by Pastor Tom Belt
I’m delighted to be back at Eclectic Orthodoxy – my home away from home. I’m always informed and challenged by the content and the company here. It’s like pulling a chair up to a warm hearth on a cold night. My topic, however – Hell – isn’t light or cheery conversation, and were the topic not sobering enough, I’ll be engaging Ed Feser’s reflections on the matter.
Perhaps as a Protestant I should start with a confession. I confess that I have neither the qualifications nor the time to offer a “proof” that Feser (or Aquinas) is in fact wrong about what I shall call Aquinas’ irreversibility thesis. I’d like instead to attempt something more modest and use Feser’s thoughts as a point of departure to reflect upon some possible reasons for thinking this thesis to be false (so Aquinas might be wrong) and to propose in its place a Maximian irrevocability thesis that holds intellect and will to be irrevocably (Feser has ‘irreversibly’ already tied up) open to God or, as I’m fond of saying, to ‘Godward becoming’. I’ll acknowledge at the outset that given Feser’s Aristotelian-Thomistic framework – its definitions, restrictions, etc. – my reflections are simply category mistakes. I would not try to challenge Aquinas’ irreversibility thesis within such a framework. I doubt any conclusion other than Aquinas’ would be possible. Let me instead take Feser’s well-represented Thomism as an opportunity to discuss the differences between his worldview and another Christian vision of things.
Orienting ‘the Hart’ transcendentally
Let me begin with a passage from David Bentley Hart:
But, on any cogent account, free will is a power inherently purposive, teleological, primordially oriented toward the good, and shaped by that transcendental appetite to the degree that a soul can recognize the good for what it is. No one can freely will the evil as evil; one can take the evil for the good, but that does not alter the prior transcendental orientation that wakens all desire. To see the good truly is to desire it insatiably; not to desire it is not to have known it, and so never to have been free to choose it.
Hart has probably said and written enough to make misunderstanding him on this point inexcusable, but I’m not the sharpest tool in the shed, so let me restate it for clarity’s sake and because I’m going to suggest below that though Feser and Hart agree on this ‘formula’ of sorts (i.e., the “transcendental orientation of intellect and will toward the good”), they mean different things by it, or at least unpack the implications of it very differently, and this difference is why Hart sees this orientation as an argument in itself for universalism and Feser does not.
As I understand Hart, to say intellect and will are transcendentally oriented is to say God is willed in all our choosing, that God is present even in ends falsely perceived to be good, that false ends, however mistaken by however privated a mind, remain approximations of God our proper/final end, and that even when we misconstrue and misrelate to the truth of things, we misrelate within the transcendental truth and potentialities of being. The orienting of reason and will by the good terminates not in reason’s simply directing the will toward some end or other, but in its opening up every perception, disposition and exercise of will to God who stands as both source and end of desire. What we have here in Hart’s view is an argument for the impossibility of the will foreclosing upon all possibility of Godward becoming. Such foreclosure would be teleological foreclosure, and that would contradict the transcendental orientation of intellect and will toward God. In his summary presentation at Notre Dame’s 2016 NDIAS Colloquium (Mind, Soul, World), Hart suggests that “the ordo congnoscendi is an inversion of the ordo essendi, a glimpse of transcendent being as the source and ground of consciousness” such that “the transcendental structure of thought necessarily opens out upon the transcendent fullness of being” (emphasis mine). He adds:
I would be content to say that all consciousness, at least structurally, is a relation to God as end, or (to go even further) that teleologically the mind is God, insofar as it strives not only toward—but necessarily to become—infinite consciousness of infinite being (not that the distinction disappears…).
One can simply identify this irrevocable openness with the irrevocable nature of the love that wills and sustains things, so that ‘to be’ at all is ‘to be invited’ Godward and thus ‘to be open’ to achieving that final flourishing of one’s being in God. This structure of intellect and will is thus open as given, as grace, as passio essendi, and as such is antecedent to any exercise of the will. Reason can no more foreclose upon all possibility of attaining its end in God than it can create itself out of nothing or sustain itself in being, for intellect is asymmetrically related to the potentialities of being. Being is always invitation. Like it or not, you always have a future with God. A final cause would cease, then, to be a final cause should it cease to be attainable by that for which it is the final cause. A certain attainability defines and sustains this orientation and its possibilities. Hart suggests as much:
Consciousness…is not a transcendental faculty (the Kantian or Husserlian ego) that comprises within itself concepts that to a greater or lesser degree correspond to, or reflexively constitute objects of cognition simply exterior to itself; it is instead an openness to the radiance of things. (“Beyond Reductionism,” First Things, Nov 1998)
Feser’s irreversibility thesis, as I’ll try to summarize below, conceives of ‘being’ as possibly without an attainable final cause. This is where I suspect Feser and Hart mean something very different when they talk about the transcendental orientation of intellect and will toward the good.
A Maximian irrevocability thesis
Might Hart’s understanding be a recent or novel take on a less obvious, less specific, traditional belief? Might he be reading into the transcendental orientation of the will an irrevocable openness to God that isn’t there or which has no patristic warrant? I’m not an authority in patristics, but permit me to dust off some previous reflections of Maximus the Confessor (Amb. 7). Maximus writes:
…everything that has received its being ex nihilo is in motion (since all things are necessarily carried along toward some cause), then nothing that moves has yet come to rest, because its capacity for appetitive movement has not yet come to repose in what it ultimately desires, for nothing but the appearance of the ultimate object of desire can bring to rest that which is carried along by the power of its own nature.
…no created being has yet ceased from the natural power that moves it to its proper end, neither has it found rest from the activity that impels it toward its proper end…
…[rational creatures] are moved from their natural beginning in being toward a voluntary end in well-being. For the end of the motion of things that are moved is to rest within eternal well-being itself, just as their beginning was being itself, which is God, who is the giver of being and the bestower of the grace of well-being, for he is the beginning and the end. For from God come both our general power of motion (for he is our beginning), and the particular way that we move toward him, for he is our end.
This is unforgivably too brief a look at Maximus, but I offer it as a conversation starter. For Maximus our “movement” is an “appetitive movement,” a desire that moves us. But Maximus also holds that “nothing but the appearance of the ultimate object of desire [God] can bring to rest that which is carried along by the power of its own nature.” (Emphasis mine) This movement is not added to the nature of rational creatures as a contingent mode of its being. It transcendentally defines ‘being’ as grace. We may on occasion misrelate to our end. But even then we misrelate within it. There is, however, no misrelating out of it absolutely. That would be to escape the God-given structure of created rationality as an “appetitive movement” that can only cease by finally resting in God.
Torstein Tollefsen explores such a vision in Maximus’ view of the divine logoi (God’s designs or intentions for created things), which for Maximus, Tollefsen argues, are “irreducible” (The Christocentric Cosmology of St Maximus the Confessor). Being uncreated, the logoi and the Logos are one. The logoi are thus “open” to the Logos who defines them. If I may risk saying so, the logoi just are the Logos in the offer of himself for contingent, creaturely expression. In his contribution to The Oxford Handbook of Maximus the Confessor, Marius Portaru describes the logoi as “created essences marked by a Godward movement” and argues that they define our “existential scope.” The divine logoi thus delimit the scope of possibilities for creaturely being, or as I’ve elsewhere suggested, they are our “eschatological essence.” Ilaria Ramelli interprets Maximus’ logoi doctrine along the same lines: since the logoi pre-exist in God without beginning, “being badly” cannot constitute a final and irrevocable end, for that would be “a confusion of the ontological and ethical planes.” Even if attainability of some ‘finite’ end may be foreclosed upon, such cannot be the case where ‘transcendental’ source and end of desire are one and the same. To anticipate the discussion of angels below, the reason immaterial rational essences (logika) may return to God is because the potentialities of their being are given and governed by the divine logoi to which those essences are asymmetrically related.
Aquinas’ irreversibility thesis
Let’s turn to Feser’s first post in his series on Hell. He begins by identifying what he considers to be the core issue, which is “the manner in which hell is something chosen by the one who is damned, where this choice is in the nature of the case irreversible.” In the case of angels, the irreversibility of their choice to reject God is grounded in what Aquinas believes follows from their being incorporeal. Why should immaterial mind entail such irreversibility? It does so because incorporeal intellect (a) suffers no passions (since the passions are an exclusively bodily appetite) and is (b) incapable of deliberative choice. The choice to reject God was for angels made immediately upon their creation without passion or deliberation and, given these constraints, is therefore irreversible. There’s nothing about immaterial existence that provides angels the means by which they may find their way back to God. Pope John Paul II clarifies the logic. Because the truth about God was “known in a higher way because of the clarity of their intellects” and the power of their intellect was “not conditioned nor limited by the mediation of sense [embodied] knowledge,” angels resolved themselves with respect to God “in a more essential and direct way than could happen within the scope of action of human free will” (Catechesis on the Holy Angels, July/August 1986). In such a context, their choice “regarded first of all God himself, the first and supreme Good,” and was resolved upon “with all the interior force of their freedom.” It was irreversible because it regarded God immediately as opposed to some lesser, more remote end or vocation, and because no measure of their disposition to give themselves to what they chose was not exhausted in the investment. In their one and only act of free self-determination, John Paul II says, “God became the total and definitive scope of their spiritual existence.” How does this apply to humans who unlike angels are embodied? It doesn’t, Feser agrees, so long as we’re embodied. Embodied existence remains open with respect to Godward becoming precisely because of those respects in which it differs from incorporeal intellect. Embodied intellect is subject to passions, less proximate to the clarity and truth of God, and so deliberative. As such it is not capable of so total a surrender of will and intellect as to exhaust its potential and foreclose upon itself all possibility of further deliberation. When we die, however, the human soul comes to share with the angels the same constraints regarding the immediacy and irreversibility of choice. Immediately after death, the disembodied soul fixes itself irreversibly in its orientation, an orientation that subsequent bodily resurrection inherits and cannot change. We do not have here a picture of hell locked from the outside by God upon wicked who might turn their thoughts to God in response to their torments if only God would unlock the possibility. We have instead the only possible version of irreversible torment at all entertainable (along the lines of Jerry Walls’ arguments as well), namely, one in which the irreversibility of the torment lies entirely with what comes to be the irreversible dispositional constitution of creatures.
Do angels ‘have a world’?
This is all quite speculative. I also want to speculate (in a different direction), if for no other reason than that we ought to try at least to integrate our beliefs within the whole range of contemplation. But we should say that one response to Aquinas’ position on angels would simply be to dismiss it as overly speculative. Let’s be honest – we don’t really know what we’re talking about when we describe what angelic existence is like or what follows necessarily from such existence, and to place much weight upon these speculations arguably gets things backwards. I’m not inclined, therefore, to place the full weight of Christian hope and eschatology on such speculations. But since we’re speculating, let us ask how angelic nature might be subject to passions (which we typically associate as necessary to temptation, James 1.14) and constraints of perception in a way that would leave angels open to contemplating their way back to God. This would be possible, I suggest, if the capacity for deliberation is understood as inherent not to embodiment per se, but to epistemic distance. An omniscient knower, for example, could not deliberate between good and evil, not because of anything relative to embodiment per se, but because there would be no rational grounds in an omniscient mind upon which temptation could mount an appeal via the passions. But in the finite perspectives of created intellects, that appeal would have all it essentially requires. I’m not offering anything like a case for this, of course, but I suggest that relevant epistemic distance, not embodiment, is the key factor to consider here.
What about passions as a condition of deliberative self-determination relative to the good? Are purely intellectual passions conceivable? While embodiment certainly occasions passions unique to material existence, I don’t see any contradiction in supposing created, incorporeal sentience, under the constraints of epistemic distance, to be subject to passions peculiar to the limitations of its context. Angels enjoy a vocation and calling inseparable from the material order and God’s purposes for it even if they are not material beings, and the context that defines the terms in which they resolve themselves is inseparable from the material order and its destiny. We may conceive of the context in which they had to resolve themselves, then, as related not exclusively to God but also involving an interest in and some ignorance about much of the material order. St. Peter confirms the link between angelic vocation and God’s purposes for the material order (1 Pet 1.12) as well, and he has no problem imagining angels “longing to look into these things.” If angels are vocationally tied to the unfolding drama of the material order, it’s difficult not to suppose this unfolding drama would occasion certain passions, especially if that vocation requires them to self-determine within a finite understanding of things. Another passage of Scripture not typically brought into view in this debate but recently suggested to me by a friend is the wilderness temptations of Jesus which, arguably, establish the point that angels do not have full clarity on God and are defined by a certain epistemic distance that leaves them confounded about the meaning of important matters. The Devil has no apparent doubts about who Jesus is, yet he fails to grasp how this is so or what it implies. So perhaps the question is can we really posit so great a difference between material and immaterial modes of being as would generate the kind of difference between their respective potentialities of being that Aquinas posits and still claim that both administrations of these potentialities of being are derived from and governed by a single transcendental orientation of desire toward the good?
Do Hart and Feser mean the same thing by “transcendental orientation”?
Why do I suspect a difference here? Feser distinguishes between a creature’s ultimate good (which he agrees is in fact God), and the in fact false goods which creatures can take to be good. Given our epistemic distance (i.e., ignorance), we are able to misconstrue the truth of things. Nothing controversial here. A possible serious difference might be apparent, however, in the way Feser grants that the will is inherently ordered toward “what [it] takes to be good.” If all Feser means by the “transcendental orientation” of intellect and will is that reason must form some notion or other of an end it chooses and that this fulfills the conditions of its transcendental nature even if the movement of intellect and will are irreversibly fixed upon a false end, then we have in Feser and Hart different notions of how final causality manifests itself transcendentally in created intellect and will. Feser’s (Aquinas’) notion would allow for the irreversibility thesis since it is consistent with the irreversibly damned taking rejection of God to be their good.
This isn’t a topic Feser hasn’t addressed. Reading his chapter “Being, the Good, and the Guise of the Good” (in Neo-Aristotelian Perspectives in Metaphysics), Feser beautifully lays out Aquinas’ doctrine of the transcendental orientation of intellect and will toward the good. Summarizing, he writes:
[S]omething has being as the kind of thing it is precisely to the extent that it is a true instance of that kind, as defined by the universal essence existing in the intellect; in that sense, being is convertible with truth.
[G]oodness is to be understood in terms of conformity to the ideal represented by a thing’s nature or essence….
[I]t is the notion of the final cause—the end or goal towards which a thing is directed by nature —that is key. As we have seen, a thing’s final cause and, thus, that which it ‘desires’ (in the relevant sense) might be something of which it is totally unconscious, as in the case of inanimate natural objects and processes; in creatures with intellects, such as ourselves, it might even be something we consciously (if irrationally) try to avoid realizing. But, given that the realization of a thing’s good is what it is by its nature directed towards as its final cause, it follows that Aquinas’ dictum (borrowed from Aristotle) that “goodness is that which all things desire….
Another way to put the point is in terms of the distinction between actuality and potentiality. Since a thing is a better instance of the kind of thing that it is the more fully it actualizes what Stump and Kretzmann call the ‘specifying potentialities’ that follow upon its having the kind of substantial form it has, its being a bad instance is just a matter of its failing to actualize those potentialities.
Feser’s chapter doesn’t mention Hell, but as I read through the first half or so, I thought to myself, “On what grounds does he elsewhere argue for the irreversible privation of being such as comes about in fallen angels and condemned human beings?” Their nature instantiates the transcendentals but they are forever incapable of moving toward fulfillment in them? What sort of “transcendental orientation” abides (sustains, moreover!) an irreversible severing of created potentialities to move toward their final fulfillment in God? The answer seemed to come in the latter part of the chapter where Feser addresses David Velleman’s (cf. Velleman’s paper “The Guise of the Good”) view that desires aim not at the ‘good’ but at the ‘attainable’. Velleman maintains that to desire what one believes to be impossible would be irrational (which itself is certainly true) and through a number of points concludes that it is the ‘attainable’ and not the ‘good’ at which desires aim. But by the desire for the good, notes Feser, we don’t mean a psychological state in which God is explicitly intended. However, in arguing ‘good’ as opposed to ‘attainable’ contra Velleman, Feser ends up arguing (as it works out in his blog piece on Hell) that ‘attainability’ isn’t a constitutive feature of the mind’s transcendental desire for the good at all. But surely when we talk about the ‘transcendental desire for God’ which grounds every exercise of reason and will, we have a serious problem if we suppose the object of desire in this case (God) to be in fact unattainable, for the object of transcendental desire – being God – is itself the source, possibility and end of that desire. Perhaps what is right in both Feser and Velleman converge and we can say that the transcendental desire for God is the transcendent attainability of God.
For an Aristotelian-Thomist, I suspect, the “desire for God” is a supernatural telos added through the consent of the individual to an Aristotelian base. So I’m unsure whether Feser would agree the irreversibly damned in fact remain ‘rational’ souls, in which case I’m unsure what he means by saying the damned remain “transcendentally oriented” toward the good. I’d be grateful for any conversation here that would clarify the matter. But from where the sun rises in the East, the “natural will” is already the base, already an act of grace so that desire always exceeds circumscription to any particular finite aim. Such are my reasons for thinking Aquinas’ irreversibility thesis false, for favoring instead Maximus’ irrevocability thesis, and for suspecting that Feser and Hart mean two different things when they talk about the transcendental orientation of desire toward the good. Feser sees this orientation as abiding in beings who enjoy no potentiality for Godward becoming. Hart sees those potentialities as defining the substantial form of being itself, so that whatever intellects and wills exist, they enjoy a potential to achieve their end in God. For Hart the transcendental orientation of intellect and will is, among other things, the ordering of potentialities, a dispositional openness to God, so that to speak of desire at all is always to invoke a divine horizon whose “from which” and “toward which” are one and the same.
“No one can freely will the evil as evil”
This is the crux of the matter. Is the will of a being newly created from nothing able to choose evil as evil? If not, is that will free?
The traditional reading is that such is not only possible but necessary for the divinely crafted end of man: namely, the union of a being created ex nihilo with God. I think it should be obvious that Hart’s view is logical insofar as it presumes that human will is not free to chose other than the good. If it is oriented indelibly towards an end and that end is revealed, the person cannot choose otherwise.
In particular, this post’s reading of Maximus (as I have critiqued of this blog more broadly) is extremely poor. Let me quote Maximus:
“If, however, it [the soul] makes the wrong or mistaken use of these powers, delving into the world in a manner contrary to what is proper, it is obvious that it will succumb to dishonorable passions, and in the coming life will rightly be cast away from the presence of the divine glory, receiving the dreadful condemnation of being estranged from relation with God for infinite ages, a sentence so distressing that the soul will not be able to contest it, for it will have as a perpetually relentless accuser its own disposition, which created for it a mode of existence that in fact did not exist.”
– Ambig. 21 1252B (On Difficulties in the Church Fathers, trans. Nicholas Constas, vol. 1, 439).
Maximus’ condemnation for “infinite ages” is rooted precisely in the perpetual movement of a thing to its end. Namely, that by separation from God the human person is eternally unable to obtain their desired rest. The locus for this defect is precisely in the mode (τρόπος) of existence.
This misuse of the natural powers (for a Latin parallel on this teaching of natural faculties, see Augustine’s On Free Choice of the Will book 3) arises from the free will which Maximus describes in the Centuries on Love as arising in the sensory images (φαντασία). That is, we do not perceive an end in and of itself but rather we create a fantasia of that end and choose it. Creating accurate fantasia is the goal of the παιδεία of the Church and ascetic life. The Church reveals our end through both her teaching and mystagogy and dispenses the grace to choose this end through the divinely ordained sacraments.
Put simply, we don’t choose ends immediately, we mediately choose the mental image we create of ends. And we humans find that we like to create the images we like better – regardless of whether they are goods or not. This is precisely the pathos/libido of human desire we receive from Adam which must be purified in baptism.
Well, Tom tries to tackle a large subject and brings in a lot of brief scholarly elements. It’s difficult to synthesize briefly. I don’t think he is ignorant of Maximus’ notion of a gnomic will, a concept that clearly recognizes the mediation of our notion of the Good. I would agree that the role of the imagination is key; also with the place of ascesis, though I surmise the conclusions we draw are different.
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Not only are the conclusions drawn quite different, but one has to incoherently construe a tragic and absurd dualism in which the All in All is perpetually impotent in the face of the triumphant non-being of non-existence. But we can quibble over St Maximos, I suppose.
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“… one has to incoherently construe a tragic and absurd dualism in which the Limitless becomes perpetually limited in the face of the triumphant non-being of non-existence. But we can quibble over St Athanasius, I suppose.”
All of the arguments against universalism also apply to the incarnation. Caveat emptor.
I agree that whether one can will the evil as evil is the crux of the matter. But to suppose that one can will evil as evil ends in absolute teleological foreclosure. You’re left with no doctrine of transcendentals to speak of.
I wouldn’t claim Maximus is unambiguous, of course, which is why I offered him as a conversation starter. But to suggest a different passage in Maximus as settling the question doen’t work. It’s at least a plausible reading that for Maximus the “ages” come to an end. In any event, I suggested Maximus because I find him interesting. There are other unambiguous voices among the Fathers. Substitute Gregory of Nyssa if you like; the point was just to show that the irrevocability thesis is not a recent invention.
It is a rather amazing hermeneutic that lets you get ages which come to an end from αἰῶσιν άπείροις (literally, “ages without end”). Also, Nyssa is not nearly as unambiguous as you might suspect. Scholarship is rather sharply divided on how to interpret him.
You accuse me of “absolute teleological foreclosure” but this is done entirely without argument. There is no theological difficulty with human faculties being oriented towards other human faculties. For example, hunger is oriented towards the human faculty of nourishment. All such faculties can be abused. There is similarly no problem with the will being oriented towards the sensory image (φαντασία) of man; whether used according to the mode intended by God or otherwise.
If you have an actual theological argument to make, please make one. But it seems to me that you’re making unfounded theological assertions without any substantial engagement with the tradition, Maximus in particular.
Don’t let me keep you. If you haven’t seen an argument by now, you won’t be seeing one.
To Nathaniel McCallum:
Gregory of Nyssa is absolutely unambiguous in his universalism, and repeatedly clearly states it in all of his major treatises that touch on eschatology. No competent scholar would argue otherwise. In the Great Oration, he even makes it clear that he expects even Satan to be redeemed. On the Soul and the Resurrection is by far the most relentless universalist treatise in Christian history. Even On the Making of Man is openly universalist. Stop spouting nonsense.
Also, “apeiron” in Greek means “boundless,” but–like that word in English–it is frequently used to mean merely “vast” or “indeterminate” or “indefinite.” That is why it is a useful word for someone who has elected to maintain an “honorable silence” on the final question. I take it that your knowledge of Greek, and of ancient Greek texts, is small.
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To the first question, I think the answer must be no, perhaps even platitudinously no. John Milton certainly envisioned Lucifer as embracing evil as evil—“Evil, be thou my good”—but I suspect that he thought this way only because of prior commitments regarding their nature, their fall from grace, and the irrevocability of their rebellion. If angels are pure intellectual beings, and if at the moment of their creation they were given a perfect and indisputable revelation of God as their ultimate and supreme good, and if at the moment they knew the full consequences of disobedience and chose it anyway, then of course we must think of them choosing evil as evil. It’s all quite logical—and speculative. It’s also unconvincing as philosophical analysis of human decision-making. Human beings, even the most wicked, do not work that way, cannot work that way. We can easily imagine human beings exercising violence against others in order to achieve specific objectives or to acquire specific goods; and we can easily imagine them sacrificing a greater but future good for a lesser good that can be immediately enjoyed; but what we cannot do is imagine them freely and rationally intending actions that do not realize, in their view and experience, any good whatsoever—and that’s what choosing evil for the sake of evil entails. Adam and Evil ate of the apple because of a promised future good of divinity, not in order to get expelled from the Garden. Hugh McCann, I think, has the right of it:
How McCann reconciled this analysis of human action with his belief in eternal damnation, I do not know. I suspect that he simply accepted the latter as de fide dogma and that was that. But if one does not accept eternal damnation as a revealed truth, then it is appropriate to question whether it makes sense to think of a human being as freely and rationally choosing evil as evil. As you say, Nathaniel, that’s the crux of the matter.
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I think you are entirely right about this, Father Aidan. In a private conversation–private in the sense that we happened to be walking together and talking while at a conference, but not private in the sense that we were speaking confidentially to each other–Hugh McCann once told me that he saw no inconsistency between his understanding of how someone could freely choose some specific evil and my view concerning the impossibility of someone freely embracing an eternal destiny apart from God.
As for Milton’s Satan exclaiming, “Evil be thou my Good,” I do not see how anyone who (a) is rational enough to qualify as a free moral agent and (b) understands what it means to choose evil for its own sake could ever make such a choice freely. It is as if a human being with a normal nervous system should shove his or her hand into a flaming hot fire and exclaim, “Excruciating pain and torment be thou my intense pleasure!” You can’t get any more irrational than that.
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“Our primary aim in wrongdoing is always some anticipated good.”
And I think this statement is patently false. The primary aim of wrongdoing is fulfilling some appetite disconnected from, or following an abuse of, the rational faculty of man. This is precisely what we see in Genesis 3:6. Eve took the fruit because it was desirable. Satan’s rationalization served not to engage her rational faculty to chose a lower good but to bypass it altogether and appeal to a different faculty. Cain didn’t kill Abel because he wanted to bring about some alternate mode of worship. He did so because of blind jealousy. David didn’t kill Uriah because he thought he’d bring about some alternate good, but because he lusted after his wife.
It is these apetitive faculties that must be trained which for growth in righteousness. And it is precisely the failure to train these faculties that results in exclusion from the Kingdom.
What would have prevented the sin in the garden, as Athanasius so plainly states is the continuous contemplation of the Word of God. It is this very thing which Satan disrupted.
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On Tom Talbott’s “Our primary aim in wrongdoing is always some anticipated good,” Nathaniel responds:
Nathan, please, you’re entirely missing the point.
1) To say we primarily or fundamentally desire the good when we intend some particular evil is not to say we consciously intend the good as such. In such cases we don’t have the good as such in mind and aren’t intending ‘it’. It’s to say the good transcends the evil we intend in that the good forms the formal or final ‘end’ which our God-given and God-sustained desire seek their fulfillment in. It’s a bit like a compass needle that is naturally drawn to magnetic north. The magnetic field that attracts or draws it does so all the time, and is the true force of attraction. But other influences (nearby metal objects for example) can skew that compass’ needle. It can get sidetracked. But when it does so, it’s still doing so ‘within’ the overall transcendent draw of the earth’s magnetic field.
2) You don’t have to be a universalist to agree with this much! It’s not universalists are the only ones who believe in the transcendentals and the necessary mode of their manifestation in created things. Let me ask you – would you mind stating briefly what you think the Transcendentals are and what you think it means to say all existing things manifest them?
3) “Eve took the fruit because it was desirable.” Not exactly. She ‘reasoned’ her way through to taking the fruit. She ‘perceived’ (saw) that the tree was ‘good for food’, ‘pleasing to the eye’, and ‘desirable for gaining wisdom’ (all of which are true as such). Those were the things she was ‘intending’ (food, aesthetic fulfillment, and knowledge), what she was after. What she didn’t do was perceive the evil nature of her action in the full light of truth and choose the tree “because” it was evil. She “mistook” the tree as good in the senses the text describes, but her choice nonetheless was a misrelation to the truth of things given God’s instructions. This is what we all do. What you have with Eve (and all the other examples you share) are not examples of people doing what the traditional view of hell supposes people do, namely, choose evil ‘as such’.
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Just one minor correction, Tom. I think the quotation, “Our primary aim in wrongdoing is always some anticipated good” belongs to Hugh McCann, not to me. So McCallum was likewise replying to McCann and not to me. Bur your points are well taken.
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I wonder, Nathaniel, if we understand what a choice “for evil as such” would even mean. It doesn’t mean we consciously reject the good for some evil because that choice gets us some other end we’re after. We do that much now. We knowingly reject the good for the evil because we think the evil will get us something else we value and want. But in choosing evil as evil we’re talking about desiring the evil as its own end, for its own sake, and we do so knowing the truth about evil as evil. That’s the thing. One is not choosing evil as such unless one understands evil as such, and that means understanding the good as such. They go together. Otherwise you’re choosing evil thinking it will ‘get you something’ you believe is good, something to take to be good, and that assumes a transcendental desire for the good as such.
To choose evil ‘as such’ is not to mistakenly take evil for some good. It is to understand that evil cannot ‘get you’ anything, that it cannot fulfill any desire, slate any thirst, that it takes everything and gives nothing, and to value this itself and so desire it for its own sake. Not a coherent model of rational, free, responsible choice.
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A relevant quote from Thomas Merton:
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That’s why the irreversibility thesis fails to manifest the transcendental nature of created beings. If our choice of evil is motivated by a darkened mind that mistakenly takes the evil for good, we nevertheless manifest (and participate) the transcendental good that grounds and circumscribes the potentialities of being. But how would our choosing evil, knowing it to be evil and not mistaking it for some good, manifest the transcendental nature of intellect and will? Nathaniel’s point just further confirms my suspicion that advocates of the irreversibility thesis understand how the transcendentals (God as final cause) manifest themselves in the created order very differently from Hart (and other Orthodox believers in apokatastatis).
Augustine is right here that this choice is an irrational one. It is not a choice between an unknown good and a perceived good (or evil qua evil). It is non-cognitive choice of a thing I desire instead of a contemplation of the good. People choose the good because it is good. People choose evil because they want it (because they create a sensory image of it – often one with no bearing on reality). It is not a cognitive process. Any cognition that is involved is usually reduced to a denial of the good altogether as a means by which to chose the thing desired.
Your evildoer is a philosopher who, after much-reasoned debate, simply chooses wrongly due to some unforeseen fact (whether he has a body or not is of no consequence — he is primarily a thinking being). Common evildoers slide into evil through a gradual descent of bodily desires (“sure another drink sounds great”, “that waitress is cute”, “just a little flirting couldn’t hurt”, “maybe just one kiss”) until basic human desires preclude rational thought process altogether.
Perhaps I am missing some aspect of this discussion. The choice of evil is irrational. There is always some act of delusion involved. The imagination is always implicated in a form of misconstrual or gnostic fashioning of an unreal alternative. Who is disagreeing with this? Let’s look at your common evildoer examples: The cuteness of the waitress or the convivial, relaxing element of the drink are most likely real goods and not mere delusion. The goods of the creature are not freestanding, but participate in the Good of divine esse. As you no doubt know, it is not the choice of the creaturely good that is evil, but the attempt to possess that good in a self-sufficient manner that would deny its giftedness from God and its intrinsic relationality that involves consideration of the common good and ultimately the love for God grounds all reality. Ascesis is meant to orient the imagination properly. Insofar as vain imagination chooses, it is choosing a good, not an evil, but it is choosing wrongly. It is certainly choosing an idol. Nonetheless, the creature by its natural will (in Maximus’ terms) is teleologically aimed at the Good. Gnomic deformations do not alter the fundamental metaphysical orientation.
The fact that you posit a “point of no return” whereby the natural will is damaged beyond recall is interesting and necessary to maintain the particular eschatological opinion that you wish to dogmatically assert as definitively true. It seems to me such a view is a defeat of agapeic love and a presumptuous foreclosure on the capacity of the Holy Spirit to intervene in the delusional madness of creatures. I have no doubt you will maintain your strident condescension towards anyone who does not share your assessment of the tradition. Minimally, the choice of evil under the delusion that it is in some manner a good is not the choice of evil qua evil. The claim that evil qua evil is a surd choice first instantiated by the angels does not rise to the level of metaphysical necessity. I do not think one can definitively assert it to be a comprehensive biblical datum, but even if one grants such, I do not think one can make the same claims for a unified human nature. If Adamic action had universal consequences, why not Christ’s healing action? If one, why not the other? But perhaps that is too much chasing a rabbit trail. I maintain that your anthropology is insufficiently aware of the constitutive element of relation to personal being. Heaven and hell as you construe it follows an atomized self that is a result of the Fall. The Last Judgment may involve a criteria derived from the result of Christ’s victory, i.e. involve persons and not fragmented egos.
At the least, not all who dissent from your views is a moron or theologically illiterate. It seems to met that you circumvent any actual struggle and questioning of the majority tradition by the manner in which you recur to approved authorities. There is a way of existentially engaging authority that grants insight without defanging questions more complex than your mode of responding allows.
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So, you basically just summed up my “common evildoer” scenario using the “philosopher evildoer” methodology; which completely evades the distinction I’m making. I understand you collapse these anthropologies. I don’t. Nor does the tradition. Nor does scripture.
“If Adamic action had universal consequences, why not Christ’s healing action?”
Both had universal consequences regarding human potentiality. Neither has universal consequences for human actuality.
“At the least, not all who dissent from your views is a moron or theologically illiterate.”
I never presumed such. I only presumed to articulate the majority tradition. In turn, you have accused me of “strident condescension.” Let’s please not reduce a theological discussion to ad hominem.
No comment on the larger post (yet), as I have not had a chance to read it. But to this remark I can offer a small reply. First, the phrase ἐπ᾽ αἰῶσιν ἀπείροις ought to be read with caution, since Maximos (as was fairly common practice) frequently uses “apeiron” simply to mean “indefinite” or “vast.” On the whole I think Balthasar and Ramelli are both right about Maximos on this issue.
But, even so, if Maximos did indeed believe in the real possibility of eternal damnation, it was clearly inconsistent with the whole structure of his thought. His understanding of how God becomes All in All by the return of every nature to him becomes utterly incoherent if any soul is perpetually estranged from God. Here, then, we need to correct Maximos with Gregory of Nyssa’s richer understanding of the relation between desire and infinity.
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“Indefinitely” – precisely.
Greetings, Hayfield. I do not recall if you’ve commented on EO before but welcome. I was wondering if you might elaborate on your reading of St Maximus and why you believe that his affirmations of “eternal” damnation are at odds with his vision of eschatological reconciliation.
“Maximos (as was fairly common practice) frequently uses ‘apeiron’ simply to mean ‘indefinite’ or ‘vast.'”
Ramelli and Balthasar make this point about the (supposed) distinction between αἰώνιος and ἀΐδιος. The former, they argue, can never carry a parallel meaning to the latter. And that the interminable difference between them is temporality.*
But this does not solve the problem of ἀπείροις. Here’s how Ramelli actually “deals” with this passage:
“Indeed, in Amb. 21,1252B, Maximus states that those who have sinned following passions, in the future world will remain far from the relationship with God, and this will be their punishment, even for very many aeons. But I have already demonstrated that Maximus, like Origen and Nyssen, thought that there will come and end of all aeons, and this will be precisely the eventual apokatastasis.”
Indeed, Ramelli’s argument doesn’t even address ἀπείροις; not in the whole book. She simply translates it at “very many” – without a hint to the reader – though I’m not aware of any precedent of such a translation for this word. Not one lexicon allows this meaning. And the word literally means “without limit.” Further, it has a long history in cosmology to describe the limitlessness of God; starting with Anaximander.
Nor is Ramelli ignorant of this word’s history. She herself quotes it from Origen:
“Origen was clear that the ‘greatness of God has no limit (πέρας)’ and God’s providence runs ‘from the infinite (έξ ἀπείρον) to the infinite (ἐπ’ ἄπειρον) and even further’. What is more, in texts of sure authenticity and preserved in Greek, the divinity is declared by Origen to be infinite, ἄπειρον, and to be ‘from infinities to infinity’, έξ ἀπείρον ἐπ’ ἄπειρον. This is why it cannot be compared to any creature; it is incommensurable due to its ‘infinite superiority’.”
– Ramelli, Origen of Alexandria: Sources and Aftermath (in Divine Powers in Late Antiquity)
Notice very carefully that when she translates Origen ἀπείρον means “infinite,” but when she translates Maximus – who she claims is significantly emulating Origen – she translates ἀπείροις as “very many.” Why the different meanings? And why on such a crucial passage? Could it be because the passage is so self-evident that any attempt to deal with it unravels her thesis?
* – … ignoring completely the difference between scriptural and philosophical semantic domains. In the scriptural context, the former is always used (even for eternal temporality) and the later is never used. The patristic tradition blends these two domains; but not until after Clement of Alexandria. The earlier tradition follows the scriptural domain.
All of that is quite boring. Anyone who reads much Greek from the ancient and late ancient worlds knows that “apeiron” is often used the way we use “boundless”–not literally, but hyperbolically. Actually, the ambiguity that Maximos always introduces into his language is this: he will speak of the “ages”–he will even call them “boundless”–but when he speaks of the final end of all creatures he speaks of that which is “beyond all the ages.” In late antiquity, the very word “aeon” had become mysterious in meaning: it was not used to mean eternity as a rule, but neither was it used to indicate mere temporal succession; it was used quite often to mean different states of being, different estates, temporal or spatial or neither. And Maximos clearly believes that the end of all things no longer has to do with the ages at all, because all of those will be surpassed.
None of which matters. The fact remains that Maximos’s theology would be incoherent if he allowed for an eternal damnation. So either his language is intentionally elliptical (as I believe) or he ended up marring his own theological system with an ultimate incoherence.
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Every time I read transcendental I think of Kant.
Are you thinking of the phenomenal Kant or the noumenal Kant? 🙂
I am rather sorry to trample on a good joke — but I will add to Father’s wit the perhaps pedantic observation that it is telling that popular imagination (this assumes some minimal philosophical erudition) links transcendentals with Kant. This is significant, because Kant’s transcendental ego is an entirely abstract notion of the subject. Whereas up through the high middle ages, the transcendentals were witness to an ontological criteria that assumed the permeability of consciousness to reality, the “Copernican revolution” altered the weight of sensibility so that we now first think of the transcendentals as a function of a “thin” epistemological measure that separates us from the “noumenal” real.
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For a poor soul without the theological grounding to follow it completely, is a somewhat less complicated way of saying what Hart is saying that people’s choices are motivated by choosing what seems good to them, so they are therefore not going to stop seeking new stuff until they have that if which nothing can be conceived is better, and that can only be God (And once you have God you necessarily aren’t going to swap him for anything else)? People can choose things that only appear good, but will not then be satisfied with them once they have got them, because they aren’t actually the perfect good they were after.
What I can’t follow in the “irreversibility thesis” is how a being incapable of deliberative choice which thus immediately grasps the full nature of both God and not-God can actually choose not-God, since, by definition, not-God contains nothing for the being to choose, and God (being perfectly good) can contain nothing which such a being could reject. The very features which are relied on to assert their choice as irreversible would surely make it impossible for them to fall in the first place. The only way they could fall is if their was at least some inherent good in not-God and separation from God which they could latch on to, or some element of evil or imperfection in God they could perceive and be repelled by, and neither of these are possible.
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Iain, I appreciate the phrasing of this sentence: “What I can’t follow in the “irreversibility thesis” is how a being incapable of deliberative choice which thus immediately grasps the full nature of both God and not-God can actually choose not-God, since, by definition, not-God contains nothing for the being to choose, and God (being perfectly good) can contain nothing which such a being could reject.”
If evil truly is nothing, as the privatio boni thesis insists, then there really ain’t anything there to claim or embrace or choose. We are thus confronted with a genuine aporia. I’m sure that supporters of eternal damnation have addressed this problem somewhere, but I don’t recall specific discussions.
Tom thank you for this article. Where do you see repentance come into play? As I understand it, it seems to me that according to the ‘irrevocability theory’ once one is damned and set one’s sight on evil repentance is not a possibility, in the hereafter and even in the now. No? A monenergistic conception of salvation would seem to be unavoidable in that case.
Good question. I think you mean Aquinas’ irreversibility thesis. Someone that fixed in their disposition toward evil as evil would be incapable of repentance. But I don’t hear people who promote that view looking for ways God can turn things around for the damned. God authors and sustains that structure, so he wouldn’t be stepping in to change it. But I suppose to the extent monergism is a viable option (it’s not for me), then that would be how one would have to imagine God securing their transformation. But if we’re talking the ‘irrevocability thesis’, we’re irrevocably open to God, so we are always able to find our way back home. There’s always some rational path to agreeing with the truth about ourselves as sinners loved by God (which is what repentance is). So I don’t think it impossible for the damned to repent. We may require some purgation to expose our falsehoods, but that path is there.
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I haven’t yet had time to read this essay anywhere near carefully enough. But I don’t want to go any longer without stating my appreciation for the images. Nice work there.
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I had Feser in mind. I think he likes comic book covers. 😛
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Well, I feel like a bit of a dolt for not realizing that. I’ve hardly ever visited Feser’s blog but I just did and… yeah. Still, though, I say you’ve definitely mastered the gentle art of comic book cover appropriation.
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—”To see the good truly is to desire it insatiably; not to desire it is not to have known it, and so never have been free to choose it.”
I pretty much take this to be axiomatic. The idea that a person could ever choose evil for the sake of evil is deeply incoherent to me for a few reasons. Among them, wouldn’t an eternal hell that is ontologically sustained by an eternal “love” (there I go referencing the “good” again) of what is evil require the eternal existence of that evil in order to exist? It may not be deliberative or consciously done, there is always a choosing of the good, even though there may be a perception of short/long term harm or a “breaking of the rules”.
I’d have to see some pretty strong evidence – not just a few select prooftexts – to convince me that a “traditional” reading views the “free choice” for evil as evil as a necessity of the proper end of man. If it does (#alternativefacts), it’s because it assumes an everlasting free will model of damnation and works backwards regardless of how (or if) the pieces all fit together. Same with an irreversibility thesis. I still see no reason why it has to be so other than that an assumed end requires it.
Still though, what is “the fall” then? If we cannot see (or have never seen) the good to be able to insatiably choose it, what good is the axiom?
For me, this axiomatic orientation of the will towards the good, true as I find it to be, has not had the effect of a mathematical proof that sort of settles things philosophically. However this transcendental orientation works, it has not mechanistically “fixed” the world or myself. It has, however, become an occasion for faith. It speaks to a protology and a loving providence that itself becomes the means by which the good is perceived as the good. And it reframes things a bit, I think, in that the burden of “correct choices” isn’t the central point, or at least exists within a more fundamental context of grace and gift. One is not left in the outer darkness hoping beyond hope that they’ve made the right choices as the doomsday clock counts down, but rather there is a grace that is irrevocably present in being – so that to be at all is to be confronted with, threatened with, and correspondingly open to God’s patience and God’s coming to his creation. If that’s not true, if God so orders things that our proper end may finally be ontologically “unattainable” due to our “free” willingness to be less than what we are (not to be deterministic) – I think we’re pretty much screwed.
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Yes, it’s the protology that confounds and confuses. Modern science will not allow us to retreat into the mythological musings of the Church Fathers. As far back as we can see, there is destruction and death. Yet the sense that all is awry abides–an aboriginal catastrophe in the prehistory of the universe, an Eden that was lost. I can make no sense of this primaeval past. I can only look forward to the Kingdom and God’s eschatological act to make all things right.
I think the whole argument about the angels is silly, to be honest, since it presumes a high medieval understanding of angelic incorporeality that is alien to Jewish and Biblical conceptions, and that was not even adopted by most of the Church Fathers. It’s really all speculative mythology. But, even if it’s true, two things are clear:
1) Every finite nature is capable of pathos, even if it’s not physical pathos. That’s why finite beings can change. Only God is impassible in the perfect sense.
2) Is Feser aware of the doctrine of the resurrection? If irreversibility is a function in part of incorporeality, what difference would that make for human souls that, according to doctrine, will be eternally corporeal?
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Thank you Hayfield.
I’m happy to know someone else finds the notion of purely immaterial passions meaningful. Can you elaborate your first point there with respect to ‘deliberation’? Do you think ‘epistemic distance’ (if not ‘embodiment’) is the best place to locate the possibility of deliberation (and even of pathos) with respect to the good?
Or just “finitude.” Yes.
On your second question, Feser argues that future physical resurrection won’t undo the effects of postmortem incorporeal existence. This brief immaterial state will fix the soul irreversibly. Future resurrection will wed that state to the body but will not be able to unwind the clock on the soul’s orientation.
Which is of course, as my former teacher Dr. Hart would say, “an empty assertion masquerading as an argument, because when the invitation was sent out to the argument it wasn’t at home.”
That’s the very definition of a desperate ad hoc claim: there’s no logic behind it, no reason to take it seriously, no scriptural support for it, and no concept of justice that would make it digestible. But, damn it, Catholic dogma says there’s an eternal hell, so we’re going to make whatever vacuous assertion leaps into our heads!
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I just finished reading Feser’s article and what he fails to mention is that the irreversible fixation of the creature’s will is infallibly predetermined by God Himself. Feser is a Catholic philosopher who follows the teachings of Domingo Banez and Reginald Garrigou Lagrange, both of whom affirmed the notion of the divine praemotio. The Divine Praemotio (or Premotion) is the doctrine that God from eternity predetermines which persons will be given the efficacious grace needed to choose Him as the greatest good, as opposed to falling into sin by choosing lesser goods, which is our natural default option as defective creatures; in short, without God’s efficacious grace, we are doomed to choose badly and damn ourselves.
As David Bentley Hart observes in his article Providence and Causality, such a quasi-Calvinistic God Who makes arbitrary decisions regarding each person’s eternal fate from before the foundation of the world can only be described as malicious and evil; He certainly is not the Good as such.
Fortunately, Feser’s view is not widely held among Catholic clergy and theologians today. Many follow the hopeful universalism of Karl Rahner and Hans Urs von Balthasar, who both affirm that God desires and ceaselessly works to effectuate the salvation of all souls. Therefore, all Catholics actually have a duty to hope and pray for the salvation of all. This hopeful view was also affirmed in the teachings of Popes St. John Paul II, Benedict XVI and Francis.
So, at the end of the day, I would characterize Feser’s view as a minority report followed principally by conservative, Tridentine Catholics.
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Thanks John. If Feser affirms divine praemotio, that would further confirm my suspicion that by the “transcendental orientation of desire” he and Hart mean two different things. Interesting.
Yeah. Hart means “transcendental orientation of desire.” Feser means “a specious criterion for damning the creature even if the creature could never actually find a way to God, because God had everlastingly permissively but irresistibly decreed that the creature would be deprived of efficacious grace.” I’d call that a significant difference.
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Very good summation of a great lacuna in Feser’s argument, and in the history of Catholic dogma in general. Rahner, Balthasar, Wojtyla, and Raztinger all saw this lacuna and admirably tried to fill it with a hermeneutic of love and mercy. The old Banezian view is extremely unpopular now, but many popular level apologetics are dawning the modernist figleaf of something like C.S. Lewis’ excellent work The Great Divorce. An entirely understandable move, but one they often do not justify. If you want to make this move as a Catholic, you’ve got to stick close to the aforementioned theologians.
I agree completely Tom. The “Good” is completely different in each case. For Hart the Good is absolute, unconditional love as unambiguously revealed in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. But for Augustine, Aquinas. Garrigou Lagrange and Feser the Good is God’s arbitrary supralapsarian decision to grant efficacious grace only to a limited number of individuals so as to manifest His mercy, while the rest of the poor lost souls become objects of His wrath by default, since they are not given efficacious grace, in order to manifest God’s justice.
In short, Hart sees the Good as God’s Love whereas Feser sees the Good as God’s unbridled power and sovereignty,
In Plato, the Good is “beyond Being,” but in our normal mode of thinking it is ontological. To limit the Good to an act of will is already to assume a diminished understanding of the Good. I doubt Augustine and Aquinas are guilty of this, even if one rejects their eschatology. It is mainly the Scotus, nominalist, voluntarist line of thought that led to that way of reckoning. In that respect, Feser following the lead of Banez and Garrigou Lagrange is a modern.
John, I am insufficiently acquainted with Feser’s work. Can you confirm that he follows in the steps of Banez and Garrigou-Lagrange?
In his article he recommend Garrigou-Lagrange’s “Life Everlasting.” He repeatedly cites the old fascist.
Full disclosure: I studied under Dr. Hart and was his research assistant for a while. So, if I sound like a fanboy, I am.
In one of Dr. Hart’s articles he gives his title for G-L’s “Life Everlasting” as “Catholics in the Hands of a Psychotic God.”
You don’t appear to be dispassionately presenting an historical viewpoint. Your rhetoric is not that of someone free of polemic. There’s something passive aggressive in dismissing the views of others with vigorous disdain, then retreating to a mere academic unfolding of a tradition when you evidently consider the latter beyond dispute.
I stated at the beginning that it wasn’t entirely clear to me what you were arguing. I take it the latter half of the post I was responding to is not your view. So, the view you defend appears to me to represent Augustine as asserting a non-cognitive willing. I find this dubious. An ethics of bare will devoid of teleological guidance by the intellectual perception of the Good is not typical of pre-modern conceptions. Desire is directed towards some good. It is not “non-cognitive” in the manner you assert. My claims here are solidly part of the Western tradition. They are not eccentric. Your view appears closer to those of Rene Girard. Although I think Girard has some significant insight at times, I dissent from his understanding of mimetic desire as I think it is too much rooted in the subject and does not give enough (or any) weight to the objective good as source of competitive desire.
A strange sort of potentiality with regards to Adam, no? Everyone ends up mired in sin and dead. Historically, batting 1.000, but Christ’s redemption is destined for less . . .
And to clarify: your implicit anthropology has more in common with the buffered self articulated by Charles Taylor. It is an atomized self whose relations to others are merely adventitious and elective. It does not understand relations as metaphysically necessary. The kind of eschatological doom you pronounce indelibly part of the Christian tradition does not deeply consider TriUne God as archetype of personhood. Philip A Rolnick’s Person, Grace, and God is a nice overview of how the TriUne ground of personhood has not always been appreciated within various Christian traditions.
And really, I have tried to interact civilly. If I wanted to engage in ad hominem polemic, I could be considerably more acerbic.
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In his article entitled How to Go to Hell, Frser cites the work of Garrigou Lagrange in support of the position that he advocates therein.
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In one comment Nathaniel McCallum writes: “The primary aim of wrongdoing is fulfilling some appetite disconnected from, or following an abuse of, the rational faculty of man.” And in another he writes: “Augustine is right here that this choice is an irrational one.”
Thanks for some provocative comments, Nathaniel. The question I have is how a choice, as described above, could possibly qualify as a free choice for which one is morally responsible. As you see it, in other words, what conditions must obtain in order for a choice to qualify as being genuinely free? Can a compulsive desire for alcohol, for example, causally determine a free choice to have another drink? If so, then I wonder how you would distinguish between a free choice that is causally determined and one that is not so determined. If not, then I wonder how you would distinguish a free choice from sheer chance or a purely random event, such as the uncaused change of state of a radium atom.
My own impression, for what it is worth, is that too many theologians (and too many philosophers, for that matter) employ the term “free choice” as a kind of jargon trap-word without providing any clear understanding of what it supposedly signifies. So my own strategy is always to get clear how this term is being used in a given context before jumping to conclusions of any kind.
Anyway, thanks again for your contributions.
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Feser is dishonest in not laying out the quasi-Calvinist character of traditional Thomism, but he also cites an article by Avery Dulles from First Things entitled “The Population of Hell” in which the late cardinal criticizes what he sees as the pessimism of the tradition and the naive optimism of thinkers like Rahner and Balthasar. But he says in the article that certain passages allow for the possibility of universal salvation, though it’s not given to us to know. I think Catholics who know better should face up to the tradition of efficacious grace, but even by citing the Dulles article, Feser may be indicating some distance from the abysmally bleak view of the tradition.
I’ll word this poorly, so somebody help me break it down into a short argument. I think you’ll see the main points:
– If evil is not substantial, if it’s parasitic upon being, then pure evil as such is in fact impossible. That much is pretty standard Orthodox view on evil as privation.
– And if ‘to will what is evil is evil’, then a pure, unalloyed willing of evil as evil is as impossible as pure evil, for willing only evil as evil would be convertible with pure evil, which is impossible.
– Since evil is only the privation of being, hell can only exist as privation. But evil as privation presumes a less than utterly, exhausitve privation of being.
– Being is (at least) knowing, desiring and willing.
– If you have pure evil, you have pure (100%) privation, which is impossible.
– The concept of evil as privatio boni, then, entails the impossibility of an exhaustively privated intellect and will.
Bits and pieces. Maybe a bad dream from too much pizza.
Nathaniel et all,
All good interaction and exchange as always. I know there has been a lot of back and forth between you and others here and you seem to be alone in your position. I am having a hard time understanding what you say in many of your comments but I also have a hard time at times understanding what others say in this blog so I guess it’s normal. I would like to address something you have said though.
You state “People choose evil because they want it (because they create a sensory image of it – often one with no bearing on reality). It is not a cognitive process. Any cognition that is involved is usually reduced to a denial of the good altogether as a means by which to chose the thing desired.”
I think if I understand you correctly I agree with you; but what seems to be missing here is the why. Why do they desire the evil to begin with? I recognize you are pushing back against the purely cognitive but I don’t think the “purely cognitive” or “philosophical evil doer” is an accurate representation of the entirety of the consciousness of the group or this blog.
Let me try to give a rudimentary example of what I think is missing from your argument. I’m a recovered Drug Addict and if you have ever had an real hands-on experience with addicts or addiction there is a moment or a multiplicity of moments in the addicts life where the addict is powerless. Choice over the course of a life or in a moment is lost or seemingly lost. Orthodox arguments have been made by Archmendorite Meletios Weber to the truth of this powerlessness. The central tenants of the 12 step program is that what is required for the addict to be free of this powerlessness is cooperation, participation and a spiritual experience. The Spiritual Experience is a result of the participation but is also a means of grace and rooted in grace. The participation doesn’t earn the Spiritual Experience but without the Experience power is still lost and participation and openness are necessary for the experience to occur. Some of the biggest drivers for an addict and his behavior are fear of abandonment, pain, disconnectedness and alienation. According to Fr. Meletios’s interpretation of the hesychast tradition; desire is closely mirrored to fear. He says that fear is the very thing that can drive one to hell. Interestingly enough fear is not within the essence of God in His apatheia but fear is privation an evil in itself. There is no fear in love. Interestingly enough these desires according to that tradition do not necessarily come from within us but outside of us. These thoughts drive us towards evil. Every sin that we commit starts with these thoughts which constantly emanate from our minds. According to the tradition what was lost in the fall was connection and intimacy with the divine but man’s goodness was not. These thoughts are a result of the fall. Something every human being must struggle against. This complexity of inner struggle is something you seem to miss in your argument. What you can’t or haven’t explained is why someone who is an addict or evildoer if you will (my evildoer is the addict) desires the good at all.
Why did I desire to get sober; while simultaneously being powerless to get sober? I think many on this blog would understand that desire to be my ontological or teleological groundedness (hope I’m using the right terminology) for the good. Something in me, despite these conflicting thoughts, despite the powerlessness, was driving me towards the good. Volition really has no sway here nor cognitive philosophizing. I desired the good over the evil. This ontology is not purely cognitive, is there a cognitive element? Absolutely, I am a cognitive being and I cannot cease to be what I am; but within me something outside of any cognitive or rational act though completely rational was driving me towards the good. This is where if I understand you correctly you either disagree or you simply miss the argumentation all together. I desire connection, joy, freedom, etc. all things that are good and a result of my giftedness of being. As an addict I chose the drug because it appeared to give me these good things and for a short time it seemed to actually give me those. Many people speak of there addiction in relational terms there is a deep connectedness felt with your drug of choice. One can speak of it in metaphorical terms. So I guess I want to know Nathaniel why do I desire the good? Or why do evil doers desire the evil in the first place? What faculties if any are involved or are you suggesting pure spontaneous volition? And if so do you not feel your argumentation against a rational philosophical model is not merely a straw argument since your argument is rooted in a philosophical concept about freedom that requires rationality?
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Thanks Christian. Good thoughts.
“Some of the biggest drivers for an addict and his behavior are fear of abandonment, pain, disconnectedness and alienation.”
My last staff position in MN was as Recovery director for a local church. Loved it. You make a great point here, and Recovery ministry bears it out so well. No drug addict wills the evil of his addiction. Drugs are first sought out as a means to some ‘other’ end (friendship, acceptance, a sense of belonging) or to medicate inner pain. All sin/evil manifests this structure – that’s why we call evil a ‘privation’. It’s not substance in itself; it has no being. It ‘is’ not. This was always an abstract idea until I got into Recovery ministry and saw this at work in the struggles of addicts.
The flip side of evil as privation is the essential goodness of being as such and your question – Why do we desire the good? Where’s that desire come from in the context you describe? Good question. This is where I find an Eastern approach (which posits desire for the good as God-given and natural) so helpful. We aren’t responsible for the fundamental teleology of our nature or the desire that moves us forward toward the final end of being. That’s all antecedent to any exercise of will.
I don’t think Nathaniel understands what it would mean for somebody to “freely choose evil as such,” for the “desire” that constitutes the teleological structure of created being as sustained by God, to freely and without remainder aim at and intend evil as evil, not ‘mis-taking’ evil for good, but *knowing* evil to constitute violence, self-contradiction, and privation to one’s self, desire it *for that very reason*.
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I love this. I feel like it is also why Orthodoxy has felt like such a safe place for me Theologically ever since I was exposed to it. It felt like home to speak almost a choice that I didn’t choose. I can think of countless experiences where volitional faculties where entirely irrelevant to my desire to be sober. I’m sincerely interested to see how Nathaniel holds to an Orthodox understanding of man’s goodness while also maintaining his current position (or at least my understanding of his position) without contradiction.
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I’m not sure that the question is “why do we desire the good?” so much as “why do we desire anything at all?” In other words, what is it that elicits desire in us? And what elicits desire in a thing is always its final cause, i.e., the end towards which it is moved. Since God is the final cause of all things, it follows that all things desire Him as their end. And without this final cause, not only would we not desire the good, we would simply have no desire at all. This is why it makes no sense to speak of desiring evil as such. Evil as such, without any reference to the good, is simply non-being, and non-being, since it does not exist, cannot act as a final cause drawing things to itself.
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In his very first response to Tom Belt, Nathaniel McCallum asks: “Is the will of a being newly created from nothing able to choose evil as evil? If not, is that will free?” Here is why, as I see it, the very intelligibility of these questions requires a much more complete analysis of free will than McCallum has provided so far.
Whatever position one takes with respect to the ongoing dispute between compatibilists and libertarians, all parties should be able to agree concerning this. Even if some version of compatibilism should be true, not just any causally determined choice would qualify as a free choice for which one is morally responsible; and even if some version of libertarianism should be true, not just any choice that some undetermined process of deliberation produces would qualify as such a free choice either. For not just any uncaused event, or just any agent caused choice, or just any randomly generated selection between alternatives will qualify as a free choice for which the choosing agent is morally responsible. At the very least, the relevant freedom also requires a minimal degree of rationality—including, for example, an ability to discern normal reasons for acting, to draw reasonable inferences from experience, and to learn important lessons from the consequences of one’s own actions. With good reason, therefore, do we exclude small children, the severely brain damaged, paranoid schizophrenics, and even dogs from the class of free moral agents. For they all lack some part of the rationality required to qualify as such.
But if a minimal degree of rationality is indeed a necessary condition of choosing freely, then it is hard to see how the choice of evil for its own sake (whatever, exactly, that might mean) could be both free and irreversible in the sense being discussed here. For either such a choice is fully informed, or it is not. If it is not fully informed, but is instead the product of some degree of ignorance, misperception, or illusion, then it is in principle correctable and hence not by nature irreversible at all; and if it is fully informed, then it is simply too irrational to qualify as an instance of moral freedom in the first place. So whether the choice of evil for its own sake should be fully informed or less than fully informed, it could not be both free and irreversible in the relevant sense.
This brief argument, which no doubt requires considerable elaboration, is not, by the way, an argument for universalism; it is only an argument that no choice of evil could be both free and irreversible—a point that at least some proponents of a free-will theodicy of hell are prepared to accept. [See, for example, Raymond VanArragon, “Is it Possible to Freely Reject God Forever?” in Joel Buenting, The Problem of Hell: A Philosophical Anthology (Burlington: Ashgate Publishing Company, 2010), pp. 29-43.]
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Tom Talbott, you have pointed to some valuable distinctions, but I fear that you have left out just as important ones.
For either such a choice is fully informed, or it is not. If it is not fully informed, but is instead the product of some degree of ignorance, misperception, or illusion, then it is in principle correctable and hence not by nature irreversible at all; and if it is fully informed, then it is simply too irrational to qualify as an instance of moral freedom in the first place.
I agree that in order for a choice to be a truly human free act, it must proceed from an agent that has the requisite knowledge. Aquinas makes this point quite clear: an act that proceeds out of ignorance fails to be free just to that extent. As an example, I would offer the executioner’s act of killing Sidney Carton (presumed) at the end of “The Tale of Two Cities”: the executioner quite reasonably THINKS Sidney is someone else, who in fact has been condemned to death. That it is Carton and not Charles Darnay is outside the executioner’s mind entirely, and so it cannot be said that he freely “chooses to kill Carton”. It is, rather, (on the part of the executioner) an accident or a mistake, and these are opposed to “deliberately chosen act” which we demand of a fully freely chosen act.
However, that’s not all that must be said. Man (probably unlike the angels), has the capacity to “know” something while “not knowing” it at the same time: a man can have the habitual knowledge necessary to say “adultery is wrong and offensive to God”, and to say “this act before me is an act of adultery” but to NOT ATTEND to whether “this act before me is an act of adultery” by attending rather to other truths – including the pleasure to be anticipated. That the sensible pleasure is in the mind as a good is certainly part of the act, but in order for the act to be a free act it must proceed in such a way that the man is not overcome by an appetitive force that displaces the ability to reason about whether the sensible is, properly speaking, “good for me here and now”. When the man freely turns toward the sensible good as good and away from a due and proper consideration of “whether this is truly good for me here and now” that would draw on his habitual knowledge, that’s when the free act of sin occurs. It is free because he DOES have the habitual knowledge necessary to discern that the act is bad, and it is free because while the appetite “leans” on his will to suggest acting without due consideration of the rational good, it does not demand it: he could have actually decided to attend to the rational good.
It does no good to say the man is “acting for a good”, of course he is, but he is also willing to not act for the rational good. The act for good still comprises the defect of not willing a due good, because it departs from the (habitually known) good of reason (and does so not by force but voluntarily).
The irreversibility issue in Thomism comes from a different angle.
I don’t see how your comment contradicts or corrects Prof. Talbott’s remarks. He is simply making the point that no choice of evil can be both fully informed and not correctable in principle. Nothing that you wrote challenges that basic point.
In the paragraph that you quote, he is referring to the choice of evil qua evil, which is substantially different from your example of ‘not attending to’ one’s habitual knowledge that adultery is wrong. Your imagined adulterer is not choosing evil for its own sake and is clearly less than fully informed at the time of the decision since he isn’t even thinking about the morality of the choice in front of him.
The degree to which the sinful appetite influences the decision making process is the degree to which it is not fully free. I think you are correct in pointing out that we are morally responsible for acts that are less than fully free so long as we have the ability to discern which is the right decision and are not forced one way or another. However, I have yet to see a realistic example of a situation where someone could choose evil for its own sake when possessing a full and immediate knowledge of what that decision entailed.
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That we humans have habitual knowledge that is not now present in the mind actively considered is a manifest truth. I studied and learned and understood the Pythagorean Theorem, and if need be I could sit down and draw out what the reasons were that proved the conclusion. But at the moment I am not now thinking of those reasons. Similarly, I am not now considering even the mere statement of many other theorems I learned, but which are still “known” to me though not actively in my mind. Thus man is the sort of creature that can know something without it being actively present to the mind.
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