Five is said of the fifth one. That we call this one fifth as opposed to that one is not always essential.

An aspect of the division of the sciences

St. Thomas divided the objects of study by their relation to sensation (which presupposes that all have some relation to sensation).

All sensible objects are studied by natural science. This includes all we now call science, even including things like politics so far as we simply asking what the state or nation is.

Mathematics studies things that are not in the sensible world, but have a substantial likeness to the things in it. One can never point to what the geometer means by a circle, nor can he point to that mysterious unity that the mathematician calls, say, “five” (though five distinct things are easy enough to point to). At the same time, the mathematicals have a substantial likeness to sensible things since quantity and sensible quality are said of some underlying thing.

Metaphysics studies things that are neither in the sensible world, nor have a substantial likeness to things in it.

Mathematics and metaphysics both have a unity and likeness to the sensible world, but in different ways. Mathematics has a likeness and unity by way of substance, whereas metaphysics has it by way of causality. The objects of these sciences, however, are not given directly to sensation, nor is the science assumed to be about anything real prior to some demonstration of its existence.

Because neither mathematical things nor metaphysical things are directly given in sensation, the objects of both sciences have an interiority and immanence within us that the objects of natural science do not have. Mathematics is the first muse we have instructing us that we cannot identify objectivity with being given in sensation, and she makes her point quite emphatically. Though her science treats of nothing we can point to in the sensible world, it has more rigor, precision, and ease in learning than any other science (in this regard, we have taken exactly the wrong conclusion from Einstein’s observation that the physical world cannot be understood in three dimensional terms. We should have taken it as another confirmation that mathematical reality is simply different than sensible reality, but instead most people have taken this as a reason to deny the reality of mathematical things. But, for example, Euclid’s science is not a branch of physics, and so it is sheltered from any change in physics.)

The objects of metaphysics are even more removed from the physical world than those of mathematics, but because we relate them to the world by way of causality, we are forced to speak of them as subsistent, whereas quantity- which shows itself as an accident- need not be thought of as subsistent. We do not come to the existence of metaphysical objects because we approach the world with n principle of causality that we assume must apply to the world- we simply take metaphysical causes where we find them, for example, when we are explaining what is required for motion, or physical causality, or contingency, or sensible goodness, or the existence and activity of natural things.

Metaphysics requires in different ways a prior knowledge of phyics and mathematics. From physics, it gahters that which it must distinguish itself from, and from mathematics it gathers greater confidence that objectivity does not require being given in the sensible world.

One of the gravest errors we can make in metaphysics is thinking that the subsistence of its objects must consist in them being “out there” like the objects given in sensation. The sense we understand God as “existent ” must be- and can only be- is a way opposed to the what things are given in sensation. All of Kant’s paradoxes about the first cause are rooted in his identification of objectivity and being given in sensation. This is a scheme he forced on reality a priori for the sake of his system, as opposed to simply taking truth where he could find it and then arrange it later. Much of modern thought suffers from the desire to impose some pre-fab criterion for knowledge on the mind rather than letting it simply go out, see what it can find, and then sort through the pieces later. Such an approach is antithetical to simply grounding sceince on experience, as Aristotle and St. Thomas do.

To show that freedom is inseparable from the pursuit of goodness, it suffices to show that freedom is of actions. Goodness is the only magnet of human action. 

By goodness, I mean actual goodness existing in objects. Apparent goodness cannot attract us as apparent. Apart from objective goodness in things separate from the will, freedom is unknowable and unthinkable- for action simply speaking is unthinkable. We would not know what to do, or even what doing is.

But then how do we do what we know is not good? We stop thinking about how it is evil. The mind has a whole dead-palate of tricks to stop thinking about evils.

The need for multiple approaches to understanding disproportionate things

St. Thomas speaks of our relation to knowing an object in terms of proportion. A typical example is Contra Gentiles 2:98

Our possible intellect stands proportionately to corruptible bodies, to which it is united as a form.

Intellectus autem possibilis noster proportionaliter se habet corporibus corruptibilibus, quibus unitur ut forma

Proportion is a well suited relation. “Well adapted” or just ‘adapted’ are very close in meaning. The body of a seal, for example, is proportioned to moving gracefully through the water; our intellect is proportioned to understanding the essence of sensible things (the emphasis on both terms is important)

Understanding objects according to their proportion to our intellect allows St. Thomas to rank various objects in degrees of intelligibility, which better matches experience. Things other than corruptible bodies (atoms, energy, angels, immanent activity) are each in various ways disproportionate to our intelligence. Such disproportion does not make these things simply unknown, but unknown distinctly and in themselves. We can only know these things in a general manner by other things proportionate to our intelligence. In knowing atoms, for example, we have to construct various models which look nothing alike in order to bring out various aspects we understand about the atom. When speaking of energy in physics, use again use various models and impose symbols which stand in for the various realities we want to understand. It is easier and perhaps absolutely necessary, for example, to understand EM waves in terms of things like water  waves and billiard balls that are directly and distinctly given in our experience and therefore proportionate to our intellect.

This need to proportion things to our intellect is also important in metaphysics. Analogy, for example, is a proportion that our mind uses to understand one meaning in light of another. Various negations like “immaterial” and “simple” and “ummoved” are also indispensable.

One consequence of the way we understand the things that are disproportionate to our intellect is that we often need several incompatible or distinct accounts to speak of the same reality. Because we are trying to understand a natural thing through an artistic model, we need more than one model of the atom, the molecule, and the EM wave in order to account for what we know about it. Because we try to understand the divine existence with human language, we need to predicate both concrete terms (“good” or “is”) and abstract terms (goodness, existence) of him. At the height of this necessary dual approach, we have the necessity in revealed theology approaching God both as absolute unity, and then in a separate approach as trinity of persons.

The need for two accounts which are both in some way total and irreducible is common to the things most worth knowing. Human action, for example, cannot be well understood by reduction simply to the will or simply to the intellect, but to each of them totally in different orders. Will and intellect, though perfectly separate, yet compenetrate each other. We make them proportionate to our understanding and so give them the sort of distinction that bodies have, which distorts their nature and therefore requires another approach to balance us toward truth.

The post modern mind we all grew up with is very comfortable with the idea of the need for many approaches to understand a single reality, but without the idea of proportion to the intellect that makes the many approaches necessary, we easily fall into thinking that we don’t understand things. There is a sense in which we “don’t know what God is” (as St. Thomas himself said), just as we don’t know what EM waves are. While our knowledge of these two disproportionate objects is far more different than similar, they do share the single point of comparison- they are disproportionate to what we know best and therefore have to be understood in a general manner by things other than themselves.

Human beings find nothing ironic in going from thinking that future events are unpredictable before they happen to thinking they were predictable after the fact.

Absurdity pt. III

He has made everything beautiful in its time, but he has set eternity in the heart.

The basic characteristic human experience involves drawing corruptible and changeable things into an unchangeable existence.  One can’t look at birds or feel slippery things without generating things that do not share the changeability of birds or slippery things. We find nothing odd in seeing something bark and then spontaneously getting a hold of a reality that existed even before the barking thing. This either is experience, or is inseparable from it.

Human experience consists in a certain infinite separation between the world we know and the world as known. The former is flux, change, and imperfect existence. What is the world if one takes away memory? How could something even change? Apart from memory, all that remains is a certain failure to endure or exist. Even to call it a blur would give it too much reality. This does not mean that memory falsifies the world, for then it would not be a principle or source of experience.

A properly human experience is made possible because of the infinite separation between the world outside of us and the world within us. The separation is infinite because the experience consists in a spontaneous ability to leap beyond the given finitude of the thing known, even though the thing known cannot exist outside of this finitude. The vantage point from which we understand the finite does not share in finitude of the thing understood.

There is a radical disproportion between the thing known and the thing as known. This disproportion is fitting to us so far as we are to know as we do. There is, however, the threat of revolt in this knowledge, especially as we make it a source of action. The threat is self forgetfulness- the forgetting that our experience of the world is made possible only by our separation from it. At the lowest and most vivid level of self-forgetfulness, we falsely infuse certain things we know with the sort of infinity that is proper to our own knowing. A the same time, the changeable character of the things remains, and so we are left with a contradictory world. This is an essentially absurd life, characterized by an ironic or absurd existence.

The absurdity of life without God II

He has made all things beautiful in time, but he has placed eternity in man’s heart (Eccles. 3:11)

Satisfaction requires that the thing desired fill up or be adequate to the thing desiring, but but all things are in time while the heart has eternity within it.

Time is laid out like a line before the heart, and all things end in points with something after. Their power to satisfy ends with their existence.

A man is called worthless from the fact that he follows changeable things they walk after worthless things, and have been made worthless (Jer chap. 2).

Vanus dicitur homo ex hoc quod sequitur res mutabiles Jer. 2: ambulaverunt post vanitates, et vani facti sunt.

St. Thomas, Commentary On Psalm 38


The absurdity of life without God, pt. 1.

(or, what this absurdity is not)

St. Thomas and Sartre agree that life without God is absurd. Contemporary atheism disagrees with both Aquinas and Sartre and argues for a third way: a generally pleasant, dutiful, decent atheism- or at least an atheism that doesn’t embrace an absurd existence indifferent to good and evil. After all, what about Sweden? The overwhelming majority of Swedes are atheist- is Swedish life simply absurd? How is it any more absurd than life in Africa, where atheism is statistically non-existent?

Neither St. Thomas nor Sartre would deny that there are places like, say, Sweden or Norway or most of western Europe where the populations are both overwhelmingly irreligious, often thoroughly atheist, and yet prosperous and free of violent conflict. St. Thomas was well aware from reading Scripture that there could be such places. Scripture, taken as a whole, is quite clear that there is no dependable relation between peace, prosperity, and religious piety. It could be somewhat disconcerting, for example, for a rich, successful person with a comfortable life to read the New Testament (“woe to you rich”, “easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle”, “the man went away sad for he had many possessions”… the story of Lazarus and the rich man, etc). What is most to the point, however, is that when scripture gives one of the most persuasive and insightful arguments for the absurdity and futility of life, it put the narrative in the mouth of the most prosperous person in Israel, living in the most prosperous and peaceful moment spoken of in Scripture. Ecclesiastes laments the futility and meaninglessness of life and concludes that the only course of action in the face of it is to follow the commandments of God. Absent this, one is left with only the given futility and vanity of all things.

But the futility and vanity is, to an outside observer, hardly apparent. Ecclesiastes lives in a world that is as prosperous, peaceful, and orderly as Sweden. None of the details of his book, moreover, would have to change much if he lived in poverty and desperation in a time of war. The absurdity of life apart from the following of God is not given in a dramatic, romantic, and sensible way. It is a mistake to think, as some have, that the sort of absurdity that characterizes the life without God (at least as understood by Aquinas and Sartre) is such that it allows one to expect an atheist regime to degenerate quickly into dramatic displays of murder, lewdness and violence (or at least murder and violence). The absurdity of life without God can exist just fine in times of peace and prosperity. Such peace and prosperity, moreover, might disguise the absurdity of life without God or make it more acute- it depends. There is a great deal more involved in understanding how ones soul will relate to the Absolute beyond knowing where one lives and what its GDP is. Obviously.


-Sartre and Kant. Ecclesiastes was better.

-To take Ecclesiastes seriously. There is no pleasant, suburban “be a good guy” mentality. If any could have had it, he could have. The universe cannot be, for anyone, a couch we can pleasantly pass time on and get by, just for our own reason for doing so.  This would be absurdity and vexation of spirit.

-Kierkegaard: to the lover of sense pleasures, or “the good guy”, life is ironic. They are saved from it by seeing their ironic existence.  Our duty is to show its irony. This is apologetics.

-Human life finds itself in the presence of a “big question about what it all means” and there is no possibility to just shrug in the face of it, or fire off ironic and dismissive clever answers. The world cannot be pleasantly adjusted to. We must transcend it or call it absurd. Real absurdity or real divine union. Everything else is insipid and ultimately dishonest. The Lukewarm.

-The sort of mentality that could read the Symposium and say “well, it doesn’t all need to lead to something like that- my life could be perfectly meaningful without all that”. Dishonesty.

Angelic activity and the eduction of nature from matter

Existing within everything of a certain sort we find something which was not always, and yet cannot be the result of a parent. This “one thing”, however, is pretty important: it is that which exists within the thing that makes it to be of a certain sort. We can posit other individuals of a certain sort to explain it, but the regress is obvious. We would not explain anything. What we must posit is a being which, being individual, is the same as the sort of thing it is, an individual which is its own species. Metaphysics shows that this being is not properly God, but a separated substance (or angel, as Scripture would refer to it).

The bringing forth of individuals of a certain kind is most fittingly and properly referred to angelic activity- not in such a way as to diminish physical causality, but in co-operation with the form that is educed from the potency of matter. The angel does not need to chase around matter to do this, for his knowledge is prior to the existence of the form brought forth from matter and so he can bring it forth without having to “seek out” matter to act upon. The angel no doubt takes great pleasure in this, like any artist. Such a work is entirely beyond our power- for it brings forth a nature from the potency of matter. The infinitude that we can only barely discover after thousands of years of effort- the understanding of a nature- an angel understands as clearly as we understand our own works of art.

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