Cause of Itself

Spinoza famously begins his Ethics with a definition of “cause of itself” (causa sui). This will become the hallmark of his “Substance”, of which he says there can be only one, and which he identifies with his own heterodox conception of God. Cause of itself would be that the essence of which involves existence.

In Hegel or Spinoza (French ed. 1979), Pierre Macherey writes that “First of all we can show, as Guéroult does, that the concept of causa sui does not really have an initial foundational value for Spinoza: it does not represent a kind of first truth, a principle in the Cartesian sense, from which the entire system can be developed, as if from the starting point of a germ of truth” (p. 16).

“Here we can begin to be astonished: does Hegel ignore that this aporia of beginning — which sets his Logic in motion, this impossibility of grounding the infinite process of knowledge in a first truth which in itself as principle or foundation — is also an essential lesson of Spinozism, the principal objection that he himself opposes to the philosophy of Descartes? In such a sense that it is only… ‘so to speak’, the geometric exposition of the Ethics ‘begins’ with definitions, which for that matter do not have an effective sense, except at the moment when they function in demonstrations or they really produce the effects of truth: Spinozist thinking precisely does not have this rigidity of a construction relying on a base and pushing its analytic to an end point, which would find itself thus limited between a beginning and an end” (p. 17).

For Hegel according to Macherey, “The causa sui is based on a substantial principle that ‘lacks the principle of the personality’. It thus constitutes a substance that cannot become subject, which fails in this active reflection of self, which would permit it to undertake its own liberation in its own process…. This is an arrested and dead spirit” (p. 18).

This is supposed to be the individuality and freedom denying “Oriental” attitude that Hegel with broad brush unfortunately really does attribute to Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, the Roman Empire, Catholicism, the pre-Socratic philosopher Parmenides, and Spinoza, among others. This unfortunate over-the-top anti-anti-subjectivity theme of Hegel’s kept me from really appreciating his work for a long time.

On the other hand, the details of his argument about freedom and subjectivity as affirmative values actually make sense, even to the point of winning over an old sympathizer of French anti-Hegelianism like myself.

Pseudo-Dionysius on the Soul

In the 13th century, Christian theologians worried in varying degrees about the way “the” Commentator, Averroes, tended to separate intellect from the individual human soul (see digression on this aspect of Averroes in What Is “I”?) — enough so that the reception of Aristotle into the Latin world was for a time threatened. Aquinas wrote a famous little treatise in 1270 On the Unity of the Intellect, mustering as many arguments as possible for a reading of Aristotle that avoided this separation, and gave each soul its own individual intellect. Due to the minimalist nature of Aristotle’s own account, the argument has continued to the present day. Both sides of the dispute have some textual basis on their side. Supported by Augustinian orthodoxy and the writings of Avicenna, the theologians generally argued for a strongly unified intellectual soul. Part of their concern seems to have been a clearly nonphilosophical one, having to do with moral justification of the possible eternal damnation of a human. More purely philosophical readers of Aristotle tended to be less worried about these matters.

The French Thomist scholar E. H. Wéber wrote a couple of fascinating books, L’Homme en Discussion a l’Université de Paris en 1270 (1970) and La Personne Humaine au XIIIe Siècle (1991), about the way Aquinas in this context also, rather unexpectedly, drew on the early Christian neoplatonic writings attributed to a fictitious Greek disciple of the apostle Paul called Dionysius the Areopagite.

Both Albert the Great and Aquinas made considerable use of pseudo-Dionysius in their theology. A bit like Augustine in this regard, pseudo-Dionysius had a strong neoplatonic notion of divine illumination in the soul. As with intellect in Averroes, this also comes from outside, but unlike anything in Averroes, it involves a direct relation between God and the soul. Wéber argued that this played a larger role in the thought of Aquinas than has been generally recognized, and it does seem to me that when Aquinas talks about the natural light of reason, it has something of the character of a divine illumination, quite different from the mainly linguistic, social, and ethical view of reason I find in Aristotle. This view of reason as divine illumination in the soul did not require any “separate” intellect, leaving Aquinas free to argue that both the active and the potential intellect were strictly parts of the individual soul.

Wéber recounts that Aquinas (like Albert) was initially only moderately concerned about the views of Averroes on the soul, but later took a stronger position, harshly condemning this aspect of Averroes’ thought. Politically speaking, it seems that Aristotle had to be separated from Averroes on this matter, in order to make Aristotle safe for Christianity at the time. Matters of theological diplomacy were an important practical part of the unity of truth in Aquinas. Whatever we think of this particular development, we should be grateful to Aquinas for his role in historically securing Latin acceptance of Aristotle. (See also Archaeology of the Subject; Intelligence from Outside; Parts of the Soul; God and the Soul; Fortunes of Aristotle; Errors of the Philosophers; Subject; Mind Without Mentalism. )