A Madness of Acceleration

This is the week for Aquinas. The most striking thing about going from Augustine to Aquinas is how much more detailed Aquinas is, how much more grammatical he is, and how much more boring. Not that Aquinas is doing bad stuff, but what he does is so precise that the mind simply cannot summon the interest to keep going through all 16 or so questions on the Trinity as quickly as the schedule permits. He is one of these amblers who stops to look at everything on the way, in no hurry to arrive.

I remember when I graduated from the Bible Institute of Ohio my father gave me the Summa Contra Gentiles. I sat down to read with enthusiasm, learned that I had to read and re-read very carefully and slowly, made it some twenty or thirty pages in. Beyond that I did not continue. I think it was the pace at which I had to go that daunted me. It was the hardest thing I’d ever tried to read, and I had already tried Augustine, Pascal and some other things with more success.

I can go quicker with Aquinas now. Indeed, I have to. Aint nobody got time to be spending twenty hours just preparing for one class.

* * *

I went to a book discussion some local (mostly Catholic) philosophy professors put on. A chap in the MDiv program found them and has been attending (Note: I would not have been able to handle what he is handling at his age. Wheaton, whatever else it does, prepares its philosophy students admirably, to my limited seeming—the guy presented a summary of a difficult chapter on Eckhart and explained it admirably). They’re doing a book on Eckhart and Ibn’Arabi, an effort in comparative mysticism by another local professor.

One of the chaps is a Platonist, an Eckhart and Nicolas of Cusa fellow, and he was the least baffled among them. Not that they couldn’t handle the reading, but that their questions were about what on earth is Eckhardt doing? They got Ibn’Arabi better (from their own testimony), and that I think is due to his being less sophisticated than Eckhart.

Eckhart sounded to me like Plotinus. God, he says—according to the book—is indistinct. That sounds like Plotinus because all diminution is by way of lesser being. Lesser being, you see, is such in one sense because it admits distinctions and differences. God is the only thing that really exists, and all existence, all predication in fact, refers back to him. That’s Eckhart and isticheit (isness that is nothingness, I ask you: pure sensible Plotinus). People were really baffled by it there. One guy pointed out how it sounded to him like everything from Heraclitus to Heidegger, but I think that is simply due to the fact that all philosophy is a series of footnotes to Plato—but that is how Eckhart must be, you have to have something in order to access him; the question is, who? I say it is Plotinism: the One alone has underived being, all else derives being by contemplative participation in the One (true Knowledge, which is Love, both of which terms are no more than ordered, deliberate gestures, really). It is as if Eckhart is figuring from the latent Platonism in Christianity, at a point where Plato is not really available, let alone Plotinus (from what I understand, but I can’t be said to have researched that), and apparently not polluted or at least trying to resist the Aristotelian pollution. Eckhart, in other words, works out the neglected implications of that latent Platonism (considerable) at the other end.

It has been pointed out to me that the essential difference between Aristotle and Plato is one of epistemology. In Aristotle, if you want to know what a tree is, you look at trees. The only way to understand treeness is to go through the phenomena. In Plato, you contemplate treeness, rising above the phenomena, or by closing your physical eyes to open the mental eyes to the real realm of mind, seeking the bare intelligibility the phenomenal manifestations of the world distort. But treeness is the goal in both: the real thing.

This is not altogether the case, as I am realizing thanks to some lectures on both the greater and the lesser philosopher I’m listening to. The quite outstanding lecturer there points out that being in Plato is one, and in Aristotle it is not one. Plotinus drills Aristotle for his heretical view that substance is something other than formal. Substance is a form, for a Platonist, because there is only lesser substantial reality participating in the One and apart from the One, who alone is Real. Substance is about a relation between a subject and being, for Plato. For Aristotle, a subject somehow owns its own substance (madness! But useful. Prosaic and useful, but hardly satisfactory to the hard-driving gesturing poetic and reverent seeker) (This is something, by the way, that intrigues me and I need to get to the bottom of, possibly even going so far as to read Aristotle’s Metaphysics; I recognize that at the moment I’m groping). Now, in Nous there is a realm of real being, but only relative to the One who is superabundantly real. Or, if you do not gesture at the one with hyperbole, the only reality. Yes, that is what it comes down to. So between Plato and Aristotle there is also an ontological difference. Further, it is not enough to say that metaphysics is ontology for Platonists, not if you go with Plotinus. Metaphysics is on the way there, as lying closer to reality than physics does; Plotinus really pushes it beyond, as Pseudo-Dionysius demonstrates. And I think that’s what Eckhart is working out.

Not that I have time for Eckhart, but it would be grand to read the chapters, go to the discussion with the author, and see how much I’ve managed to sort out and how much is bunk. He did his dissertation on Eckhart and Aquinas, so he should have answers for me.

* * *

Aquinas is many things, but one of them is an Aristotelian and therefore a grammarian. One thing he is not, alas, is our Augustine. You read Aquinas because he helps you get things sorted out and explained. But Augustine is the chap for me. No ramblingly detailed walk his, but the highest goal, the shortest way, the most dizzying heights as soon as possible. Both Augustine and Aquinas are concerned with taking care to have enough stages in the rocket to deal with all considerations, but I think Augustine is also concerned with building up enough momentum to make it into hyperspace. For Aquinas, you would have to prove hyperspace before he adjusted for it.


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