On the Good as a Cause

Having recently prototyped a modest textual commentary of my own on Aristotle’s Metaphysics, I feel in a somewhat better position to begin examining the more detailed arguments of Gwenaëlle Aubry on what exactly the Metaphysics aims to do. Her very important 2006 work Dieu sans la puissance: dunamis et energeia chez Aristote et chez Plotin highlights Aristotle’s own neglected statements on what his most distinctive contributions in first philosophy were, and argues that they make Aristotle very relevant today.

This leads to a very distinctive reading of the intent of the Metaphysics, which differs greatly from both the “ontological” view of Avicenna and the Latin scholastic mainstream, and the “forgetting of Being”, “metaphysics of presence” view promoted by Heidegger in the 20th century. Here I’ll just provide a top-level introduction.

Aubry sees the Metaphysics primarily as a very innovative work of philosophical theology, centered on what I would call a kind of teleological meta-ethics.

Aristotle’s first cause is the highest good, which works by attraction and motivation, not by creating, or by directly intervening in events. (This makes what Kant calls internal teleology Aristotle’s most fundamental explanatory principle, as is also made especially clear in Aristotle’s biological works, but also even in the Physics.)

Aristotle’s first philosophy treats the world as most fundamentally governed by the values that are at work in it. The logistical working out of means and ends is also essential to how things play out in the world, but Aristotle insists that orienting values come first in the order of explanation. The highest good is a kind of ultimate moral compass for those values. (And from a Kantian standpoint, the resolution of empirical questions of fact depends on the resolution of normative, ultimately ethical or meta-ethical questions of interpretation.)

Properly Human, More Than Human?

The conclusion of Aubry’s essay has a very different character from what preceded it. It rejoins her development elsewhere of a purely Aristotelian theology, and provides an interesting complement or contrast to the medieval debates about the spiritual significance of Aristotelian “intellect” that I have reviewed recently. As usual, in reading this it is best to forget what we think we know about what “intellect” is. It also seems to me there are a few resonances here with Harris’ reading of Hegel’s views on religion.

“Aristotelian ethics poses the possibility, for every human, of acceding to the divine in oneself. Far from being the prerogative of luck and of the blessings of the gods, this possibility is inscribed in the essence of every rational being: it demands to be developed and modified by virtuous work, the exercise of reason and of freedom. Thus, the access to this immanent transcendence, instead of being a natural gift or the effect of a divine inspiration, requires the mediation of the specifically human faculties: it is in being fully human that one can, for Aristotle, accede to the divine in oneself” (Aubry in Dherbey and Aubry, eds., L’excellence de la vie, p. 91, my translation).

I very much like the formulation “it is in being fully human”. This is an ethical criterion. Being human for Aristotle has little to do with biological species — any rational animal would be human. I have noted that being a rational animal is only having a certain potential. To be fully human is to actualize that potential.

Aubry notes that Aristotle “rejects the ethics of privilege and election as well as that of the natural good and of talent: he does not believe in conversion, in a first choice to which one can only, throughout one’s life, remain faithful” (ibid).

Aristotelian potentiality in its ethical dimension, Aubry says, is a conceptual translation of the figure of the Platonic daimon. This suggestion is new to me. She particularly refers to the myth of Er in Plato’s Republic, in which the human is said to choose her daimon rather than being chosen by it. In the same way, she says that for Aristotle the human chooses her potentiality instead of being determined by it.

She credits her colleague Dherbey at the end, and I think Dherbey’s remark that for Aristotle choice is more a matter of character than of punctual decision is highly relevant here. Putting the two together suggests a kind of reciprocal determination between character and this sort of nonpunctual choice. Paul Ricoeur has richly developed this kind of reciprocal relation, with explicit reference to Aristotle’s notion of character.

Next she moves to Aristotle’s brief explicit discussion of a kind of immortality, which does not seem to me to be an immortality of the soul. Aristotle linked immortality to what he calls intellect (nous) but left many details open, which later led to extensive debates between Thomists, Averroists, and Alexandrists like Pietro Pomponazzi (1462-1525).

“One could even say that Aristotle radicalizes the Platonic project: for the Platonic injunction to ‘immortalize oneself insofar as it is possible’ becomes, in Aristotle, an invitation to ‘immortalize oneself according to potentiality’. The divine is not in the human as a simple possibility, but indeed as a real potential. The human contains by nature her beyond-nature: she bears within herself an immanent principle of [self-] exceeding” (p. 92, emphasis in original).

This would seem to be a reference to the potential intellect, much discussed by Alexander of Aphrodisias, Averroes, Aquinas, and others. Despite their differences, these writers all basically agreed that potential intellect is fundamental to what distinguishes rational animals. For all of them, to be a fully realized rational animal is to have a certain relation to “intellect”, which transcends the biological organism.

Aubry continues, “One has seen in effect that the definitional dunamis [potentiality] that the ethical effort aims to realize is reason…. To the definitional dunamis of the human corresponds a double ergon [work] — for, if the first is properly human, the other is a bit more than human” (ibid). She had introduced the idea of “definitional potentiality” earlier in the essay. I think this just means the potentiality inherent to any rational animal. As noted above, the commentary tradition links this specifically to potential intellect.

Next she quotes from Nicomachean Ethics book 10 chapter 7. I will substitute a slightly longer version of the quote from Joe Sachs’ translation:

“But such a life would be greater than what accords with a human being, for it is not insofar as one is a human being that he will live in this way, but insofar as something divine is present in him, and to the extent that this surpasses the compound being, to that extent also the being-at-work of it surpasses that which results from the rest of virtue. So if the intellect is something divine as compared with a human being, the life that is in accord with the intellect is divine as compared with a human life. But one should not follow those who advise us to think human thoughts, since we are human, and mortal thoughts, since we are mortal, but as far as possible one ought to be immortal and to do all things with a view toward living in accord with the most powerful [Aubry has “noble”, and I don’t have my Greek text handy] thing in oneself, for even if it is small in bulk, it rises much more above everything else in power and worth. And each person would seem to be this part, if it is the governing and better part; it would be strange, then, if anyone were to choose not his own life but that of something else. What was said before will be fitting now too: what is appropriate by nature to each being is best and most pleasant for each, and so, for a human being, this is the life in accord with the intellect, if that most of all is a human being. Therefore this life is also the happiest” (Sachs trans., p. 193).

Aristotle compresses a tremendous amount into a few lines here. Many have found him too minimalist on these topics. I take his minimalism as reflecting an admirable intellectual modesty, carefully avoiding claims that are beyond human knowledge.

Traditional scholastic readings expanding on this aspect of Aristotle narrowly emphasize elaborating his very schematic, sketch-like remarks about intellect. I think the work of Paul Ricoeur (and of Hegel, particularly as read by Brandom, Pippin, and Harris) provides rich, multidimensional alternative expansions of Aristotle’s minimalist formulations on the ultimate ends of human life that are genuinely Aristotelian in spirit.

Aubry continues, “To be human in act, therefore, can signify being human among humans, or being a bit divine. One is certainly far, here, from the tragic wisdom, from an ethic of resignation and of limit. The Aristotelian ethic includes rather an irreducible dimension of [what from the tragic point of view would be] hubris [pride]. Divine knowledge is not posed as a simple ‘ideal’, nor divinization as a ‘regulative, not constitutive, principle’: on the contrary, and we underline it, the divine element that nous [intellect] is in the human, this immanent transcendent, is indeed a constitutive potentiality, a faculty to be actualized, and not a simple possibility. This actualization is nonetheless mediated: it is by the intermediary of humanity that the human rejoins the divine in herself, in exercising her reason, her virtue, her freedom. If the Aristotelian ethic is an ethic of surpassing, it passes nonetheless through full humanity: the daimon of Aristotelian eudaimonism [pursuit of happiness] is not enthusiasm, delirium, possession, or an irrational guide, arbitrary and infallible…. [I]t is possible, at the end of becoming virtuous, to be perfect and happy, even though this accomplishment, hindered by matter, broken by fatigue, is only ephemeral.”

“To the God of pure act of the Metaphysics, that God without power who has no other force than the desire he arouses, thus corresponds, in the Ethics, the divine posed in human potentiality” (p. 93).

Later religious traditions have often regarded talk about divinization of the human as objectionable. The great Persian Sufi Mansur al-Hallaj (858-922 CE) was stoned to death for saying “I am the Real”. Teachings of the great Christian theologian-philosopher-mystic Meister Eckhart (1260-1328) were condemned in the West.

Aristotle, however, has a very positive concept of a kind of pride that he calls “greatness of soul” (see Magnanimity), which he actually makes into a key virtue. He sees it as as promoting other virtues, and as prompting people to help others and be forgiving. Alain de Libera and Kurt Flasch have emphasized that the affirmative view of human life in Aristotelian ethics found a significant audience even in the middle ages.

All this provides an interesting contrast to both sides of the debate about humanism in 1960s France.

Virtue Not a Potential

I picked up L’excellence de la vie especially for the early essay of Gwenaëlle Aubry, “Actuality and Potentiality in Aristotelian Ethics” (my translation). Here she makes a number of important distinctions. Contrary to some modern interpretations, Aristotle’s natural teleology and values-first approach to ultimate philosophical questions do not lead to what 20th century philosophers called ethical naturalism, or to any kind of nature-based elitism. I’ve been assuming this all along, but it is good to spell out the argument.

Virtue can sound like the optimal realization of a healthy nature, but for Aristotle it is actually a kind of habit, so it cannot be straightforwardly natural. In Nicomachean Ethics book 2 chapter 1, Aristotle points out that we can throw a stone up in the air a thousand times, but this doesn’t change its natural tendency to fall back to the ground. One may be born with a penchant for courage, justice, or temperance, but for these qualities to become true virtues requires the engagement of reason and what Aubry calls the “transcendental” intellectual virtue of practical judgment (phronesis). Virtue is not an unevenly distributed innate talent, but a result of extensive practice that is available to all. It requires effort and “seriousness”.

If biological nature itself is shaped by implicit ends, what distinguishes human ethical development? “[T]he position of Aristotle is clear: virtue is not natural, but neither is it contrary to nature” (Aubry, p. 78, emphasis in original). Here we are in the territory of what the commentary tradition called “second nature”. Virtue for Aristotle is an acquired disposition. This rules out the notion that it is just the unfolding of something innate. Aubry says that ethical practice is a mediation between nature and something beyond nature. Before the fact, Aristotle evicts both naturalism and supernaturalism, in the way that these are commonly understood.

According to Aubry, in the ethical domain Aristotle’s standard notion of potentiality is subject to a triple modification. First, the goal of virtue is not to “be all you can be”. It is selective. Only the “definitional” potentiality of the human — to be what makes us properly human — is involved in virtue. Second, one only becomes fully human under the condition of actively choosing what one is essentially. “If everyone tends naturally toward the good, no one is naturally virtuous” (p. 79). Third, virtue can only be actualized in the context of a free exercise of reason.

“Virtue, albeit a necessary condition for the actualization of the definitional potentiality of the human, is not itself a potentiality” (p. 81). She quotes Aristotle in book 2 chapter 1 of the Nicomachean Ethics, “It is neither by nature nor against nature that the virtues are born in us, but nature has given us the capacity to receive them, and this capacity is brought to maturity by habit [hexis]” (p. 82). And again from the same, “All that we have naturally, we receive first in a state of potentiality, and it is later that we manifest it in act, as is clear in the case of the sensory faculties…. For the virtues on the contrary, their possession presupposes a previous exercise, as is the case for the other arts” (p. 83).

Aubry notes that this might seem like a vicious circle: it is necessary to act well to become capable of acting well. And in avoiding naturalism, have we replaced it with the opposite excess of a pure imposition? But this is artificial, and resembles the false paradoxes of learning. To be a good musician, one must play an instrument well, and one learns this through repeated practice. To become virtuous, one “practices” doing the right thing in the right way.

Aquinas and Scotus on Power

Gwenaëlle Aubry’s Genèse du dieu souverain (Genesis of the Sovereign God) concludes with chapters on Aquinas and Scotus. She finds that Aquinas systematically substitutes power and action for Aristotle’s less familiar and more subtle ends-oriented concepts of potentiality and act. Aquinas then distinguishes between active power and receptive or passive power, neither of which has much to do with Aristotelian potentiality.

For Aristotle, Aubry says, potentiality is an indwelling tendency of a being to be attracted toward an end. Pure act is the realization of an end (and, I would add, not itself a movement but an unmoved mover that is an attractor). For Aquinas, the receptive power of beings is the power to receive being from God. Pure act is equated with God’s creation from nothing. Aquinas strongly associates being with power; the power of God, pure Being, pure Existence, is for him an active and efficient cause, not an unmoved attractor. On my reading of Aristotle, it is only the less-than-pure acts of moved movers that are active and efficient causes; the “first” cause is an end that attracts beings.

Duns Scotus, according to Aubry, seems to have originated the modern notion of purely logical possibility. For Scotus, anything at all that is noncontradictory is possible, whereas Aristotle considered possibility more pragmatically, in relation to real-world conditions.

Scotus held that the order of the world is radically contingent, able to be reshaped by God’s will. According to Aubry, he explicitly speaks of God’s arbitrary choice, and attributes a power of arbitrary choice to the human will as well. For Aristotle, the source of contingency in the world is the potentialities of things. For Scotus, it is the absolute power of God.

Whereas Bonaventure, Aquinas, and the 14th century pope John XXII treated the “absolute” power of God as only logically distinct from the “ordained” power associated with the order of the world as we know it, and as not actually separately exercised, Scotus insisted that the absolute power of God is actually exercised. He identified the absolute power of God with a kind of pure fact, and insisted that God from eternity could choose to change the order of the world. (I’m inclined to think Abelard was right, and choice is incompatible with eternity.)

God’s choice for Scotus has no reason beyond itself. Scotus explicitly rejects the passage from Plato quoted by Abelard that everything that is has a cause or reason. Aubry says that for Scotus, the good is only good because God wills it so. This is the exact opposite of the argument of Plato, Abelard, and Leibniz that goodness comes first.

Scotus strongly emphasizes the infinity of God in contrast to the finitude of creatures; infinity for Scotus is God’s most important attribute. Moreover, God’s infinite power acts immediately in the world. This reminds me of the extreme positions on omnipotence articulated by Philo and al-Ghazali. According to Aubry, Scotus also says that a worldly prince enjoys a similar absolute power.

In passing, Aubry notes that Descartes — also a voluntarist — held that God creates eternal truths. This seems to be a somewhat Scotist position. (See also Aubry on Aristotle; Leibniz on Justice vs Power; Power of the One?; Disambiguating “Power”; Not Power and Action; Nature and Justice in Augustine; Peter Abelard; 1277; Being and Essence; Being and Representation.)


I’m still slowly working my way through Gwenaëlle Aubry’s Genèse du dieu souverain. She notes that Peter Abelard’s student Peter Lombard (1096-1160) — whose Sentences became the standard textbook of Christian theology throughout the later European middle ages — rejected the novel teachings of Abelard, and defended basically Augustinian views on omnipotence. A more radical notion of omnipotence was advanced by Hugh of Saint-Cher (c. 1200-1263), who first introduced the distinction between God’s potentia absoluta or “absolute” power, and what he called potentia conditionata or “conditioned” power, which later authors referred to as potentia ordinata. Although Bonaventure, Albert the Great, and Thomas Aquinas among others rejected Hugh’s distinction, it would later be adopted by Duns Scotus and many others.

Aubry argues that Bishop of Paris Etienne Tempier’s condemnation of 219 propositions in 1277 actually reflected a less extreme, more traditionally Augustinian, stance on omnipotence than the “absolute power” of Hugh of Saint-Cher. I’ve briefly commented on the 1277 condemnation before.

The accepted mid-20th century view was that the condemnation was prompted by the emergence of a trend of “Latin Averroism”, of which Siger of Brabant and Boethius of Dacia were supposed to have been the leading representatives. The translations of Averroes’ commentaries on Aristotle from the Arabic were largely responsible for the rise of Latin Aristotelianisms, but closer scholarship has shown that even the most “Averroist” Latin thinkers considered themselves simply as Aristotelian, and diverged from the more particular views of Averroes on important details. A revised view of the condemnation was that it simply addressed “radical Aristotelianism” — a wholehearted embrace of Aristotle and various Arabic philosophers that was deemed to be in conflict with Christianity.

Alain de Libera has emphasized, however, that what the condemnation addressed was not merely doctrinal or academic matters, but the first social emergence of “intellectuals” in Europe, along with the idea of an ethical Aristotelianism as a way of life. While some authors have seen this as an essentially secular development and as a direct challenge to Christianity, de Libera, Kurt Flasch, and Burkhard Mojsisch have made the picture much more complicated by documenting on the one hand how this development was continued by the German students of Albert the Great, and on the other that the trend of Rhenish mysticism that included the great Meister Eckhart developed out of German Albertism.

The condemned propositions themselves are quite diverse — from praise of philosophy, reason, and this-worldly ethics to general questioning of authority; to assertion of various limits on God’s power; to Aristotelian emphasis on the importance of “secondary” causes; to theses on the characteristics of neoplatonic separate intellects; to expressions of astrological determinism; to rejection of specific points of accepted Christian doctrine. It is unlikely that any single person adhered to them all; certainly the German Albertist Dominicans whom de Libera, Flasch, and Mojsisch have associated with the broader trend addressed by the condemnation would have not have endorsed the rejection of points of common doctrine.

Those who have seen a theological-political confrontation between Augustinianism and Aristotelianism in the condemnation are not wrong, but it is more complicated than that. The Albertists did not see themselves as opposed to Augustine.

Scholars have debated whether any of the condemned propositions were intended to target Thomas Aquinas. Shortly after the condemnation, Bishop Tempier in fact attempted a move against the teaching of the not-yet-canonized Aquinas, which was thwarted in part by the efforts of Albert the Great, who traveled back to Paris to defend the reputation of his recently deceased student. In between, Tempier succeeded in getting the theologian Giles of Rome reprimanded, although Giles was allowed to resume teaching shortly thereafter and did not much change his arguments. Giles was himself the author of a treatise on the “errors of the philosophers”, but this did not prevent him from making use of philosophical arguments in his theology. Theology during this time generally became far more involved with philosophical questions than it had been.

Albert the Great, who along with Roger Bacon was the first European to lecture on the main body of Aristotle’s works after they were translated from the Arabic, developed a style in which he would alternately say “now I speak as a philosopher” and then “now I speak as a theologian”. This was in contrast to Aquinas, who preferred to emphasize the unity of truth. Around the time of Tempier’s condemnation, unnamed “Averroists” were accused of holding that Christianity and “philosophy” contradicted one another but were somehow both true. Scholars have generally concluded that no one literally held such a view, but it strikes me that it might have originated as a hostile caricature of Albert.

Subjectivity in Plotinus

Plotin: Traité 53 (2004) is Gwenaëlle Aubry’s contribution to the French series Les écrits de Plotin. It is a translation of and commentary on the treatise Porphyry placed at the very beginning of the Enneads when he edited his teacher’s works. In this essay Plotinus broaches the question who “We” are.

Aubry translates the title of Plotinus’ essay as “What Is the Animal? What Is the Man?”. (The classic English translation by Stephen MacKenna called it “The Animate and the Man”.) But she says “The real question of treatise 53 is not that of man, but rather of the subject…. [T]here appears something like a subject in the modern sense of the term, that is to say a reflexive consciousness, capable of asking itself about its operations and its identity” (p. 17, my translation throughout).

Plotinus develops his unique view of soul (psyche) as in effect a sort of unmoved mover. “We”, it will turn out, are for him neither the pure soul nor a union of soul and body. Aubry says here that for Plotinus the subject is not a substance and has no identity. It is rather a “pure power of identification” (p. 18).

It was precisely the classical identification of subject with substance that led Augustine — who was deeply impressed by Plotinus — to insist that the mind is not a “subject”.

“Finally, the theme of the immaculacy of the separated soul is another way of underlining the responsibility of the “We”: it is on us, ultimately, that the ethical decision depends, understood as a choice of identification with that which exceeds us or with that which hinders us, with what founds us or with what weakens us — with the divine or with the animal in us” (p. 18).

“The itinerary of treatise 53 is nothing other, finally, than the passage from the me to the self. What the treatise proposes to its readers, what it proposes to ‘us’, is not to discover our identity — for identity we do not have. It is not to define our essence — for the essence is not ‘us’, but the self — it is to identify ourselves with another object than that with which we spontaneously confuse ourselves” (ibid).

For Plotinus, a mere conversion to interiority is not sufficient to disclose the self, Aubry says. That just gives us a sensible, empirical “me”, a subject of passions. “The whole effort of the treatise… is to redirect consciousness away from that immediate and fascinating object, to orient it toward the impassible and separated soul in which essential identity resides. Thus, the work of definition imposed by the Delphic precept [know thyself] is inseparable from an ethical work: the self cannot be determined except at the price of a renunciation of its first object of identification” (p. 20, brackets added).

She quotes Plotinus asking, “that which investigates, which examines and poses these questions, what could it be?” (p. 23).

“At this point, the treatise takes up a new orientation, engages itself on a radically unexplored path: for the subject in the classical sense of the term — substance, the subject of attribution — is substituted in effect, by the detour of a phrase, a modern subject, possessed of consciousness and reflexivity. The Plotinian project here distinguishes itself radically as much from that of the De Anima [of Aristotle] as from that of the First Alcibiades [of Plato]. It is no longer only to examine the various faculties to distinguish among them which are common to the soul and the body, and which are proper to the soul alone. It is no longer only to decide whether man is the soul, the body, or the mixture of soul and body. It’s about, writes Plotinus, asking oneself about the very thing that does the investigation: the philosophizing subject takes itself as the object of investigation. The conversion is no longer only to interiority, but to consciousness: and that consciousness takes the form of an immediate reflexivity” (ibid, brackets added).

Plotinus seems to have been the first to claim this sort of immediate reflexivity of consciousness. As Aubry goes on to note, for both Plato and Aristotle, reflexivity only comes through the mediation of another. “The other is not only another self, but it is through the other, insofar as the other is at the same time like me and other than me, that I have access to myself…. The access to interiority requires a detour, either by way of exteriority, or by otherness” (p. 25).

Hegel and Paul Ricoeur, I would note, have each in their own way again taken up Plato and Aristotle’s emphasis on mediation and the need for a detour. But even though Plotinus claims an immediate reflexivity, he does not claim that it is or has an identity.

For Plotinus, according to Aubry, “the we is neither the incarnate, empirical me, nor the separated essential self; it is the passage from the one to the other” (p. 27). In the related essay “A Me Without Identity? The Plotinian We” in Le moi et l’interiorite (2008), she writes, “Returning into itself, thus, [the ‘We’] does not know itself as a unity, nor in its identity with itself, but as a mixture of two terms, where neither is, properly speaking, ‘itself'” (p. 108).

Not Power and Action

My copy of Gwenaëlle Aubry’s Genèse du dieu souverain arrived today, and I’ve started to look at the front matter. She begins by explaining why Aristotelian potentiality and actuality are not reducible to concepts of power and action. In the Metaphysics, the most sophisticated sense of being and substance is associated with the pair en dunamei and energeia. Whereas the grammatical nominative form dunamis could connote an active power, she says the dative form en dunamei was used by Aristotle precisely to distinguish from this. The other essential distinguishing feature of Aristotle’s approach was to make the en dunamei dependent on an energeia (act, actuality, or at-work-ness), a term of Aristotle’s own invention. In French, Aubry translates en dunamei for potentiality as en-puissance, as distinct from the puissance that means power.

“[Potentiality] names, for a given being, the principle of a movement oriented by the act that is also its end and its proper good” (p. 10, my translation throughout). Actuality and potentiality, she says, thus provide an alternative model to that of efficient causality based on the relation between an active and a passive power.

“In the same way that potentiality is not power (active or passive), act is not action. Act does not act [L’act n’agit pas]. On the contrary, it names that for which we act or move: the telos or end, which is also the good” (ibid). Nor should the relation between potentiality and actuality be reduced to that between matter and form. She notes that Aristotle never referred to god as “pure form”.

She observes that book Lambda of the Metaphysics (1071a 4-5) singles out potentiality and actuality as applicable by analogy to all substances of all kinds. (Scholars debate whether “by analogy” adequately translates Aristotle’s pros hen or “toward one”, but that is a side issue.) “This assures at the same time the generality of the ontological discourse and the real primacy of the theological principle” (ibid). (I prefer to avoid the term “ontology”, but that is another side issue.)

“Determining [god] as pure act, [Aristotle’s view based on potentiality and actuality] poses [god] as at the same time identical with the good” (p. 11). She reads Aristotle’s statement of the project of the Metaphysics in book Alpha as “posing the good as a principle and identifying the causality proper to it” (p. 12). The Latin medieval tradition mostly followed Avicenna in treating the Metaphysics as what Duns Scotus called ontology, but the great commentator Averroes characterized the Metaphysics as a philosophical theology, and Aubry also calls it an axiology, or study of goodness and value.

Disambiguating “Power”

As Aristotle might remind us, “power” is said in many ways. Each of these is different.

There is the power that Plato suggests as a distinguishing mark of being in the Sophist. There is the greater power he attributes to the Good more ancient than being. There is Aristotelian potentiality, which I normally prefer to distinguish from “power” altogether, but is referred to by the same Greek word. There is the related notion of power as capacity, of the sort developed by Paul Ricoeur. There is efficient causality, itself said in many ways. There is physical force. There is legal or political authority. There are repressive apparatuses. There is the positive, distributed social power involved in the formation of selves, discussed by Michel Foucault. There is the artistic and inventive power with which Nietzsche was especially concerned. There are claims of supernatural power beyond possible human understanding.

I haven’t yet found where in her French text Gwenaëlle Aubry clarifies how her identification of Aristotle’s god with pure act — involving neither Aristotelian potentiality nor Platonic power — goes together with her identification of the efficacy of the pure act with a final causality realized through “potentiality as tendency toward the end”. I think this has to do with the pure act’s role as an end or attractor, so that the potentiality in question belongs to the things it attracts, rather than to Aristotle’s god. Aristotle’s god for Aubry is what might be called an “inspiring” or attracting cause rather than a ruler and a driving cause.

It seems to me that in order to even be intelligible, a power of any kind must be understood as having definite characteristics related to its efficacy. I therefore think “infinite power” is devoid of sense. Even the “omnipotent” God of Leibniz who selects the best of all possible worlds at the moment of creation only selects an inherent, coherently realizable possibility that is also in accordance with non-arbitrary criteria of goodness. He does not create arbitrarily.

Power of the One?

Gwenaëlle Aubry calls Aristotle’s god of pure act is “a god without power, but nonetheless not a weak god” (Dieu san la puissance, p. 9, my translation). Pure act has an efficacy in the world that is not that of efficient causality, but rather that of the final causality that is the efficacy of the Aristotelian Good. She intriguingly connects this efficacy with the potentiality in things that is Aristotle’s very different meaning for the same word as “power”.

She builds a contrasting account of how for Plotinus the One — identified with the Platonic Good — is the “power of all”, that is to say the power behind all that is. To be “the power behind all that is” is not to be omnipotent in the sense of Philo and later theologians, but it is still very different from being pure act. Here the first principle of all things is a power, whereas the first principle for Aristotle according to Aubry is a pure end that is not involved with power at all, but is rather an attractor for potentialities. Plotinus wants the end of all things to be a power at the origin of all things.

“Power of” is very different from “power over”, and in Plato and Plotinus it is the Good that is the ultimate power. But according to Aubry, treating the first principle as a power at all set the stage for views that put power first in the order of explanation, ahead of the good.

In Genèse du dieu souverain she says that Augustine explicitly put divine omnipotence before divine goodness in his account of God. We have moved from “the Good is the power of all” to “the Almighty is good”.

Although Leibniz claims most theologians agree with him that God wills things because they are good, and that things are not just good because God wills them so, Aubry claims that affirming omnipotence means putting power first in the order of explanation.

Regardless of even saintly intentions, putting power first in the order of explanation is an inauspicious move for ethics.

Aubry on Aristotle

Gwenaëlle Aubry’s brilliant Dieu sans la puissance (2006) recovers a distinctly Aristotelian theology. Aristotelian potentiality is to be distinguished from Platonic power, even though Aristotle used the same Greek word (dunamis) for it. For Aristotle, god is moreover pure energeia or act (what I have translated as “at-workness”) with no admixture of potentiality.

Aubry says, “As such, [Aristotle’s god] is distinguished from the Platonic Idea of the Good, exceeding being in power, as much as from the Christian God in whom power and being merge to exceed the Good. Because he is act, the god of Aristotle is not the essential Good (the Idea of the Good), but the essentially good substance. And because he is without power, he does not act as an efficient cause. But he is not, however, powerless: his efficacy is non-efficient. If he acts, it is as end…. Aristotle thus thinks the causality proper to the good as being not power, but potentiality as tendency toward the end” (p. 201, my translation, emphasis added).

(Side note — this seems to assume that an efficient cause does involve the kind of power at issue here, but I question that common assumption as well. I like the argument based on Aristotle’s Physics that it is the art of building — not the carpenter or the hammer or the hammer blow — that is most properly the efficient cause of the building of a house. Only in an indirect sense that is not Aubry’s here can the art of building be called a power. But this does not detract from her argument.)

In a 2015 lecture “Genesis of the Violent God” at Cornell, anticipating her second volume Genèse du dieu souverain (2018), she develops in fine historical detail various theological positions on omnipotence that eclipsed Aristotle’s view, explicitly subordinating goodness to absolute power. She traces the way divine omnipotence has served as an explicit model for political doctrines of sovereignty, from the absolute monarchist Jean Bodin through Hobbes to the Nazi legal theorist Carl Schmitt. Noting that various writers who have grappled with the moral significance of Auschwitz ended up suggesting a “weak” God, she instead urges us to take more seriously Aristotle’s view of a god of pure act.

This work is a development out of her 1998 doctoral thesis. She has worked extensively on Plotinus. She has co-edited volumes of essays on Aristotle’s ethics and on ancient concepts of self, as well as editing a volume on Proclus’ Elements of Theology. Aubry is actually better known as a novelist, and has won several literary awards.