Tuesday, March 08, 2011

Professor Edward Feser and the Thomas Aquinas Anselm “straw-man”

I went to Bend for the weekend, but sometimes I "go around the bend" so to speak. One of my hobbies is trying to understand the writings of Thomas Aquinas; which, without a formal training in philosophy, is not an easy task. Yet, one of the popes (Pius X I think) wrote that you cannot understand Catholic dogmatic theology if you do not understand Aquinas. I consider the gauntlet thrown, and have nibbled around the edges of Aquinas’ works for some years.

Some years ago I encountered a list of books which should be read as primers to Aquinas; so I purchased all the books. I did not make it past GK Chesterton’s “The Dumb Ox.” Was Chesterton by this title having a spot of fun at the expense of his readers, the title referring to readers like me?

Some years ago I purchased a reprint of Etienne Gilson’s “The Philosophy of Thomas Aquinas” on a $1 markdown shelf. At the time I did not make it past the first chapter, and each time I’ve tried to read it, I’ve gotten a little further. Last time I tried, about five years ago, I made it as far as the fourth “proof,” but I’d plowed that far on sheer will to continue, without gaining much understanding from the read. I think this is because he writes close to his subject, not just his style. I derived tremendous benefit from Gilson’s book on the social justice encyclicals of Leo XIII, “The Church Speaks to the Modern World”, and his book “God and Philosophy”.

I have read and will heartily recommend Fr Walter Farrell OP’s “Summa Companion”, which is on the internet and extremely readable; a delightful work. One of his excellent quotes even appears on the sidebar of this blog. The delightful little book, “My Daily Life”, based on the Summa, is also excellent and readable. Yet, after reading these, when I return to the source, Thomas in the Summa, I am more often than not befuddled.

All of this is a lead in to my most recent attempt to “crack” the Aquinas Gordian knot; Professor Edward Feser’s “Aquinas,” published in the “Beginners Guides” series by Oneworld Publications, Oxford (2009). The author is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Pasadena City College, California. I actually found first him and then the book through a social justice web forum, and was encouraged to try one more time. The book contains the following endorsement on the back cover:

“At last. A concise, accessible and compelling introduction to Aquinas’ thought. Feser shows that Aquinas’s philosophy is still a live option for thinkers today.” – Kelly James Clark, Professor of Philosophy, Calvin College.
I am making an effort to go through this book, taking my time, and trying to understand. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. Nothing substitutes for the rigor of training the mind! I will say that I have gained a deeper appreciation for Thomas’ “proofs,” the objections against them and the refutation of said same objections.

All of which leads to the subject of this particular meditation; Aquinas and Anselm’s Ontological Proof. At the end Chapter 3 (Natural Theology), Feser writes:

“Much more could be said about Aquinas's account of the divine attributes, but this much suffices to show that there is no basis whatsoever for the widespread assumption that Aquinas never justifies the claim that the being whose existence he argues for in the Five Ways is the God of traditional theism. It also gives a sense of how much Aquinas thinks we can know about God through purely philosophical reasoning. But there is also a sense in which Aquinas thinks that we ultimately cannot know the essence of God, at least not as it is in itself. For in the strict sense knowledge of the essence of a thing requires the ability to define it in terms of its genus and difference, and as we have seen, there is for Aquinas no distinction in God between genus and difference, and thus no way to define him (CT 26). It is in this sense that Aquinas holds that "we cannot know what God is, but rather what He is not" (ST 1.3). And this is why the famous ontological argument associated with St. Anselm is not considered by Aquinas to be one of the ways in which we might prove the existence of God. For Anselm, God is by definition the greatest conceivable being, and it is (Anselm holds) greater to exist than not to exist. Hence if God did not exist it would follow, absurdly, that there could be something conceivably greater than the greatest being. Anselm's argument thus begins with a definition of God's essence and attempts to show that given knowledge of that essence, we can know also that there must be something in reality corresponding to it, and thus that God exists. Since Aquinas holds that God's essence and existence are identical, he agrees that if we could have knowledge of God's essence we could see that he must exist. But since in fact we cannot, in his view, have knowledge of that essence, we cannot know the starting point of the ontological argument (ST 1.2.1). Our knowledge of God must therefore be a posteriori, based on observation of his effects. But that, as we have seen, affords us in Aquinas's view with ample grounds indeed for affirming God's existence and predicating of him the traditional divine attributes.
Edward Feser, Aquinas for Beginners, Ch 3, p 130

First, I will say that I do not know if I am writing about Aquinas’s view of Feser’s view of Aquinas, so please keep that in mind. So let’s look at Anselm’s proposition: “God is that which a greater-than cannot be conceived.” In response to this, Feser says that Anselm’s proof states that God is “the greatest conceivable being” (see quote above). This is a derived conclusion (the conceivability of God) which I do not think is justified nor even intended by Anselm. I believe Anselm, had he been able to sit at table with Aquinas, would have agreed that this knowledge is beyond our conception, and complete agreement would be attained, at least on that point. I will attempt to explain what I think Anselm has in mind by way of an analogy.

I remember in the early days of the US Space Program, would-be astronauts were trained in the experience of working in a weightless environment. How? They were put in an airplane which flew in an arc to the maximum altitude and then curved back to earth. This provided a few brief minutes where the trainees and their equipment were completely free of the earth’s gravity, which at that point had the plane along with the contents of the plane, resulting in zero net gravity. We used to enjoy watching the news clips of floating men trying to work with wrenches and doing weightless acrobatics in the belly of the plane. From a physical standpoint, if you fly high enough, at the stall point gravity takes the plane but inside the plane all the contents are falling at the same rate, so that the net effect to the passenger is that of no gravity at all; for a moment, one can slip the bonds of earthly bondage to gravity without actually going into space.

And this is the key, I propose, to understanding what Anslem desired us to know. For if you begin a chain of conceiving of things and their “greater than,” you will, in contrast to regressing to infinite causes or movers, expend your efforts considering God as greater than what God has ever been conceived of, one at a time from statue upwards; and finally, like that airplane, slip for a moment beyond your ability to conceive of a thing at all. In this momentary “weightless state,” the tool which we have used all our life is no longer functional, and it is here in this moment that our limited intellect can encounter God. And granted that this “proof” of the existence of God is not one of rigorous logic, such as those of Thomas’s five, but rather one of direct experience, and experience of the sort that inclines one to say “all else is but as straw.”

Be that as it may, straw is good, very good. I continue to seek to understand Thomas, and I thank Professor Feser for some of the best assistance I have yet found. I will also concede that it is entirely possible that I have misunderstood Anselm and have done little more than stumble through a contemplative crack in the philosophical matrix, which the thick fog of my mind is too dense to penetrate. Either way, “seek ye first the kingdom of God, and His righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you." [Mt 6:33]

I hope to go 'round the bend again soon.


  1. Brilliant!

    I was chafing at Feser's mischaracterization of Anselm's argument and was going to set him straight here in the comments, but you beat me to it. "The greatest being that can be imagined" is NOT the same as "That being greater than which nothing can be conceived." The one is every person's idol. The other is the God that both Anselm and Aquinas sought.

    Your analogy to free fall is simply lovely. I'm going to take that home and keep it.

  2. Brilliant!

    I was chafing at Feser's mischaracterization of Anselm's argument and was going to set him straight here in the comments, but you beat me to it. "The greatest being that can be imagined" is NOT the same as "That being greater than which nothing can be conceived." The one is every person's idol. The other is the God that both Anselm and Aquinas sought.

    Your analogy to free fall is simply lovely. I'm going to take that home and keep it.