Posted on: June 9th, 2020 St. Thomas & “what the heart desires”

I remember, sometime in the mid 1990’s (when I was an undergrad at UT Austin), hearing R. C. Sproul say that, for Thomas Aquinas (one of Sproul’s intellectual “heroes”), reason takes precedence over desire. This statement really caught my attention, and I can honestly say that I’ve been pondering it for two and a half decades. (Side note: while in seminary at Westminister Theological Seminary, where the approach to apologetics is determined by Cornelius Van Til, I realized that Van Til’s “presuppositional apologetics” would like not agree with Thomas here, although what’s more likely is that proponents of that “school” have rarely thought about this issue, sadly.)

Fast forward to about three years ago, when, in a YouTube video, I heard Ashley Null make the following statement (also, I think, in his book on Cranmer’s doctrine of repentance), credited to Phillip Melancthon:

What the heart desires, the will chooses, and the mind justifies.

Now, at a certain level I really like this statement. It resonates: our desires (including our sinful or illicit desires) are so often “justified” in retrospect by our “rational mind.” We “go after” what we want, and then we justify it ex post facto. At a basic level, that strikes me as a profoundly accurate assessment of the human condition after the fall. (My friends at Mockingbird ministries, Ashley Null included, would certainly agree.) The fallen human being is radically characterized, that is, by the libido dominandi. Truth.

By the way, this latter perspective is ratified by almost all modern thought: one thinks of Soren Kierkegaard and David Hume, the latter of whom said, “Reason is, and ought to be, the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any office but to serve and obey them.” (Alasdair MacIntyre has a nice treatment of all this in After Virtue.)

Thanks to Nicholas Lombardo for this connection with Hume.

And yet, in my research for a book chapter on Aquinas’ view of anger, I’m realizing that St. Thomas, on this issue, really delivers the goods, and is superior, in my opinion, to Melanchthon, Hume, and Kierkegaard (and even St. Bonaventure, who here as elsewhere can be viewed as an incipient, prototypical forebearer of these modern strains of anthropology).

On Thomas’ account (as he has it in the prima pars of the Summa Theologiae, Question 82 on the will), the intellect does take precedence over the will in the specific sense that the human person always seeks happiness and hence always seeks (albeit frequently in misdirected, sinful ways) the good. But in order for the human person (that is, the will, or the desire/appetite) to seek the good, he first must recognize the good, and this is an intellectual activity which performed by the mind. So, yes: intellect is priviledged over desire in this specific sense.

Yet in another way, the will leads and directs the intellect, since, as Thomas says, the will is “in charge” of every “active faculty” in the animal (rational or otherwise). I take this latter point to mean that, when I decide to focus on or to “intend” a tree as an object of my attention or to a memory of the past (or any other “object”), it is the will which makes this “choice.”

And so, I draw two conclusions from all this. First, I’m confident that any disagreement between these two schools is more “smoke than light,” that at bottom all (for the most part) would potentially agree. Thomas would say (and does say) that sometimes our desires are not guided by reason (or at least are irrational in some ways), and even that in our disordered, sinful state we sometimes rationally justify our own sin. Yes, he’d agree to that.

But I also think that his posture is the superior one, since it does full justice to the basic metaphysical principle that all creatures pursue their telos: rocks, oak trees, elephants, and humans. But in our case, that telos is to seek happiness, beatudo, eudaimonia. And that is a rational activity (since we are rational animals).

Besides, it is nihilistic to absolutize the libido dominandi, surely.  

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Posted on: March 8th, 2017 Phenomenological Reduction: a Theological Refutation?

Note: this article is intended for philosophy and theology nerds, and them alone!

I am suspecting that “the phenomenological reduction” is not possible when it comes to eating (an apple, or the consecrated Body of Christ, for example). It seems to work for vision, but not for eating. If I “bracket” the existence of the apple (while eating it), then am I not also led inextricably to “bracket” the existence of the tongue, teeth, throat, and stomach which touches them? They are “like objects,” after all. (Or something like that.)

Aristotle may have known this in advance, as evidenced by his words in _De Anima_ II.9-11. There he says that touch (which subsumes taste & smell, such that, ultimately, there are only 3 senses) “proves the existence of the soul” because for it alone among the senses is the “third thing” (required for sensation to work) the actual human body. (He is here assuming that since the body cannot be the thing which does the experiencing, the only option left is to say that the soul is the thing that does the experiencing.)

Which means that the body cannot be bracketed while eating, period. Which means that the apple cannot be bracketed. Which means that the phenomenological reduction does not work with respect to eating.

Which means objects exists.

No wonder Christians (as opposed to Greeks, who privilege vision, & Jews, who privilege hearing) privilege eating (and hence touch).

Grateful to John Milbank & Catherine Pickstock for their emphasis on the sensation of touch (in their book on Thomas Aquinas, Truth In Aquinas).

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Posted on: October 20th, 2016 Aristotle from 30K ft. (for comps)

I’m thankful to have a smart and virtuous colleague with whom to study for comps (one “hurdle” in my PhD program in philosophy), which as of right now I am planning to take in March of 2017.

My colleague asked me to try to articulate a broad summary of Aristotle, sort of from “the 30,000 foot view.” Here’s my stab at this challenge:

For Aristotle all of reality is in the process of becoming, except that he would not quite put it that way, in those Platonic terms. “Process,” yes, but “becoming,” no.

Rather, from the point of departure supplied by Parmenides, he’d say that all reality is in the process of moving or developing (out of potency) into full act, full energeia.

This is true in all three disciplines he adumbrates: his natural philosophy, his metaphysical / theological philosophy, and his ethical philosophy. This cosmic process culminates in the work of the Unmoved Mover, who “moves” the rest of the cosmos by final causality, and it forms the basis for his ethico-politics in that the latter provides the conditions of possibility for the highest human activity/energeia: contemplation of the divine.
There is one gaping exception to this “rule” / pattern, however: the historical realm. For Aristotle, that is, there is zero development historically, absolutely no growth or progress toward some kind of telos in historical terms, for the cosmos as a whole or indeed for mankind within it. It’s not that he entertains this idea and then rejects it by arguing against it. Rather, it seems never to have occurred to him. For him, time is a mere accident of history (Physics IV), animals and human beings die and materially decay, and all of this has continued and will continue from and to infinity.

It is as if the Unmoved Mover is forever holding a carrot above the cosmos, and the cosmos is forever striving to reach the goal, but always already in the end failing, falling short. (The most compelling candidate for “success” in this striving would be that realm above the moon, that of the celestial bodies, perhaps the most outer sphere of them, with their quasi-unchanging and perfect circular motion.)

In the lower sphere, the realm of “nature” where things can be rationally penetrated and articulated only “on the whole and for the most part,” the closest approximation of the perfection / simplicity of the UM is the philosopher in contemplation, an activity (actus / energeia) uniquely related to eudaimonia, which he describes in glowing, metaphysical, divine terms at the very end of the Ethics.

 

 

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Posted on: July 5th, 2016 Aristotle, Nature, & Original Sin

Those who know me (in a theological or intellectual context) know that I have never been overly drawn to discussions of topics that typically excite ardent Calvinist types. Examples of such topics: predestination, “total depravity,” original sin.

The reason for my reticence: I have long suspected, ever since my time at a prominent Reformed seminary in the late 1990’s) that most folks who have straightforward and forceful views on such matters are, quite simply, full of shit. This is especially true for “evangelical types,” and I can say that my experience over the last two decades has borne this out.

One reason it is so difficult not to be full of shit on these issues is the extent to which they are historically conditioned. They are the result of centuries of intellectual development, mainly in the “Latin speaking West.”

And so it is that I have never lost much sleep getting dragged into heated debates about Original Sin. My preferred mode of engagement is simply to agree with my Reformed, Anglican, and Catholic auctores and to assume that they were right, for example, to oppose and condemn Pelagianism.

But, now, enter Aristotle. In his introduction to the Nicomachean Ethics Joe Sachs helpfully points out a basic point in the ethical system of the Stagirite. Pace those who equate virtue with habit (thanks, Hippocrates Apostle), Sachs rightly emphasizes that the point about habit (Gk. hexis) for Aristotle is that, once we acquire them through the process of habituation, their purpose is to allow us to see reality truly for what it is.

This is because, for Aristotle, the universal experience of mankind is that, initially, our vision of reality is blocked or distorted when we exit the womb. The purpose of the newly acquired habits, then, is to counteract the already existing habits of selfishness and impulsive indulgence with which every one of us is born.

Think about Edmund at the beginning of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, when he is trapped by the irresistible allure of Turkish Delight. His vision of reality is distorted. He cannot think straight. He is in bondage to his desire. Aristotle agrees with the mainstream Christian tradition in the West that, simply put, we are all like Edmund (at least initially).

Once this gnarled vision of reality is cleared up for us, the distortion having been corrected, we are free to engage our faculties to develop right desire and right reason in our quest to attain true and abiding virtue and character.

But notice what has happened. The way Aristotle thinks about the initial state of the postnatal human being is strikingly close to the description of traditional Western Christianity, as for example enshrined in Anglicanism’s Thirty-Nine Articles:

IX. Of Original or Birth-Sin.
Original sin standeth not in the following of Adam, (as the Pelagians do vainly talk;) but it is the fault and corruption of the Nature of every man, that naturally is engendered of the offspring of Adam; whereby man is very far gone from original righteousness, and is of his own nature inclined to evil, so that the flesh lusteth always contrary to the Spirit; and therefore in every person born into this world, it deserveth God’s wrath and damnation. And this infection of nature doth remain, yea in them that are regenerated; whereby the lust of the flesh, called in Greek, φρονημα σαρκος, (which some do expound the wisdom, some sensuality, some the affection, some the desire, of the flesh), is not subject to the Law of God. And although there is no condemnation for them that believe and are baptized; yet the Apostle doth confess, that concupiscence and lust hath of itself the nature of sin.

Another point on which the Stagirite and the Christian tradition agree: the natal is not identical with the natural. In other words, this “default setting” of selfishness and impulsiveness with which a baby is born, for Aristotle as for the Bible, is not truly natural. For Aristotle “the natural” is precisely that vision alluded to above, the attainment of which is the negation of the vicious habits hardwired into us at birth. The truly natural for Aristotle, is the full flourishing, the full, active, fulfillment of what it means to be human.

A selfish person (be she Donald Trump at a political debate or a screaming two-year old, grabbing its favorite toy away from its infantile colleagues in the playgound) is not natural. A natural person–one living in accord with nature (or for Christianity, creation)–is someone who has achieved the enduring “higher pleasure” known as eudaimonia, or happiness. This is the purpose of human nature, this is the “functional concept” (Alasdair MacIntyre) of the human being. (A pox on both your houses, Thomas Hobbes and John Locke.)

This is why Aristotle suggests that the achievement of virtue or character is “a second nature.” It is just as “natural” as the “first nature.” Much more so, in fact.

It is here, finally, that Christianity “one ups” Aristotle, for the Christian realizes that the “second nature” of Aristotle is really the “third nature,” and that this third instantiation is really a return to the first. Virtue and character restore us to the original nature, the original righteousness which God wove into his original, creational design.

 

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Posted on: July 2nd, 2016 Conversion & Time in Plato & Aristotle

What are main differences between Plato & Aristotle? Too many to name. Certainly, if you held a gun to my head and made me answer, the difference in literary genre would be near the top of my list.
However, I’m struck by the issue of conversion. In Plato we are presented with no less that four conversions on the part of Socrates: one in the _Parmenides_, one in the _Symposium_, one in the _Apology_, and one in the _Phaedo_.
One would be hard pressed to find an emphasis on the issue of conversion in the work of Aristotle.
Perhaps this is related to another deep difference between the two: Socrates’ approach to reality is diachronic, taking place in and through time, giving rise to epiphanies, retractions, and insights. For the Stagirite, however, one can approach reality only within the frame of the system; his stance, therefore, is intractably synchronic.
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Posted on: March 28th, 2013 Theories of Language: Derrida on Aristotle

Warning: this is a quite theoretical article, which many of my non-academic friends might find tedious!

In the first chapter of Of Grammatology, Derrida accuses Aristotle of launching the “metaphysics of presence” by positing a theory of language which Derrida thinks is critiqued and “shown up” by Sausurre’s theory of the sign. He cites Aristotle’s articulation in On Interpretation in which he says that even though language (speech and writing) is a matter of custom, the ideas of objects which people have in their minds are universal (and thus transparent to being).

Even though something in me wants to defend Aristotle, and even though Derrida is way too simplisitic in his accusation that the entire metaphysical tradition agrees with Aristotle here (counterexamples would be Augustine and Bonaventure, who appear to hold that all thought and perhaps all reality is mediated by language), I think that Derrida is correct in his critique of Aristotle here. Christian thinkers like Augustine and Bonaventure and John Milbank would (and do) agree with him. So would Mikhail Bakhtin.

Further Derrida is correct in his description of the tradition’s privileging of speech over writing.

In his explanation for why this is the case, however, he is wrong, or overly simplistic (again). Derrida misconstrues (as Pickstock shows in After Writing) the reasons why at least some streams of the tradition privilege speech over writing. It is not the assumption that speech gets us closer to a present subject which is the locus of metaphysical presence (how could such a possibility even be thought before Descartes?); it is rather that time has a certain priority over space, since time (as Plato says in the Timeaus) is a moving image of eternity. Time evokes (and particiatpes in?) eternity more than space does. Hence speech, which is time-bound, is prior to writing, which is space-bound.

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