Tuesday, September 7, 2021

Universals, Nominalism, and the Church

 

Pope Clement VI, in the mid-fourteenth century at his coronation feast, threw quite a party:

…three thousand guests joined the new pontiff in consuming 1,023 sheep, 118 head of cattle, 101 calves, 914 kids, 60 pigs, 10,471 hens, 1,440 geese, 300 pike, 46,856 cheeses, 50,000 tarts, and 200 casks of wine.

The Age of Division: Christendom from the Great Schism to the Protestant Reformation, by John Strickland

I can’t do the math on all of this, but if the tarts or cheeses are considered as representative of the gluttony, that would be about 17 of each per person.

Papal supremacy may once have rescued [Western Christendom] from the proprietary system, but now, three centuries later, the system of papal supremacy on which the reformation had depended itself cried out for reformation.

The solution would come to be known as conciliarism, holding that supreme authority rested with an ecumenical council apart from, or even against, the pope.  Strickland describes that, instead of building this on the model of first millennium Christendom, it was built on Aristotelianism.  But he isn’t really right on this point – and he basically says so himself, later in the text.

But before coming to this, we are now at a point in the history near to the fall of Constantinople.  In 1439 (and despite being deposed by bishops in Basel), Pope Eugene IV convened a council in Florence with the intent of establishing reunion with the Eastern Church.  It seems to me relevant that the relative political and military situations in East and West would play as big or bigger a role in the possibility of a united Christendom as any theological issues.

In the West, a division of faith and reason was taking hold.  Strickland offers that it found its completion in William of Occam, in the fourteenth century.  Occam would champion what came to be known as nominalism:

It represented for the West a radical reassessment of knowledge, beginning with theology.

Occam considered things in their individuality – there was no category of “cats,” there were individual cats.  This was contrary to Aquinas, who saw “cats” as a universal.  Universals were abstractions:

Nominalism, from the Latin word for “name” (nomen), thus rejected universals and claimed that only particulars have any reality.  And once it did, the entire edifice of Western theology began to crumble.

Consider this: Strickland seems to be implying that there was something in Aquinas that comported with Eastern theology and understanding, and it was only through the shift from universalism to nominalism that this changed.

This fits with my understanding of some of the current movements.  There is a growing interest in Orthodox religious practice, as there is in Aristotelian-Thomistic thought – all at the same time that the meaning crisis has overflowed the riverbanks and poured over western man.  There is a search for universals – necessary to make sense of the world, as, absent these, we are overwhelmed with particulars and are stuck dealing with every interaction anew.

Of course, universals can lead to discrimination.  But is this really a problem.  Must I consider the individuality of every bear I encounter in the wild before deciding if that particular bear represents a threat to me?  There really is no way to navigate life without such universal abstractions – yet, always, with the possibility (and necessity) of coming to understand the individual when such doors open.

Returning to Strickland:

For according to nominalism, God could not be known, either through the mystical Eastern sense of theoria or the rationalistic Western sense of cognition. …the God of [Occam’s] belief was utterly transcendent and unknowable to human reason.

God created a covenant that an individual could choose to enter into, but the moral laws of this covenant were purely arbitrary.  God ordained that men avoid committing murder, but according to Occam He could have just as easily ordained the opposite. 

From universals, we can derive laws that make sense – that fit to some objective values; nominalism allows for laws to be whatever the lawmaker wishes.  Murder can be legal or illegal – and we see examples of each every day.

Salvation was also completely arbitrary…which leads too far into a far too difficult discussion about grace, faith, and works (and election) – much too complicated and nuanced for this blog.

In any case, here we again see a real connection between Eastern thought and Thomas – and Strickland recognizes that nominalism is a radical departure from what came before.  Universals (including a universal human nature), an ordered universe, a God that can be known.  All necessary foundations of natural law, but – it seems to me, at least – tainted in the Eastern Church by some unfortunate connection of scholastic thought on this topic by the work of Occam and the nominalists.

Conclusion

I am struck, once again, with the connections between Thomistic and Eastern thought.  I am further struck that these connections are not well-recognized by either Strickland or those engaged in the current conversation regarding the crisis of meaning in the West.

Natural law.  This is the aim of the search.  Yet few of the participants in the discussion seem to recognize it – or, in fact, turn away from what is, in fact, a faulty understanding of it.

10 comments:

  1. What struck me is the how pattern of nominalism vs universalism fits well onto the pattern of individualism vs collectivism. I once was 100% individualist with no positive views of thinking in terms of collections of people. I still recognize big problems with it. But to eliminate all categories and abstract labels is equally destructive. It leads to the infinite number of genders we have today.

    Funny Schaeffer didn't include Occam in his philosophical history. He presents Hegel as his big villain but Occam should be been in his rogues gallery for eradicating (or at least providing an argument for eradicating) universals.

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    1. What has helped me to deal with this, as I walked the same journey (individual / collective) is to understand, to the extent I do, the difference of natural law (an ethic, requiring universals) and natural rights of each individual(basically the NAP as legal prohibition & justification for self-defense and formal punishment).

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  2. "I am struck, once again, with the connections between Thomistic and Eastern thought."

    I'm more and more of the opinion that the salvation of the true Church lies with the Eastern Catholics. They have all of the best parts of both the Latin and Greek churches. When apostacy decimates Rome, leaving it just another Protestant sect, and the Orthodox finally stop talking to each other because they're the wrong kind of Orthodox and no one to stand as final arbiter anything, the Eastern Catholics will stand up and say, "listen, guys, we figured this out centuries ago."

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    1. You may be right, and...well, let's just see where this journey leads.

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  3. "Of course, universals can lead to discrimination."

    Yes, 'Heaven forbid' we have a standard of conduct to measure our actions and philosophies by. That might be displeasing to many who just can't rein in their degenerate behaviors and irrational doctrines. And we can't have that. We can kill babies by the hundreds of thousands every year, but we cannot ruffle any feathers, not the feathers of the sanctified oppressed classes anyways. That is heresy!

    "There really is no way to navigate life without such universal abstractions – yet, always, with the possibility (and necessity) of coming to understand the individual when such doors open."

    Man is a rational being with an immortal soul created in the image of God who placed the desire for love in his heart, the attainment and enjoyment of which represents his most sacred and foundational end, but that degenerate thug walking towards you high on PCP with his pants hanging off his ass and tattoos up his neck is about to rob and/or kill you for your credit card so he can buy a PS5 and a new gold tooth. So I guess the lesson is to mind the individual but never lose sight of the underlying universals.

    But sometimes it is hard to reconcile the beauty and universality of the Christian vision with the particulars of the ugly and vulgar reality around us. My best friend since childhood the other day was in a bar and a typical inner city black thug came up behind him and swung a cue ball into his face with a handkerchief, knocking him out cold and shattering his eye socket, unprovoked. My friend has had multiple surgeries to repair it but his eye will never be the same. He's lucky he can still see out of it. Lucky to be alive honestly. No justice as of yet. The guy who did it is a known trouble maker in the area and will probably die from the same sorts of 'gifts' he tends to dish out to others. But the question is why? What sets a person on this sort of destructive and suicidal path?

    Clearly this piece of junk human cares nothing for the universals in life and lives purely in the particular, though I'm sure, let alone understanding these concepts, he couldn't even spell 'universal' or 'particular.'

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    1. There are demons that can only be dealt with by sending them into swine and having them then jump off of a cliff...or some such.

      I wish I had a better answer. And I hope your friend gets through this as well as possible.

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    2. Deuteronomy is full of advice concerning such people.

      The problem is that modern society is full of pity towards evil-doers, preferring to excuse their behavior rather than to hold them to account for it. It shows how selfish our society has become as individuals, without ever bothering to think about the effect this has on the institutions.

      "Your eye shall not pity...so shall you put the evil away from you."

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    3. Yeah. Roger. I think the underlying issue you are mention is once again the secularizing of Christian principles which are coopted by Progressives.

      In this case, forgiveness has been secularized. Seculars stripped from forgiveness the idea of morality, responsibility, and accountability leaving simple permissiveness for sin with no countervening factors.

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    4. We are so accustomed to exhibiting "pity" for the criminal that we have forgotten what justice for the victim is. These days, "justice" means manipulating laws so that some favored splinter group or preferred class is benefitted regardless of the cost to those who are actually harmed by the policy. "Justice" is bent on achieving an explicit, pre-determined end, using any means at hand, even those which normally would be seen as wrong.

      The end justifies the means, but a society which is built on this basis can only end in disaster and suffering. We are well down that road.

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  4. The falling away of the West from the Orthodox Faith was gradual, not all at once (from about the 9th to the 13th centuries), so it is not all that surprising to find some elements of the Orthodox ethos remaining in some early Roman Catholic writers, artists, etc. Unfortunately, the seeds of the West’s dissolution were sown even in those early years. See Lecture 2 on the Middle Ages by St Seraphim Rose in his Orthodox Survival Course:

    http://orthodoxaustralia.org/orthodox-survival-course/

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