A skilled ancient writer could produce three syllables per minute. At this rate, St. Matthew’s Gospel took well over two hundred hours of writing time alone. A word was something a writer could spend several minutes staring at, and which he had to be intensely fixed upon scratching out. This sort of methodical and painstaking construction was perfectly suited for the wisdom literature of the ancients ancients, in which texts pack an immense amount of meaning into very few words. 

Because of this, commentary on ancient texts is called for by the very nature of the texts they wrote. A disciple of ancient texts has a special obligation to pull out the vast amount of things that went unwritten in ancient writing. We pull out the paragraphs that are hidden in a word, and the whole essays that were hidden in sentences. Ancient text require commentary in a way that modern texts do not. It is as if the ancient writer saw text as only beginning with them.  The disciple of the ancients doesn’t write as though what he wrote wre simply accidental to what the masters did- he has to see himself as in a sense necessary to the project.

Ethics as the perfection of a man, I

Man is a rational animal. What does this mean?

An animal is sentient living substance, but the idea of sensation is most central. So a human being is defined by this strange operation of “rational sensation”. What is rational or intellectual sensation? Mere animals simply have sentient sensations, and angels have intellectual intellections. Man is defined by a much stranger activity of intellective sensation.

Sensation is not merely the five exterior senses, but the interior senses as well, and that whole vast network of powers that come along with sensations. Sensations don’t just involve knowing objects but also desiring them, remembering them, being attracted by them, etc. All of this vast tangle of acts and organs and chemicals and urges is somehow “intellectual” in man, and it can only find its perfection by being “rational”- whatever this means. We don’t know all the details of how one perfects this operation of “intellectual sensation” we only know that perfecting a human being involves doing so. We only have vague and generic ideas of what sort of activity would perfect hogs or roses, but we know exactly the sort of activity that perfects a man: perfect rational sensation.  

The first thing to draw attention to is that man is perfect by an activity or operation- since rational sensation is a kind of activity. Other things will certainly come into play, but operation is at the root and basis of all of them.

The kind of operation must be a harmony of sense and mind. Sensations that are contrary to mind can never be perfective operations, no matter how much evidence sense might marshall to the contrary. If we determined that some sense pleasure, for example, were really contrary to the desires of intellect, then we cannot call it pleasant to a man. It might be pleasant or perfective of dogs or some other animal, but not to us.  

Is all of this too intellectual? By intellectual we no doubt mean cut off from the deep passions and longings. But man cannot be intellectual in this way. Man’s definition requires reason to be integrated into passion and longing. A passion hostile to reason is not human, and neither is a reason hostile to passion. Right reason will certainly have to deny disordered and erroneous passion, but for the same reason rightly ordered passions must reject and supress disordered and erroneous reason.  


Potency and Ethics.

St. Thomas understands the good- whether moral or transcendental- as an act, which means it must be understood as the perfection of some potency. A failure to divide being into act and potency, therefore, will lead to a denial of the reality of goodness. For example, a failure to see the reality of potency requires positing an insurmountable distinction between “the is and the ought”, for ought is said first of potency. If nothing is potential, nothing is perfectible, and if nothing is perfectible, we lose our first notion of perfection. Moreover, without some idea of potency the transcendental good simply never comes up.

Even otherwise very profound thinkers say the stupidest or awkward things about goodness if they do not see the reality of potential being. Max Scheler, or example, said Aquinas thought all being was good because he was rich and had money, and Anscombe’s account of Aristotle’s ethics is often awkward because it totally overlooks Aristotle’s teaching on the reality of potency, which is the foundation of all goodness- moral or otherwise.

For Aristotle and St. Thomas, the question of moral goodness or “the ought” is a particular application of the universal distinction of potency and act. One must understand how being as such is good before understanding the foundation of how a human being or human action in particular is good. Ethics in St. Thomas and Aristotle is founded on the realization that all goodness is what perfects in the mode of an end, and so goodness must correspond to something that needs to be or ought to be perfected (a potency). In moral questions the potency in one sense is a man, in another more precise sense it is a man’s appetites. These appetites are perfected in one sense by their objects, an another sense by actions, in another sense by habits of choosing. There is a great deal that can be fleshed out here, but without seeing the reality of potency the whole project of virtue ethics (and even ethics as such) will never get off the ground.



Thought on Fideism

It might perhaps be a fatal to fideism to notice that if one really believes that God cannot be known by reason, he can build a rather impressive and extensive natural theology from that principle. For example, if we were in earnest that God is “he who the human mind cannot know” we can immediately prove he is not a body, for we certainly know what a body is. We can also immediately prove that God is not in a genus, for genera are tools by which human beings come to know (we need to know in this way because our intellect comes to know from imperfect concepts). If we know God is not in a genus, we could prove that he is one, for if there were two of his nature there would be a genus. Similar considerations wold prove his total simplicity. Further, we could prove that we must speak about God analogously: for if we spoke of him univocally, he would be in a genus; and if we spoke of him equivocally, we would know nothing of him- but we know he is what the human mind cannot know, etc.    

In other words, one could reproduce most of what St. Thomas proves in his natural theology from a fidesitic principle. Fideism might make thomism even easier, since you wouldn’t have to bother proving God’s existence (in fideism, the existence of God is simply a given). Fideism is stuck with having to defend why it, along with natural theology, concludes to a being with identical attribuites as God- and even with the same name- but somehow is still speaking of a distinct being.  

The desire to exist is easily confused with the desire of an individual thing to maintain its existence as an individual. Living things against vividly show how this is not the case: a seed has to cease its existence as a seed to give rise to the plant. This act of a seed shedding its existence as a seed is itself a part of the deire of the iving things to maintain its own existence so far as it is a species. Evolution shows an even more lovely application of this same principle: how plants and animals can continue their own existence at the level of their respective genera. There is not any evidence yet of a completely analogous maintaining of existence- an inanimate thing transitioning to an animate thing or a plant to an animal. For the sake of simplicity, we might assume that there is such a transition, but it is difficult to see what mechanism would allow for such a transition.  

(I use “genus” and “species” in the metaphysical sense, which is the ground that logic borrows for its foundation. In this sense, the terms admit of two meanings: a genus and a species first mean any predicated relation of more universal to less universal. More specifically, species is the immediate nature of a thing, and genus any remote account that is founded on this immediate nature. On this level of analysis, there are only three “classes” of things revealed through their predicates: the species, genus, and the analogous. The words genus and species are used differently in biology, which takes logical relationships of universality and immediate natures as given, and proceeds to divide things in a more distinct fashion. The metaphysician groups two German Shepard’s together and calls them both “dogs”, which he imposes as a species. The biologist takes this grouping for granted, and tries to see if this grouping “dog” more deserves to be seen as what he defines as a “species” or a “subspecies”. Metaphysics has a great deal of certainty in what it calls “species”, but not much distinctness; biology has far more distinctness, but only a hypothetical and falsifiable certainty.)  

Notes on the desire to exist.

Evolution harnessed the explanatory power of the struggle to exist, but this struggle rests upon the even more evident reality of the desire to exist. One can doubt that natural things struggle with each other, but not that the nature desires to exist. To be means to have a desire to endure. In the inanimate, this desire does not rise above mere endurance- though stones and metal do show impressive abilities to endure. The various elements of things do have a certain eternal existence. The living exceeds the inanimate by gaining eternity- not as an individual, but as an individual of a species. This desire to exist seems to add something to merely existing, but at the same time it is necessarily present with existence itself. This desire or striving is as the first operation of existence: operatio sequitur esse.

If we consider our intelligence as intelligence, it is proper for it to rule itself. If we consider its order among intelligences, it is proper for it to be led by the great masters, the angels, and God himself. Our intellectual freedom has to be seen within the context of prayer, reception from higher lights, and discipleship.  Similar considerations apply to our will as a moral agent.

The way in which moral relativism is true

In Book X chapter 6 of the Ethics, Aristotle says “as different things seem valuable to boys and to men, so they should to bad men and to good”. This is a constant theme in the Ethics, found even in the first book. Aristotle sometimes gives another example, sc. that bad men are like sick men who can’t taste things as they are, and therefore perceive bad things as good and good things as bad. What objective standard could we invoke to establish something as sweet to both the healthy man and the sick man? This real lack of a common standard does involve a certain relativism between the good will and the evil will; the mature person and the immature person.  

The experiences that reveal this kind of relativism are common. Maturity, or example, is best measured by the extent to which we become aware that what we once loved as the highest good, and which no one could talk us out of, is in fact less good or even wicked. Children don’t usually love most what is most lovable, and many of the things we burned to do in youth are things that we would be horrified at our own children doing in theirs.

Most attempts to reason with the wicked or immature are wastes of breath and often will only reinforce their convictions (try reasoning with a child). If you give a wicked or immature person a reason for why what they love is bad, they are more likely to judge your reason wrong in light of their loves than to judge their loves wrong in the light of your reason. Either they’ve never heard the reason before and so they will not trust it, or they’ve heard the reason before and so they’re sick of hearing it.

To the extent that moral relativism is the belief that reasoning does not reveal moral standards, and morality can only be the product of non-rational forces, there is a real moral relativism between the good and mature man and the wicked and immature one. The good and mature man can only reveal his reasons to those who are either like to him, or who love him. No one else can understand his reasons, and they can only be led by certain neutral forces that might be wielded either by good men or wicked ones: social pressure, art, music, the grandeur of law, the common practices of a people, enforcement of discipline etc.

It is horrifying to see that the will does have a real primacy and supremacy in the order of the good. There is a real sense in which reason is powerless against it. Will can be the source of that iron, omnipotent “no!” of a child, smugly denying anything.

Plato and Aristotle on Ultimate Causes

The main difficulty on Plato’s philosophy is not his forms as such, rather it’s that he has two first causes: soul and the forms. At times (as in Laws Book X or in Phaedrus) Plato reduces all to soul as to a first cause, and other times, like in Phaedo, he reduces all to form as ultimate explanation. What is the relation? The answer is of ultimate importance. Is the ultimate cause personal and living, or simply an exemplar (like a “museum of forms” as Borges described it)? If forms do not have soul, how are they sufficient causes, and if they do have soul, how are they not existing by participation?

Aristotle solves the problem by seeing being as primarily act, and the highest act as operation. This is why when he concludes to the existence of some “pure act” as a first cause of being, it is absolutely necessary that it be living and intelligent simply because of its primacy in act. It is stupid to think, as many have, that Aristotle does not prove the existence of a God who is a personal creator, but “only” a pure act or an unmoved mover. Aristotle’s very notion of act requires that the highest act be a person, intelligent, eternally blessed and all loving (for love is the perfection of will).

We understand the Aristotle’s energia or entelikia (in English, ‘act’) first through motion. This means we understand what is actual through what is least actual. Similarly, we are prone to imagine what is most actual (operation) in terms of what is least actual (motion). There are certainly motions of things in the brain and in the eyes which are required for sense knowledge, but the activity of sensing is not a motion. The action of moving is not complete while happening, but the action of sensing or knowing is complete while happening. Heraclitus’s fragment is well applied to the activity of operation: “moving, it rests”.

(The experience of pleasure is also of operation, and vividly shows the reality of “moving, it rests”.)

The question of whether being is dynamic or static usually ignores the significance of Aristotle calling being an act. Being in one sense divides into substance and accident, but in another sense into act and potency, and at the summit of actuality is operation, which is the fulfillment and perfection of mere existence. When we consider the degrees of actuality, for example, it is better to say that God is an operation than to say he is a substance (to say this, of course, has the defect of not signifying his existence.)

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