Because of the general nature of metaphysical terms, they often fall into the imagination as mere grey and bloodless quantities. Matter and form; essence and existence; being and nothingness become distinct units and things in their own right. They become vague bodies and are much like symbols in the imagination. They may in fact be symbols when they fall into the imagination, but at this point the role of judgment becomes critical. Even though we may imagine the central realities of metaphysics as vague, or imagine them as mere vague bodies, we must be sure to never judge them as being these things. Real metaphysics involves a continual negation of the things in our thought. We must continually make our imagination (which is in some very real sense our thought) a sacrificial victim to what is most real and divine.

Sketch of the First way, proem.

Why prove God’s existence at all? Why not just believe? This question is uniquely Christian since Christianity is the only religion that places such a lofty importance on faith.

The First Way, along with any other proof that Christians might give for God’s existence, can never be understood as a substitute for Faith. This is not because we prove the existence of some being other than the God Christians believe in- a “Christian God” and “a God of Philosophy” can never be understood as being two different objects. The God we know is the same God who is revealed, but when we know him we do not know him as revealed. We can know that there is some being who deserves to be called God; but what is more extrordinary is that a being has made himself known by the same name.

Sketch of the First Way III

The first way starts with motion but the English word “motion” is a bit too heavily weighted toward meaning change of place. St. Thomas seems to be working with a more general sense of motion which is equivalent to the English words “going” or “turning”. In English, a leaf can’t move from green to red, and a mouse can’t move from being one weight to being another; but a leaf can go or turn from green to red, and water can go from being cold to hot. For that matter, things can go from being alive to being dead, and we can turn from considering one thing to another.

While St. Thomas’s first way is based on motion, we have to think of motion as “going” or to a lesser extent “turning”. St. Thomas is working from a more precise account of the very general notion of going or turning, sc. the reduction of somethign from potency to act. So what does this mean?

Miracles in the Christian Dispensation

Christianity does have a place for miracles, but miracles are not at its center. Miracles are acts going beyond the normal course of things in nature, but the heart of Christianity is the unified operation of the divine causes and those causes working in the normal course of nature. Christ, for example, who is the innermost heart of the christian mystery, is not the overriding or the suppression of human nature, but the perfect unity of the divine and the human nature.

Miracles are certain concessions to the weakness of our intellect. A miracle is, as it were, when God acts according to our ideas of what God’s interaction with the world would look like. When we imagine ourselves as gods, we imagine primarily the “ooh-ahh” feats of zapping away disease, smiting enemies, making the sun stop moving, etc. While this is certainly divine, it takes infinitely more power to, say, providentially act within a chance event, to design an ordered universe with contingent things, or to make subordinate causes real causes. We can only imagine God as overriding nature because the positive conceptions of our mind are mostly trapped within nature. The hypostatic union of Christ’s two natures is an infinitely more perfect work of the divine power than the making of water into wine; but the latter is a great “ooh ahh” moment for the senses, while after the former most would say we see only a man in front of us.

A theological history that never happened for a reason

Christ could have called himself “greater than ‘God'” or “completely above the human idea of God”. Christianity could have been a vast cult of silence over what Christ’s other-than-human-nature was. We could have insisted that we had no human word for it at all. We could have left a great silence in the Creed in the place of his nature- or call him “the over even God one”. Christians could have been told to refer to God in a koan-like way, constantly contradicting themselves whenever they said something about him to stress his absolute and irreconcilable separation from the human mind. None of this happened. All of these scenarios are false. This tells us something about the glory of human reason, and its power to know God, even the God who needed to reveal himself to man in order to be known.

One of the most powerful proofs for natural theology is simply that the word “God” is our own artifact. God has “put on” human speech, and confirmed the power of reason to attaining to him simply by confirming and even insisting that we can use our words to speak of him.

Sketch of a popular account of the first way Part 1

1.) The proof is philosophical. What does this mean? It means among other things that its subject and method is philosophical. What kind of method do we use to study the philosophical question of whether there is a God? Do we expect to go into a lab, take some measurements, stick things on Bunsen burners, and distill some trace of God? No. Will we take statistical polls, gather case study data, analyse trends in cultures, etc? No. Why not? All these things involve a specialized experience. Philosophy does not ask us to generate a particular set of contrived and specialized experiences, but deals on the level of general or common experience. A sign of this is that philosophical questions more universal in the sense that they are asked and even answered by many or even all kinds of people, not just experts. 

Note that to deal with common experience is not to be uncritical. Philosophy invented being critical. Even when one is dealing with a problem on the general level there is a motion toward making the general thing more and more known. It’s one thing for a subject to be more and less precise, and an exposition of a subject to be more and less precise. One can give a general and precise account of the general subject, and a general and precise account of a more precise subject, etc. the two are very distinct. Philosophy is the first. We seek a precise account of the general.  

(Next- the reality of potency)  

Modern Conventions and Interiority

Language is an artifact made conventionally and so it both shares in the limitations of conventional wisdom and enjoys the incredible power that convention has over what we think is true or false.

The limitations of language are best seen in our awareness of the words a language lacks. On the one hand our awareness of the limitations of language shows us that the power of convention or language is not absolute, but on the other hand words outside of our language have a very limited power. They simply do not feel natural to us.

One very grave limitation of most modern languages is that the word soul has only an archaic or poetic meaning. I was tempted to say that soul no longer has an objective meaning, but this would point to precisely the problem. We have identified the real with the objective, but the whole ground and basis for our awareness of soul is our own experience of being alive, of being a unity, and of causing ourselves to move about and do things, which is the sort of experience we now oppose to objectivity. A similar argument will do away with all other interior realities in our conventional awareness and naming of things.    

The identity of the real and the objective is a fixed character of our conventional life, and it is perhaps the single greatest impediment to philosophy. The identity of the real with the objective makes the interior life unreal, along with all of its perfections: contemplation, virtue, speculative wisdom etc. Ancient philosophers had an axiom “just as medicine in the philosophy of the body, philosophy is the medicine of the soul”. The sense was that medicine allowed us to see the interior nature of bodily things so that we could control them and lead them rightly, while philosophy allowed us to control and lead those things that belong to our interior nature. In our modern conventions, the whole real basis for the second half of the axiom has fallen away. What they called “medicine” we now call “science”, and we simply identify it with the real.

Like any set of conventions, our convention of objectivity is primarily helpful and beneficial, with a few obvious absurdities that later generations will mock us for. Consider the sort of blind obedience we show to any conclusion that follows the phrase “recent studies have  shown”. No matter how ridiculous it is, we treat it with quiet reverence and profound seriousness. If recent studies have shown that you have no free choice, then that decides it! If a scientist sees no essential difference between a living thing and a dead one, then there must be no difference. Your own experience of waving your hands of being alive is never even seen as worthy of consideration. Within our modern conventions, it is perfectly reasonable to think thoughts like: I guess I didn’t choose to wave my hands, the CAT scan told me so. I guess there is no essential difference between a rat and its corpse, that’s hat scientists say. And what is the meaning of this word “essential” anyway? Medieval superstitions! The scientists have not allowed me to speak about “essences”!


Oversimplifications of the doctrine of the mean

Brandon has a very good post which serves to warn us against simplistic accounts of the doctrine of the mean. He focuses on the difficulty in thinking that the mean admits of simplistic reductions to a mere middle state between two and only two extremes. The post helps to highlight one of the oversimplifications which, if treated as a complete explanation of virtue, can easily lead to contempt for the doctrine of virtues. There are a few other oversimplifications worth pointing out in addition to this one.  

Aristotle’s account of virtue consisting in the mean is often understood as promoting a tepidity or lukewarmness of the passions. The student is first told that virtue consists in a “mean between two extremes”; he is then given the standard first example of courage being a middle between too much fear and too little fear, and he is then left to try to imagine how to universalize this to every passion or desire. The desire for food probably suggests itself next, and it can be shoved into this mold without too much damage. The result of this process is that “virtue” comes to be seen as a sort of dimmer switch that we must always set at halfway up. Is it bright as noon? Well, keep that switch halfway up, you don’t want to fall into “brightness vice”, do you? Are you trying to read at night? Don’t turn up the light! SInner! Sinner!

The mean does not consist in a sort of perpetual tepidity. The idea of “moderation in all things” is not that we must always try to be lukewarm when we can be cold or hot, but that our passions should always have a moderator. The passions stand to reason like a the candidates in a formal political debate stand to the moderaor, or like the players on a team stand to the coach. Simply speaking, the players and the candidates are the stars of the show, and reason’s job is a moderator. Every debate needs a good moderator, and the debate cannot go well without one, but the goal of the moderator is not preserve a state of tepidity or mediocrity. In fact, it’s part of the moderator’s job to keep this from happening. Again, virtues are perfectly coached passions, and while the idea of moderation in the sense of avoiding extremes does have some place in coaching, a coach doesn’t tell his players to always jog during the play to avoid the extremes of running or walking.

Moderation does not consist in the direction of the passions to a middle state but in the direction of the passions simply speaking. The doctrine of the mean recognizes passions as the same sorts of things as players on a team or candidates in a formal debate or a river that we want to power a mill. All are the sorts of things that can only perform their activities well in conjunction with a moderator. Remembering this helps guard against another common perversion of virtue theory: the idea that reason is the star operator. When people hear that virtue consists in acting “according to reason” they can easily think that the goal is to somehow replace the passions with sheer calculation. In fact, ethics as such is always prone to thinking that ethics should just be the unmediated operation of reason. In Aristotle’s doctrine of the mean, however, reducing ethics to mere reasonable rule and calculation would be as stupid as sending the 60 year old basketball coach out on the floor to block the 31 year old center. Moral virtue consists precisely in the perfection of passions. Reason is seen as acting for them, as opposed to acting for itself, even though reason accrues an irreplaceable benefit from the passions being perfected. Better yet, reason might be best seen as acting for the whole team or production, which includes itself and all the various members.  

The First Beatitude

The contrary of being “poor in spirit” is to be rich in spirit. But to be rich in spirit would mean either that one has all the spiritual good they want, or they are confident that they could get it entirely by their own powers. That would be an unspeakable and terrifying horror- a trite existence that would be the contrary of possessing the kingdom of God.

Analogy as a consequence of what is knowable to us

St. Thomas’s account of analogy follows from the first principles of Aristotle’s account of the structure of reasoning. We progress from what is more known to us to what most fully deserves to be called knowable. The first meanings of our names will therefore tend to be the things least worthy of the name, and yet these first understandings remain the whole basis of our understanding of the later things.

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