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.)

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.

Perils of Utility

Hegel derives the historic Enlightenment notion of Utility from a simple alternation of perspectives (being-in-itself, being-for-another, being-for-self) that is abstracted from all particular content. It is a sort of objective correlate for the “Pure Insight” that results from free use of the Understanding in practical matters.

The correlate of the Understanding’s freedom on the objective side is its abstraction from all content, which makes it “merely formal” in the sense we have seen Hegel criticize before. An alternation without content could go on without end, which makes it an instance of what he called “bad infinity”. Utility is “the awareness of the world as useful, not the comprehension of that world as the real self” (Harris, Hegel’s Ladder II, p. 380). It is the “pure self-estrangement of the Concept” (p. 386).

As with Understanding in general, Utility by no means appears only in a bad light. It is taken to presuppose a community of equal persons, and to imply the absolutely free Rousseauian general will of a sovereign People, which Hegel presents sympathetically. Consciousness is even said to “find its concept” in Utility (p. 384). Harris notes though that in Hegelian terms, the reference to “finding” indicates a less mature attitude than making or development.

A concept that generates a “bad infinity” ultimately cannot serve as a criterion for value judgment, because it leads to an infinite regress. But Hegel is not so much concerned with the theoretical error of the British Utilitarians’ reduction of all values to utility as with the political danger of the harshly “utilitarian” attitude of those who promulgated the Terror in the late stages of the French Revolution. The idea there was effectively that whatever action was deemed “useful” by the new authorities required no further justification. It seems clear to me, as it did to Hegel, that the French Revolution was a good thing on a historical level, but to acknowledge a generality like that is by no means necessarily to endorse every detail of the way it was carried out.

I have to say I think debates about whether or not “the end justifies the means” in general are pretty meaningless and unhelpful. We can meaningfully discuss the appropriateness of particular means to particular ends. The answer will be yes in some cases and no in others. Harsh measures that are unfortunately necessary in some cases are completely unjustifiable in others. Sometimes the tradeoffs can be very difficult. “Utility” as a putative criterion is only helpful in the easy cases. In difficult cases it ends up being tautological or sophistical. What is unequivocally wrong is the notion of arbitrary license, or the claim that no more substantive development of justification for an extreme course of action is even relevant in the first place.

Hegel is indeed concerned with a slippery slope here. The slippery slope concerns not the ends-means cliché but the use of utility as a criterion, which at the shallow end seems innocuous enough. But vague generality shades into arbitrariness, and utility is a vague generality. (My own judgment is that the notions of sovereignty and the general will are also tainted with what Hegel would call “bad infinity”.)

Arbitrariness, Inflation

Arbitrariness in practice or in theory effectively devalues distinctions, reasons, and values all to zero. Insistence on arbitrary power, arbitrary rights, or arbitrary freedom utterly abnegates normativity and reason. (See also Desire of the Master; Tyranny.) Denial of the principle of noncontradiction opens the door for unprincipled sophistry that has the same nihilistic effect. The idea that something genuinely new can only come about through arbitrariness reflects a profoundly impoverished vision.

Theoretical assertions of arbitrary power or authority originated in bad theology (see Strong Omnipotence; Occasionalism), then found their way into modern political theory via one-sided notions like sovereignty. Modern individualism and subjectivism tend to make similarly one-sided, effectively nihilistic claims on behalf of individuals. Sartrean existentialism and Badiouian decisionism are particularly extreme examples. (See also “Hard” Kantianism?)

Rather than valorizing or justifying arbitrariness in actions, we ought to always aim at contextually appropriate applications of reasonableness and respect for others. (See also Practical Judgment; Freedom from False Freedom.)

Practical Reason

I think the introduction of rational ethics by Plato and Aristotle was the greatest single event in the history of talking animals on our planet, marking the threshold of a kind of historical cultural adulthood. Before that, there were traditional values; codifications of traditional values into law; and attempts by some people to impose their will on others; but there was no ethics as free and open inquiry into what is right.

Two millenia later, Kant took the next big step, and explicitly argued for the primacy of practical reason. This means that the kind of reasoning involved in rational ethics comes first in the order of explanation, before so-called theoretical reason. (See also Ricoeur on Practical Reason.)

Recently, Brandom’s highly original account of responsibility has closed any remaining gaps, making it possible to explain anything at all in terms that put ethical reasoning first. (See also Expansive Agency; Brandomian Forgiveness.) This also further refines Kant’s concept of the autonomy of reason, allowing for a stronger interpretation that eliminates the last vestiges of a dependency of ethical reasoning on anything external to it. It allows the primacy of practical reason to be fused with the autonomy of reason, resulting in a new kind of completeness of ethical reason. (See also Practice.)

Of course, any talk about a completeness of ethical reason presupposes a very broad construal of what ethical reasoning is (see also Reasonableness; What and Why; Context). It also requires that we be very careful to avoid taking its completeness in the wrong way. It presupposes a kind of epistemic modesty as a feature of rational inquiry.

Rational ethics stands in contrast to tradition, but as Hegel might remind us, much of the content of tradition turns out to be broadly rational after all, if we disregard its epistemic shortcuts.

The true antithesis of rational ethics is the subordination of values to a supposedly sovereign will — be it the will of God presumed as known; the expressed will of some individual; or a will attributed to an institution like the state, or to a social group. Such appeals to arbitrary will end the possibility of inquiry and dialogue. (See also Euthyphro; Authority, Reason.)

Freedom Without Sovereignty

Talk about freedom tends to be terribly ambiguous. Do we mean freedom from compulsion, or freedom from determination, or freedom resulting from some positive power? Do we mean anything other than complete unfreedom, or a super-strong total freedom, or something in between?

As to the last question, we ought at least to avoid claiming we are subject to an overly strong unfreedom, without claiming we possess an overly strong freedom. There is an Aristotelian mean here waiting to be clarified.

A first step toward such a clarification is to recognize that freedom ought not to be understood as implying something like sovereignty. Sovereignty is a kind of unconditional, total, exclusive authority or power over a domain. I want to say that nothing in the real world really does or ought to work like that. True freedom involves freedom from this kind of false freedom.

Historically, theories of sovereignty trace back to the absolute and arbitrary power attributed to the Roman emperors. The modern concept of sovereignty originated in arguments for absolute monarchy, e.g., by Jean Bodin in the late 16th century. In later political thought, the notion of sovereignty was transferred to the state as an institution, or in Rousseau’s case to a supposed general will of the people. To the extent that sovereignty of nations really just implies a kind of respect, it is unobjectionable, but to the extent that it is taken to imply a right to do arbitrary things, it is harmful.

Modern notions of individual unilateral rights, while in many cases referring to things that ought to be protected and respected more than they are, are a bad theoretical basis for good ethical concern. The notion of unilateral rights is implicitly grounded in a notion of sovereignty of each individual over a certain domain. At best, rights are a safeguard against failures of mutual recognition and Kantian respect for people, which ought to come first.

We need to think about responsibility in ways that do not presuppose that we must have some kind of sovereignty in order to be responsible. (See also Phenomenology of Will; Rationality; Choice, Deliberation; Brandomian Choice; Kantian Freedom; Freedom Through Deliberation?; Free Will and Determinism; Freedom and Free Will; Desire of the Master; Independence, Freedom; Ego; Euthyphro; Strong Omnipotence; Tyranny.)


Rights are an important legal concept, and in the interest of justice in an imperfect world sometimes need to be defended, but ethics should guide law, not the other way around. Mutual recognition makes the blunter instrument of unilateral “rights” superfluous for ethical purposes. Kantian respect for others and the Aristotelian spirit of friendship already do so. If we respect others in our actions and treat them in a friendly way, they need not worry about enforcing any putative rights in relation to us. (See also Leibniz.)

If we examine what Hegel called “positive” (actually existing) law, it is often not guided by good ethics as it should be. All too much law is devoted to institutionalizing unilateral privilege (etymologically, “private law”) of one sort or another. We are supposed to be consoled that by the fact that everyone is assigned at least a few privileges, but the whole model of unilateral privilege is ethically deeply wrong.

It is an unsavory fact that the unilateral, unconditional privileges associated with modern ownership and sovereignty historically descend from medieval European libertas or “liberty”, or the arbitrary “right” claimed by the Master to rape the peasant’s daughter and generally do as he pleases, with no regard for others. This kind of “liberty” is an ugly voluntarist fantasy associated with what Plato called the worst sort of character, that of a tyrant. Just such ugliness is recalled by, e.g., the old British Tory slogan “liberty and property”. It is the liberty of the privileged to walk over the rest of us.

Years ago, I was shocked to learn that the classic modern development of the notion of rights explicitly models all rights on unilateral property rights, making reciprocal rights of people a derivative afterthought. (See, e.g., C. B. Macpherson, The Political Theory of Possessive Individualism.) Hobbes and Locke did this, and specifically on the question of rights Kant and Hegel unfortunately followed suit, even though their views provide resources for a much better, people-first account, based on respect or mutual recognition.

All rights deserving of legal recognition should be grounded in respect. If we respect property, it should be rationally related to respect for people. No one has a “right” to be a billionaire. (See also Freedom from False Freedom.)