Thomistic Naturalism

The third of John Damascene’s arguments for the existence of God:

[T]he very continuity of the creation, and its preservation and government, teach us that there does exist a Deity, who supports and maintains and preserves and ever provides for this universe. For how could opposite natures, such as fire and water, air and earth, have combined with each other so as to form one complete world, and continue to abide in indissoluble union, were there not some omnipotent power which bound them together and always is preserving them from dissolution?

De fide Orthodoxa I c. 3

Thomas not only knew this argument but probably had it memorized, but he neither gave it as a proof for God’s existence or even his governance. Why not? Likely because John assumes that some natural order does not reduce to natural causes, whereas Thomas believes all do. Call this Thomas’s Naturalism.

First, John sets out the argument through question and suggestion, which suggest he takes it as hypothetical, probable, or missing key premises. But there are no shortage of those who take John’s probable or hypothetical premise as axiomatic: the intrinsic tendencies of things tend to destroy and conflict other natural orders or, the natures of things have no tendency of themselves to some natural orders, like the order of the universe.

Now Thomas seems to suggest a sympathy with the premise in his argument for the divine government:

[I]n nature things happen always or nearly always for the best; which would not be the case unless some sort of providence directed nature towards good as an end; which is to govern. Wherefore the unfailing order we observe in things is a sign of their being governed; for instance, if we enter a well-ordered house we gather therefrom the intention of him that put it in order, as Tullius says (De Nat. Deorum ii), quoting Aristotle [Cleanthes].

ST 1. 103. 1

But the last argument he gives in the article clarifies exactly how he wants natural activity to be understood:

[T]hat which creatures receive from God is their nature, while that which natural things receive from man in addition to their nature is somewhat violent. Wherefore, as the violent necessity in the movement of the arrow shows the action of the archer, so the natural necessity of things shows the government of Divine Providence.

In other words, it belongs to human art precisely as human to impose an order on natures lacking a tendency to that order. Divine art makes natural order arise from natural causes acting for an end, so much so that if we posit natures whose operation is contrary (like water smothering fire) we need to also posit some more universal natural order or law in which these operations harmonize. This is the point of Aristotle’s response to the argument that rain cannot fall to water crops since it would just as soon rot crops in silos.

Again, Thomas’s position is a sort of Naturalism since he holds that every natural order reduces to natural causes. Where Thomas differs from contemporary Naturalism is that he denies that the first cause in the natural order is the first cause absolutely.

Immateriality of sense cognition

When the form of something different from X is realized materially or in the matter of X it destroys the form of X.

If you realize the form of a rifle stock in the wood of a door it destroys the form of the door, if you realize the letter U in the matter of the clay letter K you destroy the K. The claim is self-evident since for a form to be different from X but realizable in its matter simply means to destroy the form X has.

When the form of the object the sense power is realized in it, this form is both (a) different from the sense power and (b) it does not destroy the form in which the power is found, namely the sense organ.

(a) is both evident and can be shown from the fact that no sense senses itself. (b) is true a fortiori since the sense object perfects the sense power.

So the form of the object is not realized in the sense power materially or in its matter.

The mystery of mercy

Joy arises from devotion and true devotion rests on the mystery of the mercy of God. The mystery of mercy is how it combines both vision of the person’s fault and love of the person. There is no mystery in a love that looks past faults, that focuses on something other than the fault, or that imagines that understanding the fault is somehow to forgive it, i.e. the tout comprendre c’est tout pardonner which is nothing but a refusal to allow the reality that mercy both truly understands and the person as not worthy of pardon and yet pardons.

True, the divine mercy transforms and takes away faults and does not leave them as they are, but this presupposes a principle that somehow is capable of loving in the face of the unlovable.

This touches on a sensitive point for the Catholic-Protestant split in the West: Luther can certainly read into it the simul justus et peccator, but his great rival Cajetan would insist just as strongly on devotion being founded on the acknowledgement of God’s goodness and man’s sinfulness. Mystery demands more than other sorts of knowledge an experiential grasp of truth within a speech-community taken as authoritative. However we solve the problem, our joy is a function of spending time with the mystery itself.

Religion and taboo

A taboo word must be known* but not spoken. The word has a more or less widely known location within consciousness, but the location is marked off as forbidden. Common taboos were once blasphemies, i.e. misused sacred terms, but there was always a good cache of obscenities or things that were supposed to be done ob-scena (off stage.) In the last thirty years or so the most potent taboo words are for ethnic and sexual minorities.

The use of taboo words dishonors someone by making him seen as defiled, and so presupposes some significant power that takes the right observation of the taboo with reverence. Reverence is often ambiguous since the reverencers, for all their power, are open to the charge of hypocrisy, sanctimony, fanaticism, mindless faith, priggishness, anal-retentiveness, or to the nowadays claim that they are despite their protests practicing a religion.

The tendency to equate enforcers of taboos with the religious suggests that the taboo belongs in religion, which in turn suggests that religious faith should play a some controlling role in speech. It’s not clear what this looks like as a practical policy, but while it might be compatible with some forms of free speech this seems to be balanced against the human need to make sure that its speech taboos, at least, are tied to true religion.


A word like eleemosynary is not used, but only because almost no one knows what it means. But everyone in a speech community knows what the taboo words mean.

Discernment (2)

Q: Aren’t you making too much of this present mood of discernment? Isn’t it simply a way of urging people to be mindful about dedicating their life to God?

A: Always ask for what you want. If you want mindfulness, ask for mindfulness. If you want religious vocations, ask for them. If you want vocations for the sake of increasing acts of holiness, why not just ask for acts of holiness?

Q: But isn’t that what we’re doing? We we’re asking for someone to choose something freely after discernment!

A: Why is this how it is happening? Why isn’t a bishop going out like Christ and calling men to join him?

Q: I think we all the the problem in “Bishops calling young men to join him”

A: But since that’s what the vocation is, isn’t this the problem we should be focusing on?

Discerning vocations

Q: Should I discern a vocation?

A: By vocation you either mean something you have already been called to or something you are being called to in the future. As a married man, for example, it’s important for me to discern my vocation to marriage i.e. to see the consolations, difficulties, rewards and pains of marriage as willed by God. As a teacher, it’s important for me to discern the same things as willed by God in my teaching.

Q: But what about your future vocation? If I’m a single guy, should I try to discern a vocation to some other state?

A: Why do you think you should?

Q: Because God has a plan for everyone’s life, and by discernment I should be able to figure it out.

A: God has a plan for your life but much of it is indiscernible. Providence acts through both your own free choices and sheerly fortuitous and chance events, and none of these can be discerned by us in advance. The role of chance is not an accidental or insignificant past of providence either: it is hard not to see God acting more significantly in fortune and strokes of luck than in most things that happen according to our plans.

Q: But shouldn’t we strive to know God’s will? What possible christianity could there be without this?

A: We should strive to know God’s will so far as we can know it, and we can’t know what it is years in advance before we are in a position to decide things one way or another. Your desire for discernment is more a desire for prophetic knowledge than for prudence, i.e. the virtue that acts well in the face of uncertainty. The desire for prophetic clarity is, in fact, a sort of vice against prudence so far as it has an immoderate aversion to the intrinsic uncertainty of life.

Q: What is the point of all this discernment I’ve been told to do?

A: Much of it is probably just temptation. As soon as the devil sees you advancing in the spiritual life he will pester you to come up with answers to insoluble questions and try to convince you the answers are relevant to your relationship with God. The point is to generate anxiety and rob you of the joy of the Holy Spirit. It’s the same tactic he uses when he causes scruples.

On Great Books curricula

The Great Books are not a wisdom tradition but are a necessary component of any contemporary lived wisdom tradition. As Great Books they stand to the wisdom tradition as matter, suggesting salient problems and providing a sort of historical narrative for the contours of our contemporary thoughtscape.

Absent a wisdom tradition the Great Books are a parade of ideas interpreted by someone unfit for the task. That said, there is something ennobling and necessary in both the parade and the interpretations, and the wisdom tradition has to allow some free play for both. So what is the wisdom tradition?

Philosophy is a sort of love and it develops as loves do. Students start off more zealous than informed, relying more on the extrinsic evidences of goodness than on discernment and penetration. They see several possibilities for a wisdom tradition and love them like sports teams. Students rely on tutors to point toward the teacher, as the teacher could not be understood by them as wise and is incapable of explaining himself in person since he is centuries-dead. We love the tutor too, often as much mimicking his behavior as absorbing his words. The tutor shows us that to speak for yourself is most of all to channel the energy from a more concentrated source or to make one’s soul magnify the Lord and so rejoice in the teacher who makes us whole. To experience someone magnifying the teacher in this way is already to begin to do it oneself.

At some point one catches enough of another’s magnification of the teacher to begin magnifying the teacher himself. At this stage he’s no longer under a tutor but a student of the teacher and the tutor of others. This is in one sense obviously an elevation and can only be understood as an ascent, but in another sense involves a much more profound submission and humility than he experienced at the lower level. When we were beginning with the Great Books we confronted a multitude and diversity of opinions and so were in a sense equal to them since if there is a diversity of opinion at the bottom things, then adding our own opinion adds just more of the same thing. In ascending to the level of a tutor we start to see that our opinion is not one of many but subordinate to something more subtle, definite, fertile and salvific. In light of this the diversity of the Great Books becomes superfluous in one sense, as there is a greater desire to bring more and more into submission to the teacher, but in another sense the Great Books now illumine history from within since, while not all is true within them, nevertheless they have the unique and rare property that everything in them informs.

So the ascent from the Great Books is from that which necessarily informs even when not true to the truth the Books rely on to inform. This approach doesn’t begin with the University of Chicago in the 1930s, but is as old as Aristotle collecting all the thoughts of his predecessors; Jews sifting through multiple sources to compile a wisdom tradition of entirely sacred and true books in the Septuagint, Scholasticism forging methods to synthesize Patristic, Islamic, Jewish and Greek sources, etc. Great Books are part of a larger movement, yet unnamed, bent toward what had previously culminated in Aristotle’s corpus, the LXX, the traditions of the theologians from the 12th- 18th Centuries, etc. As each of these stages gets longer we might expect the Great Books tradition to last at least a millenium. Then on to the next thing, I suppose.

Naturalism and soul

We know that there are the ingredients of things and their end products. Naturalism holds that all else is downstream from these, but this misses the first fact about life, namely that there is something in the living thing that knows how to turn ingredients into the end products. The embryo is not just alive as end product but alive as capable of turning food eaten by mother into legs, eyes, kidneys, etc.

What knows how to make a kidney? Something in the embryo or the embryo as this something. It is not an order or arrangement but the thing itself whose end product is the living organs and body. Substance as form.

Naturalism takes life or soul as arising only after the parts have their proper arrangement, and while it is obviously true that parts arranged life-wise are alive this occludes and skips over the more important fact that there is something causally before the proper arrangement and to which the proper arrangement stands as an effect. Substance in the sense of form is a “knowledge” within the materials themselves, not only acting on them but giving them being and ordering the materials to achieve certain ends.

The problem of explaining soul

The problem in explaining the nature of the soul is how the plant or animal’s body is alive.

If soul is a spirit in a body then it is present by a sort of contact, but things do not become alive because living things touch them. So life or soul can’t be a spirit in body.

Soul or life also can’t be the arrangement of physical things or emergent from them, like a word arising from an arrangement of letters. Unarranged letters can come to compose the word but the corpse can’t come to compose the animal. So the corpse of an animal can’t be just the absence of arrangement, nor can the living body – the animal – be the presence of the arrangement of parts or an emergent form.

Aristotle’s sui generis account of life

Aristotle claims that the first answer one needs in discussing the soul is whether it is a substance or accident, and the all-important answer he needs is whether it is actual or potential. Most of what he says about the soul and makes his account sui generis arises from the way he answers both these question at once.

He first divides substance by act and potency, saying that the category can be taken either as matter, form or the composite whole made from both. He makes soul substance in the sense of form of a natural body potentially alive.

Form as actuality is either the readiness of operation (first act) or the operation itself (second act.) Soul is actuality in the first sense as opposed to the second, e.g. a readiness to breathe and not actual breathing, a readiness to sense and not actual sensing, as readiness for operation is present in living beings sleeping or hibernating.

Form as substance is divided from accidental form. Both are forms of a body, but they differ because the body’s loss of a substantial form leaves a corpse that is not the body except equivocally.

So understood it is impossible for soul to be either a platonic man or a naturalist emergent form since the platonic man makes soul what Aristotle called a composite and the naturalist makes soul an accidental form arising from some accident like the relation or quality or quantity of subatomic particles. Neither account allows the living body to leave a corpse that is not the body except equivocally, in the platonic case because the soul moves the body from without and so cannot account for the presence of an intrinsic principle within it; in the naturalist case because soul is an effect of a body and so its loss cannot be the cause of an intrinsic change. This makes Aristotelians the odd man out in the contemporary debates between dualism and physicalism, and we should resist all attempts to fold us into one side or the other. Depending on how one squints he can start believing that the Aristotelian account will boil down to either physicalism or dualism, but whenever you try to boil down Aristotle’s account you’ll find that most of what is essential in it was in the evaporate, and that what is left is not his account except equivocally.

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