Monday, June 17, 2019

The Search for Liberty; Chapter Four: Philosophy and Theology

Many contemporary philosophers are unsure how to read Thomas. He was in his primary and official profession a theologian. Nonetheless, we find among his writings works anyone would recognize as philosophical and the dozen commentaries on Aristotle increasingly enjoy the respect and interest of Aristotelian scholars.

Through an examination of Aquinas, the question of the relationship between philosophy and theology is raised.  The authors of this encyclopedia entry offer a clear distinction between philosophy and theology.  Before getting to Aquinas, it is worth taking this slight detour:

The first and major formal difference between philosophy and theology is found in their principles, that is, starting points.

Each, apparently, is built on a different foundation.

The presuppositions of the philosopher, that to which his discussions and arguments are ultimately driven back, are in the public domain, as it were. They are things that everyone in principle can know upon reflection; they are where disagreement between us must come to an end.

OK so far.

By contrast, the discourse of the theologian is ultimately driven back to starting points or principles that are held to be true on the basis of faith, that is, the truths that are authoritatively conveyed by Revelation as revealed by God.

My initial reaction to this is that I see little difference.  Now, if we are living in a universe of random atoms smashing together randomly…well then, I wonder: what is the point of philosophy?  But if in humans we find Plato’s Form of the Good – as Aristotle suggests – and that “Good” is God, then what everyone can know upon reflection (philosophy) is also revealed to them by God (theology). 

It seems this is not quite what the authors are getting at.  The authors are considering things like salvation through Jesus, the nature of Jesus, etc.  They offer an excerpt from Thomas on this, where he concludes:

“Thus there is nothing to prevent another science from treating in the light of divine revelation what the philosophical disciplines treat as knowable in the light of human reason.”

Again, through Plato and Aristotle, perhaps they are the same thing.  The authors summarize:

…Aquinas suggests here that there are in fact elements of what God has revealed that are formally speaking philosophical and subject to philosophical discussion—though revealed they can be known and investigated without the precondition of faith. In other words, even something that is as a matter of fact revealed is subject to philosophical analysis, if religious faith is not necessary to know it and accept it as true.

Thomas offers that such matters include the nature of God, the nature of the human person, what is necessary for a human being to be good and to fulfill his destiny, etc.

…there can be both a theological and a philosophical discussion of those subjects, providing for a fruitful engagement between the theological and the philosophical.

This is the region that Thomas occupies, and – according to the encyclopedia’s authors – where he “provide[s] some of his very best philosophical reflection.”

So what of Christian philosophers?  Can such an individual come to the field untainted by his beliefs of faith?  The authors address this as well:

The proper philosopher may be thought to be someone—perhaps merely some mind—without antecedents or history who first comes to consciousness posing a philosophical question the answer to which is pursued without prejudice.

The authors offer that no philosopher comes into Philosophy 101 without a couple of decades of baggage of some sort.  Yet modern philosophy since Descartes expects this:

Only after appropriate epistemological cleansing is the mind equipped to make its first warranted knowledge claim. Knowledge thus becomes a deliverance of philosophy, a product of philosophizing. Outside of philosophy there is no knowledge.

But it just doesn’t happen – despite the insistence by those who believe they are the keepers of pure, unadulterated reason.  Consider the question of the immortality of the soul as taken up by the non-believing philosopher:

Let us imagine that he holds in a more or less unexamined way that all events, including thinking, are physical events. If as a philosopher he should happen take up the question of the immortality of the soul, he is going to regard with suspicion those classical proofs which rely on an analysis of thinking as a non-physical process.

In other words, philosophers of both stripes – believers and non-believers – carry the same baggage:

The importance of this is that a believer runs the risk of accepting bad proofs of the non-physical character of thinking and thus of the human soul. On the other hand, a committed physicalist may be too quick to accept a bad proof that thinking is just a physical process.

Does this make agreement impossible?  According to the authors, theoretically, no.  Both sides should be able to agree on what constitutes a good proof. 

But the important point is that antecedent dispositions and expectations are the common condition of philosophers, believers and unbelievers alike.

Ultimately, though, believers hold the upper hand: they at least have revelation on which to hang their hats; non-believers have (in my words) “because I said so.”  At least the believers admit their pre-existing baggage.

Where does this leave Thomas?  Does he count in the ranks of philosophers, or is he to be dismissed?

As a philosopher Thomas is emphatically Aristotelian. … He adopted Aristotle's analysis of physical objects, his view of place, time and motion, his proof of the prime mover, his cosmology. He made his own Aristotle's account of sense perception and intellectual knowledge. His moral philosophy is closely based on what he learned from Aristotle…

Yet Thomas was not merely building on a foundation of Aristotle.  He came to an understanding of Neo-Platonism through the works of other early philosophers.  The authors present a philosopher that – while grounded in Aristotle – is not building solely on Aristotle, and one who is not afraid to confront Aristotle if deemed appropriate.

Thus far, what the authors present is a picture of Thomas as a serious philosopher, one both building on and critical of Aristotle, one who is well read regarding many philosophers and schools.

In the next chapter, we will examine Thomas’s metaphysics.

Saturday, June 15, 2019

I Only Have a Hammer

I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail.

-          Abraham Maslow

C. J. Engel has a very interesting and thought provoking piece on the topic of libertarianism and liberty, entitled “Libertarianism’s Place In Society.”   I say thought provoking, because even though the general topic is one that I have worked through often, his approach is quite different and provides fascinating – and troubling – food for thought.

With his opening sentence, Engel points to what he sees as the issue:

The thesis here is that libertarianism as a political theory only carries the veneer of importance and centrality due to the strength and power of the democratic, administrative, state in our time.

Engel is after the “why.”  Why is it that so many libertarians see libertarianism and only libertarianism (sola libertatem?) as the cure for what ails us, so to speak?

Where in the past one might have said, with some truth, that politics is downstream from culture, today we have culture downstream from the state – with the state not only consuming all relationships but even guiding these relationships; with the state not following the cultural lead of the people but taking a leading role in shaping the culture that it wishes the people to adopt.

Since the state is everywhere we look, and libertarianism has a set of particular ethical critiques against the state, it seems to follow that libertarianism plays such an important place in our lives.

The state is omnipresent, omniscient, and omnipotent.  “All within the state, nothing outside the state, nothing against the state.”

This creates the illusion that libertarianism plays a fundamental role in society.

Because the state plays the fundamental role, libertarianism must be fundamental.  In other words, many libertarians see the solution to the issue of the state in the terms that the state presents.

Give a small boy a hammer, and he will find that everything he encounters needs pounding.

-          Abraham Kaplan

The state makes the rules of the game and many libertarians believe that this is, therefore, the field on which they must play if they are to find liberty:

But it should be made clear that the only reason libertarianism as such seems to play such a fundamental role in the self-identity and life-meaning of so many in libertarian circles is due to the politicalization of society.

Engel has succinctly put into words the role that libertarianism can play in a society that is not totally politicized:

Under a free society that is not created by or bound up in the existence of the state, libertarianism plays much more the role of a legal theory, not a political theory.

This strikes me as not inconsistent with my idea that liberty will be found in a society grounded in natural law and Christian ethics, with libertarianism playing a role of determining when violence (e.g. self-defense, physical punishment, etc.) is appropriate.

Engel notes that men are not connected to each other based on this idea of “libertarianism.”  Libertarianism only binds libertarians together if we “presume the state’s politicized world!” 

He then comes to the point of what can be labeled (for simplicity) the left and right of society and how this relates to libertarians and libertarianism:

In this case, those of us who are beginning to pay particular attention to the rapid and concerning leftist social revolution likely have more in common with each other, outside the bounds of libertarianism as a legal theory. And as the left-libertarians and mainstream libertarians in general either praise these developments as at the culmination of the “libertarian spirit” or at least just watch it all with neutral expressions and ambivalent reaction, they likely have more in common, generally speaking, with the progressive left.

Libertarians are connected to each other in their (varying levels of) anti-statism.  But this only means that libertarians see the problem only one way, through one lens, and with only one tool available to deal with it – and it is the state that has defined the way, the lens, and the tool that many libertarians choose to use.

Men form society not on the basis of a unifying legal theory, but the legal theory is adopted post-society. Libertarianism is a helpful tool in the development of peaceful civilization; it is neither the spring nor the engine from which society comes.

A common culture and tradition must come first, one that offers decentralization from the statism of today.  Good law follows good people, it is incapable of creating good people.


If I had a hammer
I'd hammer in the morning
I'd hammer in the evening
All over this land

And I'd hammer out danger
I'd hammer out a warning
I'd hammer out love between my brothers and my sisters
All over this land

-          Peter, Paul, and Mary

So maybe we could try it another way?

Friday, June 14, 2019

The Search for Liberty; Chapter Three: An Overview of Natural Law

Understanding Aquinas will take me several chapters.  Placing him in a framework that incorporates Plato’s Form of the Good and Aristotle’s Four Causes will take more – although I will likely touch on these in each chapter. 

Before beginning this journey into the unknown, I want to survey the landscape.  For this, I will begin with a review of a short video: Natural Law Theory: Crash Course Philosophy.  Frankly, you might do better to watch the video than read this post – or at least watch the video first.

Aquinas identified that morality was important for everyone, but not everyone was exposed to the Bible.  How could everyone follow God’s moral rules without even knowing about God?  Aquinas theorized that God pre-loaded us with the knowing of what is good.

It seems to me a pretty good theory.  One can see this in the Golden Rule, where some version of this has been known in almost all cultures and all religions for almost as long as we have recorded history:

The idea dates at least to the early Confucian times (551–479 BC) according to Rushworth Kidder, who identifies that this concept appears prominently in Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Judaism, Taoism, Zoroastrianism, and "the rest of the world's major religions". The concept of the Rule is codified in the Code of Hammurabi stele and tablets, 1754-1790 BC.

There are almost forty centuries of history in the Golden Rule, to be found outside of Christianity and even before Christ.

143 leaders encompassing the world's major faiths endorsed the Golden Rule as part of the 1993 "Declaration Toward a Global Ethic", including the Baha'i Faith, Brahmanism, Brahma Kumaris, Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Indigenous, Interfaith, Islam, Jainism, Judaism, Native American, Neo-Pagan, Sikhism, Taoism, Theosophist, Unitarian Universalist and Zoroastrian.

This diversified and global acceptance of the Golden Rule demonstrates that this idea is pre-loaded in man whether or not they know God.

According to Greg M. Epstein, " 'do unto others' ... is a concept that essentially no religion misses entirely", but belief in God is not necessary to endorse it.

One can also see this in Plato’s Form of the Good.  If Plato’s is a valid construct, one would expect that humans would approximate this form – regardless of when or where they live or which religion they follow.  This is not to suggest that all humans everywhere embrace and follow the good; merely to suggest that it is planted into their hearts – as Aristotle offered.  We are imperfect approximations of the form, after all; that perfect form being Jesus.

To my knowledge, Jesus holds a unique place among those identified with founding a religion.  I don’t believe any other meaningful religion has a founder who claims to be the Son of God and who is morally perfect.  Whether you believe this to be true or not, in the west during the time of Aquinas He was viewed this way – and still is by many today.

My point?  No other religious leader – no other person who walked the earth – can offer us an example of Plato’s Form of the Good.  Absent Jesus, we are left guessing.  All the while, even those who do not embrace Jesus are after this same Form of the Good – but with no manifest example.

What does this Form of the Good have to do with humans? 

Genesis 1: 26 Then God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.”  27 So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.

Was God speaking in the royal “us” and “our”?  Maybe.  Of course, we must recognize, from John 1:

1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was with God in the beginning. 3 Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. 4 In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind.

The word – Jesus, who later walked in the flesh – was with God in the beginning, and was God.  The life in Him was the light of all mankind.

Jesus is the Form of the Good.  Before Jesus, man only had Plato’s abstract, incomprehensible Form of God; after Jesus, we had Aristotle’s Form in man – a Form we could see, touch, witness; a Form that gave us the example of properly bearing God’s image.  In Jesus, we witnessed Aristotle’s Final Cause: the end, goal, or purpose of a human.

Returning to the video: we all want stuff and that’s OK – God made us to want things, good things.  Of course, when it comes to humans, Aquinas is not speaking of good material things – Lamborghinis and the like.  It would take the Renaissance and ultimately the Enlightenment to convince man that all good things are material.

Tuesday, June 11, 2019

The Search for Liberty; Chapter Two: The Form of the Good

NB: All previous chapters can be found here.

The Form of the Good was the ultimate form for Plato, from which every other form derived its goodness, but it was impersonal.

-          Plato and Christianity

Plato gave us the Form of the Good, an abstract form that exists but not embodied; Aristotle embodied this form, and – through his Four Causes – pointed us to find the proper end, goal, or purpose of the thing in which this Form of the Good is embodied.

It leads one to ask: in the case of humans, where do we find this Form?  (And for non-Christians in the audience, please be patient regarding the next few paragraphs; I will come back to you before this is over):

We know that in Platonism, God can be thought of as the Form of the Good – that is, as the ultimate Form, Ideal, Essence, or Archetype of which all good things partake, and also the Form which is hierarchically higher than the other high-level Forms of Beauty, Truth, Virtue and Excellence.

Oh, Great.  God is the Form of the Good for humans?  Given that He is God, that doesn’t help much.

He is omnipotent:

Psalm 33: 6 By the word of the Lord the heavens were made, their starry host by the breath of his mouth.

He is omniscient:

Psalm 139: 1 You have searched me, Lord, and you know me.  2 You know when I sit and when I rise; you perceive my thoughts from afar.  3 You discern my going out and my lying down; you are familiar with all my ways.  4 Before a word is on my tongue, you, Lord, know it completely.

He is omnipresent:

Proverbs 15: 3 The eyes of the Lord are everywhere, keeping watch on the wicked and the good.

These terms are incomprehensible to us, and to the extent we understand even a fraction of what these mean we know we aren’t now holding and never will hold such characteristics.  What good does this do us in our quest to find the Form of the Good and therefore act upon it? 

Well, thank God we have an example – in the flesh:

Colossians 1:15 The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation.

1 Timothy 3:16 Beyond all question, the mystery from which true godliness springs is great: He appeared in the flesh….

John 1:1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.

In this verse from John, the “Word” is translated from the Greek word logos:

Logos, (Greek: “word,” “reason,” or “plan”) plural logoi, in Greek philosophy and theology, the divine reason implicit in the cosmos, ordering it and giving it form and meaning.

The idea of logos dates back to sixth century BC Greek philosophy.  Heracleitus discerned in the cosmic process a logos analogous to the reasoning power in man. The Stoics defined the logos as an active rational and spiritual principle that permeated all reality. 

Philo of Alexandria, a Jewish philosopher from the first century AD, “taught that the logos was the intermediary between God and the cosmos, being both the agent of creation and the agent through which the human mind can apprehend and comprehend God.”

Jesus was this logos; He was with God from the beginning and He was God.  In Him we find reason, we find the plan, we find rationality.  Reason and rationality are to be found in and through this logos; it seems reasonable and rational to then conclude that reason and rationality will not be found outside of and absent this logos.  It seems there is no reason or rationality possible without God.

Most importantly, we find a way that our human minds can better understand God – God, who is (among many other things) the Form of the Good.  Jesus is our example of this Form.  Now, for my promised return for the benefit of the non-believers in the audience:

“Jesus was a great moral teacher,” Richard Dawkins said to The Guardian earlier this week.

We nonreligious people can take the miracles as metaphors if we’d like, or we can leave them on the cutting room floor as we go about the inevitable exercise of picking and choosing the parts of the story that abide with us. The point is, we can see Jesus not as a divine savior who takes away our sins, but as an embodiment of transformative wisdom, insight, and inspiration.

“…a great moral teacher…” “…an embodiment of transformative wisdom…”  Jesus is considered by many who deny His divinity as a model we can learn from and emulate – a good and wise man.  Not a bad Form of the Good for the rest of you.

Jesus, who was with God and was God, came to earth and gave us humans the perfect example of Plato’s Form of the Good, and gave us a target at which to aim (unachievable as it is) when we consider Aristotle’s proper end, goal, or purpose for this thing that is human.

So, what do we learn from this manifestation of the Form of the Good?  Do a search on character traits of Jesus and you will get numerous “top ten” lists – things like loving, patient, humble, forgiving, honest, obedient, possessing self-control, merciful, just, etc.  He was also self-sacrificial – which, for the Christians among us, was kind of the whole point.


Not much of one yet.

Now I know that these character traits of Jesus seem to have little to do with “liberty” as we understand the term today; so, what does this have to do with my Search for Liberty?  I have some thoughts about this, but I am not yet quite sure. 

What I know is this: natural law in the Aristotelian – Thomistic tradition is about as solid a basis for a libertarian society as there is; I cannot explain the Aristotelian part of the tradition without recognizing Plato’s “Form of the Good” and Aristotle’s ends or purpose for the form; I cannot explain the Thomistic part of the tradition without the Gospel.  Both point to Jesus, who is the best example I know of for the Form of the Good.

Jesus is the logos; in Him we find reason and rationality – two absolutely imperative characteristics if one is to find liberty.  He is also the plan – and how one puts into effect Aristotle’s Four Causes without a plan is beyond my understanding.  The logos permeates all reality – perhaps reality should be taken into account when considering political philosophy.

I have debated not introducing Jesus until I got through Thomas, potentially Lewis, and natural law, just for this reason – I am not quite sure how He fits in yet, in total.  Yet, the previous chapter ended with several questions – as it had to, given the subject matter covered: What is the “final cause” for humans, humans who carry in them this “Form of the Good”?  What is this Form of the Good that humans carry?  What is the good?

So I thought I would get the answering of these questions out of the way, even if I wasn’t completely sure what to do with it.  I will have to address this topic more thoroughly later in the work.