality: the first cause is more inflowing into the effect of the second cause than the second cause itself. The architect is more the cause of the building than the site manager, who is more the cause than the guy who is actually laying the stones. The more universal cause, as a rule, is more present to the effect than even the one who actually puts his hands on the effect and is the immediate cause of it coming to be. Remote causes are, even by their remoteness, more intimately within the effect.

2a.) There is also the general problem of jargon and distinctions that confuse more than illumine. People both create problems and attempt to solve them by immediately speaking of “efficacious grace” and sufficient grace, or the difference between antecedent and consequent will, or whether freedom is genuine and authentic or determined, or whether knowledge of vision is compatible with premotion. All of these terms might have a place in the discussion: but the most important place they have in the discussion is after we have come to an agreement on more basic and fundamental points.

Notice the gravity of these two errors: predestination might be summarized briefly as God’s causality of certain human actions, and yet if we commit these two errors we will neither know what we mean by God or his causality. In such a case our ignorance of what we are talking about is already thorough, and it would only take an error about human freedom to make our ignorance total.

3.) As one could predict, errors about human freedom are usually involved in discussions of predestination too. Since this is an error that goes back to the origins of our race it’s hardly surprising that we are so prone to make it. More on this later.

Knowledge as a vital activity

Knowledge is essentially an operation of a living thing. As soon as we stop seeing it as such, we see it as the operation of a non-living thing and therefore the act of a machine. The impossibility comes in when we remember that machines are all essentially instruments serving human beings. We are for the sake of another that is not there. Or, we are for the sake of ourselves, and yet there is no self.

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