Preview (first part) of a paper to be delivered at the Christopher Dawson Society Colloquium on the 29th July in Hobart, Tasmania.
The notion that creation reflects the order of God in different ways is a recurring theme in Christian thought. Augustine, Gregory of Nyssa, Bonaventure and Aquinas, for example, all subscribe to some version of the classical worldview. According to that view, the universe reflects the mind of God insofar as it is a cosmos—a harmoniously ordered whole. The literary origin of the classical worldview in the Greek world is Plato’s Timaeus. In that narrative, the demiurge or divine artist works upon already existing matter, fashioning it in accordance with the eternal forms. Aristotle’s cosmology has a different emphasis. The origin of all motion and activity in the universe is the supreme perfection of the unmoved mover. The god, being most perfect, is engaged in the most perfect activity—divine theoria or contemplation. But nothing is fit to be thought by the god except the god himself. Therefore, reasons Aristotle, the unmoved mover is pure thought thinking itself. The divine mind is pure actuality, and for this reason everything in the universe is centred on it. All motion whatsoever is caused by the attractiveness of the divine perfection, the “lure” of pure thought thinking itself. Everything revolves around this supreme Good in a harmonious system of concentric spheres. As for the Stoics, they emphasise the immanence of the divine mind, and the organic unity of the cosmos. The Logos or divine wisdom is intimately at work in all things, gathering everything into an ordered whole or cosmos, just as the soul’s intimate presence throughout the material parts unites the body.
The influence of these powerful ideas—the cosmologies of Plato, Aristotle, and the Stoics—is evident in patristic and medieval Christian thought. To be sure, these philosophies were adjusted and corrected in significant ways. Augustine was familiar with Neoplatonic philosophy and esteemed it highly, and so Plato was a significant influence on him. However, Augustine knew the Bible and Church tradition too well not to correct the Platonic narrative of creation on two important points. The ideal forms do not exist independently of God. Nor does matter pre-exist. God alone is eternal. God creates out of nothing; he does not work upon pre-existing material. The ideal forms do not subsist in themselves, they are simply God’s ideas of things, interior blueprints of the creatures he is able to create.
It fell largely on Aquinas to appropriate Aristotle’s cosmology for the benefit of Christian theology. The Unmoved Mover is not simply the final cause (the cosmic attractor, the universal object of love) though he is certainly that. For God is also the universal efficient cause. God actively produces things. He sustains them in their very being. He energetically moves things into their operations. God is not merely a contemplated object of love. He is the supreme Good, but he is also the supreme Lover. He is actively involved in his creation, and all of his actions are motivated by his abundant love for creation. This is far from the self-absorbed, indifferent God of Aristotle. Moreover, where Aristotle’s Unmoved Mover is ruled by necessity, Aquinas’s Unmoved Mover is free, which means that the being of each creature is a radically contingent gift from God. Still, Aristotle’s legacy is undeniably present in the cosmology of Aquinas.
Aquinas is also a Platonist of sorts. By the high Middle ages, the Platonic notion that all things participate in the supreme Good had already been baptised and incorporated into Christian thought by figures such as Augustine, Boethius and Pseudo-Dionysius. Aquinas did his best to harmonise this Platonically inflected theology with important insights deriving from Aristotle. Hence Aquinas’s insistence that each creature exists as an individual substance with a specific nature. I will return to the Platonic side of Aquinas’s thought later.
The influence of Stoicism on Christian thought is given less attention in university education and scholarship. But the influence is certainly there. Preaching to heathens, Paul quotes approvingly from a Stoic poem: “In him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). The second Century apologist Justin Martyr made Christianity intelligible to the Greeks by appropriating their concept of the Logos. Justin agrees that there is a Logos, a universal principle of being which mediates between the invisible God above and the physical world above. He proclaims that the Logos is the Son of God, now incarnate in Jesus Christ. In the Middle Ages, Aquinas takes up the Stoic notion that everything in the universe is regulated and organised by a divine law called the Logos. The happiness of man consists in his conformity with divine law. The natural law is just the divine law insofar as it is accessible to human reason. It imposes certain principles of order in ethics and in politics. Man is destined to reflect the Logos, to embody the Wisdom of God, by using his reason rightly in the different areas of life. For Aquinas, however, God exists in himself, independently of creation. Neither God nor the Logos is the great “soul” of the world, as the Stoics believed. The Logos subsists from all eternity as the second person of the Trinity. The Word became flesh, but he did not need to in order to be fully God.
© Brendan Triffett 2018-2019
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All rights reserved.