Gregory of Nyssa “Not three gods” (complete)

The problem: if X is said of many, we have Xes. i.e. if “cat” is said of many, we have cats, if “flower” is said of many, we have flowers. The truth seems analytic: what is said of many is plural. What else could “plural” mean?

But (on trinitarian theory) “God” is said of many, and we do not have Gods. An offence, its seems, against grammar and self-evident truths.

Response 1: We avoid “Gods” because it is an expression used by our opponents, and we sometimes need to avoid expressions used by our opponents.

Response 2: The use of the plural never indicates a real plurality in what is said of many. In saying we have three “cats” we don’t mean to indicate that we have three feline natures. We don’t have three gods with Father, Son and Ghost because we don’t even have three men with Tom, Dick and Harry. The plural is only in the mode of signification and not in either the logical or real order.

Response 3: “God” is the name of an operation, not of a nature, just as “projectile” is the name of anything that is thrown (an operation), unlike “granite”, which is the name of a sort of nature. All names that appear to be said of God’s nature are either negations, or relations to creatures without showing us God as he is in himself. And thus when we say the trinity is “one God” we mean nothing but he is one undivided operation performed by three persons.

Response 4: Only what is circumscribed can be enumerated. Gold coins might be added up, but gold (the element) cannot be. Gold differs from golden things by not being numerable. But “God” names a nature which cannot be known since it is not circumscribed.

Response 5: Words denoting cause are not the same as words denoting nature. But persons are multiplied by causal relations (or what Western thought would call “principles” and not “causes”- ed). Therefore diversity of persons does not require diversity of nature.

The primacy of asymmetry in Pre-classical physics

Understanding the First Way requires understanding the realities that pre-classical physics were interested in but which classical physics cannot account for. I’ll give a sketch of the First Way and then point out how what is now called science can’t account for the physical reality that it’s based on.

In syllogistic form, the First Way is

Everything moved by another is moved by some first, unmoved mover.

Everything in motion is moved by another.

The major premise has its objectors, but most of the objections muddle quantity (a finite vs. infinite amount of movers) with quantity (the kind of mover that a moved thing relates to).

Newtonianism, along with all science to this day, denies the minor premise, though in a different way than is usually thought: Neither can make sense of that-which-is-in-motion (TWIM). Newton carved out a very important place for the active cause of motion (force, quantity of motion, etc), and later theories developed and divided this into different ideas like energy, but they never specified the TWIM it acted on. Force acts on bodies, but not all bodies are TWIMs since body both conveys and receives force.

We can’t add TWIM to science since its absence is structural. Science is quantitative and so requires symmetries, but the relation between force/energy and TWIM is asymmetrical. Science can’t account for the reality of the force-TWIN relation any more than it can account for the reality of time, which Newton defined out of nature (true time was mathematical and impossible to instantate) which Einstein denied altogether with a Parmenidean block universe, and to which entropic accounts deny any necessary asymmetry.

At the moment science is more bothered by its inability to account for the asymmetry of time than of Energy-TWIM, though, if I’m right, it’s incapable of accounting for the reality of either. But it is just these asymmetries that pre-classical physics was most of all interested in. They were interested above all else in becoming, causality, action-passion, the reality of TWIM, and the order of proceeding from some principle. It’s by focusing on the reality of these things that one sees the sort of physics that gives rise to a cosmological argument.

The Catechism of Vatican II

The Apostolic letters at the beginning of the new catechism make it clear that might just as well been called The Catechism of Vatican II. What does this mean?

The principal task entrusted to the Council by Pope John XXIII was to guard and present better the precious deposit of Christian doctrine in order to make it more accessible to the Christian faithful and to all people of good will. For this reason the Council was not first of all to condemn the errors of the time, but above all to strive calmly to show the strength and beauty of the doctrine of the faith.

If we ignore the honey on the rim of the cup and focus on the medicine, the message is that the days of anathema sit and of long lists of clearly defined, condemned propositions are over. At the very least, these things now have to play second fiddle to an evangelization which prioritizes “strength and beauty.” This leaves room for logic and clarity, but they too must be subordinated to this new theology of power-aesthetics. Sure, those with old-school tendencies can point out that anathemas aren’t logically ruled out by the passage, or that precise lists of theological propositions have their own “strength and beauty”, but to take this as a way of trying to give them their old pride of place is as much a caricature and distortion of Vatican II as any clown Mass.


-“You can never prove that___”. Really? We could never develop some insight or set of insights so that ____ followed?

-Argumentative proof is the development of insight by things like formal structures, analogies, experiments, meditation, commentary, etc. No, not “etc.” but ad infinitum. 

-Arguments have many more applications than to convince others, but even when we view them in this restricted sense, we wouldn’t want our best arguments to convince people on a first hearing. One would have to be pretty shallow to change his life every time he became convinced of something.

-The guy on the street complaining about what can be proven tends to be playing out social taboos. All the usual ways of proving we should be skeptical about things (widespread disagreement, intractability of objections, the varieties of belief over history etc.) are too broad and prove that we should be skeptical not just about religious truths but about human equality, the rigor of science, the greatness of ones own nation, etc. We think we have insight here but intractable problems there when in fact we have nothing but taboos which, from the point of view of actual evidence, are applied randomly.

-I’ve written contradictory things about the value of taboos. This much is clear: they can never be separated from what is considered rational in concrete fact. We would prefer to figure out what is reasonable from some non-taboo viewpoint and then enforce the taboos from there, but this assumes some mind that is capable of coming to the truth without the taboos.

Adding existence to something

Anselm: Existence, when added to something, makes it greater than if it only exists in the mind.

Kant: But existence can’t be added to anything. Specify one thing that is improved when you “add existence to it”, in fact, specify one thing that is there at all before you supposedly “add existence to it”. No, clearly this notion of adding existence is incoherent and impossible.*

John of St. Thomas: Well, sure, if you want to assume right out of the gate that there is no positive, real distinction in creatures between essence and existence, then you can also assume there’s nothing one can add existence to. Your philosophical ancestors, however, had lots of arguments about the paradoxical claim of “adding existence to something” as opposed to claiming in their opening move of the discussion that existence isn’t a real predicate.

Me: The existence we’re talking about is either an act opposed to a potency or a real being opposed to a mental one. If the first, there is a very clear and well defined sense of what it means to add existence to something. This is not to say Kant is wrong, but only that he’s got a good deal more argumentation to do. If the second (and this is what Anselm seemed to mean) then there is a sort of addition that gives rise to existence, since being in itself transcends its division into the mental and the real.

*This is also why those who give cosmological arguments fail, since in order to make sense of an ens realissimum they assume some lofty sort of existence could specify a distinct sort of being, and make it different from things to which a “lower” existence was “added”.

The theory of The One

As someone who works with young people, I’ve been asked more than once whether I believe in the one, or whether every person has some specific other person that they were made to fall in love with and be with forever.*

The one seems to arise from beliefs we treat as self-evident. On the one hand we take each person as unique, unrepeatable, and (when love is involved) unable to be substituted for another; but on the other hand love involves the compatibility and harmony of persons. Since interests arise from the same source as uniqueness, the compatibility of persons must be just as given as their uniqueness. So if persons love – if the utterly unique is also compatible with and in harmony with another – the one exists, Q.E.D.

Stick with the idea for a moment beyond the obvious objections.** So far we have a proof that there is a one for Socrates, but we know nothing about her, nor do we know what we would look for to find her. Shared interests might be one place to look, but harmony of interests is a much more complex thing than shared interests (identical tones don’t harmonize). Say we set researchers to work on finding personal harmonies. The first problem is that they could only identify harmonies on a more general level than the one, and so it might narrow down the field but it could never close it. Even if it could close it, however, we would have the problem that identifying the one by impersonal research is opposed to the proper way in which the one is found. Finding the one in his concrete existence is a different sort of activity than research. It’s harder to imagine a more colossal failure to get the point than telling someone “you are the one for me according to the most reliable research algorithms”.

And so our knowledge of the one develops on a continuum of (a) knowing that there is a one (b) concretizing this idea toward the unreachable limit and (c) whether we’ve gone though a and b or not, we adopt a method of a different kind to find the one as it ought to be found. The first two are impersonal (and therefore inadequate) modes of relating to a person, the last, when viewed as a sort of knowledge, is based on a shared life.


* Most of what gets said in conclusion will have application in theology as well. The argument for the one seems ready made to be turned into a cosmological argument of some kind. That The One was first the God of absolutely apophatic theology is not a coincidence.


(a) This makes way more sense as a reductio ad absurdum against total uniqueness, even in addition to “total uniqueness seeming like a contradiction when said of members of one species or breeding group.

(b) it’s against experience to say we only love one person or even the same sort of person at all times and in all circumstances or

(c) love gets its uniqueness from being made, not given

good, good for, and the Absolute

Kolakowski on if God were good apart from creation:

Such an idea violates our linguistic habits, which imply that goodness is a relative characteristic that must, in order to make sense, involve an intention directed at something or someone else. Self-centered, non-intentional goodness which is also actual not just potential, seems to go beyond our conceptual resources.

Kolakowski speaks cautiously, and wants to use the problem to set up a mytho-poetic account of divine goodness. The problem seems to be this: the good is good for something, which makes us divide “good” (bonum quod) from “what it is good for” (bonum cui). Having venom in some of your organs is good for snakes and bad for rats.

Why not say that the quod-cui distinction sometimes demands absolute identity between the two? I treat my own existence as a good but all I mean by this is that I preserve what I am. For that matter, my own identity or individuality is a good for me, but the quod and cui in this case specify things that are identical both in reality and in thought. The only difference is in the way the things are signified, that is, Kolakowski spoke exactly when he described a total overcoming of this distinction as violating a “linguistic habit”, since it is impossible to do without the distinction in what the Medievals called the modus significani. Taking this as the paradigm for goodness, we see that than which nothing better can be thought as a being for which every mode of quod-cui distinction in goodness is linguistic while being neither logical nor real.

Desire, freedom, goodness

Students, overheard arguing about Gorgias, articulate a universal human fear*: 

A: He’s saying that tyrants are not free.

B: Because they don’t do what’s good?

A: Because they don’t do what they want.

B: Because they don’t do what they really** want?

Socrates’s tendency to see virtue as a skill illuminates the problem: Since we immediately stop desiring things as soon as we recognize them as apparent goods, desire has the same relation to good as surgery has to health. That some patients die from surgery doesn’t make some surgeries for death, nor does it mean that health is a restriction on the freedom of the surgeon. Health is the precondition of having surgery at all, as goodness is the precondition of desiring anything at all.

Human*** moral evil always involves ignorance, even where the choice brings guilt (while it is hard for us to “stop thinking about a white bear” it is easy for us to stop thinking about, say, the pain we are causing others, or the real-life consequences of short term pleasures.)


*Sc. that goodness is a restriction on freedom and desire. The other two deep metaphysical fears – which students suffer from in special ways – are that beauty is not real and that all loves are selfish.

**The stress on the word “really” is crucial and indicates complete confusion. The correlative qualification of “really” is “sorta”, which students can add to the verb in any proposition – no, seriously, to any proposition – to make it true.)

*** While human evil requires ignorance, the absence of ignorance in a knower still allows for evil. This is one element in the mysterium iniquitatis of angelic sin.

A new hypothesis on the cultural and moral degradation of the Scriptures

If our objection to the divine origin of Scripture is to call it a book of crude bronze-age genocidal goat herding patriarchal peasants, then do we expect something with a truly a divine origin be the finest fruit of a perfectly enlightened age, composed by leisured aristocrats, and reflecting the noblest, purest moral ideals and actions? Even if all these traits were compatible (non-patriarchal aristocracy?) an honest look at history tells us that such age would be marred by its love of its own atrocious actions and beliefs.  Our rhetorical jabs would just shift from whatever monstrous moral practices happen at the hands of goat-herders to the the ones that happen at the hands of enlightened, leisured aristocrats and college professors.

Is this missing the point, though? Sure, maybe out mocking of goat-herders is a little xenophobic and elitist, and maybe any culture God chose to reveal himself though would have its own vices and faults. But isn’t the heart of the objection that since God is “morally perfect” his revelation should be morally perfect? Isn’t this practically a tautology?

Not necessarily. Instead of trying to justify the apparent moral degradation of Scripture we might investigate the hypothesis that some moral degradation is integral to its own account of revelation. Since it is complete in Christ, revelation is not just God’s speaking to human beings but speaking with a human voice. Given that God wanted to save human beings, and not just start again after the fall with a non-fallen creation (which would make both salvation and revelation unnecessary) he was committed to speaking with a fallen voice until such time when he would speak though his new creation in Christ. Demanding moral perfection of the revelation before this new creation would destroy the way in which Christ fulfills the Scripture as not just a revelation to humanity but through humanity.

Scripture as language primer

If Scripture is where we hear the words of the Trinity and so learn what words to address them, then Scripture is most like a sort of grammar book or language primer. Part of the way in which it is not a language primer involves its making (some) historical claims, but the revelation need not become questionable when the historical claim is.  Whatever one thinks about the historicity of the conversion of Nineveh, the slaughter of the innocents, the pre-Abrahamic chapters of Genesis etc. they are no less exercises in and paradigms of the speech of the Trinity. For all we know, sacrificing the historical rigor might well make the language easier to learn. Perhaps we will never be able to determine whether Caesar gave a long ship to the great poet, but a Latin primer might well force the student to solemnly speak as though he did.

« Older entries Newer entries »