Nature and Justice in Augustine

“But if the miracle is not thought as violence, if the opposition between violence and nature is suspended, it is because the Augustinian concept of nature considerably weakens the Aristotelian notion of physis. It is because miracle and nature are both referred back to [Augustine’s] concept of seminal reason, and are only distinguished as the inhabitual and the habitual.”

“In effect, just as the miracle can be called an inhabitual order, in the same way, in the final analysis, order is only a miracle to which one is habituated” (Gwenaëlle Aubry, Genèse du dieu souverain, p. 73, my translation). Augustine’s position is rhetorically more moderate and balanced than those of later occasionalists and theological voluntarists; but Aubry’s point is that when pushed, it leads to the same conclusions. She notes that Augustine’s use of “seminal reasons” is quite different from that of the Stoics; in Augustine, they are referred back directly to the creative power of God.

Augustine never calls God’s will arbitrary; on the contrary, he calls it good and just. But once having put the power of God first in the order of explanation — ahead of goodness and justice — he can only save God’s goodness and justice by invoking mystery, which is to renounce the intelligibility of the good.

Occasionalism

The conservative Sunni Islamic theologian and Sufi al-Ghazali (1058 – 1111 CE) wrote a famous denunciation of philosophers in Islam, called The Incoherence of the Philosophers. (In Latin, “incoherence” was rendered as “destruction”.) This was a classic statement of the occasionalist doctrine that everything that happens is directly caused by the will of God, and all other explanations are illusory. This is a kind of consequence of strong theological voluntarism. Spurred by the voluntarism of Descartes, many 17th century Cartesians later adopted occasionalist views. Related voluntarist views were earlier strongly voiced by Philo of Alexandria, and later in the Latin West by Franciscan theologians such as Duns Scotus and William of Occam.

The great Aristotelian commentator Ibn Rushd or Averroes responded to Ghazali on behalf of the philosophers, in a work entitled Incoherence of the Incoherence. An Islamic jurist as well as a philosopher, he argued in another work never translated to Latin that the Koran effectively tells those who are capable of rational understanding to study philosophy. In his response to Ghazali, Averroes pointed out that Ghazali’s argument made inferences from the empirical to the divine. Ghazali had said that everything that happens is deliberated and knowingly chosen by God. This actually Aristotelian terminology of deliberation and choice applies to empirical agents, insofar as they want and lack something. Averroes responded that God lacks nothing, and therefore does not choose or deliberate like a human would.

This small piece of a much larger argument is illustrative of a typical contrast. Broadly Aristotelian and neoplatonic views both emphasized the eternity of the divine as part of its perfection. They also took “secondary” causes very seriously, because they took something like Hegelian mediation seriously. Conversely, if God were directly responsible (causally or morally) for everything that happens, this would abolish all causal or moral responsibility of all other beings, and indeed all distinction whatsoever. (See also Strong Omnipotence.)