Monday, 23 September 2019

Aquinas on emotion, pt. 2 (ST 2.23)

In a previous post I began a commentary on Aquinas' understanding of emotion (or "the passions") as it is laid out in the Summa theologica. In that reflection (on ST 2.22), the focus was on the nature of the soul's passivity in its appetitive part, a feature that inheres in the soul by virtue of the fact that it exists in potentiality rather than actuality. The soul's appetite is drawn toward its own perfection but is limited by the objects presented to it by the objects of sense as managed (or mismanaged) by the soul's intellectual powers. Having laid this foundation, in ST 2.23 Aquinas turns to a taxonomy of the passions in the soul.

The first point Aquinas makes here is to remind the reader of a distinction made earlier in the Summa (cf. ST 1.81.2) within the appetitive part of the soul--a distinction of the concupiscible and the irascible. The former is the soul's simple disposition to pursue pleasure and avoid pain, while the latter is the soul's more complex power to resist things that are either obstacles to pleasure or that will cause pain. The concupiscible power of the passions would make sense without the existence of the irascible power, but not vice versa. The irascible power is essential to the soul, however, because it is the ability of one passion to overrule another. To make a trite illustration: the irascible passion of the fear of becoming obese (and thus having a heart attack leading to premature death) can, at least in theory, overrule the concupiscent passion of joy I have in the consumption of ice cream. Lying beneath the irascible passion, then, is a deeper awareness of the soul's long range pursuit of the good.

The complexity of the irascible passions is illuminated further by consideration of the fact that these passions are not always definable by the mutually exclusive oppositions of pleasure and pain, good or evil, as are the concupiscible passions. For instance, the soul might actually be drawn toward some difficulty because it regards it as relating to, or causing, some good. This is the passion of "daring". At the same time, the soul might also consider the very same difficult object as an evil, something to be shunned because of its potential for harm. This is the passion of "fear". By contrast, the concupiscent passions regard a single object as either "good" or "evil". While Aquinas does not say it this way explicitly, it seems that the concupiscible power is oriented toward a single object in a single moment while the irascible power derives from the past and extends into the future, and thus relates  to multiple objects at once.

While it may seem that every passion, concupiscible or irascible, has its contrary, there is one very notable exception. There is nothing that can be said to be a contrary to the passion of anger. Anger is caused in the soul by a difficult evil that is already present and so cannot be avoided. In such situations, the soul must either succumb to this evil and experience sorrow, or the soul must attack the evil in anger. By contrast, if there is a (presumably ultimate) good present and obtained, the irascible passion ceases to move toward or away at all, and the soul can rest in the concupiscent satisfaction of the good.

The outstanding question for Aquinas in this section is whether there can be distinct passions in the soul that are complementary, and not contrary, to one another. He answers in the affirmative, due to three distinct motions that an object elicits from the soul: attraction, movement, and consummation. Thus the same perceived good may elicit the complementary concupiscible passions of (a) love, (b) desire, and (c) delight, while a perceived evil may elicit (d) hatred, (e) aversion, and (f) sorrow. In the realm of the irascible passions, there is orientation toward the difficulty as a good in (a') hope, (b') daring, and (c') [cessation of irascibility], and the orientation toward the difficulty as an evil (d') despair, (e') fear, and (f') anger.

It should be evident how within this schema how misfires may occur at the level of the concupiscible passions. The soul might be attracted in love toward something that is not, in fact, good. The soul would then move toward this object in desire. However, upon obtaining the good, the soul would discover itself to be in sorrow rather than delight. Of course, the reverse error might be the case: the soul might perceive some good as an evil, shun it, not achieve the object of delight, and thus find itself in sorrow. In both cases the error is due to a misapprehension of the good. Interestingly, what is not at all possible is for the soul to stumble into delight. If it does not perceive the good as a good it cannot progress toward it. If it perceives something evil as good it cannot help but pursue it.

Even the irascible passions appear to be no match for a misapprehension of the good. If the soul's response to difficulty is always to treat it only under the aspect of evil, then it will be in despair and fear, and its end will always be anger. At the same time, there is yet another interesting feature emerging in this section of Aquinas' account of the passions: it does not appear to be at all possible for the irascible passions of hope and daring to go wrong. Because evil is parasitic on the good and must ultimately pass away, the soul must learn to consider every evil within the context of what is real--the ultimate good. The soul's concupiscible passion(s) of love and its irascible passion(s) of hope must be trained by faith's contemplation of God.

Friday, 20 September 2019

Aquinas on emotion, pt. 1 (ST 2.22)

The account of the emotions (or passions) serves an important role in the anthropology of Thomas Aquinas' Summa theologica, being situated between the treatment of human will and agency on the one hand (2.8-21), and the treatise on virtues on the other (2.49-89). These discussions all unfold, of course, under the heading of the human person's telos, which is eternal happiness in the vision of the divine essence (cf. 2.1-7). This, true happiness, is obtained through the turning of the self toward the one Object that will finally satisfy. For this reason Aquinas must consider the self in terms both of its rational intentionality and of its desire, or appetite, before finally considering the proper interrelation of the two in the formation of the virtues.

 In the coming weeks I will isolate, and attempt a brief commentary on, Aquinas' account of the soul's appetitive faculty--the passions (2.22-48). Today I start with Summa theologica 2.22.

Aquinas sees the soul as being "passive" in three ways. The soul is passive in its general receptivity. It is passive in its ability for change that occurs through its innate receptivity; the soul can be moved. Most directly, it is passive in that the soul's change moves it from a better state to a worse state. It is in this final sense, especially, that we are to understand the soul's passions. The soul, while theoretically incorruptible in itself, is passionate because of it being part of a soul-body composite that is subject to time and decay.

The reason that the soul's passions are said to be affective and moved, rather than apprehensive and active, is because of the fact that this faculty of desire is malleable, full of unrealized goals--"drawn to that which belongs to the agent" (2.21.2). In other words, the human soul belongs to "defect" rather than to "perfection", which is to say that it is in potentiality rather than in actuality, and therefore is driven forward to its perfection in the first principle with an intensity. It is internally moved toward its own realization or perfection and thus is, we might say, a form of involuntary yearning--a sort of passive activity, a type of suffering that originates from within.

Quoting St. John of Damascus, Aquinas says that "passion is a movement of the irrational soul, when we think of good or evil". This yearning faculty of desire that is passion is moved by the objects presented to it by the means of the senses, the "corporeal organs", whose foci are themselves managed by the intellect. The passions are therefore beholden to the objects and manner of the intellect's contemplation. The proper function of the passions, then, is that they "suffer Divine things" (Dionysius), meaning that the Object(s) to which they are united are God and all things in God. Yet, by themselves, they are corruptible, and can lead the soul to become attached to things in a wrong manner.

In sum, the passions or emotions represent the soul's inherent incompleteness, and thus need of perfection. The soul is not merely passive and irrational it is also, by virtue of the intellect (or will), active and rational. The human soul is thus a composite of receptivity and activity, a potentiality in motion toward actuality. This creates a stark contrast with God, who is simple and entirely actual, and who thus has no passions or emotions. One might say it this way: when God loves his love is never general, corruptible, or intense. He already knows what he loves, loves it perfectly, and possesses the object of his love--namely, Himself.

Thursday, 19 September 2019

The Suffering of Love

There is something uniquely eternal about love. After all: "and now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love" (1 Cor 13:13), and "God is love" (1 Jn 4:8). Love, unlike faith and hope, is uniquely conceivable without a temporal dimension. Love cares for what has come to be--what is--and not for the formless possibility of what might be in the future. This is why love is tortured by time, which continually threatens the objects in which it rests. Only love can, and must, suffer, while faith and hope do not.

Human agency is the agency of love, the operation of this most divine longing. Yet the opportunities for the action of love are too often inaccessible to us. The more aware we are of the world, the more love is awakened within us and the more incompetent we find ourselves to be in uniting with the loveliness within objects. There is literally not enough time for our love. We have not the skills needed to enact it. When we seem to have succeeded in some small measure, it is at the painful cost of neglecting some other loveliness. The byproduct of love in the midst of temporality is always grief and regret.

To be temporal is to suffer, not because time is evil but because there is something timeless at the core of our being: "he has placed eternity in their hearts" (Ecc 3:11). This is why the physical ailments we term "suffering" are so insufferable: because they eat away at the already-too-little time and energy we have for love. And perhaps this explains the most suffocating forms of depression: an oppressive sense of dread as our fallen and finite capacities encounter a world of infinite loveliness. Whether diagnosable or not, species of these sufferings are the inevitable price of a life that is lived in a temporal world that is "charged with the grandeur of God". 

The ultimate realization of temporal suffering is the final loss of agency in death, for there the possibility of love is at an end. Death thus makes the task of love infinitely more urgent, but at the same time it renders love's meaning questionable in the extreme."The afterlife," conceived simplistically as an indefinite continuation of this form of temporal existence, would only exacerbate this problem. Love would never find its home. Its sense of loss would mount infinitely with the coming into being and passing away of the objects (and moments) of love. In light of this perplexing antinomy, we must conclude that death itself is some form of mercy, precisely because it is the necessary presupposition of the possibility of some other, better, form of love's existence. 

"Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit" (Jn 12:24). The scriptures speak of death neither as love's total cessation, nor as an intrusive but ultimately temporary obstacle in love's infinite march forward. No, death is somehow the doorway to love's home. One dies in order to live in a new mode, one in which all of love's objects, one's own and those of others, are present to one all at once with their true depth of loveliness, its Source, now apparent. No longer must one object and its loveliness give way to another in a cruel zero-sum game; now all serve as factors in a multiplication whose product is innumerable. This is the hope of resurrection, and this is why love must take up its cross and suffer. 

Wednesday, 31 July 2019

A little guide to 'Cur Deus homo?'

Anselm's "satisfaction theory of the atonement" is much maligned, often by those who, in my opinion, are dealing with a caricature of what Anselm actually advances in his eleventh-century work Cur Deus homo? His model often gets lumped in with penal substitutionary accounts of the atonement, despite the fact that Anselm goes out of his way to argue that the death of Christ is not an instance of God forcing an innocent person to die for the wicked. Also, Anselm's account is primarily ontological, and only distantly and secondarily juridical.

It's sometimes said that the concept of "honor" with which Anselm works is rooted in medieval feudalism and that, outside this context, this model of the atonement therefore falls apart. It's important to note that, when Anselm talks of the honor God is due, he is talking about the worship that the creature owes the Creator.

Anyways, if you're going to reject or critique Anselm's account, even in passing, you should at least have an accurate view of what he argues, and understand him on his own terms. So, in what follows I take a quick stab at laying out his argument for you, with references to the pertinent sections of the two books. I've skipped over some things (e.g., the discussion of why the number of fallen humanity couldn't be restored by angels), and I've left out any biblical references. This is designed to function as a rough-and-ready guide for you to read Cur Deus homo? for yourself.

Without further ado, here's my synthetic outline of Cur Deus homo?

A. The redeemer must be a divine person (1.5)
  1. The one by whom humanity is redeemed is owed worship and service.
  2. Humanity is not to worship and serve anything other than God.
  3. Therefore, the one who redeems humanity must be God.
B. The redemption through this divine person cannot be externally compelled. (1.6-1.7)
  1. If God is compelled to redemption by, e.g., the devil's power over human beings, then he is not omnipotent.
  2. But God is omnipotent, and all things are in the power of his will.
  3. Therefore, redemption must be compelled by God's will alone. 
C. The mode of this redemption (i.e., the incarnation of Christ the Son) must be necessary, consequent upon the wisdom of the divine will. (1.6-1.7)
  1. God is supremely wise, which means he doesn't do anything unnecessarily.
  2. God willed to redeem humankind through the incarnation of his Son. 
  3. Therefore, the incarnation of God's Son must be necessary for redemption.
D. The mode of this redemption (i.e., the incarnation of Christ the Son) must be voluntary, consequent upon the justice of the divine will (1.8)
  1. God is just, which means he does not force the innocent to bear the sins of the guilty.
  2. Redemption came about through the incarnation of Christ the Son.
  3. Therefore, the incarnation of Christ the Son is not a case of the innocent being forced to bear the sins of the guilty. 
E. The incarnation of Christ the Son achieved redemption, not through obedience to a command to die, but through obedience to a command to live as a righteous human being. (1.9-1.10)
  1. What God commanded Christ the Son was what he commands of humankind generally: to live a righteous life of worship (or honor) of God. 
  2. This was the command that Christ the Son obeyed, and it was for obedience to this command that sinful humanity killed him.
  3. Therefore, Christ the Son's death is only secondarily related to redemption, consequent upon the state of those he came to redeem. 
F. Humanity must be redeemed from humanity's own inability to render to God the positive obedience and worship--"honor"--he is due. (1.11-12)
  1. What is owed God is the "honor" he is due as Creator, that is, total and complete worship.
  2. There is nothing greater than this that can be given to God in exchange for failure in this regard.
  3. Therefore, this requirement of total honor must be satisfied by humanity. 
G. The necessity of punishment for failure to honor God is consequent upon the perfection of the divine nature. (1.13-15)
  1. God's honor is incorruptible and unalterable, and every creature owes God this honor by virtue of its being related to him as Creator. 
  2. The presence in God's creation of dishonor is an ontological challenge to God's very nature. 
  3. Therefore, on the pain of compromising the perfection of the divine nature (impossible), God must punish sin. 
H. The punishment due for sin is proportional to the honor not given to God. (1.19-24) 
  1. The honor that God is due, by virtue of his nature, is infinite and total. 
  2. The punishment given for failure in this regard must be proportional to this failure.
  3. Therefore, the punishment humanity incurs necessarily (on pain of God forfeiting his nature, which is impossible) is infinite and total. 
I. Only Jesus Christ as the divine-human mediator can render to God the positive honor he is due, and also bear the negative consequences of humanity's failure to honor God. (1.25)
  1. To offer the honor God is due, he must be fully human. (2.6)
  2. To overcome the infinite punishment humanity has incurred, he must enter into it as one whose infinite nature can overcome even this. He must be God, who is greater than all things. (2.7, 14-15)
  3. Therefore, he must be both human and God, with these two natures neither mixed together, nor separated, but united hypostatically, in one person. (2.8-9)
J. It is necessary for God to become man in just this way, contingent on God's will to create. (2.4-5)
  1. God is omnipotent and his purposes cannot be frustrated. 
  2. God wills to create a humanity that honors him and attains blessedness.
  3. Therefore, God must necessarily become incarnate and redeem humanity when it falls. 
What follows from all of this is that redemption, while it is achieved by Christ, is entered into only through being joined to Christ through the Spirit. Participation in Christ as the one who obeys and the one who undoes the consequences of sin ("punishment") is indispensable.

When it's all said and done, Anselm's interlocutor in this work, Boso, concludes of this model of the atonement: "There can be nothing more logical, nothing sweeter, nothing more desirable that the world can hear. I indeed derive such confidence from this that I cannot now express in words with what joy my heart is rejoicing" (2.19). You may not come to the same conclusion, but I hope at least you'll achieve a more accurate understanding of this great text.

Sunday, 21 July 2019

Rémi Brague, Curing Mad Truths: Medieval Wisdom for the Modern Age

I imagine that many readers are familiar already with the French historian and philosopher Rémi Brague. My first encounter with him is via his latest book, Curing Mad Truths: Medieval Wisdom for a Modern Age (University of Notre Dame Press, 2019). It's a stitched-together collection of nine papers that Brague has given to English-speaking audiences in recent years. But that's not to say this little book doesn't put forward a coherent argument.

Brague is a conservative in the deepest sense of the word. He is concerned with the conservation of humanity itself, which he takes to be under assault in the modern West. Exhibiting his wit (not to mention his obsession with etymologies and his mastery of the English language) he commits a "deliberate spoonerism" and argues that the civilization-saving conservatism we need is essentially a commitment to conversation--conversation both with the human past and with nature itself.

Modernity is, according to Brague, a type of barbarism, defined as a "refusal to communicate". Modernity refuses to communicate with the past or with nature by way of its mythical conception of self-determination, which denies continuity with what came before and which promises a future of humanly achieved progress. The driver of this barbarism is modernity's methodological atheism which, while it allows for the description and even exploitation of the world, can offer no compelling reason why it is good for human beings to exist and to keep existing. Thus, the assertion of human autonomy inevitably results in a type of deep existential malaise. Reason itself must be seen as a product of irrational forces. Rather than grounds for meaningful action, there are merely deterministic causes.

The central move to treat modernity's condition must be a recovery of the notion of the Good in the Platonic rather than Aristotelian sense. If we are to have a reason to live, we must understand the Good not merely as something we do, but rather as the necessary ontological ground of all that exists. Brague argues that the necessity of the Good is implied in the modern (Kantian) concept of ethics as rational action (ie, action rooted in the Being of the subject), and evil as an irrational perversion of this freedom. This is a roundabout confirmation of, not only the Platonic vision, but the biblical creation story, both of which state that the Good is given to us with Being and must therefore be received as gift.

Recovering the necessity of the Good requires a return to a cosmological view of nature--the belief that the universe not only can be described in its present state or understood in terms of the mechanisms of how it came to be what it is, but rather that it is inherently meaningful and intelligible. The cosmos must be seen in terms of logos--communicating goodness to us. Humanity is not a stranger to this good nature (or "creation"), but rather at home in it, part of it. Within this good creation human freedom must be conceived as the freedom to manifest what we are as given by, in, and with nature, and not in some sort of rebellion against it. Freedom is responsive human communication with the goodness of nature. Culture is the byproduct of this communication, a cultic overflowing of praise to God (whether we realize it or not). This means, Brague says, that Christianity, if it is the true religion, is not itself a culture. Instead, it exists as a conserving conversation with every culture.

The necessity of the Good, and the attendant recovery of premodern notions of nature, freedom, and culture, Brague contends, should lead to a reintegration of both the ancient pagan virtues and the biblical commandments. Virtues are habits that allow us to "do good", to act in accordance with the nature of things. The biblical commandments of the God who says of creation "it is good" are never antithetical to this, but rather must always be species of the mandate to "Be what you are!' This rediscovery and reintegration of virtues and commandments can only take place in the family. The modern state and the modern market militate against the family. The former consistently reduces people to atomistic individuals, whereas the latter trains them as individuals who think of everything as a commodity. But the family is essential for society. The biological bond between parents and children, and the unconditional love that go with it, communicate the givenness and goodness of one's being. The family, or those things founded on the notion of family (like monarchies or the church), are the only institutions that can care about "the very long run". Only they can have a deep sense of responsibility to, and gratitude for, the past, and an existential concern for the future.

Brague's Curing Mad Truths is a radical assault on many of the things taken for granted in modern liberal societies. Nevertheless, as a "conservative" (read: conserving through conversating) project, it does not advocate some impossible return to the past. It calls us to reconnect the branches of truth upon which modernity sits to the metaphysical trunk from which they have been severed. It's a provocative, convincing, and accessible little book (only 115pp., notes and index excluded) by an important scholar, and it deserves wide attention.

Thursday, 18 July 2019

Faith & Theology is open again


I have had a long and rather intimate relationship with Ben Myers. For example: I have lived in his house, slept in his bed, mowed his lawn (or not), driven his car, drank his whisky, and helped raise his dog. In light of all this, I suppose it's not entirely unsurprising that I'm now taking over his blog.

It's not that there was ever anything untoward between Ben and me. It's just that he's one of the most generous people around. I first encountered Ben, not by reading Faith & Theology, but when he read and commented on something I had written online when I was still an undergraduate in California. Then I started to follow him here and on social media, enjoying the open-handed verve with which he pursued theological learning. I noticed that Ben's engagement with texts and ideas was always top-notch, but also that everyone was welcome at his table.

Several years later I started looking into Ph.D. programs in theology. I had my heart set on a big name school in either the U.S. or the U.K. The only thing was, I had no viable way to pay for one of these programs. Desperate, I started praying that Providence would make a way for me. During this period I reached out to Ben Myers on a whim, just to ask if he supervised Ph.D. research. The very next day, we spoke on Skype. Within months I was applying for a doctoral program at Charles Sturt University in Australia. Not only was I accepted, but Ben worked his charm and secured a full tuition waiver for this foreign student.

I arrived in Australia in 2012 when Ben and his family were on sabbatical in Germany. My wife and I spent our first couple of months living in Ben's home and caring for his legendary dog, Kola (R.I.P.). For the next several years Ben's generosity continued. He shared his life with me, taught me how to write, allowed me to teach alongside him, and saw me through to the end of my Ph.D. thesis in 2017. For my wife and me Ben's help was the key that opened the door to one of the most meaningful periods of our lives. We made many friends, we became Australian citizens, and we found our ecclesial home in the Anglican church. Perhaps most importantly, in emulation of Ben we acquired a goofy black Labrador Retriever.

I now live in Washington, D.C. where I minister at a church on Capitol Hill. I love my life here, but I've come to miss the rich theological community Ben creates around him wherever he goes. I want to find my way back into what I saw with Ben by going forward in my own way. Because of this I recently tweeted that I was thinking of starting a blog. Within hours I had a predictably generous message from Ben, offering me Faith & Theology. Everything came full circle today when I once again met with Ben through Skype and he handed me the reins. Like Elisha to Elijah, I requested from Ben a double portion of his spirit.  He said that, unfortunately, he had given away .6 of his spirit, and therefore that he could give me only a 1.4 portion.

Faith & Theology is open again. Stay tuned for posts on theology, philosophy, and culture, as well as reflections on scripture and book reviews. I can't fill Ben's shoes. I know this to be true because I've actually worn them before and they don't fit me.

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