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.

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) with 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, which she intriguingly connects with the potentiality 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.

Leibniz on Justice vs Power

In Meditation on the Common Concept of Justice (ca. 1703), Leibniz made points that deserve to be quoted at length. Editor Patrick Riley notes that “Leibniz’ radical formulation of this question follows Plato’s Euthyphro (9E-10E) almost literally, though Plato was dealing with ‘holiness’ rather than justice” (Leibniz, Political Writings, p. 45).

Leibniz says, “It is agreed that whatever God wills is good and just. But there remains the question whether it is good and just because God wills it or whether God wills it because it is good and just: in other words, whether justice and goodness are arbitrary or whether they belong to the necessary and eternal truths about the nature of things, as do numbers and proportions” (ibid).

For present purposes, what is important is whether justice and goodness depend on an arbitrary will or have criteria of their own, not whether those criteria are necessary and eternal.

To say that justice and goodness depend upon an arbitrary will “would destroy the justice of God. For why praise him because he acts according to justice, if the notion of justice, in his case, adds nothing to that of action? And to say… my will takes the place of reason, is properly the motto of a tyrant” (pp. 45-46; brackets in original).

“This is why certain persons, too devoted to the absolute right of God, who have believed that he could justly condemn innocent people and even that this might actually happen, have done wrong to the attributes that make God lovable, and, having destroyed the love of God, they left only fear [behind]” (p. 46; brackets in original).

“Thus all [Lutheran] theologians and most of those of the Roman Church, and also most of the ancient Church Fathers and the wisest and most esteemed philosophers, have been for the second view, which holds that goodness and justice have their grounds… independent of will and of force.”

“Plato in his dialogues introduces and refutes a certain Thrasymachus, who, wishing to explain what justice is, [says] that is just… which is agreeable or pleasant to the most powerful. If that were true, there would never be a sentence of a sovereign court, nor of a supreme judge, which would be unjust, nor would an evil but powerful man ever be blameworthy. And what is more, the same action could be just or unjust, depending on the judges who decide, which is ridiculous. It is one thing to be just and another to pass for it, and to take the place of justice.”

“A celebrated English philosopher named Hobbes, who is noted for his paradoxes, had wished to uphold almost the same thing as Thrasymachus: for he wants God to have the right to do everything, because he is all-powerful. This is a failure to distinguish between right and fact. For what one can do is one thing, what one should do, another” (pp. 46-47; brackets added).

“[I]f power were the formal reason of justice, all powerful persons would be just, each in proportion to his power; which is contrary to experience.”

“It is thus a question of finding this formal reason, that is to say, the why of this attribute, or this concept which should teach us what justice is” (p. 48). By “formal” Leibniz here means something like “essential”.

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.

Spinoza on Teleology

“All the prejudices I here undertake to expose depend on this one: that men commonly suppose that all natural things act, as men do, on account of an end; indeed, they maintain as certain that God himself directs all things to some certain end” (Spinoza, Collected Works vol. I, Curley trans., p. 439).

“[I]t follows, first, that men think themselves free, because they are conscious of their volitions and their appetite, and do not think, even in their dreams, of the causes by which they are disposed to wanting and willing, because they are ignorant of [those causes]. It follows, secondly, that men always act on account of an end, viz. on account of their advantage, which they want. Hence they seek to know only the final causes of what has been done, and when they have heard them, they are satisfied, because they have no reason to doubt further” (p. 440).

“Hence, they consider all natural things as means to their own advantage. And knowing that they had found these means, not provided them for themselves, they had reason to believe that there was someone else who had prepared those means for their use. For after they considered things as means, they could not believe that the things had made themselves; but from the means that they were accustomed to prepare for themselves, they had to infer that there was a ruler, or a number of rulers of nature, endowed with human freedom, who had taken care of all things for them, and had made all things for their use” (pp. 440-441).

The famous appendix to book 1 of Spinoza’s Ethics, from which the above is excerpted, is a sort of psychological exposé of the superstition-like attitude behind the kind of “external” teleology that sees everything in terms of ends, but treats all ends as resulting from the conscious aims or will of a supernatural being or beings, more or less on the model of what theologians have called “particular providence”.

But though he explicitly refers only to this kind of conscious providence that implies ongoing supernatural intervention in the ordinary workings of the world, he nonetheless in an unqualified way dismisses all explanation in terms of ends. At the same time, the notion of determination or causality that he does acknowledge as genuine is too narrow and rigid (too univocal).

Most of the historic criticisms of Spinoza have been extremely unfair; this includes remarks by Leibniz, Kant, Fichte, and Hegel. Spinoza rightly pointed out that we tend to overrate the role of conscious intentions in human affairs and the workings of the world. But Leibniz rightly pointed out that Spinoza’s exclusive emphasis on unconditional divine power or omnipotence (as contrasted with goodness) — which reduces everything to efficient causes — has undesirable consequences.

Bounty of Nature

Nature as we experience it is more characterized by superabundance and diversity of form than by univocal necessity. Even nonorganic phenomena like the weather involve material tendencies toward a kind of dynamic equilibrium. These tendencies — which are even more pronounced with living things — involve an “ability” to spontaneously recover when disturbed, a kind of resilience and adaptability to new circumstances.

The neoplatonists developed a whole metaphysic of “eternal generation” by a kind of overflow. For them, beyond every intelligible essence was something “supra-essential” that could be characterized only indirectly, through its overflowing superabundance. Essence ended up as a kind of after-image of the eternally overflowing primary superabundance of the Good or the One. Transformed in various ways, this notion greatly influenced historical developments in theology, supporting notions of the generosity, providence, and grace of a more personal God.

In a more modest and down-to-earth way, Aristotle had also dwelt on our experience of superabundance, applying it in his biology and in the more general notion of potentiality. In between, the Stoics developed a contrasting emphasis on a univocal direct divine omnipotence with respect to events. In the tradition, all three of these approaches came to be hybridized in all sorts of ways. While I think the approach of Aristotle himself was the best of all, I have a lot more sympathy with theologies of superabundance of form than with theologies of power-over and dominion. (See also Fragility 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.)

Strong Omnipotence

The Greek-speaking Jewish theologian Philo of Alexandria (1st century BCE to 1st CE) was perhaps the original antiphilosopher. That is to say, he used some philosophical ideas with learning and sophistication, but was unequivocally hostile to the autonomy of reason, which was something of a commonplace among the Greek philosophers.

For Philo, any equivalent of ethical virtue seems to come exclusively from faith in the revelation of the Greek Old Testament, taken as the literal word of God. To me, this sounds like an unfortunate precursor to today’s fundamentalisms, which ignore all sounder theology, and preclude the very possibility of genuine ethics. Where there is no allowance for virtue independent of one-sided authority, it may become all too permissible to hate whomever is called an unbeliever or heretic. Many other theologians have been far less one-sided, allowing for at least a relative autonomy of reason, and a possibility of genuine virtue independent of sheer obedience to presumed dictates of revelation. With them, a moral philosopher can find common ground.

Philo may have originated the suggestion that Platonic ideas exist in the mind of an omnipotent God. An emphatic supernaturalist, he defended creation from nothing, grounded in an ultra-strong version of divine omnipotence. On this view, God has absolute liberty, and thus can do absolutely any absolutely arbitrary thing at any time, as with the later Islamic occasionalists. Philo explicitly contrasted this view with those of all the Greek philosophers and those influenced by them, who at the very least would expect God to act in ways that are genuinely reasonable and good, and thus put reason and goodness before any will. Unlike the God of Aquinas, for instance, the God of Philo is even supposed to be able to do logically impossible things if he so wills. This is extreme theological voluntarism.

Philonic strong omnipotence is precisely the kind of thing Leibniz later said would make of God an arbitrary tyrant, with disastrous ethical and social consequences. Notions of divine will tacitly assumed to be known with certainty by human authority, and not subject to any inquiry go against the whole better tradition of faith seeking understanding, and make it all too easy to mask hate in the name of supposed holiness.

In all three of the major monotheistic traditions, this dangerous kind of voluntarism has been applied by some to God. Some have gone on to attribute similar supernatural free will to humans as well, on the ground that they are made in the image of a God that has that kind of completely unconstrained freedom. This is using bad theology to justify bad anthropology. As anthropology, it is what Hegel called the illusion of Mastery. Some bad philosophers have simply postulated a similar completely unconstrained “negative” freedom or “freedom of indifference” for humans, without even a pretended explanation of how this could be. (See also Freedom and Free Will.)

My main source for statements about Philo here is the actually sympathetic essay by Harry Austryn Wolfson, in his book Religious Philosophy: A Group of Essays (1961). I always thought of Wolfson as a Spinoza scholar, but Wikipedia says he is actually best known for another, larger work on Philo. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy has a nice summary of current Philo scholarship. (See also Fragility of the Good; Theology.)