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.

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.

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.

Room for Faith

Kant famously spoke of leaving room for faith in his philosophy, but also wrote a historically important essay on “Religion Within the Limits of Reason Alone”. He tended to see religion mainly in ethical terms, and Fichte and Hegel did so likewise. Fichte lost his Jena philosophy chair over accusations of atheism he strenuously repudiated. The generation after Hegel was notoriously divided into “Left” and “Right” Hegelians, who both attributed (nearly opposite) views on religion to Hegel that I think he would have called very one-sided. It is difficult to meaningfully comment on this kind of controversy without offending someone, or perhaps both sides.

With Hegel and other historic philosophers who lived in communities with a commonly accepted orthodoxy of some sort, it is often relevant to carefully distinguish the sometimes unspoken implications of their thought from their explicit rhetorical stance, without assuming in advance that these are perfectly aligned. In my older age though, I have come to consider that what I just called the philosopher’s “rhetorical stance” may reflect important practical, social considerations that may have merit of their own. While we should not necessarily take everything a historic philosopher says on these delicate topics at face value, if we are engaged in charitable reading we certainly ought not to assume that the philosopher’s rhetorical stance is “mere” rhetoric that need not be taken seriously.

In medieval terms, I am for the complete independence of philosophy. At the same time, I want to treat the world’s religious traditions (not just one of them) with respect. When touching on theological topics, I try to balance occasional focused sharp remarks with a general live-and-let-live policy, inspired in part by the stances of Leibniz and Paul Ricoeur.

Infinity, Finitude

Here is another area where I find myself with mixed sympathies.

Plato seems to have regarded infinity — or what he called the Unlimited — as something bad. Aristotle argued that infinity exists only in potentiality and not in actuality, a view I find highly attractive. I think I encounter a world of seemingly infinite structure but only finite actualization.

Some time in the later Hellenistic period, notions of a radical spiritual infinity seem to have appeared in the West for the first time, associated with the rise of monotheism and the various trends now commonly called Gnostic. This kind of intensive rather than extensive infinity sometimes seems to be folded back on itself, evoking infinities of infinities and more. The most sophisticated development of a positive theological infinite in later Western antiquity occurred in the more religious rethinking of Greek philosophy by neoplatonists like Plotinus, Proclus, and Damascius.

In 14th century CE Latin Europe, Duns Scotus developed an influential theology that made infinity the principal attribute of God, in contrast to the pure Being favored by Aquinas. Giordano Bruno, burned at the stake in 1600, was a bombastic early defender of Copernican astronomy and notorious critic of established religion who espoused a curious hybrid of Lucretian atomistic materialism, neoplatonism, and magic. He proclaimed the physical existence of an infinity of worlds like our Earth.

Mathematical applications of infinity are a later development, mainly associated with Newton and Leibniz. Leibniz in particular enthusiastically endorsed a speculative reversal of Aristotle’s negative verdict on “actual infinity”. Nineteenth century mathematicians were embarrassed by this, and developed more rigorous reformulations of the calculus based on limits rather than actual infinity. The limit-based formulation is what is generally taught today. Cantor seemingly went in the opposite direction, developing infinities of infinities in pure mathematics. I believe there has been another reformulation of analysis using category theory that claims to equal the rigor of 19th century analysis while recovering an approach closer to that of Leibniz, which might be taken to refute an argument against infinity based solely on lack of rigor according to the standards of contemporary professional mathematicians. One might accept this and still prefer an Aristotelian interpretation of infinity as not applicable to actual things, though it is important to recall that for Aristotle, the actual is not all there is.

The philosophy of Spinoza and even more so Leibniz is permeated with a positive view of the infinite — both mathematical and theological — that in a more measured way was later also taken up by Hegel, who distinguished between a “bad” infinite that seems to have been an “actual” mathematical infinite having the form of an infinite regress, and a “good” infinite that I would gloss as having to do with the interpretation of life and all within it. Nietzsche’s Eternal Return seems to involve an infinite folding back on itself of a world of finite beings. (See also Bounty of Nature; Reason, Nature; Echoes of the Deed; Poetry and Mathematics.)

On the side of the finite, I am tremendously impressed with Aristotle’s affirmative development of what also in a more Kantian style might be termed a multi-faceted “dignity” of finite beings. While infinity may be inspiring or even intoxicating, I think we should be wary of the possibility that immoderate embrace of infinity may lead — even if unwittingly — to a devaluation of finite being, and ultimately of life. I also believe notions of infinite or unconditional power (see Strong Omnipotence; Occasionalism; Arbitrariness, Inflation) are prone to abuse. In any case, ethics is mainly concerned with finite things.

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.)

Archaeology of the Subject

Leading scholar of medieval Latin thought Alain de Libera (b. 1948; automated translation of French Wiki page here) has produced a great deal of fascinating work. Well-versed in contemporary continental and analytic philosophy, de Libera excels in developing the sort of historiographical-philosophical nuances that I think are vital to solid understanding. He makes exemplary original use of Foucaultian archaeology and what I have been calling Aristotelian semantics, developing many fine historiographical distinctions in the use of philosophical words that turn out to have huge significance.

He has pointed out the large influence of Arabic philosophy on the Latin West (see Fortunes of Aristotle); contributed to a more balanced appreciation of the great Aristotelian commentator Averroes (whose controversial views on subjectivity I briefly discussed in What Is “I”?); documented the work of Albert the Great and his students, developing a surprising Aristotelian background to the German mystics; and explored the contemporary relevance of the medieval debate on universals.

His greatest contribution, however, is undoubtedly the ongoing work on an Archaeology of the Subject, with three volumes in French published so far, and an ongoing lecture series at the Collège de France. I just stumbled on a related article in English.

The article introduces this work by noting a convergence between Foucault’s late “hermeneutics of the subject” and Paul Ricoeur’s book Oneself as Another, suggesting that late Foucault’s “subject” is actually close to Ricoeur’s positive notion of “self”. Ricoeur had said that this self stands “at an equal distance from the cogito exalted by Descartes and from the cogito that Nietzsche proclaimed forfeit” (emphasis in original). (In Freud and Philosophy (French ed. 1965), Ricoeur had referred to psychoanalysis as an “archaeology of the subject”.) Meanwhile, de Libera points out, the French philosopher Vincent Descombes, in defending a positive role for the notion of “subject”, concluded “the subject which it is necessary for us to discover is more Aristotelian than Cartesian”. While de Libera’s terminology is different from the way of speaking I have been developing here (see The Ambiguity of “Self”; Self, Subject; Subject; Empirical-Transcendental Doublet), there is a great deal of common ground, and I have been influenced by his work.

The main historical thesis advanced by de Libera is that the modern notion of “subject” is the result of a complex theological compromise and hybridization between initially very different notions of Aristotelian hypokeimenon (a generic notion of substrate with no intrinsic connection to personality, used by Averroes in raising apparently new questions about what substrate it is in which thought inheres) and Augustinian thought about hypostasis (the Greek term used for a person of the Trinity). I am barely scratching the surface of a highly developed account with many additional distinctions. (See also Pseudo-Dionysius on the Soul.)

This is a vital correction to many grossly oversimplified views of the history of notions of subjectivity in the Western world. My own view of the theological developments he highlights is a good deal more ambivalent, but compared to the value of this historiographical contribution, that seems like a minor difference.

Immanence, Transcendence

Immanence and transcendence are both dubious theological concepts. Everything we care about and everything that inspires us belongs in the space of an interweaving that is neither properly immanent nor properly transcendent. Immanence implies an overly simple, immediate presence, and transcendence implies a reification and objectification. On the other hand, the traditional formula of asserting both at once — in spite of its self-contradictory appearance — can be charitably understood as a way of speaking about the real that is neither the one nor the other.

The Style of Albert

Along with the more Augustinian Roger Bacon, in the mid-13th century Albert the Great was among the first of the Latins to lecture on works of Aristotle newly translated from the Arabic. Reportedly, he dressed as an Arab while doing so. In the late 20th century, Pope John Paul II singled out Albert as a patron of the reconciliation of science and religion.

Albert was also the teacher and mentor of Thomas Aquinas. Commentaries on Aristotle by the young Aquinas include lengthy sections largely borrowed from the commentaries of Albert. After Aquinas had died at a relatively young age, some of his teachings were included by the bishop of Paris in the sweeping condemnation of 1277 (see Errors of the Philosophers), and the elderly Albert traveled from Germany back to Paris to defend his student.

Unlike Aquinas, Albert developed a pattern of distinguishing between purely philosophical and theological discourses. He would say, “now I speak as a philosopher”, and then “now I speak as a theologian”. There was still significant overlap between the two, but this lent authority to the idea of allowing space for purely philosophical discourse. Some later scholastics preferred Albert to Aquinas for this reason.

Among the German Dominicans, there was a significant “Albertist” school. The independent-minded Albertist Dietrich of Freiberg (1250 – 1310), who also made scientific contributions, criticized Aquinas for misusing Aristotelian concepts in his theological account of the Eucharist. Contemporary scholars like Alain de Libera and Kurt Flasch have also brought to light broadly Albertist roots of the profound Christian neoplatonic spirituality of figures like the great Meister Eckhart (1260 – 1328). (See also Fortunes of Aristotle.)


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.)