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.