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Dan Sportiello | Tuesday, August 31, 2010

To prove the existence of a God is fairly trivial: even Aristotle had his Prime Mover — a narcissistic genius unaware of his cosmos. The real challenge is proving the existence of the right sort of God — one who builds us from our metaphysical parts and leads us down the long path toward redemption. It is only in meeting this challenge that Saint Thomas Aquinas achieved the insight that secured his place in history.

God, his Third Way holds, must be a necessary being — because, if there were no necessary being, the existence of any contingent being would be inexplicable: any everyday thing has both the stuff from which it is made — its matter — and the structure of that stuff — its form. But neither of these things explains the existence of the thing in the first place: neither the fact that Socrates is made of flesh and bones, nor the fact that these flesh and bones are arranged in a certain way, explains the fact that there is a Socrates rather than no Socrates — or, for that matter, that there is a world rather than no world. For where Socrates — or, for that matter, the whole world—now stands, there could just as well have been nothing at all.

Each thing, in other words, has three metaphysical parts: its matter, its form, and its existence. But if these three are really distinct, then it is not clear why the cosmos or anything in it exists at all. The cosmos, it is clear, is contingent. And this contingency can only be explained by something that is necessary — that is, something whose form does not differ from its existence, something whose way of being just is to be, nothing more and nothing less. This is God — that is, Existence Itself.

“It is said in the person of God,” Thomas notes, “‘I am Who am.'” It is this existential insight that reveals to us his nature. For once we accept the soundness of the Third Way, it turns out that God not only exists but must exist — and the only thing that must exist is that whose form is identical to its existence. And this means that God, unlike everything else, must be absolutely simple — which means that he cannot be broken apart, physically or metaphysically, and so is eternal. And, because he is totally simple, he has no features to differentiate him from another God — and, thus, is necessarily unique. And, because he is the source of the contingent cosmos, that cosmos must be a reflection of him — and so he must contain within himself its form, albeit not in matter; but to contain a form within oneself but not in matter is to be a mind, and so God is a mind — the Mind, the Architect of the cosmos. And so on.

Thus is revealed the real genius of Thomas: he is a master synthesizer, bringing together the whole history of ancient and medieval philosophy and showing that making all of it work together actually allows tremendous insight into theology — quite literally, the science of God. In this, he is akin to Kant, another master synthesizer: in a way, Thomas is employing a critical method, showing what is necessary for the cosmos to exist, to support human beings, and to be intelligible in the first place. He is, in other words, showing how “philosophy” as he understood it—what we would call natural science — presupposes rational theology, even if said theology stands at the very limit of human reason.

Despite appearances, such a project is not so foreign to us moderns. Why is it that there is a world for natural science to study? Why is it that it is transparent, rather than opaque, to human reason — that is, why does it obey logical laws like those of identity, noncontradiction, and the excluded middle? And why is the natural world structured such that it is able to support intelligent life? Why is it, in sum, that the human mind is, almost miraculously, able to mirror the structure of the cosmos? This is a question that goes back at least to Pythagoras, and Thomas — prefiguring Kant — tries to show that doing natural science presupposes answers to these questions: the world, obviously contingent, must be the reflection of something necessary; it must be intelligible because that necessary being of which it is a reflection is a mind — and we must echo him in this, since we too can understand this cosmos; and it must be structured in the harmonious way it is on purpose.

Yet Saint Thomas Aquinas, with his existential insight, attempted an even greater synthesis.

It was only in the century before Thomas that Aristotle’s writings were translated from Arabic into Latin, taking the philosophical world by storm — but this was a problem, because that philosophical world had been founded in order to articulate a fundamentally Judeo-Christian worldview: the cosmos is a masterpiece built by an infinitely powerful Will — one who loves us, and all of his creatures, as individuals, guiding us through the long millennia of history. But Aristotle presents a profoundly compelling — and profoundly Greek — alternative: our world is a system, an eternal harmonious structure built up not out of individuals but rather out of universals in intricate taxonomical combination — and is, thus, the product of Reason and the correct object of human reason.

The Judeo-Christian worldview is historical and focuses upon will, emphasizing the particularity and changeability of the cosmos — and, therefore, its tragic transcendence of our understanding. The Greek worldview, on the other hand, is ahistorical and focuses upon reason, emphasizing the orderliness and stability of the cosmos — and, therefore, its comforting comprehensibility.

Virtually all of Thomas’s predecessors concluded that these two worldviews were radically incompatible: theologians decried the study of Aristotle, with his pagan misunderstanding of the nature of the world and God and human beings; philosophers insisted that Aristotle must be right — but also that, admittedly, the power of God extended even to the impossible, and that sometimes even the right is wrong.

Whether said philosophers were sincere or merely afraid of losing tenure is an open question. But Thomas, almost alone, disagreed with both sides: though they might appear to be at odds, the two worldviews actually only make sense in light of one another — and, in any case, they are certainly compatible. Thomas, armed with his existential insight, worked mightily to show that this is the case — to reconcile Reason and Will, Eternity and History. To show that God can be Thought and Love at one and the same time.

Despite appearances, such a project is not so foreign to us moderns. We feel the need of it today in the life-and death-struggle of science with the humanities: the former, reaching for convergence upon the objective reality behind all appearances, contends with the latter, which reminds us that we are bound within the perspectives of language and culture — of race, gender, and class — that we have inherited from history; the former seeks the truth of things transcendent of human bias, but the latter denies that there can even be such a thing as truth without such bias. And this struggle echoes now — much as it did in the time of Thomas — up and down the academy, causing a crisis of confidence both within and outside the academic world.

It is tempting to think, therefore, that the Thomist synthesis can show us the way forward — can help us to repair this rift in our understanding of our world and ourselves. But it is not so clear, upon reflection, that it can.

Thomas saw, or thought he saw, the way out of a crisis that put the very legitimacy of scholarship at risk: his existential insight allowed him to synthesize two worldviews that seemed radically at odds. But it was that same existential insight that paved the way for Ockham and Luther and Calvin to tear his synthesis apart: in admitting that the existence and order of the cosmos are contingent — are, indeed, the product of divine will — he threw into question the degree to which said cosmos is transparent to human reason — something that Aristotle and the Greeks had never thought to doubt. After all, if things are the way they are by divine fiat — and we cannot expect to discern the hidden purposes of God — then we cannot rely upon human reason to stumble upon the truth. If one’s will does not match that of God, one’s reason must be correspondingly darkened; to know anything at all about would take a miracle — would take, that is, direct revelation by God.

Thomas held fast to the Greek idea that human reason could know the purposiveness in the world — could know, that is, teleology. But, if the existentialist insight is correct — if things could easily have been very different than they are — then our understanding of teleology is at best a reasonable guess about the logic of the divine mind. The Scientific Revolution and the Protestant Reformation were only possible because each gave up the attempt to understand the world according to purposiveness: human reason can see only matter in motion, not forms and the ends toward which they move — and thus whatever access we have to divine purpose in the world is through scripture alone.

In the search for an understanding of the world without teleology were born the sciences; in the search for an understanding of teleology through scripture alone were born the humanities. More and more did they struggle with one another until, today, they engage in an open warfare that makes the very name of “university” farcical.

And yet, and yet: each has achieved more than anyone would have imagined possible in the time of Thomas; to give up either would now be impossible. We are, thus, caged by modernity: we cannot see what synthesis, if any, the future holds, but we also cannot see a way to relinquish the need for one. We know only that we wait for another — doubtless very different — Saint Thomas.

Daniel John Sportiello is in his third year in the philosophy Ph.D. program. Listen this fall for his radio show, Bound Variables, on WVFI. He can be reached at dsportie@nd.edu

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.