Forms and healing come by nature but knowledge from God is “teaching within” – the active and passive principles at play in human life

Forms come by nature. Thomas says, “certain seeds of the sciences pre-exist in us, namely, the first conceptions of the intellect which are known right away by the light of the agent intellect through species abstracted from sensible things” (Thomas Aquinas: Selected Writings, Penguin Books., London 1998, p.198). The pre-existent seeds Thomas is referring to are those images which we passively receive by our senses and naturally actively abstract to some degree by way of our inherent agent intellect. Our agent intellect is created to function commensurately with our senses as it interacts with nature. The agent intellect is the active principle in our intellect that abstracts, or processes, all our sensory data, rendering them to our memories (passive intellect) for further consideration (if we want). Continue reading

Aquinas studies: if we cannot know the essence of God, how can there be a science of divine things?

The notion that there can be a science of divine things does not negate Thomas’ statements regarding how we are unable to know the essence of God. A science of divine things is possible so long as we are clear regarding what we actually can and cannot know, and how the science of divine things proceeds.

First of all, only God can know his own essence. In fact, he knows himself “through his essence” (Thomas Aquinas: Selected Writings, Penguin Books., London 1998. p. 116). In other words, only God can truly know himself, as it is his essence to do so. The science of divine things must proceed from this basic understanding, namely, we cannot essentially know God. This does not mean, however, that we cannot in any way come to know God (as we will see).

Secondly, in terms of human reason, according to Thomas we can approach knowledge of God referring to the fact of his existence (and not of what he is). This can be done in three ways: 1) observing his effects in creation; 2) understanding his causality of “more noble effects” which grants a “better display of his eminence”, and; 3) in a negative sense we understand more clearly how he transcends all things and defies definition (Thomas quotes Dionysius, “he is known as the cause, the excess and negation of all things” – (Aquinas, Selected Writings, p. 117).
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Aquinas’ view of the possible errors in ‘investigating’ God using natural reason

It is good and right to direct everything in our being towards God and union with him (including our intellects). However, errors are possible.

1) Presumption: in directing our intellect towards God we should not presume that we can comprehend God as we may be able to comprehend other aspects of creation (Thomas Aquinas, Thomas Aquinas Selected Writings, ed. by Ralph McInerny. Penguin Books: New York, 1998. p. 128).

2) Placing reason before faith in the directing of ourselves to God and to union with him. As God is incomprehensible to our intellects, and yet we are to direct everything towards him, we must “Begin by believing” (Aquinas, Selected Writings, p. 128). Believing is to hold something as real and true on the basis of what a knower tells us, so belief is the way we are able to transcend our intellects by receiving from God his self-revelation. This self-revelation is an outflow of God’s love towards us and thus the extent and form of his self-revelation is suited to our capacity. “Every creature is moved as to be made more and more like God insofar as it can be” (Aquinas, Selected Writings, p. 129). This movement happens through “infused faith” (Aquinas, Selected Writings, p. 131).
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Boethius’ description of Providence, Fate, and Fortune in Bk IV.

Lady Philosophy asks Boethius to “imagine a set of revolving concentric circles” in her effort to explain how Providence and Fate relate to one another. It is extraordinary how Boethius evokes a visual image to try and explain a deep and perennial mystery. The innermost circle is closest to “the simplicity of the centre” which is equated to the “high citadel of oneness” which is Providence or “Divine Reason.” Providence is also equated to the “Primary Intelligence.” Due to it being equated with Divine Reason, Providence does not itself orbit anything. It does not move. It is essentially the Unmoved Mover. The closer an orbit is to the simplicity of the centre, the more that thing which is the circle is freed from Fate (or “above the chain of Fate”). It seems to me this is essentially “rest”.
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Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy – The significance of Lady Philosophy’s appearance

When Lady Philosophy appears to Boethius, he has lost his mind to the passions in the midst of his suffering (“wandered away from yourself” pg. 16). Lady Philosophy stands over him. “Understand” is the Old English word used to translate intellectus but I like the association here. The only way to “become aware” of Lady Philosophy is with this proper stance of humility beneath her, looking up. Her “awe-inspiring appearance” echos Plato – “philosophy begins in wonder” (Plato, Theaetetus 155c-d). “Her eyes burning and keen beyond the usual power of men” indicates that the rational mind is that which is able to illumine and perceive the hidden essence of things, whereas the “usual power of men” is limited and generally content with the appearances of things. “She was so full of years that I could hardly think of her as of my own generation, and yet she possessed a vivid colour and undiminished vigor” points towards the notion of there being a “Perennial Philosophy”. Lady Philosophy embodies all that is best and timeless of human wisdom, and yet remains fresh and alive in every contemporary situation. As Copleston states at the beginning of his History of Philosophy series, “Philosophy, which is the work of the human spirit and not the revelation of God, grows and develops; fresh vistas may be opened up by new lines of approach or application to new problems, newly discovered facts, fresh situations, etc” (Copleston, History of Philosophy Vol 1pg 4). “It was difficult to be sure of her height, for sometimes she was of average human size, while at other times she seemed to touch the very sky…” Lady Philosophy, as she is “the work of the human spirit” will always be on some level familiar to us and reflective of us, however, human reason in the variety of Philosophers with their unique insights and gifts will always transcend any individual as the various insights are shared and received and as the mind approaches the intellectual and eternal realms. “Her clothes were made of imperishable material” indicates that once truth has been apprehended, it cannot be destroyed. However, this doesn’t mean that it is always appreciated or recollected (Boethius is himself an example of someone in whom Lady Philosophy had become obscured due to neglect). The embroidered “Pi” and “Theta” shows the value of both practical and contemplative Philosophy, but again the relation of one beneath the other must be noted. Practical philosophy must serve to raise our intellects towards that which transcends the merely physical and practical. “Her dress had been torn by the hands of marauders who had each carried off such pieces as he could get.” This is where I enter into Boethius’ work. There are those who grab at fragments of philosophy without comprehending or appreciating the whole. The danger, we see later (pgs 8, 63), is especially acute if such people think and act as though they have the whole of Philosophy on the basis of their little fragmentary wisdom. The books indicate the way we are able to engage the wisdom of the past. The sceptre indicates the authority of Wisdom over human life and affairs.

Christ the Shepherd and Philosopher


“The figure of Christ is interpreted on ancient sarcophagi principally by two images: the philosopher and the shepherd. Philosophy at that time was not generally seen as a difficult academic discipline, as it is today. Rather, the philosopher was someone who knew how to teach the essential art: the art of being authentically human—the art of living and dying. To be sure, it had long since been realized that many of the people who went around pretending to be philosophers, teachers of life, were just charlatans who made money through their words, while having nothing to say about real life. All the more, then, the true philosopher who really did know how to point out the path of life was highly sought after. Towards the end of the third century, on the sarcophagus of a child in Rome, we find for the first time, in the context of the resurrection of Lazarus, the figure of Christ as the true philosopher, holding the Gospel in one hand and the philosopher’s travelling staff in the other. With his staff, he conquers death; the Gospel brings the truth that itinerant philosophers had searched for in vain. In this image, which then became a common feature of sarcophagus art for a long time, we see clearly what both educated and simple people found in Christ: he tells us who man truly is and what a man must do in order to be truly human. He shows us the way, and this way is the truth. He himself is both the way and the truth, and therefore he is also the life which all of us are seeking. He also shows us the way beyond death; only someone able to do this is a true teacher of life. The same thing becomes visible in the image of the shepherd. As in the representation of the philosopher, so too through the figure of the shepherd the early Church could identify with existing models of Roman art. There the shepherd was generally an expression of the dream of a tranquil and simple life, for which the people, amid the confusion of the big cities, felt a certain longing. Now the image was read as part of a new scenario which gave it a deeper content: “The Lord is my shepherd: I shall not want … Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil, because you are with me …” (Ps 23 [22]:1, 4). The true shepherd is one who knows even the path that passes through the valley of death; one who walks with me even on the path of final solitude, where no one can accompany me, guiding me through: he himself has walked this path, he has descended into the kingdom of death, he has conquered death, and he has returned to accompany us now and to give us the certainty that, together with him, we can find a way through. The realization that there is One who even in death accompanies me, and with his “rod and his staff comforts me”, so that “I fear no evil” (cf. Ps 23 [22]:4)—this was the new “hope” that arose over the life of believers.” – Pope Benedict XVI, Spe Salvi, 6.

This sarcophagus is found in the Vatican Museum.

Dostoevsky — “Beauty would save the world”

“HIPPOLYTE, who had fallen asleep during Lebedeff’s discourse, now suddenly woke up, just as though someone had jogged him in the side. He shuddered, raised himself on his arm, gazed around, and grew very pale. A look almost of terror crossed his face as he recollected.

“What! are they all off? Is it all over? Is the sun up?” He trembled, and caught at the prince’s hand. “What time is it? Tell me, quick, for goodness’ sake! How long have I slept?” he added, almost in despair, just as though he had overslept something upon which his whole fate depended.

“You have slept seven or perhaps eight minutes,” said Evgenie Pavlovitch.

Hippolyte gazed eagerly at the latter, and mused for a few moments.

“Oh, is that all?” he said at last. “Then I–“

He drew a long, deep breath of relief, as it seemed. He realized that all was not over as yet, that the sun had not risen, and that the guests had merely gone to supper. He smiled, and two hectic spots appeared on his cheeks.

“So you counted the minutes while I slept, did you, Evgenie Pavlovitch?” he said, ironically. “You have not taken your eyes off me all the evening–I have noticed that much, you see! Ah, Rogojin! I’ve just been dreaming about him, prince,” he added, frowning. “Yes, by the by,” starting up, “where’s the orator? Where’s Lebedeff? Has he finished? What did he talk about? Is it true, prince, that you once declared that ‘beauty would save the world’? Great Heaven! The prince says that beauty saves the world! And I declare that he only has such playful ideas because he’s in love! Gentlemen, the prince is in love. I guessed it the moment he came in. Don’t blush, prince; you make me sorry for you. What beauty saves the world? Colia told me that you are a zealous Christian; is it so? Colia says you call yourself a Christian.”

The prince regarded him attentively, but said nothing. Continue reading