Wednesday, May 6, 2020

Transforming Aristotle

No, I am not going back on my decision to stop writing about transubstantiation so quickly.  There is, however, an informative presentation by Salkeld regarding Aquinas’s use and transformation of Aristotelian metaphysics.  This is meaningful toward gaining a better understanding of the philosophy of Aquinas and natural law.

I will, however, make two brief comments regarding what I am finding in the book about transubstantiation – for the benefit of those considering purchasing the book: first, Salkeld states firmly and often that Protestants are right to reject what many Catholics today believe is happening to the bread and wine in the Eucharist.

But this doesn’t necessarily explain Luther’s rejection.  And this comes to the second point: Luther was rejecting an argument that was a rejection of Aquinas’s argument.  He was not rejecting Aquinas.  These two points shape Salkeld’s treatment throughout, ensuring, as much as possible, a balanced look on the entire subject.

That’s enough of that.  With that minor transgression behind me, on to Aquinas’s treatment of Aristotle.  Thomas is accused two ways regarding his relationship with Aristotle: he is accused, on the one hand, of being too Aristotelian; on the other hand, he is accused of not being Aristotelian enough.  Well, which is it?

I guess neither…or both.  On matters such as transubstantiation, creation, the incarnation, or the resurrection, Thomas is not doing philosophy; he is using philosophy to do theology:

In fact, Thomas himself commented on the role of philosophy in theology, suggesting that the theologian who uses philosophy does not mix wine with water, but turns water into wine.

Thomas was using the language and logic of the time to explore and develop his theological arguments.  As Dominican theologian Herbert McCabe writes:

[Thomas] uses [Aristotelian language] because it was the common philosophical currency of his time; but he uses it to give account of something that simply could not happen according to Aristotle.

For events such as the creation or resurrection, Aristotelian language breaks down – not, necessarily, because there is some better philosophical language through which these can be explained, but because, merely, it is language.  Such concepts transcend our concepts, stretching language beyond the breaking point.

Take the creation: for Aristotle, there can be no such thing as creation ex nihilo, creation out of nothing.  The unmoved mover moved matter that was already in existence.  Aristotelian philosophy cannot account for the God of creation as understood by Christians. 

For Aristotle, matter can take new forms: a sandwich becomes a human body, a tree becomes a door, etc.  But matter cannot come to exist where nothing existed.

Thomas’s answer to this problem can be found in his De potentia, where he writes that “God, giving being, simultaneously produces that which receives being.  And thus it does not follow that his action requires something pre-existing.”

Thomas uses the language of “substance” and “accident,” as does Aristotle.  On matters where he is using philosophical language to explore theology (such as creation), these words function differently for Thomas.  That there was a time when there was not anything at all is unthinkable for Aristotle.

Because of his Christian theology of creation, Thomas insists that the deepest ontological category is not substance but the concrete act of existence – in other words, that something has been given existence and is being held in existence by God.

Substance is not autonomous for Thomas, as it is for Aristotle; it is relative.  To expand further: both consider the “apple” has substance.  Substance is the answer to the question: “what is that?”  Both consider the “red” of the apple as an accident.  There must be something independently existing (the apple) for there to be an accident (red).  Salkeld will offer a metaphor, taken from grammar: adjectives need nouns. 

Again, from Herbert McCabe:

If you tell somebody what sort of a thing something is (a horse, an electron, etc.) you are telling him of its substance.  If you are giving him further information (where it is, how high it is, how intelligent it is, etc.) you are telling his its accidental characteristics.

A substance may lose some accidental characteristics without ceasing to be the same thing.  However, it cannot lose its substance without losing its being – in other words, perishing.  A dead horse is no longer a horse; it is a corpse.  McCabe goes on to note:

It differs considerably from our modern physicist’s way of talking but it seems bizarre to claim that it is unintelligible to us.

We do not need Aristotle to understand substance: a two-year old can explain it to you.  Substance is nothing more than the concrete existing thing itself; this is just as true for Thomas as it is for Aristotle, even though they see creation differently.  Their difference lies elsewhere, and the difference is due to Thomas’s Christian worldview:

…while substances exist autonomously for Aristotle, not subsisting in anything else, for Thomas substances only exist autonomously of other created realities.  They still rely utterly upon God for their own existence.

So, while both see substance as the concrete being, they divide on the notion that everything exists by participation in God’s existence.  For Thomas, autonomy in creation is given, hence it cannot be absolute. That which is created is dependent on the creator. 

As an aside, it appears it is here where the idea of “I am a sovereign individual” runs into the reef, at least for those who conform their views to Thomas’s exposition. 


So, is this all just a Catholic thing – and one that even Catholics ran away from for a time (I think I am remembering this correctly)?  No, not really:

While any talk of dependence on a given metaphysics can raise ecumenical hackles, this should not.  It is naïve to imagine that one operates without any metaphysics whatsoever.  Everyone operates with basic presuppositions about reality and, in particular, God’s relationship with creation.

For Christians – all Christians – the presuppositions should be formed by Scripture.  Thomas has done nothing more than taken Aristotle into a new cultural context, after first reworking Aristotle in order to convey the biblical worldview in which all of creation is dependent on the Creator. 

Thomas has appropriated the non-Christian work of Aristotle and conformed it with a commitment to Christian truth.  It was only in this Christian framework where Thomas could make use of Aristotle’s categories.


I will add my own note: Aristotle, like Plato before him, was looking for God, as all men are looking for God.  This was certainly true of Greek philosophers, as we see from the Apostle Paul:

Acts 17: 22 Paul then stood up in the meeting of the Areopagus and said: “People of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. 23 For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: TO AN UNKNOWN GOD. So you are ignorant of the very thing you worship—and this is what I am going to proclaim to you.

Then, citing first Epimenides, then Aratus:

28 ‘For in him we live and move and have our being.’ As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.’

Aquinas found God for Aristotle. 


  1. I'm pretty sure most of the Catholic Bishops are not looking for God, but then again, most of them are not men. I will be attending Mass at an SSPX Parish this weekend, in conformance with Canon 844.2: "Whenever necessity requires it or true spiritual advantage suggests it, and provided that danger of error or of indifferentism is avoided, the Christian faithful for whom it is physically or morally impossible to approach a Catholic minister are permitted to receive the sacraments of penance, Eucharist, and anointing of the sick from non-
    Catholic ministers in whose Churches these sacraments are valid."

    1. Eric, I would say that your first sentence is true for the leaders of many denominations. It is unfortunate, because they lead their flocks astray while at the same time making it easier for non-believers to mock the hypocrisy.

    2. Interestingly, I talked to a friend who is a Lutheran pastor. They are re-opening again this weekend in my town. His version of a Bishop (President) had been urging them to re-open sooner. It's the Missouri Synod, but I guess they practice Subsidiarity better than the Catholics since they were not mandated to open (or close). Refreshing.

  2. When Aristotelian philosophy began to enter the Islamic world through the Muslim philosophers Ibn Sina (Avicenna) and Ibn Rushd (Averroes), the Sufi theologian Ghazali took it on with his book titled: "The Incoherence of The Philosophers".

    Here, using the example of fire burning cotton, Ghazali refutes causality, arguing that the philosophers have not proven it. Centuries later, David Hume would use the same example of fire and cotton.

    "...our opponent claims that the agent of the burning is the fire exclusively; this is a natural, not a voluntary agent, and cannot abstain from what is in its nature when it is brought into contact with a receptive substratum. This we deny, saying: The agent of the burning is God, through His creating the black in the cotton and the disconnexion of its parts, and it is God who made the cotton burn and made it ashes either through the intermediation of angels or without intermediation. For fire is a dead body which has no action, and what is the proof that it is the agent? Indeed, the philosophers have no other proof than the observation of the occurrence of the burning, when there is contact with fire, but observation proves only a simultaneity, not a causation, and, in reality, there is no other cause but God."

    In a recent article, I found this quote:

    "The rumblings against the secular and universalistic character of Hellenistic knowledge started… almost from the time of its introduction into the Islamic culture. But the confusion of competing doctrines, lack of familiarity with the techniques of logic and science, and incessant bickering, did not at first allow for a sustained and decisive attack against rationalism. It was not until the theologian Al-Ghazali – a man who Seyyed Hossein Nasr gratefully acknowledges as having ‘saved orthodoxy by depressing science’ – that a coherent rebuttal of rationalist philosophy was attempted. With perspicacity, scholarship, and single mindedness, Al-Ghazali worked tirelessly to rid Islamic culture of the foreign intrusion of Greek thought."

    Link to Wikipedia: The Incoherence of The Philosophers

  3. Aquinas did with Aristotle what the Biblical authors did with other Greek words and ideas. The biggest one was agape. The word pre-exists Christianity, but it is the Christians who really gave the word its meaning.

    All the early church Fathers dealt with Plato and Aristotle and other Greek philosophers in their writings. I would be interested to know if Aquinas' use of philosophy is any different than Irenaeus or Justin Martyr or any of the earlier Fathers. Would be interesting to see where they agreed and disagreed.

    1. RMB, I have not read enough here to answer beyond my understanding that the earliest church fathers were more conformed to Plato than Aristotle; and I believe this continued for the Eastern Church. To say more - what, why, how - is beyond me. Just that I have read such a thing.

    2. I have the same general understanding. But now that you have been writing about Aquinas and Aristotle, it sparks my curiosity.

      I know Paul says Jesus existed as the form of God in Philippians 2. That made me very interested in Plato and his description of forms. Read The Republic and several of his dialogues, one even about story telling. Plato says some interesting things about observation and wisdom. How he applies it to society and governance is disturbing though. Although he does make good points about the undesirability of democracy.

    3. This to me is what is interesting. For Plato, the perfect forms could not exist in anything that was manifest. For Aristotle, the forms had to exist in such.

      In my limited and crude understanding, this is why what we describe as "God" is Plato's perfect form, and Jesus is Aristotle's form made manifest.

      We would have no comprehension of God, or of how to live, without Jesus as the example. It is why I see Aristotle (via Aquinas) as better capturing the meaning of Jesus than is Plato.