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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The Myth of the Cave explained

In essence, the myth tells us Socrates’ view of the city and its people.

First of all, the people of the city (humans in general) are shackled in intellectual darkness (Republic, 514). This is understood as meaning that we confuse our material existence, the material world with which we interact, and the way by which we interact with it, as being real and true, when in fact it is best understood as a shadow of what is actually real and true, namely the world of the forms and ultimately the Good itself (515c). Secondly, the vast majority of humans are unconcerned about the falseness of their existence and find anyone suggesting otherwise as ridiculous to the point of perhaps trying to kill them (517a). Third, as a consequence, the vast majority of people in the city do not recognize the Good, and thus do not truly recognize the things derived from the good (e.g., justice).

However, the fact that there are individuals within the City (true philosophers) who try to inform the people regarding the reality of the Good etc., means that there is the possibility of movement between the life of intellectual bondage in darkness and intellectual knowledge in the light. So, fourth, it is necessary for those who are rulers to recognize both the basic deceit which shrouds the majority of the citizens and the need for those who know the reality of the Good to provide leadership and instill justice (etc) in the city by way of its laws and the ordering things in a harmonious way (520). Fifth, this further requires a deliberate approach to education by the founders so that those who are liberated from the cave are further examined to determine their suitability for leadership and instill a sense of obligation to return to the realm of the cave for the good of the city (532ff). Sixth, those who return must be fully aware that the majority of the people in the city are unconcerned about the true reality of the Good, and so they are allowed to continue in deceit (and are in fact further deceived) in order to instill (or perhaps coerce and deceive) and sustain (or perhaps enforce) harmoniousness in the city for all people (519e). Finally, the philosopher-kings, mere philosophers, mere rulers, and founders are to order the procreation of the citizens and their education in such a way to ensure that there will be future philosopher-kings able to lead for a time for the benefit of the city before being relieved to withdraw from sensory and material concerns and to return to pure contemplation of the Good (519c, 540b).

Thomas à Kempis – “desire to be unknown”

Chapter II – Of thinking humbly of oneself

There is naturally in every man a desire to know, but what profiteth knowledge without the fear of God? Better of a surety is a lowly peasant who serveth God, than a proud philosopher who watcheth the stars and neglecteth the knowledge of himself. He who knoweth himself well is vile in his own sight; neither regardeth he the praises of men. If I knew all the things that are in the world, and were not in charity, what should it help me before God, who is to judge me according to my deeds?

2. Rest from inordinate desire of knowledge, for therein is found much distraction and deceit. Those who have knowledge desire to appear learned, and to be called wise. Many things there are to know which profiteth little or nothing to the soul. And foolish out of measure is he who attendeth upon other things rather than those which serve to his soul’s health. Many words satisfy not the soul, but a good life refresheth the mind, and a pure conscience giveth great confidence towards God.

3. The greater and more complete thy knowledge, the more severely shalt thou be judged, unless thou hast lived holily. Therefore be not lifted up by any skill or knowledge that thou hast; but rather fear concerning the knowledge which is given to thee. If it seemeth to thee that thou knowest many things, and understandest them well, know also that there are many more things which thou knowest not. Be not high-minded, but rather confess thine ignorance. Why desirest thou to lift thyself above another, when there are found many more learned and more skilled in the Scripture than thou? If thou wilt know and learn anything with profit, love to be thyself unknown and to be counted for nothing. [alternative trans: “If thou wilt know or learn anything profitably, desire to be unknown, and to be little esteemed”].

[Contra ‘social media’, contra various (I suspect) vain and (without question) brand-building church personalities – making much of exploits in order to sell books and speak at conferences etc. Cf the Apostle Paul in 2 Corinthians 12 – he easily boasts and catalogues various disasters and hardships, but only reluctantly shares the vision and leaves uncatalogued entirely the various “signs of a true Apostle”].

4. That is the highest and most profitable lesson, when a man truly knoweth and judgeth lowly of himself. To account nothing of one’s self, and to think always kindly and highly of others, this is great and perfect wisdom. Even shouldest thou see thy neighbor sin openly and grievously, yet thou oughtest not to reckon thyself better than he, for thou knowest not how long thou shalt keep thine integrity. All of us are weak and frail; hold thou no man more frail than thyself.

H/T The Literature Project

The Christian mystical experience and the limits of language

“If the mystic wishes to describe the mystical union of the soul with God and its effects, he has to make use of words which are not designed to express any such thing. For example, in order to express the closeness of the union, the elevation of the soul and the effect of the union on the soul’s activity, he employs a verb like ‘transform’ or ‘change into’. But ‘change into’ denotes such processes as assimilation (of food), consumption of material by fire, production of steam from water, heat from energy, and so on, whereas the mystical union of the soul with God is sui generis and really requires an altogether new and special word to describe it. But if the mystic coined a brand new word for this purpose, it would convey nothing at all to anyone who lacked the experience in question. Therefore he has to employ words in more or less ordinary use, even though these words inevitably suggest pictures and parallels which do not strictly apply to the experience he is attempting to describe. There is nothing to be surprised at, then, if some of the mystic’s statements, taken literally, are inadequate or even incorrect. And if the mystic is also a theologian and philosopher, as Eckhart was, inexactitude is likely to affect even his more abstract statements, at least if he attempts to express in theological and philosophical statements an experience which is not properly expressible, employing for this purpose words and phrases which either suggest parallels that are not strict parallels or already possess a defined meaning in theology and philosophy.”


Copleston, Frederick Charles. A History of Philosophy: Volume 3, Part 1. Garden City, NY: Image, 1962. 206. Print.

Outline of “A History of Philosophy, Volume 1: Greece and Rome” by Frederick Copleston, S.J.

Copleston History of Philosophy, Volume 1: Greece and Rome

Outline (This is an attempt to present the outline which Copleston gives within this work – feel free to request Word doc version of this outline). The autonumbering is messed up, and I’m not sure how I can fix it without destroying my soul… Here is a link to a PDF copy without the auto number confusion… Copleston, HoP, Vol 1 – Outline

You can use this for whatever purpose you like, though a thank you is always appreciated. I did this for my own sake while reading it, first of all, and share it for whatever benefit anyone may derive for any purpose whatsoever.


Chapter I – Introduction

1)          Why Study the History of Philosophy?

i) Knowledge of history is necessary for ‘education’ – Philosophers are key contributors to European thought and culture.

ii) Knowledge of the History of Philosophy will help us avoid the mistakes of our predecessors

iii)         Studying the history of philosophy will enable us to be attentive to developments within it.

2)          Nature of the History of Philosophy

i) No philosophy can be understood unless it is seen in its historical setting and in light of its connection with other systems.

ii) Observation of logical sequence in development.

iii) Progression points ‘beyond itself’ to Truth.

iv) Copleston adheres to the conviction that there is a philosophia perennis.

3)          How to Study the History of Philosophy

i) See any philosophical system in its historical setting and connections.

ii) Study philosophers ‘sympathetically’.

iii)         Understand words, phrases and shades of meaning.

4)          Ancient Philosophy (this volume)


The Trinitarian anthropology of St. Augustine

“Who can understand the omnipotent Trinity? We all speak of it, though we may not speak of it as it truly is, for rarely does a soul know what it is saying when it speaks of the Trinity. People wrangle and dispute about it, but it is a vision that is given to none unless they are at peace. There are three things, all found in a person , which I should like people to consider. They are far different from the Trinity, but I suggest them as a subject for mental exercise by which we can test ourselves and realize how great this different is. The three things are existence, knowledge, and will, for I can say that I am, I know, and I will. I am a being which knows and wills; I know both that I am and that I will; and I will both to be and to know. In these three–being, knowledge, and will–there is one inseparable life, one life, one mind, one essence; and therefore, although they are distinct from one another, the distinction does not separate them” (Augustine, Confessions, XIII, 11).

Humanity as the unity between the physical and spiritual realms (methorios in Maximus the Confessor and the fall of all creation).

[Question: why the apparently necessary connection between human moral failure (in the Garden of Eden) and so-called ‘natural evil’ (i.e., tsunamis and cholera)?  Here David Bentley Hart touches on an often overlook aspect of patristic theological anthropology which explains this necessary connection].

“Nevertheless, and disturbing as it may be, it is clearly the case that that there is a kind of “provisional’ cosmic dualism within the New Testament: not an ultimate dualism, of course, between two equal principles, but certainly a conflict between a sphere of created autonomy that strives against God on the one hand and the saving love of God in time on the other. It is a patristic notion (developed with extraordinary profundity by Maximus the Confessor) that humanity was created as the methorios (the boundary or frontier) between the physical and the spiritual realms, or as the priesthood of creation that unites earth to heaven, and that thus, in the fall of man, all of material existence was made subject to the dominion of death” (David Bentley Hart, The Doors of the Sea, pgs 62-63).