Immateriality of the Intellect, the Real Reason

In the Commentary on the Metaphysics Aquinas drops another thought grenade, saying

“For the intelligible object and the intellect must be proportionate to each other and must belong to one and the same genus since the intellect and the intelligible object are one in actuality.”

The intelligible object, that is, the universal, is not a material thing. Think of your knowledge of the Pythagorean Theorem: is it a physical thing? Does it have atoms? Molecules? What is it made of? Certainly not anything material. And yet the mind, which, it is argued, is merely the brain, can know it.

What does “know” mean in this context? It means, according to Brother Thomas, that the mind and its object become unified. “One in actuality,” as he says it. The mind has to make real contact with the object, or there is no real knowledge.

The medievals and Aristotle thought that the mind was immaterial because it had to be for the possibility of knowledge.

Materialist objections: there isn’t anything that exists beyond the material world. Ok, fine, but this forecloses the possibility of knowledge in the sense that we used to understand it.

  • If there is knowledge, then the mind is not immaterial.
  • If the mind is material (aka just the brain), then there isn’t such a thing as knowledge.

I’m with Aristotle on this one. Yes, the soul is the form of the body, and it doesn’t make a great deal of sense to think of it apart from the body. “We are our bodies” as Gabriel Marcel says. And yet, there is some power of the soul which is not bodily, and this is required because we can actually know things. How can this be? I don’t know. See On the Soul and tell me what you think.

Metaphysics is a Statesman

I was reading Aquinas’ Commentary on Aristotle’s Metaphysics and came across an interesting line in the prologue. He is attempting to determine what the highest science is, and drops this line:

We can discover which science this is and the sorts of things with which it is concerned by carefully examining the qualities of a good ruler; for just as men of superior intelligence are naturally the rulers and masters of others, whereas those of great physical strength and little intelligence are naturally slaves, as the Philosopher says in the aforementioned book, in a similar way that science which is intellectual in the highest degree should be naturally the ruler of others.

The order of the sciences is argued to be parallel to the proper order of a society, with the more intellectual ruling the less intellectual. While I don’t think he is wrong, I was struck by the casual way in which he said it. For Aquinas, it seems that the qualities of a good ruler were obvious.

It seems to me that we generally esteem someone who represents our interests much more than we esteem someone who is wise. In other words, a modern “good ruler” is one who defends my in-group and gives me what I want. Whatever my desires, that ruler needs to make sure I can satisfy them. Opposed to this is the notion of the statesman, as found in Plato and Aristotle, whose goal is the good of the people. The real good of the people, not the apparent good. It is such a ruler that is the proper model for first philosophy, not the demagogue or tyrant.

Happiness is an activity

I remember as a grad student being floored by the straightforward comment of St. Thomas Aquinas that happiness is an activity. I know I should have figured this out from reading Nichomachean Ethics, but I was not very bright and it took me awhile to figure it out. Take a moment and think about what this means. Happiness, as the ancients believed and the best of the medievals followed, isn’t a feeling or a state of being. It’s not contentedness or satisfaction. It’s an activity, a doing, an energia in entelechia.

It is hard for English speakers to grok this since the word “happiness” means for us something of chance. It is related to the word “happen” and also to “mayhap”. If I happen to come across a $10 bill on the street, I am happy, because of the thing that happened to me. I am happeny. But this sort of thing is not really up to me. Chance is fickle. Fortune’s wheel may grind me to dust or lift me high. Either way it’s not my doing.

But if happiness is an activity, it’s something that I can do. I can make it “happen.” For Aristotle and Aquinas, it’s more than mindless activity or business. It’s an activity of the highest part of you devoted to the highest objects. Maybe to the Highest Object. Reason is the highest thing in the human soul, they assert, and if this is the case, we should use our reason on the highest things we are capable of. For Aristotle this is the contemplation of the first principle, and for Aquinas it’s the contemplation of the Christian God.

This is not relaxation or satisfaction, but a constant work of one’s life. If you take this seriously you aren’t going to sit around, Netflix and chill, and figure that you are happy. The pigs in the pen do as much. Rather you are going to strain yourself a bit to the highest things.

Will it be fun? Sure! Aquinas says somewhere that joy is what happens when you possess a sought-after good. The active life is the most joyful. But you don’t get to have cheap joy.

Good, Better, Best

Have you ever given something up?

I had to chaperone a church trip earlier this summer, and as a result I couldn’t drink any beer for nine days. When I got home, my daughter said to me, "Why don’t you just not?" I thought about it for a while and said, "Sure." I haven’t had any beer since June. I had a little tequila when a friend visited from Mexico, but other than that I haven’t had any. I’m not opposed to it, I don’t care if you do it, I still love Vesper martinis, and might have one in the future, but for now, I’m refraining.

It’s part of a general simplification of life. I’ve been having monkish urges. Asceticism seems very attractive to me now. Get rid of stuff! Stop doing things! This is what I want. I don’t want to travel. I don’t want to watch sports. I have no interest in movies. Perhaps you feel the same thing? If so, I’d like to dig into that feeling a bit more. I want to make room for better stuff. But what does that mean?

Indulge me for a moment: Thomas Aquinas famously has five proofs for the existence of God in the Summa Theologiae. My favorite is the fourth way. Here is an excerpt.

The fourth way is taken from the gradation to be found in things. Among beings there are some more and some less good, true, noble and the like. But "more" and "less" are predicated of different things, according as they resemble in their different ways something which is the maximum, as a thing is said to be hotter according as it more nearly resembles that which is hottest; so that there is something which is truest, something best, something noblest and, consequently, something which is uttermost being; . . .

Never mind if there is a God or not. For me what is fascinating about this proof is the premise that there are things more or less good. There is an order in the universe. This is a fact of experience, isn’t it? But things can’t be more or less good unless there’s such a thing as the good. Take the notion of "progress": the concept is nonsense unless there’s something towards which we progress. Aquinas takes it to the ultimate conclusion that there must be a God. Leave that aside for now. But if you have the feeling that some things in your life need to go, that you need to make time for better things, realize what this implies: you also believe in the axiological nature of the universe. Some things are better than other things.

If that’s the case, wouldn’t it be good to figure out what are the best things? What are you getting rid of things for?

(You can join us at Online Great Books and think about this stuff with us.)

Why I am an Existentialist

My podcast partner hates existentialism. We’ve read Kierkegaard and Heidegger, and it’s gone over like a lead Zeppelin. Not his thing. I get it. But it’s my thing, and I thought I’d write a few paragraphs explaining myself. This will be off the cuff, and I’m not going to take the time to look up references.

In the Summa Theologiae, Aquinas asks whether God exists. It seems not.

Objection 2. Further, it is superfluous to suppose that what can be accounted for by a few principles has been produced by many. But it seems that everything we see in the world can be accounted for by other principles, supposing God did not exist. For all natural things can be reduced to one principle which is nature; and all voluntary things can be reduced to one principle which is human reason, or will. Therefore there is no need to suppose God’s existence.

There isn’t any room for the divine in the scientific worldview. We can always come up with an explanation in terms of prior causes. There’s no explanatory gap, says the objector. I’ve heard this argument from the likes of Dawkins, by the way. Nothing new is there under the sun.

But you might notice the objector rather quickly passing over the problem of the human will. Is it a cause? Is it a cause like the scientific causes? It seems quite different. Socrates says that the will always is ordered toward the good, but is it? I can know the good and choose the bad. I do it somewhat regularly, to my chagrin. There is a chink in the explanatory edifice of The Science. How is it that there is such a thing as spite? The existentialists at their best point out this chink. Kierkegaard points out at length how your ordinary successful life is in fact utter despair. Nietzsche (sort of an existentialist) shows how your conventional morality utterly fails without its support in the divine. Dostoyevsky shows the power of spite, how we can and do choose the evil simply because it’s evil.* Heidegger shows how the ordinary way of being is an inauthentic being-toward-death, doing what everyone else does.

My favorite is Gabriel Marcel. He points out the difference between primary reflection and secondary reflection. The first is the scientific way of breaking everything down into smaller parts, discovering all the causes, and completely destroying that which one studies. Secondary reflection is putting it back together and regarding with awe the mystery of the primary experience. For example, one can study the will and find prior causes for every action that you do, and then you can conclude, perhaps, that you are not actually free. Secondary reflection says "but didn’t I freely engage on that train of thought? How can I freely think about something and conclude that I am not free?"

Existentialism shows the cracks. Its focus on the self’s experience of itself is very helpful in showing how the modern world’s exclusive focus on material and efficient causes doesn’t explain enough. Yes, you could get this straight from Aristotle, but the reader needs to be the sort of being that can actually get Aristotle, and existentialism can help you see why there have to be final causes. Something is rotten in Denmark, and existentialism helps you catch the scent.

* I know that the classic definition of evil in metaphysics is a lack or privation of a good that ought to be there. Spite doesn’t quite map on to this. Maybe more on the problem of evil later.