by Brian C. Moore, Ph.D.
Everyone knows (so why investigate?) that the medieval world was dismissive of the earth. Silly jibes about angels dancing on the heads of pins are used to discredit an entire civilization. And then it is further asserted that it was only with the Renaissance and the Enlightenment and the rise of modern science that a renewed appreciation for the world finally banished ignorance, superstitious credulity, perverse asceticism, hypocritical resentment—well, it is the usual screed. This is complicated territory, for there are significant differences between the ancient cosmos, the Christian understanding of creation, and the emergence of modern nature. The latter draws some momentum from the radical transcendence of the Creator from creation, whilst forgetting the equally significant dependence of the world upon the continuing care of divine solicitude. The weak tea of deism is already anticipated in the disastrous fourteenth century. Nominalism is the second stupefying beast that joined voluntarism in ushering in an age of narrowed interests and cognitive blindness masquerading as an increase in acuity.
One might suppose that the nominalist impulse was a triumph for realism. Individuals of flesh and blood are preferred over abstract generalities. Yet such a view already accepts nominalist presuppositions. It connives with empiricist prejudices. The older view was that spirit was supereminently the source of the real. An angel was invisible, but not unreal. The human thing was not fully understood just by tabulating history and counting heads. To think an essence as an abstract generality is not a neutral definition. And this plays out in language. Nominalism gives us a certain kind of rhetoric. Oxford plain style, Ramist logic, the Cartesian abjuration of adornment to the point of dullness, as if the very lack of beautiful style were witness to its honest desire to achieve lucidity. Strangely, it is the bloodless, abstract language of modern science. Though all this is a pose. Human beings are still proposing a possible interpretation of reality. It is rather like Plato’s discussion of the sophist in the Phaedrus. The non-lover who speaks without beauty in order to make no claims is a speculative seducer, hoping to entrap through “plain language.” Ironically, it was not the middle ages, but the senescence of high spiritual culture into merely worldly pursuits that signaled the rape of the earth. For all its talk of opening up the secrets of nature, the advent of the modern was just a common ruffian attempting to coerce and command nature now reduced to a neutral object, lacking inherent value, so that there should be no sentimental qualms about placing it on the rack of experimental science.
It was the so-called abstract essences that somehow produced symbolism, metaphor, the poetries of desire and hope and anguish. Oh, if you like, nominalism may be interpreted as attention to the thing, a form of realism. Yet it is an etiolated realism, incomplete, and cut off from the depths of its mystery. It is an unrealistic realism — and being unrealistic, it is caught in a bind. The new official story was that uniqueness had no connection to some supposed Platonic form that nobody could or ever did see. There wasn’t any such thing as rosiness, there were only roses. And since most people uncritically absorb the metaphysical presuppositions of their age, this just seems common sense. Causality is limited to an efficient mechanism. The deep, hidden reality that binds creatures to one another is pronounced a mere fiction, a convention of convenience. Soon, not only is the capacity to “feel” ontological depth increasingly lost to a rationalist common sense, but the enigmatic mystery that points towards a joyful, if unimaginable consummation is rendered equally otiose as the meaning of final causality becomes a metaphysical surd to the so-called educated class.
Persons have an ineradicable sense that their lives should matter, that something like a good destiny ought to guide their choices and shape them into unique beings. Yet without the eschatological dimension, mundane choice founders; it lacks the lodestar that could help situate choice at the level of meaning personhood requires. Here is the problem. Uniqueness can only come from the unique. The general, the common, that which explains a class of beings may explain a thing insofar as it is part of a class of beings, but it fails utterly to touch upon that which escapes general concepts. Origin reduced to the first in a series of finite causes, communion reduced to accidental contiguity in local space and time, naming bereft of ontological mystery, the self haplessly seeks redress. In an act of metaphysical madness, it hopes to find validation and direction in the empty nothingness. There is a strange symbiosis between the way men think about nature and the way they end up thinking about themselves and treating each other. And what usually happens is what did happen: what cannot be explained is denied or treated as a false problem; soon enough it is forgotten and people live in a comfortable amnesia. Until a child dies or eyes meet and hold attraction a millisecond too long or the beauty of a Paleolithic sculpture whispers some impossible language and gaps of immense time vanish, the mind of the long dead touches the living who receive the message.