Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Enthusiasm, VI: From Aquinas, to Scotus, to Occam


In the previous posting in this series we asked how, in the Catholic Church, an institution that declares its claims are based on both faith and reason, and that it has never changed a single fundamental teaching, the rejection of reason and change for the sake of change apparently became the first principle of faith for so many people?

The Catholic Church a Champion of Reason (Chesterton)
Perhaps the most baffling aspect of this shift away from reason and common sense, is that some of its strongest supporters are drawn from people who believe they are following the teachings or principles of G.K. Chesterton, “the Apostle of Common Sense.”  Instead of applying their intellects to the evidence of their senses and abstracting the essence, they start with where they want to go, and force the evidence (or, in extreme cases, manufacture it) to fit the premise, i.e., they first draw the graph and then plot the points.  This is an example of what Feynman called “Cargo Cult Science.”

Ronald Knox of the Common Sense Trio
Keeping in mind that Ronald Knox, the third member of the “Common Sense Trio,” used the terms “enthusiasm” and “ultrasupernaturalism” interchangeably, there was full concurrence on this point.  As he said of those who broke the unity of the Catholic Church by substituting their own “inner light” for the common sense doctrine taught by that institution,

“More generally characteristic of ultrasupernaturalism is a distrust of our human thought-processes.  In matters of abstract theology, the discipline of the intellect is replaced by a blind act of faith.  In matters of practical deliberation, some sentiment of inner conviction, or some external ‘sign’ indicative of the Divine will, claims priority over all considerations of common prudence.”  (Knox, Enthusiasm, op. cit., 585.)

How did this come about in a Church that bases its social teachings solidly on the Aristotelian-Thomist understanding of the natural law?  To answer that, we need to take a look at what happened to our understanding of the natural law between the events chronicled by G.K. Chesterton in The Dumb Ox, and the “enthusiastic” philosophy of William of Occam that, in part, was used by the Fraticelli to justify what Chesterton described as the invention of an entirely new religion.

"Angelic" doesn't mean "wimpy".
We’ve mentioned the philosophy of John Duns Scotus, “the Subtle Doctor,” a few times in this blog series.  We’ve juxtaposed his philosophy with that of Thomas Aquinas, “the Angelic Doctor,” but always noting that it was William of Occam’s distortions of the philosophy of Duns Scotus, not actually that of Duns Scotus, that was the problem.

That does not mean that the Subtle Doctor gets off scot free, however (sorry).  His philosophy contained principles that, while not strictly speaking heterodox, were easily distorted by those who came after — as was the case with Occam.

Principally this was in the field of ethics, at least as it pertains to our subject, specifically the view of the basis of the natural law.  As can be seen in this discussion, the understanding changed radically from Aquinas, to Scotus, to Occam . . . and that of Occam prevails today, even by people who claim to be Thomists, which can change the whole idea of what we accept as “truth.”

Thomas Aquinas

Thomas Aquinas, the Angelic Doctor
Truth for Aquinas is an absolute, although it can be applied in an almost infinite number of ways as long as the underlying truth is not violated.  As Chesterton said,

“St. Thomas was willing to allow the one truth to be approached by two paths, precisely because he was sure there was only one truth.  Because the Faith was the one truth, nothing discovered in nature could ultimately contradict the Faith.  Because the Faith was the one truth, nothing really deduced from the Faith could ultimately contradict the facts.”  (Chesterton, The Dumb Ox, op. cit., 93.)

Thus, the natural law is an absolute truth because it is based on God’s Nature, which (as God is a Perfect Being) is unchanging and unchangeable.

The natural law is reflected in the nature of human beings, God’s special creation.  Human nature is analogous to God’s Nature in that, where God is infinitely perfect, human beings are infinitely perfectible.  It is important to note that this refers to the nature of each human being, not to that of “humanity,” as “humanity” is an abstraction, and God does not abstract.

Thus, God being perfect, and therefore not subject to change, the natural law “written in the hearts of all men” is not subject to change.  Further, since God is all-knowing as well as perfect, He knows all things perfectly, including His own Nature, and thus His Nature is “self-realized” in His Intellect.

Consequently, because human nature is analogous to God’s Nature, human beings can also know their own nature (and, by analogy, God’s Nature), and thus the natural law, although in a manner not perfect, but perfectible, by the force and light of human reason alone.  God’s Will, however, is an expression or application of His complete self-knowledge which human beings accept on faith as equally true, and which cannot contradict the truths reached by reason, even though it cannot be known perfectly by human beings.

John Duns Scotus

John Duns Scotus, the Subtle Doctor
Duns Scotus’s philosophy holds a middle position between the natural law stance of Aquinas, and the positivism/moral relativism of Occam.  With respect to the natural law, however, Scotus confused the means with the end.

Where Aquinas insisted that the demands of justice must be met before justice could be completed or perfected by charity, and thereby reach the proper end of existence (being with God in heaven), Scotus declared that charity is the means to attain the proper end of existence.  This confused the natural law and the temporal virtues of prudence, temperance, fortitude, and justice, with the supernatural law and the theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity.

For Aquinas, the capacity for the temporal virtues is inherent in each human being, while the capacity for the theological virtues is infused.  This means that in heaven prudence, temperance, fortitude, and justice remain but are perfected and completed by charity, but of the theological virtues only charity remains.  For Scotus, however, as a result of the confusion between the natural and the supernatural, only charity remains of all the virtues, temporal or theological.

Thus, for Scotus, given that charity is all that remains, it is only by having charity that human beings acquire and develop the temporal virtues, which are then fulfilled and completed by charity.  What saves Scotus’s philosophy from dissolving in contradiction, however, is his insistence that both the Will and the Intellect are absolutes, and must therefore necessarily be in agreement.  Charity cannot replace justice, although charity is a necessary precondition to justice, instead of the other way around, as in Thomism.  (Now you know why Scotus is called “the Subtle Doctor.”)

Human beings must, of course (according to Scotus) give primacy to God’s Will over what human reason tells us about God’s Nature, but there can still be no contradiction or conflict between the two, as both are absolutes.  Where Aquinas’s summation of the natural law is that good is to be done and evil avoided, however, Scotus’s was that God’s Will is to be done, thereby avoiding evil.

For Scotus, then, the “First Table” of the Ten Commandments (that which is due from man to God) is absolute with respect to God and man, but the “Second Table” (that which is due between men) is absolute between God and man, but relative between man and man if God so wills.  Consequently, the Second Table of the Law of Moses is subject to change if it is God’s Will . . . understood in a way that does not contradict reason, of course.

William of Occam

William of Occam, excommunicated for disobedience, 1328.
Unfortunately, William of Occam neglected to integrate the first principle of reason, the law of (non) contradiction, into his philosophy, thereby separating himself from Scotus.  For Occam, everything depends on God’s Will and is based completely on faith, with charity (love) the only law . . . which justified (at least in his eyes) Occam's hysterical rage against the pope and papal authority.

Even God’s existence is uncertain, because it cannot be proven by reason that God exists; God’s existence is probable, but not certain.  Since Aquinas held that it is possible to prove that God exists by inductive reasoning, the First Vatican Council anathematized Occam's position, maintaining that God’s existence and the natural law can be known by reason alone; God's existence is certain knowledge, not probable opinion.

Occam’s line of reasoning changed what it means for something to be true, and effectively abolished the natural law.  Since what one accepts as God’s Will without reference to God’s Nature determines what is true in Occam's system, and charity is the only law (a corruption of Scotus’s reliance on charity instead of justice to implement the natural law), the Intellect (and thus human reason) becomes irrelevant.  As Hugo Grotius logically concluded,

“What we have been saying would have a degree of validity even if we should concede that which cannot be conceded without the utmost wickedness, that there is no God, or that the affairs of men are of no concern to Him.”  (Hugo Grotius, De Jure Belli ac Pacis Libri Tres, Proloegomena, II, translated by Francis W. Kelsey, et al., The Classics of International Law, edited by J. B. Scott, Oxford-London, 1925.  Cf. Pascendi Dominici Gregis, §§ 6, 14, 39.)

This makes a twisted kind of sense.  If you don’t know that God exists, you can’t base any absolute concept of right and wrong on His probable Nature.  Consequently, truth becomes whatever someone believes to be true and is strong enough to get others to accept, whether or not it contradicts reason.

Enthusiasm in America
Distorting Scotus’s reliance on charity as the means to acquire and develop the temporal virtues, Occam’s theories effectively eliminate the temporal virtues and replace them with charity . . . at which point we begin to appreciate Knox’s definition of enthusiasm — which he also called “ultrasuperanturalism” — as an excess of charity that causes disunity.  In this way faith, hope, and charity all became self-justifying, without any reference outside of the one with faith, hope, and charity: pure moral relativism.

This, then, was the situation Knox addressed in Enthusiasm, possibly not realizing that barely a decade after his death in 1957, the phenomenon he appeared to think was in abeyance would flood through the Church and the world in what seemed to be a tsunami of unstoppable force.

#30#

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