by Brian C. Moore, Ph.D.
Concepts can be “thick” or “thin.” Existence in classical theism is fat like the sun. Men and women squint and dutifully keep to the tolerable roads. Some sweat under the radiance of divine Fatherhood, sopping their brows with rags or monogrammed towels, any pragmata to place between themselves and the mystery. Others travel by night and deny the sun, though the stars whisper and the moon smiles like Mona Lisa as she reflects the unseen light. Scholars frequently think to domesticate the strangeness. They speak confidently, as if logic could comprehend the wild, paternal mirth. Only those willing to be free like the Son of God, that is, obedient to the vertiginous heart-cry of love are granted the unmerited boon. In Aquinas’ commentary on the gospel according to St. John, he writes that “even though the eye of the owl does not see the sun, nevertheless the eye of the eagle gazes at it.” Existence is then the joyous dance of infinite frontiers. It is power, movement, passionate stillness, the lively, eternal nunc stans that contains all time. It is the plenitude of act, the TriUne bliss from which all perfections flow. Nothing about existence is inert, sleepy with surfeit, or dully rich without the delight of surprise. “For Aquinas … it is precisely existence which makes something individual, so that it can be indicated by an indexical (“this,” “that”) and given a name” (Faith and Freedom, p. 103). The name is the unique, the irreplaceable, the dearness of the beloved. “There is no neutral being in general,” declares Desmond, “nor autistic particularity, especially so if the origin is agapeic – a God for the singular as singular” (God and the Between, p. 202). Matter was the basis of individuation in Aristotle, but matter is a quantifying principle that at best “allowed an Aristotelian to speak adequately of individuals as instances of a kind” (Faith and Freedom, p. 103). The roots of things always exceed the chthonic depths. “What does not have its roots in … divine life is essentially dead,”explains Sherrard (Christianity, p. 192).
“Instances of a kind” implies a willingness to sacrifice the individual for the sake of the species. The unique is a fungible asset in an economy of death. The entire pagan world is a melancholy negotiation that allows the community a brief and precarious order predicated on annihilation of the singular. (Attic tragedy is always enacted by a character of royal provenance. Christ had not yet come to reveal the royalty of a universal priesthood that encompasses the poor, the reviled, the humiliated and dispossessed.) The gospel reveals a radically different economy that turns over the tables of the money changers. The singular is not extinguished for the sake of the Whole, but neither is the Whole abandoned for an autonomous self-sufficiency. Desmond speaks of an “idiocy” of being, by which he does not intend an imbecility, but precisely the irreplaceable uniqueness that comes to one as gift and mission.
Yet singularity is not a moment in the Whole to be superseded for the truth of the Whole to shine through. Its true idiocy involves granting its porosity of being, its being as a communicative integrity of existence in communicative togetherness with others, even in the deepest intimacy of its inwardness. In that intimate idiocy the communication of the divine other is most deeply undergone in the deepest porosity of one’s being. Communicative being is not outside one. It comes alive just in this ultimate porosity that is both inside and beyond one: most intimate to one, most solicitous that one be delivered from selving that is curved back on itself (emphasis mine, God and the Between, p. 239).
Now Scotus is a Christian. He advocates for an epistemology of love, but does so in the context of existence conceptualized as Jack Sprat, famished to the edge of instrumental inanity. Origin is not a source of continuing wonder. It is not quite the stupidly mechanical attempt to trace back initial conditions as it is with cosmologists who carry on deist prejudices. Burrell says it is more like the ancient Greeks, presupposed as given. And this is carried over by moderns who never think being as gift. But if the “act of creation” is pervasive (this is nearly synonymous with the concept of participation) then “actuality takes on a new valence” (pp. 79 -80). With Scotus, we are already entering the wretched precincts of that fraudulent world that anticipates Newtonian time. Newton ended mad as a hatter making calculations for the end of history derived from the Apocalypse, probably because he couldn’t stand the prison he had imagined — time as a sort of ready-made container where the future awaits as the product of point-mass forces knocking against each other like billiards balls.
Drama disappears before a science where all conceivable events are usefully located along coordinates assigned by a clever, mechanical cartography. Scotus was ignorant of those horrors, and I don’t believe he was a scoundrel, but his mind had a certain bent: “he was beginning to look more at features of things than at things themselves, so that things become conceived as a coalescence of features” (Faith and Freedom, p. 98). And if you think that doesn’t matter, let me put it this way. Say you’re a young fella in love with Agnes Goop, the girl one street over who works in the flower shop. If someone asks why you love Agnes Goop and you begin to enumerate a list, you are firmly on the modern side of the divide. Lists are covert calculations of utility, the person indexed as a set of desirable traits rather than loved uniquely as an open-ended and mysterious good, loved with rumples and flaws without care for the cost. And all that happens when the good as continuous gift from a mysterious infinite drops out in favor of the spirit of inventory that gives one banks and securities and the celebration of opportune shrewdness. (The proper answer, by the way, is “because she’s Agnes!”) According to Scotus’way of conceiving things, “existence functions more as the precondition for things being what they are than as the source of a thing’s being and becoming” (Faith and Freedom, p. 98). Rather than a dynamic Origin of mysterious gift, existence has become that boring container, you see? “This is why Scotus appears relatively indifferent to the question of the analogy of being, for the issue is little more than an annoying residue if existence is a mere precondition which adds no intelligibility to the individual” (Faith and Freedom, pp. 103-104).
Lots of folks appreciate Van Gogh’s paintings today. A pair of worn worker’s shoes speaks in poignant silence. In his time, few understood the message. In loneliness, Van Gogh plummeted into metaphysical night where diurnal commonplaces are unsettled and equivocities typically kept at bay open onto hidden depths. S. L. Frank explained that while genuine creative work is “accomplished in the depths … precisely this profound inner activity is the common work accomplished by everyone not for himself alone, but for all” (The Meaning of Life, p. 91). There is a great secret in what Frank says. I’ll tell you later on, but most likely you’ll forget. It’s one of those things you can know, but find hard to remember, especially as you are caught up in the struggles and joys of individual life. I know it and forget it a dozen times a day. Here, I want to emphasize the confusion that Van Gogh’s work initially brought to his contemporaries. Gibberish naturally provokes confusion, but Van Gogh was not painting gibberish. Human kind had to learn to see along with Vincent, to see with his eyes. Interpretation is vision that penetrates to meaning, but it only comes to those not in a hurry, those willing to spend time before a useless painting of shoes. So long as the artisan and craftsmanship remained central to ordinary living, patience before natural potencies and limits and appreciation of the well-made thing was part of traditional culture. The machine age, the loss of integrated communities, the preference for cheap, mass-produced goods shifted awareness and sensibilities. Centuries later, the bitter fruit: attention deficit disorders, escapism into virtual realities, ignorance of and disdain for masculine and feminine virtues, humankind reduced to a mass of wills easily manipulated and subject to vicious delusions.
I’d like to suggest a connection between a certain ideal of speed and efficiency becoming near universally embraced so that it no longer seems something one could question and susceptibility to vain imagination. Think of modern science and its concentration on method, replication, being reduced to quantifiable analyses and specialized language incapable of lyrical grace; and all that a function of trying to fix essences into predictable patterns. This is what we mean today by knowledge. (The universe would be a mad house of dreaming transmogrification were there not some truth underlying the praxis, of course. But there is also an important bit of obfuscation going on. The post-Enlightenment narrative pretends to a false objectivity. The carefully neutral rhetoric of science is unwieldy, frequently burdened with ugly nomenclature – how rare the tone of Jean Henri Fabre talking of his beloved insects – nothing neutral or subtly devious there, rather prose is elevated to the level of humane letters because drawn by beauty into love of the subject; but ordinarily the scrum of mixed human motives, the embedded nature of the scientific project within an historically situated story outside scientific justification or verification, that is ignored and probably not even recognized by most participants.) The trouble, as Luigi Guissani suggested, is that precisely the most interesting aspects of reality are not demonstrable, i.e., not subject to method and replication, not commanded to appear as identical items of maximum utility before a transcendental audience of abstract humanity that doesn’t exist in any event; nor does one encounter essences “ahistorically” apart from existential confusions and alarming equivocities, these swept under the rug and dismissed as “qualia” without epistemic value. And the seeds for all that, or at least, one of the significant philosophical judgments that made it likely to happen derives from Scotus because his epistemology could only go in one direction once existence was conceptually narrowed to the scope of an uninteresting given. As Burrell notes, “Where the proper object of human understanding is essences taken ‘absolutely,’ and existence is quite extrinsic even to individuality, then one is free to insist upon univocity for one need not struggle to convey by one’s language a sensitive and accurate rendering of the (actual) world …” (p. 104). Burrell admits that school Thomism espousing a pre-critical “conceptual realism” endorsed a notion of abstraction that elides the stark difference between Aquinas and Scotus’ essentialism. He asserts that Bernard Lonergan’s careful study of the thought of St. Thomas offers a more accurate understanding. Lonergan proposes “insight into image” as a more illuminating expression of Aquinas’ central phrase, conversion ad phantasmata (p. 182). Concept formation by abstraction is drawn closer to the domain of the vates and away from the historical vector that led to the myopic expertise of the scientist technocrat.
Something interesting emerges: the move towards univocity is accompanied by a construal of freedom as the libertarian choice between “indifferent” options. Indifference comes from culpable obtuseness. The qualia were granted cognitive value in a metaphysics open to the analogy of being because each unique being as unique, never simply “an instance of kind,” whispers mysteriously of the incomprehensible Origin. Being is always incipiently symbolic of the giver of the gift. This active dynamism is obscured by the reduction to quantity that René Guénon identified as the hallmark of the modern era. Univocity may not be quite simply this, but it is certainly amenable to proclivities that enclose qualia in categories of subjective ephemera. It is at one with the rationalist intellectual as Pavel Florensky paints him in The Pillar and Ground of the Truth: “He hates the whole world in its concrete life and would like to destroy it, in order to replace it with the concepts of his rational mind … he has an aversion to all that is “natural,” for the natural is alive and therefore concrete and cannot be stuffed into a concept” (p. 215). It would be a mistake, however, to conclude that univocity produces a world lacking imagination. While St. Thomas’ vatic realism sustains an imaginary porous to eschatological depths, the path that leads to modalism and a plethora of possible worlds grows out of a refusal of the distance marked by the analogy of being. The imagination aggrandizes itself after the manner of the will shorn of its orientation to the Good via the intellect. It becomes a vain titanism, a gnosis built on lies and despair.