Ramble on history and Platonism

Ultimately, the whole question of the relation between faith and understanding comes up here. It can hardly be disputed that as a consequence of the division between theology and philosophy established by the Thomists, a juxtaposition has been established that no longer seems adequate. There is, and must be, a human reason in faith; yet conversely, every human reason is conditioned by a historical viewpoint and so reason pure and simple does not exist.

Joseph Ratzinger.

From the Commentary on

Ratzinger’s general point is that the possibilities of dialogue between the Church and the secular modern world cannot presuppose some “pure reason” as an assumed starting point, but the quotation is quite clear that his claim has a broader application. Taken in its most universal extent, the idea is that there is no purely rational account of the world as a whole, and therefore one cannot view revelation as coming down upon some otherwise complete rational system.

At the heart of Ratzinger’s claim is that reason is a.) conditioned, and b.) conditioned historically. “Conditioned” is a softer word than “determined”, and the difference seems to allow for some kind of transcendence of history (“determination” involves being fixed or constricted to one thing, “conditioned” means merely that some historical element or relation is always an essential factor.) But what about history?

Plato and Aristotle agreed that change belonged to nature essentially, and agreed further that it was impossible for there to be nothing but change with nothing unchanging. To paint in broad strokes, Aristotle takes this to be a reason to introduce unchangeable things into nature, and Plato takes it as a reason to reduce everything in nature to a source outside of it. A large part of Aristotle’s reasoning comes from him seeing a structure in the progression of things, and from his taking the culminating point of the progression as being the fixed source or arche of the progression. Progression of any kind was thus immanently unified by the an actuality it was progressing to or falling away from as a term of the progression. Example: we can see a progression from embryo to foal to horse to nag (with indefinite, continuous stages in between). Arsitotle saw this as the immanent development and decline of one and the same thing; Plato saw any unity as having to come from outside of the what, in itself, was continually other and other and other. Restricting ourselves to this example, it seems like Aristotle has the stronger case – it’s the same horse, isn’t it? But what if we consider other progressions – the progression of time or the parts of space, for example, or of historical events? Here Aristotle himself denies that there is any actuality that progresses toward or falls away from something, and so in the measure that one sees historical progression as the most significant or fundamental reality of natural things, or even the most illuminating or useful hermeneutic, Aristotle’s appeal to immanent actuality is of less and less value.

But where does this leave the premise that progression presupposes some fixed actuality? Pure flux and otherness is just as impossible in historical progression as in the stages of life, but – pace to Hegel, the progression of all history is too variegated, diversified, and unwieldy to admit of any systematization from a consideration of the phenomena (Ratzinger’s point seems to presuppose that we now can no longer see either the Thomist or  the Hegelian systems as viable.) History simply does not suggest the immanent causality of some “Spirit”, except as a pure metaphor, and if it did it would only do so in the sphere of human actions, which of themselves constitute a vanishingly small portion of events which occur in the history of nature. This historical aspect of reality is better explained by a Platonic conception of things,  where one denies an immanent order within the progression of events, thereby unifying them in an absolutely transcendent other in which nature participates without ever having of itself the actuality that characterizes the actuality and reality they are participating in.


  1. September 16, 2011 at 4:45 pm

    “[T]he division between theology and philosophy established by the Thomists”? Didn’t this division exist since Christianity’s very beginning? Isn’t a fundamental tenet of the faith that God freely creates the world, and thus the world is completely separate from, not an extension of, Him, and thus natural philosophers no longer have to be theologians?

  2. JA said,

    September 18, 2011 at 2:29 pm

    This is all very dangerous ground. History is a modern concept, foreign to the Greeks and Medievals, and one that leads to the edge of historicism. This ground needs to be tread carefully, lest the germ of relativism invade.

  3. Matthew said,

    October 15, 2011 at 7:12 pm

    What commentary of Ratzinger’s is this from?

    • October 16, 2011 at 5:33 am

      It’s from the commentary on Gaudium et Spes, which is volume V of the “Commentary of the Documents of Vatican II”. His extreme dislike of (neo) Thomism is very much on display, as is his dissatisfaction with the council documents. His commentary on Dei Verbum begins by saying something like “the introduction of this text barely disguises the illogicalities it contains..etc.”

  4. Matthew said,

    October 18, 2011 at 9:33 am

    The “division” and “juxtaposition” Ratzinger is referring to I take to be the result of the de Lubacian nature and grace dispute for this is a typical de Lubacian charge against Thomists.

    On a separate note, what does it take to be a “neo”-thomist instead of simply a “thomist”?

    Finally, is there any Thomist who deals in depth with the relationship of history and reason?

    • JA said,

      October 18, 2011 at 4:48 pm

      Alasdair MacIntyre, a moral philosopher and analytical Thomist, takes a historicist approach to moral thought in the West in AFTER VIRTUE.

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