Thomas, Eternal World, & Comps

Geek alert: this post is intended only for theology / philosophy nerds!

I have various motives for blogging; any particular blog post might be motivated by any number of things. Sometimes, as in the current case, I am motivated to blog by the urgent need to remember something, especially in its details and with textual evidence. The need to remember it, and the desire to discuss it with others, partly in order to remember it.

I turn my attention to the issue of the eternity (or the infinite temporal duration) of the world, an urgent issue in the medieval context of thought–the very phase of the history of philosophy in which my comps study partner and I are engaged–because of the intersection in this period  between religions (Jewish, Christian, and Islamic) on the one hand, and the (re)discovery of Aristotle on the other.

Clearly, as attested in _De Caelo_ II.1, Aristotle believed in the infinite temporal duration of the cosmos (both past and future), in particular of the heavenly bodies and their circular motion.

How do the religious thinkers of the medieval period respond to this philosophical position, presumably held to be based on reason alone? I will focus only on two: Averroes and Aquinas.

Averroes’ position is that, since philosophy trumps other modes of knowledge (namely, religion / “dialectic” and rhetoric / poetry), it is true, based on demonstrative knowledge, that the universe has always existed. (In fact in his _Incoherence of the Incoherence_ he argues that the matter of the celestial bodies is co-eternal with God, and that infinite temporal duration in the past is amenable to reason due to the circular nature of the celestial motion which it measures or with which it is coextensive: for Averroes nothing is pernicious about an infinite regress as long as it is “circular,” as long as it contains elements in the “chain” which precede and follow themselves.)

As Marquette philosopher Richard Taylor explains in this podcast, Averroes does not quite hold to the “double truth” theory that used to be the accusation leveled against 13th century members of the University of Paris Arts Faculty such as Siger of Brabant and Boethius of Dacia, but, still, he somehow manages to “affirm” both the eternality of the world and the Muslim version of the doctrine of the creation of the world, at “time zero.” He affirms the former as a philosopher and for philosophers, and the latter as a religious / legal scholar for religious folks and the people for whom he legislates.

Although, technically, this might not be a version of “double truth,” thanks be to God that this is not the approach which St. Thomas takes on this perennial issue. Rather, assuming (as he elsewhere argues) that we know some things by faith and other things by reason, he maintains that, although there is, based on reason alone, nothing irrational about Aristotle’s view, nevertheless it is an article of faith (or an object of faith), that the world as created by God has an absolute beginning in time, before which point it (along with everything else, including time) did not exist. (See Summa I.46.2.)

A few additional points about Thomas’ stance in all of this.

  1. Near the end of his “On the Eternality of the World,” Thomas does clarify that “nothing can be co-eternal with God, because nothing can be immutable save God alone,” thus indicating that, apparently on the basis of reason alone, the celestial bodies are not eternal. (Yes, apparent contradictions abound in such thorny issues.)
  2. This is also the context in which he clarifies that ex nihilo–as in, creatio ex nihilo–is simply a negation: “not created out of anything.”
  3. In the Summa Contra Gentiles II.37 he clarifies that “one could conceive of the universe as always existing yet totally dependent upon its creator: if the act of creating is inherently instantaneous, then there is no need that God temporally precede the universe to be its creator.” See David Burrell, “Aquinas and Islamic and Jewish Thinkers,”in The Cambridge Companion to Aquinas, ed. Norman Kretzmann and Eleanor Stump (New York: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1193), 72-3.
  4. In the above context of the Summa Theologiae (I.46.2), Thomas is at pains to make it clear why we Christians must state plainly that the temporal beginning of the world is an “article of faith,” and not an object of reason:

And it is useful to consider this, lest anyone, presuming to demonstrate the what is of faith, should bring forward reasons that are not cogent, so as to give occasion to unbelievers to laugh, thinking that on such grounds we believe things that are of faith.

An admonition applicable to fundamentalists of all ages!